Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) came from a family of British commoners that had clawed its way to the top during the Industrial Revolution. She fit the pattern. She wasn’t interested in the steel business and women weren’t supposed to go into business anyway. She went to Oxford in 1885 and came away with a First Class degree in History in two years (instead of the normal three years). She got bored lolling about the family estate and the London “season” where she was supposed to be looking for a husband. In 1892 she went out to Persia to visit her uncle, who was the British ambassador. She fell in love with the Middle East, learning Arabic, Persian, and Turkish in addition to the French and German she already possessed. She traveled much, visiting archaeological excavations. When she wasn’t doing this, she was climbing mountains in the Alps. Along the way, she fell in love with a British Army officer, Charles Doughty-Wylie. He was married and neither of them cared to break up the marriage, so that didn’t work out.
In 1915, after the outbreak of the First World War, a bunch of the Middle East experts in Cairo suggested that Gertrude Bell be added to their group. Doughty-Wylie got killed at Gallipoli in April 1915, so she threw herself into her work. Soon she went to Mesopotamia (now Iraq) to advise the British army that had invaded that corner of the Ottoman Empire.
She found a difficult situation. Arabs led by Emir Hussein of the Hashemite family were willing to revolt against the Ottomans. However, they wanted the creation of an Arab kingdom in what is now Syria, Jordan, and Iraq as their prize. The British and French governments were even then carving up the region into colonial lands for themselves after the war. How to square the circle? To make matters worse, the Turks did not just lie down and die. They fought off a British attack at Gallipoli in 1915 and then destroyed a British army in Mesopotamia.
Bell became an enormously powerful figure in Iraq, both among the British and among the Arabs. Highly intelligent and deeply knowledgeable (and therefore opinionated), she also possessed good political and diplomatic skills. Hussein’s son Faisal tried to collect on the war-time promises by taking Syria. The French refused, ejecting Faisal from Syria and making the country their own. She (and others, like T.E. Lawrence) persuaded the government to put the sons of Hussein in as rulers of Iraq and Jordan.
From 1921 to 1926 Bell labored to make Iraq a success. There may not have been a good, let alone permanent, solution to this problem. “Iraq” had never existed as a country. It had been three administrative districts of the Ottoman Empire. It jammed together a Sunni minority, which had been the traditional rulers under the Ottomans; a Shi’a majority, which had been denied power and treated with suspicion by the Sunni Ottomans; and a Kurdish ethnic minority that wanted to unite all the Kurds of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria in a single country. She recognized that Shi’as, Sunnis, and Kurds could easily be at each other’s throats. They had to be reconciled, their conflicts contained, until a sense of national unity could be created over time. She believed that too tight a grip by a foreign power would ruin everything. She advised the new royal government on many issues. The government did not always take her advice. A chain-smoker and incredibly hard worker, Gertrude Bell wore herself out. The post-war death of her younger brother and other family problem may have depressed her. She died of an overdose (perhaps accidental) of sleeping pills. She is buried in Baghdad.
The descendants of Abdullah rule Jordan to this day. The descendants of Faisal ruled Iraq until overthrown in a revolution in 1958 that eventually put Saddam Hussein in power. The American invasion in 2003 caused the country to explode into Sunni, Shi’ite, and Kurdish factions. Was Bell right or was Iraq always doomed?