Poor Theodore Bent spent his 45th, and last, birthday (30 March 1897) in hospital in Aden, malaria stricken. Just a few weeks beforehand, however, he and his wife Mabel were happily wandering on camels through the plains and mountains of Socotra – a speck a centimetre west of the Horn of Africa on most maps – looking for archaeological remains and enjoying the fantastical scenery; Mabel took photographs while Theodore sketched in watercolour in his naïve way. How far back did he work at this style? As a Yorkshire Baildon boy? Or at Repton and Wadham? In any event he obviously took pleasure in the art and his illustrations later assisted his studies in the field (reminiscences, maps, plans, inscriptions, etc.); he felt assured enough to have his views published in all his books and, editors permitting, in many of his articles that had to do with the couple’s adventures in the Eastern Mediterranean, Ethiopia, Great Zimbabwe, Southern Arabia, Persia…
Mabel’s diaries often refer to her husband’s drawing materials and sketches, calling the latter ‘pretty’. Theodore was sketching on his last trip, in 1897, to Socotra and Aden, as his wife records: “[Thursday] February 4th . The mountains of the Haghier range [Socotra] are most beautifully peaked and needled, and here look red, not being smothered by the smooth, grey lichen. We were, though sorry to quit the mountains, glad to reach the plain, cross a river on stones and mount our camels and reach Suk… We encamped by a lagoon and had a pleasant afternoon and evening walking by the sea, and also choosing places for photography on the morrow and Theodore sketching. We had to keep the tent open at night it was so warm and still.’ [‘Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent’, Vol. 3, Southern Arabia, 2010, page 303]
Several of Bent’s watercolours of Socotra are illustrated in the couple’s great work ‘Southern Arabia’. His sketch book (17.5 x 25 cm) obviously survived the rigours and maladies of the hard journey and return home from Aden at the end of April 1887. Although Theodore and Mabel were still terribly ill, once out of hospital, and barely fit for travel, they embarked immediately for Marseilles. There Theodore had a relapse and although rushed back to their London home, he died a few days later in early May (1897). His sketch book remained unopened until Mabel felt strong enough psychologically to have the watercolours photographed and prepared as plates for ‘Southern Arabia’, the anthology of their years spent in the region.
As for the original watercolours now, who knows? But by a miracle, one has survived in a private collection – it probably never travelled back to Marble Arch with the invalid couple in the spring of 1897: it is a scene of ‘Kalenzia’ (Qalansiyah), a coastal village at the extreme east of Socotra (a Google image of the area is also shown here below); we are looking west, it is sunset, the mountains above the village sombre; in the foreground, among palm trees, are a few simple huts and what looks like a mosque with its minaret. Theodore has signed his name bottom right, with the inscription ‘Kalenzia, I[sle] of Socotra, 1897’.
The DNB of 1901 adds to Bent’s entry that “[his] notebooks and numerous drawings and sketches remain in the possession of Mrs. Bent.” A few of his notebooks are in the Joint Library of the Hellenic and Roman Societies, London, but where are his “numerous drawings and sketches”? Do please let us know if you have any information on Theodore’s unpublished ones!
Let’s be clear, although Theodore made hundreds of them, surviving original watercolours by him are as rare as evidence of the elusive Queen of Sheba he spent his last years looking for. A portfolio of watercolours of Great Zimbabwe and its surroundings is thought to be in Harare… and that’s it, apart from the aforementioned scene of ‘Kalenzia’, a detail of which is appropriately used for Theodore’s last birthday card (heading this post). This mesmeric scene is not reproduced in the Bents’ ‘Southern Arabia’, but it would surely have if Mabel had been in possession of it as she worked assembling her book in London in 1900. As mentioned previously, the chances are the picture never reached Marble Arch with the rest of their travel gear in the early summer of 1897. Did Theodore give or sell it in Aden, or on the long journey home by steamer, through Suez, to Marseilles. Did someone say, ‘That’s nice’, and Theodore present it with a bow – perhaps to Henry Watts Russell de Coëtlogon (1839–1908), with whom the Bents dined in Aden on their last, sad, journey? It surely could not just have been lost (or stolen) before the Bents reached England? The happy coda is that, whatever happened to it since it materialised in Qalansiyah some 120 years ago, it appeared at auction in Germany in 2013, selling for 100 Euros, and is now, presumably, being privately and luckily enjoyed; if by you, please let us know. Happy birthday Theodore.
A superficially unremarkable photograph sent in recently by Anafi specialist Prof. Margaret Kenna contains a remarkable clue. The clue is a family name – Simos – on a plaque commemorating benefactors to the Association of Anafi Islanders (Greek Cyclades) in the early 1950s: a relatively prosperous family, thanks to one Matthaios Simos.
There is an archetype waiting for psychoanalysts to explore – the dragoman, the person you employ to facilitate your travel in foreign lands. Wiktionary helps here (if you want more, you are on your own): ‘From Middle English dragman, borrowed from Old French drugeman, from Medieval Latin dragumannus, from Byzantine Greek δραγομάνος (dragomános), from Arabic تُرْجُمَان (turjumān, “translator, interpreter”)’.
What type you get depends on your luck – from an Aristotle to a Zidane – and all travel narratives contain them, none more so than our great 19th-century accounts. And Theodore and Mabel Bent had an extraordinary one: not their first, Kostandinos Verviziotes (for the couple’s 1882/3 visit to Greece and Turkey), nor their second, George Phaedros from Smyrna, who started with the Bents as they left for the Cyclades in the winter of 1883. Theodore and Mabel engaged George on the recommendation of Mr Dennis at the Smyrna consulate. That he was only a moderate success may be inferred by Mabel’s initial lack of enthusiasm when he joins them again, at Ermoupolis, Syros, in December 1883. Apparently he enjoyed a drink, but he was also a grumbler and a terrible sailor – a distinct disadvantage when island-hopping, out of season, on small ﬁshing boats. By Naxos, a few weeks later, the Bents had had enough of him, and one day, high up in a mountain village, they ﬁnd themselves sitting in a warm room, and, “When Mr. Konstantinides our host came home he found 10 people drying their clothes, us two and Phaedros, Mr. Swan, and a man called Mantheos, a native of Anaphi who is to show Mr. Swan mines there…” George was dismissed on Naxos in January 1884 – with just five words in Mabel’s notebook: “We left Phaedros at Naxos”. The Bents went on, of course, to explore Anafi a few weeks later.
There is a sad letter (in English) from George folded into Mabel’s 1883/4 diary asking for remuneration, and although diversionary, no apologies are given for including it here, just skip it if you wish:
[C/O British Consulate Smyrna 1st February /84] Dear Mr Bent I am happy to learn from your favours of 20th January which I received on the 30th of the same, that both you and Mrs Bent are quite well. I have been always thinking of you how you managed with the continuation of your excursion, and how you got on with the unusual rough winter of this year exposing yourselves so, to the mercy and providence I dare say of God. As regards my passage to Smyrna after we departed, you will please learn that your hopes did not prove as expected for I did not escape of what I was fearing. The wretched steamer ‘Eptanisos’ which took you from Naxos on Monday the 7th of January 1884, did not come back to that island to pick me up for Syra until Wednesday the 9th January, (and about noon) and subsequently she kept going so slow, that I missed the Messageries steamer for Smyrna which was leaving Syra (bound for that town) on the same day. I have been waiting consequently six days in Syra and was obliged to spend almost all the money you gave me at Naxos, (viz: the 100 francs) that is to say in expenses for the Hotel in Syra, in changing my broken and shabby hat, and in paying for my passage or fare ticket to Smyrna which brought me home almost penniless. And my wife had already spent also, what I had sent her from Syra in buying some necessary things for the house, with the cause of the holidays etc. So my friends who expected me to return quite a rich man, contemplating, in their idea and opinion that I was getting £T5 [Turkish pounds] per day in consideration of the winter season travelling, were quite disappointed to ﬁnd that I was obliged and in need to borrow money off them. Mr Dennis also told me that he did not think it was right for me to pay out of my pocket my passage to Syra and back and the expenses for the delay in waiting you in Syra etc., etc. As regards the salary I do not exactly appreciate the opinion of my friends, but I think it is fair that you should make a little allowance for the winter season, that is to say if you do not ﬁnd it so inconvenient, so as to make it worth my while, as I am a fellow with a family as you know. I left Syra on the evening of Monday 14th January. I don’t know where you have spent that fearful evening and night but it was in my destiny to ﬁnd myself in a most violent gale, but fortunately in a brave Arab steamer with Greek captains which was ﬁghting with the elements of the nature that night and stand up like a giant against them. All the plates and glasses are broken and the water found its way in to the cabins. We overtook a steamer called ‘Simiotis’ and saw her bow deeped into the water and we thought she was going to be lost but we learnt that she turned back to Tinos. We kept up but we suffered until we faced the Bay of Smyrna. The impression of that night is still very brisk in my memory. But the necessity of a man is superior to the impression of fear. Although I foresee still bad weather going to be, I made up my mind to come and accompany you again and to be at Syra on the 16th February with the hopes that we shall ahoy the caïques and you will pay for my passage, etc. Please send through Mr. Binney some money for my travelling expenses, etc., enabling me thus to make my start. With my best regards to Mrs. Bent and Mr. Swan. I remain yours sincerely… George Phaedros.
This proved a letter in a bottle however and no reply to him is referenced. Within a few days of Phaedros’ abandonment, a whiskery Ariadne on Naxos, and Matthaios Simos (Mabel Bent spells him a multitude of ways over the next ﬁfteen years, but ‘Manthaios’, awkwardly, seems to predominate) gets the top job as dragoman for the Bents, and begins a partnership – friendship really – with Theodore and Mabel that continues until 1897 and Theodore’s death. Missing only two or three seasons, Theodore (using the English telegraph station at Ermoupolis to reach him) wires Matthaios from London that he might be, on such and such a date, at Syros, or Rhodes, or Chios, or Alexandria, or Port Said, or wherever, to act as their translator, guide, cook, lodgings ofﬁcer, victualler, foreman and general factotum. This small and wiry islander, who waited to marry until he had finished his career with the Bents, having by then sufficient resources, ‘plusios’ even, and a good catch. (As was the case with so many young Greeks who ventured far afield to escape difficult conditions back home.) Matthaios left his footprints in the sands of Southern Arabia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Egypt, Socotra, Yemen, as well as all around the Aegean.
It is fascinating to see in print and photographs how such a relationship developed. In his great book “The Cyclades”, this is Theodore in 1885: ‘My ﬁrst experiences [of the islands] were made with the assistance of a dragoman; but, on better acquaintance with the language, I learnt to despise his services, and took as servant a native of one of the islands, who became invaluable in assisting me to discover points of folklore which without him it would have been impossible to arrive at.’
In the Community ofﬁces of Anaﬁ, two hours’ ferry ride away and a little southeast of Santorini, the early registers of births (men only) record the arrival of Matthaios in 1846, son of a subsistence farmer, like nearly every other child. The chance that led him to Naxos and a meeting with the Bents in 1884, aged nearly forty, alters his life (there is a later reference by Theodore that he might have had a tobacco shop on the island as a younger man). In Mabel’s 1897 ‘Chronicle’, the year of her husband’s death, there is a list of travel costs payable, in Theodore’s hand. Matthaios’ wages for the trip to Socotra and Aden are £50, about £5000 today, and a huge sum for a Cycladic farmer at the turn of the 19th century; he is able to effectively retire to Anaﬁ, marry, have a family (his descendants are now in Athens and no Simoses remain on the island), and tell of his adventures in foreign lands as dragoman and friend to an extraordinary English couple. He died in the mid-1930s, ﬁve years after Mabel’s death.
Mabel took his photograph on several occasions, the final one in Bent’s last camp, on Socotra in 1897: Theodore is on the left, taking down notes for his arcane dictionary of Socotran dialects. As well as their assistant Ammar, an unmistakable English figure in a topee, one Ernest Bennett, sits to the right. And between the two, just in the background, and alas not clear, stands a middle-aged man in his working clothes… this is Matthaios Simos. (There is also another splendid image of him sitting on a Sudanese camel.)
There was another serendipitous meeting for Matthaios Simos. The writer Vincent Scott O’Connor travelled in the Cyclades in the 1920s and found his way to Anaﬁ. O’Connor had a copy of Bent’s book on the islands and jumped at the chance of an interview with Theodore’s famous (at least on Anaﬁ) dragoman. He records him one evening, up in Chora, “The story-teller relaxed from his labours; a ﬁne little old man with a curved nose and clean-cut features…” Manthaios tells of how he ‘saved’ the Bents from pirates on Samos in 1886: “At Samos,” he said, “there were pirates, who had made up their minds to kidnap the English travellers, and for that reason my master was unable to leave the island. It was I who circumnavigated their wiles… But it was not in these isles that we had our greatest adventures, it was in Arabia… Mrs. Bent was always eager to press on. One night we slept in a damp spot, and while there I had a dream in which I saw two horses and a chariot in Anaphe; but there was no driver, and one of the horses fell down and died. The chariot was overturned. My interpretation of the dream was that this portended a disaster to our party. But Bent only laughed at my fears. He said dreams were nothing but dreams. Nevertheless, as I expected, Mrs. Bent fell seriously ill of a fever which each day grew worse. She could ride no more, and the Arabs refused to carry a Christian, especially a woman. But the Sheikh put his shoulder to one end of the litter, as I did to the other; and so we carried her till the rest of them became ashamed and each took his turn. We arrived at the sea and the Sheikh sent out some milk for the lady, but she was so ill that she could not retain it and daily she became worse; yet she went on, saying that it was only a little fever, and she would not hear of our abandoning the journey… I decided then to act upon my own initiative, and a dhow having come into the harbour, I spoke to the Captain and contracted with him to take us to Aden. Then, for I knew how obstinate are these English, I went to Bent and said, ‘Kyrios, why not take ship to Aden?’ ‘Nonsense,’ he replied, ‘you know very well that there is no ship.’ ‘Maybe, Kyrios, but suppose that there were one, would you take it?’ ‘Well! Yes,’ he said, ‘I would, for she is very ill.’ I took him to the top of a hill and showed him the Dhow at anchor! So we started; but on arriving at Aden, there was a ‘quarantine’ and Madame was not allowed to land. The Governor however intervened in her favour and a doctor came at once to see her. He was only just in time, but her life was saved. It was after this that Bent himself began the illness that ended in his death… All were agreed that here was a great traveller, one like unto Odysseus himself.”
And the same, of course, must be said of the dragomános extraordinaire, Matthaios Simos, of Anafi in the Cyclades, and all points south-east!
(The excerpts above are mostly taken from ‘The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J. Theodore Bent, Vol. 1’, Archaeopress, Oxford, 2006)
The pottery incense-burner, intended for frankincense and other aromatic resins, that the Bents brought back from the Wadi Hadramaut in 1893/4. It remained in Mabel’s possession until 1926, when it was donated to the British Museum (As1926,0410.37, not currently on display).]
For famous travellers, the Bents preferred to be homebirds come Christmas time, swapping solar topees for deerstalkers, and quitting their London townhouse at 13 Great Cumberland Place for their country place at Sutton Hall, Macclesfield, or Ireland (Mabel’s family home at Newtonbarry, Co. Wexford). Of their nearly 20 years of explorations (in the 1880s and ’90s), they were only out of the country on 25 December, or so the archives indicate, for 1882 (Chios – for Orthodox Christmas), 1883 (Naxos), 1891 (steaming home from Cape Town), 1893 (Wadi Hadramaut), 1894 (Dhofar), 1895 (Suez), and 1896 (the island of Sokotra).
Appropriately, these 1890s tours at Christmas time took them to the lands of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, or associated finds they could link to Theodore’s theories of trade links and contacts between the populations of Southern Arabia and the various regions around today’s Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. In particular it was the famous frankincense (a fragrant gum that dribbles from several species of ‘Boswellia’) trail, and the branch that began in Dhofar, that fascinated the explorer. Bent wrote several articles on the subject, including ‘Exploration of the Frankincense Country, Southern Arabia’ for The Geographical Journal, (Vol. 6 (2) (Aug), 109-33), and ‘The Land of Frankincense and Myrrh’ for The Nineteenth Century (Vol. 38 (224) (Oct), 595-613).
We won’t quote from them, tho they are both worth tracking down, but rather let’s let Mabel fill in some Christmas 1894 details from her ‘Chronicle’. The couple are in their camp on the far coastal regions of Dhofar; Mabel is entertaining and they do well, of course, in not celebrating Christian rites in front of their Muslim hosts:
“Christmas Eve [Monday, 1894]. On waking, the smaller boy came to kiss my hand and before I was up the ladies said they were coming. I was afraid to put them off. First I sat up and put on a jacket, and finding time allowed, I put on a skirt and got up. Combed down my hair and feeling sure that stockings would not be missed, I sat with bare feet, refreshing my memory with civil speeches. About 6 came, very smart with bourkas on their faces a sort of square frame of gold braid and spangles, with a black stick down the middle. They had a great deal of coarse jewellery on with mock pearls and very bad turquoises.
“About 6 came, very smart with bourkas on their faces a sort of square frame of gold braid and spangles, with a black stick down the middle.” (Mabel’s own doodle drawn in her ‘Chronicle’ as she wrote. The archive of the Joint Libraries of the Hellenic and Roman Societies, London)
Christmas Day [Tuesday, 1894]. We rose with the sun and walked off to a mass of ruins about a mile off. There was a great deal of vegetation and sheets of a most lovely creeper with a large flower, white when new, pink when older, and then there comes a red pear-shaped fruit, with hot seeds in it. The ruins are Himyaritic and reminded us of Adulis and Koloe in Abyssinia… returning we sat in a grove of coconut palms and drank much water from the nuts, which were showered from the trees in rather a terrific way. The men stuck their throwing sticks in the ground and by banging the nuts down on the points skinned them.
[Wednesday] December 26th . I was asked to go down to the harem early. The ladies had not so much finery on. They were most kind and gave me many things to eat, coffee, awfully sweet, and sherbet of orgeat, ditto, halweh and pahpa and nutmegs broken up and some seeds and some leaves called tamboul, and chunam, and things I did not eat for I do not want my teeth to become red… We had 2 more days of waiting and, at last, were told we should positively start on Saturday 28th and were expecting at least to start in the evening, but when at length all the camels were got together there were no ropes, sticks to tie the loads to, or any other thing, so we had to wait till next day.
Leave Dhofar. Sunday 29th December . We set off at 12. There was the greatest confusion over the loading; neither men not beasts were accustomed to deal with anything but sacks of frankincense. The camels roared incessantly, got up before they were finished and shook off their loads, or would not kneel, or ran away loaded, and then there was a great deal of unloading and abandoning everything and shouting and quarrelling and much difficulty about making up saddles for us. Theodore and Imam Sheriff and Hassan and I each have a separate camel and 6 of the servants ride in pairs while one walks.
New Year’s Eve [Monday, 1894]. Did not get off till 10, though we breakfasted before sunrise… Theodore’s camel was a very horrid one and sat down occasionally and you first get a violent pitch forward, then an equally violent one back and a 2nd forward; this is not a pleasant thing to happen unexpectedly…We were all most dreadfully stiff and tired and again too late to do anything in the way of unpacking more than just enough for the night. The quantities of flowers Theodore has already got must, I think, already exceed all the 150 of last year [in the Wadi Hadramaut]. There are a great many lobàn trees, or rather shrubs (frankincense)…” (extracts from The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Vol. 3, pages 249-50, Archaeopress 2010)
This extremely rare photograph shows Mabel Bent taking tea with Moses Cotsworth and party in the Palestinian hinterland in 1900/1 (Moses Cotsworth collection, unknown photographer. Photo reproduced with the kind permission of Rare Books and Special Collections, Irving K. Barber Learning Centre, University of British Columbia).
“Dear Sir William…Thank you for sending me the flower pictures. I like them very much. Of course I know there is nothing to find in Palestine that is new. I was there the winter before last and camped out by myself 10 weeks in Moab and Haura. I had my own tents and no dragoman. This winter I only got to Jebel Usdum and arrived in Jerusalem with a broken leg, my horse having fallen on me in the wilderness of Judea. My sister Mrs. Bagenal came from Ireland and fetched me from the hospital where I was for 7 weeks. I cannot walk yet but am getting on well and my leg is quite straight and long I am thankful to say…Yours truly Mabel V.A. Bent” (Letter from Mabel to Thiselton-Dyer, 19 April 1901 (Kew Archives: Directors’ Correspondence)).
Theodore’s death in May 1897 – Jubilee year – deprived Mabel of the focus for her life: the need to be somewhere else remained, but now with whom? And why? Typical of her she made plans immediately to visit Egypt on a ‘Cook’s’ tour in the winter of 1898 and chronicled the trip, ending with a return via Athens. The journey provides the concluding episode in this volume, and the heading she gives it – ‘A lonely useless journey’ – reveals her understandable depression. It makes unhappy reading, contrasting so markedly with her opening thrill of being in Cairo on that first visit with Theodore in 1885.
She wrote no more ‘Chronicles’, or at least there are no more in the archives, and on her return to London set about assembling the monograph her husband never lived to complete on his Arabian theories and researches, many of which sprang from their explorations in Mashonaland in 1891. She completed it in eighteen months: driven on by her loss, and inspired by her notebooks, she could be travelling again with Theodore.
The publication by Mabel of ‘Southern Arabia’ (1900) heralded for its surviving author a slow but inevitable decline and a melancholy sequence of years of loneliness and confusion until her death in 1929.
Still wishing to escape the English weather, Mabel opted to spend several winters in Palestine and Jerusalem. There she embroiled herself in troublesome expatriate intrigue and Anglican fundamentalism, and met Gertrude Bell, who informed her parents by letter: ‘I … met … Mrs. Theodore Bent the widow of the Ruined Cities of Mashonaland, a thin stiff little Englishwoman [sic], I don’t like her very much.’ And again two weeks later: ‘I met Mrs. Theodore Bent, but having thrown down the Salaam, as we say in my tongue, I rapidly fled, for I do not like her. She is the sort of woman the refrain of whose conversation is: “You see, I have seen things so much more interesting” or “I have seen so many of these, only bigger and older”… I wonder if Theodore Bent liked her.’
On her second solo trip to Palestine in 1900/01, Mabel joined a caravan to visit some sites referenced in the Scriptures, but inexplicably opted to go off on her own, and so doing fell off her mount and broke her leg; hence the above letter to her friend, the Director at Kew.
Now, thanks to help from Anna Cook, the researcher on Moses Cotsworth, we have more information on Mabel’s accident, as recounted by the geologist George Frederick Wright, whose caravan it was that she joined. The (lengthy) extract that follows from his autobiography has probably never seen the light of day since its publication in 1916.
“At Jerusalem we were met by my Old Andover friend, Selah Merrill, then United States consul. His experience in the survey of the country east of the Jordan, and his long residence in Jerusalem, were of great service in our subsequent excursions in Palestine. After visiting Jericho and the region around we planned, under his direction, a trip to the unfrequented south end of the Dead Sea. In this we were joined by Mrs. Theodore Bent, whose extensive travels with her husband in Ethiopia, southern Arabia, and Persia, had not only rendered her famous but fitted her in a peculiar manner to be a congenial and helpful traveling companion. She had her own tent and equipment and her own dragoman, and her presence added greatly to the interest of the trip.
“After stopping a day at Hebron, we passed along the heights till we descended to the shore of the Dead Sea at the north end of Jebel Usdum, through the Wadi Zuweirah. Here we found indications that, during the rainy season, tremendous floods of water rushed down from the heights of southern Palestine, through all the wadies. Such had been the force of the temporary torrents here, that, over a delta pushed out by the stream and covering an area of two or three square miles, frequent boulders a foot or more in diameter had been propelled a long distance over a level surface. At the time of our visit, the height of the water in the Dead Sea was such that it everywhere washed the foot of Salt Mountain (Jebel Usdum), making it impossible for us to walk along the shore…
“Near the mouth of Wadi Zuweirah, we observed a nearly complete section of the 600-foot terrace of fine material, displaying the laminae deposited by successive floods during the high level maintained by the water throughout the Glacial epoch. From these it was clear that this flooded condition continued for several thousand years. On the road along the west shore to Ain Jiddy (En-gedi) we observed (as already indicated) ten or twelve abandoned shore lines, consisting of coarse material where the shore was too steep, and the waves had been too strong to let fine sediment settle.
“From all the evidence at command it appears that, at the climax of the Glacial epoch, the water in this valley rose to an elevation of 1,400 feet above the present level of the Dead Sea, gradually declining thereafter to the 600-foot level, where it remained for a long period, at the close of which it again gradually declined to its present level, uncovering the vast sedimentary deposits which meanwhile had accumulated over the valley of the Jordan, north of Jericho.
“Our ride from Ain Jiddy to Bethlehem was notable in more respects than one. The steep climb (of 4,000 feet) up the ascent from the sea to the summit of the plateau was abrupt enough to make one’s head dizzy. But as the zigzag path brought us to higher and higher levels, the backward view towards the mountains of Moab, and towards both the north and the south end of the Dead Sea, was as enchanting as it was impressive. Across the sea, up the valley of the Arnon, we could see the heights above Aroer and Dibon, and back of El Lisan, the heights about Rabbah and Moab, and. those about Kir of Moab, while the extensive deltas coming into the Dead Sea along the whole shore south of us fully confirmed our inferences concerning their effect in encroaching upon its original evaporating area.
“After passing through the wilderness of Jeruel and past Tekoah, as we were approaching Bethlehem, a little before sundown, the men of our party wished to hurry on to get another sight of the scenes amidst which Christ was born. As Mrs. Bent was already familiar with those scenes, she preferred to come along more slowly with the caravan, and told us to go on without any concern for her safety. But soon after arriving at Bethlehem, the sheik who accompanied our party overtook us, and told us that Mrs. Bent had fallen from her horse and suffered severe injury; whereupon we all started back over the rocky pathway, to render the assistance that seemed to be needed.
“On reaching a point where two paths to Bethlehem separated, we were told by a native that he thought our party had proceeded along the other path from that we had taken, and that it would be found to have already reached its destination before us. We therefore returned to Bethlehem. But, soon after, the dragoman came in great haste, saying that Mrs. Bent had indeed fallen from her horse and broken a limb, and that he had left her unprotected in an open field to await assistance. Again, therefore, but accompanied by six strong natives with a large woolen blanket, on which to convey her, we proceeded to the place where the accident occurred. Here we found her where she had been lying for about two hours under the clear starlight. But, instead of complaining, she averred that it was providential that she had been allowed to rest so long before undertaking the painful journey made necessary by the accident; and that all the while she had been occupied with the thought that she was gazing upon the same constellations in the heavens from which the angel of the Lord had appeared to the shepherds to announce the Saviour’s birth.
“The task of giving her relief was not altogether a simple one. The surrounding rocky pastures did not yield any vegetable growth from which a splint could be made to stiffen the broken leg. An inspiration, however, came to my son, who suggested that we could take her parasol for one side and the sound limb for the other, and with the girdle of one of the men bind them together so that the journey could be effected safely. No sooner said than done. The sufferer was laid upon the blanket and slowly carried to Bethlehem by the strong arms of our native escort. From here she was conveyed by carriage to Jerusalem where we arrived between one and two o’clock in the morning, taking her to the English hospital, of which she had been a liberal patron, and where she was acquainted with all the staff; but, alas! this hospital was established exclusively for Jews, and as she was not one they refused to admit her, advising her to go down to the hospital conducted by German sisters. This, however, she flatly refused to do, declaring that rather than do that she would camp on the steps of the English hospital. At this two of the lady members of the staff, who were her special friends, vacated their room and she was provided for.
“Respecting the sequel, we would simply say that her limb was successfully set, and with cheerful confidence she assured us that she would reach London before we did and that we must be sure to call upon her there. She did indeed reach London before we left the city, but it was on the last day of our stay, and, as our tickets had been purchased for the noon train going to Plymouth, we were unable to accept her invitation to dine that evening. Some years afterwards, however, when visiting the city with Mrs. Wright, we found her at home, and had great enjoyment in repeatedly visiting her and studying the rare collections with which she had filled her house upon returning from the various expeditions in which she had accompanied her artistic husband.
“[Some time later pausing] at Rome, Florence, and Genoa, we entered France through Turin by way of the Mount Cenis tunnel, and, after a short stop in Paris, reached London, where I met again the large circle of geologists and archaeologists who had entertained me on my first visit to England… Returning to London, we engaged passage on a steamer from Southampton, just in time, as before remarked, to miss meeting Mrs. Bent, our unfortunate traveling companion in Palestine.” [From: ‘The Story of my life and work’ by Wright, G. Frederick (George Frederick), 1838-1921; Oberlin, Ohio, Bibliotheca Sacra Company, 1916 (including pages page 324 and 328/29. The link to the book is https://archive.org/stream/ ).
PS: On her stretcher journey to eventual hospitalisation in Jerusalem, Mabel would have shut her eyes and been transported back four years to the last time she was rescued, terribly sick with malaria, east of Aden. Also stretchered to Aden, her husband never survives the ordeal, dying in London a few days after arriving home in 1897. Here are the memories she must have relived in the form of some lines from Mabel’s own diary:
‘I felt quite unable to move or stir but on we must go; we had no water and what we had had the day before was like porter. I could not ride, of course, so they said they would carry me. I was dressed up in a skirt and a jacket, my shoes and stockings, a handkerchief tied on my hair, which was put back by one hairpiece and became a hot wet mat, not to be fought with for many a day to come! Of course I could not use my pith helmet lying down. I lay outside, while my bed was strengthened in various ways with tent pegs and the tent poles tied to it and an awning of blanket made. I dreaded very much the roughness of the road and the unevenness of step of my bearers, but off they set at a rapid pace and kept perfect step all the time. They changed from shoulder to shoulder without my feeling it…
‘Sometimes I passed or was passed by the camels, which seemed to be winding about over rocks and hills, but I went over these ways too. The last time we passed I thought it very unlike Theodore never to give me a look but stare straight before him, but then I did not know of his miserable condition. There was a delightful sea wind which came over my head, stronger and stronger, and just seemed to keep me alive. They carried me headfirst. I did not think they would be pleased if I constantly asked how far we were off still, so I only said civil things, but right glad was I, at last, after 15 or 16 miles to find myself in the thick of a rushing, roaring rabble rout of men, women and children, not a thing I really like in general but now it told of the end of my weary journey.’ [From ‘The Travel Chronicles of Mrs. J. Theodore Bent, Volume lll: Southern Arabia and Persia’, page 322. Oxford, Archaeopress, 2010]
PPS: However, could this also be a photo of Mabel, perhaps, taken at around the same time at Karnak on the banks of the Nile? Thanks again to Anna Cook, we have a possible image of her from Moses Cotsworth’s pamphlet ‘The Fixed Yearal’ (available online from archive.com), which was probably published around 1914. It shows a woman in travel attire (does the hat match the photo above?), in shade alas, on the right, in front of one of the Karnak pillars. We have no proof that it is her, but Anna Cook, the Cotsworth specialist pins a note to it: “But he [Cotsworth] only travelled to Egypt around November/December 1900 and had his camera stolen so I suspect that the photos were given to him by Professor Wright – his travelling companion. I know that Wright was a widower who travelled with his son and that Cotsworth’s wife was at home in England so really Mabel is the only woman that was around in the right place at the right time and we know that she did travel with Wright and Cotsworth for a time.” (Anna Cook, pers. com., 01/2019)
We do have an earlier Karnak extract from Mabel’s diary: “[Monday] January 31st . When I reached Luxor I was asked to join a party consisting of Mr. and Mrs. Edmund Sebag-Montefiore, Mr. and Mrs. W. Wilson (who were travelling together) and Mrs. and Miss Wibbs [?], one a doctor, and have a special dragoman, Abdul el Kawab, a very good man. We went in the only two carriages to see Karnak by moonlight, a truly awe inspiring sight. [Tuesday] February 1st . We went again by the light of the sun and came back to luncheon.” (‘The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J Theodore Bent, Vol 2, The African Journeys’, page 270, Archaeopress 2012)
However this is a year before Cotsworth went to Karnak to take his calendar readings; Mabel, recently widowed, was on Nile cruise run by Thomas Cook and did not proceed to Jerusalem that year – she was lonely and cut short her tour, returning to London via Athens (she headed her diary ‘A lonely useless journey). But let’s make a case for her meeting Cotsworth, feeling less lonely, in the winter of 1899/1900 and deciding to join his party for another Nile cruise and then onwards to the Palestinian wilds (where she broke her leg! See above).
As Theodore and Mabel were wont to say, ‘A traveller without a map is like, er,….lost’. From Aksum to Zimbabwe, wherever they set out to explore, they always insisted on taking the latest maps with them; or commissioning special ones for their routes; or going so far as to take their own cartographers along with them (e.g. Imam Sharif’s map of the Bents’ expedition to the Wadi Hadramaut in 1894). Mabel later, in a short autobiographical article recalled: ‘In one of my investigations of the library at home I came upon a book that I made up my mind to examine. It had a delightful title “The Atlas of Undiscovered Countries”. It was firmly fixed, and to get at it I had to exert all my strength and become very hot, tugging out the great folios that were on each side, and then to my disgust I found my prize was only a false wooden book to support the upper shelf. Years after I exclaimed, ‘Now I have really an atlas of undiscovered countries of my own’, when I eagerly unpacked a map in eight sheets (that my husband had had made at Stanford’s, of Southern Arabia, when we were first thinking of exploring that part of the world) and found two or three of the sheets blank save for latitude and longitude marks. I am glad to say that the blank is not so large now…’
We are glad, too, to say that our website now has a series of interactive Google maps detailing the 20 years of the Bents’ expeditions. The most recent one added is labelled ‘The Bents’ Greatest Hits’ and shows the sites where the Bents made their most significant researches or discoveries in the 1880s and ’90s – from Aksum to Zimbabwe; the map also features a separate layer picking out significant locations for the Bents in England and Ireland. The pins are augmented with texts, photos, etc., and are very well worth a few minutes of your busy day – to transport you back to the late 19th century and days of solar topees, slow steamers, gin and quinine, leather portmanteaux, assorted adventures, and nights under unrecognisable stars…
FOR famous travellers, the Bents preferred to be homebirds come Christmas time, swapping solar topees for deerstalkers, and leaving their London base near Marble Arch for family visits to Ireland and elsewhere. Of their nearly 20 years of explorations (in the 1880s and ’90s), they were only out of the country on 25 December, or so the archives indicate, for 1882 (Chios – for Orthodox Christmas), 1883 (Naxos), 1891 (steaming home from Cape Town), 1893 (Wadi Hadramaut), 1894 (Dhofar), 1895 (Suez), and 1896 (the island of Sokotra).
Map of ‘Sokotra’. From the Bents’ Southern Arabia (1900), facing page 342. Private collection.
And Christmas 1896, on this remote island, was to be the last the couple shared together. Out of respect, perhaps, for the land and people they were amongst, there were to be no festivities – this might explain why Theodore was out of sorts! [But at least we are spared Mabel’s cracker ‘mottos’, examples of which we have from Christmas 1895, when the Bents were in Suez. ‘I have made some crackers to surprise my companions at dessert, and I think they would be much better liked afloat than ashore, so I am sorry to dine on land. Of course, no mottos were to be had so I was obliged to manufacture some. Mr. Smyth, having been proved to possess only 3 rusty needles, is to have a needle-book and his motto is: ‘Cheer up! Mr. Smyth, and try to be blyth [sic]; though your clothes may be rent, says your friend Mabel Bent.’ Mr. Cholmley, a box of Ink Pellets. ‘Ever be good news by Alfred Cholmley sent, in ink of blackest hue’s the wish of Mabel Bent.’ Theodore a knife and fork and, ‘Good appetite to Theodore! May he ne’er need to wish for more than may be upon his table, is the hope of his wife Mabel.’]
By all accounts the couple spent several happy weeks on Sokotra, with its landscapes and flora making it something of a paradise, before their hellish experiences east of Aden – which led to Theodore’s early death aged 45.
The Bents made no great archaeological finds on the island, but Theodore wrote that ‘Caves in the limestone rocks have been filled with human bones from which the flesh had previously decayed. These caves were then walled up and left as charnel-houses, after the fashion still observed in the Eastern Christian Church. Amongst the bones we found carved wooden objects which looked as if they had originally served as crosses to mark the tombs…’ (The Island of Sokotra. ‘The Nineteenth Century’, 1897, Vol. 41 (244) (Jun): 978) Theodore gave (or sold) three of these wooden items to the anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917). Tylor was Oxford professor of anthropology, and keeper of the university museum. His wife Anna presented the Bents’ Sokotran artefacts to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford in 1917 (1917.53.670-2). The Bents missed them, but recent excavations at the nearby Hoq cave have revealed votive remains thought to date from the 3rd century AD. (Soqotra Karst Project, http://www.friendsofsoqotra.org/index.htm)
But we can join Mabel at camp at ‘Kalenzia’ [Qalansiyah, Suquṭrā], a few days before Christmas 1896. The couple are busy administering to locals, collecting specimens and preparing for a trip to the interior:
‘Tuesday 22nd [December 1896]. Here we still are at Kalenzia. I did not venture to spell this name till I had heard it pronounced, as it is spelt in so many ways. The name of the island is Sokotra. We have been continuing our doctors’ work. One old lady with a skin affection was prescribed a preliminary washing with soap, but I was informed that in the whole of this island there is not such a thing, so of course it had to be given as a medicine. The Butterfly, Botanical, Shell, and Beetle collections have been started. We have not for years enjoyed such peace and safety. The people are most pleasant and do not worry us a bit by coming round our tents. We can walk about alone all over the place and yesterday Theodore and I went a long distance and found some inscriptions on a smooth rock, also a little hamlet, very clean (Haida), as is Kalenzia.
We sat down on the ground and were interested looking at the party we were amongst, one or 2 men, the mistress and 2 servants and slaves. The latter were spinning. They were dressed in dark blue with a kind of little grey and black goats’ hair carpet, woven in little looms a foot wide, which they wrap round as petticoats. They wore bead necklaces. Their mistress was much smarter. She had silver bracelets and many glass armlets and a pretty silver-gilt necklace and earrings, and a turkey-red dress made like those in the Hadramaut, but longer. The front came to the calf of the leg and the train would have been fully a yard on the ground had she not held it up. All the women wear their hair cut in a straight, short fringe and the better class paint with turmeric. Yesterday a most important looking old man came from the Sultan with a civil letter. He tried to persuade us to go most of the way to Tamarida by sea, but of course we refused. We are to have 15 camels and to pay 3 reals each for the journey, i.e. M. T. dollars 25 at 2 rupees each (2/6) and they are promised to be here in 3 days.
‘Christmas Eve, Thursday [24th December 1896]. We shall have been here a week this evening. The camels are roving round and it is said that the baggage shall be bound in bundles this evening and that we shall start tomorrow after prayers – even a little way. Yesterday we had a delightful day. We started after breakfast with luncheon, gun, butterfly net, photography, shell box, beetle box and flower basket. We went through the village and along the tongue of shingle which separates the freshwater lagoon from the sea and which we call Shark Parade, because there are so many of these monsters drying there. They all have their back fins and tails cut off and their spines are nearly as thick as my wrists. We then struck inland, passing through a village called Ghises, under the mountainside, and then climbed up, saw our first Dragon tree (a mistake. It was Adenia. Dragon’s blood grows 800 feet up the hills) and I took some photos of very curious trees. We lunched under some palms near a marshy and pretty stream and got back in time for tea and to attend to many patients, and this morning we have had much of the same work.
‘From Yehàzahaz, looking over the pass toward Adahan, Sokotra.’ Detail of a watercolour by Theodore Bent; from Mabel Bent’s paper in The Geographical Journal,
‘The Island of Sokotra (Read at the Meeting
of the British Association, Bristol, 1898)’. The
Scottish Geographical Magazine, Vol. 14
(12), 629-36. Private collection.
‘Christmas Day [Friday 25th December 1896]. A cloudy morning. Soon after breakfast, with the usual patients, a whole crowd came, headed by Ali, the chief personage, and the mollah. They roared and shouted and said we must have 25 camels, 4 only to be ridden, but we said we could not possibly ride without luggage to sit on. As a mater of fact 10 could take us. After a great row, fearing not to get away, we consented to have as many as they liked and would pay what the Sultan wished. Then Ali and the mollah came into the tent with a small bit of paper they picked up and wished him [Theodore] to write a contract with them in a very authoritative way. I was at the tent door and had to clear out in a hurry as out stormed T, giving good pushes to the two, telling them they were wicked men and he should take them prisoners to Aden. He then tore the paper into even smaller bits and flung it in their faces (the wind serving admirably).
‘They all apologized and soon left in a flock and sat down in a ring 100 yards off. Then someone came and said 16 camels, and then another came and said 18. ‘As you like,’ said we. They wanted T to write. ‘No,’ he said, ‘but if they wish I will write all their names down to show in Aden.’ This was declined. Now they are all here again, quite friendly. Mr. Bennett [a young Oxford scholar who joined the Bents at his own expense], to whom all these scenes are new, is away getting some wild duck. I think it must be a good thing for him to have our experience to fall back upon. It seems to me we are always saying one side of a Catechism on Ethnography and Botany, with Hints to Travellers and lessons in the Greek and Arabic Languages combined. His thirst for knowledge is great and ceaseless.
‘We have seen very little new to us here besides the little chicken houses made of a turtle shell with the earth scooped from under it. We have everything tied up in bundles by 11 and then had to sit till about 3 before the camels came. I never saw camels better fitted out before than these. We have had such different experiences. Our first camel riding was in the Island of Bahrein , where we had splendid silver saddles on beautiful riding camels. Next the Hadramaut journey where the camels had small packsaddles and a good many rags to pad them and ropes with sticks. In Dhofar they came naked and we had to find all, even the nose ropes. The baggage was most hard to manage. In the E. Soudan they had good saddles, and many riding saddles but no sticks and used our ropes, of which we have a sack. Here they have excellent mats and pads, little packsaddles and then mats made of sacking, quilted with strong twine and sewn over at the edges very neatly. Sticks with excellent ropes, and, what is best of all, very strong matting bags, quilted with ropes, in which they tie up all the baggage to its great benefit. Their way of pronouncing the Persian ‘juval’ is ‘zoual’. We came 2 hours or so to the mouth of a valley. Iséleh.
‘December 26th Saturday . Started about 7 without any difficulty. The men seemed anxious to get on. The Sheikh sent by the Sultan is with us – a friendly old man. We continued our way till we had to dismount when the mountains closed in and we walked over a pass. We trotted wherever the road was smooth enough. Of course, when I speak of road, it is only a track. There were little bushes and a good deal of fine grass and some small trees. The [Adenia] trees in full bloom were lovely. The flower is very like in size and colour to pink oleander. We stopped at some water and filled some water-skins and then, about 1, stopped in a hollow basin, often filled with water no doubt but there is none now. Here the Arabs proposed to eat and unloaded the camels, so we decided to stay, as T had had a fall that had knocked him up a bit. First they said we should go to water quite close, but when T said we would send a camel they said it was a long way. What little water we got for our evening wash we had to save till morning, but we had tremendous rain in the night and I am afraid our bread and other things will prove to have suffered, as no preparations for rain had been made. ‘We are making a latish start to give things a chance to dry up. The place is called Lim Ditarr.
‘[Sunday] December 27th . We stopped halfway at a place with very salt water called Día. Here we lunched and the camels drank at the well. There were no houses. Near sunset we reached Eriosh, also an uninhabited place. There is about 1⁄4 mile of quite flat rock, partly covered by mud, dried. There a great many cuttings of feet of all sizes, of men as well as animals, some Himyaritic letters and other signs. Mr. Wellsted says much labour must have been expended in cutting in such very hard stone, but I could cut deeply with the first pebble I could pick up. I look on them as scribbles. We stayed 2 nights. It was too awfully windy to open our shady door.’
[All extract from ‘The Travel Chronicles of Mrs. J. Theodore Bent Volume III: Southern Arabia and Persia’ (Archaeopress, 2010), pages 288-92]
Did Mabel for some reason bury at Bethel, in the early 1900s, the clay stamp she and her husband acquired in the Hadramaut (Yemen) in 1894? Were there two identical stamps after all? And the missing squeeze? Where is this material now?
Mabel Bent was a frequent traveller to Jerusalem and Palestine in the first decade of the 1900s (Theodore having died in 1897), and she soon began to demonstrate apparently irrational behaviour, i.e. taking sides in a romantic squabble between two British residents in Jerusalem, and making herself rather a nuisance to the authorities generally; on one occasion, now over 60, she rode off mysteriously and alone into the countryside of the southern Dead Sea, falling off her mount and breaking her leg; a convert to British Israelitism, she became involved in the committee of the ‘Garden Tomb’ (Jerusalem), and began her bizarre monograph on ‘Anglo‐Saxons from Palestine’.
In addition, and what might have been a decisive factor in terms of her stress, was that Mabel had to sit helpless on the sidelines and watch as Theodore’s ‘big idea’ – i.e. that proto‐Arab cultures had ventured as far south as modern Zimbabwe, building the great stone monuments there – was being disproved by contemporary researches, and that the twenty years of their travels and work together were ultimately undervalued by academics and the establishment.
If Mabel were sad and unhappy at Bethel, is it not easy to imagine her in a lonely moment in the early 1900s dropping a broken clay stamp from the Hadramaut into a hole and covering it up, muttering the while to her dead husband, with whom she had travelled such landscapes for so long, about how she had brought him, at last, to the end of one of the frankincense trails exploited by his trading proto‐Arabs? What could be more forgivable – not deliberate archaeological fraud but rather fondness and love? Who might not do the same thing? (And, as an afterthought, indeed, there were three seals the couple acquired in the Yemen – where did she drop the other two? Jerusalem, Hebron, Mizpah…?)