Letters from Baghdad: Excavating the Story of the Extraordinary Gertrude Bell

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By: Elizabeth Rodriguez Chandler

“History in retrospect suffers an atmospheric distortion. We look upon a past civilization and see it, not as it was, but charged with the significance of that through which we gaze, as down the centuries shadow overlies shadow, some dim, some luminous, and some so strongly coloured that all the age behind is tinged with a borrowed hue.”

Gertrude Bell, Amurath to Amurath, 1909

It is curious how in less than a century, the story of Gertrude Bell has been diminished in history, when the imprint of ‘Miss Bell,’ as she is still called by Iraqis today, on the modern history of Iraq is undeniable. And yet, her relevance to modern Iraq might be as high as it has ever been.

Gertrude Bell, 1909

Letters from Baghdad is the first full-length documentary film about Gertrude Bell, Middle Eastern explorer and once the most powerful woman in the British Empire who was instrumental in drawing the borders of Iraq and installing its first king, Faisal I. She was also an archaeological pioneer, surveying and analyzing sites at a time when Western women were nearly invisible in the Middle East. After Faisal appointed her Director of Antiquities, Bell wrote Iraq’s first Law of Antiquities and later established the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad. The British School of Archaeology in Iraq (now the British Institute for the Study of Iraq) was established in her honor in 1932.

Directed by Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl and voiced and executive produced by Academy Award-winning actor Tilda Swinton, the film tells the dramatic story of this extraordinary woman using stunning, never-seen-before footage of the region and entirely in the words of Gertrude Bell and her contemporaries.

Peeling away the layers of myth and history that have shaped the narrative of Iraq in the aftermath of World War I leaves us with primary sources – private letters, newspapers, official government communications and white papers, photographs and film footage – that document Bell’s immense influence on British policy in the Middle East. Oelbaum and Krayenbühl were inspired by, and relied entirely on, these rich archives, and their documentary immerses the viewer in a time and place long gone but still with us.

Born in 1868, Gertrude Bell’s passion for the Middle East began soon after she became the first woman to receive highest honors in Modern History at Oxford in 1892. Her interest in archaeology was sparked by post-University travels to iconic sites in the remote reaches of the Ottoman Empire such as Petra, Palmyra, and Baalbek. Bell went on to explore the Hittite and Byzantine site of Binbirkilisse in Turkey, to Mesopotamia to survey the Roman and Byzantine fortresses on the banks of the Euphrates, and to the Abbasid palace of Ukhaidir southwest of Baghdad. In her too short life, she also traveled around the world, twice, and climbed mountains in the Alps. She was awarded the Founder’s Gold Medal in 1918 by the Royal Geographic Society, primarily for her epic journey through Central Arabia just prior to the War.

Publishing her first book in 1894, Bell became a prolific writer about her travels and about life and archaeology in Persia, Syria and Iraq. She committed herself to becoming fluent in Arabic which allowed her to develop close relationships with the tribes of Arabia that ultimately were fundamental to her invaluable contributions to the British war effort in World War I. In 1915, Bell joined British Military Intelligence in Cairo, where she provided crucial information about the tribes and geography of Arabia to T.E. Lawrence as he coordinated British forces and the Arabian tribes to defeat the Turks. Fatefully, she was sent to Basra in 1916 as a liaison to the tribes of southern Iraq, who knew her well. This led to her appointment the next year as “Oriental Secretary” when the British took Baghdad. Along with Lawrence, she was an influential participant in Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill’s 1921 Cairo Conference where it was decided that Faisal would be crowned the first king of Iraq. She remained with the Civil Commission in Baghdad until her death in 1926.

Cairo Conference 1921, from the left Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell, T.E. Lawrence. Photograph Courtesy of The Gertrude Bell Archives, Newcastle University.

Gertrude Bell at Ukhaidir, 1911. Photograph Courtesy of The Gertrude Bell Archives, Newcastle University.

To read Gertrude Bell’s letters and books is to see the Middle East through a unique woman’s eyes from one hundred years ago. The Gertrude Bell Archive – a magnificent trove of letters, official papers and thousands of photographs, is held at Newcastle University near Bell’s family home in Middlesborough in Northeast England. Bell’s vibrant and humorous letters, written primarily to her family, friends and colleagues, captured the full view of her travels and work – in the field of archaeology as well as in the political realm.

While the primary impetus for the documentary film came from Bell’s papers and photographs, the filmmakers felt it was crucial to tell the controversial story of the British occupation of Iraq and the drawing of its borders. In addition to uncovering documents that revealed the perspectives of numerous Iraqi contemporaries, fortunately, many of her British confidants and colleagues were prolific writers who provided a more critical view of her life and the times.

Visual inspiration for the film came from over 1000 extraordinary film clips from 25 archives around the world, some hand-tinted, that were uncovered by the film’s research team. Much of the footage had never been digitized, buried in reels that had been in storage for more than half a century, and revealed evidence of a world completely different from that of the Middle East as portrayed in the media today.

But it is Bell’s role in shaping modern Iraq that makes her, and the film, so critical to today. Christiane Amanpour emphasized the contemporary relevance of Gertrude Bell’s story in her interview of Oelbaum and Krayenbühl for CNN International:

“Some of the parallels are staggering…It is extraordinary, actually slightly chilling, as one who has covered the 2003 Iraq war, to hear her [Gertrude Bell] talk about sovereignty and occupation in the same way that they talk about it today…”

Bell’s work in Baghdad was the backdrop to the foundation of post-World War I British policies in the Middle East, including the controversial borders of the new state of Iraq. Her observations of Iraqi politics and tribes are as apropos today as they were a century ago. And while some observers continue to dismiss Gertrude Bell as just another British colonialist, when her life is fully examined, it is obvious that she had a great empathy and love for the people of Iraq and the Middle East.

From the moment she set foot in Cairo during the war in 1915 until her death in Baghdad in 1926, Bell sought to find common ground between her native culture and her adopted country, and she came to embrace and champion a vision for an independent modern state of Iraq. Gertrude Bell probably was not thinking about how history would tell her story when she wrote of “atmospheric distortion”; yet the beauty of history is that it can be improved and omissions can eliminated by telling the stories that deserve to be told.

Gertrude Bell at Kubbet Duris, Baalbek Lebanon, June 1900. Photograph Courtesy of The Gertrude Bell Archives, Newcastle University.

Gertrude Bell at Kubbet Duris, Baalbek Lebanon, June 1900. Photograph Courtesy of The Gertrude Bell Archives, Newcastle University.

Elizabeth Rodriguez Chandler is Executive Producer of Letters from Baghdad.

Letters from Baghdad will be screened at film festivals in the UK, Middle East, Europe and the US, and more broadly in 2017. Please visit the website  for more information about the film and upcoming screenings. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


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