In the wake of Ida Laura Pfeiffer (1797-1858)

Ida Laura Pfeiffer (1797-1858) (wikipedia).

No list of indomitable women travellers would be complete without a reference to the incredible Ida Laura Pfeiffer, in whose footprints Mabel occasionally followed. Although the latter never refers directly to the Austrian globetrotter in her diaries, Mabel would certainly have known of her, and probably read Ida’s travel accounts, several of which were already translated into English in her time. Ida died when Mabel Hall-Dare was just a girl of ten or so in the south of Ireland.

One among many of the locations they both were to visit was the island of Rhodes (then a Turkish province for both Ida and Mabel). Here is Pfeiffer on Rhodes’ famous main harbour in late May 1842 (trans from the German by  H.W. Dulcken):

Cover to the English edition ot Ida Pfeiffer’s “A Visit to the Holy Land” (

“This morning, shortly after five o’clock, we ran into the superb harbour of Rhodes. Here, for the first time, I obtained a correct notion of a harbour. That of Rhodes is shut in on all sides by walls and masses of rock, leaving only a gap of a hundred and fifty to two hundred paces in width for the ships to enter. Here every vessel can lie in perfect safety, be the sea outside the bar as stormy as it may; the only drawback is, that the entering of this harbour, a task of some difficulty in calm weather, becomes totally impracticable during a storm. A round tower stands as a protection on either side of the entrance to the harbour.” (Visit to the Holy Land, Egypt, and Italy, London, 1853, p.86)

And here is Mabel Bent (she married Theodore in 1877) putting up with some tricky February weather in the same harbour region some thirty years later, in 1885, endorsing Ida’s observation about bad weather:

A view of Rhodes’ great harbour from C.T. Newton’s “Travels & Discoveries in the Levant” (London, 1865). The folly that is ‘Naillac’s Tower’ (left) would have been enjoyed by Ida, but was toppled by the time Mabel was in the offing in 1885 (

“The day seems quite over, it is half past six, and a most anxious day we have passed with the yellow flag waving us. We got to Rhodes about 3 but did not settle till 5 and the health officers did not come till 7. The Captain asked leave to go to a bay to shelter if storm came on, or the open sea, but they said no, if we wanted pratigue he must remain there. But the Captain told us that sooner than lose or damage the ship he would go off with us and the two guardians to Smyrna. Great therefore was our horror at 3.30 p.m. to hear all the noises of a start, after having observed that it was getting rougher, but we only went round the corner of the island to shelter on the eastern side and hope to be returned to the capital tomorrow morning. In the mean time no one has been able to communicate in any way with the shore. It has been pouring most of the day.” (The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J Theodore Bent, vol 1, Oxford, 2006, p.68)

For the Bents on Rhodes and in the Dodecanese, see The Dodecanese: Further Travels Among the Insular Greeks (Oxford, 2015).

A list of Theodore Bent’s ‘Greece’ articles/publications (based on today’s borders).

Bent’s map from the first edition of his 1885 book, “The Cyclades, or Life Among the Insular Greeks”  (

The Bents’ first significant field of studies was the Aegean, beginning with a ‘tourist’ visit in early 1883, taking in such sites as Delphi and Mycenae. This trip inspired a decade-long passion for these celebrity explorers (with a tour more or less every year), generating Bent’s classic guide to the Cyclades (perhaps he is partly to blame for the islands’ current over-tourism in the summer months today), and a substantial corpus of popular and more ‘academic’ articles (historical, ‘archaeological’ and ‘ethnographic’ in content). Along the way they acquired artefacts, ancient and modern, that they would seek to sell or retain for their private London collection. The British Museum, for example, has a large collection of their material.

Bent’s writings on Greece (today’s boundaries) by year of publication:









For Bent’s overall bibliography click here.

Bent/Carnarvon correspondence – October 1889

Henry Howard Molyneux Herbert, 4th Earl of Carnarvon, KP, PC, DL, FRS, FSA (1831-1890) (Wikipedia).

Two letters, October 1889, from Theodore Bent to Henry Howard Molyneux Herbert, 4th Earl of Carnarvon, KP, PC, DL, FRS, FSA (24 June 1831 – 29 June 1890), Highclere Castle, Hampshire, UK. The original letters are now in the Hampshire County Archives (75m91/R13/40-41). Carnarvon’s original letters to Bent have not surfaced; the latter would have had a fascinating correspondence archive but it is presumed lost. The reply to Bent’s first letter must have been exceedingly positive, as can be deduced by the speed in which the meeting was arranged and the much less formal style of Bent’s  second communication.

Highclere Castle (Hampshire, UK), seat of the Earls of Carnarvon (Wikipedia).

Background: The Bents spent early 1889 in the Middle East, with a few weeks excavating at the ‘mounds of Ali‘, Bahrain, and then riding south-north the length of Persia before returning to London via Kiev. The couple’s explorations for the following season (1890) were clearly unfixed (and time was pressing) when Bent sought to make contact with Henry Herbert, 4th Earl of Carnarvon at Highclere, hopefully to smooth (and perhaps co-finance) his passage to the Bulgarian region of Burgas on the Black Sea.

The opening of Bent’s second letter to Earl Carnarvon. The original letters are in the Hampshire County Archives (75m91/R13/40-41).

Why especially Bent had his sights set on this area is still to be researched and answers might be found in extant communications between Bent and Cecil Smith (see Letter 1). One factor would have been that the sites (and any discoveries there) were unlikely to have the levels of official scrutiny he was exposed to in Greece and Turkey – but some of the material culture from there would, of course, reflect the lives of ancient Greek colonies. In the end, for whatever reason, the Bents opted in 1890 for the Turkish littoral, settling for squeezes of early inscriptions and determined to find ancient Olba (which they did). Sadly, Bent’s affable correspondent was to die relatively young in that same year (1890), being succeeded by the 5th Earl, ‘Tutankhamen’ Carnarvon.

Letter 1 – Bent to Carnarvon

13, Great Cumberland Place, W. [London]

Oct. 16 [1889].

My Lord,

Mr Cecil Smith tells me you have kindly promised to help me with regard to certain excavations I hope to undertake near Bourgas at the beginning of the year [1890].

My object is to get a personal introduction to Mr. [Stefan] Stambolov but if I might speak to you on this matter at any hour you like to name I think I could explain matters more definitely.

I am your Lordship’s obedient servant,

J. Theodore Bent


Bent’s friend Cecil Harcourt Smith, 1859-1944, of the British Museum and later the V & A.

Burgas (Bulgaria), ancient port on the Black Sea.

Stefan Stambolov, 1854-1895, Bulgarian politician, journalist, revolutionary, and poet who served as Prime Minister and regent. He was assassinated in Sofia in 1895.

Letter 2 – Bent to Carnarvon


13, Great Cumberland Place, W. [London]

Oct. 21 [1889].

My dear Lord Carnarvon,

It will give me great pleasure to accept your kind invitation to visit you at Highclere, and I will come down to Newbury on Saturday next [26th] by the train you name.

I remain my Lord,

Yours faithfully,

J. Theodore Bent

Amorgos amigos

Bent’s friend, Sir Edwin Pears (wikipedia).

Theodore Bent had a good friend in Sir Edwin Pears (1835-1919), a British barrister, author and historian, whom the Bents met in Constantinople (although here our interest is on the Cycladic island of Amorgos).

Neither in his book The Cyclades, nor in his Easter article, does Bent make it clear whether his wife Mabel was with him on Amorgos in the Spring of 1883 or not. Indeed, in his 1884 article he ends: “Next day the relentless steamer called and carried me [our italics] off to other scenes.” It is rather a mystery.

We do know, however, that Bent did travel on his own for his second visit to the island in early 1884, Mabel deciding to stay on Paros/Antiparos, feeling below par (see The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Vol. 1, 2006, p. 46, and our earlier article on Amorgos at Easter 1893).

Now, interestingly, a section in Edwin Pears’ (1835-1919) book on Turkey (1911) seems to suggest that Mabel was with Theodore on Amorgos in 1883 (their first visit to the Cyclades). Pears, a good friend of the Bents, recalls a folkloric episode from the island told him by the explorer, which, it seems, was never published; it is therefore a noteworthy addition to Bent’s adventures on Amorgos and should be included with Bent’s publications on that Cycladic place (and, of course, within his collected writings on customs and traditions generally).

Here is what Bent’s Amorgos amigo has to say:

“I conclude this notice of surviving paganism by telling a story for which my authority is the late Theodore Bent. In his interesting book on the Cyclades, his last chapter, full of good matter, is about the island of Amorgos at the south-east end of the group he has been describing. The following story is not in it, but was told me by him shortly after the incident occurred; and Mrs Bent, who nearly always accompanied her husband, has kindly informed me recently that it was on Amorgos where the incident happened. Mr Bent had so often found that the customs mentioned by Herodotus were continued to the present time, that he incautiously asked the priest of St Nicholas, the successor of Poseidon as the protector of sailors, whether the old practice of divination by tossing up knucklebones and learning by the way in which they fell on the altar what the direction of the wind would be, still continued. The answer was in the negative. When the priest turned away, an old woman who had overheard the conversation said to Mr Bent, ‘All the same, Chilibé [sic], no ship goes to sea without the crew coming here to learn how the wind will blow.’ Mr Bent said nothing, but having learned that two or three days later a vessel had arranged to leave, watched her crew, and having seen them start on their way to the church, followed them at a distance, taking care to keep out of sight. They entered the church, and five minutes later were followed by Mr Bent, who arrived just in time to see, through the holy gate, candles lighted upon the altar, the priest with his hat off, and his long hair down, and in the very act of tossing the knucklebones.”

Pears also makes a glowing reference to his friend Bent in his The destruction of the Greek empire and the story of the capture of Constantinople by the Turks (1903, p. 449, fn. 1): “Mr. Theodore Bent, who had paid greater attention to the archaeology of the Greek Islands and to their present condition than any other Englishman…”

The Bents’ musical instruments in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

Interior of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford (wikipedia).

The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford has over 50 artefacts acquired by Theodore and Mabel Bent on their 20 years of exploration, including 12 musical instruments (pipes [askomandoura] and flutes [floghera] in particular attracted them).

Some items from the Bent collection are regularly on display in the museum, including their musical instruments. In the early 1890s, the Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (Vol. 20, 1890-1891, 153 ff) included a paper by Henry Balfour on “The Old British ‘Pibcorn’ or ‘Hornpipe’ and its affinities”, which was part inspired by two ‘Greek’ instruments acquired at different times by the Pitt Rivers from the Bents, and “which seem to throw great light upon the true origin of the pibcorn” (see also A. Baines, Bagpipes, Oxford 1979, p.45).

Bent describes a musical episode on Tinos in 1884 (‘The Cyclades, or Life among the Insular Greeks’, 1885 –

One instrument is a curious double-pipe (1903.130.21) from a small cluster of villages on Tinos (Tenos) in the Cyclades. Theodore Bent bought this pipe (on the couple’s second visit to the island in early March 1884), which he calls monosampilos, in the area of ‘Dio Choria’ (Δύο Χωριά), misread by Balfour or his editor as ‘Dio Maria’). The visit was a short one – just a few days (their first tour being in the spring of 1883). In her diary, Mabel recalls that the villagers “were dancing on the roofs and we went up to see them and bought a musical instrument” (The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Vol. 1, Oxford, 2006, p. 47); Theodore also describes the event – page 262 of his classic monograph on the Cyclades.

The sambouna and double-pipe from the Bent collection of musical instruments in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford (detail from a line-drawing in Henry Balfour’s paper on “The Old British ‘Pibcorn’ or ‘Hornpipe’ and its affinities”,  in ‘The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland’, Vol. 20 (1890-1891, 153 ff;

The second instrument that attracts Balfour’s interest is the famous bagpipe/sambouna (1903.130.23) that the Bents brought back from Karpathos (now in the Greek Dodecanese, then a Turkish possession) in 1885.

Both instruments appear in a rare line-drawing that accompanies Balfour’s paper.


The other instruments collected by the Bents and in the Pitt Rivers:

1903.130.7: Double flageolet, carved from single piece of wood. From Belgrade, Serbia (1887).

1891.4.1.1 and 1891.4.1 .2. End flute and case. From the Taurus Mountains (Turkey) (1890).

1888.37.5: End blown trumpet. From Karpathos, Dodecanese (1885). In his 1886 article,’ On a far-off island‘ for Blackwood’s Magazine (Vol. 139, Feb 1886, 240), Bent describes, perhaps, this very instrument, although his name for it is eccentric, perhaps dialect, a variant of the sourali (σουραύλι): “Amusements in Karpathos certainly are not numerous, and may be summed up as consisting of music and dancing in a variety of forms… sometimes… a man will come and play the lyre, — just one of those lyres which their ancestors played, a pretty little instrument about half a yard long, with silver beads which jangle attached to the bow. Besides this they have the syravlion, a sort of pan-pipe made of two reeds hollowed out, with blow-holes and straws up the middle, and placed side by side in a larger reed.”

1903.130.27: End blown trumpet of buffalo horn. From ‘Asia’ (date and findspot uncertain).

1903.130.18: End-flute made from a crane’s wing bone. The flute has been etched with various details, including the Anglicised word ‘syravlion’ (which the PR reads as ‘Syralion’, see above, perhaps dialect, a variant of the sourali (σουραύλι)). From Samos island (1886).

1903.130.16: End-flute of reed. Labelled by the PR as ‘pinavlion’ (dialect perhaps, today pinavli/πιναύλι). From Paros island, Cyclades (1883/4). Bent does not seem to have referred to this flute type in connection with Paros in his Cyclades (p. 379), but he does name again the ‘syravlion’ (see above): “Once, says a legend, a young man challenged the Lady of the Hundred Gates to a playing contest on the syravlion, and went accordingly to the church to play; but the Madonna took no notice of his challenge. Just as he was getting up to go he accidentally knocked over the candlestick, and broke his flute; in this way did the Madonna prove her superiority and humbled the man…”

1903.130.17: Flute made from eagle’s wing bone. From Samos island (1886)

1888.37.6: End flute. From Samos island (1886).

1903.131.18.2 and 1903.131.18.1: Lyra and bow. From Karpathos, Dodecanese (1885).

Bent’s map of the Cyclades from the first edition of his classic 1885 book (

Bent’s classic book The Cyclades, or Life Among the Insular Greeks, has several references to the lyre and sambouna, examples of which he donated to the Pitt Rivers. Of interest too are the many mentions of the flute he calls ‘syravlion’, a word unexplained and not found elsewhere perhaps a local variant of the romantic sourali (σουραύλι) or syrinx (Σύριγξ). Bent writes from Naxos: “We came to a halt at a dirty house, where we had to sit for hours… They constantly plied us with coffee, raki, and sweets as we waited… they played persistently for our benefit on the syravlion, or panpipe, and the drum. When shepherds play the panpipe on the hillside it is romantic enough: the instrument is a simple one, just two reeds hollowed out and placed side by side…” (p. 347). There are also recollections of the instrument from the Bents’ time on the islands of Ios (p. 162) and Santorini (p. 134).

How do these instruments sound?

Museum of Popular Music, Athens (wikipedia).

The Museum of Greek Folk Musical Instruments in Athens curates over 1000 items, and many of the displays feature recordings of the instruments playing.

Click for an article on the great sambouna player of Anafi.

Click for eagle bone flute (YouTube).

Click for Karpathos lyra and sambouna (YouTube). Karpathos is where Bent’s instruments in the Pitt Rivers come from (and were presumably made).

Click for the pinavli flute (YouTube).

Other musical instruments collected by the Bents

The major repository for artefacts brought back to England by the Bents between c. 1880 and 1900 is the British Museum, London. The collection is huge, but includes only a small number of musical instruments, not often on display; we list them below for reference. Some of the artefacts entered the Museum in 1926, just a few years before Mabel Bent’s death, indicating her fondness for them; perhaps the rooms of her London home would occasionally echo with sad notes from far away…

From Ethiopia (1893) (click (YouTube) for some of these instruments playing):

Flute (left) and trumpet (right) (

(1) Two trumpets (Af1926,0410.63 & Af1893,0715.27). The inventory number for the former indicates that this object remained in Mabel Bent’s personal collection until 1926 – when she was putting her affairs in order in her final years; she died in 1929. We may assume that the object was of sentimental value, giving her happy memories of the couple’s (perilous) journey to Ethiopia in 1893. We should note however that the findspot was not mentioned by Mabel and Bent only refers to one trumpet in his monograph of this trip: “As Digsa was one of the last Abyssinian villages of importance which we should visit, we took care here to annex an Abyssinian umbrella and a malakat [elsewhere malaket] or trumpet…” (J.T. Bent, The Sacred City of the Ethiopians, London, 1893, p. 212).

Ethiopian lyre (

(2) Lyre (Af1893,0715.25). In his Sacred City of the Ethiopians (1896 edn, p. 25), Bent writes in Asmara: “Here for the first time we saw the Abyssinian lyre or harp, a specimen of which I coveted for six long weeks afterwards, until I was able to acquire one at Aksum…”.

Ethiopian ‘fiddle’ (

(3) Fiddle (Af1893,0715.24). In Bent’s Sacred City of the Ethiopians (1896 edn, p. 26), he writes “… another favourite Abyssinian instrument [is] called the chera masanko. This I also got. It is a sort of violin with a square sounding board, tightly made of skin, and played with a little bow. The asmari or wandering minstrels, also play it, and it is heard at every feast, whether religious or secular.”

4) Flute (Af1893,0715.26), made of cane and leather. In Bent’s Sacred City of the Ethiopians (1896 edn, pp. 28-9), we read: “As the trumpet has only one note, so has the Abyssinian flute, the imbilta. To make an Abyssinian band suitable to escort a great man or perform at a religious festival, you require four trumpets and three flutes, each player sounding a note in turn. The imbilta is nearly a yard long, and is as great a mark of personal distinction as the umbrella.” We may assume that Bent acquired one in Aksum, however, he says they are nearly 90 cm in length and the BM item is 58 cm.

From Mashonaland (Zimbabwe) (1891):

The ‘sansa’ from Zimbabwe (J.T. Bent, The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland, 1892: 81-82; archive,org).

(1) A sansa/’Makalanga piano’ (Af1892A0714/Af1979,01.4538). Described by Bent as “… very interesting specimens of primitive musical art; they have thirty or more iron keys, arranged to scale, fixed on to a piece of wood about half a foot square, which is decorated with carving behind.

This instrument they generally put into a gourd, with pieces of bone round the edge to increase the sound, which is decidedly melodious and recalls a spinet.” (J.T. Bent, The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland, London, 1892, pp. 81-82).

[Also known as the mbira or ‘thumb-piano’, click (YouTube) to hear it play]

(2) A rattle (Af1892,0714.24). Such a rattle may be referred to in this extract from Bent’s Ruined Cities of Mashonaland (1892, p. 330): “Evidence of festivities was also present in the shape of drums and long chains of grass cases for beads, which they hang round their calves to rattle at the dances…”

(3) Musical bow (Af1892,0714.146). On page 20 of Bent’s Ruined Cities of Mashonaland (1892), such a bow is referenced: “A man stood near, playing on an instrument like a bow with one string, with a gourd attached to bring out the sound. He played it with a bit of wood, and the strains were plaintive, if not sweet…”

From the Middle East (1889-1897):

1) and 2) Two flutes (As1926,0410.56 and As1926,0410.55) from Bahrain (1889), when the Bents spent some time excavating at the so-called ‘Mounds of Ali’.

3) Flute (As1926,0410.61). Acquired on the Bents’ remarkable journey on horseback, south-north, through Persia in 1889 on their way home from Bahrain. “We saw a wedding at Savandi… The women in red, with gold ornaments and uncovered faces, looked highly picturesque, and each carried in her hand a red handkerchief, which she flourished as she went round to the music of the flute and drum.” (From J.T. Bent, ‘In the Mountains of Medea’, Littell’s Living Age, Vol. 189 (1891), p.51).

How does it sound? Click to hear the Persian ney (YouTube).

4) Flute (As1926,0410.48) from the Wadi Hadramaut (Yemen). Collected by the Bents on one of their trips into the Yemeni interior between 1894-1897. “The Bedouin are rather clever at impromptu verses, and when we were in Wadi Ser they made night hideous by dancing in our camp… Bedouin women also take part in these dances… it was very weird by the light of the moon and the camp-fire, but wearisome when we wanted to sleep, particularly as they kept it up till after we were all astir in the morning, yelling, bawling, singing, and screeching… The ground was shaken as if horses were galloping about. A Bedou was playing a flute made of two leg-bones of a crane bound together with iron.” (Mabel and Theodore Bent, Southern Arabia (1900), p.128-9)

How does it sound? Click to hear the mizmar, or Yemeni flute (YouTube).

From London to Oxford?

Flute players in the Wadi Koukout, Sudan (1896), heard by the Bents (‘Southern Arabia’, p.337).

It would make such sense for the Bents’ above-mentioned musical instruments, in store in the British Museum, to be loaned for display, on a long-term basis, to the Pitt Rivers in Oxford, Bent’s alma mater:  after all, he read history at Wadham College (in the early 1870s), just a few hundred metres from the Pitt Rivers today, and how pleasant to think of the great traveller’s legacy freely visible to all there, a great collection from only 20 years or so of exploration, and always with his tireless wife – in the Levant, Africa, and Arabia.

[All websites accessed 02/02/2024]


Spring 2024. Here is a recent article (Καθαρά Δευτέρα του 1884 στα Δυο Χωριά με Τσαμπούνες) by Theodoros  Chiou on the Bents’ visit to Cycladic Tinos in 1884, focusing on their fascination for traditional music and musical instruments. (The automatic English translation is of variable quality – αλλά δεν πειράζει !)

Mabel’s two interviews for ‘Lady of the House’ (September 1893 and July 1894)

“For what daughter of Eve could forego ‘the cup that cheers’. ‘And although we often suffered terribly from want of water’, said Mrs. Bent as we chatted about her last journey, ‘I usually managed to have a cup of tea every morning’.”

“Mrs. Theodore Bent might claim, was she not a very modest woman, to be the champion lady explorer of modern times. Together with her husband, the late Mr. Theodore Bent, she has undertaken successfully 13 voyages of exploration, and probably few women are as familiar with the little known islands of Greece as is Mrs. Bent; she was also one of the first to traverse Arabia.” (Southampton Observer and Hampshire News – Saturday, 3 July 1897)

For Mabel Bent’s birthday, 28 January (she was born in 1847), we reprint below two interview-based articles about her that appeared in Lady of  the House on 15 September 1893 and 14 July 1894. It is unlikely that they have seen the light of day since then. In their way, they are remarkable.

Lady of the House

Now viewed by some as Ireland’s first magazine for women, Lady of the House was launched in 1890 in Dublin. This refined Irish magazine regularly, and unsurprisingly, published news of the activities of Mabel Bent, associated, as the latter was, with two eminent Irish families – the Lambarts of Co. Meath, and the Hall-Dares of Co. Wexford.

Mrs J Theodore Bent, Society Portraits feature, “Lady of the House”, Friday, 15 September 1893 (The Bent Archive).

The magazine’s features team clearly recognised that news of Mabel was exactly the right fit for its modern readership. The relationship began, it seems, back in September 1893, when Mabel was the subject of a 500-word piece for the magazine’s ‘Society Portraits’ page: it may well have been based on an interview, and it’s great highlight is a photograph of Mabel in profile that has been much reproduced. As might be expected, the tone of the piece is more than a little hyperbolic, and there are some strange references, i.e. that the couple undertook ‘some successful “digging”’ in Egypt (this they did not, other than bury some picnic rubbish near the Sphinx!), and their work on the island of Thasos, northern Aegean, is relocated to ‘an Egyptian town near Thrace’. The concluding sentence is accurate however: ‘… and last winter [1892/93] they went to Abyssinia, where they made several valuable discoveries, and returned with a collection of curiosities for the British Museum’. The oblique reference to Mabel’s possible election to join the Fellows of the Royal Geographical Society is noteworthy – she was on the shortlist for the second tranche of women Fellows that year, but the RGS executive decided to stop the practice. Mabel is trying not to show disappointment (Theodore, of course, was a Fellow).

The same photograph of Mabel is used the following summer (14 July 1894) to trumpet the Bents’ epic foray into the remote and hazardous Wadi Hadramaut (Yemen) – Mabel is still thought to be the first ‘European’ woman to have (voluntarily) travelled there. The revelation of the piece is that they returned with “very valuable parchments, illuminated on almost every page, which are supposed to date from the time of Mahomed” [sic]. This is the first and only reference to such acquisitions, and where they might be now is anyone’s guess.

The journal continued to report on Mabel’s comings and goings after her widowhood (1897) and into the decades that followed – it may well be that it was supplied with ‘press releases’ direct from 13 Great Cumberland Place, Mrs. Bent’s London headquarters.

Lady of  the House, 15 September 1893, page 19, ‘Society Portraits’ (c. 500 words):

The expeditions
The expeditions of Theodore & Mabel Bent, 1883-1897 (© Glyn Griffiths).

“In the present day travelling has been made so easy that under the auspices of Messrs. Cook & Son it is possible to make oneself acquainted with all parts of the civilised world at a cost which is – comparatively speaking – trifling, and one can go to India, for instance, in a shorter time than it took our ancestors at the beginning of this century to make ‘the grand tour of Europe’, without which no young man of position was supposed to be educated!

“But all travellers now-a-days are not content with the stereotyped tours ‘personally conducted’ (excellent and convenient as these undoubtedly are), and of late years we have heard of journeys which involved considerable risk and privation, and resulted in most important antiquarian discoveries. That an Irish lady should be the most distinguished member of her sex in this respect is distinctly gratifying to our patriotic feelings, and her countrymen and women may be justly proud of Mrs. Theodore Bent, who has shared with her husband all the dangers of exploring remote districts, and assisting in his geographical research.

“Mrs. Bent is a daughter of the late Mr. Hall-Dare, of Newtownbarry, Co. Wexford, and her mother was Miss Lambart, of Beau Park, Co. Meath.

“Although Mrs. Bent’s travels usually occupy a considerable portion of each year, and her home is now in England, she always manages time for an annual visit to Ireland; and the lace industry established by her family at Newtownbarry for the benefit of the tenancy and cottagers in the vicinity has still a staunch supporter in the subject of this sketch.

Mabel Bent’s birthplace, Beauparc, Co. Meath (copyright JP and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons).

“As to the journeys accomplished by Mr. and Mrs. Bent, it is, unfortunately, only possible to give a brief outline, but doubtless most readers are aware that the recent discussion at the Royal Geographical Society arose by the reason of the wish of several members to confer on Mrs. Bent the distinction of being a ‘Fellow’ of that body of notable travellers. Those who were against the admission of ladies have – temporarily at least – gained the day, but Mrs. Bent has not experienced the slightest disappointment about the matter, as she never sought a ‘Fellowship’, and is quite content with the privileges she already enjoys.

“It is about nine years since Mr. and Mrs. Bent started for Athens, and made themselves acquainted with the most interesting portions of Greece, returning next year to the Cyclades Isles, and bringing back to the British Museum many valuable relics dug out of the ruins at Antiparos. In Egypt, too, some successful ‘digging’ was accomplished, and also at an Egyptian town near Thrace, while at Celecia this adventurous couple discovered Olba and the famous ‘Korycian Cave’. A long tour through Persia and over the Caucasus preceded their celebrated expedition to Mashonaland, and last winter they went to Abyssinia, where they made several discoveries, and returned with a collection of curiosities for the British Museum.”

Lady of  the House, 14 July 1894, page 4, ‘In a Sultan’s Harem’ (c. 1000 words):

Bent’s iconic likeness from the studio of James Russell & Sons, around 1895 (The Bent Archive).

“Mrs. Theodore Bent’s name is so familiar to all who are versed in the events of the day, it is hardly necessary to remind our readers that this distinguished member of her sex is an Irishwoman, and therefore a brief account of her last journey cannot fail to have a special interest for her countrywomen. That Mrs. Bent is endowed with unusual courage and fortitude goes without saying, for perhaps no other woman has undertaken such arduous and dangerous journeys, nor assisted so indefatigably in the antiquarian research which is the raison d’être for Mr. Bent’s travels.

“After the unpleasant experiences in Abyssinia during the winter and spring of 1893, many of Mrs. Bent’s friends thought she would not be inclined to seek fresh dangers, but undeterred by what she had gone through, Mrs. Bent commenced preparations last autumn for the South Arabian expedition, as she invariably sees after the necessary camp furniture and provisions, the latter consisting principally of tinned meats, milk, etc., and, of course, tea. For what daughter of Eve could forego ‘the cup that cheers’. ‘And although we often suffered terribly from want of water’, said Mrs. Bent as we chatted about her last journey, ‘I usually managed to have a cup of tea every morning’.

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

“Mr. and Mrs. Bent left England on the 24th November, accompanied by an Arab zoologist, a botanist (sent from Kew), a surveyor from the Indian Government, an archaeologist, and last, but certainly not least, by the faithful Greek servant who had attended the travellers throughout their former journeys, and an interpreter joined them on landing. Starting from Aden, the little party wended their steps towards the interior of South Arabia, camping out at night and by day riding on camels, with the exception of Mrs. Bent, to whom a horse had been presented by a friendly Sultan. Being extremely fond of animals (and of horses in particular), a warm friendship soon sprung up between owner and steed.

Manthaios Simos, the Bents’ long-suffering assistant from Anafi in the Cyclades, thought to be in his nineties in Athens in the 1930s (© Andreas Michalopoulos).

“To give in detail the story of Mr. and Mrs. Bent’s wanderings would be impossible in a necessarily limited space. Suffice it to say that often their path was rough and difficult, and dangers beset them on every side as they got further and further into the country, at length reaching a district where no European had ever entered. The natives – a very strict set of Mahommedans – were determined ‘the unbelievers’ should not pass though, and attacked the little party with their primitive, but dangerous, firearms, and on one occasion the travellers seemed to have slight chance of saving their lives. Yet in the midst of an unknown country, surrounded by foes, Mrs. Bent never once showed fear, though all the members of the expedition, save Mr. Bent and the Indian surveyor, completely lost hope, and gave vent to their terror unreservedly. Mrs. Bent kindly endeavoured to cheer the Greek servant, but he refused to be comforted, ‘although’, she added with a smile, ‘I reminded him we were the first Europeans who had entered the district, hoping he would consider this some compensation. But he replied sadly, “Yes, and probably we shall never leave it!”’ Unfortunately, the poor fellow was so terrified he refuses to accompany his master and mistress on their next visit to Arabia, a resolution which they much regret.

“But there were many pleasant incidents too connected with the months passed in that remote country, and I was greatly amused and interested in Mrs. Bent’s graphic account of a visit to the Palace of Shibam, where she was allowed to enter the harem and spend some time with its inmates. The Sultan of Shibam is the husband of thirteen wives, whose principal occupation seems to consist in painting their faces yellow, and decorating themselves with innumerable gold chains and ear-rings. One of these ladies has considerable influence with his dusky Majesty, and at her instigation he is now building another palace. But the other wives are decidedly stupid and uninteresting. The harem is hung with looking glasses, and furnished with the usual large and rather hard cushions and rugs, while the thirteen ladies wore the long shapeless dress of the country, made of indigo-dyed fine cotton, richly embroidered, in pale grey thread, and further ornamented with pieces of bright-coloured cottons, ingeniously arranged and set off by beads of several hues.

Mabel’s doodle of a face-mask (December 1894, in Muscat/Oman; see ‘The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent’, Vol.3, 2010, p.249 ).

“Mrs. Bent showed me a facsimile of the Royal ladies’ apparel she was lucky enough to secure, and also the face mask worn by all the Southern Arabian women except in the privacy of the harem. It is indigo-dyed cotton, with two slits for the eyes, and an embroidered band which ties round the head. They also wear a heavy leather and brass girdle and brass anklets, which are well displayed in front, as the dress I have already described barely reaches to the knees, although hanging in a train at the back. The Sultan’s wives, Mrs. Bent told me, burn quantities of incense in the harem, and brought out boxes of gold chains for her edification. They glanced pityingly at her single pair of ear-rings, for with them this would be a mark of extreme poverty, and when they discovered she was Mr. Bent’s only wife, no doubt of his financial condition was entertained by them!

Mabel Bent’s own photograph of the Sultan of Makalla’s castle, Shibam, Wadi Hadramaut (Jan 1894). It appears in the Bents’ ‘Southern Arabia’ (1900), p.125 (

“But the Sultan, who saw Mrs. Bent doing embroidery (work in which she excels) and busying herself about household matters in the camp, came to the conclusion that one wife like her was of more value than his thirteen put together; and when he found how delightfully she can converse, this opinion was strengthened, for, as he candidly acknowledged, his wives were stupid and lazy! As Mrs. Bent hopes to return to Shibam next winter, let us hope the fair inhabitants of the palace have not heard their lord and master’s sentiments. By the bye, Mrs. Bent took a number of photographs in Arabia, including one of the Sultan, who looks as though he was thoroughly pleased with the attention, while a view of the palace gives one a good idea of that genial monarch’s home. Mr. Bent also has souvenirs of the journey in the form of admirable water-colour sketches, and the travellers’ collection of Arabian things embrace specimens of native workmanship and clothing, in addition to wonderful and very valuable parchments, illuminated on almost every page, which are supposed to date from the time of Mahomed.

“If all goes well, Mr. and Mrs. Bent intend starting about November for South Arabia, and penetrating further into the country than they have already done, when it is likely the records of the Royal Geographical Society may be further enriched by Mr. Bent’s explorations, and our charming countrywoman will have again proved what Irish ‘pluck’ can accomplish.”

[You might also enjoy other interviews with the Bents, see the Irish weekly The Hearth and Home  (2 November, 1894) and  The Album (8 July, 1895), as well as the feature in The Gentlewoman, 11 November, 1893]

Coincidental bedfellows most strange – Balfour, Bent, and Blouet (November 1895)

Jabez Balfour as caricatured by “Spy” in Vanity Fair, March 1892 (wikipedia).

Mabel Bent, of course, was a Hall-Dare: a very wealthy Essex (London) family with connections to large tracts of land and grand properties. One of these was Ilford Lodge, Barking, which had been carved from the much larger adjoining estate of Valentines; it had passed into the hands of Mabel’s great-grandfather Robert Hall, who was previously a tenant there, before 1810. It remained within the various Hall-Dare families until 1883, before its acquisition by the larger-than-life character, and crook, Jabez Balfour, and his Liberator Building Society – which collapsed in 1892, and saw Balfour imprisoned for embezzlement.

Our great coincidence occurs at Balfour’s second trial: “In the Queen’s Bench yesterday [Thursday, 21 November 1895], before Mr. Justice Bruce and a Special Jury, the second prosecution of Jabez Balfour was commenced. The indictment charged that he, being a Director of the House and Land Investment Trust (Limited), fraudulently applied to uses and purposes other than the uses and purposes of the Company, divers large sums of money, between February 4, 1886, and October 15, 1887.”

Ilford Lodge, Barking, Essex (London), one of the country properties of the Hall-Dares. It was sold to Jabez Balfour in 1883 (from Edward Tuck, ‘A sketch of ancient Barking, its abbey, and Ilford’, Barking, 1899?, pp.52-53).

And who should appear now but Theodore Bent – husband of Mabel, née Hall-Dare, and one, no doubt, acquainted with Balfour’s Barking mansion, the erstwhile family demesne! In court that day an application was made “that no Juryman, interested in any of the Balfour group of Companies should be permitted to serve… Only one Juryman, however, was interested, he being a shareholder in the London and General Bank, and, accordingly, he was excused. Another Juryman was excused because he was a manager of a bicycle Company, and he was the only person to look after the interests of the Company at the Cycle Show.” And, now for our surprise, “Mr. J.T. Bent was also excused in consequence of being about to start upon an expedition to Africa on behalf of the Geographical Society…”

What Balfour’s legal team would have made of it had they discovered that juryman Bent was the husband of a Hall-Dare, whose relatives had sold their client his Ilford estate in 1883, we will never know!

Mr. Paul Blouet, aka Max O’Rell (wikipedia).

The above newspaper quotations are from the London Standard of Friday, 22 November 1895. The Westminster Gazette of the same day was slightly less po-faced:  “The number of jurors who claimed exemption at the commencement of the second Balfour trial yesterday [Thursday, 21 November 1895] were far less than on the previous occasion. ‘B’ was the fatal letter from which the panel was drawn. Amidst the private individuals came two celebrities, Mr. Paul Blouet [aka Max O’Rell] and Mr. Theodore Bent. The genial Max O’Rell did not appear, as an Irishman would say, to offer any explanation for his absence. Mr. Theodore Bent, however, had more respect for the majesty which Mr. Justice Bruce represents, and expressed his willingness to attend, subject to the necessity imposed upon him of going to Africa on a delimitation commission. In this journey, as in many another, he will be accompanied by his wife. They are sailing in a day or two [The Bents left from Charing Cross station for the Red Sea on 2 December 1895].”

It’s very gratifying to see the Bents labelled ‘celebrities’. The couple are now at the height of their fame – having explored Great Zimbabwe (1891) and regions of Ethiopia (1893) and Yemen (1894-).

Θαυμαστὸν μὲν ἴσως οὐκ ἔστιν, ἐν ἀπείρῳ τῷ χρόνῳ τῆς τύχης ἄλλοτε ἄλλως ῥεούσης, ἐπὶ ταὐτὰ συμπτώματα πολλάκις καταφέρεσθαι τὸ αὐτόματον…  (Plutarch, Life of Sertorius, 1)

‘The Human Unicorn – Mr. Bent’s Interesting Discovery in Lesser Armenia’ (early March 1890)

View from Kozan Castle
View from Kozan (ancient Sis) castle (wikipedia).

In early March 1890, the Bents were exploring the area around ancient Sis, the capital of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, now incorporating Kozan Kalesi. The ancient city and its fortress occupied the long rocky ridge in the centre of the modern city.

With reference to the Bents’ wanderings in the wider region in early March 1890, there is, two years later,  a bizarre and unpleasant report in The Morning Leader (London, Monday, 29 August 1892) under the heading ‘The Human Unicorn – Mr. Bent’s Interesting Discovery in Lesser Armenia’ that we, nevertheless, reproduce. It, of course, raises several issues – including an obscure article by Bent in an even obscurer periodical, which we are still yet to see. If the few lines mentioned are indeed by Bent, then they merit an appearance – perhaps the first for over a century, who knows. Here is what The Morning Leader reporter glibly has to say:

The setting for the Bents’ 1890 expedition. The arrow shows the region of ancient Sis (modern Kozan, s/w Turkey)(© Glyn Griffiths 2006).

‘In all probability the human unicorn who was left destitute in a lodging-house in Whitfield-st., Tottenham-court-rd., and who is now an inmate of the St. Pancras Workhouse and source of perplexity to the guardians, is the man referred to by Mr. Theodore Bent, the well-known archaeologist and traveller. Describing a journey to Sis, the quondam capital of Lesser Armenia, Mr. Bent wrote as follows in a recent number of the Eastern and Western Review: “In the village of Tapan Dere, a little north of Sis, dwells a man with a horn on the top of his head. We did not believe this until we saw him and actually felt the horn, which is curved and about the size of a finger. I hear he is on his way to Europe to exhibit himself, having been inspired by the success of two fair damsels with beards, who also came from this locality, and amassed much gain by exhibition in Europe.” Showmen in search of a genuine novelty should lose no time in calling at St. Pancras Workhouse.’

Just a few days after this scoop, the Manchester Courier (Saturday, 3 September 1892) follows up the story. It seems that all’s well that end’s well for the poor man who Theodore Bent may or may not have seen near Sis two years previously. It should be noted that there is no mention of this sensational encounter (including actually touching the excrescence) in Mabel Bent’s diary of the time (The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Vol 1, 263-321), and it all may well have been another of Theodore’s fancies – he had a habit of allowing himself a certain licence depending on his readership, from academic/scientific to tabloid.

Back to the Manchester Courier of 3 September 1892 (at the time the Bents are busy preparing for a trip to Ethiopia and publicising their work in Great Zimbabwe of the preceding year):

Dinnertime at St Pancras Workhouse, London, 1911 (wikipedia).

‘A Human Unicorn – Owing to the publicity given to the case of a Turkish subject with an excrescence on his head, who was brought to this country by two men for show, a gentleman from the Turkish Consulate has visited St. Pancras Workhouse for the purpose of discovering the man’s name and antecedents. Directly he was spoken to in his native tongue his joy knew no bounds, as he salaamed and kissed his interviewer’s knees and hands. After some conversation he gave his name as Ahmed Mustapha, aged 38, a mountain peasant of Assyria, where his nearest relative is chief or khan of the village. The horn or bony excrescence is on the top of his head, about the size of a man’s thumb, but he will not allow any of the officers or inmates of the workhouse to see it, as although he wears the workhouse clothes he retains his turban, which he keeps on his head night and day. It is supposed that the reason he was left on his arrival in England was that it was found that instead of letting the horn grow, he used to pare it with a knife. The officials of the Turkish Consulate are in communication with the Distressed Foreigners’ Aid Society to remove him to his native place.’

The Bent-Glaser Correspondence

“The third fragment is perhaps the most tantalising of all; it is a fragment of the lip of another large bowl which must have been more than two feet in diameter, and around which apparently an inscription ran. The lettering is provokingly fragmentary, but still there can be no doubt that it is an attempt at writing in some form: the straight line down the middle, the sloping lines on either side recall some system of tally, and the straightness of the lettering compares curiously with the proto-Arabian type of lettering used in the earlier Sabæan inscriptions…” (J.T. Bent, The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland, London 1892, pp. 199-200)

Eduard Glaser (wikipedia)

The chance find of this above-mentioned fragment of an ‘inscription’ among the ruins of Great Zimbabwe in the summer of 1891 provided Theodore Bent with an opportunity to make contact with one of the leading, if not the leading, Orientalists of his day – Eduard Glaser (1855-1908).

Correspondence between Bent and Glaser is in the process of digitisation by the Austrian Academy of Sciences Library, Archive and Collections: Information & Service (Vienna) as part of their fascinatingly important project Glaser Virtual World – All About Eduard Glaser. We are very happy to acknowledge the current owners of the material reproduced: Regionální muzeum K.A. Polánka v Žatci  (K.A. Polánek Regional Museum, Žatec, Czech Republic) and Státní okresní archiv Louny (SOkA Louny) (State District Archives, Louny, Czech Republic).

To date (December 2023), five letters from Bent to Glaser have been scanned: they are associated with the former’s travels in present-day Zimbabwe (1891), Ethiopia (1893), and Southern Arabia (1894-97).

Letter 4 (19 July 1892) is of unique interest. In it Bent lists his reasons for his theory that the Great Zimbabwe ruins are of ‘Phoenician’ origin. His opinions are not presented in this exact way in any other known source.

The transcriptions that follow are provided by the editors (and include interpretations). Bent’s phraseology reflects his era. Selected comments are added below each letter (and are likely to be expanded in the future).

Letter 1: 1 February 1892 (GlaViWo – Archive: AT-OeAW-BA-3-27-LOAR-232-15-001)

[From 13 Great Cumberland Place, London, W.]


Dear Sir

Page 1 of Bent’s letter of 1 February 1892 to Glaser, who has made multiple annotations (GlaViWo – Archive: AT-OeAW-BA-3-27-LOAR-232-15-001).

My friend [Dr] Charles Bezold has very kindly given me the enclosed card of introduction to you. I am going therefore to venture on asking you a few questions on the ancient inhabitants of Southern Arabia.

I have just returned from excavating very extensive ruins in Mashoonaland between the Zambesi and the Limpopo rivers about 300 miles inland and in the centre of the gold producing country.

My finds there are decidedly puzzling, they have no relation whatsoever to anything African; the buildings are massive stone walls of small granite blocks, 30 to 40 ft high and 15 ft thick – no mortar. Some are circular and cover a large area of ground.

Some of the ‘phalli’ from Great Zimbabwe that Bent brought back to London. They were exhibited at the British Museum in 1930. It is thought that some of these objects were retained by Cecil Rhodes for his private Cape Town collection (BM no. EPF9883. Trustees of the British Museum).

Of the objects we discovered, the most prominent are a large number of phalli in soapstone; most of them are circumcised and are an almost exact reproduction of the organ. Many birds on pedestals, 5 to 6 ft high, also in soapstone, bowls of the same material with cleverly designed hunting scenes, etc., carved thereon – very good glazed pottery worked on a wheel.

The chief point in the largest circular building is a tower 32 ft high built of small granite blocks and entirely solid, also with a pattern a few courses below the summit.

In looking for a solution to this mystery we naturally turn to Arabia. That it was the capital of a gold producing population is obvious from the furnaces, crucibles, ingot moulds, etc., with traces of gold in them which we found there.

That the ruins are of great age is proved by the records of the early Portuguese travellers, who speak of them in exactly the same condition as now centuries ago, and the nature of our finds point distinctly to archaic art and archaic cult.

If you can give me any points from your knowledge of ancient Arabian art which will throw light on this question I shall be greatly obliged. May I ask for an early reply as I have to give in a report of my work to the Societies which sent me out.

Yours truly

J. Theodore Bent

Four scenes from Great Zimbabwe, based on Mabel's photographs (photo: The Bent Archive)
Four scenes from Great Zimbabwe, based on Mabel’s photographs (photo: The Bent Archive, from a contemporary edition of ‘The Graphic’).

Notes: Bent reveals to Glaser some of his early discoveries and (erroneous) theories about Great Zimbabwe, as well as his developing interests in ancient links between certain African regions and ‘Southern Arabia’. Carl Bezold (1859-1922) was a German orientalist. Known primarily for his research in Akkadian (Babylonian-Assyrian), he also researched other Semitic languages: Syriac, Ge’ez (Ethiopic) and Arabic (source: Wikipedia). A colleague of Glaser’s at the University of Munich, Bezold probably became acquainted with Bent via the British Museum, but no other references to him in Bent’s works have surfaced to date. Interestingly, the letter is not on Bent’s usual headed notepaper. The couple only returned to London by ship at the very end of January 1892; it is possible that Bent drafted this letter at sea. The ‘Societies’ Bent refers to in his last sentence were the Royal Geographical Society and the British Association for the Advancement of Science. With typical enthusiasm and hard work, Bent was ready to present his results to the former by the third week of February 1892, and to the latter by the end of March (at which it is said that prime minister Gladstone himself was to attend).   

Letter 2: 4 July 1892 (GlaViWo – Archive: AT-OeAW-BA-3-27-LOAR-232-15-003)

[On Bent’s letterhead, 13 Great Cumberland Place, London, W.]


Dear Sir

Detail from a contemporary map showing part of ‘Mashonaland’ (Zimbabwe) explored by the Bents in 1891.

Thank you very much for your last interesting letter received on the 2nd [July 1892]. In answer to the questions you put me, I beg to state that the ruins we excavated are identical with those described most accurately by Herr Mauch, as far as he could do so without removing the mass of jungle and débris.

This spot Zimbabwe formed the capital of a long series of temple forts stretching up through the gold country from the Limpopo to the Zambesi, and to the west of the Sabi River. We visited six of the sites and they all correspond in structure and design – but we only excavated at Zimbabwe and there only found things in one particular spot, which is in the shade of a large rock, and hence had not been disturbed by the kaffirs, who build only in sunny spots.

All the bowls, ten in all, plain and decorated, of which we found fragments are of the same size, 21 inches in diameter, one represents a procession with offerings being carried, the rest of the patterns are from animal or vegetable life.

One fragment only would appear to have had an inscription round the lip, the few letters of which are so uncertain that I have not yet found anyone who can venture an explanation. I append a copy in hopes that you may be able to give some idea.

Yours sincerely

J. Theodore Bent

Examples of the iconic soapstone birds from Great Zimbabwe (‘The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland’, p.181).

Notes: The hiatus between Bent’s letter of 1 February and this subsequent one is, as yet, unexplained; we await details of Glaser’s observations. Karl Gottlieb Mauch (1837-1875) was a German explorer and geographer of Africa. He reported on the archaeological ruins of Great Zimbabwe in 1871 during his search for the biblical land of Ophir (Wikipedia). For a panoramic (if not breathless) introduction to the region and the countless quests for its riches, see the section on ‘Mashonaland’ in J.M. Stuart, The ancient gold fields of Africa: from the Gold Coast to Mashonaland (London, 1891, p.201 ff; a reference to Bent’s theory p.231 [the link opens the personal copy of another great African adventurer, Hans Sauer]). Many of Bent’s finds, having been exhibited in the UK, were returned to the care of Cecil Rhodes, who gave some of them to the South African Museum, Cape Town (see, e.g., Edward Matenga, The Soapstone Birds Of Great Zimbabwe (2011). See Letter 3 (below) for more on the rim fragment.

Letter 3: 16 July 1892 (GlaViWo – Archive: AT-OeAW-BA-3-27-LOAR-232-15-004)

[On Bent’s letterhead, 13 Great Cumberland Place, London, W.]


Dear Dr. Glaser

The sketch of the rim-sherd found at Great Zimbabwe that Bent returns to Glaser in his letter of 4 July 1892 (GlaViWo – Archive: AT-OeAW-BA-3-27-LOAR-232-15-003).

Many thanks for your letter of the 18th [?]. In reply to your questions, I beg to state that your sketch B (which I return to guide you) is exactly right. Line ‘a’ is the inner rim of the bowl where it slopes into the centre ‘m n’ is the outer rim; the inscription is on the flat surface between and consists only of this [drawing].

These lines are sharp and clear and evidently extended to the left where the fragment is broken, but not to the right. The fragment is 4 inches long and the flat surface 1½ inches wide. I may add that we have a large plain bowl without any lettering or figures of exactly the same shape which is 2 feet in diameter, and the fragments of the bowl all seem to have had the same radius and were 1 foot 2 inches in diameter.

Yours very truly

J. Theodore Bent

Bent’s own watercolour of Great Zimbabwe (‘The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland’, London 1892).

Notes: See Bent’s initial report (and illustration) of this sherd in his The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland (1892, p.198). Where this rim fragment is today is unclear; it was item 25 in a loan exhibition of antiquities from Zimbabwe held in the British Museum in London in 1930, the year after Mabel Bent’s death (‘Loan exhibition of antiquities from Zimbabwe and other ancient sites in Southern Rhodesia’, London: British Museum, 1930); some of Bent’s finds from Great Zimbabwe are identified in museum collections in Cape Town; hundreds of ethnographical items are in store in the British Museum, London. In a letter (from Lisbon?) to Scott Keltie at the RGS [13 January 1892, RGS Archives: ar/RGS/CB7/Bent, T&M] Bent writes “My inscription is Himyaritic and the nature of the ruins closely akin to Arabian, and I can prove the Sabæan origins of the ruins now beyond a shadow of a doubt…” The discovery of this sherd is problematic. In her diary, Mabel Bent writes (18 July 1891) of a “dream of an inscription, beginning ‘Iris’, unfulfilled as yet” by one of the excavators, Mr King. A later critic, Franklin White, in ‘Notes On The Great Zimbabwe Elliptical Ruin’, Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (1905, Vol.35, 39-47), writes that he has it from ‘a reliable authority’ that ‘some if not all of these lines are recent scratchings most probably made by some one in Mr. Bent’s escort’. One cannot help being reminded of the later controversy over the ‘Bethel Seal’ recovered from the Hadramaut, in which Glaser also plays a part.

Letter 4: 19 July 1892 (GlaViWo – Archive: AT-OeAW-BA-3-27-LOAR-232-15-002)

[On Bent’s letterhead, 13 Great Cumberland Place, London, W.]


My dear Sir

A page from Bent’s significant letter to Glaser of 19 July 1892, in which he lists his reasons for associating Great Zimbabwe with the Phoenicians (GlaViWo – Archive: AT-OeAW-BA-3-27-LOAR-232-15-002).

I am extremely obliged to you for the two letters you have written me and the interest you have shown in my South African discoveries.

Curiously enough, before I went out to Mashonaland I was firmly convinced that the ruins were of [Sasanian] origin,  and so convinced was I on this subject that I made my theory public at a meeting of our Royal Geographical Society in 1890.

However after the inspection of the ruins and the results of our excavations I was reluctantly driven to abandon this idea, firstly because neither the ruins themselves nor the finds bore any resemblance to what we know of that race, and secondly because the time which elapsed between the possible date for that race to have occupied Mashonaland and the incursion of the present race of barbarians did not seem sufficient for so colossal an empire to have been built up and for such extensive gold workings to have been carried on. The whole country is honeycombed with deep shafts and the output of gold must have been enormous.

After a careful examination of all our finds I have been obliged to admit, though I must say with reluctance, a Semitic influence for the following reasons:

(1) The presence of a winged sun on the shaft of one of the phalli.

(2) The oft recurrence of the rosette in the decorations.

(3) A curious object with knobs left on it in relief is exactly the same as an object found in excavations at Paphos in Cyprus.

(4) An ingot mould for gold is exactly the same in pattern, namely ‘astragoloid’, as an ingot of tin with an Egyptian punch mark on it now in one of our museums.

(5) The Phœnician treatment of the bowl decorations.

(6) The exact orientation to the rising sun of all the buildings and patterns

There are many other points which I cannot enter into here and which compel one to look in that direction for the origin of the race, but I hope to get them into book form in the autumn.

I am happily able to read German and shall be very glad to hear again from you on the subject.

Again thanking you for your very kind reply to my letter.

I remain

Yours very truly

J. Theodore Bent

“A curious object with knobs left on it in relief” (‘The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland’, p.182).

Notes: This letter is a revelation. For Bent’s earlier thoughts on the origins of Great Zimbabwe, see Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, n.s. v.13 (1891), pp. 1-21, following E.A. Maund’s eye-opening presentation to the RGS. Like a weather-vane, Bent was to alter his thinking many times and we may still feel he was ‘bounced’ by Rhodes, who had his own agenda. Ultimately, his published theory was disproved by archaeologists such as Caton-Thompson and others in the 20th century, clearly tarnishing Bent’s reputation. We are reminded of Grant Duff’s (apocryphal) anecdote: “Acton confirmed a story which I had heard, but not from himself, to the effect that Mr. Rhodes had asked him: “Why does not Mr. Theodore Bent say that the Zimbabwe ruins are Phoenician?” Acton replied: “Because he is not quite sure that they are.” “Ah!” said the other, “that is not the way that Empires are founded.” (Grant Duff, Notes from a Diary, 1896-1901, vol I, p. 185; London 1905). Bent indeed, with incredible speed, had his monograph on sale by the end of 1892; The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland proved a bestseller and ran to several editions. 

Based on information received from Bent, Glaser drafted an essay in June 1892 on the discovery of Great Zimbabwe, the manuscript of which has survived: (Part 1) and (Part 2).  

Letter 5:  27 April 1893 (GlaViWo – Archive: AT-OeAW-BA-3-27-ZAMU-11-02-133

[Addressed from Bent’s home – 13 Great Cumberland Place, London, W.] [From a copy in another hand, made 30 April 1893]


Dear Sir

Some of Bent’s actual squeezes from Aksum, reproduced as Plate 4 in D.H. Müller, ‘Epigraphische Denkmäler aus Abessinien Nach Abklatschen von J. Theodore Bent, Esq.’ (Vienna, 1894).

It is now some time since I corresponded with you about [our] finds in Mashonaland at Zimbabwe. Since then I have been in [Abyssinia] to Aksum. Near Adoua, I [illegible] Himyarite inscriptions and a temple, also at Aksum many very early [illegible] inscriptions closely akin to Himyarite. Being now thoroughly interested in this subject I am hoping next winter to go into Arabia and should [much] like to [know] what routes you have followed and what inscriptions you have [copied] so that I may take other [things] and not do your work over again.

If you will kindly give me information on this point I shall be greatly obliged. When the squeezes of my Himyaritic inscriptions arrive I shall have much pleasure [in] sending you copies; they are at present on the sea.

Yours very truly

J. Theodore Bent

A limestone incense-burner with Sabaean inscription (2nd c BCE) from As-Sawda, acquired by the British Museum from Glaser in 1887 after one of his journeys to Yemen. Like the Bents, Glaser would sell items to fund future explorations (BM no. 125141, Trustees of the British Museum).

Notes: Glaser made four ground-breaking field-trips to ‘Southern Arabia’ (Yemen) between 1882 and the spring of 1894. The Bents were planning to make their first visit in the winter of 1893/4 and were keen not to duplicate Glaser’s work. It would have been fascinating were they all to have met up in Aden, the British port (with its eccentric hotels) all the travellers came to know well. Broadly speaking, the Bents were to interest themselves with the western extremes of the Wadi Hadramaut, while Glaser took to the east. Whether Bent ever sent Glaser the ‘squeezes’ to which he refers we are yet to learn (there is still a great deal of Glaser’s archive still to process), but the set he sent to D.H. Müller was published in 1894 (see the illustration above). These few lines by Bent are fateful, if not fatal. It is his pursuit of a dream to link up the early cultures and civilisations of certain African regions and ‘Southern Arabia’ (and we cannot rule out some associations with the mythical Queen of Sheba and the gold of Ophir) that led to his death from malarial complications in 1897 at the age of 45. (In Glaser’s 1895 study Die Abessinier in Arabien und Afrika, auf Grund neuentdeckter Inschriften (Munich), there are several references to Bent’s Aksum inscriptions.)

Acknowledgements and further information

We are extremely grateful to Elisabeth Cerny, Ronald Ruzicka, and George Hatke in Vienna for their invaluable assistance and authorisation to share this material (Copyright CC-BY-4.0 non-commercial, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Library, Archive & Collections, Project IF2019/27 Glaser Virtual World ­– All About Glaser).

Click for further references to Theodore Bent in the Glaser archive.

Elisabeth Monamy has written several articles on Glaser that can be recommended, including the entertaining graphic biography Eduard Glaser – From Bohemia through Yemen to Austria.

(all websites last accessed January 2024)

A satirical cartoon, early 19th c., of Mabel Bent’s grandfather, Robert Westley Hall-Dare

‘A Cut’: Caricature of Robert Westley Hall-Dare (1789-1836), Mabel Bent’s grandfather (Trustees of the British Museum; item number 1948,0214.811).

Many thanks to a fan for bringing to our attention (Nov. 2023) a fascinating satirical print/cartoon of Mabel Bent’s paternal grandfather, Robert Westley Hall-Dare (1789-1836), an original of which is in the British Museum. We will never know whether Mabel ever saw a copy – probably not.



The following information about the cartoon is copied from the British Museum’s online catalogue entry (with occasional abbreviations, etc.):

Museum number: 1948,0214.811; Title: ‘A Cut’; Description: Caricature of Robert Westley Hall Dare and another man (variously identified as Sir Thomas Barrett-Lennard or John Thompson) slicing a round pudding labelled ‘Ilford to Romford’, cutting along a line marked Ripple to Clements, with a picture on the wall behind of overseer beating a kneeling slave in chains. c. 1818; Producer name: Print made by: J. (or T.) Josephs; School/style: British; Production date: 1815-1820; Materials: Paper; etching with hand-colouring; Dimensions: Height: 248 mm; width: 244 mm.

See: F. and M.D. George, BM Satires: Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum (11 vols, 1870-1954, British Museum Publications, London).

Curator’s comments

The date is suggested [1818] … as relating to ‘New Church’, referenced in the paper held in the left hand of the figure on the right [source provided in the online BM caption].

The reference to ‘Dare’ pretty much confirms that: ‘The character on the left is… Robert Westley Hall who became High Sheriff of Essex in 1821. He married into the Dare family but did not adopt his wife’s name by changing his surname to Hall-Dare until 1823. This satire is likely to be later than 1818 – possibly referring to Hall-Dare’s role as High Sheriff but more likely to his 1832 election campaign for South Essex – in which he was successfully elected after coalescing with the Whig candidate Sir Thomas Barrett-Lennard – who may be the other character in red. The satire shows them carving up the constituency to prevent independent candidate (William Pole Tylney Long Wellesley’s re-election)’ [source provided in the online BM caption].

An alternative, and more likely, suggestion (based on the relatively youthful face of the subject) is that: ‘The satirical cartoon referring to Cranbrook, illustrates Robert Westley Hall Dare (MP for South Essex) and John Thompson landowner of neighbouring Clements. Both men were vociferous in the campaign to separate the Great Ilford ward from Barking to make a separate parish of it. The knife is depicted as slicing through Clements in reference to Thompson’s inclosure in 1814 of part of a highway which bisected his estate. The division of the parish was unpopular with many, particularly south Barking landowners, and the cartoon paints both Dare and Thompson as arrogant new landowners, greedy for land and power in the proposed parish. The cartoon, probably instigated by an opponent of south Barking, portrays Hall Dare’s source of wealth (emanating from his father, a West Indian planter) in order to denigrate his character and stain the campaign for division of the parish’ [source provided in the online BM caption].

A period photograph of Cranbrook Manor, one of several Essex properties associate with the Hall-Dares, taken from Edward Tuck, ‘A sketch of ancient Barking, its abbey, and Ilford’ (Ilford, 1899(?), pp. 36-39).

The place-names are obvious references to the County of Essex (Greater London), large tracts of which were owned and farmed for many decades by the Halls and Dares and associated families. The Hall-Dares were linked to several fine houses in the county for over a century.

Detail showing a clear reference to the Hall-Dare slave plantation in British Guyana. From ‘A Cut’: Caricature of Robert Westley Hall-Dare (Trustees of the British Museum; item number 1948,0214.811).


For a detailed account of the Dare/Hall-Dare plantations in British Guyana and the compensation paid to the family on Abolition, see the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery’s website.  This compensation in part funded the move of Mabel Bent’s father (Robert Westley Hall Dare, 1817-1866) to Ireland in the mid 19th century.


Detail showing the bill of fare. From ‘A Cut’: Caricature of Robert Westley Hall-Dare (Trustees of the British Museum; item number 1948,0214.811).

The bill of fare pinned up on the left side of the cartoon will have been of caustic relevance at the time (pre 1820s?).

We are to read not ‘Pigeons’, but ‘Gudgeons’ & ‘Yorkshire Cake’. A ‘gudgeon’, as well as a fish, is a credulous or easily fooled person. A ‘Yorkshire Cake’ is a light, fruit cake, and nothing to do with ‘Yorkshire Pudding’. Its significance here is not immediately apparent. The OED has for ‘standing dish’, i.a., ‘standing dish: one that appears each day or at every meal’.



“Lily-white muffins, 0, rare crumpets smoking,/ Hot Yorkshire cakes, hot loaves and charming cakes,/ One-a-penny, two-a-penny, Yorkshire cakes./ What matters to me if great folks run a gadding,/ For politics, fashions, or such botheration;/ Let them drink as they brew, while I merrily bake…” (page 209 from Charles Hindley’s A history of the cries of London. Ancient and modern, 1881, London).

And: “Come buy my gudgeons fine and new…” (page 92 from Charles Hindley’s A history of the cries of London. Ancient and modern, 1881, London).