I definitely remember learning about T E Lawrence at school, but I wonder how many of us know as much about the wonderful, inspirational adventures of Gertrude Bell, a pioneering woman archaeologist, explorer, diplomat? She was, after all, the ‘Queen of the Desert’…
Last night I was honoured to attend the UK film premiere of Werner Herzog’s film Queen of the Desert at NBC Universal in London, starring Nicole Kidman, Damien Lewis, James Franco and Robert Pattinson playing Lawrence of Arabia, the man himself.
I was really quite pleased, however, that although Lawrence’s character was definitely one to remember and had a big impact, it wasn’t a leading role, leaving the limelight for the extraordinary explorations of Gertrude Bell to achieve the exposure they deserve.
This is extremely poignant in times today, 100 years on, when discrimination in the archaeological workplace is a hot topic, with #everyDIGsexism trending within our social community this week.
Even more relevant to Gertrude Bell’s achievements is the specific date- today marks the 100 anniversary of the Gallipoli Campaign in the Ottoman Empire, now modern Turkey, one of the biggest disasters of World War One. It is thought that around 120,000 men lost their lives, including over 80,000 Turkish soldiers and 44,000 British and French.
In addition, over 8500 Australians and almost 3000 New Zealanders were killed as part of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) and today marks ‘Anzac Day’ when these soldiers are remembered. Many believe that this day marks the most important date in the Australian and New Zealand national calendars and when they proved themselves equals in the world and forged their own national identity.
Our evening last night began with an introduction by the Global Heritage Fund UK, who presented the film and the event in aid of endangered cultural heritage in the war-torn Middle East.
We were then very honoured to welcome the Great Nephew of Gertrude Bell, who told family stories of her life and adventures, including her specially designed skirt which she could whip up in a second if there was a particularly difficult rock face to scramble.
The film itself highlighted what an inspirational woman Gertrude Bell was. Although extremely unlucky in love with men, she was lucky in love with the people, landscape and culture of the Middle East- where her heart truly belonged.
She was one of the first women to go to Oxford University and gained a first class degree in Modern History in just two years. She travelled extensively in the Middle East, exploring the land, investigating the archaeological sites, learning their language, writing her thoughts and building relationships with the leaders of the Middle East- embarking on dangerous and political missions, fuelled by her intimate knowledge, passion and love of the Arab people.
This led her to be recruited by the British Intelligence during the First World War. She was the only woman to be present at Winston Churchill’s Cairo Conference in 1921, to determine the future and boundaries of Iraq. Her relationships and extensive knowledge with the Middle East helped her to become a diplomat and a powerful force politically whilst maintaining local rulers’ respect and warm regards.
If you either have or hadn’t heard of the extent of Gertrude Bell’s exciting adventures before, the film really is a must see. What an inspirational woman, with so many achievements over a century ago.
But this does remind us of the destruction of archaeological and cultural cities, monuments and treasures in that part of the world, happening right now. They have been standing for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years, but destroyed within minutes. The work of a nation over centuries and key moments in the history of the human race- gone. Sometimes we do need to look back to look forward, and perhaps the life and work of Gertrude Bell should be an inspiration to not only female archaeologists like myself, but to all powerful men and women working within the Middle East and, in this case, suggest that history does repeat itself, by learning from the legacy of Gertrude Bell.