'I DON'T care to be in London much. I like Baghdad, and I like Iraq. It's the real East, and it is stirring; things are happening here, and the romance of it all touches me and absorbs me."

So wrote Gertrude Bell to her parents back home in Rounton Grange near Northallerton. She was in Iraq, the country she designed, the country she found a king for, and the country where she is now back on the school curriculum for the first time since 1973 when Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party erased her.

Hers is a remarkable story. Born in Washington Hall, then in County Durham, in 1868, she was the grand-daughter of Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, mineowner and ironfounder.

Gertrude was phenomenally bright. She went up to Oxford University when just 16 and took just two years to complete her history degree - the first woman ever to get a first.

Then she became a mountaineer, clambering uncharted Alpine peaks, before falling in love with the Arabic world. She also found love there in the form of a British diplomat, Henry Cadogan, in Tehran in Iran, but when her father heard of the engagement he summoned her back to the North-East to voice his disapproval. While home, Henry died.

Gertrude immersed herself in Arabic culture, studying languages, history, religions, archaeology. She travelled into deepest Persia, alone except for her train of camels carrying her furs and pearls, her fine china and portable furniture, plus her guides and her servants.

She met emirs, sheiks and sultans, religious and tribal leaders - her femininity opening doors for her (although at home she was fiercely opposed to sexual equality and votes for women). The Arabs were so impressed they called her "Daughter of the Desert".

When the First World War broke out, Gertrude was drafted into British intelligence. She helped foment the Arab Revolt of 1916 when the Middle East turned against its old rulers, the Ottoman Empire, which was fighting on the side of the Germans.

It came to rankle with her that her friend TE Lawrence - "Lawrence of Arabia" - would, in later life, win the credit for the Revolt.

But such was Gertrude's knowledge of Mesopotamia, she was asked in 1919 to draw the boundaries for the new country that would become Iraq.

In 1921, Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill invited 40 Middle Eastern experts to a conference to decide the future of this new country. Thirty-nine of them were men; Gertrude was the one woman.

It seems to have been at her suggestion that Emir Faisal was installed as king of Iraq. From a family descended from the prophet Mohammed, he had been one of the leaders of the Revolt and had just been deposed by the French as the king of Syria.

But Faisal had never stepped foot inside the country, and so Gertrude became his mentor, his personal advisor, guiding him around his territory. She became known as the "Uncrowned Queen of Iraq".

As Faisal grew in confidence, he needed her less and less. As the Iraq problem receded, the British government needed her less and less. Gertrude turned to archaeology, founding the Baghdad museum.

But lonely and unhappy in the Iraqi capital, on July 12, 1926, she took a fatal dose of sleeping tablets.

She left 1,600 letters home to the North-East along with 16 travel diaries and 7,000 archaeological photographs, most of which are now in Newcastle University.