The Arabian and Persian explorations

The Bents in ‘Southern Arabia’ and ‘Persia’

What follows is an introduction to the Bents’ explorations of Southern Arabia and Persia divided into their 4 tours (see the interactive map):

  • Tour 1: Bahrain and ‘Persia’ – December 1888 to March 1889
  • Tour 2: ‘The Hadramaut’ – December 1893 to March 1894
  • Tour 3: Muscat, Oman and Dhofar – November 1894 to February 1895
  • Tour 4: Socotra and East of Aden – November 1896 to April 1897


[Most of what follows is taken from The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J. Theodore Bent. Volume III: Southern Arabia and Persia: Mabel Bent’s diaries of 1883-1898, from the archive of the Joint Library of the Hellenic and Roman Societies, London. Oxford, Archaeopress (2010)]

In the fifth decade of Victoria’s reign, two paths brought together an indefatigable Anglo-Irishwoman of means, and an Englishman of mettle; on 2 August 1877 they married, honeymooning in Italy. The newly-weds, she 31, he 25, moved to live in London, a stone’s throw from Marble Arch, in a rented townhouse at 13 Great Cumberland Place, 4 and within a year or so the inseparable couple were off on a series of breathless, annual trips that were to continue until, 20 years later, on 5 May 1897, the Englishman, an ‘archaeological adventurer’, died from malarial complications, and Mabel Virginia Anna Bent found herself once more on a solitary path, left with her memories and an assemblage of travel Chronicles, in the form of modest, lined notebooks, that she ‘always wrote during [their] journeys’. After her death, formidable and 83, in 1929, these Chronicles in the form of two dozen small leather notebooks found their way into the archive of the Hellenic Society, out of the light and overlooked. These are the journey accounts of Mr and Mrs J. Theodore Bent.

Two of the many vessels on which the Bents travelled: the Messageries Maritimes Natal and Melbourne. © Philippe Ramona
Two of the many vessels on which the Bents travelled: the Messageries Maritimes Natal and Melbourne. © Philippe Ramona

Sooner or later, any of today’s travellers who venture as far east as Karachi, south to Cape Town, west to Lisbon, north to Warsaw, will undoubtedly find themselves on a route once followed by the Bents. Before the invention of flight, these two were amongst the most-travelled and best-known husband -and-wife teams of their generation. Modern bibliographies that have to do with archaeology, anthropology, ethnography, botany, and other such fields in regions from Abyssinia to Zimbabwe, are still very likely to refer to the articles, papers and monographs of Bent, J. Theodore, and occasionally Bent, Mrs J. Theodore.

In pursuit of their researches, their reputations increasing with each campaign, the Bents preferred to travel abroad during winter and spring, returning to London (and from there making shorter journeys to see friends and family around Ireland and the English countryside) over long, pleasant summers, when they would write up their findings, lecture, and plan next season’s adventure. Mabel’s Chronicles provided Theodore with much of the background material he was to use for his later monographs and articles. A look at his long list of publications brings into focus three concentric, geographical circles – the Eastern Mediterranean (Greece and Turkey), the greater continent of Africa, and the Near and Middle East.

In 1889 the explorers interrupted their sequence of Greek and Turkish expeditions to visit Bahrain and Persia, the first in a nearly ten-year programme of visits to (mainly southern) Arabia, involving persistent attempts to travel deep into the Wadi Hadhramaut (Yemen), a region then almost entirely unknown to Europeans. Before turning in earnest to the Yemen, the Bents, encouraged by Cecil Rhodes, undertook in 1891 a lengthy journey to modern Zimbabwe, the success of which helped Theodore generate the support for his first, large-scale expedition to the Hadhramaut in 1894, and his subsequent returns to the region right up until his early death in 1897. This ‘Southern Arabia’ phase, and Theodore’s quest for ‘Phoenician’ and related associations across continents, were what motivated the couple for the rest of their travelling lives and provide the content for what follows here.

Mabel was born in Ireland on 28 January 1847, the second of four daughters (she had eight siblings and numerous aunts and uncles. Tragically, a younger brother, Charles, accidentally shot himself, although suicide has been mentioned, near Worcester train station on the way to school, the year before Mabel married Theodore; she never refers to the incident). She was born to the wealthy landowner Robert Westley Hall-Dare (of Newtownbarry House, Co. Wexford) by his marriage to Frances, daughter of Mr Gustavus Lambart, of Beauparc, Co. Meath. Educated at home by governesses and masters, Mabel developed a sharp intellect, a gift for languages, practical skills (she was to become a pioneer travel photographer), and a thorough grounding in what might be called ‘common sense’. She was also a fearless horsewoman. Five feet eight inches tall, a green-eyed, sturdy redhead – striking in her photographs – her plaited hair was often the subject of native wonder. Outgoing and confident (she enjoyed ‘amateur dramatics’), she was as happy taking fences at full gallop in her native Wexford as she was dining with British ambassadors in Cairo or Constantinople. Her privileged background fostered an early enjoyment of travel; summers would see her on the Dublin ferry for Holyhead, heading for Europe or Scandinavia (she met Theodore in Norway somehow), touring with her brother Robert, his wife, and her sisters.

The resources of character that enabled her to cope with the day-to-day hardships and practicalities of travel in remoter corners are sometimes reflected in her Chronicles in a less than flattering light. Notwithstanding her fortitude on the march, readers will have to decide for themselves how likeable she might have been – bearing in mind the attitudes of the time – around the campfire on a four-month trek. Certainly Gertrude Bell was firm in her opinion, at a later date, when writing home to her parents: ‘I went to call on Mrs. Dickson today [the wife of John Dickson, HM Consul] and met there 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.’ (Bell’s letters/diaries, 25 January and 6 February 1900 respectively.)

By the time of Mabel’s first trip to the Yemen she was a well-known woman traveller in her own right. An Irish magazine article (a ‘Society Portrait’, headed simply ‘Mrs. Theodore Bent’), published a few months before she and Theodore were to set off for the Hadhramaut at the very end of 1893, is worth citing at length and its concluding sentences are of particular note:

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”… 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 in assisting in his geographical research… 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 Newtonbarry for the benefit of the tenantry and cottages in the vicinity has still a staunch supporter in the subject of this sketch…’ (‘The Lady of the House’ (later the ‘Irish Sketch’/’Irish Tatler’), 15 September 1893, p.19)

And it is Mabel’s ‘pluck’ as much as any other quality that is recognized by readers of American newspapers – none more than readers The Salt Lake Herald (Sunday, 18 August 1901) it seems, where, under the heading ‘Mrs. Bent in Asia – The Thrilling Adventures of a Woman Explorer’, we learn that:

‘Mrs. Theodore Bent is one of the most prominent members of that little band of eminent ladies who, fearing nothing, spend the greater portion of their time exploring uncivilized lands in the pursuit of knowledge. For years now Mrs. Bent has been engaged in travel. In the company of her distinguished husband she risked her life a hundred times, and since his death she has been no less active… Some few weeks ago, writes a representative, I had the pleasure of spending an hour with Mrs. Bent. To my great regret I found her, for once, hors de combat [sic]. She had just returned from Palestine, where she had the misfortune to have her leg broken by her horse falling on her. Mrs. Bent has visited, amongst other distant places, Persia, Asia Minor, Abyssinia, Arabia, Mashonaland and the Soudan. One of her most memorable exploits was that which she accomplished in the first-named country. “Riding on horseback,” said Mrs. Bent, “we went right across Persia and over the Caucasus. Our object was to make excavations in some islands in the Persian Gulf [Bahrain].” Persia, to say the least of it, is not a land of milk and honey for the lady traveler, yet Mrs. Bent did not seem to think it marvelous that she was alive to tell the tale. “Our mission took us quite off the beaten track… Our food, beds, tables and chairs we carried with us, and, of course, a cook… One of the most novel spectacles we witnessed was the shah and his camp. The Persian monarch was making the journey to England and had with him his harem, an immense staff and two thousand camels and horses, all loaded with packs… Very interesting visits were those I paid to Southern Arabia and Palestine. In the former country you are in the midst … people, who are more aboriginal than the Arab. They wear blue cloths around their waists – nothing else. Wild and warlike, if you show favor to one a quarrel is sure to arise. They didn’t like our traveling in their holy country, where Mahomet was born, and on one occasion I saw the ground struck up by a bullet two yards in front of my horse: a second later a bullet went swish by my ears. Many shots in four different places were fired at us…”’

The couple’s last journey together was to Socotra, near the Gulf of Aden, in March 1897. Theodore died on the fifth of May 1897, back in London, from pneumonia following on from malarial fever. Mabel, understandably, lost her desire to travel immediately after Theodore’s death and her last Chronicle (1898) is prefaced ‘A lonely useless journey’. After 1900 she began a series of visits to the Holy Land, during one of which she ventured alone into the wilderness around Jerusalem and somehow her horse fell on her, resulting in the above-mentioned injury to her leg. It was a mysterious episode that can be seen in the light of an increase in seemingly irrational behaviour that brought her into conflict with British diplomats and officials in Jerusalem and London. The promise displayed by Theodore, and the reputation which Mabel shared, after his apparent successes in Zimbabwe in 1892 was tarnished by his relative failures in penetrating the reaches of the Wadi Hadhramaut in the Yemen – failures that stemmed from a near obsession to identify links between the peoples of the wider region of the Red Sea in the first millennium BC. Had Theodore and Mabel in 1895 been able to reach the Hadhramaut from Dhofar, and proceed west to Aden, a feat never before recorded by a European, it would have been an achievement to match any subsequently undertaken in the region and one certain to have earned the explorer a coveted medal from the Royal Geographical Society. As it was, Theodore’s ambitions were dented and he was to find it harder to get support for further trips to the region. Mabel would have shared in her husband’s disappointment.

By the summer of 1900 Mabel had completed and published, at some psychological cost, a compilation of Theodore’s writings on ‘Southern Arabia’ (augmented by her own Chronicles). Now seen as a classic, the reviews of Southern Arabia were mixed. Some were patronizing, some acerbic. Theodore, although respected as an explorer was not highly regarded as an archaeologist or ethnologist, and, perhaps because he was not from an establishment background (and Mabel was from an Anglo-Irish one), there are overtones of relative condescension in certain criticisms of his work. Critics included the Arabist David Hogarth, at first in a review for Man:

‘As it is, the [Bents] apparently had not realized what it was essential to observe and record, and what, on the other hand, is commonplace of all Arabian travel; and the trivialities of caravan life, already rendered more than familiar by Burckhardt, Palgrave, and Doughty, to mention only the greatest names, fill two-thirds of the account, suggesting in every paragraph unfortunate comparisons with the deeper knowledge, the truer sympathy, and the sense of style that inspired those brilliant narratives.’

The same critic continued after his quarry in his own Arabian monograph later (The Penetration of Arabia, 1904, 216) – here he refers to Theodore’s altercation with the Aden authorities in the winter of 1893:

‘The governors of Aden, therefore, have been fully justified in refusing to exert pressure on behalf of certain would-be exploring parties whose qualifications were not such as to promise the best scientific results; and when countenance was given at last in 1893, to the archaeologist Leo Hirsch, it was because he was known to be a profound Arabic scholar, expert in the law of Islam, who would conduct himself tactfully. When, shortly after, it was given also to Theodore Bent, despite his lack of qualification, it was because his party included an Indian Moslem surveyor and his staff, who might be expected to make a solid contribution to geography.’

Other critical notices, such as the example that follows, were targeted more at Mabel’s efforts in assembling the volume, efforts which must have been particularly painful to her (‘Journeys in Southern Arabia’, The Manchester Guardian, 9 March 1900):

‘[Bent’s] positive scholarship may not have been great, but he made up in enthusiasm and painstaking for what he lacked in learning… We cannot honestly say that ‘Southern Arabia’ is well written or well put together. It is a rambling, slipshod narrative, full of repetition, with a vast amount of tiresome description of the quarrels and ill-behaviour of the guides and guards, and curious revelations of the writers’ ignorance of Arabic, Greek, and Oriental history.’

But Mabel got her own back a few years later when she listed a clutch of good reviews for Southern Arabia in the back of her (rather odd) Anglo Saxons from Palestine (1908), including perhaps the most sympathetic, the notice in the Illustrated London News (21 April 1900, 556):

‘Its perusal we find not saddening, but delightful. The vivacity of her feminine humour, the keen observation of amusing little details, the lively recollection of droll anecdotes, and the brave wife’s spirit of comradeship in their frequent adventurous travels, grace with a peculiar charm the instructive revelation of much rare fresh learning which concerns the lore of historic antiquity, as well as the present condition of territories yet imperfectly known.’

This juncture marked the start of an even more difficult period for Mabel. The mixed reception of her best efforts to do justice to her husband’s later work, couched in what resembles an academic snobbishness (or jealousy even?) that was all to familiar to her, also alienation (her closest family were in Ireland), and a lack of focus fed by grief and a disturbing fundamentalism, all prompted her decision to undertake the series of trips to the Holy Land referred to above. During various stays in Jerusalem Mabel became involved in a minor scandal among the local diplomatic community, causing the considerable irritation with HMG officials alluded to above. Wondering alone around nearby Bethel, she may well have made a personal dedication to Theodore by ‘offering’ to him there the little clay stamp they had acquired in the Hadhramaut, and over which an academic controversy has developed since it was found, or found again, in the late 1950s.

There appear to be little in the way of further records of Mabel’s travels after the mid 1900s. She based herself in the same rented home near Marble Arch that she had shared with Theodore; apparently she enjoyed entertaining her many nieces and nephews, feeding them quantities of nourishing artichoke soup. Around her were artefacts, souvenirs of their journeys together, the collection gradually reducing as she reached her final years and her family encouraged her to make donations to the British Museum – some of her items from the Yemen being the last to leave.

Afflicted by chronic arthritis, Mabel Bent died of ‘Myocardial Failure’ at 13 Great Cumberland Place, W, on 5 July 1929 at the age of 83. Her Times obituary (6 July 1929) affirms that, as an experienced photographer and accurate observer, she was of enormous assistance to her husband and ‘famous for the explorations in distant lands which she undertook with [him]. This was at a time when it was much more rare than it is now for a woman to venture forth on such journeys… During her long widowhood of more than 30 years Mrs. Bent was well known in literary and scientific London. She was a good talker, with an occasional sharpness of phrase which was much relished by her many friends.’

Her position justifiably secure in the list of great British travellers in her own right, Nature (124: 13 July 1929, 65) added that ‘her death has removed a striking personality for many years familiar in literary and scientific circles in London… Of Irish extraction, she preserved to the end of her life some of the characteristics of her nationality, notably readiness in conversation and a sharpness in repartee.’

But we can return to the Mabel of forty years earlier, happily still very much alive and facing, with British ‘pluck’, all the many hazards familiar to the explorer and that await the couple in Southern Arabia:

‘Mrs. Bent’s Travels: The woman traveler is becoming every year less of a novelty. Recently Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Bent, a pair of indefatigable English ‘globe trotters’ started for south Arabia to continue the explorations they have been making in various countries… In 1889, wishing to go still farther afield, they started for Bahrein, on the Persian Gulf, thence going across Persia and over the Caucasus, attended by a special escort from the shah… On all these expeditions Mrs. Bent ‘roughed it’ like the rest. A tent was her only shelter, and she slept in a hammock. The scarcity of water was the greatest privation, for in some places the supply had to be so carefully husbanded that baths were an impossible luxury, and even tea was sometimes impracticable.’