A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Lady Hester Stanhope, Part II: The Travels

I'm on vacation. As I have done each year, I have prepared a number of posts on historical and cultural subjects unlikely to be overtaken by events, with at least one appearing daily. Part I, which originally appeared in July, was repeated yesterday.

After the death of her uncle, the Younger Pitt,  in 1806, and of both her brother Charles and her admirer Sir John Moore at Corunna in 1809, Lady Hester retreated to Wales for a time and then in 1810 decided to travel to the Mediterranean. Though she would live another 29 years, she would never see England again. This granddaughter of one Prime Minister and niece and hostess of another would spend the rest of her life in the Middle East.

She left Britain accompanied by her brother James, her maid, valet, and other companions, and her personal physician, Charles Meryon, who would write six volumes about Lady Hester, three of Memoirs and three of Travels; links to these may be found in Part One. In Gibraltar she added another companion: 20-year-old Michael Bruce. Lady Hester, who was 33, promptly took Bruce as a lover and openly acknowledged that fact.

Lady Hester seems to have hoped in some way to reach France and contact Napoleon, but after a stop in Malta it became obvious that most of Europe was closed to the English, so she determined to head for Greece (still under Ottoman rule) and Constantinople. At each stop she was greeted by local beys, diplomats, and dignitaries, and quickly became accustomed to being treated as a distinguished visitor. She literally hitched a ride on a British frigate; Lord Sligo, who was cruising in the area, added himself to her party, and in Corinth she was introduced to the harem of the local Bey. From Corinth she sailed to Piraeus, visited Athens, and then embarked for Constantinople. She saw the city, was entertained by senior officials, and remained there until October of 1811.

Shipwreck off Rhodes (Meryon, Travels, I)
Intending to visit Egypt next, Lady Hester took a ship to Alexandria. After a stop at Rhodes, the ship encountered storms and rough seas and sprung  a leak on November 27. It was decided to abandon the sinking ship  and board its longboat, so most of the luggage was left behind. After several days of danger, the party was rescued, but without their luggage and most of their money.

Eventually, they made their way to Alexandria in December 1811, but after the loss of the luggage, the party generally adopted eastern dress. Disdaining the veil, Lady Hester opted to dress herself in the male dress of the Ottoman east instead. (According to Meryon, Lady Hester's clothes were those of the lesser gentry, not the aristocracy, but she was unaware of this.)

In February of 1812 the party finally reached Alexandria. After proceeding upriver to Cairo, Lady Hester was received in style by Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha himself; for the occasion she dressed in North African fashion.

After returning to the Delta for a period in Damietta, the party, which had dded various servants of multiple nationalities, decided to seek a better climate in Syria. Meanwhile, more than two years after leaving England, the party was beginning to learn both Turkish an Arabic.

The party arrived by sea in Jaffa, slowly made its way on a grand tour of Jerusalem, Nazareth, Acre, and other parts of Palestine, and made its way northward into Lebanon.

Some accounts say she already believed, due to a meeting with a crazy British "prophet" before leaving England, that she was destined to be some sort of "Queen of the East"; in any event these delusions would strengthen, and her natural aristocratic assumptions of superiority and privilege blended with he polite hospitality of the locals towards guests to strengthen her sense of entitlement.

When the Emir Bashir Chehab, Maronite autocrat of Mount Lebanon, invited her to his palace at Deir al-Qamar, she eagerly accepted, despite tensions between Maronites and Druze; she would spend much of her life in those mountains. She resolved to visit Damascus, despite  warnings that he town was anti-foreigner and anti-Christian; she was received cordially, further strengthening her conviction that she had some sort of destiny.

Lady Hester at Palmyra (Meryon, Travels, Vol. II)
She had for some time been hoping to visit Palmyra.  She was warned that this would entail passing through empty desert controlled by Bedouin tribes hostile to strangers and fighting with each other; once again, she was undeterred. he went some weeks in Hama while Meryon and others explored the route to Palmyra. She secured the protection of Mahanna, chief of the ‘Anaiza, who provided her with an escort. She arrived in Palmyra in an extensive caravan late in March 1813, and was received with much ceremony, which as her delusions gradually took hold of her later she would interpret as having been "crowned Queen of the Desert" among the ruins of Palmyra.

The alleged "crowning" would be the pinnacle of her grand progress. Soon after her younger lover Michael Bruce departed for England, where his father was ailing; she would face illness, and sfter one more adventure (an early archaeological exploration in Ascalon) would gradually retreat into isolation on Mount Lebanon, conviction that she was some sort of prophetess, and her reputation as "the Mad Nun of Lebanon."

Tomorrow: Part III: Descent Into Delusion

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A fantastic story. Many thanks for this.