The New York Times, July 2, 1853, p.2:|
GREECE.Letter from Athens—Grecian Scenery—Athenian Ruins—
Harbor of the Peiraeus... The U. S. Frigate Cumberland.
Correspondence of the New-York Daily Times.
ATHENS, Friday, May 20, 1853.
Seven weeks of delight in the antiquities and works of art, and the indescribably lonliness of nature in Italy,—delight whose only alloy was the contemplation of the universal wretchedness, degradation and vices of her beggared and priest-ridden people—but added to my longing to wander amidst the yet more beautiful ruins of that land, which, in arts, in letters, in all that exalts and dignifies man as an intellectual being, was the mistress and teacher of Rome herself, and still sways her sceptre over ever nation of the civilized world.
So, buying a ticket for the Peiraeus at Naples, I put myself on board the French steamer L' Hellespont, early in the afternoon of the 4th of May, and we were soon floating swiftly over the calm, blue waters of the Mediterranean, on our course to Malta.
The next morning the mountain isle of Stromboli was close before us, and Etna rose far in the south. A few hours brought us to the Straits of Messina, with the far famed rock of Scylla raising its head modestly enough beneath the highlands of the Italian coast, while to the right, between our ship and the long, low, narrow point of sand on the Sicilian shore of the narrow pass, was the site of the whirlpool of Charybdis, which has now no existence, except in the songs of old poets.
We noticed a slight agitation in the water at this point, contrasting with the unruffled surface of the broader sea; but the terrible jaws of the ancient whirlpool were, it is not unlikely, themselves swallowed up long ago in some of the frequent geological changes of this volcanic region.
In the harbor of the pretty town of Messina, finely situated at the foot of an amphitheatre of hills, we lay several hours, and then coasted along the Sicilian shore, with Etna in view near on our left—the calm and grand sovereign of its attendant mountains, its quiet summit exhibiting no signs of the recent eruption.
The very rough sea which the vessel encountered that nigh was a disagreeable change to many of the passengers; but at an early hour the next morning she was anchored in the harbor of Valetta [Valletta], the chief town of the island of Malta.
I had a pleasant, homelike feeling in wandering about this town, and hearing, in the shops and streets, the familiar accents of my mother tongue. The language of the natives, it is true, is a mixture of Arabic and Punic, and a barbarous Italian, also, is extensively spoken; but English is the language of the Government, and generally understood by tradesmen, even those not of English descent.
Clean streets and honest shopkeepers where were another, and most welcome, novelty to one fresh from Italian towns. Valetta is built chiefly from bright yellow limestone, a very beautiful building material; and in the forms and proportions of its edifices the town makes no little pretensions to architectural beauty.
In the Cathedral of St. John I found food for admiration in the costly mosaic pavement, the gilded ceilings, the vaulted aisles, and two of the works of art which adorn it—the marble group of the Baptism of the Saviour in the Jordan, by a native artist, and the large, lifelike picture of the beheading of John the Baptist, by CARAVAGGIO.
A monument here erected by LOUIS PHILIPPE over the tomb of his brother, the Count de BEAUJOULAIS, is surmounted by a recumbent statue of the Count, whose fine features are chiselled with no ordinary skill. In one of the chapels of the Cathedral a large bronze railing takes the place of one of solid gold, which was taken by NAPOLEON when he plundered the church of its vast treasures in 1798. Against a railing of solid silver in another chapel, which escaped pillage by being painted over, hang three large keys—those of the gates of Jerusalem, Acre and Rhodes.
Costly monuments of the Grand Masters of the Knights of Malta are seen on every hand in this church, dedicated to their patron saint, and in the crypt below, while nearly the whole floor is covered with the sculptured effigies of members of the order, mostly concealed, however, by a matting of straw.
In a hasty visit to the large public Library, I noticed a small, but very interesting collection of fossil shells and fishes, from the rocks of the neighborhood.
At any other time a stay of several hours longer would have been practicable; but our steamer was behind her time, having been detained between Marseilles and Naples; and the boat for Constantinople was waiting to receive us.
Transferred to the large wooden steamer Osiris, before noon we were again plowing the Mediterranean, with our prow turned to the East. The morning of the third day we hailed with delight "the bright clime of battle and of song;" for there, clearly defined in the early light, the hilly shores of Peloponnesus rose before us; and soon passing the Gulf of Conon, the southernmost point of Europe, Cape Matapan, its barren, treeless hills standing out in bold relief beneath that brilliant sky, and the rock wall of their bases deeply indented by the gnawing surges. A long, low point of rock extends from these hills, and forms the southern extremity of the Cape.
It was not long before we were passing between the mainland and the favorite isle of Venus, Cythera [Kythira, Κύθηρα]—now Cerigo—its barren hills no longer haunted by the Queen of Love. Over the still waters of the deep, blue Ægean, amid its storied isles, we pursued our course to Syra [Syros, Σύρος], where we arrived at midnight.
A boat soon came alongside from the shore, in which, by the light of a lantern they bore, we noticed an old man and a youth, clad in the peculiar and picturesque costume of these petticoat-trousered islanders. They endeavored to beguile passengers for the Peiraeus to take their boat to the other steamer at that time; but as we knew it would not leave until after we had been admitted to pratique in the morning, they lost the opportunity of demanding an exorbitant price on account of the lateness of the hour.
From this boat our ears were first saluted by the accents of modern Greek; but in our experience we could distinguish little but the often repeated word of assent, "málista."
The town of Syra [Ermoupoli, Ερμούπολη], the most important and flourishing commercial port of Greece—is built on the slope of a hill, surrounding a fine bay, on the eastern side of the island, and contains some 15,000 inhabitants. It holds an enviable rank among the towns of the kingdom for the excellence of its schools, one of which, that under the care of Mr. HILDNER, a German missionary, is among the very few allowed to exist in Greece without compliance with the illiberal law requiring the Catechism of the Greek Church to be taught in every place of instruction.
From this island we departed late in the afternoon, in the steamer Lycourge, for the Peiraeus, the Osiris proceeding on her way at the same time for Smyrna [Σμύρνη] and Constantinople. The detention which had abridged our stay at Malta gave us the unusual advantage of passing from Syra to the mainland, among the romantic "isles that crown the Ægean deep," by daylight instead of in the night. Thus in our passage from Cape Matapan to the Peiraeus we enjoyed a view of nearly every one of the Cyclades [Κυκλάδες].
The numerous small isles which form this group are rocky, hilly, and almost universally dry and barren in their appearance, but picturesque in form and outline, and grouped charmingly in the calm blue waters of the sea whose beautiful bosom they adorn. But their names—the associations, their immortal renown in history and song—awakened all my enthusiasm as I floated by their shores. The picturesque outline of the southern shore of Negropont [Euboea, Εύβοια]—the ancient Eubœa—soon greeted our eyes, and then the promontory of Sunium [Sounion, Aκρωτήριο Σούνιο], on the coast of Attica [Αττική], with the beautiful ruin of the temple of Minerva [temple of Athena, the Parthenon], diminished in the distance to a little speck of white, gleaming from afar o'er the wave.
Long did I feast on the beauty of those far columns, which, hewn from the marble of a neighboring hill, crown a cliff impending the sea in front of the higher eminence of the peninsula behind. The temple fronted to the east, offering to the eyes of the Attic mariner the shrine of the protecting deity of his country as he proceeded to his native shore. The view, as one passes by the side of the treeless limerock hills of this promontory—called by the Greeks of the present day Kavo Colonai, the Cape of the Columns—is beautiful in the extreme; the picturesque outline of the hills of the Morea and the Isthmus in the distance, the lovely isles of the Ægean and Salamis [Σαλαμίνα], the Acropolis, and the hills of Attica under the soft light of the setting sun, whose last beams were painting the western skies with hues the most delicate, exquisite, and varied, presented to my eyes a picture realizing my highest anticipations of the fair land of song.
Nor was it without a glow of enthusiasm that, recalling the lines of BYRON, "I traced the path of him, the Roman friend of Rome's least mortal mind as there
"Came Megara before me, and behind|
Ægina lay, Piraeus on the right,
And Corinth on the left,"
the same "corpses of noble cities" which prompted the moralizing strains of SULPICIUS.
As we were about entering the harbor a sarcophagus, hollowed out of the rock at the water's edge, near which lie the fragments of a large column, was pointed out to us as the tomb of THEMISTOCLES, most appropriately situated in sight of the scene of his great victory on the one hand, and the city he saved on the other. Mr. GEORGE FINLAY, an English gentleman long resident in Athens, and the learned author of the History of the Byzantine Empire, of Greece Under the Romans, and other well-known standard works, told me as he was pointing out this sarcophagus, into which the waves occasionally roll, that he once made Lord BYRON very angry by saying to him that he ought not to have spoken of the hero's tomb as standing
"High o'er the land he saved in vain,"
but rather as "low in the sea."
The entrance of the haven of the Pieraeus is extremely narrow, but the harbor itself deep and commodious. Conspicuous among the vessels here sheltered was the American war-frigate Cumberland, whose fine model and beautiful proportions drew forth the most enthusiastic expressions of delight from some intelligent French gentlemen on board of our steamer. A French fleet, of some thirteen vessels of war, is now lying in the Gulf of Salamis.
Taking a boat, I was soon on Attic soil; and, avoiding any detention with my luggage by leaving a small fee at the custom-house, was directly seated in a carriage and on my way to the venerable City of Minerva.
On we went, racing from the Pieraeus to Athens; for my carriage had the start, and the carriages of other hotels were emulous; but, after several spirited trials, they were forced to abandon the attempt to pass us.
"And this is Athens!" said I, not without surprise when, after riding two-thirds of an hour on the jolting and dusty road, we entered the narrow streets and began to pass the low, small shops and houses of the modern city. "And this is Athens!" have I said, with a different feeling, a thousand times since, when in the early morn, or beneath the glories of a sunset sky, I have gazed on the unrivaled loveliness of its ruined temples, or surveyed from its immortal hills the peculiar and enchanting landscape—the heights, the vale, the picturesque islands, and the calm blue sea.
Even the modern city improves on acquaintance. In the quarter of town near the Palace, wide streets are laid out, lined with large and commodious houses, and new buildings are erecting in great numbers. This activity in building, these signs of growth, and the bright colors and neatness of the houses in this neighborhood quite remind one of a thriving New-England town.
But no one comes to Athens from more civilized lands to see the modern city. He comes to examine the most beautiful and perfect remains of ancient architecture; to witness the scenes associated with the history, and immortalized by the genius, of heroes, bards, and sages; to realize the dreams of his youth, while standing with DEMOSTHENES, on the Bema, or PAUL, on the Areopagus, wandering with PLATO in the groves of the Academy, or recalling the sublimest strains of ancient tragedy on the hill Colonos.
And nowhere else does the classic pilgrim find so many shrines to venerate—nowhere can he so steadily recall and recreate the past. The chief ruins in Athens are very fortunate in their position. In this respect, as well as in beauty, they are vastly superior to Rome. The city of the CÆSARS can, indeed, claim preëminence in the extent and colossal grandeur of its imperial ruins; but, with some happy exceptions, they are so surrounded and obscured by tasteless, ugly recent buildings—there is such an incongruous mixture of the ancient and the modern—that they do not make that uniform and homogeneous impression which one receives from the monuments of Athenian greatness.
The beautiful and majestic columns of the Temple of the Olympian Jove stand, in solitary grandeur, on a broad, clean plain above the banks of the Ilyssus [Ilissos]; the almost perfectly-preserved Temple of Theseus [Temple of Hephaestus] displays its fair proportions unbidden by inappropriate biddings; and the crowning beauty of the city, the abrupt, picturesque height of the Acropolis, with its peerless temples rising in bold relief in the transparent air of Attica, greets the eye to delight and detain it from every quarter, whether one strolls in the groves of the Academy, or wanders by the banks of the twin streamlets of the Athenian vale, or stands directly under its shade on the summit of the Areopagus, or mounts the Bema at the Pnyx [Πνὐξ], or surveys the beautiful and storied landscape from the neighboring eminences of Mount Musaeum or Lycabettus, or the more distant heights of Hymettus or Pentelicon [Penteliko, Πεντέλη]. There is no finer situation in the world than that of the Parthenon, as there is no finer edifice.
But descriptions of the monuments of antiquity must be reserved for another letter. An American reader will find something to interest him in what is going on in Athens, even in this unclassic year of 1853...
The officers of the Cumberland make a large and most welcome addition to the small society of American residents in this city. At a brilliant entertainment, which they gave on board the vessel on Wednesday evening, the 18th inst., there were present not only the American ladies and gentlemen now in Athens, or at the Pieraeus, but one whose fame has been carried by one of the greatest bards of our century to the remotest corners of the civilized world—BYRON'S "Maid of Athens." She is now the wife of an English gentleman, and rejoices in the name of BLACKE; her hair is still of the hue of the raven's wing, but years have robbed her of most of those charms which captivated the young poet.
Those charms, however, cannot have exceeded, if they can have equalled, those of the lovely daughter of the "Maid of Athens," a young lady of about eighteen, who, as well as her father, mother, and brother, was present at this entertainment, and whose surpassing loveliness could subdue a far less susceptible heart than that of BYRON. Another Greek lady in the party, the wife of an American resident in this city, is a woman of uncommon beauty, and her charms, at the present day certainly, would be pronounced far superior to those more famous of Mrs. BLACKE, by whose side she sat. The object of BYRON'S affection was dressed in the French style, and wore a double band of gold ornaments around her hair.
Great interest is felt by the Greeks in the difficulties now existing in Constantinople, and great exultation in the rumors that Russia is ready to prosecute her demands, if uncomplied with, at the point of her sword. Fond dreams are still cherished of the reëstablishment of a Byzantine-Greek Empire. Even if that be not accomplished, the Greeks hope to gain from the fall of Turkey at least a great extension of their territory...
It remains to be seen whether Russia will be willing to be so generous to her little protegé.
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The Hellenic Republic (Greece), Europe, is the southernmost country in the Balkan Peninsula on the Mediterranean Sea. It is bordered by Turkey, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Hungary. The capital is Athens. The area of Greece is 50,949 square miles (131,957 square km), about one fifth of that is comprised of islands. The estimated population of Greece for July, 2004 is 10,737,428.
Greece achieved its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1829. During the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, it gradually added neighboring islands and territories, most with Greek-speaking populations.
Following the defeat of Communist rebels in 1949, Greece joined NATO in 1952. A military dictatorship, which in 1967 suspended many political liberties and forced the king to flee the country, lasted seven years.
The 1974 democratic elections and a referendum created a parliamentary republic and abolished the monarchy; Greece joined the European Community or EC in 1981 (which became the EU in 1992); it became the 12th member of the European Economic and Monetary Union in 2001.
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