Travel Diary

Spring, 2003

Vanished peacefulness of the Beit al Mamlouka courtyard, Damascus

Vanished peacefulness of the Beit al Mamlouka courtyard, Damascus

As modern-day warlords go, few are as charismatic as Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader of Lebanon’s popular Progressive Socialist Party (PSP). A once renowned playboy who turned militia commander during the civil war, he still retains his own militia. This continues a family tradition, for the Jumblatts were an illustrious clan who ruled vast stretches of present-day Lebanon and Syria during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Late one morning, I travelled to Mouktara – which lies further south of Beit Eddine, reached by ever-more twisting roads higher into the mountain passes of the Chouf – to ask him about his ancestor, Sheikh Bashir Jumblatt. Hester’s close friendship with him, and her role in trying to secure British backing for him earned her the lasting enmity of his powerful rival, Emir Bashir Shihab.

Mouktara had been built by Sheikh Jumblatt in the late eighteenth century, much of the original palace was razed in 1825; it is hard to tell what remained and what has been rebuilt, so seamless is the restoration in the original style. We walked up steep stone stairs, passing a courtyard rippling with fountains and an intricate system of artificial waterways contrived to waft cooling breezes. Then we were ushered by Jumblatt’s staff into the main reception room – with its intricate carved ceilings, kilim-covered liwan sofas and a table set with coloured crystal goblets and silver. Hester may well have dined in this very room. I had the peculiar impression of stepping back in time, until I discovered that just as I was arriving, a TV crew were leaving.

Sheikh Jumblatt’s direct descendent strode in, a tall, balding man in his late-fifties (once famous for his shock of leonine hair) with a striking moustache, all easy affability in jeans and loafers, yet with the lidded, enigmatic eyes of someone used to weighing decisions carefully, indeed, I suspected, ruthlessly, on occasion. He introduced me to his Syrian-born second wife Nora, whose tawny, effortlessly glamorous good looks made me recall an entry made by Charles Meryon, Hester’s doctor: he had been struck speechless by the beauty of Sheikh Jumblatt’s wife.

The Jumblatts had heard many of the rumours about Lady Hester – including those linking her with the Sheikh – and wanted to compare notes with someone who been digging into her past. ‘Everyone used to talk about her fifty years ago, everyone knew who she was. But now nobody knows about her,’ said Jumblatt’s impeccably chic mother, May, whose coiffed jet-black hair and gravelly voice suggested a Lebanese Melina Mercouri. ‘Was she really a spy sent by William Pitt? Or was she like that Philby, a traitor, a double-agent?’

As one might expect for a feudal lord, just as it had been for Hester, lunch was served from silver platters by bearers who came and went on cat feet: saleyah, a traditional dish of fish with rice and pine nuts; succulent chicken; an artfully arranged wheel of kibbeh; silky hummous and the usual Lebanese salad. Then came figs glazed with orange syrup and Turkish delight; we drank white and red Ksara wine and very potent arrack. ‘I’m afraid I know nothing of her,’ Jumblatt said. ‘Some people believe, it seems, that she and my great-great-grandfather were lovers,’ he said, letting out a laugh somewhere between a guffaw and a snort, as though this were a ludicrous thought.

‘Oh I love stories about women like that – Jane Digby, Isabel Burton…’ said Nora, then paused. ‘Of course, Jane Digby was beautiful and had lots of lovers, including a king, and when she was almost sixty, a sheikh…’ May chimed in: ‘Hah! Lady Hester Stanhope was not beautiful, she was very mannish. There are so many legends about her. That she was a spy; even that she was a lesbian; that she was rich but she died poor; that everything she had was stolen in the end.’ At this, May, the Jumblatt matriarch, pursed her lips. ‘What does it mean to be a spy anyway? She went there and here, saw this and that, and told people what she knew. That she wanted to find things out; does that mean she was a spy, like Mata Hari or Kim Philby? Anyway, we are famous for our spies in Lebanon, we used to produce them… Old spies, new spies… Philby was sent here pretending to be a journalist…these days they say they are working for NGO’s or doing workshops. But we know that during Lady Hester’s time, Lebanon was full of English and French missionaries who didn’t like her or trust her, and that’s how the story about her being a spy began.’

Over coffee, slightly sweet and laced with cardamom, I asked Walid Jumblatt about the Druze faith. I knew that was in conversations with his great-grandfather that Hester was first drawn to understand it – she would go so far as to proclaim herself Druze – and I was curious to hear his version. I had read that the Druze were ‘technically Shi’ite Muslims’ yet their beliefs were characterised as a ‘mixture of Judaism, Christianity and Islam [including] elements of Gnosticism.’ I had also heard that the faith was intended to be impenetrable to all but those among its closed circle of initiates, the uqqal, or ‘the enlightened ones,’ who made up only a fraction of the Druze, the rest of whom were the juhhul (the ignorant, or uninitiated). What was the truth? He turned his eyes on me, assessing. ‘It’s not a secretive religion, that is, apart from the Secret Books…’ he replied, and at this deliberately cryptic remark, I could not help but smile. ‘You could say that our faith is inspired by Neo-Platonism, and that in some aspects it reflects the teachings of Socrates and Plato, and the philosophies of ancient India, the Vedas…. You cannot convert, you must be born Druze. Like other cultures, like the Hindus and the Ismaelis, we believe in reincarnation, and transmigration, and in the coming of a new Messiah.’

It was when Jumblatt invited me into his study for a moment that I realised how closely his world was shadowed by a sense the threat of violence. The first thing I noticed was the huge antique airplane propeller suspended from the ceiling as a fan – ‘we got it from the Marché aux Puces’ – then the automatic pistol, probably a Colt Commander, on his desk, with a few cartridges spilled amongst his papers. Various other intimidating looking guns and rifles were propped up in the corner. Pulling open a drawer to find keys, casually pushing aside various handguns as he did so, Jumblatt suddenly looked every inch the warlord. I looked about covertly, fascinated by this adult version of a Boy’s Own fantasy. The shelves were lined with books on military history, with an almost encyclopaedic range of famous battles, dictators and strategists. A photograph of Jumblatt shaking hands with Fidel Castro sat next to an autographed portrait – ‘To dear Walid’ – of the model Claudia Shiffer.

Few political figures in Lebanon emerged from the civil war without blood on their hands – in some cases rivers of it – and certainly Jumblatt, just like his great-grandfather, is no exception. In 1983, a year after Israel invaded the Chouf mountains, Walid Jumblatt’s militia – with Syrian-supplied Soviet weaponry and tanks – targeted sixty predominantly Maronite villages in south Lebanon to drive out the Christian Lebanese Forces. More than a thousand people died as they attacked; some 50,000 fled their homes. Among the villages taken was Djoun – or Joun, as it was now known..

As he drove me back to my hotel in Beirut, the jeep careened around sharp hillside curves; my knuckles went white as I gripped the door handle. Just outside the village, just as we slowed to take a twist in the road, we passed an olive grove marked by a simple stone plaque. Jumblatt nodded with his head at the place where his father had been gunned down. ‘That’s where my father died,’ he said, pausing. Later, a friend in Beirut pointed out to me that the reason that Jumblatts rarely drove together as a family – and that he drove so fast, was for fear of assassination. He sometimes had bodyguards and an escort but on this occasion, he did not; nor did he wear a bullet-proof vest, not wanting to tempt fate.

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The Melkite Church at Abra

The Melkite Church at Abra

A thin road curled through the centre of the small village of Abra, snaking past half-built houses and yellow mustard seed flowers that grew everywhere like weeds. It was hot. That Sunday, in the hazy afternoon sun, the welter of apartment buildings on the adjacent hillside looked like a concrete smudge against the limpid, colourless sea. I was looking for signs of a monastery, but there was no sign of any stirring creature, human or otherwise, not even a dog slinking into the shade. I imagined everyone indoors, stupefied after the long Sunday lunch.

I began to feel as though I must have made a mistake. Surely what I was looking for must be somewhere on any of these surrounding hills, but where? Just then, as I caught sight of a cross atop a rather glittery-looking looking chapel and turned to investigate, a man appeared as though out of nowhere, and for a moment we looked equally startled to see each other. He was tall and preoccupied-looking, probably a little younger than me. He held some freshly-picked roses in his hand.

“I wonder if you know if the Monastery of Mar Elias is anywhere about here?” I asked. He looked at me if I might be slightly mad. “It no longer exists. Perhaps you mean the church?” He spoke accented, educated English, and his eyes looked at me with alarm. I had the impression that I had interrupted some private reverie of his. I tried another tack. Had he ever heard anything about Lady Hester Stanhope living near here? Had he ever heard of her at all? I explained that I was writing a book about her. “Ah, Lady Hester Stanhope! Permit me to introduce myself.”

Farid Slieman was an agricultural engineer. He worked in Beirut during the week, he said, but sometimes came to Abra for the weekends to spend time with his elderly parents. “Lady Hester Stanhope was a legend, of course,” he said, “People in Abra are still very proud of being associated with her.” Now he began questioning me with sudden force. How well acquainted was I with all the other biographies? Had I read all the volumes by Meryon? Kinglake? Lamartine? Haslip? All the French biographies? What in particular was I intending to add to what was already known? For a moment, I was sure he was glaring at me. Caught somewhat off-guard myself now by this unexpected roadside cross-examination, I tried to explain that I had in mind a different approach. For a moment, we stood there, sizing one another up. Farid visibly softened, and he smiled. “Come. Let me show you something,” he said.

Leading the way, Farid walked down a few steps down the dusty path to the church. “Here,” he said pointing to a large Egyptian plane tree under which we had parked the car. “They say it was planted by Lady Hester not long after she arrived, to give some shade at the entrance to her house. She lived just here, for the new church you can see here was built over the ruins of the old monastery.” He paced me around the old boundary walls, step by step, sometimes bending down sometimes to show me the old stone, as lizards scuttled about our feet. “See? The remains of the kitchen are here, you can see where the oven was… and over there, you can see what must have been her main reception room. I mapped it all out once, before they built this new church, when you could see all the original walls very clearly. And there” – he pointed towards what is now a haphazard parking lot – “is the southern wall where the two Patriarchs buried themselves, one of them not so long before she arrived.”

“What?” I asked, not sure if I had heard him correctly. Farid cleared his throat. “Yes. There was probably only a very slight smell when she came here. But it was the usual practice for the Melkite Patriarchs to seal themselves up – to immure themselves – in a holy place where they had lived. It was their burial custom – they would be dressed in their robes, holding the holy book and a crucifix, placed sitting upright in a chair. Then they would be sealed in with mud and bricks. Eventually though, with heavy rains and the fact that they only used lime and mud to seal them in, the smell would have seeped out. Probably it got to be quite horrendous. It must have been one of the reasons why she eventually moved. Or perhaps it was the climate that was too humid for her,” he said mildly.

The monastery had been partially destroyed in the civil war, he said, along with most of Abra. I didn’t want to ask what had happened to the priests. “I suppose you could say that many of the stories about her – the stories I was told as a child – died out with my great-grandfather’s generation, many of them dead before we were all displaced by the war.” Even so, Farid said he remembered his grandparents talking about why she came here. “To be close to her moneylender – a Jew – in Sidon, so she could try and make sure she wasn’t being cheated.” Here, he mused for a moment. “She helped a lot of people here, and also gave out money. She also wanted to be close to Bashir Jumblatt. And she had ambitious dreams. But she was – how do you say it – above most people. It was her doctor, Meryon, who probably is better remembered in our village.”

Farid went on to explain that he was descended from a family who formed a close attachment to Hester’s doctor, Charles Meryon while he was in Abra. “It is a strange story. One of my ancestors, an older man, about sixty, fell ill soon after visiting the hamam in Sidon. Meryon tried to cure him, but he died shortly afterwards, and so did many others in our family. We know it was in fact my ancestor who brought the plague to Abra,” he said. I looked at him, squinting in the sunlight.

“Now. Would you like to see the church?” Farid took a large key from his pocket, and opened the door, and I realized he had come to change the flowers. I stepped inside, marveling at the pristine vision of whitewashed walls, plain wood seats and shiny, gold-flecked colourful mosaics – copies of ancient Byzantine originals – depicting the legend of St. Elias, who killed the priests of Baal. From what I understood of the Melkites, the term Greek Catholic often used to describe them barely hinted at how mysterious this offshoot of the Eastern church seemed to be. I was curious, for Hester would live in the long shadow of the Melkites for the rest of her life. The Syrian name of Melkite meant “Follower of the King.” Their rites were Byzantine in origin; their patriarchate extended to Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem; their language was Syrian Aramaic. They had grown from one of the splintered Eastern churches following the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, and sided with Constantinople, when it was the capital of the Byzantine Empire, when Greek was the lingua franca.

There was nothing ancient about this church, however. I had seen that along the coast, from Damour to Sidon, where entire villages had been destroyed during the civil war – including Abra – the pace of reconstruction was breathtaking, but much of it horrendously ugly. By contrast, this new church was restrained, and rather beautiful. Outside, standing in the gravel, within the confines of what used to be Lady Hester’s kitchen, I thanked Farid for his impromptu tour. Now the light was almost blinding; the sea and sky were pure blue. I was beginning to feel quite used to strange and fortuitous meetings and connections, all forged by the fascination that trailed in Hester’s wake.

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Sign near Hester's residence at Joun, near Sidon

Sign near Hester’s residence at Joun, near Sidon

In Hester’s day it was Djoun, a bucolic mountain village set amongst seven sloping hills with a mixture of Maronites, Druze and Shi’ites. Joun is now a predominantly Shi’ite town. As we drove up from Sidon, past a Palestinian refugee camp, our car was waved to a stop by men waving Hizbollah flags, wanting donations. After a swift exchange – it seems they did not expect money from Maronite Christians – we drove on. I was travelling with Wafa Tarnowska (nee Stephan), my friend (and on this trip, my translator)) and her cousin Fadi, who proudly pointed out the row of freshly planted trees at the approach to the town, one of the many initiatives of the local council. He himself had helped plant a great many of them. By all appearances, Joun was in the grip of a feverish building boom Fadi explained that the local mayor, who we were on our way to meet, was determined it would not fall victim to the ugly concrete sprawl that had swallowed up so much of the coast. Strict restrictions on what could be built – and with what materials – were being carefully enforced, he told me.

Wafa marvelled at how she recognised every bend and kink in her childhood landscape: she had not seen it for almost twenty years. “It hasn’t changed at all, this road, but there used to be so many figs and grapes, almond and pomegranate trees,” she said. The history of her family in Joun went back many generations. So high was the family’s standing within the village that during the war, theirs was the only Maronite Christian house that was left unharmed, its possessions untouched – all others were destroyed and pillaged. I would hear all kinds of stories from her elderly relatives, one of whom produced a chronicle of the village written by Wafa’s great-great uncle, the former mayor, born a century before, including details about Hester’s time. I would hear how the hills were riddled with caves full of bodies, and how the women of Joun would carry silk worm cocoons about tucked into their breasts to keep them warm during winter. Joun was an industrious little village, famous for its silk production and weavers, its stone-making artisans and builders and its carobs and olives. Its residents, like many on the shores of Mt. Lebanon, were beginning to grow prosperous on the export of silk to France: what grew on mulberry trees in Djoun might end up on the docks at Marseilles and adorning some fine lady in Paris.

My friends, the Stephan sisters, Wafa and Rania, had told me that their great-great grandfather, a Maronite who had settled there from the Qadisha Valley, had been the Sheikh of Djoun while Hester was alive. One of his family was Ayoub al Mousasawba, an expert stone master, who was recommended highly to her by Sheikh Bashir Jumblatt. He supervised the building and completion of her fortress, using slabs quarried from the nearby hills. He would also, in time, be the man who built her tomb.

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On the first night of my research trip to Lebanon, I had been told that Hester had an Arab lover from Joun. I was staying with Wafa and Rania’s elderly aunt Yvette and uncle Nabih at their house in Beit Meri. Motherly and welcoming, Yvette’s domestic empire had to be marvelled at. Though we arrived late, her stove was simmering with delicious-smelling dishes; her table was laid with beautiful lacy cloths – which she herself had embroidered; fresh, powdery date and aniseed mahmoul cakes were pressed on us, along with Arabic coffee and orange-flower water. Yvette, a daughter of Joun, could remember every recipe and herbal remedy passed down for generations; her kitchen was full of recently bottled Joun olives, as well as exotic preserves and syrups. She was a fund of stories passed down to her from her father and grandfather. As a child, she remembered going to a wedding held in Hester’s house – this was before the 1956 earthquake. She still had a clear memory of the terror she felt when she and some of the other children peered into the “jail,” and dared each other to brave the dark. She told me: “There were stories that she was kooky, she did crazy things. Once she tied all the goats of her herd together because she said they had “headaches!” I nodded: I had seen reports of her unorthodox methods with animals.

I asked whether it was true that Hester had spent her later years entirely alone. Yvette took a deep drag on her cigarette, shot me a look, and went out of the room to get something. She returned with a portrait – a very early photograph of her great uncle, a strikingly handsome man. She said matter-of-factly “This was the son of my grandfather’s brother. He is very handsome, don’t you think?” His father had been even more handsome. “He never married, or at least not until he was quite old; everyone thought it was strange. But they knew he was her [Hester’s] confidant, her lover. He worked on her gardens, and he was always in her house. My father told me all kinds of stories about his great-uncle who had been Lady Stanhope’s lover, but as a child, I didn’t listen. I just thought who cares about an old bat, you know! Later I got much more interested.” She laughed.

The next morning, Yvette was up bustling at dawn, squeezing us fresh orange juice in her dressing gown, preparing Lipton tea, and soft, warm manakich bread sprinkled with zahta (thyme) seeds, with slices of cucumber and labne or thickened yoghurt for breakfast. I had woken early too, and been entranced by the view from the kitchen window. There was fog curling in over the terraced hillsides and snowy peaks of Mount Lebanon; the sun’s rays suffused the sky with a milky hue of blue and rose. It was such a comforting scene; it seemed difficult to imagine such a landscape torn apart by civil war. The man in the portrait had been Almaz’s son. This new detail, which I had not been expecting, suddenly made me able to see Hester in a different way. She had a hidden life in those later years, I realized, that no one else had ever discovered, and only he knew about.

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Later, in the house on the square in Joun where Alphonse de Lamartine stayed when he came to visit Hester, I met Naim Barbar, a spry lady in her sixties and a descendent of the poet’s original host. She pointed out the niche where the poet would have slept. I asked her whether she remembered anything her grandfather, Tewific al-Shami, had told her about Hester, for his father Edmond Daoud el-Dhami had gone to her fortress several times as a child.

She struggled to remember. “The legend we always heard was that Lady Hester Stanhope would sleep with a man one night and kill him the next day,” she said, laughing at herself for how ludicrous that sounded. “The legend was that she didn’t like men too much. We heard that Lamartine wanted to spend the night with her, but she kicked him out. He wrote her a poem, but she wasn’t impressed.” She added: “She was very strange; she would order men to build a wall one week, and then ask them to destroy it.”

That same day, I met one of Naim’s relatives, Joun’s answer to Fred Astaire, Salam Chami, a former dancer and actor still lithe in his sixties, the founder of the ‘Joun Folkloric Troupe.’ He informed me proudly that he had once choreographed for Lebanon’s legendary singer Fairuz at a long-ago summer festival at Beit-ed-Dine. All his life, he told me, he had dreamed of staging “a production in dance and song” of Hester’s life. “When she was still quite young, only in her fifties, people thought she had no lovers,” he said in a low confidential voice. “But she had Almaz, the man from the village who did everything for her. When she died she put all the property and the house in his name. All her black slaves had to bow their heads to him. We heard that in the end, she had nobody, only Almaz, and that she died very early in the morning, her window was open, just as the sun was coming up, and that’s how she left the planet.”

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I had heard that Joun’s mayor, Roger Jawish, had been a Hester devotee ever since he was a boy, and was invited to meet him at his childhood home, where the verandah directly faced what everyone called Dar el Sytt – the Lady’s Hill. While we waited for Roger, his father ushered us in for coffee. As he settled into his armchair, leaning against a bookshelf crammed with French detective novels, I was struck by a curious object on display in a glass cabinet above his head. A human skull. I wanted to ask – whose? – but did not. I turned my attention back to what he was saying about Hester. “She looked like a real lady, maybe not pretty, but impressive. She was authoritative. That’s why some guys liked her,” was how what he said was translated to me from what was no doubt more elegant Arabic. He continued. “She was obscure – nobody knew what she was up to. She was a spy and she had a network of spies.” It was often said that she never had very good relationship with the people of the village, that they feared and mistrusted her. “But they always said she was kind to those who came asking for help; that she was kind even to the bees, leaving fruit on the trees in her vineyard for them instead of eating it.”

I asked him what had become of Hester’s house and all her possessions after she died. He raised his forefinger, thought for a second and began musing aloud, recounting all the families he remembered living there until the terrible earthquake of 1956, when “the fort” was destroyed. He heard her house was plundered after her death, and that many in Joun were quite well aware what had been passed down by which families. One had some large amphorae, another a writing desk. He scratched his head, remembering something else. “Ah, yes. She borrowed money from the Jawish family and never paid it back.”

A jeep pulled up in the gravel. Roger Jawrish, Joun’s mayor but also a prominent surgeon at a private hospital in Beirut, had offered to accompany me for another look around the ruins. From the age of seven, he had often explored Hester’s hill, despite the fact that it was considered by many of his schoolmates to be a rather intimidating place. Wild animals might be about, and certainly snakes – he gaily informed me he had seen black serpents with little red patches, assuring me they were quite venomous. Hester’s extraordinary story had always captivated him. When he was twelve, he had written a book in Arabic about her – his father, still proud, pointed out it had been published not long afterwards. Now he owned much of the land on the other side of “her” hill – which he had bought so it would not be developed; he used it to grow olives and loquats. Soon we were scrambling about again in what had been Hester’s pavilion. We flashed torches into dark stairwells and chambers, where we saw bats, snakes and broken pottery shards. Roger fearlessly shinnied down a well. He told me that a few years before, with the help of an engineer, he had discovered it was linked to Ain Hayroun, a source of clear, crystalline water at the base of Hester’s hill. In otherwise parched countryside, where villagers had to make a long trek to the Awaly river to fetch water, it was a vital resource. Hester, he told me, made a big show of getting water from the river – she had her servants load up mules for that purpose every few days. But it would seem she used that water for her garden, and it was a deliberate ruse to keep her discovery of the spring secret. Roger shook his head; he was still curious about her after all this time.

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On the way to Palmyra

On the way to Palmyra

I had to see Palmyra for myself. It was hardly an ideal time to go. In Beirut, I had been heartened by the fact that everyone seemed more interested in the live coverage of the Miss Lebanon pageant than in the escalating political tensions in the region. But driving through the Bekka valley, accelerating past Hizbollah supporters near the border town of Chatura, I felt my nerves fray. At the checkpoint going into Syria, four brawny guards grimly scrutinised the brightly coloured visa in my passport. Asked to explain where I was heading and why, as a war raged nearby, my reasons suddenly sounded preposterous. I was kept waiting in a side-room for twenty minutes, as discussion continued. For a moment, I felt a rising paranoia as though I myself might fall under suspicion of being a spy.

By the time we set off for Palmrya, we had already spent several days in Damascus. Wafa had taken me to Al Shamiat, popular with diplomats and wealthier Syrians, which reminded me of a transplanted Italian trattoria, without the dangling Chianti bottles, with red-checked keffiyehs instead of tablecloths. We surveyed the menu of a grilled sheep’s testicles, fried brains, sheep’s tongue salad, sparrow kebabs andmakadem or sheep’s trotters. I opted for the national dish – fatteh – (“Not, Fatah, darling, that’s the PLO,” deadpanned Wafa, correcting my accent) a delicious layered, garlicky concoction of Lebanese bread, hummus and tabbouleh. We drank a little arak. Wafa assured me that, Syrian food, as with everything else, fell well below the standards of sophistication set by the Lebanese.

The next morning, as we waited for our driver outside the hotel, I tasted “desert coffee” for the first time, poured for me from a long silver pot into a thimble-sized cup by a fierce-faced Bedouin, squatting on his haunches in the foyer, his keffiyeh bound around his head with the traditional cord. For his novelty value with tourists, no doubt the management gave him a pittance. I took one sip and gagged; the coffee was so strong I could not drink it; much stronger than a hit of espresso, it was a knockout punch, boiled for hours, reduced to its essence. As I handed back the cup, the Bedouin gave me a look of amused superiority.

The camel-coloured, ancient Chevrolet Caprice that was to take us to Palmyra did not look entirely convincing. I remembered what the Bedouin call their camels – “ships of the desert.” I hoped this one would not leak. Over the windscreen was a little handwritten notice in Arabic. Wafa translated: “He Who Trusts in God Will Find a Way.” Our driver, Abu Imad, had a kindly, grizzled face, and an impressive handlebar moustache. He also had, it transpired, seven children between one and a half and twenty-three. At even the most hesitant suggestion that the car might not be fit for the journey, he shook his head adamantly, like a horse trying to break free from its rein. “This excellent car” he said, “very good, long driving, no problem.” In his tattered headscarf and faded army jacket, frayed at all edges, Abu Imad gave the impression of long familiarity with this carcass of a car, with its springy mustard leather upholstery and slightly rusty handles. Somehow, in the Levantine complications that seem to accompany all transactions in the Middle East, we had ended up changing steads. At the last moment, our Lebanese driver from Beirut had balked at the desert journey. Abu Imad nodded respectfully at Wafa, who addressed him with friendly authority in her usual rapid-fire Arabic. As we drove through the outskirts of Damascus, he turned to us and made one of his rare utterances. “Now with the will of Allah, we will go to Palmyra.”

On the way to Palmyra

Returning to Palmyra, different wheels this time…

The warm desert wind blew from the direction of Iraq. At the crossroads, one road forked to Baghdad, stretching to a horizon of barren dust. By four in the afternoon, I noticed Abu Imad had not touched a drop of water. When I offered him an unopened bottle he waved it away. He preferred to drink when he arrived, he insisted; it was his custom. I marvelled at his camel-like stamina. The sunny morning had turned into an almost torturously hot afternoon; by now, I was familiar with the disorientating sensation of confusing an oily mirage for a lake. The heat was stupefying; we dozed in the backseat. When I woke up, the landscape had changed again. I was struck by the vastness and blueness of the sky, how it consumed the emptiness and desiccation below. Unseen fighter jets screamed across the heavens. In our car, I felt tiny and intensely vulnerable, speeding along the open, virtually empty highway, huddling to the side of one great mountain range, with another at an incalculable distance. It struck me that when Hester set out late that March 1813, she had recently turned thirty-seven, exactly my age.

As though out of nowhere, we began to see Bedouin, their faces obscured, their skin stained black from the sun. Far away, were their tell-tale encampments, with black plastic sheeting. (I would learn that they were supposedly beneficiaries of a Japanese-funded aid project backed by the UNDP.) Sometimes they were alone, tending goats. Clusters of children, no more than six or seven of age, materialized by the roadside, waving empty plastic buckets, gesturing for water. Then I was alarmed by the sight of a solitary Bedouin woman, walking along the Damascus-Kamishly railway track, stretching to nothing. Suddenly, the perilous reality of where we were sank in. What if we were stranded, or attacked? What were we thinking not bringing more water with us? Abu Imad interrupted my thoughts, nodding and pointing. “Look. The Bedu woman. She’s alone and not afraid.” Her face turned to us as we passed, blank and expressionless. We waved tentatively. She did not wave back.

Palmyra

Palmyra

We saw the tell-tale clumps of date palms before we saw Palmyra. At dusk, we stopped to walk in the Valley of the Dead, and to gaze across the ruins. The sky was swirled ochre; with my mind still full of visions of emptiness I saw we were on the threshold of the ghost-empire of Palmyra. A few barking jackals broke the stillness. I was relived to see that finally now Abu Imad took a long draught of water: I had not seen a drop pass his lips in eight hours.

By the time Abu Imad dropped us at the Hotel Zenobia, its name picked out in lights as though for a 1930’s starlet, a thick darkness descended. Even though we were barely a few hundred yards away from the ruins, we would have to wait until daylight for a closer look.

At five the next morning, we walked across a sloping sandy expanse to the ruined city in the darkness, wanting to be there to see the first rays of sunrise. Nothing stirred, not even the boys desperate for customers to ride their brightly caparisoned camels, who usually kept vigil at the hotel gate. Could I have visualised, even a day before, what it would feel like to witness the astonishing dust-rose spectacle that is a Palmyra dawn? As I watched swallows dart over the Zenobia’s arch, the air itself seemed spun up by candied light over the monumental stones. I felt a soaring elation to be exactly where I was, a sense of freedom unbridled under the wide sky. Suddenly, Hester’s spirit did not seem so far away.