Bones and myths

I was surprised to hear that the British Embassy in Lebanon was going to scatter the ashes of Lady Hester Stanhope 165 years after her death. I’d always known of her, but she seemed more a mythical figure than a real person.

The site was to be an old ruin – once a Greek Catholic monastery – in the majestic Chouf mountains overlooking the coastal city of Sidon. It was here that she chose to spend her last years.

She was a woman born before her time. As a privileged aristocrat, she rejected English society, travelled the Levant, took to wearing Turkish men’s clothes, charmed despots, upset male-only conventions and became a legend in her own lifetime. Her reputation grows apace to this day in Lebanon.

Born in 1776, Hester Stanhope was the eldest daughter of Lord Mahon, the son and heir of the second Earl Stanhope. Her mother died when she was only four years old, leaving her in the care of an eccentric father and, later, a remote and cold stepmother.

For a while she led a society life when she moved in with her uncle, English Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, and acted as his official hostess for three years.

In 1810, equipped with a generous state pension of £1,200 a year, courtesy of her dying uncle, she left the high life and headed towards the Mediterranean.

Accompanied by Charles Meryon, her private doctor, and a handful of other travellers, she wound eastwards through the Mediterranean, passing by Gibraltar, Malta and Athens.

She took to wearing men’s clothing. It was the only way of avoiding the dreaded veil, a requirement of the Muslim Ottoman rulers of the eastern Mediterranean.

Her spirit and courage impressed Ottoman Pashas and Arab tribal chiefs as she travelled through Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. She was the first European woman to visit the Syrian desert city of Palmyra. Before long, she became known as the ‘queen of the desert’.

She settled in the mountain village of Joun in 1814 and became firm friends with Emir Bashir II, the Prince of the Mountain, a brutal tyrant who ruled much of what is modern-day Lebanon at the time. The two of them later fell out when he captured and killed a rival Lebanese leader and mutilated his sons.

She was seen in Lebanon as the bridge between the Orient and the British. In reality, however, the British authorities rejected and excluded her. She in turn scorned them.

Her fame grew with each passing year. She travelled to Ashkelon (in what is now Israel) to dig for treasure. But all she found was a damaged statue which she ordered thrown into the sea in disgust.

While travelling through northern Lebanon, she heard of a monastery that had a strict ban on women, so much so that even hens were left cooped up while roosters could roam the courtyard. She wrote to the superior of the order saying she intended to hold a banquet inside the monastery for the monks and local tribal chiefs. And if they didn’t like it, then they could complain to the Ottoman authorities who had granted her permission to go where she pleased. The astonished monks had no choice but to accept. The banquet was held, but Stanhope smoothed ruffled feathers by giving many gifts to the monks.

Her generosity however doomed her. Her pension was halted to pay her debts and she spent her final years almost as a recluse making up medicinal potions, while servants robbed her of her possessions. She died in 1839 and was buried in the garden of the monastery.

She passed into the realms of myth for the Lebanese until 1988 when, during the Lebanese civil war, her bones were dug up by militia fighters. Beirut legend says that the militia offered the bones to the British Embassy for $500. The British Embassy has always denied the rumour, saying that Stanhope’s remains were handed to the embassy by loyal residents of Joun.

The Embassy authorities buried the remains in the ambassador’s summer residence in a small Christian-Druze village.

In the late 1990s, the British Government decided to put up the house for sale. With the agreement of the Stanhope family, the bones were dug up once more and cremated. And with the scattering of her ashes, Hester Stanhope’s soul was put to rest for the third and final time.

Reem Haddad works for the Daily Star in Beirut.

New Internationalist issue 371 magazine cover This article is from the September 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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