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Aurelia in Yemen

I have fallen on my feet with some new acquaintances, Mr Tod ... and his darling little Italian wife. I am going to stay with them when I come back from Babylon. - Gertrude Bell, Baghdad, 1914

Aurelia Lanzoni (1876-1965) was born in Kars, Turkey. Her father, Romolo Lanzoni, was a senior medical officer in the Ottoman Health Service. Her brother, Adriano (b.1869), trained as a doctor and was also employed by the Ottoman government. On being posted as Health Inspector to Hodaida, Adriano invited Aurelia, then still unmarried, to accompany him. She agreed with alacrity, and they sailed from Italy in late 1902, spending a week in Aden as the guests of the Italian Consul, Signor Sola, before embarking for Hodaida.

Aurelia was small and slight of stature, with a vivacity and charm that won her friends in all walks of life. But she was never physically robust, and six months in the damp heat of Hodaida, amid the town’s pungent odours of fish oil and livestock, taxed her health and spirit. Adriano decided that she needed a change of air, and at the beginning of June 1903, they set off with a caravan of mules and a Turkish escort to visit Sana’a. From Hodaida they crossed the arid scrub of the Tihama plain to Bajil, travelling mainly by night to avoid the gruelling heat of the day. They then followed the route via Ubal and Hujaila into the foothills of the Jebel Haraz threading their way up through Wusil and Attara to the garrison town of Manakha. Villages clinging to precipitous mountain spurs reminded Aurelia of mediaeval castles in her native Italy. She was delighted by the changing and increasingly spectacular scenery; by the luxury of drinking fresh water from wadi streams; by the abundant and colourful birdlife; by the echoing clatter of their surefooted mules along the rocky bed of steep-sided wadis; sunset behind the jagged peaks of Jebel Bura, and the cool, starlit nights.

Aurelia with her husband, Arthur Tod (far left), and an unknown visitor, Baghdad, 1910.
Courtesy: Christina Thistlethwayte

During the initial leg of their journey, ‘the post from Sana’a loaded on two camels passed us, silently, without for a moment hesitating in their long fast stride, racing ghostlike down to the coast... only the creak of the saddle and the rub of the camel’s pad on the sand being heard and gone in the silent night’. Later, emerging from Wadi Hijan, they saw the village of Wusil, ‘which seemed suspended on jebel Masar. I drew my breath in fear that it might drop from the invisible thread which held it.’

Her fluency in Turkish enabled Aurelia to establish an immediate rapport with the Kaimakam of Bajil, a handsome bearded Circassian from Kars, named Ibrahim Bey; and she learned much about life in Yemen from their Turkish escorts who ‘all came from Anatolia, many of them left home as youths and were now mature men... I was moved to see the simple and good soul of these men who could, in a moment, pass to the most barbaric ferocity.’

In the highlands, after leaving Mafhaq, the party were overtaken and buffeted by a huge swarm of locusts, and then caught in a violent rainstorm, from which they raced for shelter: ‘When we went out we found the ground covered with green locusts about 3m long. The country folk were seated in front of their huts, crying and tearing their hair; the land was devastated.’ Aurelia was appalled to see Yemenis removing the head, legs and wings of locusts and eating the body, but was assured by one of the soldiers that, when fried, they tasted like prawns. The Lanzonis had a further, highly uncomfortable encounter with insect life when they stopped for the night in Suq al-Khamis; they had to flee the building in which they had been lodged, disinfest their clothes and sleep out in the open countryside.

Shortly before sunset the following day, ‘we reached the first fortifications of Sana’a. From far away we could see two forts on two mounds and at their feet, almost as if by magic, appeared the whole valley with the town and its graceful minarets reclining in luxuriant gardens... It was the only large town in the Arab world still untouched by European civilisation... the Arabs whom we met, shy and silent, looked at us with suspicion.’ Adriano and Aurelia spent their first few days in the house of Giuseppe Gaprotti, an Italian trader whom they had met in Ubal on his way down to Hodaida, and he had given them a note to his agent in the capital. He was the only European resident in Sana’a, having arrived in 1883 with his brother, Luigi, who had since died of typhoid. Gaprotti also extended hospitality to Aubrey Herbert (the model for John Buchan’s Greenmantle) during the latter’s visit to Sana’a in 1905, and, five years later, to Arthur Wavell, author of A Modern Pilgrim in Mecca arid a Siege in Sana'a (1912).

During their first attempt to call on the Turkish Governor (Vali), the Lanzonis were forced to turn back by a fanatical crowd shouting: ‘infidels’. The Governor (whom Aurelia did not name) sent a message advising them not to venture out in European clothes, so Aurelia donned a black cloak and veil, and Adriano a fez. The Governor and his relatives received them warmly, and when the former heard that Aurelia did not like the location of Caprotti’s house in the middle of the old city, he placed a ‘splendid villa’ at their disposal in the Turkish suburb [Bir al-Azab]. This was ‘completely fitted out in Eastern fashion with carpets everywhere and low soft divans. Because of the lack of security, the house was surrounded by soldiers... At night, in the immense solitude of the place, I was often awakened by the sound of furious shooting. Afraid, I would run to Adriano’s room and from his windows we could see that the insurgents were firing at the town from the surrounding mountains.’

The Lanzonis spent much of their two months in Sana’a socialising with their Turkish hosts. Aurelia, as the first European woman to visit Sana’a, aroused a good deal of friendly curiosity. The Governor’s influential niece organised banquets, picnics, walks and, at Aurelia’s specific request, a trip to Rawdha, ‘a beautiful village a few kilometres from Sana’a, famous for its fruits and gardens’. A party of about a hundred set out for Rawdha, led by the Governor and Adriano, ‘mounted on two beautiful beasts with golden trappings’, followed by members of the Governor’s military and civil entourage, and carriages transporting the ladies. Halfway to the village,

‘the Arabs of Rawdha galloped up to meet the Governor. We saw some really beautiful animals with large saddles of velvet brocade of startling colours and ornamented by long fringes and tassels, all embellished with silver; [the Arabs] were fully armed; their handsome faces were framed by long black shining tresses, their magnificent silk cloaks elegantly cast over their shoulders As soon as they saw us they fired a fusillade in the air... While the Shaikh made his salaams to the Governor, the galloping horde surrounded the whole group, and so we went on up to the village where, as soon as the Vali put foot to ground, an enormous sheep was slaughtered in honour of his visit...

During her time in Sana’a, Aurelia had the opportunity to visit the home of a Jewish merchant:

‘We found a poor and squalid house but were surprised at being offered a sumptuous meal served on gold and silver plate. Our host noticed my surprise and after lunch took me into a small room where in a large wooden chest ... were heaped diamonds, pearls, rubies, sapphires, old and modern gold coins. It was an extraordinary sight reminiscent of 'the thousand and one nights'. Being unable to buy property, all their riches were in jewels ...’

A telegram arrived recalling Adriano to Hodaida to help deal with an outbreak of plague. By now Aurelia was glad to return to the Red Sea coast, where conditions were more stable than in the capital and they enjoyed greater freedom of movement. They left Sana’a accompanied by the Governor’s ADG, ‘a fine and kind person, a true product of Constantinople, cultured, and educated in France’; and by the swashbuckling Ibrahim Bey whom they had first met in Bajil. Ibrahim beguiled the uncertainties of the return journey with stories of his previous life as a brigand chief. Eventually, tiring of being an outlaw, he had thrown himself on the mercy of Sultan Abdul Hamid, had been pardoned and co-opted into the Ottoman administration. Aurelia was also impressed by Ibrahim’s account of the draconian methods he adopted to deter Yemeni tribesmen from sabotaging Sana’a’s vital but vulnerable telegraph link with Hodaida (and Constantinople) .The wire, she noted, was ‘suspended on wooden poles distant from each other according to the caprice of topography ... in soil rife with ants, [and] often held up by branches of trees or by a mound of stones.’

Aurelia’s last excursion outside Hodaida was to the island of Kamaran, where the Turks had established a quarantine station and Adriano’s services were needed to help cope with an increasing number of pilgrims.

On the dhow in which they sailed from Hodaida:

‘camp beds were put under the huge sail which seemed to touch the sky and carried us ... silently over the sea. I had never, as during that night, felt the immensity of the horizon; I was so happy that I could not sleep ... we were between the sky and the sea, and I dreamt open-eyed until reminded of reality by the prayers of the sailors. At dawn they brought us a spiced coffee, and at eight o’clock we arrived at the island of Kamaran. The Inspector came to meet us, and we had breakfast with him before taking over our part of the lazaretto where there were 2,000 pilgrims coming from the Indian Ocean, a mixture of races with their women and children. A camp held a small house for the doctor, with two rooms and a kitchen. For the pilgrims there were large huts in cane and matting; very clean and airy. As soon as they landed, they went straight to their camp; they bad no communication with others, and they did not leave except to catch their ship, which in the meantime had been disinfected, and disinfested of rats. The pilgrims remained in the lazaretto for six days, unless of course they were infected. In Kamaran there were six camps, each under one doctor. There was also a village of very poor fishermen The island is arid and of rocky ‘marepora’... There was no drinking water but the quarantine stations had a distillation plant and an ice plant. In the early morning all the pilgrims had to line up for medical inspection, men on one side, and women and children on the other. Anyone sick was sent off to the clinic. Later on, water was distributed, also in perfect order. The pilgrims were busy all day preparing their food on their charcoal and wood braziers, which they carried with them throughout their journey, a journey full of hardships.

We, Europeans, cannot imagine the degree of faith attained by Islam, and the greatness of the religion instituted by Muhammad. The pilgrim has to live a life of prayer and abstinence. I admired [the pilgrims] in the evening at sunset when, all in a line, with their faces turned to Mecca, they prayed with the most profound mental concentration. Among them was an Indian, a very handsome man, obviously of good family, who spent his days chanting: La Allah illa Allah, Muhammad Rasoul Allah. It was such a monotonous and continuous chant that I ended up by singing it myself.’

The only drama which occurred during their six week stay on the island was Adriano’s narrow escape from being drowned at sea. Early one morning he had gone off in a dhow on a hunting trip with officers from a ship. They were due back at midday but failed to appear. Later that afternoon, Aurelia saw the dhow approaching, but then a storm blew up, blotting it entirely from view. Several hours passed; it was pitch dark and she became increasingly nervous:

‘I wanted to cry, but I had to encourage the cook who was rolling on the ground covering his head with sand and ashes and crying: ‘The Master is drowned’. Not very much comfort for me, but I knew the strength and courage of Adriano, and waited silently with a worried heart. I took the hurricane lamp, and, in the wind and rain, went near the sea; I was deafened by its fury ... It was impossible to hear anything but the howl of the wind and the hiss of the sea ... I crept back to the hut. The cook, after his convulsive scene, had taken a strong dose of opium, and to my great relief had gone to sleep. He had made my vigil very irksome with his lamentations. I sat on the sill of the door mentally vacant and inert, afraid of every sound, imagining voices, and shivering in my uncertainty. I remained there until 3 o’clock without noticing that I was wet through and frozen. I was awakened from my reverie by the sight of a tall shadow in front of me, dripping with water ... It was Adriano ... He had fought with the waves from 4 in the afternoon till 3 in the morning. Unable to arrive by boat, he had leapt into the sea and had fought his way to safety. His face was blue, his clothes were in tatters, and his hands were badly torn by the rocks. The boat and its other occupants were lost...’

Aurelia was to accompany Adriano on his next overseas posting, to Basra. There, in 1907, she met Arthur Tod, Manager of the Tigris Navigation Company (part of the Lynch family’s business empire) and they married in 1909.The Tods later moved to Baghdad, where Aurelia became a close friend and confidante of Gertrude Bell.


Aurelia Lanzoni's account of her visit to Yemen was written for her family; her son, George Tod, translated it from the original Italian. The Editor is most grateful to Mrs Christina Thistlethwayte, Aurelia's granddaughter, for permitting extracts from the manuscript to be published in the Journal, and for providing additional information about Aurelia and the Lanzoni family. Thanks are also due to Wendy Funnell for alerting the Society to the existence of the manuscript.

July 2002