Many happy returns Theodore – born 30 March 1852


Theodore in early 1889 in Bahrain (detail from Southern Arabia 1900)

The trouble with travel is that you miss your birthdays – just look where Theodore was on 30 March for these breathless years: 1884 = Kéa (Cyclades); 1885 = Kárpathos (Dodecanese); 1886 = Sámos; 1887 = Thássos; 1888 = Patara (Antalya province, Turkey); 1889 = Kurd-i-Bala, Iran; 1890 = Mersin area, Turkey; 1891 = en route for ‘Great Zimbabwe’; 1892 = UK; 1893 = Aksum area, Ethiopia; 1894 = Aden, Yemen; 1895 = UK; 1896 = returning from Athens to UK; 1897 (his 45th and last) = Aden, Yemen.

As an example of what he was up to, we have this extract from his notes of 30 March 1889, written up and presented a couple of years later. Taken from Theodore and Mabel’s cavalcade through Iran, south-north, we have Persia with all her fascination; it is written in his best, jaunty style: illustrative, informative, energetic, engaged and engaging. Classic Bent.

Map detailing the Bents’ great ride through Persia in 1889 (© Glyn Griffiths)

“Certainly, Persia, off the main line of route, is as different as possible from the Persia that the ordinary traveller sees. For two days after leaving Nejifabad we passed through villages nestling in fertility. Each village is, or rather was, protected by its mud fort, built on a hill, around which the cottages cluster – cottages which dazzle the eye with their continuity of mud domes and brown walls. Wapusht looked like a nest of cottage beehives stuck together. Within, the houses were comfortable enough, and bore every appearance of prosperity, for here they are off the routes which soldiers and governors of provinces pass over, and when free from Government extortions Persia prospers.

“On ascending to higher ground we came across a cold and barren district; the howling wind from the snow mountains made us again love those furs which we had considered unnecessary burdens when leaving Ispahan. These sudden changes of temperature are the bane of the Persian traveller, and woe to those who are not provided with artificial warmth. On reaching Kurd-i-Bala [March 30, 1899. The settlement is near modern Varposht, n-w of Najafabad], the first of the manna villages, we found ourselves in Armenian society. Of late years the Armenians in Persia, by foreign intervention, have had their condition greatly ameliorated, and if this state of things is allowed to continue they are likely once more to become the most prosperous of the Shah’s subjects. I was glad enough to warm myself by taking a brisk walk on reaching our destination, and accepted gladly the offices of the Karapiet, the Reis or headman of the village, and our host, who volunteered to take me up the mountain side and show me the manna shrub.

“In the fields around the village the Armenian women were tilling the ground. On their heads they wore tall head-dresses, with flat crowns and silver chains dangling therefrom – very uncomfortable gear for purposes of husbandry – and beneath their bright red skirts peeped drawers with embroidered edges. Armenian women hide only the lower part of the face, deeming it unseemly that the mouth should be shown to members of the opposite sex.

“Kurd-i-Bala is a great village for manna, the ‘gez-angebeen’, as the Persians call it. About twenty minutes’ walk brought us to a gorge in the mountains where acres of the shrub grow. The ‘gez’ tree is a low and parasol-shaped plant of the Tamarisk tribe, never reaching more than 3ft. in height; its leaves are small and sombre in colour, and it has all over it long prickly thorns. On these leaves there comes a small insect, which is red at first, like a harvest bug; later on it turns into a sort of louse, and finally becomes a tiny moth, which, before it flies off, produces a thin white thread, about half an inch long, which hangs on the bushes. This is the manna collectors shake off on to trays, which are put below for the purpose, and the material thus collected they call ‘gez’. They say the insect appears fifteen days before the hot weather begins, and disappears fifteen days before the cold season sets in. Every third day during a term of forty days about August they collect this species of honey from the trees, which forms itself into a white gelatinous mass, and the leaves become covered again with surprising rapidity.

“Karapiet was very proud of his speciality and quite enthusiastic when he described the acres of whiteness this spot presented in the summer time. He said that if you go to sleep under a ‘gez’ tree you will wake up with a coating over you as of snow; if there is a high wind it will certainly be blown to some distance; but the connecting link between this manna and that consumed by the Israelites is lost, if ever there was one. As for the Arabic word manna, it is only known in Persia amongst the druggists, and does not apply to the sweet honey of the ‘gez’ tree, but to certain exudations from the oak and other milky exudations from shrubs which are largely made use of in the Persian pharmacopœia. The villagers evidently drive a highly satisfactory trade in this line, and furthermore, they put the ‘gez’ tree to another use, making tooth-brushes thereof, something resembling the orris-root tooth-brushes one sees in Turkey. A small branch, about six inches long, is frayed at one end, and this is used to scrub with; it is reckoned particularly beneficial and is supposed to produce that ivory whiteness for which Persian teeth are so justly celebrated.” (From: J. Theodore Bent, Village Life in Persia, ‘The New Review’, 5:29 (1891/Oct.): 355-359)

Happy birthday Theodore!

[The photograph shows Theodore in early 1889 in Bahrain; and the map (© Glyn Griffiths) details the Bents’ great ride through Persia in 1889]



‘A traveller without a map……’

New interactive maps just posted on our site!

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…

Imam Sharif’s map of the Bents’ expedition to the Wadi Hadramaut, 1894. From Theodore Bent’s 1894 paper for the Royal Geographical Society. Image © The Bent Archive
Imam Sharif’s map of the Bents’ expedition to the Wadi Hadramaut, 1894. From Theodore Bent’s 1894 paper for the Royal Geographical Society. Image © The Bent Archive

Woodcock and mizithra

Gerald Brisch’s blog ‘Mabel’s Menus: the culinary notes of an archaeologist‘ sheds a fascinating light on an otherwise little-known area of the Bents’ lives.

Of course, back home in London, Theodore and Mabel would have dined very well. Unfortunately, Mabel’s chronicles only cover their travels and it’s a shame we know nothing about their day-to-day lives when they were not on their travels. They almost certainly would have had house servants and one doubts they would have cooked for themselves, but we have little insight into what gastronomy they may have enjoyed at home.

However, we DO know from Theodore’s writings, and from Mabel’s chronicles, that food and gastronomy were high on their list of survival strategies on many of their arduous journeys.

The Bents were clearly partial to woodcock and Theodore writes enviously while delayed in Milos waiting for the steamer:

We frequently visited Consul Brest, and had interesting conversations on Melos. Moreover he gave us an excellent pot of vegetable-marrow and almond jam to help us in our evil day; but we looked grudgingly at some woodcock on his stairs, which we longed for, and could not get, as they were to be sent to Syra by the steamer; and it was our one consolation in the eventual delay to learn that all these woodcock went bad and had to be thrown away.

We certainly know that, during the Greek explorations, the local mizithra cheese was something they relished. As Theodore wrItes:

Ios is celebrated for its flocks and herds, and of all islands Ios is the most celebrated for its mysethra, ‘food for the gods,’ as they call it. It is simply a curd made of boiled sheep’s milk, strained and pressed into a wicker basket called tyrobolon, just as they are spoken of in the ‘Odyssey’; from this basket it gets a pretty pattern before being turned out on to a plate. When eaten with honey it is truly delicious. I have tasted the same in Corsica called broccio but not so good as those of Ios; in fact, the mysethra of the neighbouring islands does not approach that of Ios — there is something in the pasturage which produces the proper flavour. They make mysethra cakes, but they are inferior to the original thing, and the peasants most frequently salt them, in which condition they are perfectly horrid.

Some of this excellent mysethra we had for our breakfast next morning, and some of it, together with cold fish and plenty of wine, the demarch put into a basket for us to take with us on an expedition … The three brothers and the three girls went down with us to the harbour, where our boat was waiting, bringing with them a fresh mysethra, wine, and figs for our journey.

And on Kea, Theodore writes:

The people at the convent, the old man and his granddaughters, who till the ground around and look after the church, were most hospitably inclined, and provided us with an excellent mysethra, hot and fresh, for our midday meal, and we had the further charm of watching it made. They poured fresh goats’ milk into boiling whey and then squeezed it and compressed it into a wicker basket until it was compact and beautifully white

The following video is a portrait of Manolis Farm Guesthouse in Naxos, featuring the making of traditional mizithra cheese. Produced, filmed and edited by Anneke Verschave.

Buy mizithra products from Amazon.