Gertrude Bell, born in 1868 in Durham, England, attended Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford, where she graduated with high honors in history.
Bell first traveled to the Middle East in 1892, “the place I have always longed to see,” she wrote to a friend. She visited her uncle, who was the British ambassador to Tehran, a city in Persia (modern-day Iran).
Quickly learning Persian, Bell translated Persian poetry into English. In 1899, she went to Jerusalem to study Arabic and visited Lebanon and Jordan to see ancient Roman ruins. Bell began to travel extensively, going around the world twice before returning to the Middle East in 1905.
This time, she traveled through Syria into Turkey, living in tents and staying in houses with friends of her family. Except for her Arab servants, Bell went alone, and she was often the first European woman to see the sights of the Middle East.
She wrote about her experiences in Syria: Desert and the Sown (1907). In 1909, Bell traveled down the Euphrates River to Baghdad. In 1913, she visited Ha’il, a city in the center of Arabia rarely visited by Westerners.
During World War I (1914-1918), Bell used her extensive knowledge of the Middle East to help the English encourage revolt among the Arabs. In 1917, Bell settled in Baghdad, which became her home for the rest of her life.
This 1721 map reveals that the geography of the Middle East was well known to Europeans, but the cultures there remained for the most part unfamiliar. Nineteenth-century explorers such as Isabella Bird Bishop and Gertrude Bell regarded the area as mysterious, and avid readers of their books considered the tales of their travels to be quite exciting and exotic.