Single-minded and fiercely intelligent, in the early 1900s Gertrude Bell found peace and fulfilment as a desert traveller in the Middle East.

  Gertrude Bell aged 26.  Image ref. GB/PERS/A/005, Bell (Gertrude) Archive, Newcastle University Library 

In the coolness of early morning that preceded a hot summer day, Gertrude Bell and her friend Henry Cadogan saddled their horses at the British legation headquarters in Gulahek and rode out into the Persian desert.  As they travelled, the rising sun flashed with sudden radiance over distant snow-capped mountain ranges.  A stony valley led them to an ancient ruin of the Zoroastrians, who used to leave the bodies of their dead on a high tower in the open air.  Climbing to the top of the tower, Gertrude and Henry gazed out at the desert and listened to its silence;  then they mounted their horses and galloped away with all the exuberance of youth. 

Gertrude wrote:  ‘Life seized us and inspired us with a mad sense of revelry.  The humming wind and the teeming earth shouted “Life! Life!” as we rode.  Life!  life!  the bountiful, the magnificent!  Age was far from us - death far;  we had left him enthroned in his barren mountains, with ghostly cities and outworn faiths to bear him company.  For us the wide plain and the limitless world, for us the beauty and the freshness of morning!’ 

It was 1892, the year when Gertrude first experienced the Middle East.  Aged 24, she was the grand-daughter of Isaac Lowthian Bell, a hugely successful industrialist, and she had grown up in a wealthy family with powerful connections.  She was also blessed with a formidable intellect, coming out of Oxford University (Lady Margaret Hall) with a First in Modern History, the first woman ever to do so. 

But in Tehran, where Gertrude was staying with her uncle, her eyes were opened to a new world of extreme beauty and drama:  a city of scented rose gardens and fountains, teeming bazaars, and the staggeringly wide expanses of desert and bare mountains beyond.   ‘Are we the same people,’ she wondered, ‘when all our surroundings, associations, acquaintances are changed?  Here that which is me, which is an empty jar that the passer by fills at pleasure, is filled with such wine as in England I have never heard of.’

In Tehran, Gertrude also found love.  Henry Cadogan was a young diplomat who wasn’t afraid to challenge Gertrude’s emphatic observations about politics and the world in general.  They argued and then laughed about it, went hunting with falcons, and sat under trees reading 14th-century Persian poetry.  Henry proposed marriage, and Gertrude joyfully accepted.  Her father and stepmother were generous and indulgent, and she was sure they would be delighted. 

Unfortunately, Hugh and Florence Bell were far from pleased.  A letter summoned Gertrude back to her home north-east England.  Henry’s income, wrote Gertrude’s father, was insufficient to maintain a suitable household.  He was also in debt.  Gertrude must terminate the agreement immediately. 

Amazingly, Gertrude complied.  Such was her love for her family that she could not bear to cause them distress.  Heartbroken, she wrote to Florence:  ‘Some people live all their lives and never have this wonderful thing… only one may cry just a little when one has to turn away and take up the old life again.’ 


Photograph taken by Gertrude Bell of a Bedouin encampment, Palestine, 1900.  Image ref. GB/3/1/1/1/478, Bell (Gertrude) Archive, Newcastle University Library 


Eventually, however, Gertrude found a new passion, one which not even her parents could destroy.  The desert, and the people who lived in it, brought her endless pleasure and fascination.  Something about their customs and lifestyle, unchanged in hundreds of years, challenged her to explore this region and discover its secrets. 

For months at a time, accompanied only by guides and muleteers, she travelled across a bleak landscape of sand and stone, sometimes deep in snowdrifts, sometimes burned by the midday sun.  She sat on the silk cushions of Bedouin sheikhs, speaking fluent Arabic and discussing the intricacies of their ancient texts;  she negotiated with wild-eyed, rifle-wielding horsemen who challenged her cavalcade;  she joined a circle of chanting Druze warriors at a night-time call to arms;  and never again would the word ‘no’ cause such complete self-denial. 


Gertrude outside her tent in modern-day Iraq, April 1909.  Image ref. GB/3/1/11/1/218, Bell (Gertrude) Archive, Newcastle University Library 

In 1913, on the eve of the Great War, her plans for an expedition to the Arabian city of Hayyil (Ha’il) caused such consternation among British diplomats in the Middle East that she was warned not to go.  Hayyil lay in notoriously hostile territory, and was so little-known that few people expected her to come back.  Gertrude was well aware of the risks she was taking, and went anyway.  It was a gruelling round trip of 1,600 miles:  once in Hayyil, she was kept captive for nearly two weeks, and then, on being released, she had to face down thieves and other desert travellers who were deeply suspicious of her motives for being there.

While Gertrude’s heart was broken more than once, her bond with the people of the Arab countries remained strong throughout her life.  Where many of her British contemporaries saw a troublesome region of impossibly complex allegiances, she met the Arab communities on equal terms with a deep understanding of their culture, and they loved her for it.  ‘A queen,’ they called her, and ‘a daughter of the desert.’  She wrote:  ’The Arabs do not speak of desert or wilderness as we do.  Why should they?  To them it is neither desert nor wilderness, but a land of which they know every feature, a mother country whose smallest produce has a use sufficient for their needs.’

During and after the Great War, Gertrude Bell’s in-depth knowledge of the Middle East and its people earned her the respect of diplomats and statesmen.  She became a trusted advisor to the British government, helping to shape the newly-formed nation of Iraq with a new leader, King Faisal I, at its head.  In an iconic photograph of delegates at the 1921 Cairo Conference, she sits on a camel, flanked by Winston Churchill and T E Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’), against a backdrop of the Sphinx and the Pyramids. 


Attendees at the Cairo Conference in 1921.  Directly beneath the Sphinx, L to R:  Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell, T E Lawrence.  Image ref:  GB/PERS/F/002, Bell (Gertrude) Archive, Newcastle University Library 

Although Gertrude used all her powers of persuasion, her role in the Middle East taxed her supreme capabilities to the limit.  At times, she came close to despair.  Maybe, in rare moments of leisure, she remembered some words which she had written in 1911, while sitting alone on a hilltop near Ashur and imagining the momentous events of ancient history playing out at her feet:  ‘We people of the west can always conquer, but we can never hold Asia - that seemed to me to be the legend written across the landscape.’

In the 1920s, Gertrude Bell served as Oriental Secretary to Sir Percy Cox, the British High Commissioner for Iraq.  Cox visited RSGS in 1926 to give lectures on ‘Travel and Experiences in Persia’.  As yet, no direct personal links have emerged between Gertrude Bell and RSGS, although her books were reviewed in the Scottish Geographical Magazine. 

Quotes and reference:


Georgina Howell, Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations (2006)

Gertrude Bell, Persian Pictures (1894)

Gertrude Bell, The Desert and the Sown (1907)

Letter and diaries of Gertrude Bell held in the Gertrude Bell Archive and Philip Robinson Library of Newcastle University, quoted in biography by Georgina Howell

Header image:  ‘Camels watering in the Desert’ by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904)