The Amazons at the Gates


Three remarkable women were the first to breach the stone ceiling of archaeology studies: Gertrude Bell, who crowned kings and created nations in the Middle East; Agatha Christie, whose best-selling books reflect the 30 years she spent excavating in Iraq and Syria; and Dorothy Garrod, who discovered the Carmel caves and was the first woman appointed a professor at Cambridge.

The development of archaeology is intimately tied to the happenings in the Middle East over the past two centuries, as the Ottoman Empire opened its gates to European explorers, travelers, and scientists. The European visitors included three women whose numerous remarkable achievements helped pave the way for the subsequent generations of women to enter the male-dominated academic world in general and the field of archaeology in particular. Plus thanks to the first, legislation was enacted to protect antiquities; thanks to the second, the world became enchanted with the romantic spirit of archaeology; and thanks to the third, the development of human society is better understood.

Crowning Kings and Creating Nations

Gertrude Bell was born in 1868 to an upper-class British family. She was a member of one of the six wealthiest families in the British empire and her grandfather had been an important industrialist. The family resided in three mansions, two in the countryside and one in London’s upscale Belgravia neighborhood.

In Victorian England, girls’ education tended to be limited to piano playing, home economics, and the fine art of hosting. Too much education was considered harmful for girls; doctors even warned that placing excessive strain on the fragile minds of adolescent girls could have an adverse effect on fertility.

Bell, however, was a smart and opinionated girl. Home economics, embroidery, and music did not capture her interest. Instead, she delved into her father’s library and excelled in sports, riding, rhetoric, and writing. When she reached the age of 15, her family sent her to a school for girls in London. At the recommendation of her history teacher, she continued her studies at the University of Oxford, where she participated in meetings of the university’s archaeology society.

Women were not welcome at Oxford in those days. Considered invaders in the male-dominated halls of academia, they were restricted to studying at one of the two colleges for women that had just been established at Oxford. Female students were forbidden to leave the college grounds without an escort. On campus, they were required to sit in the back of lecture halls and barred from speaking in class.

Here too, Bell deviated from the norms. She was the first woman to complete history studies at Oxford with honors. The fact that she did so in two years, instead of the usual three, makes this accomplishment all the more impressive. Even though Bell earned the highest grades in her class, she did not receive a degree – Oxford did not grant degrees to women until 1920.

After completing her studies, at the age of 24, Bell traveled to Persia to visit her aunt, who was married to the British ambassador to Teheran. In the weeks preceding her trip, Bell mastered the Persian language. At that point, she also was fluent in French and German. She later would learn Arabic, Hindustani, and Japanese as well.

After visiting her aunt, Bell continued her travels, making her way around the world with the support of her wealthy family. Instead of marrying and settling down, Bell fell in love with the desert and archaeology.

Bell returned to the Middle East in 1899 and began working on an archaeological initiative to discover and map antiquity sites. Her research led her to travel the length and breadth of the entire region. She was the only woman among the many men that she hired to work on her projects. Riding a horse or camel in her long coat, she was a memorable figure in Arab tents.

Even in the heat and dust of the desert, Bell dressed meticulously. Appropriate evening dress always was found in her luggage, along with feathered hats and silk shirts. At her camp, dinner was served on porcelain plates and followed by sherry in crystal cups. Bell did not apologize for being a daughter of the British Empire. She refused to abandon her ladylike garb and every year, her family would send her the new catalogue from Harrods.

An unrivaled athlete, Bell was in excellent shape. She was a talented mountain climber, ascending the most difficult trails in Switzerland. One of the virgin peaks that she was the first to scale even was named after her.

Her 1900 visit to Petra left her completely enamored with the Nabatean ghost town. In 1905, she surveyed Syria, Lebanon, and the Land of Israel, publishing her impressions in the book, Syria: The Desert and the Sown. At the same time, she published scientific articles in the most important archaeological journal of the day. In 1907, Bell and archaeologist William Ramsay surveyed Turkey’s Bin Bir Kilisse region, documenting its churches, monasteries, houses of prayer, ancient fortresses, and more. Their findings were published in 1909 as a book titled The Thousand and One Churches. Even though Bell wrote 460 pages and Ramsay wrote only 60, he was recognized as the lead author.

Love of archaeology brought Bell to Baghdad in 1917, after the British conquered Iraq. Since she knew the Middle East well by that point and spoke Arabic, she was appointed the Oriental secretary for the British high commissioner of Iraq and became the only woman in the Arab Bureau of the British Empire. (The bureau’s most famous figure was Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia.) While serving in this position, Bell was instrumental in shaping the Middle East after World War I. She had a hand in determining the borders of Iraq, Jordan, Persia, and the emirates and in declaring Feisal the king of Iraq and Abdullah the king of Jordan.

Throughout her political activities, Bell did not neglect her first love, archaeology. Her most important contribution undoubtedly was establishing Iraq’s archaeology museum and legislating the antiquities law in 1924. The law forbade conducting archaeological excavations without a permit and barred removing antiquities from the country. This put an end to European and American plundering of Middle Eastern treasures, leaving the cultural heritage of the peoples of this region in their lands.

Bell was far from a simple figure or a martyr. She was a loyal descendant of British colonialism, opposed giving women the right to vote (serving as an officer in an anti-suffragette society), and only appeared in public dressed in the latest London styles. Nonetheless, her archaeological achievements made the first cracks in the wall surrounding the world of science, which had been completely closed to women previously.

In 1926, Bell apparently felt that her lifework in shaping the Arab world had come to an end. One night towards the end of July, she wrote a note asking a friend in Baghdad to take care of her dog if anything happens to her. She died that same night. An empty bottle of sleeping pills was discovered next to her bed. Bell was buried in Baghdad a few days before what would have been her fifty-eighth birthday.


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