Encountering a Mover-Shaker: Gertrude Bell

“Khan al Musalla” (March 1911), by Gertrude Bell. Image Source: Gertrude Bell Archive, NewcastleUniversity Library.
As I continue to learn more about the field of archaeology, I turn to reading books about the life and journey of individuals, particularly women, who make their way into seeking and preserving the past. I like to learn from their rise, times that they overcame challenges, or even their responses to dead ends or situations that are out of their control, and how they combat it. Whether it is art, archaeology or other fields, human resilience transpires across disciplines. As a newcomer to the study of archaeology and ancient Middle East culture, reading literature about the lives of these people is encouraging and motivational for me to keep going, when the knowledge of field itself presents too vast and deep for me to fathom.

This is how I came to hear about the legendary Gertrude Bell (1868-1926). Born into a wealthy family in the 19th century, Bell’s family was enlisted as one of the major tycoons of Victorian English society at that time.  Gertrude Bell was an individual who fearlessly broke away from most conventions and had a heart on the world outside of her comfort zone. She was among the few women who graduated from Oxford University with a Modern History degree. As an aspired traveler and adventurer, she toured to Europe, and later to the Middle East, of which some places did not even exist on the map at that time. She developed a high proficiency in Arabic, and it allowed her to navigate the places with the locals and gained the people’s respect. What impresses me further was her being a self-taught archaeologist, mountaineer, photographer, poet, and author of many influential books on the study of the Middle Eastern archaeological landscape. Bell was also involved in the making of the modern Iraqi politics and the shaping of its government.

“Hak” (April 1911). Image Source:
Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University Library.
Among many of her international contributions, Gertrude Bell is perhaps most recognized for her influence in helping to establish the Baghdad Archaeological Museum (now called the Iraq National Museum) in 1926. The Museum is a home to some of the world’s most important ancient artifacts of Mesopotamia. Although the museum has undergone some significant destruction due to wars and looting between the 1990s through early 2000s, and is still facing many challenges, the Museum remains dedicated to the collection and interpretation of 7,000 year-history of Iraq, representing Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Islamic cultures.

When I read Gertrude Bell’s story and people and places she encountered on a land far from her hometown, it hits home to me. Way before any technological conveniences, she went to unfamiliar terrains, while trying to make connections and create changes that help improve people’s living circumstances.

Gertrude Bell’s story and the photography she took in her travel to Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, and beyond in the early 20th century showed to me how history can inspire and shape a person, and vice versa. The closer I look at her photographs, the greater I appreciate the antiquity and archaeology around the world, as well as people who take part in it. Like Gertrude Bell, each of us can be a mover and shaker in our own right.