The publicity for compelling new documentary Letters From Baghdad quotes a description of Gertrude Bell as the “female Lawrence of Arabia”. To be strictly accurate, it was T. E. Lawrence, at 20 years her junior, who followed Bell rather than the other way around – first to Oxford, then to the Middle East and into government service. It hardly needs stating that these routes were rather less well-trodden for Bell than for Lawrence, although there is no need to diminish the achievements of either one. Bell’s story, as told in this engrossing semi-dramatised documentary, is that of a pioneer – a woman whose ambitions exceeded the expectations of her class and gender, who experienced bitter personal disappointment but achieved a notable and important career. Although her story has a sad ending, the work she did had far-reaching consequences, ones that are still felt today.
Bell was born in 1868, in County Durham, and raised in Yorkshire. After graduating from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford with a first in history, she began to travel the world. Initially to Persia to visit an uncle who was a diplomat there, and then around the world indulging a passion for mountaineering. She learned several languages, including Arabic and returned to the Middle East in 1899, travelling right across the region and writing an influential book on Syria. She spent some time working as archaeologist in the Ottoman Empire and also in Mesopotamia, where she first met Lawrence.
It’s during the war that Bell’s story gets especially interesting, as the British intelligence service recognised her expertise and hired her to assist with their operations in the region. After the war she would continue in the Middle East until her death, later as part of the team drawing up borders of modern Iraq, and after that she was given responsibility for the safeguarding the area’s antiquities.