Memory of Iraq's uncrowned queen quietly fades away

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When Gertrude Bell died in 1926, thousands of Iraqis lined the streets to watch the funeral parade of the woman described in obituaries across the world as "Mesopotamia's uncrowned queen".

Miss Bell, a renowned archaeologist, brilliant linguist and Arabist, had drawn up the new state's borders and become the confidante of the country's first Hashemite monarch, King Faisal.

She wrote to her father: "As we rode back through the [Baghdad] suburb where all the people know me and salute me when I pass, my friend Nuri Said turned to me and said, 'For a hundred years they will talk of the fine lady riding by.' I think they very likely will."

Miss Bell's forecast now looks optimistic indeed. She is being quietly forgotten as her legacy - the shape of modern Iraq - appears threatened by the hatreds between Sunnis, Shias and Kurds.

Her tomb, in the British Civil Cemetery in central Baghdad, has been abandoned to the ravages of time. Her limestone marker is crumbling to dust, as are the cracked gravestones and shattered statues marking the final resting places of her countrymen.

There is a custodian, Ali Mansur, who lives on a dirty mattress in a half-collapsed shack in a far corner. But he says he receives no money and that "conservation" is limited to picking up the fragments when a memorial cracks and placing them on the surface of the grave.

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