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.



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.

One Response to “Palmyra”

  1. Sandy Bartle says on :

    Thank you for your insights into the present tragedy that is Syria. Since the fall of Baghdad cruel rivalries have beset the Arab peoples, who are inclined to blame others for the miseries that they bring down on themselves.

    Certainly the meddling of imperial nations has not helped, but is it a complete myth to imagine that the period of Ottoman rule was more stable than any other?

    If so, what lessons might be drawn from this?

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