Monday, July 21, 2014


    Having finished reading a book given me at Christmas  (slow reader)  about Thomas Edward Lawrence and his leadership of the Arab revolt during World War I, I wondered how Iraq was formed of Mesopotamia and Syrian lands after the war. The Arabs were promised Syria from the start   --- "To Damascus" was the battle cry ---   but, as it worked out, the French got Syria and Lebanon and the British formed Iraq and took Palestine as  "protectorates".  Arab Prince Faisal ibn Hussein was installed as King of Iraq in 1921 to placate the Arabs.

    Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell (1868-1926) was of English gentry (father was a steel magnate) with a degree from Oxford, explorer, mapper, archeologist, outlier of her time. Red hair, green eyes, chain smoker, she wandered the deserts of Syria and Mesopotamia (Iraq) mapping and photographing ancient ruins  SOME  PHOTOS.

    She was a British spy in the Iraq area under the guise of archeologist so that the enemy Turks (Ottomans) would allow her access to the areas.*  Her maps were of great value to Lawrence and others heading into Syria and Iraq.  She traveled the deserts with Arab guides and aides, knew the Arabic language along with Farsi and German, and was respected by the Arab tribal leaders  as she moved about. She helped draw up the western and southern boundaries of Iraq (some say disregarding 2,000 years of tribal sectarian and nomadic occupation of the areas to the west), and, living in Baghdad, helped install Faisal as King. It is said that she died chaste, although I don't see how anyone could know that. Her first male interest was rejected by father and her second killed at the British disaster at Gallipoli in the Dardanelles.

    While in Baghdad, where she later lived, she established the Iraqi Museum and collected  antiquities for preservation.  She died and is buried there after, some say, too many sleeping pills in1926 at 57 years. 

Churchill, Bell, and Lawrence at the  Arab bureau in Cairo in 1921.  Much fun was had as Churchill fell off of his camel. The maps of Iraq, Palestine, and Syria were being finalized to the advantage of French and British interests.

Bell and T.E. Lawrence after the war.

*  " In a 1920 letter home, she described her method of collecting information. She and a male colleague were invited by a leading figure in Baghdad to meet merchants and caravan drivers in a coffee house. 'I do them a good turn whenever I can and they respond by coming in to see me whenever they return from Syria or Arabia and telling me what they've heard and seen. The tea party was delightful. The walls of the diwan are mellow with decades of tobacco smoke, the furniture, benches around the room and one table for us at the upper end... We talked Arab polities with great gusto for an hour and a half... I do like them so much. They are to me an endless romance. They come and go through the wilderness as if it were a high road, and they all, most politely, treat me as a colleague, because I, too, have been in Arcadia (wilderness). When they talk of tribes or sheiks or watering places, I don't need to ask who and where they are. I know; and as they talk I see again the wide Arabian horizon.' "    Ref: "Gertrude Bell and Iraq" by Barbara Furst    READ MORE

    I am reminded of a statement given by Faisal to Lawrence in the David Lean film "Lawrence of Arabia : "No Arab likes the desert. There is nothing in the desert."  (Little did he know of the oil under the desert.) The film, by the way, follows the reality of the Arab revolt and the exploits of Lawrence pretty closely.

    Seems all of the chances for individual historical influence have been taken.  We are left with canoeing around the earth or walking backwards across Death Valley!  

    Where is a place where others have not trodden or seen before us?