The Eccentric English Lady Who Introduced Archaeology to the Holy Land

Lady Hester Stanhope persuaded the Turks to let her dig for treasure in Ashkelon, thus starting a trend that has built up over the next 200 years.

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Today, Israel is a magnet for archaeologists. But it turns out the first person to excavate here was a non-archaeologist – and a woman.

Lady Hester Stanhope was an adventurer who often scandalized people, but always got her way. In the early 19th century, she did everything women weren’t supposed to do: roamed the Middle East by herself, wore male clothing, rode astride rather than sidesaddle, and smoked pipes with sheikhs. She was called the queen of the desert. And even though she didn’t find the treasure she sought, she was an archaeological pioneer.

Born in 1776 to a wealthy, well-connected family, she was raised to be a well-bred lady. But it didn’t work.

“She apparently suffered from attention deficit disorder,” says Dr. Avi Sasson of Ashkelon Academic College, who has researched Stanhope’s life. “Her father sent her to her grandmother, who passed her on to [Hester’s] uncle, William Pitt [The Younger’], the prime minister of Britain.”

Since Pitt was a bachelor, Stanhope ran his house, “and very quickly became something like his chief of staff,” Sasson said. She also nursed him as he became ill, and he therefore left her a generous legacy.

After Pitt died in 1806, as she was deciding what to do next, “she met a British naval officer who prophesied that she would reach Jerusalem and lead the chosen people,” recounts Sasson. Thus, in 1810, she decided to go east. She was then in her mid-thirties, a wealthy spinster.

Sasson’s colleague, historian Gad Sobol, has also been studying Stanhope. Last week, they presented their findings at a conference on Ashkelon’s history at Ashkelon College.

It took Stanhope a few years to reach Israel, Sasson says. First, she went to Gibraltar, Malta, Constantinople [Istanbul] and Egypt.

In Cairo, she charmed the Egyptian ruler, Muhammad Ali Pasha, who sent 11 camels and 30 horses to escort her north to Jaffa. She toured Christian holy sites in places like Jerusalem and Bethlehem, then headed north to Syria and Lebanon. It was in Syria, in the ancient city of Tadmor, that the local Bedouin first crowned her “Queen of the desert,” and the name stuck.

“At first, Arab leaders saw their meetings with her as strange, but she quickly swept them away,” says Sasson. “There’s a drawing that shows her sitting with a sheikh in Lebanon, and they’re smoking a hookah together. Women didn’t smoke back then, certainly not in public.”

Due to illness and bureaucratic delays, she reached Lebanon only in 1812. There, she visited the Mar Elias monastery near Sidon, where the monks showed her an Italian scroll that told of a great treasure buried in Ashkelon. Stanhope promptly decided to hunt for the treasure.

When she asked the Turks – who at the time controlled the area – for a permit to dig in Ashkelon, they initially refused, because that was an era when Western archaeologists routinely stole antiquities for Western museums. But after Stanhope promised to give them the treasure if she found it, the Ottoman authorities grew enthusiastic over the plan and ordered the governors of Damascus, Acre and Jaffa to assist her.

“You have to understand that there was no archaeology in the Land of Israel until the 1920s,” explains Sobol. “But suddenly, along comes a woman dressed like a man, riding a horse, who enters Damascus and gets what she wants.”

Her entourage of dozens of people – some who came with her from England, and others who joined en route – reached Ashkelon in March 1815 and camped near the village of Jura. She hired 100 Jura residents for the dig.

“After Lady Stanhope, the Ottomans no longer feared archaeologists,” says Sobol. “In that sense, she effected an enormous change: She proved it was worthwhile, and not dangerous, to excavate here.

“She did exceptional preparatory work,” he adds. “She examined the area’s geographic data and collected material from local residents ... which enabled her to reach the site of Tel Ashkelon, where she got encouragement from a local sheikh that this was the right place to dig.”

The treasure she sought was never found. But a white marble statue of a headless Roman warrior, more than two meters tall, was discovered on the second day of her dig. To the shock of those present, Stanhope ordered that it be smashed and thrown into the sea, apparently to prove to the Turks that she wasn’t hunting antiquities.

Charles Lewis Meryon, a doctor who accompanied her and documented the dig, wrote that they found pottery, bits of marble and granite columns, making it apparent this had been a public building – probably a basilica. “But she wasn’t interested,” says Sasson.

The dig ended after two weeks, in great disappointment, Sasson adds. But despite the fact she was no archaeologist and her contribution to archaeological research was slim, “she had great influence over the archaeologists who came after her and tried to investigate the area where she dug.”

Stanhope also undoubtedly did a great service to Ashkelon. Her findings were widely reported and attracted many visitors, including Scottish artist David Roberts, who painted the old city in 1838.

Ashkelon has a wealth of archaeology that has never received proper attention, mainly due to lack of funding, according to Sobol. “A Canaanite gate that’s the only one of its kind in the world was found in Ashkelon – a bronze structure from before the Roman building began. But today, Tel Ashkelon is a parking lot. Under it is an area of noblemen’s houses and government centers from the Roman city. When an investor comes, you’ll see that Ashkelon is more than Beit She’an and Caesarea combined.”

Stanhope died aged 63, sick, poor and alone. In 1817, she had built a house on the ruins of an ancient fortress near the Lebanese Druze village of Joun, and there she lived until her death. She was buried in her garden.

It’s said that when Muhammad Ali’s son, Ibrahim Pasha, conquered Lebanon, one place was left untouched – Stanhope’s house. No Egyptian soldier would enter it. Muhammad Ali later said she had caused him more problems than all the rebels in Syria and Palestine.