1815 - Charles Meryon
Lady Hester Stanhope’s Treasure Hunt
Early on the first of April (looking at the result of Lady Hester's search, some wag may be disposed to say - " Certainly, the fittest day in the year."), Lady Hester, Derwish Mustafa Aga, and Mohammed Aga, accompanied by the interpreters and myself, rode over the ruins, seeking for the indications given in the Italian document. The mosque was immediately recognized by the mahreb, or niche, looking towards which the imam stands to direct, as fugleman, the kneeling and prostrations of Mahometans in prayer. This was still standing, but, in other respects, no more than a stone or two of the foundations remained above ground. Although there was little doubt that this was the spot meant, still it was difficult to know at which side or end, in a building fifty-five paces long and forty-three in breadth, to begin. At the north-west corner of the ruins was a santon's tomb, covered with a small building. Here dwelt a shaykh, the only inhabitant of the place; and, seeing his solitary reign thus molested by horsemen, tents, soldiers, and corvées of peasants, he very soon became acquainted with the motive, and readily mixed with the spectators. He was consulted as to what he knew of the building. He said that formerly a Barbaresque had visited the shrine, and had lived with him eleven months, always lurking about, doing he knew not what: but that, in conversation, he had assigned to two different spots hidden treasures, both within the circuit of the mosque. It was finally resolved to begin on the south side.
The tents were then fixed in the following manner. On the east side, close to the mosque, were planted Signor Catafago's, Mâlem Musa's, M. Beaudin's and my own, each as large as an English marquee: and, close to them, a sewan, or open tent, for meals. The meals were to be served three times a day, consisting of two services at noon and sunset, and of a light breakfast at sunrise. No where in Syria did I fare better than here. At the south side of the mosque, on an eminence or mound, was fixed a large tent of observation, in which Mohammed Aga, when present, sat. But the tents of Mohammed Aga and the Zaym were without the city walls, close by the Eastern gate, in a sandy bottom. And here, too, were the tents of the cavalry, the kitchens, the water-carriers, the horses, &c.; presenting a scene of showy gaiety almost as lively as a race-course. All the tents were either green or blue: and the principal ones were conspicuous for flaming swords, flowers, stars, and other ornaments, worked upon them. Couriers were coming and going every day from and to Jaffa.
It has been said that to the north of the ruins there was a small village, called El Jura, two hundred yards from the walls. Here two cottages were swept out, matted, and carpeted for Lady Hester and her female attendants: for to have encamped in the midst of the men would, by Mahometans, so far as related to women, have been thought improper, and her ladyship now required the strictest decorum of behaviour in her women, and on all occasions consonant to Mahometan usages: so that, not even Mrs. Fry, her English maid, was suffered to open the door of the courtyard of the cottage without veiling her face. Between the village and the ruins was fixed a tent, and here Lady Hester sat in the day-time, and received visits from the agas, the mâlems, &c. At two she generally mounted her ass, and rode to see the workmen. On these occasions they would shout, and renew their digging with fresh activity.
I have mentioned that, for this purpose, the neighbouring peasantry had been put in requisition. These poor men were pressed by government, and received no pay, but they were treated well; for two meals were served up to them in the day-time, and no severity was used towards them. They generally came about one hundred a day, many, where they could, alleging causes of exemption, and worked until about an hour before sunset. Signor Catafago, Signor Damiani, M. Beaudin, Giorgio, the governor, and myself, superintended them, with overseers immediately among them: and it was no small exertion to sit or walk six or eight hours, sometimes in the rain, and sometimes under a burning sun. The peasants, who laboured and perspired, suffered less. It would seem impossible to an Englishman that they could have worked hard, when told that these men drank nothing but water.
The very day of our arrival, a gang was immediately set to work: and I shall now proceed to detail, day by day, what the excavations brought to light. As a beginning, nothing more was done than just to remove the surface of the ground.
April 2nd. After digging down three or four feet, some foundations were laid open, running east and west. On removing the earth between them nothing was found but mould and loose stones, with two or three human bones. Three fragments of marble shafts of pillars were bared and a Corinthian capital. There were appearances showing that the ground had been disturbed at some former period, particularly in the south-east corner, where there was a ditch of a very recent date, which (it was whispered by the peasants) had been made by Mohammed Aga himself. Two small earthen phials, about three inches long, some fragments of vases, and a bottle of lapis specularis, or talc, were dug up: shards of pottery were found here and there, but none of them of fine workmanship.
On the 3rd day, the excavations were continued along the south wall. The men worked with great animation. The idea of discovering immense heaps of gold seemed to have an effect upon them, although they could not hope for a share in it. On this day there was a great fall of rain and hail, and the weather was so tempestuous as much to impede the labourers. A pipe and tabor were therefore brought, to the tune of which they worked, sung, and danced. Cross foundations were met with, running east and west, seeming to have served for the support of rows of pedestals. About fifteen feet from the centre of the south wall were discovered several large fragments of granite columns, which lay one on another in such a manner as to render it probable that they were placed there.
On the 4th day the work was continued nearly in the same direction. At three in the afternoon, the workmen struck upon a mutilated statue. l was immediately called, and felt exultation at the sight of a relic of antiquity, which I thought might give celebrity to our labours. The soil around it being removed, it was drawn up by ropes, without damage. There were at the same spot some imperfect remains of the pedestal on which it had stood. The depth of the mould and rubbish which lay over the statue was six or eight feet.
On examination, it proved to be a marble statue of colossal dimensions and of good execution. It was headless, and had lost an arm and a leg; but was not otherwise disfigured. It seemed to have represented a deified king: for the shoulders were ornamented with the insignia of the thunderbolt, and the breast with the Medusa's head. There was every reason to believe that, in the changes of masters which Ascalon had undergone, the place in which we were now digging had originally been a heathen temple, afterwards a church, and then a mosque. The statue probably belonged to the age of the successors of Alexander, or it might be that of Herod himself. At the depth where the statue lay was a marble pavement and also a tympanum of a porch of the Corinthian order. To the East, close to the South wall, was found the trunk of another statue. As the mould was cleared away, a modius was discovered, which probably had surmounted the head of one of the two statues. It was chipped off at the top, and evidently, at the bottom, had been forcibly separated from the head to which it had belonged: it was nine and a half inches long. The statue, from the acromion to the heel, was six feet nine inches.
On the fifth day the outline of the foundations of the entire building was made out. It was amusing at this time to find how many wise men, some calling themselves astrologers, and some fortune-tellers, started up on all sides to foretell Lady Hester's success. This was fortunate: for the workmen had begun to relax in their labours, and their overseers sneered at the business. Mohammed Aga found his own purposes answered in the number of marble slabs that were discovered. These he shipped, in a coasting boat, for Jaffa. On the outside of the West foundation, three subterraneous places were opened, which at first, it was thought, would lead to the object we were in search of. But they proved to be cisterns or reservoirs for rain water, with no appearance of antiquity about them; and, both in the round mouth upwards, and in the conduit which led the water into them, resembled those in use throughout Syria at the present day.
In the mean time, Signor Catafago and myself were much amused by the exceeding apprehension of Signor Damiani, lest he should be poisoned. The governor generally dined with us: but Damiani would neither eat nor drink in our tent. He affected an air of mystery in every thing, and soberly advised her ladyship, if she wished to succeed, to sacrifice a cock of a particular colour, and at a particular hour of the day, to ensure success. Derwish Mustafa was too phlegmatic to be acted upon by any hopes or fears. He expected the issue (in appearance at least) with as much indifference, or, I might say with more, than he did the uncovering of a dish at dinner: for here his philosophy sometimes forsook him, and he occasionally showed undue joy. News of Ali Pasha's death reached us this day; but the Turks did not mourn outwardly; yet, where they were not called upon to do so, there were sometimes touches of feeling to be observed, rare in more formal exhibitions of sorrow.
This and the following day produced nothing new. In riding over to Megdel, to visit Signor Damiani, who lived in a dirty cottage there, I observed that the place had a market which was well attended.
On the following day, which was the eighth from the commencement of our labours, the cisterns were emptied. Digging in the line of the West wall, two stone troughs of considerable length were discovered about four feet under the surface, and upon them lay, cross-wise, four gray granite columns, closely packed to each other, as if done methodically. This discovery revived the people’s hopes ; for it was supposed that huge masses of granite could not have fallen in such a position accidentally, and would not be laboriously placed so, unless to conceal something. The removing was deferred until the morrow, the men requiring ropes to do it, because horses are never put into harness in Syria. Near the North East angle was also found a marble pavement, and by it seemed to have been another door. Under the pavement ran a continuation of the same canal which conducted water to the cisterns.
I had by this time made a pen sketch of the statue, and had represented to Lady Hester that her labours, if productive of no golden treasures, had brought to light one more valuable in the eyes of the lovers of the fine arts, and that future travellers would come to visit the ruins of Ascalon, rendered memorable by the enterprise of a woman, who, though digging for gold, yet rescued the remains of antiquity from oblivion. What was my astonishment, when she answered - "This may be all true ; but it is my intention to break the statue, and have it thrown into the sea, precisely in order that such a report may not get abroad, and I lose with the Porte all the merit of my disinterestedness."
When I heard what her intentions were, I made use of every argument in my power to dissuade her from it; telling her that the apparent vandalism of such an act could never be wiped away in the eyes of virtuosi, and would be the less excusable, as I was not aware that the Turks had either claimed the statue or had forbidden its preservation. It was true, that, whilst sketching it, the people had expressed their surmises at what I could find to admire in a broken image; and I heard some of them conjecture that it might be a deity of the Franks, as it had been of the Romans and Greeks. But no idle notions, I insisted, ought to have weight on her mind ; and I begged hard that, if she could not with decency carry it away, she would at least leave it for others to look at. She replied, " Malicious people may say I came to search for antiquities for my country, and not for treasures for the Porte: so, go this instant; take with you half a dozen stout fellows, and break it in a thousand pieces !" Her resolution was not a thing of the moment: she had reflected on it two days ; and knowing her unalterable determination on such occasions, I went and did as she desired.
Travels of Lady Hester Stanhope; Forming the Completion of Her Memoirs; Narrated by Her Physician
Vol 3, London 1846; Reprint 1883