Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Research: Emily Beke's description of a 'Kite'

Our research into 19th century travellers' accounts of Syria and Transjordan, and more specifically what they encountered in the 'Hinterland of Roman Philadelphia' continues. Every now and then we turn up something fantastic, but not necessarily on our current topic of research.
Portrait of Emily and her husband Charles Tilstone Beke photographed by Ernest Edwards (Lovell Reece, 1867, 'Dr. and Mrs. Beke', in Portraits of Men of Eminence, Vol. 6, London: L. Reeve & Co.: 21. Original in the Natural History Museum, London: 051942).
Recently, we found a description of the function of a kite by Mrs Emily Alston Beke, wife of Charles Tilstone Beke. She wrote the following:
"It is curious how these animals are caught by the Beduins in the desert country lying to the east of Harran. Two walls of considerable length are erected, commencing at some distance from each other, and converging to a point. Before the two ends quite meet, a mound of earth is thrown up between them, and the two walls, being continued beyond this mound, are united by a cross-wall of about half their height; behind this lower wall is a large pit, the earth dug out of which had served to form the mound. Horsemen now contrive to drive a herd of gazelles between the two walls, where they are furthest apart. The timid animals rush forward towards the extremity of the enclosure, at first not seeing the low cross-wall, which is hidden by the mound of earth; and when, at length, they find themselves closed in on both sides, they naturally try to escape by ascending the mound and leaping over the low wall, when they fall into the pit beyond it, and are taken, often as many as twenty or thirty at a time."

The entry is dated Tuesday December 24th, 1861 when Emily and her husband were visiting a Dr. Wetzstein in Damascus where they were sampling wine made from Helbon/Halbon grapes. The description must be that of a Kite. The description is particularly useful as what we currently know about the function of a kite is almost entirely derived from their remains and some inscriptions, whereas here we seem to have a contemporary account of their use, and what's more, it implies that Kites were still being used to trap gazelle into the 19th century. The area she refers to 'in the desert country lying to the east of Harran' is the northern tip of the Harrat ash-Sham east of Harran al 'Awamid. A large group of kites are located in this area, beginning roughly 15 km east of Harran al 'Awamid (or 40km east of Damascus), which we have located using satellite imagery freely available through Google Earth and Bing Maps. These kites were first photographed by Poidebard - one is published in La Trace de Rome (1934: Pl. XIV) (see Bewley & Kennedy, 2012, 'Historical Aerial Imagery in Jordan and the Wider Middle East', in Hanson & Oltean (Eds), Archaeology from Historical Aerial and Satellite Archives: Fig. 13.2 p. 226).

In exploring Harran in pursuit of a theory about an Old Testament place name, the Bekes discovered an inscribed stone (p. 199 ff.) which was later identified as a Roman milestone (p. 124ff.). Another was later found in a neighbouring village the name of which Emily gives as Ghassule (p. 125). Very unexpected.

Emily was 37 years younger than her husband but a fitting companion and his equal in many respects. Her published diary, and notes in the archival material of her husband show that she is highly intelligent, independent and active woman- accompanying her husband on at least one journey, helping him in his academic pursuits and publications as well as running their household as smoothly as she could with the expenses from research tours and publishing. After her husband's death she remained a staunch advocate for his lifetimes work, continuing to publish his research at considerable cost to her financial position.


  1. Emily Alston Beke is my first cousin, four times removed. In my genealogical research, I occasionally find fascinating family members. Thank you for the information to add to this capable woman's achievements.

    1. Thank you Paula, Emily is indeed fascinating. If you come to know where any of her manuscripts or photographs are held please let us know.