1. Gertrude Bell was a fearless traveller who spent many years exploring remote areas of the Middle East and the Near East.

Queen of the desert

In Letters from Baghdad: The Untold Story of Gertrude Bell and Iraq (96 minutes) we hear the extraordinary and dramatic tale of a doughty woman who shaped the destiny of Iraq after the First World War, in ways that still reverberate today. Sometimes referred to as 'the female Lawrence of Arabia', ultimately, Bell had much more influence than her more famous male colleague.

Using Bell's letters, mainly voiced by Tilda Swinton, fascinating archive footage and stills – some of which Bell took herself – the film traces the life of this British spy, explorer, archaeologist, writer and politician as she moves across the Middle East.


2. Portrait of Miss Bell in 1921.

Born in County Durham in 1868, into a wealthy family, Bell was educated in London and at Oxford; she received a First Class degree in modern history after only two years. She had an adventurous streak – serious mountaineering was her hobby – and she travelled widely in remote areas of Persia, Palestine, Syria, Arabia and Mesopotamia. She also had a passion for archaeology and languages, and, over the years, became fluent in Arabic, Persian, French and German, as well as Italian and Turkish.

Such was her knowledge that despite being a woman, eventually she was recruited by British military intelligence during the First World War. She was the only female delegate to attend the Middle East Conference in Cairo in 1921. Later she was asked to help draw the borders of Iraq and, as a result, she helped shape, for good or ill, the modern Middle East.


3. Miss Bell with Churchill et al at the 1921 Middle East Cairo Conference.


Her journey into both the uncharted Arabian desert and the inner sanctum of British colonial power make her an exceptional woman by any standards. Her story is told in her own words taken from the more than 1600 letters
she left, along with private diaries, photographs and official documents. The film looks both at a remarkable woman and the tangled history of Iraq, in a past that seems eerily similar to today. As Zeva Oelbaum, one of the film's two directors, said: 'Gertrude Bell gave her heart and soul to Iraq, working to get the British to fulfill their promise of Arab self-determination.

'She believed that the preservation of antiquities and ancient sites was a crucial priority and established the Iraq Museum, which was infamously ransacked in 2003. She overcame numerous heartbreaks along the way, but always kept clear-eyed about what she felt she could contribute to her adopted country.' Bell died in 1926
and was buried in Baghdad.

This film and Werner Herzog's Queen of the Desert (2015), starring Nicole Kidman as Gertrude Bell, has made more people aware of this accomplished woman. It is hoped that this increased publicity will garner support for the drive to turn her family home, Red Barns in Redcar, County Durham, into a museum dedicated to her.

• The Gertrude Bell Archive is in Newcastle University (http://gertrudebell.ncl.ac.uk/).
• The Gertrude Bell Society (http://gertrudebellsociety.weebly.com).
Lindsay Fulcher








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