France, Gertrude Bell, Iraq, Jordan, Middle East, Syria, UK
When I arrived in Jordan in 1994, I was interested in learning more about the political history of the region, a complex history of a cosmopolitan and multicultural world. This world had known stability under Ottoman-Turk rule but the First World War would change all that forever and give us the region we know today. For 500 years the Ottoman-Turks ruled a vast Empire from Istanbul the Sultan was the shadow of God on Earth, this empire covered parts of Europe, extended over what is called the Middle-East up to the border with Persia/Iran and extended to Egypt, the Sudan, Libya and Tunisia. This was truly a multi-ethnic and multi-religious empire. By the end of the 19th century many weaknesses had started to appear in its governance and European powers were out to exploit these weaknesses to their own advantage. Britain, France, Germany and Russia until 1917 had agendas on how to reshape the region. The Sultan made the fatal mistake of supporting the German Empire against France and Britain in the First World War. The British and the French use the chaos in the region created by the war to undermine Ottoman rule and promise to the Arab populations and their Princes that large spoils would come their way if they revolted against their Turkish masters. British and French imperial policies were not devised for the benefit of local populations and events in the 20th century in Iraq, Syria and Jordan has shown us that Europe created a mess in this region with consequence we still live with today. Gertrude Bell in her recommendations thought this was the best course to follow and could not see what was going to happen once the Arabs wanted their independence from British rule. The borders of those countries, the design of their flags, the imposition of Monarchies, the framework for their governing bodies and the appointment of officials to posts, the marginalization of the Kurdish people and the division of their ancestral land between the new countries of Iraq, Syria and Jordan, the divide and conquer between Shia majority and Sunni minority in Iraq, all these recommendations made by Bell and endorsed by the British government led to serious problems in the years that would follow and Gertrude Bell bears the weight of those decisions.
She was heavily influenced by her upper class titled background, coming from a wealthy family, involved in the steel industry, educated at Oxford, schooled into world politics from an early age by her politician grandfather in the age of imperial expansion. Like many people of her time and class she did not see the Arab people as capable of governing themselves and needing the guidance of European rulers.
Gertrude Bell was the woman who would as an agent of the British government have enormous influence in the creation of new countries namely, Iraq, Jordan and Syria. Later France would through a secret treaty with Britain create Lebanon under the pretext of protecting Maronite Christians.
I was able to find the books written by Gertrude Bell during her time in the region and these books were widely read and very popular in shaping perceptions of the Arab people and the Bedouin tribes. I found them instructive and fascinating in understanding the unfolding of events. The world she visited and travelled through has changed a great deal in 120 years and it is sad to realize that it was a much gentler world. The European powers were there for mercantile reasons and oil monopolies also played into the equation.
Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell, CBE (1868-1926) was an English writer, traveller, political officer, administrator, and archaeologist who explored, mapped, and became highly influential to British imperial policy-making due to her knowledge and contacts, built up through extensive travels in Greater Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and Arabia. Along with Colonel T.E.Lawrence, Bell helped support the Hashemite dynasties in what is today Jordan as well as in Iraq until its overthrow.
She played a major role in establishing and helping administer the modern state of Iraq, using 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 exerted an immense amount of power. She has been described as “one of the few representatives of His Majesty King George V Government remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling affection” I would say with a certain generation of Arabs prior to 1970. In today’s world she has entered the world of mythical figures of a long gone era.
If you are interested her books and books on her life can be found easily on Amazon. Gertrude Bell committed suicide in 1926 by overdose of sleeping pills and is buried in the Anglican Cemetery in Baghdad.