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Gertrude Bell and IraqA life and legacy$

Paul Collins and Charles Tripp

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780197266076

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: September 2017

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197266076.001.0001

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Gertrude Bell in the Archive of the Iraq Museum

Gertrude Bell in the Archive of the Iraq Museum

(p.273) 12 Gertrude Bell in the Archive of the Iraq Museum
Gertrude Bell and Iraq

Lamia Al-Gailani Werr

, Paul Collins, Charles Tripp
British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

It is unfortunate that most of what is written and researched on Gertrude Bell tends to give a scant or short account of her work on the Antiquities Department. Most of the documents on her work in the last four years of her life are in the Iraq Museum (1922–1926), and were, until recently, not accessible to the public. This chapter explores the surviving documents to give a picture of the main issues that occupied Bell during this period – from her constant search for a place to store the deluge of artefacts coming from excavations such as Ur and Kish to the legislation of the Antiquities Law. Bell’s legacy for the antiquities of Iraq is as important as the creation of Iraq.

Keywords:   Gertrude Bell, Iraq Museum, Antiquities Law, Mesopotamian archaeology, Ur, Kish, administration

BIOGRAPHERS OF GERTRUDE BELL have tended to focus on her political life, especially when she was in Iraq. In their publications there is often only passing reference to her establishing the Iraq Museum, and the sources they rely on are principally her letters and the official British government archives; none of the authors have consulted the archives of the Iraq Museum. This is almost certainly due to the lack of information about the archive’s very existence, as well as Iraq’s turbulent history over at least the last 50 years, which has made it difficult to access the collections.1 Consulting the archive to investigate the early years of the Iraq Museum has been challenging. Many of the documents are missing or damaged, either from the lack of environmental controls in the building or because of the number of times they have been packed and removed in response to the many conflicts that Iraq has experienced since 1991. The archive is yet to be digitised and the paper files are currently arranged with a minimum attempt at chronological order. However, the surviving documents are sufficient to give a picture of Bell’s work over the last four years of her life. These documents can be divided into four categories covering Gertrude Bell’s main concerns as Honorary Director of Antiquities: looking for space to store antiquities, the establishment of the Museum itself, daily administrative work including the organisation of excavations, and finally legislation relating to the export of excavated objects and the control of looting.

The earliest document is the official appointment of Miss Bell as Honorary Director of Antiquities signed by the Minister of Communication and Works on 22 October 1922 (see Figure 12.1). Immediately after her appointment, we see Bell embarking on two of the main issues that occupied most of her time at the Antiquities Department: searching for a place to store the antiquities (p.274)

Gertrude Bell in the Archive of the Iraq Museum

Figure 12.1 The official letter from Sabeeh Nashaat, Minister of Communications and Works, to Bell informing her of her appointment as Honorary Director of Antiquities.

Source: Courtesy of the Iraq Museum.

(p.275) and the Antiquities Law. Initially she was assigned a room in the Sarai,2 the complex of buildings where the British administration worked; this space was called the ‘Babylonian Stone Room’. Within a year of her appointment on 28 October 1923, she was requesting more space to store the antiquities arriving from recent excavations, and she looked for rooms in the theological school. By March 1923, however, with the volume of the antiquities filling the space she had, Bell for the first time raised the question of establishing a dedicated museum, with the hope that she would be given a building. However, the Iraqi Cabinet rejected the request. Bell continued to look for additional storage space and on one occasion was promised a room, only for it to be denied the next day when the administration assigned the same room to the Director of Veterinary Services. However, by March 1926, she had succeeded, after much bargaining, in being given the ground floor of the stationery/printing building as the Museum (see Figure 12.2).3

Gertrude Bell also recognised the urgent need for legislation to deal with the increasing number of antiquities being discovered by excavations sponsored by foreign teams at sites like Ur and Kish. The archive contains several drafts of her law with comments by the British advisors from various government ministries. Bell was under pressure from both Western archaeologists – many of whom were her friends – since they wished to take all, or the majority, of their discoveries to their home institutions, and from the newly established Iraqi government and museum whose interests had also to be considered. No Iraqi official was involved in the initial preparation of the legislation even though it would be Iraqi ministers who would have to approve it. Some of the documents indicate a silent resistance by the Iraqi ministers who wanted the country to have a bigger share of the division of finds. One British advisor expressed his frustration with the Iraqi Minister of Interior for his non-co-operation. Both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Communication took the opportunity of Gertrude Bell’s absence on holiday to alter the law to the benefit of Iraq and submitted it to the Cabinet.4 A document dated 13 July 1923 from the Office of the High Commissioner reprimands the Minister of Communication and Works for not sending the law first to him (see Figure 12.3). However, with Miss Bell back in Baghdad, the altered law was withdrawn and the original was accepted.


Gertrude Bell in the Archive of the Iraq Museum

Figure 12.2 The old Iraq Museum

Source: Courtesy of the Iraq Museum.


Gertrude Bell in the Archive of the Iraq Museum

Figure 12.3 The High Commissioner’s letter to the Minister of Communications and Works.

Source: Courtesy of the Iraq Museum.

(p.278) Other documents illustrate the normal day-to-day tasks of any museum, in many of which Bell involved herself.5 One document from 1924 is a request from the mutasarrif (governor) of Nassiryah to prepare a carriage, as well as bags of hay and packing boxes to store the antiquities, as the curator of the Museum would be collecting them from Ur. Gertrude also corresponded with the archaeologists formally and informally. A letter from Henry Field dated 27 January 1926 informs her that on his travels through the Syrian desert he had discovered Palaeolithic flints and that, after studying them, he would send some examples to the Iraq Museum. Another letter, this time from Steven Langdon, director of the excavations at Kish south of Baghdad, asks for permission to conduct a sounding at the mound of Ishan Bahryiat, which he suspected to be the Old Babylonian city of Larsa, though it is now known to be ancient Isin. Also in the archive is the official letter from Leonard Woolley of 25 October 1923 announcing that the excavations at Ur were to resume; he indicated the area he intended to excavate and promised to let Bell know of any important finds.6 Among the many documents are monthly reports from Woolley on the progress of the excavations. There are also records of the division of finds made between the excavators of Ur and Kish and the Iraq government. Miss Bell was also interested in pursuing new discoveries to further her own interests in the history of Iraq. In one document, which is unfortunately not dated, she requests that ‘the geologists of the Turkish Petroleum Company in the course of their studies … try to define the terraces of the rivers and collect traces of human occupation which would probably be chiefly flint instruments and the cores from which such instruments have been chipped’. The Museum was occasionally presented with antiquities or purchased them from the public or dealers. When these objects were inscribed with cuneiform inscriptions she either sought advice from Assyriologists who happened to be in Baghdad or would send photographs of the objects to the British Museum. On one such occasion, Sir Frederick Kenyon, the Director of the British Museum, informed her that one of the objects was a fake.

With increased numbers of antiquities, a ledger was established to register new finds, the pages of which are divided into the following columns: Iraq (p.279) Museum registration number; excavation number; description; material; size; and a space for comments. This same approach for recording objects remains in use in the modern museum. Originally the catalogue was written in English, but by the 1960s it was replaced by Arabic.

In Baghdad, Gertrude Bell was known for her parties. In a traditionally conservative society, she had special receptions for the men and held a separate tea party one day a week for the women. The Museum was also a venue for temporary exhibitions. In order for King Faisal to appreciate some of the new archaeological discoveries, she arranged a display of the new finds from Ur. The King was invited together with the High Commissioner and, when Faisal was confirmed as attending, his friend Sayed Mahmoud al Naqib was invited, thus ensuring Bell received the support of all the powerful players in Baghdad.

The last document in the archive concerning Miss Bell is a letter from Rustim Haydar, King Faisal’s secretary. It is dated 27 July 1926, but this must have been an error for June since Bell died on 12 July. The letter conveys the message: ‘His majesty wishes to thank you … and to tell you that he will support your demand for a museum worthy of the archaeological finds of the country’7 (see Figure 12.4).

There are no documents in the archive which refer to the sudden death of Gertrude Bell, apart from one receipt for the hire of a carriage to carry her belongings that she had requested be sent to the Museum, among them about 75 books for the Museum library.8 In the National Library and Archive there are a few documents about her death, namely the official government press announcement, telegrams of condolences and the preparations for her funeral. The Al-Iraq newspaper had an obituary and a report of her funeral.9

On 21 December 1926, in a letter to the Iraqi Cabinet, King Faisal requested that a room in the Iraq Museum should be dedicated to Bell’s memory. However this seems not to have been realised, and instead a memorial plaque was installed. There are a number of documents in the archive giving the details of how this project was achieved. Many of the government’s offices and ministries


Gertrude Bell in the Archive of the Iraq Museum

Figure 12.4 The last letter to Bell in the archive of the Iraq Museum.

Source: Courtesy of the Iraq Museum

(p.281) were involved in raising the funds needed for the commissioning and erection of the bust and the plaque beneath it. The actual inscription was also discussed and drafts in Arabic still exist. The Ministry of Interior was responsible for the appeal to collect donations from government bodies. It sent a press release to the newspapers and the radio station. The Minister of Interior asked the provincial governors to raise funds from officials and the public; donations were limited to a maximum of 50 rupees. The Office of the High Commissioner was responsible for the donations from individuals. Lists naming the donors and the amount of their donations act as a ‘Who’s Who’ directory of both the British and Iraqi administration in the country and many of its social elite (see Figure 12.5). King Faisal donated 50 rupees while the High Commissioner Sir Henry Dobbs donated 10 guineas, the equivalent of 134 rupees; the two staff from the Department of Antiquities, Abdulqadir Pachachi and Selim Lawi, donated 15 rupees. In November 1929 when the memorial bust and plaque were being

Gertrude Bell in the Archive of the Iraq Museum

Figure 12.5 List of donors to the Memorial Plaque.

Source: Courtesy of the Iraq Museum.

(p.282) installed, though yet unveiled, a letter from Sidney Smith, then the Director of Antiquities, to Lionel Smith, advisor to the Minister of Education, describes the plans for unveiling the memorial. Every detail was included. Smith wrote: ‘a curtain that will draw right apart so that the two halves hang behind the pilasters is the most practical. A drop curtain, which is the alternative must be arranged against the wall and might stick.’

The date and time of the unveiling was 18 January 1930 at 2:45 pm. A document in the archives provides the programme: the King would arrive at 3 pm, then the High Commissioner would ask the King to accept the gift from the subscribers; the King would deliver an address and unveil the memorial. As the space in the Museum courtyard was limited, the invitations were limited to the ministers, the President of the Senate, the Chamber of Deputies, consuls and representatives of foreign countries, and foreign archaeologists, as well as the actual subscribers (see Figure 12.6).

The Department of Antiquities was a small institution when first established; it consisted of Gertrude Bell as Honorary Director with two official members of staff, Abdulqadir Pachachi, who was the curator of the Museum, a very

Gertrude Bell in the Archive of the Iraq Museum

Figure 12.6 King Faisal I unveiling the Memorial Plaque. Behind him is Abdul Hussein Chalabi, Minister of Education; on the left is Sir Henry Dobbs, British High Commissioner.

Source: Courtesy of the Iraq Museum.

(p.283) hard-working archivist, and Salim Lawi. Although there are few mentions of Lawi in the documents it was he who dealt with the foreign archaeologists and the excavations. He would travel to the excavation sites and prepare the division of the newly discovered antiquities prior to the visit of the Director General, a duty he continued to perform until the time of Sati al-Husri;10 one document mentions the appointment of a draftsman for drawing the antiquities.

Following Bell there were four Directors of Antiquities before the outbreak of the Second World War, the period when the Museum and Department were being consolidated: Richard Cooke, Sidney Smith, Julius Jordan and Sati al-Husri. All four men were also involved with the same issues that had confronted Gertrude Bell: seeking additional space in which to store the antiquities, the establishment of a museum building, legislation relating to antiquities and the Antiquities Law, and the daily administrative work including the organisation of excavations and division of finds.

Richard Cooke, who was already advisor to the Ministry of Awqaf (Religious Endowment), was appointed as Honorary Director because of his interest in antiquities and was thought to be a suitable candidate; however, his tenure of the post was short. A crate was opened on the Iraqi/Syrian border containing many antiquities and he was accused of smuggling. A scandal erupted and in Baghdad the Iraqi press, who were very anti-British, seized the opportunity to attack all British advisors as corrupt. Cooke was sacked and Sidney Smith, an Assyriologist from the British Museum, was appointed as Director. He faced a very difficult job; the Cooke affair was still rumbling on and the press was demanding more transparency about the work of foreign excavations. As a result, Smith planned a series of public lectures by the excavators and a monthly press release. He also tried to teach the three staff of the department the Akkadian language and to read cuneiform signs, but he only succeeded with Salim Lawi. In a letter to Sir Frederic Kenyon, the Director of the British Museum, he expressed his unhappiness with the situation due to the hostility to the British, and requested to be called back. In 1930 he returned to the British Museum as Keeper of Western Asiatic Antiquities.

Sidney Smith’s successor was the German archaeologist Julius Jordan. The problem of the Cooke affair continued under his tenure. Cooke requested that his belongings, which he had left in Baghdad, be shipped to London. A document in the archive dated 16 June 1933, records that two officials inspected the boxes of antiquities found in Cooke’s house in Baghdad, and they were astonished at the quantity and quality of the objects: ‘They consist (p.284) of a collection of unique objects … Some of them, no museum in the world possesses, they are even better than the Iraq Museum collection.’

The Cooke incident did long-lasting damage to the reputation of foreign archaeologists; a ballad about the situation was written by the popular Baghdadi poet Abboud al-Karkhi and rumours circulated among the population that the Cooke affair was even mentioned in the Qur`an!11 In addition, the Antiquities Law was being questioned. The Baghdad press also criticised the packing and export of antiquities by the foreign archaeologists, insinuating malpractice. This led the Antiquities Department to issue a directive that the process should be conducted in the Iraq Museum and not at the expedition site or house.12

Another problem that occupied the directors’ time was illicit digging at ancient sites, particularly those in southern Iraq. One document dating from 1931 illustrates the difficulty facing the enforcement of the law against looters (a problem that resonates even today). So daring were the looters that when a police contingent was sent to the site of Sinkarah (ancient Larsa), they were shot at and had to retreat.

The Cooke story, the illicit digging and the hostility of the Iraqi press to the number of antiquities given to the foreign expeditions made it necessary to revise the Antiquities Law. There are numerous documents in the archive concerning this, but no earnest steps were taken towards a revision until the appointment of the fourth Director, Sati al-Husri. As an Arab and a known nationalist, he initially attempted to implement the existing 1924 law to the letter, which angered all the foreign expeditions. Woolley withdrew from Iraq in 1934. A very strongly worded letter to Sati al-Husri from Campbell Thomson, who was digging at Nineveh, objects to the treatment on the grounds that it was the British who had liberated Iraq from Ottoman rule. But al-Husri persevered and a revised law was issued in 1936 giving the Iraq government more power, particularly in the division of antiquities from the excavations.

A purpose-built museum became the objective of nearly all the Directors of Antiquities who followed Gertrude Bell. The spectacular discoveries of the Sumerian Royal Cemetery at Ur revealed treasures of gold, silver and semiprecious stones, and the rich finds from Kish added to the burden of the problem of storage. This was compounded by new excavations at other Sumerian sites; the Germans started working at Warka from 1928 (Biblical Erech) and Chicago University Oriental Institute worked at Tell Asmar and other sites in the Diyala region in central Iraq from 1929. The abundance of the antiquities unearthed would require a room for each site. When Sidney Smith, the British (p.285) archaeologist, became Director of Antiquities in 1929, he immediately asked for the building behind the Museum to store the new finds. Although it was only a few years since the new premises were designated for the Museum, Sidney Smith mentioned in his request that there was no space to unpack the boxes containing antiquities.

The urgent need to build a museum must have been discussed by many of the Western archaeologists in Baghdad. A letter from the President of the American Schools of Oriental Research mentioned that a certain American citizen, James Curtis, who had visited Iraq, had shown interest in giving a donation to build a museum. This prompted Sidney Smith to ask the government architect, a Mr Mason, to submit a plan for a museum. However, the plan was not satisfactory. It was the next Director of Antiquities, the German archaeologist Julius Jordan, who suggested commissioning a European architect. He chose the German architect Werner March in 1933. When al-Husri became Director he was able to have a plot of land in west Baghdad designated to the building of a museum. March submitted his preliminary design in 1934. It was Art Deco in style, with consideration of traditional Mesopotamian architecture (see Figure 12.7). Officials in the Ministry of Works were very impressed with the design, as can be seen in one comment in a memorandum from the British chief architect dated 15 November 1936: ‘The plan is a marvel of modern architecture.’

In 1939, al-Husri feared the land designated for the museum building would be appropriated by the government for other uses. In order to secure it, he therefore asked Seton Lloyd, his newly appointed British archaeological advisor, who was an architect before becoming a professional archaeologist, to design in one corner a replica of an Assyrian Gate and place two Assyrian winged bulls discovered in Khorsabad to flank the arched entrance (see Figure 12.8). In the opposite corner of the plot, Husri had a replica made of

Gertrude Bell in the Archive of the Iraq Museum

Figure 12.7 Façade of the new Iraq Museum.

Source: Courtesy of the Iraq Museum.


Gertrude Bell in the Archive of the Iraq Museum

Figure 12.8 The Assyrian Gate outside the Iraq Museum.

Source: Courtesy of the Iraq Museum.

the statue of the lion of Babylon installed. Those two monuments became a landmark in Baghdad until the Museum was built.

Sati al-Husri, the first Iraqi Director of Antiquities, who spent six years in this position (1934–1941), was the most energetic Director, initiating more projects in his short term of office than any other of the directors that followed him. He was, however, a very controversial figure, known for being a fierce Arab nationalist, much to the annoyance of the British advisors in the Ministry of Education as well as to the foreign archaeologists who resented his amendment of the Antiquities Law in 1936 in favour of Iraq.13

It is unfortunate that Husri’s negative reputation among Western commentators has overshadowed his many positive and fundamental achievements. He must be awarded the credit for saving the few remaining monuments of Medieval Baghdad, such as the so-called Abbasid Palace, which was transformed into a photographic gallery for Islamic art; he also restored the only remaining gate of Baghdad, ‘Bab al-Wastani’, where he established the Army Museum. Husru was able also to appropriate both the 13th-century Mustansiryah School and the Khan Mirjan from the Religious Endowment Department – part of the (p.287) former building was being used as a customs depot and the other side was a bakery. The front side of Khan Mirjan was destined to be demolished to make space for new shops, but instead it was restored and became a museum for Islamic antiquities. During al-Husri’s directorship, two Iraqi students, Fuad Safar and Taha Baqir, took higher degrees at the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago. Being an Arab nationalist, Sati al-Husri focussed on Islamic monuments, and Fuad became the first Iraqi archaeologist to excavate the site of Wasit in south-eastern Iraq. There were other excavations undertaken at a number of the buildings of the Islamic city of Samarra. Although al-Husri’s most important legacy was the building of the Iraq Museum, he did not see the building completed while in office; in 1941 he was sacked as Director when he sided with the anti-monarchy coup. Nevertheless, by the outbreak of the Second World War the Antiquities Department and the Iraq Museum had become a reality.


Bibliography references:

Sati al-Husri, Mudhakkirati fi al 'Iraq, Beirut, Dar al-Taliah, 1967–1968, Iraq Museum Archives, Baghdad. (p.288)


(1) My gratitude to the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage for permitting me to study the archive and to all the staff, particularly those in the Photographic and Archive Departments.

(2) It was originally the seat of the Ottoman administration and army barracks, and continued as such for the government of Iraq until the 1970s.

(3) This building, which later incorporated the whole of the printing house, became the home of the Iraq Museum until 1963, when a new purpose-built museum was completed.

(4) Information from the late Salim al Alusi.

(5) One has to bear in mind the museum staff then numbered no more than three.

(6) In one letter from the first season at Ur dated 2 February 1923, Woolley informed her of the discovery of the headless diorite statue of King Enmetena. It was this statue, Iraq Museum catalogue no. 5, which weighed more than a ton, that was looted from the Iraq Museum in 2003. It had a long journey, smuggled to Syria, later found by FBI agents, flown to New York for authenticity, and returned from Washington to Iraq in 2010.

(7) Unfortunately, Gertrude Bell’s letter to the Cabinet is missing, but it is clear she was not satisfied with the printing house and must have asked for a purpose-built museum. Nearly every Director of Antiquities that followed her also asked for a new museum building.

(8) I took a random list of the books to the library in 2010 and asked if the books were still in use; most of them were, except for a few which were either worn or damaged and only a few which could not be located – probably they had been catalogued under a different title.

(9) I am grateful for Dr Saad Eskander, Director of the Iraq National Library and Archive, for giving me the opportunity to examine these documents.

(10) In a number of photographs he is seen standing behind Bell at Ur.

(11) My gratitude to Dr Rasheed al-Khayoun for this information.

(12) Archive document dated 1 April 1931, signed by Julius Jordan.

(13) In his memoir, he claims that initially he only applied the 1924 law to the letter when the division of antiquities took place. Sati al-Husri, Mudhakkkirati fi al 'Iraq, Vol. 2, Beirut, Dar al-Taliah, 1967, p. 413 (in Arabic).