Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope (12 March 1776 – 23 June 1839) was a British socialite, adventurer and traveler. Her archaeological expedition to Ashkelon in 1815 is considered the first modern excavation in the history of Holy Land archeology. Her use of a medieval Italian document is described as “one of the earliest uses of textual sources by field archaeologists.”
Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope was the eldest child of Charles Stanhope, 3rd Earl Stanhope, by his first wife, Lady Hester Pitt. She was born at her father’s seat of Chevening and lived there until early in 1800, when she was sent to live with her grandmother, Hester Pitt, Countess of Chatham, at Burton Pynsent.
In August 1803, she became chief of the household of her uncle, William Pitt the Younger. In his position as British Prime Minister, Pitt, who was unmarried, needed a hostess. Lady Hester sat at the head of his table and assisted in welcoming his guests; she became known for her beauty and conversational skills. When Pitt was out of office, she served as his private secretary. She was also the prime initiator of the gardens at Walmer Castle during his tenure as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. Britain awarded her an annual pension of £1200 after Pitt’s death in January 1806. After living for some time at Montagu Square in London, she moved to Wales, and then left England for good in February 1810 after the death of her brother. A romantic disappointment is said to have prompted her decision to go to a long sea voyage.
Among her entourage were her physician and later biographer Charles Meryon, her maid, Anne Fry, and Michael Bruce, who became her lover. It is claimed that when they arrived in Athens, the poet, Lord Byron, dived into the sea to greet her. From Athens they traveled to Constantinople, capital of the Ottoman Empire, and intended to proceed to Cairo, only recently emerged from the chaos following Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and the international conflicts that followed.
Journey to the Near and Middle East
En route to Cairo, the ship encountered a storm and was shipwrecked on Rhodes. With all their possessions gone, the party borrowed Turkish clothing. Stanhope refused to wear a veil, choosing the garb of a Turkish male: robe, turban and slippers. When a British frigate took them to Cairo, she bought a purple velvet robe, embroidered trousers, waistcoat, jacket, saddle and saber. In this costume she went to greet the Pasha.
From Cairo she continued her travels in the Middle East. Over a period of two years she visited Gibraltar, Malta, the Ionian Islands, the Peloponnese, Athens, Constantinople, Rhodes, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. She refused to wear a veil even in Damascus. In Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was cleared of visitors and reopened in her honour.
Learning from fortune-tellers that her destiny was to become the bride of a new messiah, she made matrimonial overtures to Ibn Saud, the chief of the Wahabies. She decided to visit the city of Palmyra, even though the route went through a desert with potentially hostile Bedouins. She dressed as a Bedouin and took with her a caravan of 22 camels to carry her baggage. Emir Mahannah el Fadel received her and she became known as “Queen Hester.”
According to Charles Meryon, she came into possession of a medieval Italian manuscript copied from the records of a monastery somewhere in Syria. According to this document, a great treasure was hidden under the ruins of a mosque at the port city of Ashkelon, which had been lying in ruins for 600 years. In 1815, on the strength of this map, she traveled to the ruins of Ashkelon on the Mediterranean coast north of Gaza, and persuaded the Ottoman authorities to allow her to excavate the site. The governor of Jaffa, Abu Nabbut (Father of the Cudgel) was ordered to accompany her. This resulted in the first archaeological excavation in Palestine. While she did not find the hoard of three million gold coins reportedly buried there, the excavators unearthed a seven-foot headless marble statue. She ordered the statue to be smashed into “a thousand pieces” and thrown into the sea.
Life Amongst the Arabs
Lady Hester settled near Sidon, a town on the Mediterranean coast in what is now Lebanon, about halfway between Tyre and Beirut. She lived first in the disused Mar Elias monastery at the village of Abra, and then in another monastery, Deir Mashmousheh, southwest of the Casa of Jezzine. Her companion, Miss Williams, and medical attendant, Dr Charles Meryon, remained with her for some time; but Miss Williams died in 1828, and Meryon left in 1831, only returning for a final visit from July 1837 to August 1838.
When Meryon left for England, Lady Hester moved to a remote abandoned monastery at Joun, a village eight miles from Sidon, where she lived until her death. Her residence, known by the villagers as Dahr El Sitt, was at the top of a hill. Meryon implied that she liked the house because of its strategic location, “the house on the summit of a conical hill, whence comers and goers might be seen on every side.”
At first she was greeted by emir Bashir Shihab II, but over the years she gave sanctuary to hundreds of refugees of Druze inter-clan and inter-religious squabbles and earned his enmity. In her new setting, she wielded almost absolute authority over the surrounding districts. Her control over the natives was enough to cause Ibrahim Pasha, when about to invade Syria in 1832, to seek her neutrality, and this supremacy was maintained by her commanding character and by the belief that she possessed the gift of divination.
She kept up a correspondence with important people and received curious visitors who went out of their way to visit her. Finding herself deeply in debt, her pension from England was used to pay off her creditors in Syria. She became a recluse and her servants began to take off with her possessions because she could not pay them. She would not receive visitors until dark and then would only let them see her hands and face. She wore a turban over her shaven head.
In 1846, some years after her death, Dr Meryon published three volumes of Memoirs of the Lady Hester Stanhope as related by herself in Conversations with her Physician, and these were followed in the succeeding year by three volumes of Travels of Lady Hester Stanhope, forming the Completion of her Memoirs narrated by her Physician.