Archive for May, 2015



Palmyra

Palmyra

I have often wondered how Lady Hester Stanhope would have reacted to the horrendous suffering of the Syrian people and how this conflict has unfolded, in such a tortuous and ghastly way, over the last five years.

What would she have made of the news today of the looming fall into the hands of ISIS of Palmyra, the legendary desert city whose name became forever linked with her own?

It is hard not to imagine her heartbreak at such a fate, and her anger.

Palmyra

Palmyra

Hester had a lifelong friendship with the Hassinah tribe of the Anazeh, the Bedouin who dominated the surrounding caravan routes around the city, and from Homs and Hamah to as far away as Baghdad and Basra. It was they who allowed her to cross the Syrian desert to make her extraordinary entry to Palmyra in the spring of 1813. Exactly 202 years and two months ago; she had just turned 37.

That day, the Sheikh of Palmyra and some three hundred of his warriors swarmed out to greet her, and as she rode down the central colonnaded street towards Zenobia’s arch, she was welcomed like a victorious Arab queen herself. In the heady days that followed, Hester camped in the Temple of the Sun, and explored the magnificent ruins by day and by night with a flaming torch, writing of her delight at bathing naked in a pool that had been used by the Bedouin for centuries.

When she first arrived in 1812, war and unrest were never far away. Lebanon was a feudal kingdom, ruled by rival Druze clans. Syria was dangerously unstable, the winds of civil war were blowing in; the Wahhabis were on a murderous rampage intent on taking Damascus. As it happened, the Ottomans would retain their hold in Damascus, while attempting, with only partial success, to defeat the House of Saud. Insurrection in the larger cities was common, and the pashas of Damascus and Aleppo used civil disorder as an excuse to dispose of their enemies. Walking in the main square, it was never uncommon to see the bodies of men, gruesomely slashed, stakes driven through their bodies. She traveled among the territories of the Shia Alawis (today their descendents are the Alawites, best known as the community of the Assad family and the ruling clique of pre civil war Syria) and the Ismai’ilis, whose combined DNA is all over the present-day conflict. She was intrigued by the Yezidi, now among those targeted for persecution and slaughter by ISIS, and spent three months living within their community, fascinated by their faith and ways, as she was by the Druze, and above all, by the Bedouin.

By 1821, when Hester had established herself in her walled fortress, a mini citadel above the sea near Sidon in south Lebanon, she wrote: ‘A terrible civil war has broken out in this country… You can have no idea of the state of things and next month all will be bloodshed from one end of the country to another… Night and day, for some days, troops of people all descriptions came to ask advice of me and protection.”

She made it her mission to help the dispossessed, the wounded, the sick – hiding and aiding, over time, many hundreds of refugees who fled persecution – among them Druze, Maronites, Muslims and Christians. Employing a ragtag band of defected Albanian soldiers, she set up a small army around her fortress, hired an Italian surgeon to do what he could for the injured, using her dining table for amputations; one of her warehouses had to be used as a makeshift morgue.

She was well aware of what horrors were taking place as decades-long rivalries exploded. Her friend, the Druze ruler Sheikh Bashir Jumblatt was routed by his enemy Emir Bashir, thrown into a Damascus jail, then strangled and beheaded, his body hacked up for all to see, then thrown to the dogs. His wife was captured and forced to watch her son cut to pieces before her eyes. Hester recorded that children and youths were tortured, their eyes burned out, their tongues cut out. The suffering she records has become sickeningly familiar:

‘Think of women’s breasts squeezed in a vice and chopped off; of men’s heads squeezed into a tourniquet until their temple bones were driven in; of eyes put out with red-hot saucers, men castrated alive and a hundred other barbarities, “ she wrote in 1825.

Hester was a defender of the Arab world she loved, who in the end, like T.E Lawrence, believed more in a people than an empire. She took a brave stand for humanity, one never officially recognized by her country.

ISIS have brought into our world a new kind of monolithic colonialism which seeks to build an empire to destroy anything or anyone that does not reflect their narrow world view. A great city like Palmyra, which represents so much in terms of our collective history, mythology and culture, is, like Nimrud, apparently, awaiting its executioner.

A thought for Lady Hester Stanhope then, if and when, Palmyra falls…

Sending prayers to the people of Palmyra.

Posted on May 15th, 2015 by Kirsten  |  1 Comment »



Never more topical…

Hester’s life experiences in Syria, Lebanon and the Holy Land have never been more topical. Hester’s story is one that unfolds the geopolitical cut and thrust and a gripping cast of characters at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, from Downing Street to the Tsar’s palace, from Paris to the desert and the badlands of Syria and Lebanon. It’s an intelligent, sexy, dangerous story that turns on the trajectory of an extraordinary life – Hester’s – who can hardly contain herself in her own century and whose hopes, ambitions, dilemmas, delights, personal tragedies and loves find their way straight to ours. Her experience throws light on the conflict in the Middle East we are facing now.

Hester had a problem. She was beautiful, vivacious and sexual and could talk her way through the eye of a needle. She was a brilliant horsewoman and swordswoman – but there was no place in the army or the admiralty for her. She was a brilliant orator who loved an audience – but there was no place for her in parliament. She was an equal of the brightest and bravest men – but in Regency society there was no place for a woman with any of these skills. If she didn’t want to be a decorative wife – or mistress – then the labels of whore and madwoman could be – and were – far too easily deployed. Unfortunately for her, she was born 200 years too early.

She was the daughter of a prominent French Revolution-supporting aristocrat – Citoyen Stanhope -which put him directly at odds with the political establishment; her uncle William Pitt took her in to his home and put her at his high table during his terms as prime minister. She grew up on stories of battles, intrigues and espionage on her grand-father’s knee; he, the elder Pitt, the Churchill of his time, instilled in her a great longing to be of service to her country. Hester was the ultimate anti-Jane Austen heroine: she loathed the restrictive world women were meant to settle for. She learned the martial skills of a cavalry officer and could train wild horses by the time she was 20. Hester had a string of admirers, among them men who helped shape history. She suffered emotional slips and falls – she was too passionate for the social mores of her time. In this sense she was entirely modern.

With the death of Pitt, she lost her place at his side at the heart of intellectual and political life in Britain. When she left Britain, she was 34 – and unmarried, and mocked for being so. She turned to her eyes to the Middle East, where the superpowers of the time – Britain, France and Russia – were all fighting for influence. It was no obvious place for a woman, but it was a place for a patriot. Hester was independently minded; she went to the Middle East believing she could support the interests of her country. It did not matter that no such role existed. She created one.

In Syria, she lived and rode with the Bedouin – who called her Ul-Uzza, a warrior princess – and convinced them to give their support to the British instead of the French or the Russians. She met with the Wahhabis – as terrifying in their slaughtering habits then as ISIS is now – but incredibly, gained their respect. (It could be argued that the forefathers of ISIS were more tolerant than the offshoot they eventually spawned). She became a spy and go-between in the shifting geopolitical sands of power with emirs, pashas and warlords – risking her life.

In the process, she met the man who was to become the great love of her life – Napoleon’s most gifted spy, the revolutionary Yves Vincent Boutin. He was her intellectual and emotional equal, an engineer, Arabist and idealist who wanted to write a great book on the Syrian tribes. He was beheaded in the spring of 1815 in Syria by the forefathers of the same tribesmen who are now fighting with ISIS. His death broke her heart. The experiences of her life in the desert and her passionate affair transformed her. What had mattered to her before, was no longer who she was.

Grieving, looking for solace, she wanted to understand more deeply the people and land that she, like Boutin, had come to love, and which now shaped her. She immersed herself in learning all about the Eastern religions and faiths – she became a spiritual seeker, studying with Sufi, Jewish and Muslim scholars. She spent three months living with the Yezidi people, who made her an initiate into their faith – the same people who are among those being massacred by ISIS. She devoted the rest of her life to protecting the dispossessed and the refugees who streamed to her little mountain fortress in Lebanon during the civil war – never quite staying out of intrigues. When she died, according to her orders, she was buried with her French love.

If Hester had been born a man, she would most likely have entered politics or become a great general of her time. Today, it’s an interesting challenge to imagine all the things she could do. PM? Head of MI6? A plum job with the UN? Because she was a woman she was denied a role that allowed her to use her skills. She had to choose the biggest challenge – to go to what was then and certainly is now one of the most difficult places on earth – to find the freedom to use her talents and be who she needed to be. And in this she was very successful. She was profoundly changed by the people, the landscape, and the great love that she found there. She would never have achieved those things if she had been a man. That she was denied access is what created her – indeed if she had been allowed to be one of the ‘boys,’ the extraordinary story of her life would never have happened.

Posted on May 15th, 2015 by Kirsten  |  No Comments »