Rumors raced through the city, denials of a suicide as strong as those of a natural death. But while acquaintances were shocked to hear that Miss Bell may have taken her own life, those who knew her well were not surprised at all. Her closest friends had known of her dark depression. The Political Officer in charge of organizing her papers called the next day at her house. Her servant admitted that Miss Bell had taken an extra dose of pills. In his public report, Colonel Frank Stafford declared that the Khatun had died of natural causes. But in his private account he concluded that the bulk of evidence pointed to suicide.

The full military funeral for Miss Gertrude Bell C.B.E. took place two days before her fifty-eighth birthday. On the afternoon of July 12, 1926, hordes of Iraqis from near and far rushed to Baghdad to bid farewell to the British woman who had touched their lives in every way. Along the road lined with the uniformed troops of Defense Minister Jafar Pasha’s Iraqi army, scores of turbaned sheikhs and hundreds of ordinary citizens—peasants and landowners, merchants and bureaucrats—came to pay her homage. Standing solemnly alongside one another, the High Commissioner and the entire British staff, both civil and military, and the Prime Minister and all the members of his Arab Cabinet watched the group of young British Political Officers carry the Khatun’s coffin from the gates of the British cemetery to the fresh place in the earth that marked her gravesite.

Henry Dobbs issued an official announcement of her death: “She had for the last ten years of her life consecrated all the indomitable fervour of her spirit and all the astounding gifts of her mind to the service of the Arab cause, and especially to Iraq. At last her body, always frail, was broken by the energy of her soul.… Her bones rest where she had wished them to rest, in the soil of Iraq. Her friends are left desolate.”

Indeed, her friend Haji Naji wrote touchingly to her parents, “It was my faith always to send Miss Bell the first of my fruits and vegetables and I know not now where I shall send them.”

Newspapers throughout the world carried her obituary—not just in notices but in long articles complete with her photograph—and in England, King George sent a message to the Bells:

“The Queen and I are grieved to hear of the death of your distinguished and gifted daughter whom we held in high regard.

“The nation will with us mourn the loss of one who by her intellectual powers, force of character and personal courage rendered important and what I trust will prove lasting benefit to the country and to those regions where she worked with such devotion and self-sacrifice. We truly sympathise with you in your sorrow.”

When her will was read it was discovered that Gertrude Bell had left fifty thousand pounds to the Baghdad Museum, which she had created, from then until now one of the great antiquities museums of the world. “It is mainly owing to the wisdom and enthusiasm of the late Miss Gertrude Bell that archaeology in Iraq since the War has progressed on such efficient and able lines,” wrote Percy Cox. “Thanks to her, too, Iraq has its Museum of antiquities.” A plaque was inscribed and hung in the museum:


Whose memory the Arabs will ever hold in reverence and affection

Created this Museum in 1923

Being then Honorary Director of Antiquities for the Iraq

With wonderful knowledge and devotion

She assembled the most precious objects in it

And through the heat of the Summer

Worked on them until the day of her death

On 12th July 1926

King Faisal and the Government of Iraq

In gratitude for her great deeds in this country

Have ordered that the Principal Wing shall bear her name

And that with their permission

Her friends have erected this Tablet.

Less than a year after her death, on April 4, 1927, at the meeting of the Royal Geographical Society, tributes were paid by Sir Percy Cox, Sir Gilbert Clayton and Hugh Bell. Sir Percy Goodenough declared, “Her life was an inspiration, her death a grievous loss; but if ever a man or woman left this world victorious it was Gertrude Bell.”

Her former chief in the Arab Bureau, Sir Gilbert Clayton, assured the group that she was still well known throughout the length and breadth of the Arab world. The president of the society, her friend David Hogarth, added: “I do not think that any European has enjoyed quite the same reputation. She had all the charm of a woman combined with very many of the qualities that we associate with men. She was known in the East for those manly qualities.… I shall not serve any good purpose by trying to say how much I, and many others, have felt her loss. Hers was the brightest spirit that shone upon our labours in the East.”

Even today in Baghdad, when old men speak about Miss Bell, their eyes light up and their hearts beat faster. One former official, now in his nineties and bedridden, boasts that when he was twenty years old (and she was fifty-six) he had a love affair with Miss Bell. It is most probably a figment of his imagination. But what matters is how proudly he tells the story. “I knew her,” he says, with the pride of one who has known a queen. To him and to many others, the Khatun was the embodiment of the British Empire, the personification of British power. She overcame the obstacles and made her mark on history, and in the end, she was what she had wanted most to be: Miss Gertrude Bell was a Person.

The constitutional monarchy that Gertrude Bell had worked so hard to create lasted only seventeen years. Some blamed its downfall on its being too pro-British; others said its defeat lay in the fact that a stranger from the Hejaz had been brought in to lead the distinct and dissimilar groups of people who made up Iraq. Nevertheless, as Gertrude had noted when she wrote about Ibn Saud, the Arabs needed a dynamic personality to unite them, and as long as Faisal was alive, the country survived. It was as much the weakness of his descendants as the attitude of its officials that let it fall into the hands of revolutionaries.

Iraq’s economic ascent began in 1927, when the Iraq Petroleum Company struck its first oil wells in Kirkuk. In time it would be recognized that the country held, and continues to hold, the world’s second largest oil reserves. But despite Iraq’s wealth, the issues that had troubled the British continued to plague it. The clashing population of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds never really congealed into a solid, unified group. The Kurds in the north still sought independence (as they do today, in Iraq, in Turkey and in Iran), while the Shiite tribes along the Euphrates repeatedly rose up to challenge Sunni rule in Baghdad. The Hashemite monarchy, although moderately successful as an Arab nationalist movement under King Faisal, represented an outside force and was not able to consolidate the various elements vying for control.

Under King Faisal’s guidance, the Mandate was ended and Iraq was formally admitted into the League of Nations in 1932, securing the country’s complete independence. The following year, on September 8, 1933, having at last made peace with his enemy Ibn Saud, but still feeling the discontent of the Shiite tribes in the middle and southern Euphrates, King Faisal died unexpectedly while on vacation in Switzerland. The country he had ruled, the first of the newly created Arab states to be accepted by the League of Nations, was considered a model for the other mandates.

Faisal was succeeded by his twenty-one-year-old son Ghazi, a popular but far less able leader. Despite his support for Arab nationalism, he lacked his father’s political skills and could not maintain a hold on the country. Only six years later, in 1939, after a coup d’état by the Iraqi army and the brutal murder of the Minister of Defense, Jafar Pasha al Askari, King Ghazi was killed, some believe intentionally, in an automobile accident. His four-year-old son Prince Faisal II was proclaimed ruler under the regency of his uncle Abdullilah, the son of King Ali of the Hejaz. In 1953, at the same time that Faisal II reached the age of eighteen and assumed the throne in Iraq, his cousin Hussein was crowned the King of Jordan.

For several years Nuri Said served as Prime Minister and leader of Iraq, working in close alliance with the British, but his support of England in the Suez Crisis against the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser helped bring him down. In a swift and bloody coup, on July 14, 1958, the king and his regent were assassinated at the palace, and the following day a mob of people murdered Nuri Said. The revolution marked the end of the Hashemite monarchy in Iraq.

A military junta, led by Abdul Karem Kassim, seized power and established Iraq as a republic. But in 1963 it too was overthrown; Kassim was assassinated and his government swept away by the clandestine Ba’ath Socialist Party. A number of coups and military juntas led to the rise of a young officer, Saddam Hussein. After a series of maneuvers beginning in 1971 and continuing throughout the 1970s, Saddam emerged in 1979 as President, Prime Minister, Chairman of the Revolutionary Council and Secretary-General of the Ba’ath Party.

Today, in Baghdad, in the center of the city, in a major traffic roundabout, atop a huge pedestal stands an imposing statue of King Faisal, slim and distinguished-looking, astride his horse. The giant monument, some thirty feet tall, is pointed in the direction of Damascus. In the basement of the Iraq Museum, on a forgotten shelf, a bronze bust of Miss Gertrude Bell waits to be dusted off.

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