My love of teaching armed with little more than primary materials continues to grow. In searching for documents explaining the demise of the Ottoman Empire, fin de siècle, I stumbled upon the Gertrude Bell Archive, hosted by Newcastle University, United Kingdom.

It’s not pretty, as far as website appearances go. But what it lacks in aesthetics it makes up in content. There are over 1,600 letters and diary entries written by Bell, plus more than 7,000 of her photographs, and one can search the archives with key words and phrases.


Gertrude Bell – “Queen of the Desert”

So the reigning question is: just who the heck is Gertrude Bell (and after finding out) and why have I not heard more of this remarkable and important historical figure?

I love discoveries, which is why I am blogging. According to one recent newspaper account, Bell “rigged an election, installed a king loyal to the British, re-organized the [Iraq] government and fixed the borders on the map” of the Middle East post the First World War.[1] Apparently Nicole Kidman played her in a not very well received movie called Queen of the Desert. Perhaps, I should stop being a historian every once in a while and come out from my working hovel to discover such things.

Gertrude Bell was born in 1868 to a wealthy family in the north of England. She graduated from Oxford with a degree in modern history and then embarked on her lifetime of travels throughout the Levant. Bell circumnavigated the globe twice, and crossed the Arabian Peninsula six times between 1900 and 1912. She was also fluent in German, French, Italian, Arabic and Farsi. She authored a book in 1907; Syria: The Desert and the Sown, which became somewhat of an international bestseller. Bell became a spy during World War I, which included guiding English troops through passes and mountainous terrain. She met and worked alongside with T. H. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). In short, Britain relied heavily on Bell during the First World War becoming the first female Liaison Officer for the British army, and later a full “Oriental Secretary” when the British occupied Baghdad. Gertrude Bell also witnessed, recorded, and wrote about the Armenian genocide in Turkey. She also took part in post-war negotiations serving Britain in drawing up borders in modern day Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Arabia.

So if you have time and are on the hunt for some terrific primary materials circa the First World War, I do highly recommend the Gertrude Bell Archive.

[1] Clive Irving, “Gertrude of Arabia, the Woman Who Invented Iraq,” Daily Beast (June 17, 2014).