May 2, 2021

Francois Pouqueville Describes Great Lent, Holy Week and Easter Among the Greeks Under the Ottomans (1798-1801)


Francois Pouqueville (1770-1839) was a French diplomat, physician and writer, who traveled with the scientific commission of Napoleon's expedition to Egypt in 1798. In 1813 he published a book called Travels in the Morea, Albania and Other Parts of the Ottoman Empire to Constantinople (1798-1801). This is the account of his subsequent capture by Barbary pirates and captivity under the Pasha of Morea (the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece). He was held for a total of three years, first in Greece (Tripolitza) and later Constantinople. Pouqueville learned Greek, later becoming Napoleon's general consul at the court of Ali Pasha of Ioannina. The Ali Pasha of Ioannina, whose name was Aslan, was known as "the Lion"; he was the Muslim Albanian ruler and Ottoman pasha of northern Greece and Macedonia. Pouqueville's written works helped establish the Philhellenic movement in Europe and contributed to the eventual liberation of Greece.

In chapter 12 of Travels in the Morea, Albania and Other Parts of the Ottoman Empire to Constantinople (1798-1801), Pouqueville gives an interesting short descriptive of how the Greeks of the Morea kept Great Lent, Holy Week and Easter at the close of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries while still under Ottoman rule. He writes:

Fasting is considered in the Greek church as so very important a part of religion, that there are only a hundred and thirty days in the year free from it. Besides the four Lents which precede Easter, Whitsunside, the Assumption, and Christmas, they have vigils without end. Every Wednesday is a fast, because it was on that day that Judas received the money from the Jews for betraying Christ, and Friday in remembrance of the crucifixion. It is difficult to form an idea of the manner in which the Greeks live on these days, particularly during the whole of the Lent that precedes Easter. The women are then occupied in searching for snails, and gathering herbs of various kinds, often from the most rugged rocks, or from lands the most unproductive. Perhaps it is this which has given occasion to a proverb very common, that a Greek can live where an ass would be starved.

The time of Lent is one of expiation; and though all other crimes may be compromised, he who should have violated a fast, and should accuse himself of it, would scarcely be able to obtain absolution at any price. I have seen people in sickness, or women lying-in, refuse not only to eat meat, but to take a small quantity of broth, because it would be violating the fast. I have remonstrated with them in vain, representing how great a risk they were running; they answered me coolly, that what God had ordered could not be dispensed with.

Witnessing such austerities, I was curious to see the religious ceremonies observed during the fortnight preceding Easter. They began on the eve of Palm Sunday, when the shops were shut. The next day the Greeks, carrying branches of laurel, palm, or olive, celebrated the entrance of Christ into Jerusalem. Confession succeeded on the following days....

On the Thursday before Easter all the Greeks, old and young, males and females, go to church and partake of the sacrament in both kinds. In the evening they have a sort of general supper in the church, and the night is passed there in prayers: the women, dissolved in tears, relate the history of our Saviour's sufferings at this period, they follow him step by step, through his passion, and seem as if they actually shared his torments.

The next day, Good Friday, they abstain from every kind of food till sunset, and then take nothing but a little bread and water. They pass the night again in watching, but not in the holy place: they go about the streets wandering hither and thither, and telling stories to pass away the time, taking care however to be very sparing of their oaths.

On the Saturday the countenances begin somewhat to brighten, they are illumined by some expression of hope; all hands are actively employed in preparing cakes and dressing eggs, which are coloured in a variety of ways. The bleating of lambs which the people are carrying to be blessed is to be heard on all sides; some have their horns gilt, others are ornamented with ribbands. Noon arrives, distant strains of joy begin to resound from every quarter, the odour of the preparations begins to scent the air; the lyre and the tambourine, silent during the whole time of Lent, now again salute the ear with their jovial notes. The nuptial garments laced with gold are taken from an old chest of osier, the women clean their houses, torrents of water stream over the floors. At length, upon a signal given, every one throws out at the window the old earthen vessels used for cooking during Lent, that they may be broken to pieces; a ceremony which is called throwing Lent out at the windows. In the evening they all repair to the pasha's house to ask permission of him to be merry, making him a present; and he never fails to grant a request so well supported. During the whole of this week, the Turks, tolerant either from principle or from interest, show a sort of respect to the Christians, while they teaze and vex the Jews; the Turkish children will run after them in the streets crying out "Tchifout, Tchifout," — "A Jew, a Jew."

The night between Saturday and Easter Sunday is passed again in the church; and as soon as the sun begins to illuminate the most distant part of the horizon, a thousand voices utter a loud shout, and Halleluia! Halleluia! resounds to the heavens. The sanctuary is at the same instant thrown open, the bishop announces the great event of the resurrection, and the people embrace each other, crying, "Jesus Christ is risen! Jesus Christ is risen!" Firing of guns, cries of joy, repeated a thousand and a thousand times, then announce publicly the Easter of the Christians. The liturgy is immediately celebrated, either under a ruin, the remains of Albanian fury, or upon the declivity of a hill which the rising sun gilds with its first rays. The august assembly of the faithful, the choir of the holy Sion, separate afterwards to break their fast. The lambs blessed the evening before serve for the repast, they are put upon the spit, basted with fat and rubbed with wild marjoram, and are eaten upon tables set out in the open air. The wine flows in abundance, gaiety abounds, and songs, the precursors of intoxication, announce that the Greek has forgotten the wretchedness of his situation. This whole day is nothing but a scene of banquets and of pleasure: the most lively, the most animated pictures succeed to the sadness and monotony which have so long pervaded every part. The streets, the markets, the hills, the valleys, all are alive, all present the gayest spectacles; dances and other sports are every where to be seen; even the churches are scenes of conviviality. The same festivities continue during the week, nay, a spirit of licentiousness creeps in among the people little consistent with the sacred subject which gives rise to it.