Epic Female Traveler: Gertrude Bell Breakin’ Rules 100 Years Ago

July 14, 2013 Kristance Harlow
A traveler writing about their adventures is not a trend. For thousands of years people have traveled to foreign lands and wrote about their experiences; from Herodotus, the original historian who wrote about his time in Egypt in the 5th century BC, to current authors like Elizabeth Gilbert whose book Eat, Pray, Love was made into a popular film in 2010. Archaeology has really benefited, if not been created out of, explorers studying ancient monuments they came across. Gertrude Bell was a female traveler from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. She wrote personal stories about her travels and she was an early archaeologist. Talk about a pioneering woman!
She wasn’t the outspoken early feminist one would have thought, she was actually against the suffrage movement. Many women against suffrage believed that other laws needed to be changed before giving the right to vote (such as when the things a woman owned became the property of their husband immediately upon marriage). In Baghdad she aided in the development of the first girl for schools, and for a woman’s hospital. She also organized “the first series of lectures for a female audience by a woman doctor” (Howell).
Back in Bell’s day institutions didn’t support women travelers. I’m talkin’ about both academic institutions and the government. Everyone was all sexist and like, “I am not getting involved in that woman’s globe trotting ways, with all her dresses and menstrual cycles” (ok that isn’t a direct quote, but you can imagine it went something like that). So those crazy ladies who wanted to get out and about in the world had to organize and finance their own expeditions. You better believe Gertrude Bell made it happen.
The fact that she had to fund her own expeditions meant that she could organize them to be what she wanted, rather than having to follow someone else’s plan. She also was able to write what she wanted, however she wanted. You can still buy her books today, I read a bunch of them when I was getting my degree in archaeology because she was an inspiration to me.
Source: Newcastle University
Let’s back up here and be real, she didn’t come from impoverished roots. Bell was born to a wealthy family in County Durham, England in 1868 (Yay Durham! My Alma Mater!). Her family and friends were composed of successful businessmen, politicians, and intellectuals. She went to Queen’s College in London and then Oxford University. She was the first woman to receive a First-Class Honours degree from Oxford. For those of you not familiar with the British degree system, a First-Class Honours is like graduating with a 4.0 (A).
She originally traveled to make herself more desirable marriage material, because she was considered too intellectual and opinionated. Don’t worry though, the traveling never stopped, and she actually never got married. She was basically a total BAMF (if you don’t know what a BAMF is, may I suggest you immediately click that link). Bell was an accomplished mountain climber; she could speak French, German, Italian, Persian, Arabic, a little Turkish, and her native English; she studied archaeology, maps, and surveying techniques at the Royal Geographic Society in London (the society didn’t admit it’s first female member until 1913), and she was a photographer who developed her own pictures, and then later she was an adviser on the Middle East to the British Empire (playing a pivotal role during the time that Iraq emerged from the Ottoman Empire). That is like 5 lives.
Gertrude Bell Aged 41 Source: Newcastle U.
There is this site called Al-Ukhaidir in modern day Iraq that dates back to 775 AD. It is a very large defense fort. Gertrude Bell ‘discovered’ it in the early 1900s and carried out archaeological excavations. She wrote academic texts on the site and personal travel narratives about it too. She describes seeing Ukhaidir for the first time, “It reared its mighty walls out of the sand, almost untouched by time, breaking the long lines of the waste with its huge towers, steadfast and massive, as though it were, as I had at first thought, the work of nature, not of man” (excerpt Amurath to Amurath by Bell, 1924).
Merging academic writing with personable travel journals is what we really need to do if we’re ever going to get everyone on board with caring about archaeological sites and cultural heritage. It’s not just cool to see, it’s awesome to read about, and even cooler to understand and to save for successive generations. Thanks for being such a good storyteller Gertrude. Now, when are we going to see a movie about her life?
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  1. Rose L on July 15, 2013 at 6:12 am

    Wow, a very interesting and worldly woman!

    • Kristance Harlow on July 16, 2013 at 12:08 pm

      I’ll do some digging and see what other historical worldly women I can introduce you too. 🙂

  2. mplanck on July 14, 2013 at 6:34 pm

    Another fascinating post. Always good to read about women who have not only made history, but discovered it.

    • Kristance Harlow on July 16, 2013 at 12:08 pm

      Thank you, she is an inspiring woman. You should read her travel books!

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