Travels and Discoveries in the Levant/Volume 1/Letter XXII

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Return to Turkey vid Athens—Second Visit to the Amphiaraïon—The Ecole Française at Athens—A Cruise in the Leander—Syra—Hostility of the Greeks to the Latin Population—Pirates—Return to Mytilene—Comparison of the Condition of Society there and at Rhodes—My Turkish Schoolmaster


Mytilene, July 5, 1854.

I spent a few days at Athens on my way back, and took the opportunity of revisiting Mavrodhilissi to examine a fragment of one of the inscriptions discovered since I copied them in 1852. This fragment gives the commencement of the list of victors in the games. In the course of my stay, I became acquainted with several of the young professors, who are sent out by the French Government to study archæology in the Levant, and who have their head-quarters at the École Française at Athens. One of these gentlemen, M. Guérin, has illustrated the antiquities of Rhodes, Samos, and Patmos in memoirs to which I have already referred. Another member of this school, M. Boutan, is about to visit Mytilene for the purpose of preparing a memoir on the island, which has been selected as a subject by the French Academy. I accompanied him and some French naval officers on a visit to Eleusis, where, on our arrival, we were ignominiously pelted with stones by the boys of the place. I was told that this had become a common practice of late.

Sir T. Wyse seems tolerably satisfied with the new Greek Ministry. They will, I dare say, act as the "Western Powers wish so long as our troops are at the Piræus; but the moment they withdraw, they will behave as Greek ministers usually do. The great mass of the people does not seem very uneasy at the occupation. Some mortification, doubtless, is felt, though the Greeks are rather vain than proud; but as the inhabitants of Athens have let all the houses in the Phasus for barracks at an unheard-of rent, and are every day engaged in selling beef and bread for a large body of troops, the presence of foreign bayonets is not perhaps quite so disagreeable as might have been supposed.

The Greek minister the other day gave a grand banquet to the English, French, and Greek officers in the Acropolis. The dinner was laid out in the Parthenon, which seems a great desecration; but the place was not inappropriate for the inauguration of a new epoch, if this is to be one.

On my leaving Athens, Captain King, being about to take H.M.S. "Leander" on a cruise to look for pirates, kindly offered me a passage as far as Syra, where our arrival was a source of great satisfaction to that part of the population which does not belong to the Greek Church. This place consists of two distinct towns,—the Greek town on the shore, and the Latin town on the heights above. These Latter, who are all Catholics, are descendants of the Italian families who occupied so much of the Archipelago in the Middle Ages. Several of them assured me that since the outbreak of the Russian war they had been exposed to many insults when passing through the Greek quarter, being constantly invited by the populace "to come to the font and be rebuptized," the Greeks not considering the rite of baptism valid unless performed by a priest of their own faith. This feeling of antipathy between the Latin and Greek populations prevails all through the Archipelago, and if not checked from without, may some day lead to religious feuds as intense as that of the two Egyptian towns Ombos and Tentyra, described in Juvenal. We saw something of the impleasant temper of the Greeks at Syra one evening, when the band of the "Leander" was sent on shore to play for the amusement of the town. A very dirty and disorderly rablile crowded upon the part of the Piazza where the ladies were seated, so rudely as almost to upset their chairs. The local authorities very properly interfered; but the people murmured at their very temperate remonstrance, and I heard one unwashed and somewhat noisy representative of the Demos of Syra upbraid a policeman for thus doing his duty, and say to him, in a menacing tone, that he was annoying the people. I have too often occasion to remark that the lower orders in the Archipelago have not yet learnt that good manners are perfectly compatible with free institutions.

During his stay Captain King sent off a boat to Delos, to look for pirates, who have multiplied since the war broke out, but are so chased by the boats of the French and English ships of war, that there is every hope that they will be put down. They have had the audacity lately to rob a boat in sight of the harbour of Syra. According to the opinion of Mr. Wilkinson, our Consul there, the scoundrels who massacred the crew of the "Harriet" the other day were volunteers going off to the frontier, and not professional pirates, who do not generally commit murder in these seas.

At Syra I took leave of the "Leander," and embarked in an Austrian steamer boimd for Smyrna.

Returning to my old post, after an absence of nearly a year and a half, I found Mr. Grenville Murray, who had been acting in my stead during my absence, anxiously awaiting my arrival in order to be released from the monotonous weariness of insular life. He has a shrewd appreciation of the Greek character, and his estimate of the Mytileniotes seems to be much the same as my own. Now that I have had the opportunity of comparing Mytilene with other islands in the Turkish Archipelago, I am struck with the fact that its superior wealth and intelligence have contributed so little to the moral improvement of the population.

The difference in the state of society here and at Rhodes may be thus accounted for. The Rhodiote is for the most part a peasant proprietor; his chief employment is to cultivate his own land, consuming the greater part of the produce in his own family. As he is neither a trader nor a mariner, his transactions are of a simple nature, and he is seldom involved in litigation.

The Mytileniote, if he is a landholder, is generally a cultivator of olives. But this tree is uncertain in its yield. A full crop cannot be expected on the average more than once in three years. Hence every one in Mytilene who owns olives is forced, after converting his crop into money, so to invest the proceeds as to get a profitable return during the barren years.

There being neither public securities nor banks in which investments can be made, the cultivator of olives must either trade with his money himself or lend it on such security as mortgages on land or ships. But as there is no certainty in the administration of justice, such securities cannot be made as safe as the law makes them in most parts of Europe. The debtor, if he enjoys the protection of some powerful member of the Mejlis, evades the foreclosing of a mortgage, contrives a fraudulent bankruptcy, and, not unfrequently, denies his own signature with unblushing effrontery. The natural results of this speculative style of trading are a very low standard of commercial morality, an exorbitant rate of interest, ranging from 12 to 24 per cent., and a passion for petty litigation. When a whole community is so absorbed in this kind of paltry trading, the general calibre of mind is very much that of the old usurer, of whom Aristophanes has given us so graphic a portrait in his "Nubes," and the base low cunning of the Mytileniotes has gained for them an unenviable notoriety among their fellow-Greeks.

Having a little leisure time at present, I have been making an effort to learn Turkish. My master is a Hoja or priest, whose special vocation it is to teach small Turkish boys reading and writing. His method of instruction is the dreariest imaginable. It consists simply in forcing the pupil to repeat after him, first, a collection of syllables and then of sentences, each word as it is uttered being pointed out to him in a printed text, in order that he may thus learn to associate a particular group of characters with a particular word. The unfortunate pupil is expected to learn all this en bloc, before he has been taught the letters of the alphabet, the simplest grammatical forms, or even the commonest colloquial words. It is evident that such a method can only succeed with a native who has already acquired, through the ear, the use of his vernacular. My Hoja, however, who is the impersonation of antiquated bigotry, and who is as obstinate as a Mytilene mule, insists on forcing Colnaghi and myself through this disgusting mechanical drudgery, and was very angry the other day when he discovered that we were abridging his circuitous route by taking a short and easy cut, and that in the intervals of his nauseous lessons we studied a very amusing collection of dialogues and tales, in which the Turkish text is printed in Roman as well as Arabic characters, and is accompanied by a French translation. The Hoja seemed shocked at the notion that any one should try to abridge the time required for learning to read Turkish. He told us with much complacency that it required about forty years to master the text of the Koran; but that at the expiration of that period the scholar would meet his reward, for the Koran contained all knowledge that was of any use to man. I asked him whether he had no curiosity to know anything about European countries or the discoveries of European science. He gave me the old stereotyped answer, that if any of this new knowledge was good for the soul of man, it would be found in the Koran (by dint of searching of course); if not, it was not worth knowing. One day I showed him how I inflated an india-rubber bath. The bellows made a curious squeaking noise as it drove in the air. The Hoja stood by with stolid indifference. When I had stopped working the bellows, he inquired why the noise ceased. On my explaining to him the cause, he said with a look of disappointment, "I thought that there was an animal inside."