Pearl of the East

Though old as history itself thou art as fresh as a breath of spring, blooming as thy own rose bud ,as fragrant as thine own orange flower, Damascus pearl of the east!

Thus poeticised Lady Isabel Burton in her unfinished autobiography The romance of Isabel, Lady Burton, the story of her life published in London 1897 (one year after her own death) in which she described her life with her husband, the great traveller, linguist, diplomat, idol, scholar, anthropologist, archaeologist, sex-therapist, falconer, showman, duellist etc. Sir Richard Francis Burton.


Thanks goodness Isabel is spared from witnessing what is happening to Damascus today!

It was an indeed a wonderful truly Arabian nights city – a meeting place of culture and scholarship from all worlds and with one of the most magnificent and oldest mosques in the world.

To take just one fact I learnt listening to this morning’s news. Before the cataclysm that is affecting Syria there were over eight million Christians living there – now there are less than five hundred thousand…

I am digging through my photo archive and can find just  these photos taken in Damascus during my hippy trail experience several “millennia” ago:

To return to Burton’s wife: the romance is a delicious piece of writing and it’s a pity Isabel was not more prominently featured in the three days of conference at Bagni di Lucca’s Anglican church Possible worlds and impossible worlds the theme of journey as a narrative frame, which ended this Sunday, as she was herself no mean scholar, traveller and raconteuse.


Sir Richard Francis Burton featured conspicuously in the conference with no less than two-thirds of the speakers incorporating him somewhere in their talks, even if sometimes in a controversial light with accusations levelled against him of plagiarism, economy with the truth and questionable scholarship. (This caused at least one lively exchange between speakers and listeners especially with regard to Burton’s hypothesis of the sodomic sotadic zone). I was especially charmed by the detailed account of Burton’s sexual investigations in a talk by an attractive and recently graduated Sicilian girl. She was highly complimented by the audience on her delivery and, I’m sure, will certainly go places.

Lady Burton was admitted by one veteran scholar to have had a somewhat bad press, particularly with regard to her burning of many of her “god-like” husband’s manuscripts after his death (including a new translation of the “perfumed garden” now more “scented” than before).

“The Lion and the Lioness”, a film made in Trieste, where Burton finished his days as consul, indeed opened with the redoubtable lady burning his papers in the open fire. The facts are, however, that we don’t really know how much Lady Burton burned and whether what she burnt would have seriously brought her husband’s reputation into question, not only by Victorian standards but by the present day’s ones. Would he have turned out to be in the same opprobrious league as Jimmy Saville I wonder?

Isabel should have been brought into “grate-r” light for the simple reason that the hall where our conference took place was erected thanks to the efforts of Colonel Henry Stisted (1786-1859) who reached an agreement with the Grand Duchy of Tuscany to build an Anglican church and cemetery at Bagni di Lucca – a feat almost as difficult then as it would be today to build an episcopal cathedral in one of the Gulf states.

In 1845 Henry Stisted’s son had, in Florence, married Maria Katherine Eliza Burton, sister of Sir Richard Francis Burton and their daughter, Georgiana Martha Stisted later published The True Life of Captain Sir Richard Burton. That makes Stisted Burton’s sister’s father-in-law. Burton, in fact, visited Bagni di Lucca as a young lad during his family’s peregrinations – a fact mentioned by Lovell in her recent autobiography (although she makes the mistake of mistaking Lucca as a health spa instead of Bagni di Lucca!)

Isabel, herself, was firmly a Roman Catholic of the old pre-reformation persuasion, having descended from the Arundels of Arundel castle of the Dukes of Norfolk, the only conspicuous Catholic members of the Royal family, and her husband had the honour of dying a catholic (actually he was already dead but Isabel got round it in her own inimitable way).

So much has been written about Sir Richard Francis Burton and, undoubtedly, with the new generation of scholars and with the manuscripts recently discovered in the UK, a lot more will be written.

Whether we shall ever get to the heart of such an enigmatic polymath as Richard Francis Burton depends on our sensibilities. There is a bit of Burton in each of us. Certainly, as Peter O’Toole has never shaken off the spectre of “El Orenz” after he played another great scholar, soldier and traveller in that film, a friend of mine who, in a glorious re.-evocation of the social life and times of fin-de-siècle Leighton House – that occult corner of oriental domesticity at Holland Park London – in a forgotten tableau vivant where whole canvases were evoked by half-naked houries and narghiles breathed opium , played the part of Burton himself, has been haunted by this lasting character – much to his own improvement, I should add.


I finish this post with my evocation of that evening at Leighton House in Burton’s company:


A sultan’s couch in Kensington

awakens cold desire

and tiles around the marble pool

reflect deep blue-eyed fire.


Above lace balconies withdraw

behind dusk’s harem veil

while dreams float on an unknown sea

as argosies set sail.


The evening party now retires

and ancient tales are told

of dusky djinns and desert towns

and she who’ll not grow old


Dim stairs escape to music’s room

where arcane songs are heard

from her whose melting voice is like

a paradise-born bird.


The night perfumes a garden’s hair

and soaks fruit lips with wine;

beyond cooled earth new worlds release

galactic starlights’ shine.


Her body, like a gold sheet’s draped

upon a coralled bed;

her skin with sunset marble’s tinged

and whispers the unsaid.


Then past the leaves high casements seek

an argent summer moon

as paintbrush strokes upon the cloth

a soft and flaming June


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One thought on “Pearl of the East

  1. Pingback: Places of Memory | From London to Longoio Part two

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