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The Secret Queen of Iraq

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Who was Gertrude Bell?

The history of Iraq is fraught, its very existence remarkable, given the many warring factions that make up its population. That existence, tenuous as it may seem now, is even more unlikely considering the nation's borders were created less than 100 years ago.

Few of us know the name Gertrude Bell, but she did as much to shape the Middle East as any man over the past century.

A British archaeologist and explorer, Bell was an expert in Middle Eastern history and fluent in Arabic, skills that proved useful during the First World War. Bell was able to infiltrate areas off-limits to most Westerners and gather intelligence for Great Britain. After the war, she was stationed in Baghdad to protect the British Empire's interest in the newly liberated region.

During her time in Baghdad, Bell helped to crown Iraq's first king, Feisal, a man who was a relative outsider. Despite his lack of tribal power, she managed to install him on the throne with the approval of 96 percent of the population.

Bell was also the most important cartographer in Iraq's history, drawing up the country's borders on her own, according to The Washington Post, on simple tracing paper. Unfortunately, her borders created a nation made out of groups with vendettas stretching back hundreds of years, leading to decades of violence that plagues the region to this day.

Bell would not survive to see Iraq's turbulent history unfold, dying from an overdose of sleeping pills in 1926 at her home in Iraq. She is buried in Baghdad, in the capital city of the country she helped create.

Her legacy in Iraq is detailed in a recent piece from The Daily Beast. The world continues to deal with the fallout.