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Gertrude Bell

Tarek Osman considers the writing of Gertrude Bell, an explorer, archeologist, diplomat, linguist, writer and spy, who became known for helping to shape British imperial policy.

Tarek Osman explores the words of Gertrude Bell, in this series looking at the impact of the First World War on great artists and thinkers.

Gertrude Bell, explorer, archeologist, diplomat, linguist, writer and spy was no ordinary woman. The first woman ever to be awarded a first-class degree in modern history from Oxford, she went on to become a groundbreaking mountaineer and have a Swiss peak named after her. But these were mere asides.

By 1914 she had immersed herself in the history and culture of the Levant, mastering Arabic, and forging real relationships across large swathes of the region.

As the First World War raged across Europe and the Middle East, the British Empire realised it needed her knowledge and experience. And in 1917, as Oriental Secretary in the British Commission in Baghdad, she was crucial to them, visiting dignities, poring over intelligence and military plans. The only woman in that world of men, she devised British strategy, selecting its Arab partners and drawing lines in the sand which would become the borders of new states.

As a young academic, Tarek tussled with the idea of Bell. She was symbolic of the way colonial powers had shaped his world and a voice that seemed so condescending. In this essay he explores his own conflicted relationship with her and how, as his understanding of the region grew, he developed a respect for a driven and courageous woman whose ideas and reflections remain so relevant today.

Producer Sarah Bowen.

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15 minutes

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