The Woman Who Put Iraq on the Map

Gertrude Bell is said to be buried in a Baghdad cemetery.
Gertrude Bell is said to be buried in a Baghdad cemetery. (By Omar Fekeiki -- The Washington Post)
By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 5, 2006

BAGHDAD -- Visitors reach the graves of the first Western empire builders in Iraq by first pretending to throw a rock at the graveyard dog. The wife of the grave keeper comes out to hold back the teeth-baring mutt with a scrap of plastic cord.

Inside Baghdad's forgotten British graveyard, engulfed these days by roaring rivers of traffic, the grave keeper's little children tumble after visitors down rows of white grave markers obscured by weeds. Thorns snare the men's pants legs and a Western woman's black cloak, a disguise worn to escape the killings that threaten foreigners in much of Iraq.

The grave keeper, a follower of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, admitted the visitors out of politeness, without permission from Sadr or British officials in far-off London. Plowing through the brush, he apologizes in passing for the weeds grown up around the empire builders.

The name of Gertrude Bell, the British woman who in 1918 drew the borders of his country from three disparate provinces of the former Ottoman empire, draws a shake of the grave keeper's head.

The man, dressed in rough, cheap clothes, can't think of where any British lady might be buried in this cemetery full of the remains of British soldiers and their Hindu and Sikh underlings, legions of what turned out to be a transient world empire. (Iraqis say Saddam Hussein would have bulldozed this bastion of Iraq's former British rulers long ago if it weren't for the presence of the Indians.)

The last visitors here were a group of Britons who came several months ago and found and cleared one tomb, the grave keeper says. Vaguely art deco, the bathroom-size, domed tomb encases the bones of Lt. Gen. Stanley Maude -- "Dead of cholera whilst commander of the Mesopotamia expeditionary force," the English engraving on the sides notes.

In March 1917, Maude said: "Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators," a statement still famous among older Iraqis, at least. Maude was then head of a British army that was closing in on Baghdad and about to overthrow Ottoman rule here. The British saw Ottoman support of Germany in World War I as a threat to their own survival, and they needed Iraq's oil for their war effort.

Maude assured Iraq's Arabs of "a future of greatness" but succumbed to cholera six months later.

Bell, a singular, gentle-born woman who had already established a name through Arab travels and scholarly writings rivaling those of any man of her time, arrived soon after. She stayed on for the rest of her life, as Oriental secretary to British governments, carving out and creating modern-day Iraq as much as any single person.

Bell sketched the boundaries of Iraq on tracing paper after careful consultation with Iraqi tribes, consideration of Britain's need for oil and her own idiosyncratic geopolitical beliefs.

"The truth is I'm becoming a Sunni myself; you know where you are with them, they are staunch and they are guided, according to their lights, by reason; whereas with the Shi'ahs, however well intentioned they may be, at any moment some ignorant fanatic of an alim may tell them that by the order of God and himself they are to think differently," she wrote home.

She and her allies gave the monarchy to the minority Sunnis, denied independence to the Kurds in order to keep northern oil fields for Britain and withheld from the Shiite majority the democracy of which she thought them incapable.

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