Tea and scandal: A one picture show

Unknown photographer
Picnic near Mar Chaya Monastery, Lebanon
albumen print
11.5 x 15.1 cm (image and sheet)
Private collection, Australia


Understanding an old photograph can be a tricky undertaking.
Where to begin, what to consider, how to best to contextualise?

The framing of a photograph includes and excludes. Similarly, research and assumption can be selective and restricted by the resources to which we have access with each inclusion and exclusion framing what we know, what we think we know and what we’d like to think we know.

In addition to marking Albert Einstein’s miracle year, 1905 is memorable for the founding of Chelsea FC in the UK, the banning of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer at the Brooklyn Public Library, the births of Christian Dior and Jean-Paul Sartre in France and an expedition to Majorca aboard H.M.S. Venus to observe a total solar eclipse.

It’s difficult to imagine those pictured in Picnic near Mar Chaya Monastery, Lebanon 1905 having much connection with these events or places. At the time, perhaps they didn’t. Nonetheless, during the course of their lives, several of these picnickers were connected with each of the countries mentioned above. Indeed, by virtue of their professions and connections with family and friends, these individuals had a keen interest in the world beyond their immediate surrounds.

The image itself is a little odd and not just because of the boulderish rock in the middle of the foreground that seems to serve no useful purpose. (Perhaps they were expecting a windier day?) There’s a hint of culture clash with a slight colonial overtone, also a sense of familial contentment along with a somewhat romantic, even exotic, air. A mixture of formality and informality makes delineating relationships and deciding who might be known or related to whom difficult to descern.

A degree of local, even insular, tea and scandal was no doubt consumed along with luncheon, however, conversation among this group is likely to have ranged across a far broader landscape than this picture frames.

The figure seated at the very centre of the image provides a convenient place to begin.

Wega (pronounced Vega) shares her name with the brightest star in the Lyra constellation. She sits, smiling warmly with her third child, Charles, perched on her lap. Wega raised three children, supported her community, travelled, ran her family’s hotel and spoke English, Arabic and German fluently, whilst also possessing a passing proficiency in Amharic, French and Spanish.

In 1905, three generations of Wega’s family lived in Brummana, Lebanon and the two hundred year old Mar Chaya (or Chaaya) Maronite Monastery lay a short journey from the village making it perfect for day trips.

Her parents had travelled a great distance before making Brummana their home. Wega’s father Karl Saalmüller was German and he first moved to Switzerland where he joined the St Chrischona-Pilgermission to Ethiopia in 1858, while her mother, Woisero Beletetch, known as Mary, came from Ethiopia and was of mixed Ethiopian-British extraction. The Saalmüller’s left Ethiopia after the British ‘Napier Expedition’ overtook Magdala and Emperor Tewodros II committed suicide in 1868. They spent some time with the Temple settlement in Jaffa, Palestine before joining Mary’s sister, Woisero Jewubdar, known as Susan, and her husband Theophilus Waldmeier in Lebanon in the late 1870s.

On the far right of the picture is Wega’s husband Thomas Little. He was head master of Brummana High School which was established as a Quaker school by Wega’s uncle, Theophilus Waldemeir, in 1873. Although the pith helmet probably renders this remark redundant, Thomas was an Englishman. He met an untimely death, just three years after this photograph was taken, resulting in each of the three Little children being sent to England to complete their education.

Their eldest daughter Sylvia, seated to Wega’s right, trained as a nurse at the London Hospital and later established her career in Omdurman, Sudan. Vera, standing directly behind Wega, followed in her father’s footsteps and became a teacher. She was married in Cairo before moving to the United States where she and her American husband, Ted Miller, raised their two children. Wega’s youngest child, Charles, was an artist and archaeologist. He married Ruth Trenaman in England in 1936. They returned to Brummana shortly afterwards and eventually moved to Africa, with their son, where Charles worked sculpting figures and scenery for museum displays.

Two of Wega’s sisters are also pictured. Sarona, named for the Temple settlement in Jaffa where she was born, sits on the left toward the back. Sadly, Sarona also died just a few years after this picture was taken. By contrast, her sister Stefana, seated on the far left, (and caught eating a bun), lived to be 103. Stefana and her husband Charles Armbruster lived in England and Africa before settling in Majorca, Spain. Many years later, Wega left Lebanon to join Stefana there. Another sister, not pictured, married a Frenchman, Adrien Bonfils, who began his career in Beirut as a photographer before moving to Brummana to run their own hotel. It is possible that Adrien took this photograph. Marielie and Adrien Bonfils later left Lebanon for France where they raised their family and continued in the hotel business.

The names of the other ladies and gentlemen pictured are recorded in barely decipherable handwriting on the reverse of the photograph. Emmeline, stands at the back wearing a simple scarf. In front of her, a lady only identified as EM sits, gazing ahead rather than at the camera. Neither lady shares a name with Wega’s Waldmeier cousins and it’s unclear whether they are friends, colleagues or caterers. An inscription notes that the young men are all teachers at Brummana High School and as such each would have been part of Wega’s daily life, (accommodation within the school grounds was provided with Thomas’ job). Mr Tibsherany, wearing a light-coloured suit, crouches to the left of Vera and to his left sits Mr Chamoon (possibly a misspelling of Chamoun). Mr Hourie appears above the hat of Stefana and Mr Chalat peeps out on her right. Brummana High School continues today. It has an active old scholars association and many teachers and past pupils retain a connection with the school and village whilst at the same time dispersing to the four corners of the globe, as was the case with Wega’s extended family.

Picnic near Mar Chaya Monastery, Lebanon was taken during a period of relative stability in Lebanon, which in 1905 was under Ottoman rule. The American University of Beirut was well established and the country’s ethnically, politically and religiously diverse population had for some years shown signs an increasingly harmonious and outward looking sensibility. Mar Chaaya Monastery still exists and remains popular with visitors, local and distant alike.

by Pat Little
6 August 2011, revised 28 October 2017

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