The Queen of the Desert
by Rudy Foralosso
TORONTO – I am always very fascinated by people who – especially in ancient times and not easy at all – tried to impose their thinking, point of view, needs without awe and often paying hardly for their choices. Many people have so produced cultural and social developments that we all benefit from. Many of them were women.
Plenty became heroes, several are known to the most as great figures in the limelight of the media, but many remain almost unknown as their values.
Of the latter crowd, too many are women.
Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell (1868-1926)
Until 2003, in Baghdad, one could still visit her tomb and especially read the brass plaque posted at the National Archaeological Museum of Iraq by King Faisal, the first sovereign of the country, which stated:
«Gertrude Bell, whose memory will be forever safeguarded by Arabs with reverence and affection, created this museum in 1923 as honorary director of the antiquities of Iraq. With extraordinary competence and devotion she collected the most precious evidences. In the heat of the summer she worked there until the day of her death on July 12, 1926. King Faisal and the Government of Iraq gratefully for her great achieve-ments in this country ordered that the main wing of the museum bear her name and with his permission her friends have placed this plaque.»
But it is not just because of her archaeological credits that Bell has gone down in history: she was nothing less than the Mother of modern Iraq.
We know many “Fathers of the Homeland”, but “Mothers” are very few.
Not at all Iraqi, being born in England, Gertrude was actually a woman out of the ordinary: clever, brilliant, curious and extraordinarily cultured for that time. Moreover she also had a kind of religious sense of work and duty. In an era when Great Britain was spreading its empire all over the world, she could not bear the bigoted climate of the English high society and the many restrictions that prevented women from expressing themselves or, as she said, doing the same jobs as men.
Since adolescence she dedicated herself to a frenetic activity:hunting, cycling, fencing, horse-riding, gardening, dance and mountain-climbing. At the University of Oxford, an ultimate men’s stronghold, in just two years, she was able to graduate in Modern History with honour. But particularly she traveled far and wide throughout Europe and to the main capitals of the Victorian empire. Mostly crucial was her stay in Persia (at that time disputed between Britain and Russia). It was real love at first sight to which followed a stay in Jerusalem. From that moment the Middle East and even more its deserts became her horizon.
«I am an outlaw, my government isn’t taking care of me, and I have just signed a release from the Ottoman government in which I state that I will proceed at my own risk.»
Thus began her adventure as an explorer of the deserts, which at the time represented just empty white spaces in the maps of the European states. In a short time she learned Persian, Arabic and Turkish, and in 1900 she organized her first journey from Jerusalem to Damascus, and then proceeded to Palmyra, the jewel of Roman architecture in the northern Syrian desert.
She used to set up her own caravan with a few trusted servants and local guides without being afraid of hardships, hunger or thirst, driven by love for archeology and photography, quickly becoming a skilled archaeologist.
In 1905 another trip from Jerusalem to Istanbul via Damascus, Aleppo and Antioch. In 1909 from Aleppo, crossing the northern Syrian desert, to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and to Baghdad. Then in 1913 in the heart of Arabia, through the Negev lava and gravel desert, up to the tribe of Al Rashid, where she was taken prisoner but succeeded to escape. On the eve of the 1st World War Bell had visited much of Palestine (now Israel) and of the modern Syria, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Turkey, Iran and Iraq: a titanic challenge that at that time would have been very arduous even for a man. Actually the real obstacle was represented by uncertain borders due to continuous conflicts between clans and tribes and if you did not know them, you risked your life.
Speaking the native language, she got to know the tribal chiefs, went to look for them and asked their guides to know the territorial subdivisions, thus obtaining the authorization to cross their territories in exchange not only for money but especially for news of which she was the bearer.
It is for this reason that the Arabs themselves called her “the Queen of the Desert”.
[An interesting lecture about Gertrude Bell can be found here]