A recent and much-celebrated documentary, Letters from Baghdad, produced by Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl, depicts an essential figure from World War I and its aftermath: an explorer, archaeologist, mountain climber, and an intelligence officer for the British who became a modern nation-builder in the Middle East.
She was a woman whose influence would affect the region for the next 100 years—some would blame her in part for what’s been called “the peace to end all peace” after the Great War—but she should have been listened to more.
Gertrude Lowthian Bell’s white papers, maps, and notes on the Arab tribes provided the British Empire’s Cairo Office with some of its most important intelligence on the region. They enabled, for instance, T.E. Lawrence (more popularly known by most as Lawrence of Arabia) to better lead what was called The Arab Revolt against the German-allied Turks.
“We have had great talks and made vast schemes for the government of the universe,” Bell wrote affectionately after one meeting with Lawrence at the height of the war.
Her only desire: that her colleagues and commanders disregard the novelty of her presence as a woman and deal solely with the substantive points in her reports, those vital to the construction of post-Ottoman-Empire Iraq.