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The Female Archaeologist/Undercover Agent Who Put Indiana Jones To Shame

Updated September 21, 2018 25.0k views16 items

Who was Gertrude Bell? During World War I, she was one of many British spies in the Middle East, where she helped orchestrate the end of the Ottoman Empire. She was also an archaeologist, a writer, explorer, mountain climber, and the first woman to receive a degree in Modern History from Oxford University.

Gertrude Bell was born in Durham, England, in 1868. She had one brother, three half-siblings, and – like most upper-class women of the time period – she was a debutante, who attended a ball thrown by Queen Victoria. However, that's where her typical life stopped and her amazing one began. Her obsession with Persia began when she visited her uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles, who was stationed there as a British ambassador. She spent the majority of her life in that area of the world, interacting with people like T. E. Lawrence (you may know him better as Lawrence of Arabia) and Sir William Ramsay.  She wound up being instrumental in the creation of Iraq, and helped open the Baghdad Archaeological Museum. 

Bell died in her sleep in 1926. Some say that she committed suicide, although others attribute her death to an accidental overdose of sleeping pills. Whatever the case, Bell led an utterly fascinating and compelling life. 

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  • She Witnessed The Armenian Genocide

    Photo: Gertrude Bell/Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

    In 1915, just as Gertrude Bell was arriving in the Middle East as a part of an envoy of British Intelligence, the Turkish leaders of the Ottoman Empire decided they were going to expel the Armenian people from their lands in any way possible.

    This led to the combined mass slaughter and deportation of 1.5 million of the estimated 2 million Armenians living within their borders. It's no surprise, then, Bell believed in independent nations and did her part to help orchestrate the end of the empire. 

  • She Volunteered For The Red Cross In France

    Photo: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

    When World War I started in 1914, Gertrude Bell did something predictable and characteristic of British women at the time — she volunteered to work for the Red Cross and assist the war effort by helping wounded soldiers. She went straight to France, where the battle was taking place, and did her part.

    She was quickly recruited by British Intelligence and sent to spy on (or orchestrate for them, depending on your point of view) the fall of the Ottoman Empire. 

  • She Worked For British Intelligence During World War I

    Photo: Pinterest

    In 1915, Gertrude Bell was recruited by British Intelligence and sent to Cairo, as a spy for her home country. She was the first woman ever given an officer position, and her fellow compatriots referred to her as "Major Miss Bell." While there, she helped orchestrate an Arab uprising against the Turkish leaders of the Ottoman Empire by providing them with weapons and brought independence to what is now Iraq.

    She also helped prevent India from taking over parts of Mesopotamia. By 1917, she was officially a British Assistant Political Officer with the (insensitive) title of Oriental Secretary and moved permanently to Baghdad, Iraq. 

  • She Befriended Lawrence Of Arabia

    Photo: Pinterest

    The infamous Lawrence of Arabia, real name T.E. Lawrence, worked for British Intelligence during World War I, helped spark the Arab revolt and the Fall of Damascus, and was stationed in France as a member of the British Foreign Office. His life was also the inspiration for the classic 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia.

    While he was stationed in the Middle East during WWI, he also got to know Gertrude Bell. Together, they attended the Cairo Conference, a 1921 meeting of British experts where Middle Eastern lands were carved up, creating modern-day Iraq and Jordan.