Adonis Diaries

Lady Hester Stanhope: How she was called Queen of Palmyra?

Posted on: October 24, 2008

The Queen of Palmyra, “La reine de Palmyre” by Denise Brahimi  (Written on March 26, 2007)

The novel is about Hester Stanhope, this English lady who lived most of her life in the village of Djoun, Joun, in the Chouf of Lebanon from 1819 till her death in 1839.

This historical fiction based on facts is wonderful, critical and very funny.  It is written in the first person as Hester.  Since there is no introduction or preface,  I am not sure how much the author relied on confirmed letters or any sort of diary by Lady Stanhope.

Whatever I report is kind of review of this book and my knowledge of the region history, geography and traditions.

I appreciated greatly the details and the corny sexual innuendos and emotional descriptions of relationship among people coming from different civilizations, cultures, and traditions.

Lady Hester Stanhope was the niece of William Pitt, PM.  William was her mother’s brother and ruled England for 22 years since he was 25 years old and he died young by the age of 47.

Hester’s mother died when she was only 4 years old.  Lady Chatham was her grand mother, a very strict lady that apparently never fell in love.  Hester move in with William since the age of 25 and worked with him for over 10 years: She had the best political mind to instruct her on world affairs.

Four years after the death of William she left England in 1810, never to return.

Hester was a tall girl of over 185 cm, svelte, pretty with large hands and feet. She was healthy with a fighting spirit that saved her when the plague fever or something as dangerous hit her in Lataquieh in Syria.

The journey of Hester started by visited northern Spain to erect a marble tombstone over her fiancé, General Moore, who died during the retreat of the British army from the advance of Emperor Bonaparte.

She stayed briefly in Gibraltar, then in Malta where she dropped her lover girlfriend Elizabeth who was to wed a Maltese man.

Hester stayed in Alexandria, saw the ruling strongman Mehemet Ali in Cairo, and she moved on to Akka, Saida, Constantinople, Palmyra, and Latakieh before she settled in Djoun in the Chouf.

Her lover Michael, 10 years younger than her, accompanied her because the rich Michael’s father wanted his son to see the world and get instructions from Hester.

Hester fell in love with the French Colonel, Vincent Yves Boutin, on mission by Bonaparte in the Orient.  Boutin disappeared in the mountains of Ansarieh in Syria around 1815, this was the bastion of the Alawi Moslem sect. Hester waited a year for his return and then spent six hectic months pressuring the authorities to inquire about Boutin whereabouts.

Her friend Suleiman, the Pasha of Akka, reluctantly sent an expedition to Ansarieh which massacred villagers and destroyed the ancient fortress Kalaat el Kef without any results of finding news of Boutin.  Hester had to visit Ansarieh and stayed there for 6 weeks explaining her motives to the poor mountain people who listened silently.

Knowing a little about history and the culture of the region, I think that the Turks had a habit of persecuting this closed sect of Hashasheen that settled in the region near Aleppo.  The Hashasheen had transferred their headquarters to the Ansarieh region after the Mogul ransacked their impregnable fortress in North-East Iran.  The sect had ruled Aleppo and its environs for quite a time and were powerful during the reign of Salah El Dine.

Hester knew the Ottoman Sultan Mahmoud II who came to power during Pitt’s tenure and was a sure ally to Britain.

Hester had a long, close and turbulent relationship with Emir Basheer II of Lebanon for over 25 years; they had respect for one another and kept nagging one another over many little and big difficulties.

Hester spent her last years in Djoun in financial difficulty, which prevented her to instituting a center of Oriental research like Napoleon did in Egypt; she intended to retain the scholars who visited the region.  (Napoleon instituted the first Egyptian studies for archaeology,  ancient religion, culture and civilization which encouraged the European researchers to resume and build on the findings of the Napoleonic discoveries).  S

She lived a very frugal life in Djoun using wooden utensils, sleeping on the floor, going barefoot except during cold weather, raising goats and chickens and living from the resources of her land.  Hester was not a morning person: she could not bear being disturbed when she wakes up and needed her regular Turkish coffee served in her bed, several cups of coffee, and then she lighted her narghileh.

She took into drinking cheap rum and Lebanese wine in her later years, just as her uncle Pitt was barely sober during his long tenure as Prime Minister to King George III.  Hester died in 1839, a week before Sultan Mahmoud II and one year before Bashir II.

Hester could never find out the true religion of Basheer II because he was considered Druze, Maronite, or Sunni as people preferred to categorize him to their illusive wishes: Basher knew the local game perfectly and used to play on the animosities between Maronite and Druze, Metoualis (Shiaa) and Ansarieh, Kurds and Ismailieh.

Once, Hester confronted Besheer II and said: “Don’t you take yourself for Fakhredine when you claim to be the sole recognized chief in Lebanon?”  Basher retorted: “On which country are you governing Queen of Palmyra? Do you realize how much I had to pay the Bedouins of Palmyra to coronate you?  I am the one who ordered your diadem and I am the one who ordered the tribe of Aneze to obey you and celebrate your fictitious coronation.  Go ahead with your theatrical acts but let me govern my country”

Lady Stanhope realized that regardless of their difference of religions and sects, the fellahs (peasant) of Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine form one people in their customs, tradition and way of living. Most of the Orientalists who visited the region shared the same impression and Lamartine once said: “Egypt is one man but Lebanon is one people“.  The fellahs here have not the habit of being treated as slaves or being herded in any army by duress to work the mines or anything else far from his patch of land.

Hester could not suffer the normal contradictions in old Europe toward the other indigent out of unconsciousness or plain hypocrisy.  She wondered why the western bemoaned the reclusive life of the woman in the Orient though she was far happier and content with her lot.

Women used to wear the veil when out of their domiciles but the aristocratic women in London wore the veil too to set themselves apart from the common people.  The rich women in Lebanon spent their time taking care of their beauty and meeting leisurely, though little girls in Britain were hired to work over 14 hours a day.

The women in the Orient enjoyed their own financial independence that their husbands could not share and they always managed to satisfy their sexual appetites outside their homes.  The workers in the industrial age are stupefied and turning drunkards, bandits and prostitutes.  How could such an ignorant relic of physical and mental exhaustion vote appropriately in a democratic system?

There was no sexual inhibition in our region (Near East) during Hester time and lesbianism and gay relationships were taken as natural behavior and even healthy to add “amusement and inventing games”.  The servants naturally knew when Hester needed sexual release and they satisfied her tenderly, professionally, and respectfully.

When she asked Logmagi, her stable man and courrier, for tea he came in with a fresh rose in his teeth.

Hester believed that the domination of the Ottoman Sultan is by far a better deal and more benevolent for Syria, Lebanon and Palestine than Mehetmet Ali of Egypt: simply because the Ottoman Empire was getting old and weak and let its subject people more autonomous decisions within their regions.

She told Basheer II that the Arabs would become the masters of the Orient if they maintain the power of the Ottoman Sultan; otherwise other powers, like the Egyptians and especially the western powers, would take the Sultan place and considerably retard that advent.  Basheer agreed with her completely but was forced to ally to Mehemet Ali because the latter was stronger militarily than the Ottoman and he was brutal and merciless for those who sided against him.

It was during Hester time that steam ships made it easier to travel by seas and the French started their conquest of Algeria and northern Africa in general.  Even at this period Hester could no longer find differences between the two major parties in Britain, the Whigs and the Tories, who seek progress at any price by hegemony and the suppressing the dignity of the British people through mass production and the other oppressed people.

I am not sure about the author claim that William Pitt, in cooperation with Talleyrand, Napoleon’s Foreign Minister, encouraged Bonaparte to changing his objective from invading Britain to going to Egypt instead.  Napoleon invaded Egypt at least four years before he amassed his forces in Boulogne Sur Mer in order to invading Britain.  Unless the author is referring to Napoleon’s dilemma when he was just one of the three Consuls into selecting the next objective in 1798.

Bonaparte was sent to Egypt out of internal politics because the Senate and Directorate feared the rising political clout of Napoleon and wanted him as far away from France as possible.

I think it is the author who had the dates mixed up and not Hester, because the author said that Napoleon changed his mind and hurried to defeat the European coalition in the famous Austerlitz battle of the three Emperors of France, Russia Alexander I and Prussia Frederic-Guillaume.

Although Hester feared Napoleon’s threats to Britain, she considered him the genius of his century compared to those leaders that governed Europe after he was exiled to St. Helena. She was infuriated by the methods used to humiliate the Emperor of all Europe.

She was impressed by Napoleon pluck of enthroning himself and then crowning Josephine while the Pope was standing in the background.

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adonis49

adonis49

adonis49

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