Monasteries in the Levant

Much of what is known of religious life in the Middle East up until the mid 20th century comes from works published by travellers, explorers, adventurers and missionaries. One work notable for its influence in the late 9th and early 20th century was Curzon’s “Visits to Monasteries in the Levant”.
Robert Curzon, 14th Baron Zouche “Visits to Monasteries in the Levant” London: John Murray, 1849; reprinted by John Murray, London, 1850 (3rd edition), 1851 (4th edition), 1865 (5th edition); reprinted by George Newnes, London, 1897; reprinted by Arthur Barker, London, 1955; reprinted by Cornell University Press, Ithaca , 1955; reprinted by Century, London, 1983; reprinted by Gorgias Press.
curzon gorgias
For the current edition of the book by Gorgias Press, see

Table of Contents
• Preface
• Introductory Chapter
• Navarino – The Wrecks of the Turkish and Egyptian Fleets
• Rapacity of the Dragomans – The Mahmondieh Canal
• National Topics of Conversation – The Rising of the Nile
• Early Hours in the Levant – Compulsory Use of Lanterns in Cairo
• Interview With Mohammed Ali Pasha – Mode of Lighting a Room in Egypt
• Mohammed Bey, Defterdar – His Expedition to Senaar
• Visit to the Coptic Monasteries near the Natron Lakes – The Desert of Nitria
• View From the Convent Wall – Appearance of the Desert
• The Convent of the Pulley – Its Inaccessible Position
• Ruined Monastery in the Necropolis of Thebes – “Mr. Hay’s Tomb”
• The White Monastery – Abou Shenood
• The Island of Philoe – The Cataract of Assouan
• Journey to Jerusalem – First View of the Holy City
• The Via Dolorosa – The House of Dives and of Lazarus
• Expedition to the Monastery of St. Sabba – Reports of Arab Robbers
• Church of the Holy Selpuchre – Procession of the Copts
• Albania – Ignorance at Corfu concerning that Country
• Start for Meteora – Recontre with a Wounded Traveller
• Meteora – The Extraordinary Character of its Scenery
• The Great Monastery of Meteora – The Church
• Return Journey – Narrow Escape
• Constantinople – The Patriarch’s Palace
• Coom Calessi – Uncomfortable Quarters
• Monastery of St. Laura – Kind Reception by the Abbott
• The Monastery of Caracalla – Its Beautiful Situation
• The Monastery of Stavroniketa – The Library
• The Monastery of Russico – Its Courteous Abbott
• Caracalla – The Agoumenos

“Robert Curzon, 14th Baron Zouche (16 March 1810 – 2 August 1873), styled The Honourable Robert Curzon between 1829 and 1870, was an English traveller, diplomat and author, active in the Near East. He was responsible for acquiring several unimportant and late Biblical manuscripts from Eastern Orthodox monasteries.
NPG P116; Robert Curzon, 14th Baron Zouche by Richard Beard
Robert Curzon, 14th Baron Zouche by Richard Beard. ninth plate daguerreotype, 1840s
3 1/2 in. x 1 1/2 in. (90 mm x 38 mm). National Portrait Gallery
Curzon was the son of the Hon. Robert Curzon, younger son of Assheton Curzon, 1st Viscount Curzon, and his wife Harriet Anne Bishopp, 13th Baroness Zouche (Bishopp also spelled Bisshopp). Baroness Zouche succeeded to the Barony from her father Sir Cecil Bisshopp the 8th Baronet Bishopp, of Parham Park in the county of Sussex, England (from 1815 the 12th Baron Zouche of Hayngworth) after her brother Lieutenant-Colonel Cecil Bisshopp and Sir Cecil’s heir was killed in the War of 1812 against the Amercicans. The Bishopp Baronetcy was inherited by a cousin. Curzon was educated at Charterhouse and Christ Church, Oxford. In 1831 he succeeded his father as Member of Parliament for Clitheroe, a seat he only held until the following year. In his Visits to Monasteries in the Levant (1849), he described and justified his takings. He visited Mount Athos in 1837, and at the Monastery of St Paul, he recounts how the abbot said ‘We make no use of the old books, and should be glad if you would accept one,’ upon which he took two, including a fourteenth-century illuminated Bulgarian gospel, now in the British Library.
curzon illustration 3
From 1842 Curzon was joint British Commissioner in Erzurum as part of the British-Turkish-Persian-Russian boundary commission sitting to delineate the Turkish and Persian frontier.
Lord Zouche succeeded his mother in the barony in 1870. He died in August 1873, aged 63, and was succeeded in the title by firstly by his son Robert Nathaniel Cecil George Curzon the 15th Baron (born 12 Jul 1851, died 31 Jul 1915) and then by his daughter Darea Curzon, 16th Baroness Zouche (born 13 Nov 1860, died 7 Apr 1917).

In 1834 he brought some manuscripts from Palestine (codices 548, 552-554) and in 1837 from the Athos peninsula (among them codices 547, 549-551, 910-911). After his death they were deposited in the British Museum.”,_14th_Baron_Zouche

See further “Travellers to the Middle East from Burckhardt to Thesiger: An Anthology” edited by Geoffrey Nash, Anthem Press, 2011, pp. 31-36.
curzon 1
A highly critical and detailed review of Curzon’s work is found in The Ecclesiologist, Volume 7, Volume 10, August 1849, pp.2-16. This is available to read on-line at

The substance of the review in “The Ecclesiologist” is echoed by a review by Philip Lee:

“No mealy-mouthed apology, carefully worded excuse or legal argument can deny the truth. ‘Visits to Monasteries in the Levant’ is the tale of a gentleman thief. But nor is its author any sort of Raffles, no down-on-his-luck aristocrat preying on the follies of an idle rich brethren. The book, despite a plea to have been written for his own pleasure, was a runaway success when first published, adding immoral profit to hoodwinks and larceny. In the years 1834-37 Robert Curzon, later fourteenth Baron Zouche, plundered the libraries of Orthodox monasteries in Egypt, Palestine and Greece. His claims to legitimacy include cash payments and donations made to the monks in occupation, assertions that he was looking principally for lost non-religious works, and that he rescued many books from destruction.

The publication of Curzon’s book in 1849, coming five years on the heels of Kinglake’s ‘Eothen’, turned its well-heeled author into a literary celebrity. The work went through three printings in its first year, then several editions. ‘Eothen’ had created a surge in demand for travel writing, especially about the Orient; a popular sensation which would climax in the 1865 issue of Sir Richard Burton’s ‘Pilgrimage to Mecca’. Curzon’s tome played up to Victorian fantasies of the East, exploited the eternal craze for treasure hunting; and the author was lent academic credibility by his pursuit of lost classical texts.
curzon illustration 1
What merit does the book have besides the achievement of popular success? Perhaps not as not as finely written as Kinglake’s journal – which always avoids reading like a diary – where ‘Monasteries’ is lacking in literary artifice, it makes up for in the freshness of its portraits and landscapes. Curzon, still only twenty-three years of age when he first sailed for the East, had come down from Oxford without a degree in order to succeed his father as member of parliament for Clitheroe. He promptly lost this seat, as a result of the Great Reform Bill, and so embarked on his own version of what was still called The Grand Tour. One of the first scenes he describes is the harbour of Navarino, where wrecks of the Egyptian and Turkish fleets could still be seen, seven years after they were destroyed by Admiral Codrington’s coalition fleet. From the Peloponnese, Curzon and his companion would embark for Egypt, and so the scene shift to the streets of Alexandria and their first vision of life in the Orient….
Not all of Curzon’s attitudes, however, are of a political reactionary. There was something like Humanism in the man, too. Firstly, we see the human touch in his challenge to the prevalent Protestant belief that all monks were fat and lazy. At least as far as Benedictine monks of the Catholic Church were concerned, he disavowed the image of Friar Tuck in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe as unreal. He asserts that the majority of Orthodox monks he encountered in the Levant were pious, hard-working and worthy individuals. Secondly, he parodies European attitudes towards Islam in a jocular passage his contemporary Edward Lear might have penned. A Persian – i.e. a Moslem – visitor to England enters a church. On seeing the organ pipes then hearing it played, he starts at its ugliness and guesses it to be the incarnation of a monster. When, service being over, the congregation stream headlong out of the church, the Persian naturally assumes it is in flight from the said beast.
There are in fact many anecdotes in the book, mostly second hand (as the above), that illustrate, for example, the honesty of Turkish porters or the guile of Armenian dealers. I suspect many a national stereotype has its origins in the tales told to Victorian travellers. But enough apologies already! No matter that Curzon was content to be cheated of a few shekels for his board & lodging. He carried about with him a bag of universal gold and he carried off the core of what is now the British Museum’s collection of Orthodox Church manuscripts. No doubt the curators there will excuse his avarice by pointing to the bad conditions the books were kept in and how he had actually rescued them from the hungry jaws of rat & bookworm. Will these two wrongs make a right? If yes, then at least we have Curzon’s own words to help restore the books to their original locations.”
curzon book
See also “Desert songs. The Coptic monasteries of Egypt were plundered by the Victorians for their priceless early manuscripts. Now the texts are being restored and reunited – as a virtual collection.” In “The Guardian” at
“The books Curzon found included fourth- and fifth-century gospels, lives of the saints, theological writings, and doctrinal disputes. There were palimpsest fragments too: in one a transcription of Homer’s Iliad, for example, had been overlaid by sacred texts. Some pieces of vellum had been used and reused three or four times, and the traces of original texts could still be detected. Curzon, and later British bibliophiles, bought up as much as he could and arranged for his purchases to be collected and sent to London.
Even before he unearthed the ancient treasures in that dusty cellar, Curzon had agreed prices with the monks for other ancient Christian books he wanted to take back to London. These included superb illuminated gospels, often in parallel texts of Coptic and Arabic, now kept at the British Library at St Pancras. These Coptic works are much later manuscripts than the Syriac texts, but Curzon discovered them in similar disarray in a small room of the monastery’s great tower. “Most of these were lying on the floor, but some were placed in niches in the stone wall. One of these was a superb manuscript of the Gospels, with commentaries by the early fathers of the church; two others were doing duty as coverings to a couple of large open pots or jars. I was allowed to purchase these as they were considered to be useless by the monks, principally, I believe, because there were no more preserves in the jars.””

For the collection of Coptic manuscripts in the British Library, see

A positive contemporary review is found in “The Spectator” of 31 March 1849, available to read on-line at
curzon illustration 2
The text of the book is available to read online at and

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