An Irishwoman's Diary


"The temperature in my office is 120° [ 46° centigrade], even though I have it washed down two or three times a day. I had a well- spent morning making out the southern desert frontier of Iraq. . ." wrote Gertrude Bell in 1921.

Today US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may be one of the most powerful voices shaping the future of Iraq, but at the founding of the state, the borders were defined and political policies influenced by another woman, Gertrude Bell.

In 1917, Britain invaded Baghdad, defeating the Turks and causing the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Under the League of Nations, Britain was given a mandate to create a separate democratic state with a national government and administer what was to become Iraq.

Gertrude Bell had been asked to go to Baghdad in 1917 because of her intimate knowledge of the desert tribes and of the country which she had criss-crossed in very nearly every direction.

Born in 1868, the daughter of a wealthy colliery owner from Co Durham, Gertrude Bell had gained a first-class honours degree from Oxford and at a time when few women went to university. She took up mountaineering and, with the help of two guides, climbed the Engelhorn by a previously unconquered route and also scaled the Matterhorn, though she found that comparatively easy: "The Swiss side was hung with ropes and it was more like sliding down the banisters than climbing".

With her family connections, there were always ambassadors to visit and when staying with an uncle in Persia, she learned Farsi and translated and published a book of poems. In 1899 in Jerusalem, she learned Arabic, which she came to speak almost perfectly, and made the first of her desert journeys. From then on she made many expeditions into Mesopotamia, where she was befriended by the various tribes and became passionately interested in archaeology.

From 1917, she worked in Baghdad, where her remarkable knowledge of the country and her sympathy with the people proved invaluable. Throughout the day, people came to see her - sheikhs, Arab officials or just people with some intelligence or to ask for advice. From the information she gleaned, she compiled reports and maps of their territories and volumes on the different tribes and their relationships to each other.

Gertrude Bell was an ardent advocate of Iraq's nationalist ambitions, as were her colleagues TE Lawrence and St John Philby, a noted Arabist and father of the spy Kim Philby, but she was not always in accord with her superiors. One said it was "impossible to create a state out of the remnants of the Turkish Empire; the warlike Kurds will never accept an Arab ruler, the Shia will not accept Sunni domination and no form of government has been devised without Sunni domination".-

She was a powerful opponent as she was familiar with all the tribal chiefs and had many friends among the Mujtahid, or leaders of religious opinion. She gave parties where people from the different factions met. "I had two young Arabs to dinner and a very interesting officer in the police service to meet them. They stayed till 10.30pm, talking about education and the reform of religious endowments and all sorts of things." In 1921, a conference was held in Cairo with the new secretary of state, Winston Churchill, to decide on the future of the new state. There is a photograph of the party riding camels: Gertrude Bell with a fox-fur round her neck; TE Lawrence, not alas in his silken Arab robes; and Churchill, who fell - or rather "slithered off his camel like a jelly".

At this conference Gertrude Bell urged the advantages of choosing Faisal, a member of the Hashimite dynasty, as the first king of Iraq. In Baghdad, she persuaded people to support him including the Jewish community "who clapped him to the echo and we had to listen to 13 speeches and songs interspersed with iced lemonade. It took two hours in sweltering heat." She wrote, that owing to it being over 45° centigrade, "politics were running on wheels greased with extremely well melted grease" and "Faisal was scoring great triumphs". To her satisfaction, he was chosen by a countrywide referendum. After this her letters are littered with references to the king. Although she saw him often in order to talk politics, arrange his furniture from Waring and Gillow in London, or play bridge, she always gave him the respect due to royalty. If his launch went by while she was swimming in the Tigris she would scramble up the bank and stand to attention. She did confess that it was difficult to curtsey in a wet bathing dress.

As her political work slowed down, her interest in archaeology revived and she was appointed provisional Director of Archaeology of Iraq. In that capacity, she claimed for Iraq half of any finds from any foreign-funded excavations. To house the artefacts, she lobbied successfully to acquire a building for a museum. Through the appalling heat of the summer of 1926, she catalogued and arranged the objects. But whether by accident or design, she was found dead from an overdose of sleeping pills on July 12th, 1926.

She had once written that she didn't think she would ever be able to detach herself from the fortunes of Iraq. "It is a wonderful thing to feel this affection and confidence of a whole people round you." It is a feeling which, I fear, would be experienced by few foreigners in Iraq today.