The too-little known and studied Gertrude Bell was not only a pioneering Arabist, she was also an archaeologist, writer, poet, linguist, spy, and chief architect of Britain’s post-WWI policy in the Arab world. She was, as the title of a new collection of her writings describes, the Queen of the Desert.
Edited and arranged by Georgina Howell, Bell’s biographer, the new book offers a glimpse of Bell in her many roles and in her own words. The below excerpt provides a snapshot of Bell in just one of these: as a desert traveler. This aspect of her incredible (and controversial) life — and many others — is the subject of a forthcoming film starring Nicole Kidman and directed by Werner Herzog. —Jonathon Sturgeon
Excerpt from A Woman in Arabia: The Writings of the Queen of the Desert By Gertrude Bell Edited with an Introduction by Georgina Howell
The Desert Traveler
In March 1905, Gertrude came to Qallat Semaan, a two and a half days’ march from Homs, Syria, and stopped to reflect.
This is the place where St. Simon lived upon a pillar. While the servants pitched my tents I went out and sat upon St. Simon’s column—there is still a little bit of it left—and considered how very different he must have been from me. And there came a big star and twinkled at me through the soft warm night, and we agreed together that it was pleasanter to wander across the heavens and the earth than to sit on top of a pillar all one’s days.
Gertrude’s first desert journeys were undertaken at the age of thirty-one, in 1900, comparatively late in her life. Her first glimpse of the desert had been on holiday with her aunt and uncle eight years previously, when she had written ecstatically of the desert around Tehran.
Persia, June 18, 1892, Letter to Horace Marshall
Oh the desert round Teheran! miles and miles of it with nothing, nothing growing; ringed in with bleak bare mountains snow crowned and furrowed with the deep courses of torrents. I never knew what desert was till I came here; it is a very wonderful thing to see….
It remained something to see, rather than experience, until she visited family friends, the Rosens, in Jerusalem where Friedrich was the German consul. She took lessons in Arabic and embarked on horseback expeditions to Palmyra, Damascus, Baalbek, and Beirut. But her long, groundbreaking expeditions did not begin for five more years, until she undertook the journey through the Syrian Desert to Asia Minor that she described in her book The Desert and the Sown: the title arising from her explanation written on a journey from Jerusalem.
…We came to spreading cornfields. The plan is this—the “Arabs” sow one place this year and go and live somewhere else lest their animals should eat the growing corn. Next year this lies fallow and the fallow of the year before is sown.
On her first visit to Jerusalem she bought only a lively Arab stallion on which she soon departed from the tourist tracks, riding astride for the first time instead of side-saddle, leaping stone walls and whooping for joy, one hand hanging on to her gray felt hat with its black velvet ribbon.
Deraa, April 30, 1900
…The chief comfort of this journey is my masculine saddle, both to me and my horse. Never, never again will I travel on anything else; I haven’t known real ease in riding till now. Till I speak the people always think I’m a man and address me as Effendim! You mustn’t think I haven’t got a most elegant and decent divided skirt, however, but as all men wear skirts of sorts too, that doesn’t serve to distinguish me.
Her first expedition was the seventy-mile ride down the east bank of the Dead Sea, with a cook and a couple of muleteers. On the Jordan plain she found herself waist-deep in flowers. The flora and fauna of the desert would never fail to enchant and surprise her.
Ayan Musa, March 20, 1900
…The wilderness had blossomed like the rose. It was the most unforgettable sight—sheets and sheets of varied and exquisite colour—purple, white, yellow, and the brightest blue (this was a bristly sort of plant which I don’t know) and fields of scarlet ranunculus. Nine-tenths of them I didn’t know, but there was the yellow daisy, the sweet-scented mauve wild stock, a great splendid sort of dark purple onion, the white garlic and purple marrow, and higher up a tiny blue iris and red anemones and a dawning pink thing like a linum.
April 2, 1900
My camp is pitched half way up the hill, with…deep corn fields…the storks walking solemnly up to their necks in green…. There has been an immense flock of them flying and settling on the hillside, and when I took a stroll I soon found what was engaging [their] attention… The ground was hopping with locusts….
Sometimes the fauna was less enchanting.
Jericho, April 6, 1900
Madeba, in proportion to its size, must have the largest number of mosquitoes and fleas of any inhabited spot on the globe.
She returned northward, crossing the pilgrim road leading to Mecca.
March 22, 1900
Road of course it is not; it is about one-eighth of a mile wide and consists of hundreds of parallel tracks trodden out by the immense caravan which passes over it twice a year.
On the last day of the journey, instead of returning to Jerusalem, she had decided to go on to the Nabatean ruins of Petra and stopped for the night near an encampment of the Beni Sakhr, the fierce tribe that had been the last to submit to Turkish rule.
She made many mistakes and omissions that turned this first desert journey into a steep learning curve. She learned that she must hire a rafiq from each of the Bedouin tribes in whose territories she traveled, to pass in peace. Not yet cognizant of the etiquette of the desert, she did not know that when she found herself near a desert encampment, she should immediately pay a courtesy visit to the sheikh in his tent. As a result, her expedition soon ran into trouble and was threatened by Beni Sakhr tribesmen, armed to the teeth. That night, nevertheless, she wrote home, “Don’t think I have ever spent such a wonderful day.” She learned to distrust the maps, which were full of errors—“one of the great difficulties of this journey is that no one knows the distances even approximately and there is no map worth a farthing. Another is that the population is so scant we can’t get food! This is starvation camp tonight….” Arriving at Petra, she was distracted from the fabulous ruins by hunger.
From A Woman in Arabia: The Writings of the Queen of the Desert by Gertrude Bell, published on August 11, 2015 by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Introductions and selection copyright by Quilco Limited, 2015.