East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

The Queen of the Desert

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lady hester stanhope 3It’s impossible for me not to find some warmth for lady Hester Stanhope.
I was asked a few days back why I never wrote a post about her and basically, it’s because when I heard of her for the first time, she fell outside of my two main time-frames of interest – the Elizabethan era and the Victorian.
But frankly, who cares?

Tall, spirited, not beautiful, Hester Stanhope was the daughter of an eccentric inventor – the sort of guy that forces his daughter to raise turkeys because “it would improve her virtue” – who disowned her when she tried to take the defenses of her half-brother.
She was described by Lord Byron as “that dangerous thing, a female wit”.
You see where this is leading, right?
You see why I like her, too.

She took the Grand Tour in 1802 – she was 26. Women did not usually go on the Grand Tour at the time.
She went through unrequested love, family tragedy, loss and poverty.
he left England in 1810, on the suggestion of her doctor – getting away would do her good.
It did.

hester stanhopeShe left with her brother, her retinue and a doctor companion, Scotsman Charles Meryon.
First stop, Gibraltar, where she dropped her brother who was going to serve there, and picked up a lover twelve years her junior – Michael Bruce, the son of a man who had made a fortune in India.
From Gibraltar, Grece and Turkey, Costantinople and Cairo – Egypt being a fall-back choice as a passport to France had been denied to Hester, thus thwarting her plan of meeting Napoleon and find a way for the Brits to defeat him.
In Alexandria, she learned Arabic and Turkish.
In Rhodes, the party was shipwrecked and lost all their stuff – and had to wear local clothes. They were stuck into a windmill for days, with the sole company of drunken sailors and rats. And probably there and then Hester decided that if life was giving her lemons, she may as well do lemonade.
Hester actually liked Turkish men’s clothes, and adopted them as her everyday attire, Which caused some problems when she got to Damascus, and actually refused to dress in female garb and wear a veil.
Shock turned to enthusiasm as the population decided they liked Hester very much.


In 1813 Hester came to Palmyra, dressed as a Bedouin to avoid problems with the Bedouin raiders.
But the Bedouins actually liked her too, and her train of 22 camels carrying her luggage. Granted, they first tried to scare her into paying for protection, but she reacted by pulling guns on them, and that was sort of the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
She was hailed as Queen of the Desert.

1112282In Palmyra her lover deserted her – and for a scandalous woman like Hester was now, that was the last nail in her social life’s coffin: not only a harlot, but one without a man.
She decided to stay in the East.

Alone but for the faithful doctor Meryon, Hester went through another bout of poverty and, in 1815, having found some clues to possible buried treasure, she set up an expedition in Ascalon.
It was the first archaeological dig in the Holy Land.
And a proper, well-planned and nicely executed excavation, complete with stratigraphic study of the area, not just some ditch and shovel job.
Nothing came out of it, but a statue Hester destroyed to avoid being accused of art smuggling.1112281

Servants dead, Meryon on his way back to England to marry, Hester set up court in a monastery in Djoun, in the mountains of Lebanon. She got into Eastern mysticism, and was convinced the Madhi, the Muslim messiah, was about to come.
She had a horse she fed with sherbet.
She died in 1839, her last order being to wall her in her rooms.

But old Scottish doctors are not to be underestimated – now living in married tranquility in the UK, Meryon wrote and published six volumes about his adventures with Hester, of which he had probably been smitten.
And who would not be.
It’s thanks to Meryon that we know about the Queen of the Desert and her adventures, her ill luck and her strength.
So here’s a silent toast for a fine adventuress.
A tall, spirited woman. Maybe not beautiful, but endlessly fascinating.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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