Love in the Levant – archaeologist William Paton’s encounter with a Greek goddess – Kalymnos, 1885

Love in the Levant – the true story of an aristocratic British archaeologist and his profound love for the goddess he encountered on a remote Greek island – and Mabel Bent’s account of meeting her.

Another in our Greek island series: “The Bents – great friends of… ”

Love at first sight

W R Paton with his sister Mary aged 2 or 3
W R Paton with his sister Mary aged 2 or 3

William Roger Paton was born in Scotland on September 2nd 1857. He studied Classics at Oxford and London and moved on to law for a while in London. However, the legal world was clearly too staid for William, whose real interests lay further afield in literature and archaeology in the Eastern Mediterranean. One wonders whether Oscar Wilde had his friend William Paton in mind when he wrote “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”

On one of his trips to the region in the late summer of 1885, his ship anchored off-shore near the village of Pothia on the Turkish-controlled Greek island of Kalymnos. Standing on the deck of the steamer, he could not have known that his life was about to take a turn which would see him married within just 3 months and a father before a year had passed.

Few large ships called at Kalymnos in those days; there was no dock and such ships had to anchor well out to sea. As soon as a ship was spotted, a scramble of small boats would go out to meet it to take off alighting passengers and maybe to make a few drachma from the ship’s passengers. The local boys would hope to come back with a coin or two by entertaining the passengers with their diving skills as they retrieved coins thrown from the deck.

Pothia harbour
Pothia harbour as Paton might have seen it. One of the small boats used to embark and disembark passengers. Photograph taken from the deck of a ship anchored in the harbour (photograph courtesy of Manoli Psarra)

Leaning on the rail, Paton’s eyes were intractably drawn to one of the small boats. In it sat the young girl who would become his wife and the mother of his four children. His fate was sealed at that very moment in time.

He instantly made up his mind. Quickly getting his baggage together, he disembarked into one of the small boats. To the surprise of the boatman, in perfect Greek, he asked where he could find accommodation on the island. The boatman agreed to take ‘O Lordos’  note 1  to the most important man on the island, the Demarchos, or Mayor. As he rowed toward the shore, singing the praises of the Demarchos,  he added, with a nod of his head toward the boat which had so captivated Paton, “that young girl is his daughter.”

Emmanouil Olympitis - Demarchos of Kalymnos and Irini's father
Emmanouil Olympitis – Demarchos of Kalymnos and Irini’s father (photograph courtesy of Emmanuel Olympitis)

Paton got on well with the Demarchos, Emmanouil Olympitis, who very much impressed the younger Paton. He was successful in the sponge fishing industry, for which Kalymnos has always been renowned, and the family was much respected by the people of Kalymnos for the defiance that Emmanouil’s grandfather had shown toward the occupying Turks.

However well the two men got on, it must have been a bolt out of the blue the very next day when Paton proposed marriage to his daughter, Irini. People were outraged and, on a more lawless island, this might have been the end of Paton’s amorous advances, and his life to boot! But wise Emmanouil Olympitis was far above all that and countered by trying to delay on the basis that a trousseau needed to be arranged. With dogged persistence, Paton told him he would arrange everything and that he wanted Irini just as she was.

And what of Irini’s feelings in all of this? Of course, Emmanouil Olympitis would not have allowed his daughter to enter into marriage against her will. We learn from the autobiography of Irini’s daughter, Augusta, from later conversations with her mother, that Paton’s emotions were mirrored in Irini’s own; she described him as a ‘fair, blue-eyed god’.

Paton stayed in Kalymnos for a month and he and Irini grew ever closer – but he had to return to Britain leaving Irini in Kalymnos. While in Britain, he wrote her long letters every single day.

On Paton’s return to Kalymnos, two months later, signalled by tender telegram messages to Irini from each port of call along the way, they married in November 1885 – he 28 and Irini 16 years of age.

Paton and Irini at Rattray, his cousin’s home North of Aberdeen
Paton and Irini at Rattray, his cousin’s home north of Aberdeen (photograph courtesy of William Paton)

Shortly after their marriage and their honeymoon in Symi and Rhodes, they moved to Paton’s Scottish estate, but neither Paton nor Irini were happy in Scotland and both pined for Greece. From Mabel Bent’s diary entry, we know they were back in Kalymnos by March 1886. Later that year, in August, their first son George was born in Irini’s mother’s house on the Turkish coast at Gümüşlük near Bodrum.

Theodore and Mabel Bent visit Kalymnos

At the beginning of 1886, the British explorers Theodore and Mabel Bent were travelling around the islands of the eastern Aegean looking for likely sites to excavate, but they were constantly thwarted by the Turkish authorities to whom Bent was known.

Theodore and Paton were acquainted. It’s thought that they first met as a result of their connections with the British Museum or as members of the Hellenic Society. Their various papers on their respective archaeological excavations were published by the same journal, sometimes in the same issue. They each also had a close relationship with the classicist (and later Bishop of Lincoln) E. L. Hicks, who co-authored publications on ancient inscriptions from both Theodore and Paton. They would have been very well aware of each other’s work.

However, it seems that it was actually Mabel’s inquisitiveness which drove their decision to visit Kalymnos. She wrote in her diary:

“I am most curious to see a young lady of Kalymnos, aged I hear about 16 and just married to a Mr. William Paton of Granholme in Aberdeenshire. Her father’s name is Olympites, a sponge merchant and very rich. Everyone has heard of ‘O Ouiliermos’  note 2  in the neighbouring islands.”

They arrived in Kalymnos on Wednesday March 17th, 1886. The next day Mabel wrote:

“We were lucky enough to fall in with a clean little English steamer, lanthe, where we had a most comfortable flealess night and a very calm passage here. We started about 6 and arrived about ½ past 12 yesterday.

This is a very populous town of large houses filled with rich sponge fishers who have a reputation in these regions of being thieves, liars and cheats. We were sorry to hear that Mr. Paton had returned to England 2 days ago, leaving his wife at her father’s as she does not wish to undertake the long journey till the summer of next year.”

So Theodore missed meeting Paton in Kalymnos. Whether Theodore and Paton ever met on their overseas travels we don’t know – but they certainly trod in each other’s footsteps.

It would seem that Theodore and Paton had more than just a passing physical resemblance to each other. On Kalymnos, this created some confusion on the island:

“We were very much amused on landing to hear William has returned’. ‘No, it is his brother.’ ‘He is exactly the same.’ ‘How very like he is.’ ‘No, it is not him.’ And these sentences never cease to be buzzed round wherever Theodore goes. At the British Museum they have been taken for one another and a gentleman came and shook hands with him and said ‘When did you come’ and then ‘Oh! Excuse me. I thought you were the son-in-law of Olympidis’.”

Meeting Irini’s father Emmanouil Olympitis

But one man, at least, was not fooled by Theodore’s apparent likeness to Paton. He approached Theodore, saying in English:

‘This is the father-in-law of Mr. Paton and I am the brother-in-law of Mrs. Paton.’

Thus was Theodore introduced to Emmanouil Olympitis, the Demarchos of Kalymnos and the father of Irini, Paton’s wife. Mabel continues:

“So on invitation we entered the café and gave our history, in Greek, to the crowd. The brother asked us to come and take a walk in their garden, so we were removed to an orchard of young lemon and orange trees. Chairs were procured and we sat on ploughed beds, damp, so that one had never to forget to be always trying to sit on the highest leg of the chair for fear of overturning. He would talk English which we had constantly to help out with Greek so we sat silently for a long time till I shivered loudly and we were led silently home.”

Meeting Mrs Irini Paton

Mabel continues, but it should be stressed that she is writing her diary for herself and a small number of friends and family and, as such, her tone may at times seem to border on the insensitive and the rude:

“We announced that in an hour we would call on Mrs. Paton. Accordingly they prepared themselves. We entered a mud-floored hall littered with broken machinery; up dirty marble stairs with a rusty banister and reached a drawing room where some matting had been thrown down, but rolled up where it could not pass under the chest of drawers. A quantity of pieces of embroidery bought during the honeymoon to Simi and Rhodes were plastered round in an absurd way. The chest of drawers had a green table cover falling over the front of it, over that a large cotton antimacassar and on top a large pier glass smashed in 4 bits, some hanging out.

Mrs. Paton is a fine big girl who might pass for 20 but some say 14. She had a pretty new dress, quite out of keeping with the place, her wedding ring and a splendid diamond one on her middle finger and a pink coral one on the other middle finger. Her face is good looking but not very pretty. She was very quiet and very much more ladylike than her sister, a coarse rough girl with a dirty snuff-coloured handkerchief on her head, a loose black jacket and a green skirt, much too long in the front. She brought us coffee and jam and seemed very respectful to Mrs. Paton.”

Mabel’s comment that Irini was ‘a fine big girl’ was made without her being aware that, at the time, Irini was 15-16 weeks pregnant. How Mabel would have relished writing about that, had she known! This fact might partly explain why Irini was reluctant to travel back to Scotland with Paton in March 1886.

With Mabel’s inquisitiveness about Irini Paton sated, she and Theodore left Kalymnos for Astypalea on Saturday March 20th, 1886.

The Olympitis house
The Olympitis’ house where Paton and the family stayed while in Kalymnos (photograph courtesy of Emmanuel Olympitis)

The Olympitis’ ‘beautiful’ house on the quayside at Pothia where the family stayed while in Kalymnos and where Theodore and Mabel would have met Irini. Augusta wrote : ‘It was the biggest house with the best accommodation on the island and was situated on the quayside with only a large pavement between it and the sea, which, with its anchored coloured boats, full of sponges and brilliantly coloured fishing equipment, was a sight to gladden my heart.’

The house was demolished in the 1970s and the current Olympic Hotel was erected in its place – ‘the best accommodation on the island’. The hotel is still run by members of the Olympitis family.

Return to Scotland

Irini with George, Thetis and John in Aberdeen before 1900
Irini with George, Thetis and John in Aberdeen before 1900

We know from Theodore and Mabel, and from the birthplace of Paton’s first son George, that Irini did not go back to Scotland in 1886, however, Augusta’s autobiography records them being there for much of the time during the first four years of their marriage. Their daughter, Thetis, was born in November 1887 in Aberdeen followed by a son John, in 1890, born at the family seat of Grandhome.

Irini always called Paton ‘Willie’, the name used by Augusta in her wrtings.

George, Thetis and John taken in Aberdeen
George, Thetis and John taken in Aberdeen (photograph courtesy of Emmanuel Olympitis)

Irini was a devout Orthodox and was unhappy not to be able to worship in her faith, there being no Greek Orthodox church in Aberdeen. She was also uncomfortable that her children were not ‘properly’ Christened in ‘that austere Presbyterian cathedral’ which she went through the motions of attending each Sunday, listening to Willie reading the lesson in his ‘carrying sonorous voice’.

The couple were still deeply in love and there were happy times in Scotland. Paton’s family and friends had welcomed Irini as its own. However, neither of them could stand the climate and Paton was never happy running the affairs of the estate. As soon as the children were old enough, he accepted an assignment for a new excavation in Asia Minor.

The house by the Aegean sea

Irini and Paton in Samos
Irini and Paton from the same photo studio in Samos at around 1900 when the family were living in the house at Gümüşlük (photographs courtesy of Emmanuel Olympitis)

Irini’s mother, Palia, had a property on the Turkish coast at Gümüşlük near Bodrum, where Irini and Paton’s first son George had been born. Palia owned much of the land around and a simple house existed on the property, close to the sea. She’d built a small chapel on the hill for the few local Christians. The happiest years for all the Paton family were those spent at the house. Paton and Irini’s youngest child, Augusta, or Sevastie, was also born in the house and her first few years were spent there. For Paton it was perfect. He could take himself off, sometimes for many months, and immerse himself in his work while still being able to return home, at times, for Irini and the children. For the children, it was an idyllic adventure playground and Augusta writes evocatively of those ecstatic days.

Thetis - probably taken in Greece
Thetis – probably taken in Greece (photograph courtesy of Emmanuel Olympitis)

But Irini was doing other things while in Gümüşlük as well. Paton’s great-grandson, also William Paton, provides us with an insight from a publication by Paton, originally in French – “Myndos is a town which knows well how to hide its inscriptions. The inscriptions that I published in the ‘Bull. de corr. hell. (volume XIV)’ do not come from the town itself but from the surrounding area. The town and its cemeteries only provided two inscribed stones. The two that I added were found, in the final days, in the rubble of a church near the Halicarnassus Gate. We owe them to excavations carried out without my knowledge by Mrs. Paton.”

Mama and Augusta
“Mama and Augusta” – Irini with Augusta around the time of their departure from Greece (photograph courtesy of William Paton)

As Paton’s work in Asia Minor came to an end, the spectre of leaving Gümüşlük weighed heavily on Irini. The boys were approaching the age when boarding school in England beckoned – John had already spent time there. During the period the family were in Gümüşlük, George and John had attended a school in Kos while Thetis was schooled in Smyrna (present-day Izmir).

George and Thetis believed to have been taken in Greece (photograph courtesy Emmanuel Olympitis)
George and Thetis believed to have been taken in Greece (photograph courtesy of Emmanuel Olympitis)

Irini and Augusta left Gümüşlük to meet Paton and the boys in Kalymnos. Irini was heartbroken to leave the home where she’d been so happy. She was never to see the house again.

The family came together again in the Olympitis house on the quayside of Pothia in Kalymnos, where they celebrated Christmas 1905.

Paris

Thetis believed to have been taken while in France
Thetis believed to have been taken while in France (photograph courtesy of Emmanuel Olympitis)

But, for the ever-driven Paton, time was dragging in Kalymnos and, early in 1906, he uprooted the family in favour of the Parisian suburb of Viroflay, near Versailles.  There, Irini and Augusta learned French and made friends. Irini was happy that she could go to the church of St. Julien le Pauvre  note 3 . They were content with life in Viroflay.

Brittany

But, once again, Paton moved them on, this time to a villa by the sea on the coast of Brittany at Peros Guirec. Irini was never happy in the period she spent in Brittany.

A sad, sad ending

It was in Brittany that the first signs of Irini’s illness appeared; she was often in great pain. One of her kidneys was damaged and had to be removed. In October 1908, she was admitted to a hospital in Paris where the successful operation was carried out. Irini was free from the pain she’d suffered.

The day came to leave the hospital and Irini’s best friend, Delphine, was helping her to dress amid happy laughter while Paton was pacing around outside in the corridor. Suddenly Irini clutched at her chest and said in Greek ‘Pono’  note 4 . She collapsed into Delphine’s arms and died. She was 38 years old. Paton ‘went quite beserk’ and ripped his shirt to shreds in his uncontrollable grief.

William Paton in later life on Samos, (c) Endre Kemeny

The fairy-tale romance had ended. Paton was 51, George 22,  Thetis 21, John 18, and Augusta just 8. Irini had been the source of all the love that had brought happiness to Paton and the family since that first vision of her, all those years ago, in a tiny boat bobbing on the waters of Pothia Bay. William Paton was a broken man.

Mabel’s diary entries are taken from the book The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J Theodore Bent Volume I. ©2015 Gerald Brisch and Archaeopress. Reproduced by kind permission. Get the book or download the e-book.

● The author wishes to thank Emmanuel N. Olympitis for his enthusiastic assistance in providing material and invaluable information for this article.

● The author wishes to thank William Paton, Paton’s great-grandson, for his suggestions and contributions from the family archives.

● Some of the material for this article was derived from the autobiography of Augusta Paton (Kemény), William and Irini Paton’s daughter. The autobiography is currently available only in Hungarian. Read a short biography of Augusta Paton.

● The images used in this article may be subject to various copyright restrictions.

Notes

Note 1: O Lordos – literally ‘the Lord’ – used to describe a gentleman of high status. Return from Note 1
Note 2: O Ouiliermos – The transliterated Greek phonetic spelling of ‘William’ with the masculine nominative ‘os’ ending added. Return from Note 2
Note 3: St. Julien le Pauvre is actually a Melkite Greek Catholic church which has its roots in the same beliefs and rites as the Greek Orthodox Church. Return from Note 3
Note 4: Pono (Πονώ) – I have pain. Return from Note 4

The legend of Kera Panagia and the tragic story of the hermit monk Vasilis

The beach at Kera Panagia

The idyllic beach at Kera Panagia is said by many to be the most attractive on Karpathos with its crystal-clear waters and the beautiful church of the Panagia perched on the heights above.

But how many visitors know the legend of the origins of the church and the tragic story of the hermit monk, Vasilis, who looked after it?

In 1885, Theodore and Mabel Bent spent 6 weeks on Karpathos and, on Friday March 6th, they visited Kera Panagia where they met an aged Vasilis, who told them his sad story.

Theodore wrote about their visit in an article, On a Far-off Island, published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (Vol. 139, Feb 1886), 233-244), while Mabel, as ever, took to her diary to pen a colourful account of the day.

Theodore’s account of the visit

This account is taken from the book The Dodecanese: Further Travels Among the Insular Greeks (get the book or download the e-book).

“… our other friends arranged a sort of picnic for us, to a lovely spot called ‘Mrs Madonna’ (Kera Panagía), where a church contains a miraculous picture, and is looked after by a well-known old hermit-monk called Vasili.

The church of Kera Panagia
The church of Kera Panagia

The church is at the foot of a narrow gorge down by the sea, amidst tree-clad heights, which culminate in Mount Lastos, the highest peak in Karpathos, 4000 feet above sea-level. Close to this church there is a water source, which springs right out of a rock: it is icy cold and clear, and all around its egress the rock is garlanded with maidenhair; mastic, myrtle, and daphne almost conceal it from view. To this spot, the most favoured one in the island, our friends took us.

a miraculous picture
“a miraculous picture”

“In 1821 a Cretan refugee whose flocks had been destroyed by the Turks, vowed a church to the Panagià if she would lead him to a place of safety. So, says the legend, she conducted his boat here, where he found water, fertility, and seclusion, and here he built the church he had vowed.

“Once a year, on the day of the Assumption, the Karpathiotes make a pilgrimage to this spot; for the rest of the year it is left to the charge of poor old Vasili, who told us the very sad story which had driven him to adopt this hermit life.

“A few years ago he lived in the village, with his two sons and one daughter. She married a sea-captain, a well-to-do sponge-fisher, who owned a boat and much money he said.

“On one of his voyages, the sponge-fisher took with him Vasili’s two sons, and on their way they fell across a boat manned by pirates from Amorgos. The pirates shot the captain, boarded the caïque, and strapped the two brothers to the mast. After they had cleared the boat of all they could find, they sank it, and shortly afterwards some other sponge-fishers found the two brothers fastened to the mast at the bottom of the sea. They gave notice to the Government, and a steamer was despatched from Chios in pursuit of the pirates, and the bodies were brought home and buried. It was but poor satisfaction to old Vasili to hear of the capture of the murderers.

His daughter shortly afterwards married again, and left Karpathos, and he, with his broken heart and tottering step, donned the garb of a monk, and came to end his days at Kera Panagía, where he lives in a little stone hut alongside the church, and tills the ground, lights the lamps before the sacred pictures, and rings the church bell.”

Mabel’s diary entry for the day

This account is taken from the book World Enough, and Time: The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J Theodore Bent Volume I.(Get the book or download the e-book).
While Theodore, in his article, recounted the history of the church and Vasilis’ story, Mabel opted for a gastronomic account of the ‘picnic’. On the following day she wrote:

“Yesterday was really a day to be marked with a white stone. We had a delightful picnic to Kyriá Panagía. The company were 3 Turks, one of whom could speak no Greek, 2 English, 4 Greeks, 3 of whom could speak Turkish. There was also an Albanian cook who could speak no language but his own and that no one understood, and 2 soldiers.

Theodore and Mabel might be described today as foodies. Theodore’s writings and Mabel’s chronicles are peppered with details of food and drink. Read about their passion for mizithra cheese and about Mabel’s menus.
“We arrived first. I riding 2 hours on a bone-shaking road. The latter part was through pine woods smelling sweetly and with big single white peonies and arums. M 1 at once set to work to cook a chicken, or rather aged cock, and was ready with brandy to offer the Turks on their arrival, and at one o’clock we all were seated round a waterproof rug of ours with 2 glasses, few plates, and a moderate amount of forks and spoons. We talked English together. The Turks talked Turkish together, but of course then and there determined to send the soldiers off for a lamb to be eaten à la Palikári 2 for dinner. We 2, the 2 Sakolarides 3 and a certain Manolakakis 4, in whose house the Kaïmakam 5 lodges, went on a long hot rocky walk, and I think I got a little sunstroke, for I had a great pain in the back of my head which is gone today very nearly. We at length found ourselves at the source of a stream springing out of a bed of maidenhair under great big myrtle trees. It was such an enchanting spot.

A spring close by
A spring close by

“At 4 o’clock we sat cross-legged round a heap of mastic bushes and rosemary, and on this bed was laid the lamb who had been borne on a spit through his head and his hind feet tied to it.

“We then tore him limb from limb by hand and all gnawed. I never saw a funnier scene or a merrier meal. After the lamb’s bones were cleaned by the 8 sets of teeth, the Kaïmakam examined the shoulder blades and prophesied peace and quietness, then more sheep’s cream and then home.

“We went half way together and the Kaïmakam and Co. went to Apéri, and we and Mr. Frangisko Sakolarides to Volátha. Having been taking lessons from Hassam Tachrí Effendi, the secretary, I was able to say ‘Teshekür edérim’, ‘Thank you’, to the Kaïmakam. We were led to the café by Mr. Frangisko Sakolarides and given coffee and were very glad to get home safely with only starlight to help us, and I had to walk some way.

“In the little church at Kyriá Panagía, which is quite good and not ruined, there were lots of scribbled names and one of the Greeks said, ‘Now we will write up your name’ and I said ‘Oh, not my name please’, they said ‘Why?’ and I said it was not our custom in England to write our name in churches.”

Research and contributeWe’re always searching for more information on the topics and people we write about. Can you add more information about Kera Panagia or old Vasilis, or about the Sakolarides or Mr. Manolakakis? Please contact us using the ‘Comment’ form on this page or on our ‘contact us’ page.

References and copyright

The account from Theodore is taken from the book The Dodecanese: Further Travels Among the Insular Greeks: The Selected Writings of J. Theodore & Mabel V.A. Bent, 1885-1888, edited, with additional material, by Gerald Brisch. Copyright ©2015 Gerald Brisch and Archaeopress. Reproduced by kind permission.

The extract from Mabel’s diary is taken from the book World Enough, and Time: The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J Theodore Bent Volume I: Greece and the Levantine Littoral, transcribed from Mabel’s original hand-written chronicle, with additional material, by Gerald Brisch. Copyright ©2006 Gerald Brisch and Archaeopress. Reproduced by kind permission.

Pictures copyright ©2019 Alan King and inAid Ltd.

Notes

Note 1: Mabel uses ‘M’ to refer to Manthaios Simos, the Bents’ dragoman for many of their travels throughout Greece and beyond. Manthaios was a native of the island of Anafi. Return from Note 1

Note 2: Palikári (‘rogue’, ‘bandit’) is much used in a familiar form to mean ‘pal’, buddy’, etc. Lamb ‘banditstyle’ exists in older recipe books for a slow-cooked dish of lamb chops, oregano, onions, garlic, tomatoes, cheese and potatoes, similar to kokinistó. It seems, however, that Mabel and her pals devoured their lamb spit-roasted. NOTE: See the comment below, received after the publication of this article, from Deppy Karavassilis-Patestou, the Greek vblogger. Return from Note 2

Note 3: Mr. Frangisko Sakolarides was the Greek dragoman and interpreter for the Turkish Kaïmakam, or Governor. It seems he was present on the day with his wife. He and his family are mentioned several times throughout Mabel’s chronicle. Return from Note 3

Note 4: The Manolakakis family was prominent on Kárpathos at the time. An Emmanuel Manolakakis published Karpathiaká (1896), a valued monograph on the history and culture of the island. Return from Note 4

Note 5: The Kaïmakam was the Turkish Governor of the island. Return from Note 5

The ‘Syra British Cemetery’ – Syros

I was prompted to write more about the ‘Syra British Cemetery‘ after reading Gerry Brisch’s fascinating account of the life of one the Bents’ friends and key ‘fixers’, Her Britannic Majesty’s Consul to Syra, William Binney, who helped ease the Bents’ travels around the Cyclades by way of letters of introduction to mayors, priests and other prominent figures throughout the islands.

These days, the island of Syros doesn’t figure too prominently on the radar of many non-Greek visitors to the Cyclades, and the three cemeteries, Orthodox, Catholic and British, on the road between the lower town and the ‘Catholic’ upper town, receive even fewer visitors.

After the Greek War of Independence started in 1821, the then-sparsely-populated Syros grew rapidly to become the commercial and administrative centre of the Greek Aegean world, earning it the sobriquet of ‘The Capital of the Cyclades’. Theodore and Mabel Bent were constantly drawn back to the island because of its position as the transport ‘hub’ which enabled them to explore further afield in Greece and beyond (see the interactive maps of their travels)

The Syra British Cemetery
The Syra British Cemetery

The ‘Syra British Cemetery’ illustrates the importance of Syros to Her Britannic Majesty’s Foreign Office following the foundation of the modern Greek state in 1832, until its pre-eminence was later eclipsed by King Otto’s new capital of Athens and its port of Piraeus. Like other British overseas cemeteries, located in many a corner of a foreign field, the Syros cemetery reveals some of the human sacrifices of those who served the Empire and suffered sickness and death far from home.

As Gerry Brisch tells us, the ‘Syra British Cemetery’ holds the grave of the Bents’ friend, William Binney, whose tombstone epitaph reads:

To the memory
of William Pryor Binney
H.B.M. Consul
Divisional Manager Eastern
Telegraph Company
Born in Halifax Nova Scotia
Canada
the 21th July 1839
died at Syra the 12th March 1888.
The Lord gave and the Lord
hath taken away Blessed be
the name of the Lord
Job I21.

The grave of William Binney
The grave of William Binney

Although the grave of HBM Consul William Binney, is the grandest in the tiny cemetery, there are also the graves of two former British consuls.

The grave of St. Vincent Lloyd
The grave of St. Vincent Lloyd

Binney’s predecessor, St. Vincent Lloyd, had been HBM Vice-Consul for the state of Wallachia in 1838 where he later made a name for himself by supporting the 1848 revolutionaries who went on to found the united Romanian state. December 14th, 1861 sees him promoted to Consul in Syros where it would seem he remained until his death in 1884. Part of his epitaph reads:

Sacred to the memory of St. Vincent Lloyd Esq., for many years H.B.M. Consul Syra, who died here 25th February 1884, in the 74th year of his age.

Lloyd’s promotion had been prompted by the death of another HBM Consul in Syra, Richard Wilkinson, in 1861. Two Wilkinson graves tell the story of tragic family grief.

The grave of Richard Wilkinson
The grave of Richard Wilkinson

Richard Wilkinson had been born in Smyrna, now Izmir, in 1783 and died in Syros on 26th September, 1861. Records exist showing him as HBM Consul in Syros in 1838 , one of five consuls stationed in important cities throughout the fledgling Greek state, the others being in Patras, Pyrgos, Napoli and Piraeus. With the exception of the Patras Consul, their role was primarily trade, highlighting the commercial importance of the island of Syros at that point in its history.

The epitaph on Richard Wilkinson’s grave reads:

Sacred to the memory of
Richard Wilkinson Esqr.
H B M Consul in Syra and its
dependencies
Born in Smyrna Dec 12 1783
Died in Syra Sep 26 1861

The childern's grave of John and Helene Wilkinson
The children’s grave of John and Helene Wilkinson

The other Wilkinson family grave holds the tiny bodies of John Wilkinson and Helene Wilkinson; John died in October, 1855 aged just over 2 years, while Helene survived just a few days over 3 months of age and died in January, 1856, three months after the death of her elder brother. Were they Richard Wilkinson’s grandchildren, or possibly even his own children conceived late in life? Either way, the grave evokes a time of great sorrow for Richard Wilkinson and his family.

One can only imagine the added heartache that the misspelt epitaph would have caused:

Sacred
to the memory of
John Wilkinson
born Aug. 1, 1853 died Oct. 27, 1855
and of
Helene Wilkinson
born Oct. 17, 1855 died Jan. 28, 1856
Suffer the little children to come unto
me, and forbid them not for such is the
Kingdom of Godt (sic)
Mark X, 14

Syra New British Cemetery
Syra New British Cemetery

During the First World War, Britain was fighting in two campaigns in the region, one against the Turks at Gallipoli, the other against the allied German, Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian forces on the Macedonian front. The seaborne lines of communication and supply for these campaigns ran through the Aegean Sea, and the islands of the Cyclades were a favourite hunting ground of German submarines.  British war graves were to be found on several islands of the Cyclades, mostly containing the bodies of sailors and soldiers washed ashore from torpedoed ships. Many came from the sinking of the transport ship ‘Arcadian on April 15th, 1917. In 1921, the small ‘Syra British Cemetery’ was extended to take the scattered graves from all the islands. It contains 111 British graves including those of 30 sailors. See the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website for detailed information.

Grave of an unknown sailor
Grave of an unknown sailor in the ‘Syra New British Cemetery’

Some forty years after the Bents’ travels in the Cyclades, another British traveller, Vincent Clarence Scott O’Connor, retraced the footsteps of the Bents through the islands and drew upon Theodore’s experiences and writings. O’Connor’s book, ‘Isles of the Aegean’, was published in 1929. While following Theodore to the village of Langada on the island of Amorgos, O’Connor met a kafeneion (café) owner whose grisly account supplements the history of the ‘Syra New British Cemetery’:

. . . I went over to the Kapheion, where the life of every little town and village in Greece moves upon the surface. The owner joined us at a table and began to talk of his experiences during the Great War. “During the war,” he said, “English ships constantly passed up and down the Aegean to Salonica, Egypt and India. Some were sunk, and we became accustomed, even here in Amorgos which was out of the way of their traffic, to finding the bodies of their dead floating on the sea. One of these ships, the Arcadian, was torpedoed off Siphnos, and one day as I walked along the cliffs at Acroteri with my gun, looking for partridge, I saw a cask floating on the sea. I got a boat and went out to it, and found the bodies of two British soldiers in khaki who had been drowned. I brought them ashore and buried them, together with eight others, who had been cast upon the rocks one by one. I got the Papa to come with me and recite the burial service over their remains, which he willingly did for they were Christian men. We desired their souls to rest in peace. Their identification discs I handed to the Greek control at Livadhi. Two years after these events British officers came here from Syra, photographed the graves I had made, measured their distance from the sea, and took away their bones for burial in the British cemetery on that island. But I found afterwards that the body of one man had been overlooked, and there were other fragments that had come on shore; these I carried up on my back to our cemetery here and buried them, asking the Papa once more to read the service over them; and for this I paid him. I was glad to do these things, for they were Englishmen, and Christians.”

I never managed to find the final resting place of that last man buried in the Langada cemetery – maybe you can be more successful – let us know.

Langada cemetery
Langada cemetery, Amorgos, where the last British body washed ashore from the ‘Arcadian’ was given a Christian burial

Theodore and the Tsabouna (video)

The sound of the tsabouna, or the Greek bagpipe.

The strains of music from this instrument would have been very familiar to Theodore and Mabel as they journeyed from island to island. At the time of their travels, the tsabouna (sometimes sambouna and various spellings) was still one of the most popular folk instruments for the islanders. Its prominence probably linked to some degree with the goats and sheep the islanders were raising.

Every part of the animal was used. The milk was used to produce the delicious mizithra cheese enjoyed by the Bents, while the meat formed the key element of many local dishes that we still enjoy today – even the entrails were used for the ubiquitous dish, kokoretsi, and the Easter soup, magiritsa. The wool and hide, of course, found many uses.

Maybe somebody, hundreds, or even thousands, of years ago, scratched their head searching for other uses for the goat’s inedible skin. With a gurgling, a squealing and a wailing, the tsabouna was born.

Theodore was never too adoring of the melancholy sound of the instrument. ‘that wretched Grecian substitute for the bagpipe’ he wrote on Anafi, and in Karpathos he describes it as ‘a species of bagpipe, being a goatskin with the hairs left on, which palpitates like a living body when filled with air. These instruments are romantic enough when played by shepherds on the hillside or in the village square as an accompaniment to the dance, but they are intolerable in the tiny cottages where women tread their flannel.

Theodore Bent’s ‘sabouna’ from Karpathos in the Collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford (1903.130.23).

Despite his apparent dislike for the tsabouna, one does wonder whether he really had a sneaking admiration for it. While in Karpathos, he acquired his own tsabouna and brought it back to England where, after his death, it eventually found its way to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Mabel has left quick note of the instrument as they heard it in Olymbos, Greek Easter time 1885: “We then went all together to a ball in the outer room of the church. We sat in a heap of people in the middle and round the edge sat mothers, each with a babe and a string of men screwed round in the narrow space left, preceded by the sampouna, pronounced sambouna, or bagpipe…” (From Mabel Bent’s Greek Chronicles, Vol 1, 2006, page 105)

Did Theodore ever learn to play this wretched Grecian substitute for a bagpipe – we’ll never know – but it would be nice to think he at least tried!

During the 20th century the tsabouna’s popularity faded and it’s only in recent years that a small number of traditional musicians has embraced the instrument and is bringing about its revival. One of these musicians is Yannis Pantazis who crafts his own instruments and demonstrates them in his artisan workshop in Santorini. Yannis is an outstandingly versatile musician who fell in love with the tsabouna on first hearing before he even knew what it looked like. Ever since, he has devoted his life’s work to the plaintive-sounding Greek bagpipe and the other instruments in his collection such as the lyre, the panpipes and the flute as well as traditional percussion instruments. Pop in and see him if you’re in Santorini – you will undoubtedly end up ‘gigging’ with him as he demonstrates and enthusiastically talks about the history and mythology attached to each instrument.

There’s a final twist in this tale of Theodore and the tsabouna. On the 11th January 1884, he and Mabel came ashore in the south of Santorini having travelled by sail-boat from the neighbouring island of Anafi. They landed near the small church of Aghios Nikolaos, ‘a little white thing under a red rock’ wrote Mabel. Taking a rough track, after some difficulties, they finally reached the hill-top village of Akrotiri just before dusk. Eating only what they’d carried from Anafi, they slept the night in the tower of the Venetian castle.

That very tower, known as La Ponta, was the first workshop of Yannis Pantazis where he constructed and played the instrument seemingly both loved and abhorred by Theodore. Yannis had never heard of the Bents but he believes Theodore’s accounts of the tsabouna are some of the earliest records we have in modern times of the playing of the instrument.

La Ponta has cast a powerful spell over the course of the past 130 years, bringing into its orbit, two key figures, generations apart – one who experienced and documented the popularity of the tsabouna in its heyday, the other spearheading the vanguard of the renaissance of the instrument today.

One hopes Theodore would have approved!

Discover more about Yannis Pantazis, his workshop and performance space

SYMPOSION by La Ponta Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/symposionsantorini

SYMPOSION website at https://www.symposionsantorini.com

Woodcock and mizithra

Gerald Brisch’s blog ‘Mabel’s Menus: the culinary notes of an archaeologist‘ sheds a fascinating light on an otherwise little-known area of the Bents’ lives.

Of course, back home in London, Theodore and Mabel would have dined very well. Unfortunately, Mabel’s chronicles only cover their travels and it’s a shame we know nothing about their day-to-day lives when they were not on their travels. They almost certainly would have had house servants and one doubts they would have cooked for themselves, but we have little insight into what gastronomy they may have enjoyed at home.

However, we DO know from Theodore’s writings, and from Mabel’s chronicles, that food and gastronomy were high on their list of survival strategies on many of their arduous journeys.

The Bents were clearly partial to woodcock and Theodore writes enviously while delayed in Milos waiting for the steamer:

We frequently visited Consul Brest, and had interesting conversations on Melos. Moreover he gave us an excellent pot of vegetable-marrow and almond jam to help us in our evil day; but we looked grudgingly at some woodcock on his stairs, which we longed for, and could not get, as they were to be sent to Syra by the steamer; and it was our one consolation in the eventual delay to learn that all these woodcock went bad and had to be thrown away.

We certainly know that, during the Greek explorations, the local mizithra cheese was something they relished. As Theodore wrItes:

Ios is celebrated for its flocks and herds, and of all islands Ios is the most celebrated for its mysethra, ‘food for the gods,’ as they call it. It is simply a curd made of boiled sheep’s milk, strained and pressed into a wicker basket called tyrobolon, just as they are spoken of in the ‘Odyssey’; from this basket it gets a pretty pattern before being turned out on to a plate. When eaten with honey it is truly delicious. I have tasted the same in Corsica called broccio but not so good as those of Ios; in fact, the mysethra of the neighbouring islands does not approach that of Ios — there is something in the pasturage which produces the proper flavour. They make mysethra cakes, but they are inferior to the original thing, and the peasants most frequently salt them, in which condition they are perfectly horrid.

Some of this excellent mysethra we had for our breakfast next morning, and some of it, together with cold fish and plenty of wine, the demarch put into a basket for us to take with us on an expedition … The three brothers and the three girls went down with us to the harbour, where our boat was waiting, bringing with them a fresh mysethra, wine, and figs for our journey.

And on Kea, Theodore writes:

The people at the convent, the old man and his granddaughters, who till the ground around and look after the church, were most hospitably inclined, and provided us with an excellent mysethra, hot and fresh, for our midday meal, and we had the further charm of watching it made. They poured fresh goats’ milk into boiling whey and then squeezed it and compressed it into a wicker basket until it was compact and beautifully white

The following video is a portrait of Manolis Farm Guesthouse on Naxos, featuring the making of traditional mizithra cheese. Produced, filmed and edited by Anneke Verschave.

Stay at Manolis Farm Guest House on Naxos.

Buy mizithra and feta products from Amazon.

Read about mizithra cheese on Wikipedia.