Easter In Athens
( Originally Published 1936 )
Easter is the great festival of the Greek church. In its celebration are combined the joy of Christmas—the exuberance of the Fourth of July. The miracle of the resurrection is apparently ever new and astonishing to the orthodox. This, at least, is the impression I received from the Easter season in Athens. When I observed locomotives pulling into the principal station with the words, "Christ is Risen," chalked on their fronts I could no longer doubt that the sacred anniversary was a little more real to the Hellenic engine drivers than to the members of the American Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers.
There are two picture palaces in Stadium Street near our hotel. We went one evening to see a French picture in the one across the way. The spicy romance drew only a handful of people but the competing house was packed to the doors with a portrayal of the passion of Christ.
The churches were continually open and thousands were passing through their doors. In the streets were many booths. Itinerants peddled eikons, incense, candles and fireworks. On every hand was the atmosphere of a carnival.
It was difficult to appraise the emotional experience of the average citizen on the eve of the holiday. I think his mind turned on the joy of the season and the anticipation of a feast and a five-day respite from work, rather than on the solemnity of the occasion. In any case the Greek church has its own way, as well as its own date, for the observance of Easter. These departures from the customs of the West are not surprising when it is remembered that to many Greeks the members of other denominations are not Christians at all.
I am not convinced that the people of Greece are deeply religious in the sense we know that term. The church is of the essence of the life of the people and the state, and its rites and offices are a tradition of their daily living. Religion is a national habit, but in such excess of formalism there is little of that- in-tense, personal devotion that is characteristic of the evangelical Protestantism of the West. One writer remarks that neither the followers of Saint Francis of Assisi nor of the Salvation Army could thrive in this uncongenial soil. Still I have heard that there are some deeply religious Greeks.
The Lenten season was at its height at the time of our arrival. The severe regimen prescribed by the church was obvious in the villages, but Athens re-serves her fasting for the final week. Then it is truly severe, and the abstinence from all fish and flesh insures a hungry city on Easter morning.
Except for the Gregorian calendar we should not have seen the Greek observance, for we had already passed Easter Sunday at sea. The Greek church held its ceremonies one week later, so we had Easter on two successive Sundays. Stadium Street was deco-rated from end to end with arches and festoons of colored electric lamps and the popping of fire-crackers was heard in the streets. Business was feeling the stimulus in every quarter of town. The steps of the churches were veritable bazaars. Even the vendors of lottery tickets were taking advantage of the festal spirit and the slotted poles on which they displayed their chances were seen on every down-town corner.
The lottery is a well established institution. The Government formerly conducted it to raise money for the support of the navy and for the preservation of ancient sites. General Pangalos, when hard pressed for cash, sold the privilege to a syndicate of Salonica Greeks and Jews, who now hold a part of the proceeds as profit.
There are really two lotteries—" one for the rich and one for the poor "—as the saying goes in Athens. Tickets in the larger one sell for fifty drachmae and the grand prize is two millions. The lesser chances cost but ten drachmae and stand to win four hundred thousand. The drawings are held on alternate months, so there is always opportunity to indulge one's taste for gambling.
On the Thursday preceding Easter I took a long walk about town. The streets were thronged with shoppers and busy as State Street on Christmas week. The Metropolitan Church, the cathedral of Athens, was a center of activity. To enter or depart one had to elbow his way through the surging crowds. Within the great, unlovely building were immense stacks of candles and the usual formula was to deposit a coin in the box, light a candle and place it on the altar.
A corps of priests and sacristans was on duty, continually removing the candles to make place for the offerings of new devotees. Business was rushing and the priests were smiling and content. They walked about fraternizing with the people, stopping occasionally to perform some office for a penitent. In the main the ritual seemed perfunctory and I discerned few signs of the solemnity and devotion that characterizes the communicants of Rome.
In the building of this ungainly edifice Athens nearly stripped herself of one of her interesting features. Seventy Byzantine churches were razed that their materials might be used in creating the present monstrous pile. Two at least were preserved and the smallest and most interesting stands to-day in. the shadow of the cathedral. This is Saint Eleutheros, sometimes called " the Little Metropolis." It is unquestionably the finest Byzantine relic in Greece and possibly the very smallest church now in existence. I question whether so many as fifty people could stand within simultaneously, so there can be no doubt that these early medieval churches were not built for the accommodation of worshipers, at least in the form of congregations. Preaching must have been done outside, the church itself serving the general purposes of an altar.
The materials from which Saint Eleutheros was built were in turn plundered from ancient buildings. It is easily possible to see traces of ancient inscriptions on some of the blocks built into its walls, and this makes it an interesting study for the archaeologist.
On this day the doors of the tiny church were open and the candles and collection boxes were in place. But within there was neither priest nor penitent. During my entire visit I had the place alone. A few blocks farther down Hermes Street is the second and larger Byzantine church called Kapnikaraea. Here everything was life and activity, the hawkers holding forth in numbers and a crowd of worshipers constantly milling about. Why Saint Eleutheros was deserted I do not know, unless it be that the near-by attractions of the Metropolitan Church are fatally competitive.
Mr. Papafigou, the proprietor of the Acropolis Travel Bureau, generously invited us to witness the procession of Good Friday night from the balcony of his offices. It was one of the choicest locations in Athens, overlooking Constitution Square, and we hastened to accept.
"I advise you to come early," he said. "The procession will not pass until after 9:30, but if you wait until that time you will not be able to get through the streets."
I fear that I did not take his warning with sufficient gravity, for I had no conception of the public interest in the Epitaphion. Dinner was served a little early, but before we had got to the coffee the sound of marching bands was heard in the streets. Outside every window was aflame with tapers. Flags hung at half-mast and the street was filled with people hurrying in the direction of Constitution Square. The procession of some small suburban church passed by, led by its priest and chanting dolefully.
At the turn of the road opposite the Zacharatos cafe we came to an impasse. The streets were roped and the sidewalks were frozen into a solid mass of people. Nearly all the traffic police of Athens were on duty here striving to hold open the line of march. We shouldered our way through the crowd as best we could to the accompaniment of many angry ejaculations against the pushing Yankees.
The first policeman brought us up sharply, but I assumed a manner of haste and importance and shouted again and again the word " Acropolis." Fortunately the man was impressed and waving aside his indignant countrymen, he let us pass. It was plain favoritism that was not unnoticed by the near-by natives who felt, no doubt, much like the citizens of Cologne who were always thrust aside when there was a parade on the Domplatz so that Allied citizens might enjoy the view from the Cathedral steps.
The iron balcony of the Acropolis Company's offices was only comfortably filled. There was still some time to wait, but our lot was happier than that of the people below. Hundreds had been holding seats in the square since early afternoon.
There were various diversions. The crowd itself formed a notable spectacle. Its number was never estimated at less than one hundred thousand and at least every second person bore a lighted taper. There was an inopportune alarm of fire and the police by a supreme effort cleared a passage for the brigade. The equipment was motorized and the firemen carried with them two tanks of water. It was a sad commentary on the inadequacy of the public supply. On the south side of the square is an eight-floor building, windowless and unfinished from the third story to the roof. From my host I heard its story:
"German money built that block. In the early stages of the war the propaganda here was terrific. The editor of one of "the big German newspapers was sent down to Athens, charged with the duty of seeing to it that Greece did not go in on the Allied side. He was provided with apparently unlimited money.. In a short time he had bought up practically all our newspapers and they were printing nothing except news of a succession of German victories.
"This building was erected by one of the editors who had sold out to the Germans. He was very bold in his operations and publicly announced that he was going to build the finest hotel in Athens, though it was well known that his paper had not been prosperous before. He proposed to have not only the finest hotel, but the tallest building in the city. The structure went up nine floors, when the authorities put a stop to it and compelled him to remove the last floor already built. It was thought the structure would not be safe.
"Before the hotel was completed King Constantine was deposed and Venizelos came. Greece then went into the war on the Allied side and the country soon became-too hot for the editor. He put his property in his wife's name and fled. The usual thing happened. The woman divorced him and refused to surrender the title to his property. The Government well knew how it was acquired and eventually filled the completed floors with refugees. They were bad tenants and did the building enormous damage, even going so far as to tear out the fine woodwork and burn it for firewood.
"When the building was finally turned back to its owner it was a wreck. The Government declined to indemnify the woman and as she lacked the money to complete it, there it has stood in its present condition for the past six years. It will remain a public eyesore until she is finally forced to sell, and it will then be completed, I suppose.
"The unfortunate editor is reported to be in America on some mission for the Patriarch of Jerusalem, and I doubt if he will ever return to Athens, as all his interests here have been lost.
"We had some lively times during recent years and the trouble in Greece did not stop with the end of the war. The most exciting day I ever spent was the 9th September, 1926. On the morning of that date General Kondilos, supported by a few officers of the volunteers, attempted a military coup d etat and a mutiny was begun among the troops quartered in the barracks in Kephissia Road.
"The Republican Guards were instantly ordered out to suppress the mutiny and I stood on this balcony and watched the shells bursting out Kephissia way from ten o'clock in the morning until four in the afternoon. I live in a hotel in Concord Square and when I got near home I encountered a second revolution. Taking advantage of the absence of the Guard the Communists had started an insurrection of their own. They had thrown a barricade across Stadium Street and the whole square was filled with the insurrectos. The men were identified by red belts and red handkerchiefs tied around their necks. They were rushing about like madmen, firing their revolvers at anyone who came in sight. I do not believe they had any plan of action, but were merely availing them-selves of the opportunity to murder some of their capitalistic enemies.
"By making a long detour I reached the back door of the hotel in safety and spent the remainder of the afternoon watching the shooting from behind a drawn shutter. By evening the Guard had beaten the mutineers. When they got back to town they made short work of the Communists. But the two revolutions made up a fairly exciting and busy day."
It was now nine o'clock and far down Hermes Street I heard the strains of a dirge. We lighted our candles and awaited the great moment.
The procession was hardly in keeping with the enormous interest it excited. First came a company of soldiers in steel helmets. Then followed in order a military band, candle bearers, sacristans, ministers of the Government and the Metropolitan of Athens with his attendant priests. Behind him the Host was borne in a silver casket, supported by a company of Evzones whose costumes might well have belonged to the followers of Marco Bozzaris. Contingents of gendarmes and city police brought up the rear. The length of the procession did not exceed two city blocks.
The Metropolitan was a truly imposing figure as he made his slow progress. He bore aloft a cross of silver and turning from side to side he bestowed his benediction upon the people. He is a large man and his great beard is snowy white.
These same luxuriant whiskers were destined to figure in a national sensation but a few days later. The archbishop had gone down to the Pirmus to participate in some ceremony, and was there set upon by two fanatics who resented his leaning toward the Julian calendar. Instead of shooting or stabbing the holy man the zealots attacked him in his most vulnerable point. With a pair of scissors they cut off a portion of his beard. The prelate's face was scratched in the melee before his assailants were overcome.
The parade proceeded around Constitution Square, the crowd closing in behind as it passed. The confusion that resulted was highly irritating to the more respectable citizens. " It is a disgrace," said Mr. Papafigou. "Last year the discipline was very bad and it was severely criticized by the press. The police failed entirely to keep,the crowds in control. A special effort was made to correct these mistakes to-day, particularly because President Masaryk, of Czecho-Slovakia has come all the way from Prague to see the ceremony. He is over there on the balcony of the Grand Bretagne now. The order seems to me worse than before and it is humiliating to Greece. The papers will have plenty to say about it to-morrow. Watch and see."
The papers were severe enough, but the published comments of the Czech President were pleasant and diplomatic. He had found the spectacle highly impressive, so he said. Dr. Masaryk was traveling incognito and was registered as a college professor, instead of as the head of a state.
On Saturday morning Athens was a little tired, but prepared for another big day. At nine o'clock bands and drum corps from the various barracks paraded the down-town streets for an hour. At ten all flags were raised from half-mast and the flags of other nations thrown out, until the,city was gay with bunting.
Preparations for the coming feast were in full swing. Forty-five thousand lambs were driven into the city for slaughter, and sold in the streets by their uncouth shepherds. All were decorated with spots of red after the manner of Easter eggs. Usually there was only a large daub of red -on the forehead, but often the entire back was colored. One of the largest markets was immediately outside the ancient Cemetery of the Ceramicus.
Lambs, dead and alive, were carried through the streets on thousands of shoulders. In front of the Ambassador I saw a young soldier carrying a basket on his head in which were the carcasses of five. One fell into the dusty road as he passed, but he picked it up and went his way. There were four boot-blacks just across the street, shining shoes on the sidewalk. Each had a lamb tethered to a picket fence adjoining. On the walk of fashionable Constitution Square I actually saw a man leading a cow. The fasting town lusted for meat and the very air was tainted with the smell of blood.
The final ceremony took place at midnight. A wooden platform had been set up in the open space before the cathedral. On the stroke of twelve the Metropolitan ascended in robes of cloth of gold and jeweled mitre. " Christos aneste," (Christ is risen) he cried. " Alathos aneste," (verily He is risen) came the response from the multitude. From the summit of Lycabettus a cannon thundered. Rockets leaped into the air. Red lights glared, crackers popped and from the bells of Athens arose a mighty dissonance. Thus Athens testified to her joy at the resurrection.
Then came the rush to the cafes. The hungry people filled every eating house and in many the feasting was protracted until dawn. The Griffon and Fantassio were filled with a gay throng and Athens gave full vent to her joy.
Next morning our boy arrived early to take us to the six o'clock train, his new straw hat not quite concealing the heaviness of his eyes.
"You are sleepy, son," I said.
"Yes sir," he confessed. " I was up all night in a restaurant."
"What kept you there all night? "
"I was eating soup and meat. I was very hungry."
Crossing Greece that day we saw on every hand indications of the holiday. In a thicket by the line near Diakophto a dozen peasants were dancing around a spitted lamb. Every station was surrounded by idlers and at LechTna there must have been five hundred. Three youths only were seated in the cafe, the perfect embodiment of ennui as they played idly with their beads. The holiday continued five days which the people spent in utter sloth.
I had finally bought in Athens a copy of the Hermes which I asked the travel agency to despatch by post. I was informed that nothing could be sent out until the following Tuesday as every department of the Government was closed during Easter.