“Nature forms us in a certain manner, both inwardly and outwardly, and it is in vain to attempt to alter it.” —Lady Hester Stanhope

Famed adventurist and antiquarian, Lady Hester left a life of aristocratic luxury to explore the far corners of the world. Her excavation of Ashkelon in 1815—the first archaeological excavation in Palestine— stands among her achievements. 

Lady Hester Stanhope in her aristocratic years. Portrait by Sir William Beechey. Courtesy of Wiki Commons

As the favorite daughter of the wealthy Lord Charles, 3rd Earl of Stanhope, Lady Hester found herself impoverished and orphaned at age 27, after her father succeeded in giving away his fortune out of sympathy for French revolutionaries. A romance gone bad and this turn of fortune prompted Stanhope to seek a life of adventure at age 33. She set sail for the Mediterranean, a lover 13 years her junior in tow.

Described by Lord Byron as “that dangerous thing, a female wit,” Stanhope emerged from a shipwreck on her way to Cairo dressed as a Turkish man and continued this unorthodox presentation throughout her life, often dressed in robes, a sabre by her side. She was known to visit harems, smoke a pipe, ride a horse with the best of the men in her company, and swear in three languages. She shocked the masses by trotting into Damascus unveiled. Her travels took her to Turkey, Malta, Egypt and Syria.

Legend has it that Stanhope traveled through 60 miles of unmapped desert occupied by Bedouin bandits to reach Palmyra as the first European woman to make it there. She earned the title of Queen of the Desert among the locals.

Her discovery of a medieval Italian manuscript led to the excavation in Palestine of the ruins beneath a mosque in the port city of Ashkelon. It is said to be the first excavation to use the modern archaeological principle of stratigraphical analysis. A 7-ft tall headless marble statue was unearthed at the site—the first Greco-Roman artifact excavated in the Holy Land. Rather unconventionally, Stanhope ordered the artifact to be smashed into “a thousand pieces” and thrown into the sea, as evidence that she did not seek to benefit financially from her discovery.

She eventually settled in a town along the Mediterranean coast in what is now Lebanon, taking up residence in various monasteries—none of which were open to women. The Arabs were mesmerized by her wealth and unusual manner and treated her with reverence. Over the years, she offered sanctuary to hundreds of refugees and earned their respect as a de facto ruler of that region. But Stanhope’s increasingly delusional thinking left her in debt and mentally untethered. It is said that she kept a pair of prize-worthy mares in her stable for the purpose of riding to Jerusalem with the Messiah. She died in Lebanon in 1839.

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