09 April 2009

Anything but your dull maps and measures

William Gell was not perfect. In his Itinerary of the Morea (1817) He heard Merbaka as Mebacca, Chonika as Phonika, and identified as a well at Tiryns what is a large grinding mill. He mentioned the bridge of Karitena (left) half a dozen times, but because his interests were not in medieval Frankish, Byzantine, or Turkish building, he said nothing more than "bridge of Karitena.")*

Richard Burgess, following Gell's route from Leondari to Mistra in 1834 (which would have taken 8 hours and 48 minutes if he followed intructions precisely), wrote, "the details given of this route by Sir William Gell are most accurate," and that is all one could want.

Because of the lady who asked for "anything but your dull maps and measures," and "the events which are at this moment occurring in the Turkish empire," Gell took the opportunity of working up his travel notes into which indicates that he was noticing a great deal besides maps and measures, and what was mentioned by Pausanias and Strabo, and in Journey in the Morea (1823) he gave the bridge a whole sentence:
The bridge, though a wretched specimen of the art of masonry, is not wanting in picturesque beauty, having a sort of chapel against one of its piers, which would seem to give it a Venetian origin.
The chapel is not Venetian but Greek, and very damp, and Gell did not actually climb down in the gorge to visit the chapel where there was at the time of his visit a carving with the name of Manuel Rallis Melikes who built it in 1440. Melikes was descended from a Turk who came into the Morea in the 13th century to fight for the Greeks. Gell did not know this but he would have been pleased: he liked Turks.

Gell altogether preferred the company of Turks to Greeks, and generally traveled with a Turkish interpreter or janissary, and Turkish servants.
No people on earth ever equalled these peasants of Greece, in this unwelcoming species of sullen and ill-natured, as well as ineffectual spite . . . it can never have happened that an European has rested at any house in the country, without leaving the inhabitants the richer for his visit. It is only fear, or interest, which have any effect in opening the doors of an Albanian Greek to a stranger . . .
When an upper-class Greek suggested to him that he might have a different experience were he to go about unaccompanied by a "Musselman," he found
I met with no change in the manner of reception, but a striking difference in the results; and was once compelled to remain in the street an hour, in the snow, at a town where the inhabitants were numerous, and independent enough to venture on such incivility.
Mentioning this situation to the cogia bashi of Kalavyita, DelliGeorge, he was assured that
all Greek archon as he was, and cogia bashi in addition, he never went to any of the villages without being compelled to lay his stick on the backs of some of its inhabitants, in order to obtain the most common necessaries for his money.
The complex and difficult history of the Morea begins to suggest itself in passages such as these. It is not easy to read his criticisms of Moreote Greek ethics and religion -- although he is as often accurate as not, even less easy to read of his bullying of Doctor Zane or the gatekeeper of Tripolis, or of his sneering at
the man who, on looking through a telescope, thought he was seeing a ghost. He is contemptuous about the generosity of Gligorasko of Tripolis who exchanged money for him, saying that it was only because Gligorasko thought he was a person of importance from Constantinople. Gell is a prime example of the "wogs start at Calais" school of ethnicity.

This attitude is disappointing when the rest of his work is so thorough and so useful. He was, despite himself, a noticing sort of person, and there is evidence in Journey in the Morea that all the times he measured for his routes in Itinerary were not recorded in unbroken sequence. While he was measuring the distances from Mistra to Sparta and surrounding villages, he was also noting every broken piece of marble he could spot, and recording inscriptions, short ones such as STEPHEN CHAIRE (Farewell, Stephen), and longer ones to demonstrate the style of lettering under the Roman emperors, as well as commenting on regional variations in letter usages. (Has anyone looked to see if any of his inscriptions duplicate any of Cyriaco's?)

At Gargagliano he observed that the local swine,
though not absolutely wild, have longer legs, and backs well arched and fringed with long bristles, presenting the appearance of the boars on antique gems.
In Leondari he observed "the mosque was once a Greek church." In Patras he noted
the great cypress tree that Evliya saw in 1668:
at the distance of about a mile from the town, is a most magnificent cypress, which as assumed the form of a cedar: Spon and Wheeler measured it, since which time [1680s] it has much increased in bulk.
In Dimistsana he visited "a library containing some old editions of the classics." You can see these now under glass in a dimly-lighted room, but he must have noticed the 1590 Photius from Augsburg; the 1532 Demosthenes, the1538 Ptolemy, and the1544 Souidias from Basel; the beautiful Greek 1499 Libanius or the 1506 [my handwriting illegible] published by Manutius in Venice.

He was also able to give an account of bandit ethics:
By day there was infinitely less danger for a Frank in his proper dress, as the thieves, who always retire to the Ionian islands when hard pressed by the Pasha, imagine that they would neither be received nor foriven in those pious and moral societies, if they should be known to have molested a foreigner. If it be asked how a traveller can be acquainted with details, which regard the internal government of the robbers of the Morea, I may answer, that I learned them sitting in perfect safety in a drawing-room, with many other particulars, from one of the most daring leaders of banditti, through whose hands, as he expressed it himself in the Greek idiom, I had often passed in the course of my rambles on the mountains in search of antiquties, and positions for geographical observations, my knowledge of which recesses seemed to inspire him with that sort of confidence, which we would have felt for one of his own profession.
Surely the lady who complained about maps and measures was persuaded to think better of them when she read this passage.

* Three weeks ago I fell at the foot of the stairs in the photograph, damaging my right knee and left hand. I wanted to commemorate that event here.

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