Alexander: The Making of a Myth

Alexander the Great built an empire that stretched across the world and rode across the sky on a flying chariot, or so the legends say. This winter, the British Library is exploring the myths surrounding one of the most famous figures of the ancient world. With objects and books from 25 countries, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth examines the narratives that made Alexander a universal icon.

Alexander was born in Macedonia in 356 BC and died aged 32, by which time he had built a vast empire stretching from Greece to India. Legends about the great leader only began circulating after his death, making it difficult to extract the truth from the fiction. Even Alexander’s name does not remain constant in the legends and stories. In some cultures, he is called Iskandar or Sikandar, from which the anglicised “Alexander” developed. There are also many discrepancies in his appearance. A bust dating from the first or second century BC depicts Alexander as a beautiful youth. In contrast, an illustration in Johann Hartlieb’s Das Alexanderbuch (The Alexander Book, c.1444) shows Alexander with two prominent tusks rising from his lower jaw.

Plutarch, a Greek historian, compiled one of the earliest biographies of Alexander around AD 100. Originally written in Greek, copies were translated into Latin and spread across Europe. From these, writers developed the “Alexander Romance”, which contains a largely fictional account of Alexander’s life. The text includes invented letters from Alexander to his teacher, Aristotle (384-322 BC), describing the fantastical beasts he met in the East.

The earliest surviving illustrated copy of the Alexander Romance dates to the 13th century. It was written an estimated 1,800 years ago in Greek before being translated into many languages, including Coptic, Arabic, Persian, Armenian, Syriac and Hebrew. By the publication of the first illustrated version, the lines between fact and fiction had long disappeared. One artwork in the Historia Alexandri Magni kept in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, shows Alexander entering Rome on horseback, with bowing senators welcoming him on one side and the public waving palm leaves on the other. Whilst it is plausible that Alexander received a hero’s welcome, the palm leaves suggest the writer or illustrator wanted to elevate Alexander to the same level as Jesus Christ, who received a similar welcome in Jerusalem.

Alexander’s parentage differs between stories. Today, the consensus is Alexander was the son of Philip of Macedon (382-336 BC), the 18th king of Macedonia. The Alexander Romance claims the serpent-magician Nectanebo tricked Alexander’s mother, Olympias (375-316 BC), a Greek princess, into bed by disguising himself as the dragon-like Egyptian god Amun. Nectanebo II ruled as the pharaoh of Egypt from 358 BC until his deposition in 340 BC. Yet, the Persians regarded Alexander as the half-brother of King Darius III (380-330), making Alexander the legitimate heir of the Achaemenid Empire. With at least three possible fathers, different cultures believed Alexander was the rightful heir to either Macedonia, Egypt or Persia. Incidentally, Alexander conquered all three places during his short life.

Another half-truth, half-fiction legend about Alexander involves his horse, Bucephalus. Many artworks depict Alexander riding into battle on a fierce war-horse, which not only symbolises Alexander’s victories but also his physical feats and training to become a military commander. When Alexander first met Bucephalus, named after a type of branding mark anciently used on horses, the horse was a savage, man-eating beast. According to the Alexander Romance, King Philip locked the animal in a cage, where 15-year-old Alexander later discovered him. Immediately, the horse bowed before Alexander, acknowledging him as his master.

An alternative story claims that whoever rode Bucephalus would be king of the world. Many had tried and failed to tame the beast before Alexander, who realised the horse was afraid of its own shadow. Turning Bucephalus towards the sun so that his shadow fell behind him, Alexander stroked Bucephalus soothingly before jumping onto his back. The tale suggests Bucephalus immediately became tame, but regardless of whether it was instant or took time, Alexander rode Bucephalus during all his military campaigns, including in Greece, the Middle East, and India.

It is not certain who tutored Alexander in the art of warfare and military leadership, but between the ages of 13 and 16, Alexander received an academic education from Aristotle. Philip considered other scholars, such as Isocrates (436-338 BC) and Speusippus (408-339 BC), before settling on Aristotle. For a classroom, Philip provided Aristotle with the Temple of the Nymphs at Mieza, in ancient Macedonia, and agreed to rebuild Aristotle’s home town of Stageira in place of payment. During Philip’s earlier campaigns, he raised Stageira to the ground and enslaved or exiled the inhabitants.

Alexander spent most of his school days in Mieza with other children of Macedonian nobles, such as Ptolemy (367-282 BC), Hephaistion (356-324 BC), and Cassander (355-297 BC). Known collectively as the “Companions”, these friends became Alexander’s future generals. Hephaistion was “by far the dearest of all the king’s friends; he had been brought up with Alexander and shared all his secrets.” Several writers refer to Alexander and Hephaistion’s relationship in a similar vein to the mythical Achilles and Patroclus, suggesting they may have been more than friends. Ptolemy became pharaoh of Ptolemaic Egypt and Cassander the king of Macedonia following Alexander’s death.

Aristotle taught Alexander and his companions about medicine, philosophy, religion, logic, and art. Alexander developed a passion for the works of the Greek poet Homer, particularly the Iliad, which references the aforementioned relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Alexander also learned quotes from memory, such as lines written by the Greek playwright Euripides (480-406 BC). As for politics, Alexander picked up most of his knowledge by talking to Persian exiles at his father’s court. Philip granted Persian nobles protection after they opposed his enemy, Artaxerxes III (359-338 BC).

Philip of Macedon passed away in 336 BC, making his son the new king of Macedonia. Within ten years, Alexander expanded his empire and became the inspiration for many rulers over dozens of centuries. Alexander’s first major success was the defeat of the Persians at the battles of Granicus and Issus in present-day Turkey, followed by conquering Egypt and finally overthrowing King Darius in 331 BC. In Egypt, Alexander left his greatest legacy: the foundation of the city of Alexandria. This was the largest of the twenty-or-so cities named after Alexander throughout his empire. Stories also claim he erected the Lighthouse of Alexandria, which became one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

When Alexander first set his sights on Egypt, it was under the rule of Persia. Although King Darius controlled all of Persia, he delegated areas to his governors. Alexander defeated the Egyptian governor, was greeted as a liberator and was crowned the new Pharoah. Naturally, Alexander’s actions riled Darius, who met Alexander in battle at Gaugamela in modern-day Iraq in 331 BC. This was the final meeting between Alexander and the Persian armies. Realising he was outnumbered, Darius fled from the scene, only to be injured by two of his men. According to legend, when Alexander caught up with Darius, he ordered the two men’s execution and comforted the mortally wounded king. During his final moments, Darius allegedly asked Alexander to look after his family, marry his daughter Roxana and preserve the Zoroastrian religion.

Despite Alexander’s supposed distress over Darius’ death, he continued to capture the remaining parts of the Persian empire. In 326, Alexander reached Punjab, India, where he defeated King Porus. Some legends claim Alexander spared Porus’ life, who then made Alexander a subordinate ruler as a way of thanks. Other stories allege that Alexander killed Darius and continued his journey to China, although some scholars do not believe Alexander travelled so far east.

Regardless of the outcome, all the stories about Alexander’s army in India involve facing colossal war elephants. A coin dating to 323 BC depicts King Porus sitting on the giant animal while Alexander, riding Bucephalus, attacks him from behind with a spear. Different versions of the story propose a variety of ways Alexander overcame the army of elephants. The Shahnameh (15th century), the longest poem ever written by a single author, suggests Alexander ordered his blacksmiths to build 1,000 oil-filled iron horses, which he set alight in front of the advancing Indian army. Terrified of the flames, the elephants fled, taking their riders with them. Das Alexanderbuch contains an alternative account in which Alexander used red-hot pokers to scare the elephants.

Alexander did not spend all his time fighting but also focused on spreading peace throughout his conquered lands. While in India, he met the Brahmans, a group of priests who believed “greed is the root of all evil and we will leave this world naked and without our possessions.” In many illustrated versions of Alexander’s history, the Brahmans are naked, while Alexander and his men dress in ornate clothing. Fictitious dialogues between Alexander and Dindimus, the king of the Brahmans, suggest the king convinced Alexander there was no point waging war when the Brahmans had no possessions to lose.

In China, if indeed Alexander reached the country, he defeated two champions, Tengu and Kanifu, the latter of whom turned out to be a woman. On his way home from China, Alexander received news that the Russians had captured Queen Nushabah of Persia, so he immediately changed his route to liberate the queen and defeat her captors. After seven violent battles, Alexander defeated the Russian leader and returned Queen Nushabah to her native country.

With so many countries now part of his empire, Alexander became associated with many cultures and religions. The Egyptians acknowledged Alexander as the son of the Egyptian god Amun or the former Pharoah Nectanebo. He also appeared in Christian, Jewish and Islamic texts. Despite promising King Darius to preserve the Zoroastrian religion, many Persians accused Alexander of destroying the religion. According to the Persian poet Nizami (1141-1209), Alexander tore down the temples, burned the sacred texts and introduced Islam to Persia.

In the Babylon Talmud, a primary source of Jewish law, Alexander bowed down before the High Priest, Simon the Righteous. Also known as Simeon the Just, the priest went to Antipatris to meet Alexander as he marched through the Land of Israel in 332 BC. Alexander’s men criticised their leader for bowing to the priest, but he assured them he had received instruction to do so in a dream. Alexander went on to demand a statue of himself placed in the Temple, but Simon explained this was impossible. Instead, the High Priest promised that all the sons born of priests in that year would be named Alexander.

According to the Sefer Alexandros Mokdon (Tales of Alexander the Macedonian), Alexander attempted to get into the Garden of Eden. After being told “No heathen or uncircumcised male may enter,” Alexander was secretly circumcised. This claim demonstrates Alexander wanted to conform to Jewish practices, or at least this is what the Jews chose to believe. Yet, in the 18th-century Ethiopian Zena Eskender (The Story of Alexander), the writer claims God chose Alexander to be a prophet. “For I have set thee to be a prophet unto Me by reason of the purity of thy body, and through thy prayers which have come unto Me.”

In the Qur’an, Alexander is associated with the story of Dhu’l-Qarnayn, whose name means “two horns”. The name coincides with the idea that Alexander had two prominent tusks rising from his lower jaw. According to the story, Dhu’l-Qarnayn (or Alexander) travelled to the end of the world, where he built a wall to separate the barbarous peoples of Gog and Magog from the righteous. Gog and Magog also appear in the Hebrew Bible, where they are viewed as enemies to be defeated by the Messiah.

Regardless of Alexander’s religious status, he believed in polygamy and had several wives, most notably Roxana and Stateira. Scholars also question Alexander’s sexuality, referencing his close relationship with his companion Hephaistion and a slave called Bagoas. During his campaigns, Alexander met many powerful women, including Queen Nushabah, who he rescued from the Russians, and Kanifu, who he defeated in China.

Alexander first met Roxana after the death of her father, Darius. Their marriage was celebrated across the empire, and some accounts claim Alexander was captivated by his new wife’s beauty. Soon after, Alexander married another of Darius’ children, Stateira. Roxana, besieged by jealousy, never got on with Stateira and killed her after Alexander’s death in 323 BC. Another story reveals Alexander received the daughter of King Kayd of Hind (India) as a tribute to avoid war. The author writes that Alexander married her “according to the Christian religion”.

Over time, Alexander’s legendary feats have become more mythical with the insertion of fantastic beasts, such as griffins and dragons. The Alexander Romance claims four griffins carried Alexander and his chariot across the sky, and a Persian poem by Amir Khusrau (1253-1325) describes Alexander’s adventure to the bottom of the ocean in a glass diving bell. To make this all the more unbelievable, a French version of the Alexander Romance reveals he travelled with a cockerel to tell him the time and a cat to purify the air. While submerged in the water, Alexander came face-to-face with monstrous creatures, including giants with sword-like horns. Various stories also tell of Alexander’s victory over a dragon, which he fed several poisonous cows.

Alexander desired to become immortal, but many oracles foretold his death, such as the Trees of the Sun and the Moon, which told him he would die soon and never see his mother again. While in Punjab, the risk of a mutiny urged Alexander to return to Babylon. On his arrival, the still-birth of a half-human, half-creature was taken as an omen of Alexander’s pending death. Soon after, Alexander fell terminally ill and passed away in June 323 BC, aged 32. No one knows the cause of Alexander’s death, although some suggest typhoid fever.

Different cultures and religions continue to debate over Alexander’s final resting place. According to Persian tradition, his funeral procession was conducted as per Alexander’s wishes, with one arm hanging loose to show that he went to the grave empty-handed. Other stories talk of an elaborate carriage that carried Alexander from Babylon to Egypt. Historians believe the original plan was to take the body to Macedonia, but for reasons unknown, the funeral procession took a different route. The Persians wanted Alexander’s body to be interred in Iran, but the Greeks insisted he should be brought to them. Finally, an oracle allegedly decided, “His remains belong in Alexandria.”

The Bibliotheca historical, written by the historian Diodorus Siculus between 60 and 30 BC, describes Alexander’s funeral carriage as having a golden roof, a net curtain, statues, and four iron wheels. Sixty-four mules pulled the carriage while roadmenders, mechanics and soldiers accompanied the procession to ensure it all went smoothly. Artists have used this description as a base for paintings, such as André Bauchant’s (1873-1958) Les Funérailles d’Alexandre le-Grand (1940), which depicted Alexander’s companion, Ptolemy, as a pharaoh at the head of the procession.

The whereabouts of Alexander’s body remains a mystery, despite many quests to find it. Historians and authors have professed many theories, including the mistaking of Alexander’s bones for St Mark, but there is no concrete proof. Writings about Alexander’s death and burial are largely fiction, as is the majority of his life. Yet, Alexander has been and remains an inspiration for many leaders, from Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) to Henry VIII of England (1419-1547) and Louis XIV of France (1638-1715).

For someone who conquered so much land during a short period, there is relatively little information about Alexander the Great. It is also debatable whether he deserved the epithet “the Great”. In capturing so many countries and defeating other rulers, he left a lot of destruction in his wake. In dying so young, Alexander did not have time to rebuild ruined cities and place his mark upon the world in the form of architecture. Nor did he dramatically change the various cultures and religions in his Empire, except for mythical stories, the majority of which appeared long after his death.

The British Library tells the story (or stories) of Alexander the Great through a range of media. Books and illustrations from the past centuries reveal the different cultural beliefs and varying histories of the young emperor. Videos and audio, such as George Frideric Handel‘s (1685-1759) opera Alessandro, demonstrate the impact of the legendary man up to the present day. For those who know very little about Alexander, the exhibition provides a wealth of information, but visitors may come away with more questions than answers.

Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth is open until Sunday 19th February 2023. Tickets cost £19, although over 60s can visit for £9.50 of Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays (excluding holidays).


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Britain’s Queen of the Desert

When thinking about the Middle East, the first British name to come to mind is often Lawrence of Arabia (T. E. Lawrence), who was involved with the Arab Revolt (1916–1918) and the Sinai and Palestine Campaign (1915–1918). Yet, Lawrence was not the only British person to support the Middle East. Gertrude Bell, an author and archaeologist, became highly influential to British officials and helped establish modern states, such as Iraq. Trusted by both the British and the Arabs, Bell is often described as “one of the few representatives of His Majesty’s Government remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling affection”.

Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell was born on 14th July 1868 in an English town called Washington in County Durham. Her father, Sir Thomas Hugh Bell, 2nd Baronet of Rounton Range and Washington Hall (1844-1931), was a wealthy landowner, and her grandfather, Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, 1st Baronet (1816-1904), was an ironmonger “as famous in his day as Isambard Kingdom Brunel“. Gertrude’s mother, Mary, passed away when she was only three years old after giving birth to her younger brother, Maurice (1871-1944).

Without a mother, Bell grew close to her father, who inspired her thirst for adventure. Her father also taught her about British policy-making and capitalism. He always made sure his workers were well paid and cared for, an attitude which he passed down to his daughter.

When Bell was seven, her father married the playwright Florence Olliffe (1851-1930). As well as providing the family with three more children, Hugh (1878-1926), Florence (1880-1971) and Mary (1882-1966), Florence taught Bell about duty and decorum but also encouraged her growing intellect. Florence regularly assisted the wives of local ironworkers, helping them become self-sufficient and access education.

At 11, Bell started attending Queen’s College in London before moving to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, at 17. At the time, degree topics were limited for women, with history being one of the few they could study. Bell specialised in modern history and became the first woman to graduate in the subject at Oxford with a first-class honours degree. Unfortunately, her success was not classed as an academic degree because she was a woman.

After graduating from university, Bell travelled to Persia in 1892 to visit her step-uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles (1841-1920), who served as the British minister in Tehran. Bell described her journey in a book, Persian Pictures, which she published in 1894. The adventure inspired her to continue travelling, and she developed a passion for archaeology and languages. During her travels, Bell learned to speak Arabic, Persian, French, German and Italian.

In 1899, Bell explored Palestine and Syria, then travelled from Jerusalem to Damascus the following year. In 1903, Bell visited Singapore with her brother, where she befriended British colonial administrator Sir Frank Swettenham (1850-1946). Bell and Swettenham kept up a correspondence for several years, and they may have had a brief affair in 1904.

Between 1899 and 1904, Bell enjoyed mountaineering. While hiking in the Bernese Alps in western Switzerland, she recorded ten new pathways and reached one of the highest peaks in 1901. Since named after her, Gertrudspitze rises 2,632 m (8,635 ft) above sea level and remains a popular destination for experienced climbers.

In 1907, Bell published another book, Syria: The Desert and the Sown, which described her voyage to Syria. At the time, Syria belonged to the Ottoman Empire and encompassed the cities of Damascus, Jerusalem (now Israel/Palestine), Beirut (Lebanon), the ruins of Antioch (Turkey), and Alexandretta (Turkey). Her descriptions of the country and cities gave readers in the Western World their first glimpse of the Arabian Desert.

In March 1907, Bell returned to the Ottoman Empire, where she joined the archaeologist and New Testament scholar Sir William Mitchell Ramsay (1851-1939) on an excavation of Binbirkilise. Meaning “One Thousand and One Churches”, Binbirkilise is a ruined city once inhabited by Byzantine Christians between the 3rd and 8th century AD. Bell published her initial findings in the Revue Archéologique and helped Ramsay write the book, The Thousand and One Churches. Together, they started excavating several buildings, but when Bell returned two years later, stone robbers had demolished their findings.

Bell returned to England in 1908, where she became a founder member of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League. Despite her misgivings about women’s inequality at university, Bell opposed women being granted the vote in parliamentary elections. Bell’s opinions stemmed from her social and political background, where the men were in charge but allowed her to participate in intellectual discussions. Today, it may seem strange that Bell, one of the most educated women of her time, opposed the suffrage campaign, but her main argument was that the uneducated should not be involved in politics, regardless of their sex. If women did not have the right to equal education with men, Bell questioned how they would cope with parliamentary matters.

Bell did not remain in England for long before travelling to Mesopotamia in January 1909. Today, the majority of historical Mesopotamia is located in Iraq. While there, she visited the ancient city of Carchemish, where she met T. E. Lawrence (1888-1935), who was working for Reginald Campbell Thompson (1876-1914), the man responsible for the excavation of the city.

While in Mesopotamia, Bell also photographed the Assyrian relief carvings in the Halamata Cave near the city of Duhok (Iraq). Bell was the first person to document a procession of nine carved figures that date back to approximately 704-681 BC on camera. Further study of the carvings has led archaeologists to believe the figures represent ” the Assyrian king worshipping the main divinities in the Mesopotamian pantheon.”

In the same year, Bell helped excavate the Al-Ukhaidir Fortress and wrote the first report on the remains. Whilst the building was large, Bell noted the living quarters were cramped. The fortress was on several important trade routes, so the size was likely to demonstrate the “despotic and the pleasure-loving character of the dynasty” rather than provide comfort for its inhabitants.

In 1913, Bell made another trip to Mesopotamia, where she became the second foreign woman to visit Haʼil, a city now in Saudi Arabia. Haʼil is the homeland of the Rashid royal family, who are historical rivals to the Saudi royal family. When Bell arrived, the city was in political turmoil. She was held in the city for eleven days before being able to continue her journey across the Arabian peninsula to Baghdad and back to Damascus. The only woman to visit Haʼil before Bell was Anne Blunt, 15th Baroness Wentworth (1837-1917), the daughter of the famous mathematician Ada Lovelace (1815-52).

At the outbreak of the First World War, Bell requested to be posted to the Middle East. Initially, her request was declined, so she spent a year in France working for the Red Cross. In November 1915, British Intelligence changed its mind and sent Bell to General Gilbert Clayton (1875-1929) at the Arab Bureau in Cairo, Egypt. Both Bell and T. E. Lawrence, who had also been sent to Cairo, were recommended by Commander David Hogarth (1862-1927), an archaeologist who became the acting director of the Arab Bureau the following year.

Using her knowledge of the Arabic language, Bell’s first task was to interpret data about Arab tribes collected by Captain William Shakespear (1878-1915), who had been shot and killed at the Battle of Jarrab. With Bell as the translator, Lawrence and other British Intelligence agents aimed to encourage the Arabs to form an alliance with Britain and stand against the Ottoman Empire.

In March 1916, Captain Clayton sent Bell to Basra, a former city belonging to the Ottoman Empire (now Iraq) that British forces had captured. Bell visited the city during her earlier travels and knew the area better than any Brit. Dividing her time between the Military GHQ Basra and the office of Chief Political Officer Percy Cox (1864-1937), Bell devised maps to help British troops travel safely from Basra to Baghdad.

Bell was given the title “Liaison Officer, Correspondent to Cairo” and assigned to Colonial Office intelligence officer Harry St John Philby (1885-1960), an Arabist born to British parents in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). As his field controller, Bell taught him about political manoeuvering and espionage. Bell remained in Basra until British troops successfully took Baghdad in March 1917.

When it was safe, Percy Cox summoned Bell to Baghdad and gave her the title “Oriental Secretary”. She remained in the city until the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire in January 1919, after which Cox sent her to analyse the situation in Mesopotamia. With her knowledge of Arab tribes, Bell wrote a report called Self Determination in Mesopotamia, in which she listed the tribes she thought best suited to take on the leadership of a newly formed country. Unfortunately, the British Commissioner in Mesopotamia, Arnold Wilson (1884-1940), insisted the Mesopotamian population was not ready to rule alone, so proposed an Arab government under the influence of British officials.

Throughout 1920, Bell acted as a mediator between the Arab government and British officials. Not only did she have to convey messages between the two nations, but she also needed to mediate between the various Mesopotamian tribes. The Shias in the south, the Kurds in the north and the Sunnis in the centre all wanted to self-govern their land, but for the country to function, Bell needed to persuade them to unite. British Officials were also mindful of tribal feuds that could be costly and make the country vulnerable to other nations, such as Turkey, Persia and Syria, who had their eye on Mesopotamia’s oil resources.

Uniting the tribes was easier in theory than in practice. The Kurds not only inhabited parts of Mesopotamia but also Syria and Turkey. Whilst the Shias and Sunnis could merge their lands, only a portion of the Kurds lived in the new country, Iraq. Whilst Bell endorsed the division of the northern tribe, the Kurds were not happy about being denied a homeland, which led to uprisings in Syria, Turkey and Iraq.

Bell expressed the difficulties British officials faced in a letter to her father, saying, “Mesopotamia is not a civilised state.” By the end of 1920, the British had prevented the Kurdish revolt from escalating. Bell was invited to attend a series of meetings between 12th and 30th March to discuss the geographic and political future of the country. Officially known as the Middle East Conference held in Cairo and Jerusalem, the meetings were attended by many British officials, including the newly appointed Secretary of State for the Colonies Winston Churchill (1874-1965) and T. E. Lawrence, the Special Advisor to Colonial Office. The minutes of the meetings record Bell as the Oriental Secretary for High Commissioner of Iraq, with Sir Percy Cox as High Commissioner of Iraq.

During the Cairo Conference, Bell provided significant input in the discussions about Iraq’s creation and recommended Faisal bin Hussein (1885-1933), a former commander of the Arab forces, as the first King of Iraq. Lawrence backed up the suggestion, and Faisal officially became King on 23rd August 1921. Due to his Hashemite lineage, the country was initially called the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq.

Not everyone welcomed Faisal as the king because they did not want to be governed by someone from a different tribe. Bell tried to ease Faisal into the role, teaching him about tribal geography and local business and supervising the election of government officials. The Arabs called Bell “al-Khatun”, which means a Lady of the Court who keeps an open eye and ear for the benefit of the State, and she served as Faisal’s confidante.

Supervising Faisal was not always an easy task, especially when he attempted to rid himself of the control of the British advisors. Writing about the ordeal, Bell confessed, “You may rely upon one thing — I’ll never engage in creating kings again; it’s too great a strain.” Eventually, Faisal settled into the role and assisted Bell to establish the Baghdad Archaeological Museum, later renamed the Iraqi Museum. Bell donated many of her archaeological finds to the museum, believing the relics of Mesopotamian civilization ought to remain in their country of origin. Bell also founded the British School of Archaeology in Iraq to encourage the Arab population to develop an interest in their history and help preserve ancient artefacts.

Before the creation of Iraq, each Arab tribe had a flag or badge. To prevent riots and protests, the British proposed a new flag for Iraq, which incorporated aspects of each tribe. The design featured a black stripe to represent the Abbasid caliphate, a white stripe for the Umayyad caliphate, and a green stripe for Fatimid Dynasty. Joining the three lines together, a red triangle represented the country’s main religion, Islam. Bell also suggested adding a star to the flag to make it stand out from similar flags of other Middle Eastern countries.

The flag of Iraq has changed many times since its creation. Today’s flag looks remarkably different from the version Bell worked on in 1921. In 1959, a revolution led by Brigadier Abd al-Karim Qasim (1914-1963) abolished the Hashemite monarchy. For a brief time, the new republic adopted a black, white and green vertical tricolour, with a red eight-pointed star in the centre. When Qasim was overthrown in 1963, the country adopted the same colours and style as Egypt and Syria’s flags, a horizontal tricolour of red, white, and black bands. Initially, three green stars sat in the centre to symbolise Iraq’s aspiration to unite with Egypt and Syria. The union never happened, and the central symbol changed several times until 2008 when the Council of Representatives of Iraq settled on the phrase Allāhu ʾakbar in Kufic script, which means “Allah is the greatest”.

Bell’s lengthy stay in the Middle East began to take a toll on her health during the 1920s. Her work, which included writing correspondence and intelligence reports, was stressful, not helped by her repeated bronchitis attacks due to the smoke-filled offices she shared with her heavy smoking colleagues. She also suffered bouts of malaria and struggled to cope with the heat in the summer. By the time Bell returned to England for a brief visit in 1925, she was frail and emaciated.

After a short stay with her family, Bell returned to Baghdad, where she developed pleurisy, leaving her unable to work for several weeks. When she recovered, she received the sad news that her brother Hugh had succumbed to typhoid. On 11th July 1926, Bell instructed her maid to wake her up in the morning and went off to bed. That night, Bell died from a supposed overdose of sleeping pills. Whilst some assumed Bell committed suicide, others believe her death was an accident since she had asked her maid to wake her.

Bell’s funeral took place on 12th July 1926, merely hours after her death. The funeral was a major event attended by British officials and Arabs living in the area. King Faisal watched the procession from his balcony as Bell’s coffin was carried to the British cemetery in Baghdad’s Bab al-Sharji district.

Commander David Hogarth wrote Bell’s obituary, emphasising the respect British officials had for her. “No woman in recent time has combined her qualities – her taste for arduous and dangerous adventure with her scientific interest and knowledge, her competence in archaeology and art, her distinguished literary gift, her sympathy for all sorts and condition of men, her political insight and appreciation of human values, her masculine vigour, hard common sense and practical efficiency – all tempered by feminine charm and a most romantic spirit.”

Bell’s stepmother also honoured her by publishing two volumes of letters Bell sent to her and the family about her adventures in the Middle East before the outbreak of World War One. Some of these letters formed part of the documentary Letters from Baghdad, featuring Tilda Swinton (b. 1960) as the voice of Bell. Gertrude Bell’s life was also the basis of the 2015 film Queen of the Desert, starring Nicole Kidman (b. 1967).

For her work, Bell was posthumously made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) and honoured with a stained glass window at St Lawrence’s Church, East Rounton, North Yorkshire. The window, designed by Douglas Strachan (1875-1950), features Magdalen College, Oxford, where Bell attended university, and Khadimain, Baghdad, where she spent the last year of her life.

As one of the few British people remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling affection, Bell remained a respected name in Iraq for some time. Unfortunately, as time went on, she disappeared from general public knowledge, with T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) taking precedence. With the help of recent films, Gertrude Bell is gradually getting the respect she deserves. Whilst the situation in Iraq and its neighbouring countries still face political struggles and tribal feuds, Bell simultaneously helped the country reform after the fall of the Ottoman Empire whilst preserving the remains of the ancient land. Not only are these enormous feats, but Bell’s achievements also occurred at a time when women were excluded from political work. Despite her views on women’s suffrage, Bell paved the way for women to aspire to careers in archaeology, and for that reason, she deserves the epithet “Queen of the Desert”.


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