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

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The Courban Bairam—A Greek Funeral


Mytilene, September 6, 1854.

This morning I went at sunrise to see the ceremony of the Courban Bairam. The Governor-General turned out with his irregular guards, the militia from the castle, and some marines from the ships of war, in a grand procession to the principal mosque. He was dressed in that rich gold embroidery in which the Turks take so much pleasure; he was mounted on a magnificent horse, who walked mincingly, "as if he told the steps;" before him marched the half-drilled rank-and-file of the castle, and a long string of uncouth-looking Albanians and Bashi Bozooks, shambling along with that peculiar inimitable swagger which belongs to the cavass from Asia Minor. They all went to the mosque, and after an interval of prayer, returned to the Pasha's kiosk; the next part of the ceremony was the sacrifice of a number of sheep, which are always distributed on this day to the poor: they were brought to the door of the kiosk; holes were dug in regular Homeric fashion to receive the blood, and their throats were cut in a very workmanlike manner. It is customary for the Pasha either to perform this operation with his own hand or to delegate it to his representative, who is solemnly appointed for this purpose before the Cadi. I went home from this ceremony full of Mussulman associations. About the middle of the day I was invited with the other vice-consuls to attend the funeral of a rich Greek who had died that morning, and had bequeathed one-third of his property to found an hospital for the Mytileniotes. The bequest is supposed to amount to 200,000 piasters, a large sum in Mytilene. Such acts of patriotism, if they should become more frequent, would do much to redeem the Greek character, and raise it to a higher estimation. A bequest of this nature could hardly have been made before the Tanzimat was established; a Greek would not have been allowed either to accumulate so large a sum, or to dispose of it after his death as he liked, at least not in Mytilene.

When I arrived at the funeral, I found all the Greeks in the town collected round the house and in the adjoining streets; at the door were men carrying baskets on then' heads, with melons and bread, and other offerings for the poor; inside was the sound of weeping and wailing of the conventional kind, which is always thought necessary in funerals in southern countries. I made my way to the door, and was immediately accoutred with various white scarfs and sashes—one of which is tied on the left arm. The pictures on Greek vases show that the victorious athletes in antiquity wore just such a decoration. When one of these sashes was offered to my Albanian cavass, he resisted the attempt to put it on his arm with true Mussulman scorn. All these preparations having been made, I was told off with my colleagues, the French, Austrian, and Sardinian consuls, to our respective posts as pall-bearers; and so we marched through the narrow, crowded, and dirty streets of Mytilene, under a blazing hot sun, for upwards of an hour, till we had perambulated the whole town and come round to the same point.

Possibly this perambulation may be a relic of the old classical decursio or solemn procession round the funeral pile. Very weary work it was: I got lost in a reverie more than once, and fell to studying the exquisite embroidery on the Archbishop's robe, who was walking immediately before me. Having been charged to buy embroidery for the South Kensington Museum, I thought what a grand acquisition I could make if I could purchase that and the state robe of the Pasha, which had figured in the Bairam procession in the morning. Perhaps in the wreck of the Turkish empire both these trappings some day may- fall into my hands.

At last we got to the church. When we were all wedged into our places, the funeral service began,—a long course of droning chants and mumbled prayers. The heat was intense, and I thought we should never get to the end. At last the chanting ceased, when up got the Bishop's Preacher, or Hierokeryæ, in a pulpit, and delivered a tedious extempore discourse in honour of the deceased. After this we got out of the church, and I thought the burying was certainly going to begin; but no. After the priests had done their work, the schoolmasters began, and we had to listen to two more funeral orations, read over the grave, after the Père la Chaise fashion. The first was written by a young Greek of the name of Lailios, who had been well educated in Germany. His oration was full of quotations from Plato and Sophocles, and at the same time he took occasion to criticise things and people in Mytilene very freely; and thus his discourse was employed for the same purpose as funeral orations served in antiquity, when, in the absence of such means of expressing public opinion as a free press affords us, the orator mixed up with the panegyric of the individual many topics of social and political interest. At last the discourses were over, and the burial began, when the gamins of Mytilene crowded round us with that unrestrained license which is then' characteristic in the Greek islands on such solemn occasions. They nearly succeeded in pushing the poor old Archbishop into the grave, just as lie was pouring a vial of holy oil on the coffin; however, we managed to finish the ceremony, and the crowd dispersed. Before we separated, a man came round and divested everybody of the scarfs, gloves, &c. Your Greek, though he loves display, has "a frugal mind," like Mrs. Gilpin; so I sup- pose all these trappings were let out for the day. It is believed that the funeral cost £100. It was not much to my taste; for, considering the excessive dearness of bread, and the real suffering of the poor of Mytilene at this moment, it would have been much more in accordance with the occasion to have spent more on alms, and less on archbishops, priests, and preachers, all of whom lengthen or shorten the service in exact proportion to the sum they receive. If the funeral had been that of a poor man, he would have been thrust into his grave with a few half-articulated prayers, a handful of dust, and no holy oil; no archbishop, priests, and deacons; no public orators, no consular pall-bearers, no procession, no rose-water and flowers flung from the windows, no attendant rabble;—in short, none of the glories of a Greek funeral. When it was all over, I told my dragoman the story of the recent funeral of the Duke of Portland by way of contrast.

Coming as it did on the same day as the great Mussulman festival, this Greek pageant made all the deeper impression on me from the abruptness of the transition. The two ceremonies clashed in a curious way; for the consular flags having been hoisted in honour of the Bairam, were lowered during the funeral half-mast high, which did not probably please the Turks; and the elaborate periods in the discourse of the Greek professor over the grave were interrupted by the thunder of saluting batteries from the castle, as the Courban Bairam drew to a close.

The Pasha of the Archipelago sent to inquire why I had lowered my flag; I sent back a message to say that it was in honour of a Greek who had deserved well of his country. How he liked the answer I know not. Talking over the affair with the two rival doctors of Mytilene the next day, I found that they were mutually accusing each other of having put the unfortunate benefactor of his country out of this world. It is further said that his relations, who honoured his memory with so magnificent a funeral, utterly deserted him in his last moments, because he had made this bequest for public purposes.

However, on the whole, I am glad to see something like public spirit stirring among the Greeks. It wants direction to good and practical objects, and such direction can only be given by greater power of social combination among themselves, more integrity and truthfulness in the relations between man and man.