Greece- Its Country And Its People
( Originally Published 1936 )
Since the great transfers of population of recent years Greece properly claims to be one of the most homogeneous of European states. The exodus from Turkey, and in a lesser way from Bulgaria, has finally united the Greek people.
There remain, it is true, the Albanians and Vlachs, but these have long been Hellenized.
In no country is there greater racial pride. The modern Greek is firmly convinced that he is directly descended from the men of the classical period and he glories in this proud ancestry. I once asked a gentleman well-known in both Greece and America, whether the Greeks were really sincere in this contention.
"Ask the first one you meet," he responded. " But be sure to pick out a small one, because you are very likely to have a fight."
Less strenuous fields of inquiry are open. The question has been considered by scholars of all types--archaeologists, ethnologists and philologists. It ill be-comes a simple paper maker to discuss the subject. For me it is sufficient that Sir Rennell Rodd, Sir J. P. Mahaffy, Professor Richard Jebb and Dr. Karl Hopf all reached the conclusion that, despite its many dilutions by Goth and Vandal, Frank and Slav, Turk and Albanian, the Greek race has never died.
It is significant that the Greek language, in all its essentials, has survived from the days of Homer. There is no fundamental difference between the tongue in which Plato instructed his disciples and the ranting of a Pirxus longshoreman. Writers have pointed out that the Greek language has changed less in twenty-five hundred years than has English since the days of Chaucer and Spenser. It has been the experience of mankind that in the obliteration of a race its language inevitably perishes, and Greek, unlike Latin, has never become a dead language.
There are other evidences of the continuity of the Greek race. Characteristics of the ancients are discernible in the modern state. The centrifugal forces that precluded unity in the old city states and constantly embroiled them in strife are equally operative to-day. Politics remains to-day, as it was of old, personal, bitter and self-seeking. From time immemorial the Greeks have lacked the capacity to pull together; and for all their acuteness of mind and refinement of taste, this defect has prevented them from becoming a great nation.
The common peril of the Persian War enforced unity for ten years or more; but when the danger was averted old jealousies and hatreds were revived, culminating at length in the disaster of the Peloponnesian War. This marked the end of the empire of Athens and the destruction of the only leadership that offered any hope of unity in Greece. Sparta was never anything more than a military state, and her record abounded in acts of cruelty and superstition. The brief preponderance of Thebes left as a heritage little except the glorious memory of Epaminondas. Until the early years of the Nineteenth Century Greece was never again free. Macedonian, Roman and barbarian in turn enslaved her, and with the fall of Constantinople came the long overlordship of the Turk.
I have spoken only of one of the meaner phases of the Greek character, and I now gladly turn to a finer one. For twelve years prior to 1924 Greece was continuously at war. The sequence of calamities that followed her occupation of western Asia Minor and her subsequent abandonment—betrayal, the Greeks call it—by the Allied powers, threw enormous bur-dens upon the country. A nation of five millions, impoverished and exhausted by its sacrifices, was suddenly confronted with the problem of caring for a million and one-half helpless refugees. Of these eighty-five per cent. were women, children and old men. The young and vigorous men as a rule did not escape, but were slaughtered by the Turks, or carried away in labor battalions to die as slaves in the heart of Anatolia.
The Asiatic Greeks had no very good claim to succor. They had lived in Asia more than two thousand years, and believed themselves to be the offspring of the soldiers who followed Alexander the Great. Few had ever visited Greece. A large proportion could not even speak the language, and substantially all were paupers. Yet Greece, with in-credible humanity, took them to her bosom and has given them a new start in life.
The undertaking that Greece so bravely attempted can be parallelized by assuming that at some remote time colonists from America had settled in Mexico and increased in number to thirty millions. We shall assume further that all of these were suddenly set upon by the Mexican army and civil population, tortured, enslaved, murdered, ravished, plundered of all their property and forced to fly for refuge across the Rio Grande. The United States to-day could much more easily endure the burden of thirty millions of paupers than Greece in 1922 could care for one and one-half millions. Would we meet the test? I am gravely doubtful whether in human sympathy we come up to the Greeks.
Just as Athens was the birthplace of democracy, so in modern Greece individualism finds its strongest expression. I know no country where social distinction is less recognized. There is, I believe, some recognition of hereditary title in Corfu, but in Greece as a whole there are no patents of nobility. In daily intercourse there is less of snobbery than in our own highly informal land. It is worth noting that the Athens newspapers print no social news, for their readers are not interested in it. The publisher of a journal of fashion and society would soon be bankrupt; yet fortunes have been made by printing the gossip of politics.
During the monarchy the court was noted for its Iack of ostentation. Members of the Royal Family walked the streets at will and the average citizen was little impressed. No such spectacle as the waiting crowd outside Buckingham Palace was ever seen in Athens.
Through a woman who was once housekeeper of the palace I heard anecdotes of Queen Sophia, who was the sister of the German Emperor. She was of domestic tastes and it was her custom to go through the palace every morning wearing fresh white gloves. As she passed she would rub each piece of furniture and if her gloves were soiled the servants were called sharply to account.
Her interest in all household appliances led her to subscribe for several American periodicals devoted to the affairs of women. She read the advertisements with great care and frequently caused her secretary to order some new device. On one occasion she responded to the advertisement of an American linoleum maker. Her letter arrived in due course and was put through the usual office routine by a thought-less chief clerk. The correspondent into whose hands it fell, made this diplomatic answer:
"We are pleased to have your valued inquiry about our linoleums. We are represented in Athens by Mr. Blank, of Blank Street, and if you will call at his store we are sure that he will be glad to show you a full line of samples."
Yet there are people who can't understand why the stupid foreigners object to our business ways.
The Albanian element has long constituted about one-tenth of the Greek population, but with the in-flux of Asiatic Greeks the percentage is smaller now. They are the natural farmers of the land. The more gregarious Greek is by instinct a townsman and trader. The Albanians have descended largely from mercenary soldiers brought into Greece during the Fourteenth Century. They are all of the Toskh tribes, from south Albania, and differ less from the Greeks than from the Ghegs, of their own north country. Of their language and dress they are still tenacious.
The old national costume of Greece I believe to be purely Albanian in its origin, though I have heard this point disputed. It is now becoming rare in the cities, as modernism spreads; but the Albanian peas-ant remains the most picturesque feature of Greek life. His fustanella is a white, pleated skirt, and under it he wears skin-tight breeches. His shoes are up-turned at the toes and are habitually decorated with pompoms. The skull cap is not high, like a Turkish Fez, but is often red. Nowadays the peasant wears almost any coat that he can get, but if he is correctly attired he will wear a sleeveless bolero jacket ornamented with braid. This picturesque outfit is seen in its highest perfection as the uniform of the Evzones, or members of the Presidential (formerly Royal) Guard.
The Vlachs are a pastoral people usually encountered in the more remote districts. In the regions about Parnassus they are numerous. I am glad to say that in the general increase of public order their reputation has improved. Whether as much can be said for their formidable dogs I am not certain, and it is well for the lonely wayfarer to have an eye on them.
A story is related of such an adventure that befell Dr. Schliemann. During a solitary expedition in the Arcadian wilderness he was set upon by two savage hounds. The shepherd ignored his outcry and gazed stupidly into space. A passage of the Odyssey came to the scholar's mind, relating how Ulysses, in a like predicament, calmly sat down. Such was his faith that Dr. Schliemann seated himself on a rock, whereupon the fury of the beasts abated and they quietly slunk away. Here is at least one instance of the practical advantage of a knowledge of the ancient languages.
Though the Greek may boast of his ancient lineage I have the feeling that the average citizen knows little of the meaning and history of the old remains. Stopping one day to inspect the ruins of the very early fort at Eleuthera!, which is mentioned by Thucydides, I found children playing on--the cyclopean walls, portions of which may be as old as two thousand, five hundred years. I amused myself by asking a lad who built the walls. With quick assurance he answered that they had been built to keep the Turks away. His explanation probably represented the opinion of the countryside.
Pastoral and agricultural occupations are still the mainstay of the people and the chief sources of the national wealth, but there is now a growing manufacturing interest. The scant rainfall, the clay soil and the prevalence of stones are the chief handicaps against which the farmer must contend. In the better districts the rains will hardly exceed twenty inches in the year, and the summers are long and dry. Farming is therefore dependent on irrigation, and for this the water supply is inadequate. The small rivers run dry in the summer and for lesser irrigation reliance must often be had on wells. The water is raised by primitive devices operated by horses or donkeys dragging a lever in an endless circle, and they are one of the typical sights of the country districts.
In Attica, more than elsewhere, the stones are a sore trial. The peasants still pick them up and pile them into cairns or walls. I suppose this has been going on for three thousand years, but there is no apparent diminution of their number. When a stone is picked up some malignant fairy must drop another to take its place.
Tobacco has now definitely taken its place as the first " money crop " of Greece, but currants, olives, cereals, oranges, wine and honey are important. The acquisition of western Thrace and parts of Macedonia has given Greece the most important tobacco lands of the former Turkish domain, and it is interesting to know that all the "Turkish and Egyptian " tobaccos that find their way into cigarettes now come from Greek territory. Kavalla is a very important center of this trade and the great tobacco companies of America and England now have important establishments there.
The total crop of Turkish tobacco raised in Greece is estimated at 65,000 tons in figures reported by the Athens Chamber of Commerce, and a considerable part comes to America. We are, in fact, the largest single buyers. In the production of the more delicate tobacco the plant is not topped in order to promote the growth of the larger leaves. It is from these small leaves that remain that the choicest flavor is obtained.
Currants are easily second in value, and for a long time they were the leading export. The fruit is not what we describe by the same name, but a small seedless raisin grape. The plantations bear small re-semblance to an American vineyard, and when we saw them in the spring they were quite unlovely. The stems are constantly cut back, so they finally are nothing except small pollard trees. Each occupies its hill of yellow clay and there are trenches between for irrigation. In May the first shoots were springing from the tops and it seemed impossible that they should develop sufficiently to bear a large crop in the course of the season. The finest brands are dried in the shade, and a heavy rain in the drying season would bring disaster to the growers. In former years currant growing was a bonanza industry and most of the fortunes in Patras were made in this trade. Currant lands formerly sold for twelve times the price of general farm land and the south shore of the Gulf of Corinth, all the way from the isthmus to the sea, was the richest district of Greece. Prices are much lower now and only normal profits are to be made.
Manufacturing is a comparatively new development in Greece, but it is rapidly increasing. The number of plants of all sizes has increased from 2,200 in 1917 to about 35,000 at the present time. Of course the vast majority of the industries are small affairs, for the total number employed in all of them is but 175,000. The Bank of Greece estimated the capital investment at $45,000,000. These figures well illustrate the small scale on which everything is done, for we have a number of single enterprises that make in annual net profits several times the total value of the combined industries of Greece.
The making of oriental rugs is the latest and most important addition to the nation's manufacture. These beautiful and enduring carpets were formerly produced in the cottages of the Anatolian peasants, or in small factories in Smyrna. The workers were principally Greek and Armenian women. They all fled to Greece after the Turks had swept the country and burned Smyrna, and thus the whole industry was transplanted. The Piraeus is the chief center and now has more than seventy carpet factories. Nothing could be more tedious and exacting than the making of these rugs. It is purely a handcraft and the number of knots in each square meter varies from 17,000 in the cheaper grades to more than 190,000 in the finest. I have seen women working on an unfinished carpet who had already expended more than two years on the task. Yet their work at the looms is astonishingly fast.
A complete list of Greek manufactures has no place here, but machinery, farm implements, yarns, textiles, chemicals, electric appliances and various food products are of sufficient importance to be mentioned. The Piraeus is not only a manufacturing town, but the largest port of the eastern Mediterranean. The Greeks have a million tons of shipping and most of it operates from this port.
Many writers have tried to describe the physical aspects of Greece, but I never found their efforts satisfying. On a clear day it is possible to get a bird's-eye view of the whole country f rom the summit of Parnassus. There one can look from sea to sea and from Olympus to Taygetos. What he sees is a tumbled and confused mass of mountains, interspersed with a few small plains. The coast line is one of the most remarkable anywhere. In proportion to area it is seven times that of England and twelve times that of France. The shore is a constant succession of deep bays and fiords that strike so far into the mountains that there is no spot in the whole country so much as fifty miles from saltwater. Probably as much as sixty per cent. of the total area is actually mountainous and a good part of the remainder is rough. The only really extensive plains, if we except the low parts of Macedonia, are in Thessaly, Bceotia and the vicinity of Sparta.
Between the woodcutters and the goats the forests have disappeared, perhaps never to return. The denudation of the mountains has not only impaired their beauty, but has worked great economic hurt.
The lack of wood is very painful and the bare mountains no longer retain the snows for summer irrigation. The goats who infest the whole country are the worst enemies of young trees, and Greece apparently has no alternative but to give up goat's milk and cheese for a generation or two, or abandon hope for her forests.
But if there is a scarcity of foliage there is, during the spring, a richness of wild flowers beyond any-thing I have encountered. The poppies are red and many times I have seen the whole landscape glow with their color. The daisies and anemones are plentiful and there are many other varieties I cannot identify.
The one flower whose name is most identified with Greece was to me the only disappointment. What has made the asphodel so loved of poets I do not know, unless it be the beauty of its name. It is but a flowering weed of the waste places, rising into a tall spike of pale gray blossoms. In any American meadow it would be passed unconsidered. They are numerous around Thermopylae and there was plenty of time to inspect them, for flood and earthquake have so disguised the scene of the exploit of Leonidas that -it could hardly be identified from the ancient description. During the centuries the river Spereichos has carried down so much silt that the coastal plain now is three miles wide.
The economic situation is still difficult from the standpoint of the citizen. While the wage has nominally increased about fifteen times the former rate the cost of living has multiplied by eighteen; so the workman finds his pay buying less than it did before the war. The drachma, which is at parity the same as the gold franc, stood around one and one-fourth cents during all the time I was 'in Greece. Prices have kept pace with the decline, so far as the foreigner is concerned, but wages seldom are adjusted to offset a falling currency. The business man also has much to contend with. Mr. Papafigou told me that it was not uncommon for the banks to demand 18 per cent. for a loan.
I had long wished to meet a modern Greek scholar, and I was greatly pleased when Dr. S. R. Duggan, of the Carnegie Foundation, gave me a letter to Professor A. Andreades, of the University of Athens. Shortly before noon one day we went by appointment to his fine house in Philhellene Street. A youthful butler showed us into the library, where we were joined a moment later by one of the handsomest and most correctly dressed men I met in Greece. The scholar and publicist was the exact antithesis of my notion of a Greek teacher, and he had the manner and bearing of a successful Harley Street specialist.
" Would we be seated? Did we care for a cigarette? "
" I am very complimented that you have called," he said without conviction. " It so happens that you are the fourth American to do me this honor in the past three months. The last one was a teacher in some Methodist college in Texas. He told me that he was stopping five days in Greece and that he planned to write a book. As he did not even have the language I at least admired his enterprise. I do not know just what he expected to learn of Greece in five days.
"It is fortunate that you were able to come before noon. My printer just called and tells me that he must have the manuscript of a book I have written this afternoon. I am now making the final corrections and checking the references. You understand those things. Don't you think this is an interesting room? The library was the gift of my father, and I am very proud of it. There is a pleasant garden in the rear of this old house. May I show you through it? "
For a few minutes we strolled among the olive and fig trees that grew beneath the surrounding walls, and we heard the story of the young burglar who was caught, after scaling the walls. But my mind was distracted by the thought of the impatient printer, and we soon passed into the free air of Philhellene Street.
My call on Mr. Kalopothakes, director of the press bureau of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, was a greater success. This cultured and agreeable man is the son of a Greek father and an American mother, sprung, I was told, from a distinguished New England family. He was thus described in a letter I received from Professor Capps, of Princeton, Chairman of the managing committee of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens:
"The letter you have from Mr. Simopoulos to the Chief of the publicity department of the Foreign Office will be very useful. Mr. Kalopothakes is a Harvard graduate, who was for years connected with the American Legation, and he knows the ins and outs of Greek politics as well as any man. For a long time he was the Greek correspondent of the New York Nation and the London Daily News. He is a very intelligent and obliging man."
So I found him and I count my visits to the simple office he maintains in the plain marble building that houses the Foreign Ministry among the most pleas-ant of my social experiences in Greece. My first call was made at four o'clock one afternoon, and in the corridors of the building I encountered no living thing except a large black cat. The office of the press bureau was on the second floor and the small room gave evidence of work, rather than ostentation.
" I hope," my host remarked, " that you are not finding Greece as one English writer did. He wrote a book of his impressions and began by saying that so far as he could see the chief occupation of the people of Athens was blacking one another's boots.
"The city has had a remarkable growth in recent years. It is the political, educational and financial center of the nation, and all the more important business transactions are handled here. The Pirxus is now both a manufacturing and commercial center, and when we are able to finance an adequate system of docks it will be more than ever the first seaport of the eastern Mediterranean. As recently as 1917 Athens did not have more than 300,000 people and the Piraeus half as many. Though we have no late census it is generally believed that Athens has now 700,000 and the Piraeus 300,000—in other words a million for the combined cities.
"Our first influx of new population came during the war when we received about 200,000 refugees. We had then a large colony of Russians, but they have all gone west, principally to Paris, I believe.
"We were not, seriously embarrassed by these people. It was the exodus from Asia Minor, following the defeat of our army and the destruction of Smyrna that so taxed our resources. From the whole interior the Greeks flew for their lives to the nearest seaport. We sent every ship in the country to their aid. To transport them to Greece alone cost the country more than one hundred million drachmae. The first problem was food and shelter. We threw open the churches, schools, palaces and warehouses—any place to put a roof over their heads. In the country districts some lived in dens and caves, little better than wild animals.
"With the help of British and American philanthropies, and ultimately with a loan of ten million pounds, negotiated by the League of Nations, the Refugee Settlement Commission was established, consisting of an American, an Englishman and two Greeks. The Government provided 1,250,000 acres of land, some of which had belonged to the Turks that were repatriated and some expropriated from the church and the rich land owners.
"A family is now reestablished by providing it with a two room cottage of stone or sun-dried brick, with stables and storehouse attached, a certain amount of land, with tools and a donkey, seed and sufficient money to carry it over until the first crop is sold. The property is to be paid for during a period of years and the commission will be thus reimbursed.
"It would hardly be possible to overstate the sufferings of these unfortunate people. Those who escaped lost everything, but thousands were butchered or driven into slavery in the remote interior. Even now, more than five years after the last military operations, we know that many Greeks are slaves in Anatolia. At intervals one escapes and brings back the terrible story. We make complaint to the League of Nations. The Turks deny the charges and invite an investigation. A commission is sent into the country, and of course finds nothing. Information as to its movements goes far ahead.
"You may have noticed that there was excitement on the streets to-day. There is a crisis in the Government. By agreement of all parties to the coalition no Cabinet Minister is permitted to make an appointment without consulting his colleagues. Last night the chief of the national gendarmerie resigned and the Minister of the Interior named one of his friends to the post.
"It appeared this morning that the coalition might go to pieces on the issue, but now I hope everything is arranged. The new appointee has resigned and the Minister had agreed to name nobody else until the cabinet meets. I am arranging to have a meeting this afternoon at 5:30 and I believe all trouble will be adjusted."
Next day the papers announced that another crisis was passed.