For those who wish to kick the dust of romance on what writer Lesley Blanch called the "Wilder Shores of Love," there is no better place of pilgrimage than a lonely hilltop near the village of Joun, in southern Lebanon; for there lies buried, in a simple marble-topped tomb, the eccentric "Queen of Palmyra," Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope.
There is a steady trickle of curious romantics who still climb the hill near Joun each year to gaze on the sad remains of her once-grand estate. Forty minutes south of Beirut, on the coast road to Sidon and Tyre, a road branches off to the left up into the rocky, wooded hills, and begins the eight-mile climb to the village. Wild flowers grow on the hillside; red poppies, white daisies, and pale violet cyclamen. The Awali River, on the right, which was a dried-up wadi for most of the year before a modern power scheme diverted another river into its bed, is a raging torrent of water. The road winds up and around the crests of hills and the sea recedes slowly behind, but never quite lost to sight.
It takes 20 minutes to reach the village. In its general appearance there can be little change since Lady Hester's day. There are graceful old stone houses, pierced by arched windows and doors, and surmounted by red-tiled roofs. Many of the houses bear the scars of a 1956 earthquake, and cracks and fissures have been visibly patched.
Drive through the village and park the car near the principal cafe. It is resplendent with a quaintly misspelled green and red sign, donated by a local soft-drink firm, hung over the entrance: CAFE LADY STANHOB. The Arabic script above it spells out "lady" phonetically rather than using the Arabic term sitt. She is still the village celebrity. Children and old men crowd about. They know the purpose of the visit and point to a path by the side of the cafe. The sitt's house is that way. Several small boys appoint themselves as official guides, and go running on ahead down the path.
The start is inauspicious. The trail is steep and muddy—it also does duty as a dram for the village olive-oil press. For those who are non-walkers there is a rough dirt road a little past the village, cut through by the Monastery of the Savior which owns many of the olive groves. But for true romantics the approach by foot is important. Descend then to the bottom of a ravine and step out onto the open hillside and begin to climb up the rough donkey path which leads to the collection of ruined buildings on the summit of the hill. The bare and rocky hillside is covered by a new carpet of wild flowers that hides its nakedness. There are splendid lonely trees along the way—olive, orange and walnut. This is the same path described by many famous 1 9th-century travelers, Kinglake, Lamartine and James Silk Buckingham. The boy guides lead the way, running and skipping ahead. The chant of "the sitt," "the sitt" fills the air. Lady Hester is being warned of callers.
Near the top climb over some low rubble and crumbled walls; a gesture from a child points to a broken doorway. Then, like some phantom doorkeeper, he ushers visitors into a courtyard overgrown with weeds and brambles.
The suite of rooms built by Lady Hester facing the sea stands intact. Although cracked and neglected, it still bears traces of habitation. Enter the room where Lady Hester received her visitors. The raised platform, the niches in the wall are all still there. Sit in a windowed alcove and look out. No vestige remains of the formal gardens so celebrated in their day, and often described as the finest in the East. The rare plants, the secret paths, the pavilions and kiosks have all vanished, but all else is there as she left it—the air and the sky and the magnificent view towards the sea.
The room is impregnated with memories of that pale, wan figure, "wondrous white woman," as King-lake described her, whose skin was so white that "one could not see her pearls against it."
She was eccentric like her father, and the wild Pitt blood coursed through her veins. Haughty and domineering, she was also humble and witty, commanding both love and fear. Lord Byron tagged her "that dangerous thing, a female wit," and her long-suffering doctor, Charles Lewis Meryon, her first biographer, proclaimed her "the best lady that ever breathed." She attempted mad things and carried them through. She hated women, and yet was a woman all through. "I let her do as she pleases," said her uncle, England's Prime Minister William Pitt, "for if she were resolved to cheat the devil she could do it." He also said that if she had been a man he would give her the command of the army against Napoleon. Muhammad Ali said that she gave him "more trouble than all the insurgents in Syria," but he respected her.
Having settled in Joun, she was ruined in the end by extravagance and eccentricity, and beset by moneylenders. She was disowned by members of her own family, then by Queen Victoria. She sent all her followers away before she died, and was robbed of her few remaining possessions. She was discovered dead and alone in her room by an American missionary and the British Consul from Beirut, who buried her at midnight. The missionary wrote at the time. "Will such an end pay for such a life ?" Sitting in her ruined room, one finds it difficult not to believe that it has paid. Her death was in perfect contrast to her birth, and is part of her legend. Are pilgrims not here today, and will there not be many others to follow?
To clear the vision and return to today, rise up and move outside into the cool spring breeze. Inspect the stables where she kept her "sacred" mares; descend into the dark dungeons under the courtyard, where she threw those who had displeased her. Storerooms, kitchens, cisterns—their only use today is to shelter a few shaggy goats during the rainy winter season.
Her tomb is a short way from the house, on the edge of the hillside near the sea. It is a simple white stepped monument cut from the native limestone, surmounted by a white marble plaque. Engraved upon it in English and Arabic are these words:
The boys who have followed along place a few sprigs of wild spring flowers on her tomb. It is a dignified and elegant monument, and has recently been repaired. A few old orange trees grow near by, and clumps of mountain laurel. It is a pleasant place to rest and dream.
Lady Hester lived as a legend: once crowned "Queen of Palmyra" by the Bedouin tribes of the Syrian desert, posterity crowns her still. Romance of the East! Her ruined abode, the "Dar es-Sitt," and this terraced hillside near Joun with its simple marble tomb is its very essence.
John Brinton, a regular contributor to Aramco World, is the son of Judge Jasper Brinton, the subject of two articles in this issue.