April 19, 2017

Greek Easter at the Gulf of Smyrna in 1835 as Witnessed by an American

The following account, written in 1835 and published in 1839, was recorded by the American traveler John G. Stephens, in his travelogue titled Incidents of Travel in Greece, Turkey, Russia and Poland. It took place in the Gulf of Smyrna, specifically in Foggi, which in ancient times was called Phocaea, and today in Turkish is known as Foca. At times it is critical of the piety of the simple Greek people, being written by a Protestant, yet behind the criticism there is much to be gleaned.

Not being able to find any place where we could sleep ashore, except on one of the mats of the coffee-house, head and heels with a dozen Turks, we went on board, and towards morning again got under weigh. We beat up to the mouth of the Gulf of Smyrna, but, with the sirocco blowing directly in our teeth, it was impossible to go farther. We made two or three attempts to enter; but in tacking the last time, our old brig, which had hardly ballast enough to keep her keel under water, received such a rough shaking that we got her away before the wind, and at three o'clock P.M., were again anchored in the harbour of Foggi. I now began to think that there was a spell upon my movements, and that Smyrna, which was becoming to me a sort of land of promise, would never greet my longing eyes.

I was somewhat comforted, however, by remembering that I had never yet reached any port in the Mediterranean for which I had sailed, without touching at one or two intermediate ports; and that, so far, I had always worked right at last. I was still further comforted by our having the good fortune to be able to procure lodging ashore, at the house of a Greek, the son of a priest. It was the Saturday before Easter Sunday, and the resurrection of our Saviour was to be celebrated at midnight, or, rather, the beginning of the next day, according to the rites and ceremonies of the Greek church. It was also the last of the forty days' fasting, and the next day commenced feasting. Supper was prepared for us, at which meat was put on the table for me only; my Greek friend being supposed not to eat meat during the days of fasting. He had been, however, two years out of Greece; and though he did not like to offend the prejudices of his countrymen, he did not like fasting. I felt for my fellow-traveller; and, cutting up some meat in small parcels, kept my eye upon the door while he whipped them into his mouth. After supper we lay down upon the divan, with large quilts over us, my friend having promised to rise at twelve o'clock, and accompany me to the Greek church.

At midnight we were roused by the chant of the Greeks in the streets, on their way to the church. We turned out, and fell into a procession of five hundred people, making the streets as light as day with their torches. At the door of the church we found our host, sitting at a table with a parcel of wax tapers on one side, and a box to receive money on the other. We each bought a taper, and went in. After remaining there at least two hours, listening to a monotonous and unintelligible routine of prayers and chants, the priests came out of the holy doors, bearing aloft an image of our Saviour on the cross, ornamented with gold leaf, tassels, and festoons of artificial flowers; passed through the church, and out of the opposite door. The Greeks lighted their tapers, and formed into a procession behind them, and we did the same. Immediately outside the door, up the staircase, and on each side of the corridor, allowing merely room enough for the procession to pass, were arranged the women, dressed in white, with long white veils, thrown back from their faces however, laid smooth over the tops of their heads, and hanging down to their feet. Nearly every woman, old or young, had a child in her arms. In fact, there seemed to be as great a mustering of children as of men and women, and, for aught that I could see, as much to the edification of the former as the latter. A continued chant was kept up during the movements of the procession, and perhaps for half an hour after the arrival of the priests at the courtyard, when it rose to a tremendous burst. The torches were waved in the air; a wild, unmeaning, and discordant stream or yell rang through the hollow cloisters, and half a dozen pistols, two or three muskets, and twenty or thirty crackers, were fired. This was intended as a feu-de-joie, and was supposed to mark the precise moment of our Saviour's resurrection. In a few moments the phrensy seemed to pass away; the noise fell from a wild clamour to a slow chant, and the procession returned to the church. The scene was striking, particularly the part outside the church; the dead of night; the waving of torches; the women with their long white dresses, and the children in their arms, &c.; but, from beginning to end, there was nothing solemn in it.

Returned to the church, a priest came round with a picture of the Saviour risen; and, as far as I could make it out, holding in his hand the Greek flag, followed by another priest with a plate to receive contributions. He held out the picture to be kissed, then turned his hand to receive the same act of devotion, keeping his eye all the time upon the plate, which followed to receive the offerings of the pious, as a sort of payment for the privilege of the kiss. His manner reminded me of the Dutch parson, who, immediately after pronouncing a couple man and wife, touching the bridegroom with his elbow, said, "And now, where ish mine dollar?" I kissed the picture, dodged his knuckles, paid my money, and left the church. I had been there four hours, during which time, perhaps, more than a thousand persons had been completely absorbed in their religious ceremonies; and though beginning in the middle of the night, I have seen more yawning at the theatre or at an Italian opera than I saw there. They now began to disperse, though I remember I left a crowd of regular amateurs, at the head of whom were our sailors, still hanging round the desk of an exhorting priest, with an earnestness that showed a still craving appetite.

I do not wonder that the Turks look with contempt upon Christians, for they have constantly under their eyes the disgusting mummeries of the Greek church, and see nothing of the pure and sublime principles our religion inculcates. Still, however, there was something striking and interesting in the manner in which the Greeks in this Turkish town had kept themselves, as it were, a peculiar people, and, in spite of the brands of "dog" and "infidel," held fast to the religion they received from their fathers. There was nothing interesting about them as Greeks; they had taken no part with their countrymen in their glorious struggle for liberty; they were engaged in petty business, and bartered the precious chance of freedom once before them - for base profits and ignoble ease; and even now were content to live in chains, and kiss the rod that smote them.

We returned to the house where we had slept; and after coffee, in company with our host and his father, the priest, sat down to a meal, in which, for the first time in forty days, they ate meat. I had often remarked the religious observance of fast days among the common people in Greece. In travelling there I had more than once offered an egg to my guide on a fast day, but never could get one to accept any thing that came so near to animal food, though, by a strange confusion of the principles of religious obligation, perhaps the same man would not have hesitated to commit murder if he had any inducement to do so. Mrs. Hill, at Athens, told me that, upon one occasion, a little girl in her school refused to eat a piece of cake because it was made with eggs.