April 8, 2021

The Cholera Epidemic That Struck Athens in 1854

In 1854 cholera struck Athens, brought by English and French soldiers during the Crimean War. Panic gripped the citizens, and those who were wealthy enough fled, but more so the politicians left the city. Most of the members of the Civil Protection Committee swiftly fled and there were only two left. Everything was paralyzed as many police, doctors, nurses, judges and even the prefect left the city to save their own lives, leaving the poor citizens, 1/3 of the population, at the mercy of the deadly cholera epidemic.

Metropolitan Neophytos of Athens prohibited the public from going to church, to prevent the spread of the disease, and one priest even published his weekly sermons and had them distributed so the people would not go to church while at the same time receive spiritual benefit. It was announced that it was not a sin at this time to avoid attending church.

Doctors recommended fresh air as the "essential cholera protective measure" to maintain hygiene at home. In particular, citizens were required to adequately ventilate their homes, always taking care to avoid exposure to air currents. This was followed by meticulous cleaning, preventing the accumulation of stagnant water and generally avoiding any source of moisture, which was considered a means of transmitting diseases. Equally important factors for the transmission of cholera were considered to be the excessive efforts of the body and the mind, the mental passions and the abuses of all kinds which the citizens were called upon to avoid, working in moderation. However, the stress of the people rose to such a point at this time that too much drinking became a major issue. 

The police made announcements by drumbeat to those who had remained in the city. All prohibitive. Citizens were not allowed to walk on the streets, shops were forbidden to stay open, and wine shops were closed at seven in the evening. This created another panic, as some believed that cholera was transmitted by wine! These measures led, among other things, the people to hunger! Wealth from black markets increased! The prevailing slogan from word of mouth was "Each of you must save yourself"!
The 14th of November seems to be when the epidemic reached its peak. In the midst of such a panic and terror, the poor of the city gathered at the house of the Metropolitan of Athens on the 17th of November at 7:00pm, seeking divine intervention so they can all process throughout the city with icons. Priests led the processions. According to the Ministry of the Interior, this crowd gathered in the churches and prayed for the liberation from the plague, but the Ministry of the Interior warned that this was "disturbing the public order".

By the 21st of November the cholera epidemic suddenly was noticed to have disappeared. The inhabitants who fled began to return. On the 10th of December the Ministry of the Interior announced the cholera epidemic was no longer a threat in Athens. Of its 30,000 inhabitants, 3,000 were now dead, which was 10% of the population, together with 800 French soldiers.