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Volume 21, Number 5September/October 1970

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"Queen of the Desert"

Lady Hester Stanhope

Written by Daniel Da Cruz
Photographed by Khalil Abou El Nasr

The career of Lady Hester Stanhope had, you might say, its ups and downs. She started life at the top as the favorite daughter of the wealthy Lord Charles, 3rd Earl of Stanhope; was impoverished and orphaned at 27, after her father succeeded in giving away his fortune out of sympathy for the French revolutionaries of 1789; became within one year the official hostess of the Prime Minister of England, William Pitt the Younger, her uncle; was thrice disappointed in love, and fled England, never to return, at the age of 33 ; was crowned, according to her own account, "Queen of the Desert" as successor to Queen Zenobia of Syria in the ruined city of Palmyra; and finally died alone in poverty and squalor in her palatial retreat in the Lebanese mountains, its entrance mortared shut against her hordes of creditors.

Lady Hester came by her eccentricities honestly, for Lord Charles, her father, besides flinging his patrimony to the winds and destroying his coat-of-arms wherever found, in revolt against his own nobility, was an established oddball from an early age, refusing to send his sons to school, sleeping with the windows open and without a nightcap, and working at menial jobs that dirtied his patrician hands. His daughter showed her breeding when, still a child and curious about France, she climbed into an empty boat on the English Channel and started rowing east. It was the shortest voyage of her life—she had gone about six yards before being caught—but nevertheless portentous, for it is only because of her infatuation with the East that she is today remembered.

As a young woman, Lady Hester was very attractive to men—vivacious, witty, a good talker in a society that loved conversation, and although not beautiful, tall, slender and dark-eyed. Those charms became the currency of English high society when, after her father died in 1803 and she went to live in Walmer Castle with her uncle, Pitt became Prime Minister in 1804. Now 28, Lady Hester was at the zenith of her career. Pitt loved her for lack of a daughter, English nobility loved her for her consummate ability as a gracious hostess, and a succession of men loved her for position and perhaps, even, for herself. It seemed to Hester Stanhope too good to last. And she was right.

She was just recovering from being jilted by Lord Granville Leveson Gower when Pitt died, leaving her nothing but the deathbed wish that Parliament, in regard for his services, might see fit to bestow on his impoverished niece a modest livelihood (Parliament responded with a sumptuous—for then—pension of £1,200). Soon thereafter she became engaged, and disengaged, to the Hon. William Noel Hill, but quickly rebounded into the affections of Sir John Moore, England's commander-in-chief in Spain and Portugal against Napoleon's forces. In 1808 he was killed, her name on his dying lips, and shortly afterward one of her brothers was shot dead in the same campaign. Grief over the loss, in rapid succession, of five men she had loved, drove her from the London which now contained only bitter memories. She went first to Wales, then in 1810 left England never to return. She was 33.

Lady Hester set sail for the Mediterranean accompanied by her private physician, Dr. Charles Meryon, and in Gibraltar added to the party a 20-year-old Englishman named Michael Bruce, who soon became her avowed lover, to the immense chagrin of Dr. Meryon, who fancied the role for himself. By the time Lady Hester's expedition reached Corinth, Greece, its personnel had swollen to nine people, representing five nationalities, which gives some idea of the purchasing power of £ 1,200 per annum in those far-off pre-devaluation years. If she had any purpose beyond getting away from it all, it was the wildly harebrained one of pushing on to Constantinople, winning the goodwill of the French Ambassador there, and after obtaining a passport to France proceeding to Paris through Hungary and Germany. Lady Hester then intended to ingratiate herself into the confidence of the Emperor Napoleon, discover the mainsprings of his character and mind, and return to England where her information would provide the basis for his overthrow by her mobilized countrymen. But the British Minister got wind of her plan, and with the indignant caution of most diplomats, sabotaged all her preparations. There was nothing for her to do but leave. She embarked for Egypt.

The week's trip took nearly two months, with time out for a shipwreck during a storm off Rhodes. Ashore, she took refuge in a rat-infested windmill and while she was waiting for another ship to remove the party she adopted the male attire that she affected the rest of her life. She earnestly believed it was typically oriental but, being of her own design, it was actually closer to Regent Street Tunisian, and when the local gentry was not stifling laughs at her expense, she was, says Dr. Meryon, generally mistaken for a young Turkish bey "with his moustachios not yet grown."

In February 1812, -two years after it had left England, the motley party reached Alexandria, where the English members set about learning Arabic and Turkish. The East was in her blood, its combination of mystery, romance, mysticism, hardship, fatalism and fanaticism having captured her English soul as it was to capture so many of her countrymen in future decades. But enough of the British aristocrat remained for Lady Hester to pay a call in Cairo on Muhammed Ali, ruler of Egypt, as a courtesy between equals, before the fleas and flies of her temporary home in Damietta drove her out of the humid Nile Delta to the relative haven of the Palestine hills.

Arriving in Jaffa, she at once set to the task of obtaining a safe conduct across the bandit-infested countryside to Jerusalem. She quickly discovered that it was the goodwill of Shaikh Abu Ghosh, the bandit-in-chief, that had to be secured. With that combination of guts-and-guile that characterized all her dealings with her fellowman, she went directly to the Shaikh's camp, talked his ear off and bribed him handsomely, then told him that she would hold him personally responsible for the welfare of her caravan. The amused—perhaps bemused—old man pocketed the money, gave his word, and kept it by keeping the competition at arm's length while Lady Hester made the grand tour of the Holy City then proceeded north to Nazareth, Acre and other little-known cities that were but Biblical words to the West whence she came.

By the time her caravan approached the foothills of Mount Lebanon, the Englishwoman had largely disappeared. In her place was a mannish figure who wore a species of male clothing, smoked a bubbly narghila, and could swear at her mule drivers in three languages. The hospitality—to her already fevered mind it seemed homage—she was accorded by the Levantine people, to whom a generous reception of guests and travelers is an article of faith, convinced her that in the Orient she had at last discovered a race of man which truly appreciated her aristocratic bearing, lineage and inherent superiority, which the English had recognized so fleetingly during her uncle's day of power. Like many who followed her, Lady Hester had all too humanly confused hospitality with awe and servility, toleration with submission, and acclaim with admiration. And to the end of her days she never discovered her mistake.

While passing through Sidon she received an invitation, doubtless motivated by curiosity, from the Christian Emir Bashir, suzerain of the Druzes, to visit his palace in the Lebanese mountains at Deir el-Kamar. She prepared for instant departure, for the Emir controlled the reclusive sect that had split from Muslim orthodoxy in the 11th century and now wielded a stern law of its own in its mountain strongholds, and as such was to her an intensely romantic person. Dr. Meryon was, on the other hand, rather hesitant. "They say," he wrote uneasily in a letter home, "he is a very good man. It is true he blinded his three nephews and had his prime minister strangled . . . but these things go for nothing in Turkey." Lady Hester, as usual, overrode her physician's fears, and they departed for the mountains, traveling light, with only their most necessary possessions carried on the backs of 22 camels, 25 mules and 8 horses. As she had known all along, everyone had a marvelous time, and Emir Bashir extended a standing invitation to visit his domain for as long as she wished.

But bearding despots in their lairs is habit-forming, and Lady Hester now conceived the idea of visiting the Pasha of Damascus, a city then implacably hostile to outsiders, particularly Europeans and women, and consequently but rarely visited. She made her usual frontal assault on her objective: she asked for—and received—an invitation from the Pasha himself, then entered the city on horseback (Christians were forbidden to ride a horse within the city walls)—and unveiled. "The people gazed at us," Meryon said later, "and all eyes turned toward Her Ladyship. Many saw at once that it must be a woman, but before they could recover from their astonishment, we had passed on ... followed by a few boys only ... to the Christian quarter." Perhaps the Damascenes thought her "afflicted of Allah"—insane—as well she might have been, and refrained from violence, for in the Arab world the insane are considered under divine protection. At any rate, during her Damascus sojourn the townspeople congregated around her house every day to observe her mount her horse, and when she entered the crowded suq everyone rose—perhaps to get a better look—and Lady Hester nodded graciously, and proceeded on her way with the air of a great lord surveying his dominions. It was very heady fare.

One accessible "forbidden city" remained: Palmyra, near the oasis of Tadmor, the seat of Queen Zenobia's ancient desert kingdom east of Damascus that had once defied Rome. The despot in this case was the Bedouin Emir of the 'Anazah, and typically she practically demanded to be invited—successfully, of course. And she went alone, except for two guides, to the Emir against whom all had warned her, predicting nothing but evil from the encounter. On arriving she stood before her host and said: "I know you are a robber and that I am now in your power. But I fear you not. I have left behind all those who were offered me as a safeguard ... to show you that it is you whom I have chosen as such." The Emir was captivated.

Sometime during the week's visit her guides and host arranged an entertaining visit to the decayed city. At first sight, she "stood on what seemed to be the ridge of the world, and below lay Palmyra ... a forest of mutilated columns carelessly scattered on the tawny plain ..." To the throbbing of desert drums she led a procession of Bedouin notables, followed by the lesser tribesmen, down one of the few well-preserved colonnaded Roman avenues leading to the great temple which stood in the center of the city. Beside each column was stationed a young maiden, and as the procession passed, each fell in beside the mounted Lady Hester as escort, all the way to the temple, where, she remembered much later when time had embroidered the truth with harmless fantasies, "I have been crowned Queen of the Desert, under the triumphal arch at Palmyra."

It was undoubtedly the crowning point, so to speak, of her aimless, restless life. For a few hours, at least, she must have been blissfully happy. The remainder of her life was to be an interminable, disordered, frustrating anticlimax. Her lover Michael Bruce had already departed, in 1813, for England. Dr. Meryon was to leave later, and after two brief returns, also stay away for good. She tried and tired of several residences in southern Lebanon before establishing herself permanently, in 1821, in a 36-room house, a crazy-quilt of secret passages and chambers, oddly resembling her own mind, which became increasingly befuddled. She began to believe her own fables, studied alchemy and astrology, dosed guests willy-nilly with foul-smelling potions from black bottles, talked wildly and incessantly to the few people who now came to see her at her home in Joun, guarded by Albanians and staffed by black slaves she made treat her as royalty.

She still had flashes of her old fire. Outraged that the Ansaries of Latakia had violated the laws of hospitality by murdering a French consul who had shown her much deference, she prevailed on a local chieftain to conduct a private war against the northern sect, in the course of which some 300 innocents were slain. On another occasion, convinced that she had discovered a map giving the precise location of buried treasure in Ascalon, she grandly offered to present the entire sum to the Sublime Porte in Constantinople if the Ottoman government would provide means to. conduct the excavation. Funds were made available, but the dig was a complete fiasco. Then she became convinced that the Mahdi—the ruler expected by some Muslims to establish a reign of righteousness throughout the world—was about to appear in the East, and that she was destined to be his bride. Her eccentricities compounded—among other things, she kept an Arab mare in a constantly-lighted stable, and had the animal served with sherbets and other delicacies; her friends vanished, debts mounted, enemies multiplied, and the British government gave her the last and unkindest cut of all—cutting off her pension to placate (but not, however, repay) a Turkish debtor.

It was this final blow to her pride that started her on the road that has but one end. She walled up the great gateway to her house, dismissed most of her servants, and prepared to die with the only companion that had served her steadfastly throughout her life: her unbending dignity. Death came in 1839, when she was 63, alone in an alien world, among alien people, whom she had tried for more than a quarter century to make believe were her own.

Daniel da Cruz, a long-time resident of Lebanon, and Middle East correspondent for several U.S. publications, contributes regularly to Aramco World Magazine.

This article appeared on pages 8-13 of the September/October 1970 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1970 images.