Gertrude Bell was the Unofficial Queen of Iraq and Roamed the World as a Spy, Mountain Climber and So Much More

Gertrude Bell was the Unofficial Queen of Iraq and Roamed the World as a Spy, Mountain Climber and So Much More

Trista - October 2, 2018

A woman born in the Victorian Era, Gertrude Bell led a brilliant career which included the establishment of Baghdad of the Hashimite Dynasty. Also known as a writer, traveler, archaeologist, and administrator in Arabia, Bell led a life unlike many women of her time and one that is often not found in the history books today. She was born Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell on July 14, 1868, in Washington Hall, Durham, England. From the beginning, Bell was showing the world that she could do what most women of her time did not. Bell became the first woman to earn her bachelor’s degree in Modern History at Oxford University.

Because Bell was a graduate of Oxford University, men were not interested in marrying her. However, this did not mean she did not have love interests. On the contrary, Bell is known to have several lovers throughout her life but to never have married. After graduation, Bell decided to continue her life’s educational journey and taught herself Persian and about six other languages. She then traveled to Iraq in the early 1890s and started her life’s work in the Middle East; the work that would leave a mark in history.

Gertrude Bell was the Unofficial Queen of Iraq and Roamed the World as a Spy, Mountain Climber and So Much More
Gertrude Bell sitting on a horse in Baghdad. worldatlas.

One of the Greatest Climbers

Along with becoming one of the first female graduates with a Modern History degree, Bell became one of the most exceptional women mountain climbers of her time. She climbed her first mountain in 1899. Known as Mejie, it was 13,000 feet high and located in the French Alps. Two years later, Bell became the first person to climb all of the Swiss Alps mountains. Of course, during this time she had changed her skirt in for pants to make the climbing trips more comfortable.

Clothing was not the only challenge for Bell during her climbing adventures. In fact, one of her most significant problems occurred in 1902 on the Finsteraarhorn Mountain. During her time there a blizzard came, and she got caught while on the rope climbing down the mountain. Unable to see or handle herself well in the snowstorm, Bell remained on the string for 50 hours before she was able to reach safety. Luckily, Bell’s only injuries were frostbitten hands and feet. The incident did not damage her love for climbing, and she continued to scale mountains over the next few years.

Gertrude Bell was the Unofficial Queen of Iraq and Roamed the World as a Spy, Mountain Climber and So Much More
Gertrude Bell at a Picnic in Iraq, 1922. Creative Lodging Solutions.
Gertrude Bell was the Unofficial Queen of Iraq and Roamed the World as a Spy, Mountain Climber and So Much More
From left, Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell, T.E. Lawrence. Open Democracy.

Not only did Bell travel around the world to climb mountains but she would also write about her adventures. It is because of her traveling journals that we know so much about Bell’s famous mountain adventures around the world. Not only did she conquer some of the highest peaks, but she also created new paths while on her climbs. She would then develop maps of these new paths to help future climbers. Furthermore, Bell’s mountain skills have not gone unnoticed. Today, there is a mountain, the Gertrudespitze, which is named in honor of Gertrude Bell and her mountain skills.


World War I

When the first world war broke out in Europe many women, including Bell, joined in on the fight. From the point she joined in on the war effort, Bell moved quickly up the ranks. Her first steps in World War I was to volunteer for the Red Cross in France. There she worked to help the wounded soldiers. However, it was not long until Great Britain saw that Bell could help in the war effort in a different way and recruited her to spy on Cairo. Not only did she gain a new name, Major Miss Bell, with her new job but she also became the first woman recruited for such a position.

It was during her time as an officer that she started to focus her attention on another political issue. During World War I, Turkey was in charge of the Middle East and had to join Germany. It was during this time she began to work with T.E. Lawrence, also known as Lawrence of Arabia. Together, Bell and Lawrence began to formulate a plan to help the Arabs in their battle against the Turks.

Gertrude Bell was the Unofficial Queen of Iraq and Roamed the World as a Spy, Mountain Climber and So Much More
Gertrude Bell. picture-alliance/dpa/CPA Media Co.

The Building of Iraq

For many people, the name Gertrude Bell brings about the founding of Iraq, which was first known as Mesopotamia. In fact, to many of the older residents of Iraq, they consider Bell the unofficial queen of Iraq. Even though she was not from the area before and during World War I, she became passionate about the residents of Iraq being able to gain their independence. When it comes to modern-day Iraq, Bell is credited with helping create the borders and even helped elect the King after World War I.

Today, we know much about Bell’s work with establishing modern day Iraq through her letters from Baghdad. For example, much of the British political influence that was seen in Iraq after the first world war was because of Bell’s work in establishing the area. Bell was one of the many people who worked out the negotiations for Iraq’s independence from Turkey. In fact, Bell loved Iraq so much that she permanently moved there in 1917 and lived there until her death on July 12, 1926.

Bell’s building of the country known as Iraq did not end with World War I and the negotiations for the country’s independence. Bell continued to help the country grow after the war when she established the Baghdad Archaeological Museum, which she opened in the 1920s. Bell had always been interested in archaeology and had completed archaeological digs in the Middle East before World War I. When establishing the museum, Bell used her knowledge and the artifacts her and others had of the history of Iraq in order to help build the museum. While the museum closed for a period due to vandalism in 2003, the now known as Iraq Museum was reopened in 2016, and it still honors the legacy of Gertrude Bell.

Gertrude Bell was the Unofficial Queen of Iraq and Roamed the World as a Spy, Mountain Climber and So Much More
Gertrude Bell and other members of the Mesopotamia Commission. Missedinhistory.


The Author of Her Travels

As mentioned previously, one of the reasons we know so much about Bell’s inspiring life is because she wrote about her travels and experience in several books. Some of her most famous books were written between 1894 and 1910. These books include but are not limited to: Mountains of the Servants of God, Poems from the Divan of Hafiz, Safar Nameh, and Thousand and One Churches. However, these books have done more than record her travels for future generations. They also let her British audience know just how big the globe was, especially their empire. These books cover her travels in Syria, Palestine, Europe, and Asia.

Bell’s writings did not end with her passing in 1926. In fact, it was not too long after her death that her vast collection of letters to and from people all over the world were published. Her stepmother released this two-volume set in 1927 as a way to honor the legacy of her stepdaughter. On top of this, there is a number of books which has been written about Gertrude Bell, many of which use pieces from her own writings from her travels and letters. A couple of these books are A Woman in Arabia: The Writings of the Queen of the Desert (2015) and Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia (2005).

Gertrude Bell was the Unofficial Queen of Iraq and Roamed the World as a Spy, Mountain Climber and So Much More
Gertrude Bell, 1868-1926. Lastampa

The Many Ways Bell Continued to Inspire

Early in her vast career, Bell became an archaeologist and quickly formed not only positive relationships in the field but lasting friendships. One of these relationships was with Sir William Ramsey, who was an archaeologist and scholar of Ancient Turkey. In fact, if it was not for Sir William Ramsey, Bell might not have become so brilliant in the archaeological field. Prior to Ramsey, Bell has taught herself what she knew about the field. However, once she became acquainted with Ramsey, he started showing her about the field and helped her excel in the area of study.

After World War I, her influence in the British Empire did anything but melt away. Instead, Bell continued to push boundaries in a male-dominated world and receive high honors, most of which had never been acquired by a woman before. Because of her work during World War I, she was one of the first people honored as an Order of the British Empire by King George V. Bell was also a Royal Geographical Society gold medal winner.

Whether Bell was wearing the hat of a Red Cross volunteer, writer, archaeologist, mountaineer, linguist, or officer, she was breaking glass ceilings for future women. While Gertrude Bell is often considered a forgotten part of history in a few areas of the world, her legacy continues to live on, especially in Iraq. However, as more people learn about a Victorian Age woman called Gertrude Bell, her work continues to inspire women across the globe.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Gertrude Bell: English Politician and Writer.” The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica. July 1998.

“Adventures of a Desert Queen.” Betsey Means and Eileen Vorbach, WomanLore.

“Miss Bell’s Lines in the Sand.” James Buchan, The Guardian. March 2003.

“Gertrude Bell, Al Khatun: Queen of the Desert.” Elizabeth Chandler, Amazing Women in History. March 2014.