July 14 - Happy Birthday, Gertrude Bell

Posted on July 14, 2020

I first read about Gerturde Bell: "She was an archeologist and spy."

Wow! What a great combination!

But her spying was relatively minor in Bell's entire career, which involved exploration, mapping, writing, making policy, serving as a diplomat, and even wielding power!

Born on this date in 1868, in England, Gertude Bell had quite a unique childhood for the time. Her mom died when she was just three years old, so she grew very close to her father. He was a mill owner - but he was progressive, and he made sure than his workers were well paid and cared for. When she was seven, her father remarried, and Bell's step-mom was an author who actively promoted education for women.

Bell went to college, including at the renowned Oxford University, and she was one of the few to earn a first-class honours degree in just two years.

Bell's uncle was a diplomat in Persia (now Iran), and she visited him before spending a decade traveling the world, learning languages, working in archeology, and mountaineering in Switzerland! 

She "conquered" a bunch of mountain peaks in the Alps but nearly died when bad weather hit her - she had to cling to a rope on a rock face for 48 hours before the storm abated and she was able to retreat down the mountain.

During all this travel, Bell became fluent in Persian, Arabic, French, and German, and she learned quite a bit of Italian and Ottoman (Turkish). She wrote about her adventures in English, of course, and loads of Brits learned about the Middle East, in particular, by reading her books.

During World War I, Bell volunteered for the Red Cross in France, but she was asked to do a few spy-ish things like guiding soldiers through deserts. Her expertise in the Middle East - the terrain, the people, the history, and the languages - meant that she was important in guiding the post-war administration of the remains of the former Ottoman Empire. 

Some people say that Bell almost single-handedly founded modern Iraq!

Bell founded an archeological museum in Baghdad. She lived in Iraq much of her life, including at the very end, and she is buried there.

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