A biography by Georgina Howell
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007, 512 pp., 16 pp. illus.
With as many books, documentaries and Hollywood films that have focused on T.E. Lawrence and the swirling politics and conflicts that gave birth to the modern Middle East, it’s surprising how often these works overlook one of the key players in the process and one of Lawrence’s closest friends: Gertrude Bell. While it is not hard to find a Gertrude Bell biography, there are few other resources available to the scholar or layperson with an interest in this most extraordinary woman. Gertrude Bell would have been a remarkable woman in any age, but the fact that she lived and accomplished her feats at the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th centuries is one of the more impressive aspects of any Gertrude Bell biography.
Gertrude Bell was a mountaineer, a linguist, an intrepid explorer and a consummate stateswoman. Gertrude Bell’s accomplishments as an archaeologist are evident in her book The Thousand and One Churches, which was published in 1909 and, as pointed out in Howell’s Gertrude Bell biography, it is still referenced by scholars today.Perhaps Gertrude Bell’s most notable achievement—or at least her longest lasting—was her great influence over British imperial policy. As noted in Howell’s Gertrude Bell biography, Gertrude Bell’s extensive travels in Greater Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and Arabia made her an expert in both the languages and the cultures of these regions. Along with T. E. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell helped establish the Hashemite dynasties in what is today Jordan as well as in Iraq. She played a major role in establishing and helping administer the modern state of Iraq, utilizing her unique perspective from her travels and relations with tribal leaders throughout the Middle East. During her lifetime she was highly esteemed and trusted by British officials and given an immense amount of power for a woman at the time.
Gertrude Bell’s biography would be a distinguished one for any age. The fact that she lived and worked and shaped Middle East politics during a time when women were relegated to the footnotes of history is what makes Gertrude Bell’s story even more extraordinary. Hollywood, are you listening?
Julia M. Asher-Greve is a prominent figure in the field of women and gender studies. She is co-founder of the Women’s Association of Ancient Near Eastern Studies, as well as NIN: Journal of Gender Studies in Antiquity.
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