BY Clive Irving
The story of the British intelligence agent who rigged an election, installed a king loyal to the British, drew new borders—and gave us today’s ungovernable country.
She came into Baghdad after months in one of the world’s most forbidding deserts, a stoic, diminutive 45-year-old English woman with her small band of men. She had been through lawless lands, held at gunpoint by robbers, taken prisoner in a city that no Westerner had seen for 20 years.
It was a hundred years ago, a few months before the outbreak of World War I. Baghdad was under a regime loyal to the Ottoman Turks. The Turkish authorities in Constantinople had reluctantly given the persistent woman permission to embark on her desert odyssey, believing her to be an archaeologist and Arab scholar, as well as being a species of lunatic English explorer that they had seen before.
She was, in fact, a spy and her British masters had told her that if she got into trouble they would disclaim responsibility for her. Less than 10 years later Gertrude Bell would be back in Baghdad, having rigged an election, installed a king loyal to the British, re-organized the government, and fixed the borders on the map of a new Iraq. As much as anyone can be, Gertrude Bell could be said to have devised the country that nobody can make work as a country for very long—no more so than now.
The Middle East as we know it was largely the idea of a small coterie of men composed of British scholars, archaeologists, military officers and colonial administrators who were called the Orientalists—this is the “orient” according to the definition first made by the Greeks, meaning everything east of the Mediterranean as Alexander the Great advanced to seize it.
For decades, beginning in the mid-19th century, the Orientalists had explored the desert and found there the ruins of the great powers of the ancient world—Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia. Through archaeology they revealed these splendors to the modern world and, from their digs, stuffed Western museums with prizes like the polychromatic tiled Ishtar Gates of Babylon, moved to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, or the Cyrus Cylinder, containing the Persian king Cyrus’s new creed of governance as he conquered Babylon, shipped to the British Museum.
They wondered why such resplendently rich and deeply embedded pre-Christian urbanized cultures ended up buried by the drifting sands of the desert, completely unknown and ignored by the roaming Arab, Turkish and Persian tribes above. The many glories of Babylon, for example, lay unexplored not far from the boundaries of Baghdad. READ REST OF STORY HERE