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Panoramic Views > Mount Lebanon > El Shoof > Lady Esther Stanhope

Lady Esther Stanhope: In the Days of Bashir: an Aggressive and Troublesome Guest

In the year 1808 a guest of some distinction came to settle in Lebanon, no less a person than the niece of the famous British statesman William Pitt. She was born in 1776 and had been the secretary, confident and right hand of her uncle up till his death in 1808.

She felt completely lost after this sad news. Then following the death of her brother, and of her fiancé General John Moore in the retreat from Napoleon at Corunna in Spain, Lady Esther Stanhope decided to come East. She visited Istanbul, traveled around Egypt, Palestine and Syria, and finally took up abode at Joun in South Lebanon, where she died in 1839.

Esther carried herself well, svelte, imposing and authoritarian. Her complexion, freshness, grace and charm made her outstanding for beauty. Her fine figure and majestic ways all gave her a distinction that was little less than sublime. To describe her adequately would need a whole chapter, for in addition to this exceptional physique one would have to add her courage, her thought, her intelligence and her strong will. She was a true Pitt, one who knew no fear, combining unparalleled feminine beauty with exceptional masculine boldness.

Young, beautiful, rich and audacious! At Joun she had plenty of “oriental” preoccupations, installed on the hill now known as Dahr as-Sitt, the Hump of the Lady. There she built her residence and led a life of oriental luxury worthy of the Arabian Nights with an army of servants at her beck and call. Some fifty personnel from all parts came to submit to her least wishes. These included her own doctor, local people, butlers, and as ladies-in-waiting women from Switzerland and her own England. To these must be added Lebanese Christians and Druze. There were Fattoum and Zaïzafoun, young servants whom she terrorized. Her character was bizarre indeed; she had an aversion to women, even refusing to meet no less a person in 1816 than the Princess of Wales, then passing through Lebanon.

She was most difficult to deal with, refusing to sit at table with anyone, according to Lamartine, who was her guest, eating only bread and fruit. And according to Pierre Benoît, “...she spent one half of her time consulting the stars and the other in conversation; she was a tireless talker, chatting for ten to fourteen hours without leaving her reception ‘diwan’.”

The opinions of her visitors diverged greatly. Lamartine was an enthusiastic admirer, while in 1827 François Laborde considered her an elderly idiot, off her head and senile, and Dr. Madden thought her a genius of unique intelligence, such were the divided appreciations of her.

Her favorite preoccupation was her dreams and the predictions of astrologers. Bruce thought she had political ambitions, perhaps an empire of Palmyra. She thought of marrying Ibn Saoud. Did she imagine herself reincarnating Zenobia or Cleopatra or Balkis or even the deluded nun Hindiyeh? But she was far from equaling Mary Magdalen, who in addition to the qualities of Esther had a Canaanite perfumer and knelt at the feet of the Lord.

She stymied the missions of the agents of Napoleon, herself having secret agents everywhere. To avenge her friend Boutin killed by the Alawites, she prepared a campaign against their land, where fifty-two villages were burned, three hundred Alawites killed, crops devastated, trees felled, women and children taken and houses set on fire.

She fell in love several times, with Boudin and with Captain Loustaunou, son of the well-known general. Praised for her chastity and her courage, she loved only for the sake of glory. There were no men in her life, said Pierre Benoît, with the possible exception of that distant young Englishman killed in Spain. Legend and fact are intermingled and it is hard to separate them.

The relationship between the Lady of Joun and Emir Bashir was by no means easy although in 1812 he had given her a magnificent reception. She held out against him for more than twenty years although he would have been only too pleased to get rid of this hostile guest. She for her part looked on the Prince as a monster, a demon, her worst enemy: “I would not be a true Pitt if I bowed before a monster who loads with chains the necks and the feet of the aged, puts out eyes and tears out tongues.” She challenged both the prestige and the authority of the Prince. After the Battle of Navarin, the French of Sidon found refuge at Joun. This was in the house of Lady Esther, an inviolable asylum, no longer part of the Lebanon of Emir Bashir.

The angry Emir wished to finish with this foreigner but did not know how. In 1827 he published throughout his lands an order that “...all the servants of the Lady es-Sitt should leave her employ under pain of losing their goods and their lives.” He even went so far as to surround her residence. Lady Esther countered by calling for the intervention of the British ambassador in Istanbul, and the Sublime Porte thereupon dispatched a Pasha as a delegate to take the part of Lady Stanhope.

With the Egyptian invasion of Lebanon in 1831, the hatred and fury of English Lady Esther burst out into the open against Bashir and his allies. Thanks to her spies everywhere, she played an active role with her information and agents.

Men of letters, novelists, poets, generals, ambassadors, agents and spies, personalities without number came into contact with Lady Esther, Es-Sitt, and gave their opinion about her madness or her genius. Her biographies have insisted on the strange and eccentric aspects of her character, her inspirations, her digging for imagined ancient treasure, her belief in astrology, in prophesies, in miracles and in omens.

On the limestone hills of Joun nothing remains of the strange castle over which this outlandish mistress reigned for twenty years.

Joseph Matar

Translation from the French: Kenneth Mortimer

- Lady Esther Stanhope, Djoun: >> View Movie << (2010-06-15)



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