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The Matron of Mesopotamian Antiquities

Gertrude Lowthian Bell (1868–1926) was a British archaeologist, explorer, and diplomat. Proficient in French, German, Hebrew, Persian, and Arabic, and an avid reader and writer, she traveled widely and was able to engage with native populations because of her ability to communicate in many languages and openness to experiencing unfamiliar traditions. She found the Middle East particularly alluring and she traveled extensively within the region to identify and document Roman and Byzantine archaeological sites. For those of us who don’t live at the epicenter of human history and culture or who have never traveled there, Bell provides a glimpse into the region through her writings, photos, and maps for us to experience ourselves. She also preserves a snapshot in history of many structures and heritage sites that have suffered catastrophic destruction due to war.

Map of archeological sites in Iraq

The Archaeological Map of Iraq. Baghdad: Directorate General of Antiquities, 1967. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Bell was born in Washington, England in 1868 and educated at Oxford—she was the first woman to graduate with First Class Honours in Modern History. She was extraordinarily intrepid for a woman born into Victorian society. After her studies, she was sent by her family to tour Europe. First, she traveled to Bucharest to spend time with family who were British diplomats in Romania. She then visited Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), which was followed shortly in 1892 by a trip to Tehran. She published two works, the first of many, based on her time in Tehran, Safar Nameh—Persian Pictures (1894; a second edition held in Library of Congress) and Poems from the Divan of Hafiz (1897).

After Tehran, she returned to London, and then headed to Jerusalem (1899) to stay at the German consul and practice Arabic. In 1905, Bell began a deep exploration of the desert, undertaking five archaeological expeditions in nine years (1905–14) in present-day Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Israel, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. She was also able to fit mountaineering in the Swiss Alps into her schedule between Jerusalem and her archeological expeditions in the desert. Her 1907 trek through Syria is covered in her most popular book, Syria: the Desert and the Sown.

It was in February 1909 that she began an archeological journey in present-day Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, which is illustrated on this 1910 Royal Geographical Society map.

Royal Geographical Society. The Euphrates from Jerablus to Hit: Showing the Route of Miss Gertrude Lowthian Bell along the Eastern Bank. London: Royal Geographical Society, 1910. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

The map shows Bell’s caravan route, which began in Aleppo (Ḥalab) in present-day Syria and went along the east bank of the Euphrates to Baghdad in search of Roman and Byzantine fortifications. Bell took photographs and wrote letters to document the sites that would later be published. Her findings were especially important because this route was not well-documented by Western sources. However, the lack of sources made planning difficult. She relied on the published findings of the Euphrates Expedition (1835), led by Francis Chesney (1789–1892) to plan her trip.

Two black and white photos of Roman aches spanning the width of a road. The left photograph has people walking underneath the arch while the right photograph has more ruins in the background.

American Colony, photographer. Roman Arch over Road North of Aleppo, Bab el Hawa, 1934–39. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

She stopped off in Tal Ahmar (also Tell Ahmar and Til Barsib) and noted the water was low in February and the stones were dry, so she was able to obtain the stone squeezes of Hittite inscriptions for a colleague. She documented burial grounds, cisterns, and ruins. She narrated her trip in great detail to the Royal Geographical Society in November 1910.

Interestingly, Bell notes the complicated history of Jaʿbar Castle, located west of Raqqa in present-day Syria. She could not determine the period from which the ruins belonged based on the inscription alone, so Bell leaned on accounts of Arab geographers to unfurl the history of the castle. She noted that 12th century geographer Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Idrisi (circa 1100–66) attributed the castle to Alexander and identified it as the location of the Battle of Siffin (657 CE/37 AH) where Caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib (circa 660) met the forces of Caliph Yazid I (642–83). 

Black and white photo, profile view of a stone lion on a hillside with two men standing in front.

American Colony, photographer. Iraq, Babylon, Basalt Lion with Figures, 1932. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Look closely at the inset in the map above to follow Bell’s larger journey—it covers her trek more extensively. She reached the Qasr al-Ukhaydir, near Kufa, in March. She continued through Iraq to Babylon, Baghdad, and Mosul, then followed the Tigris River north to the Kurdish region of present-day southeast Turkey called Tur ʻAbdin. From here, she traveled to Konya where this expedition ended.

Bell made one more trip prior to the outbreak of the First World War when she traveled to Haʾil from Damascus through the Transjordan. She was the first European woman to make this trek alone, though not the first ever, as her feat was preceded by Lady Anne Blunt’s in 1878, which occurred in the company of her husband. During the war, Bell was appointed Oriental Secretary to the British High Commission in Iraq and had a key role in organizing Arab leaders for the Arab Revolt in June 1916. Due to her knowledge of the terrain, people, and language, she was recruited to assist the Allied forces in carving out the Middle East and defining its post-Ottoman borders. She would remain in Iraq as Oriental Secretary until her death in 1926. While alive, she established the Baghdad Museum, also called the National Museum of Iraq, and left funding to establish the British School of Archeology (1932) in Iraq.

To view Gertrude Bell’s personal photograph archive of these heritage sites, visit the Gertrude Bell Archive, which is preserved at University of Newcastle upon Tyne. It includes 6000 prints, and covers 1899–1911.

For more on her 1909 expedition read:

Bell, Gertrude Lowthian. “The East Bank of the Euphrates from Tel Ahmar to Hit.The Geographical Journal 36, no. 5 (1910): 513–37.

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