Hester Stanhope – The First Great Queen of the Desert

Lady Hester Stanhope on Horseback /Wellcome Collection [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D
Three women have been given the title “Queen of the Desert” for their adventurous travels in the Middle East.* The first one, Hester Stanhope, began her travels in the early 1800s when she left England. She was the first person to run a modern archeological dig in the Holy Land. She never returned from her travels, ending her days in a mountain hideaway in Lebanon.

I originally put off writing about Lady Hester because I didn’t like her; she could be rude and dismissive to people she didn’t like.  Then I read more about her and I came to admire her determination and her audacious, exuberant attitude to life.

Hester’s Early Life

She was Lady Hester, born into a wealthy aristocratic family in 1776 in Kent, England. Her mother died when she was 4 and her father remarried. Her father was quite a character. He wouldn’t wear a wig at court, was a fan of the revolutionaries in France, called himself “Citizen,” and renamed his ancestral home Chevening “Democratic Hall.” Hester was his favorite, probably because she was as unorthodox as he. But she was definitely an aristocrat.

William Beechey [Public domain]
In 1803, she went to live with her uncle William Pitt, the British Prime Minister at the time. She ran his household and was his hostess, being presented at court, and talking with high-ranking people in England.

But she was also a student of war and fighting; she loved weapons and carried a dagger and mace when she traveled. Pitt said she would have made a fine military commander. Not quite as she is pictured here.

After Pitt’s death, restless and unattached, she began traveling.

Meeting Michael Bruce

Michael Bruce, probably the “love of her life,” was 11 years younger than she was, but they quickly fell in love. They met briefly in Gibraltar in 1810 and started their love affair in Malta a few months later.

Bruce had to get his father’s permission to the affair because his father controlled the purse-strings. Both Hester and Michael sent him letters, and he approved, but would always try to get Hester to give him up.

Hester never considered marriage and there’s evidence that she sensed their separation was inevitable, because of their difference in age and his father’s influence to get him to come back to England to have a political career. They would be together on their journeys for five years until Hester finally convinced him to go home to England. The break-up was traumatic for both of them.

In Athens, later that first year, she and Bruce met the poet Lord Byron, who said she was a “dangerous female wit” and a “she-thing.” *…

Changing Her Style

Mameluk. Louis Dupré lithograph [Public domain]
In her travels, Hester started experimenting with new styles of clothing– daring and unconventional like her father. In Rhodes, she began to dress as a Turk with “mannish layers of silk and cotton shirts…a coat and long breeches, tucking a pistol and knife in her sash.” She topped this outfit off with “a large bunch of natural flowers on one side.” I wish I had a picture of this outfit. I love her daring!

In Egypt, she mimicked the dress of a Mameluk (an Arab slave/soldier), dressing in “cinched-in waists and pantaloon style trousers” with, of course, a turban and a sword or scimitar, like this young fighter.

Riding side-saddle was considered the only way decent women could ride at the time, but Hester (again the unorthodox) started riding astride, and she liked it so much she never rode side-saddle again. She also made secret trips to mosques to observe their prayers, always disguised and discreet, because women were banned.

Druze woman. Félix Bonfils (d. 1885) [Public domain]
During her travels in 1812, she and Bruce traveled to Lebanon, where she met the Druze people (an eclectic sect). She fell in love with the Druze, saying they were “savage and extraordinary,” and she especially liked the dress of the women.

Hester’s Grand Entrance

Hester went to Damascus in September 1812, where her reputation proceeded her. “The Universe is My Country!” she proclaimed as she made her grand entrance into the city. She rode through the entrance gate unveiled (something women were NEVER supposed to do), with a Turkish scimitar at her side.

The people cheered – some of them probably wondered who she was, but everyone loves a parade. She was allowed to go into the mosque to look at ancient books, again something forbidden to “infidel” (Christians) and women, and she was feted at banquets.

She wanted to go to Palmyra, the home of Zenobia, a fifth-century warrior queen of Palmyra. (I’ll be writing about some warrior queens soon and I’ll give you more details on this amazing woman then.)

In November 1814, Hester, her doctor, and two maids became very ill, with high fevers. Hester was near death for three weeks and when she recovered, she had changed. She was no longer the free, unconventional gypsy. Dr. Meryon said she had “a mind severe indeed but powerfully vigorous. ” Friends noted “a certain bitterness and reserve.” She looked her age, and she had to cut her hair short because it had fallen out in clumps.

Despite her weak condition, Hester wasn’t hesitant to go off the beaten track to get to places she wanted to see. She went to Palmyra, Baalbek, and then Ashkelon.

Hester’s Archeological Digs

Men sitting to smoke with a panoramic view of the coast by Ashkelon, Israel. Colored lithograph by L. Haghe, c. 1843, after D. Roberts. Credit: Wellcome Collection.

Hester went to Ashkelon ^ searching for buried treasure. She had received an anonymous note that 3 million gold coins had been buried in the Middle Ages in the ruins of the mosque. She believed it was genuine because it was specific about where in the city the treasure was located.

She persuaded Sultan Mahmud that she would give the gold to the Ottoman government if he would give her permission to search for it. Her sense of adventure, as usual, outweighed her interest in money. This expedition was “singular and surprising,” according to Dr. Meryon because they had never given anyone, let alone a woman, permission to excavate in Palestine.

Hester and Meryon uncovered two “small earthen phials,” and a marble statue. The statue was missing its head but was still almost seven feet tall. They realized that the site was stratified by the remains of different cultures. (This was a new idea in the infant field of archeology at this time.)

Part of the east pediment. Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 3 December 2005. CC 2.0 Wikicommons.

Although they never found the gold, Hester and Dr. Meryon recognized the value of the marble statue. But they were in a quandary about what to do with it. Part of the problem was the Elgin Marbles. No, these weren’t marbles as in the game played with small balls.

The Elgin Marbles were a set of marble sculptures at the Parthenon in Greece. Lord Elgin went to Greece in 1801 and took these sculptures back to England, as he said, to preserve them from being looted and destroyed. (They reside in the British Museum to this day.) The public outcry was quite loud and many accused him of theft.

Hester was concerned about bringing back the statue and being accused of theft or of being out for her own gain. She also didn’t want it to give the statue to the Ottoman governor, who had been taking treasures for himself. So she had the statue destroyed. This caused a lot of people to be horrified. But she was only doing what she thought was right. (It sounds like a case of “darned if you do; darned if you don’t” to me.)

A Home in the Mountains of Lebanon

Djouni, mountain home of Hester Stanhope/John Carne [Public domain]
Remember I said Hester had fallen in love with the Druze people and the area around the mountains of Lebanon. In 1831, she decided to settle down, and she was able to get some land from Sheikh Jumblatt. On the top of a mountain, she built a home where she stayed until she died in 1877 at age 94, in her garden.

She wanted her papers burned but Dr. Meryon had made copies and he wrote a six-volume memoir.

Lady Hester Stanhope’s Importance

Hester really opened up the Middle East for travelers, especially women travelers. She also was the first person to do serious archeology in the desert. Historian Gad Sobol said,  “She examined the area’s geographic data and collected material from local residents,” and [s]he proved to the Ottomans that it wasn’t dangerous to dig.” Before her, there were grave robbers and wealthy people who carted off objects and there was much superstition about digging. She proved it was worthwhile to dig and to do it the right way, for scientific purposes.

Lady Hester he was quite an object of celebrity and many in the Middle East still recognize her name today.


*The other two Queens of the Desert are Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark. I’ll be adding articles about each of them soon. 


**Most of the quotes in this article are from Star of the Morning, the best and most complete biography of Hester Stanhope. There is much more to tell about Hester Stanhope and I’m sure you would enjoy her biography.

^The source for this section is an article from the Biblical Archeology Review (this article is a copy).


Disclosure: The books featured in my posts have links to Amazon.com, and I receive money if you buy a book from one of these links.





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