We all know that books attract to us like iron filings to a magnet, and that, mysteriously, over the decades, the poles reverse, and they fall away, mostly unmissed. Their residue? – more than likely some brown envelope stuffed with futureless bookplates.
Here is one, it came to the Bent Archive the other day (late November 2019) after a casual search online. It is the bookplate of Robert Westley Hall-Dare (1789-1836), the 1st, the explorer Mabel Bent’s grandfather. (Tradition had it that the eldest boy would subsequently have the same name, thus RWHD II (1817-1866) was Mabel’s father; RWHD III, her brother (1840-1876); RWHD IV, her nephew (1866-1939); and RWHD V (fifth and last, 1899-1972) her great-nephew. Pedants will have spotted ‘Westly’ for ‘Westley’ – it’s no typo; early family members were flexible.)
There was substantial wealth in the Hall-Dare family – rich estates in distant sugar-lands and not-so-distant Essex. Eton and Oxford boys, the Hall-Dares had lots of books, and bookplates for them. For their coat-of-arms, assembled from various matrimonial alliances (Dare, Hall, Westley/ Westly, Eaton, King, Grafton, Mildmay, et al.), we have only to turn to page 263 of Burke’s 1884 edition (London) of The general armory of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales; comprising a registry of armorial bearings from the earliest to the present time.
No doubt there will be those now in candlelit studies, ticking grandfather clocks, cigars, brandy glasses on green-baize tables, who will be waiting for a description. Here it is in full:
“Dare (Hall-Dare, Newtownbarry, co. Wexford, and Theydon Bois, Co. Essex). Quarterly, 1st and 4th, az. a lion ramp. ar. betw. three lozenges or, each charged with an increscent gu. in chief a cross crosslet gold, for Dare; 2nd and 3rd, sa. on a chev. engr. betw. three battle-axes erect or, as many eagles displ. of the field, for Hall. Crests — For Dare: A demi lion ramp. az. bezantée, charged on the shoulder with a cross crosslet or, and holding betw. the paws a lozenge charged with an increscent as in the arms; for Hall: A horse’s head couped sa. semée of mullets or, armed ppr. bridled ar. on the head two ostrich feathers of the first and third, and holding in the mouth a battle-axe or. Motto — Loyauté sans tache.”
The motto is archaic French; nothing to do with troubling Victorian moustaches: Fairbairn (Crests of the Families of Great Britain and Ireland, 1905, part II, page 47) gives us “Loyalty without spot” – unblemished loyalty, large words to live up to, or not.
In the news once more, the seemingly persistent vicissitudes of the once-venerable Thos Cook & Sons (and all so symptomatic of British management for decades, especially in terms of brand stewardship) have sent the Bent Archive (late August 2019) back to Mabel’s diaries for references to the eponymous tour operator – for the couple, like thousands, tens of thousands, of travellers– relied upon Thomas Cook (1808-1892) for their occasional Nilotic episodes in the 1880s and ‘90s. The entrepreneur began his Egyptian tours in 1869.
Some background; Jan Morris, none better: “Thomas Cook, the booking clerk of the Empire… and ‘leave it to Cook’s’ had gone into the language. Cook’s had virtually invented modern tourism, and their brown mahogany offices, with their whirring fans and brass tellers’ cages, were landmarks of every imperial city. They held the concession for operating steamers on the River Nile: all the way up to Abu Simbel the banks of the river were populated by Cook’s dependents…’ (‘Pax Britannica, The Climax of an Empire’. London 1998, page 64)
The Bents’ first reference to the firm is in early 1885. Theodore and Mabel are off to explore the, then Turkish, Dodecanese, but opt to start with the steamer from Marseilles to Alexandria, via the Straits of Messina, and a brief detour to Egypt. Mabel busies herself with her diary:
“In the evening of Saturday [17th January 1885] we went out to see Stromboli. We could dimly distinguish the fire but when lightning swept low on the sea behind it the whole black form of the island was shown. We went very slowly, whistling through the Straits of Messina. We ought to have been in Alexandria on Tuesday but only got to the desired port about 2 o’clock on Wednesday [21st January], quite as glad to get into the Land of Egypt as ever the Children of Israel were to get out. We had our little feelings as we sat in a boat with a Union Jack and ‘Cook’s Tours’ upon it. We got through the custom-house very well and my box of photographic things was never opened anywhere though it was hastily put into a box with ‘Matière Explosive, Dynamite’ upon it.” (‘The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Volume 2, Africa’. Oxford 2012, page 6)
Moving on from the port of the famous Library, a few pages further in her diary Mabel details their sightseeing around Cairo – and, of course, at the Sphinx and its sentinels. Then, as now, tourists everywhere are suspended by their heels and well shaken; Mabel, in charge of the Bent coffers, is having none of it: “Monday 26th [January 1885]. By the bye, [Thomas] Cook, when asked, would send us to the Pyramids for £3 and I think we only paid £1 and 1 franc.” (‘The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Volume 2, Africa’. Oxford 2012, page 11)
The Bents’ first visit to Egypt was carefree and fun; Mabel’s diary pages read whimsically and breathless in 1885. Not so in 1898. Theodore’s (early, aged 45) death in May 1897 – Jubilee year – deprived Mabel of the focus for her life: the need to be somewhere else remained, but now with whom? And why? Typical of her she made plans immediately to visit Egypt on a ‘Cook’s’ tour in the winter of 1898 and chronicled the trip, ending with a return via Athens. The melancholy heading she gives this section of her diary is – ‘A lonely useless journey’. Her writing reveals her understandable depression. It makes unhappy reading, contrasting so markedly with her opening thrill of being in Cairo on that first visit with Theodore in 1885.
No doubt encouraged by her relatives, Mabel elected to put together for herself a ‘Cook’s Tour’ to Egypt and the Nile. But, often a mistake to revisit sites of earlier happiness, Mabel’s Egyptian pages echo a series of muted contrasts, sighs, and signs of near despair. That image of a confident, smiling Mabel climbing the Giza Pyramids on her birthday in 1885 is not the one that reappears as she groans ‘so sadly to Mr. Aulich’ of the Cairo Hôtel d’Angleterre, or rides ‘alone and unknown and unknowing’ around the great sites.
The famous travel company, however, is soon on the scene. They do their best to cheer her up: “Wednesday 19th [January 1898]. Port Said… We reached Ismailia about 10 p.m. I landed myself quite unaided and got to bed while the people [Thomas] Cook’s man was looking after, and a lady met by a government officer, were still in the custom house. I took a walk in the town next morning and started for Cairo… I was horrified by a note from Mr. Aulich, the manager of the Hôtel d’Angleterre, to say neither he nor the [Grand] Continental had a room and one had been taken in the Hôtel du Nil. I dined among many Germans, with their napkins tucked under their chins, leaving their elbows on the table and picking their teeth. My cupboard had such smoky coats hung in it that I dared not put in my dresses. Friday 21st [January 1898]. I went and groaned so sadly to Mr. Aulich that a garret was found for me – no bell or electric light – and thither I took myself before dinner. As I was in the Mouski, I thought I could walk in the bazaars so I put on my hat and made the best of my opportunity. Saturday 22nd [January 1898]. I went to Cook’s arsenal and chose a saddle to come with me with one of my own stirrups. On Saturday also I did all my final shopping and remembered when we were last here (or last but one). How we laughed …” (‘The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Volume 2, Africa’. Oxford 2012, page 268)
A few days later, Mabel takes, on one of Cook’s fantasy barges, to the river – that river – that has fed Egypt for millennia: “Tuesday 25th [January 1898]. Embarked on ‘Rameses III’, a very comfortable ship. I had a tiny cabin, the last one to starboard, but made myself very snug; the passengers chiefly American. About 20 English, of whom 13 with strong Scotch accents, and a few Germans. All the Germans for Wadi Halfa and none of the Americans or Scotch. Cook’s programme was carried out daily, it being announced at dinner the night before. It was very strange the first day riding alone and unknown and unknowing in such a troop. (‘The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Volume 2, Africa’. Oxford 2012, page 269)
Mabel is writing on her Nile cruise boat. By 1904 the Cook Nile fleet comprised all these paddle-steamers (P.S.) for First Class passengers: ‘Rameses’ (236x30ft); ‘Rameses the Great’ (221x30ft); ‘Rameses III’ (200x28ft); ‘Amasis’ (170x20ft); ‘Prince Abbas’ (160×20 ft); ‘Tewfik’ (160x20ft); ‘Memnon’ (131x19ft). The steam ‘dahabeahs’ included the ‘Serapis’ (125x18ft); ‘Oonas’ (110x18ft); ‘Nitocris’ (103x15ft); and ‘Mena’ (100x18ft). Although Cook’s still have records for most of their steamers that travelled the Nile between 1890-4, they have no details for the period 1895-1900 and no booking records for Mabel’s journeys have been found (Cook’s Company Archivist, pers. comm., 2012).
Over the next few weeks (February 1898), Mabel makes several more references to Cooks as she visits the great sites and sights. The company, it seems, provides all comforts and care: “Thursday, February 3rd . Medinet Habou, Colossi, Dier el Bahàri, Gourna Ramesseum, and after tea I did the Luxor Temple alone; so nice and quiet and much less lonely than among so many strangers. Up to this we had awfully cold weather. I had, besides the Cook’s blanket and quilt, 2 blankets of my own, a shawl, dressing gown, newspaper, cloak and Ulster on my bed.” (The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Volume 2, Africa. Oxford 2012, page 270)
On 22 February 1898 she has a visit by the famous man himself: “Reached Luxor Tuesday evening, but did not go to live ashore at the Luxor Hotel till Wednesday. Mr. Cook came on board that evening with Major and Mrs. Griffiths, off his dahabeyah ‘Cheops’, which we had been towing all day. (‘The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Volume 2, Africa’. Oxford 2012, page 273)
Although with only a year to live, Mabel’s ‘Mr. Cook’ here is John Mason Cook (1834-1899), the only son of the founder, Thomas. The Luxor Hotel, to the east of Luxor Temple, was established by Cooks to accommodate the increasing number of tour groups along the Nile.
After Theodore’s death Mabel met the designer Moses Cotsworth in the Middle East and provided another Cook’s story. Moses had sailed to Beirut in December 1900 to visit the Sun Temple at Baalbek. In Beirut, he was ‘stranded in quarantine’ at Thomas Cook’s travel bureau. It was too late in the season for tourists to attempt the overland journey to Jerusalem and he was unable to afford a private guide. While waiting there he overheard a conversation between some other travellers who were also trying to attempt the same trip. Professor G. Frederick Wright and his son, Fred, were talking to Rossiter S. Scott from Baltimore, USA. They all wished to travel to Jerusalem. Wright invited Cotsworth to join their party as between them, and Scott, they could afford to hire a guide. The party set out for Damascus by the narrow-gauge railway over the mountains of Lebanon taking a slight detour for Cotsworth to visit Baalbek. By 17th December they had reached Damascus and organised a caravan of mules to carry them to Jerusalem. They had no tents but ‘depended on finding shelter wherever we should happen to be.’ In Hineh they sought shelter in the house of a Russian priest and had to remain there for two days to escape a snowstorm. Once on the move again they passed Lake Huleh where they were accosted by a Bedouin gentlemen who spoke English and asked them to drink coffee with him. The party then planned to visit the southern end of the Dead Sea. Wright recounted that ‘In this we were joined by Mrs. Theodore Bent, whose extensive travels with her husband in Ethiopia, southern Arabia, and Persia, had not only rendered her famous but fitted her in a peculiar manner to be a congenial and helpful travelling companion.’
Cook’s, of course, went bust inevitably and finally in September 2019 and future Mabels will no longer take to their beds, board, berths, flights, guides, and countless other services. Nor will their agents still greet them, smiling, at stations, harbour-sides, arrival gates, and pullman halts. Never more (unless reincarnated) will there be, Morris again, “Thomas Cook, the booking clerk of the Empire…”? All aboard? All abroad?
Mabel’s diary extracts are from Volume 2 of her Chronicles.
VIDEO – Manolis Pelekis: A lament for the great tsabouna player from Anafi.
The Bent Archive has been slow with its tribute to the late Manolis Pelekis (†2019) – legendary Anafiot citizen, musician and tsabouna player; for many decades no Anafi island event (Greek Cyclades, east of Santorini) was ever complete without his plaintive accompaniment…
Theodore and Mabel Bent, tsabouna serenaded, travelled in the Cyclades in 1883/4, recording many occasions of musical evenings in their writings; here is Mabel in her diary in early 1884 making reference to an Anafi ball (probably hearing somewhere the skirls of the tsabouna): “After dinner a ﬁne tall handsome niece of Matthew’s called Evtimia Chalaris [appeared], dressed in a beautiful old costume of silk, violet ﬂowered brocade skirt, green velvet bodice, gold embroidered stomacher and a short pink satin jacket edged round the cuffs and down the front with pink fur… There was a regular ball and the Demarch danced most actively.”
The Matthew referred to is the Bent’s long-serving assistant Matthew Simos, who was born on Anafi.
A year later, 1885, Theodore Bent acquired a tsabouna of his own – it is now on display in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. The couple were great collectors of things to make music with – wherever they travelled to. The British Museum has some of their instruments from Zimbabwe, and the Pitt Rivers also holds a lyra from Karpathos and various Cycladic pipes made from eagle bones, and other items. It’s time for a themed display with musical offerings for enthusiasts.
The main difference to the instrument played by Manolis Pelekis (over 100 years later) is that Bent’s Oxford tsabouna lacks the poignant brass cross on the chanter…
RIP Kyrie Manolis; listen to him play…
(The video of Manolis is an excerpt from a longer YouTube film you can see here.)
Coincidentally, on Santorini, just two hours east of Anafi (although it took the Bents close to twenty), you will find the musician Yannis Pantazis who crafts his own instruments and demonstrates them in his artisan workshop in Santorini, at SYMPOSION by La Ponta, in the traditional village of Megalochori.
Happy anniversary. Today (2 August 2019) is Theodore and Mabel’s wedding anniversary – they married (he 26, she 31) near Mabel’s family seat (Co. Wexford) on this day in 1877, in the little church of Staplestown, Co. Carlow.
The couple were perfectly matched and formed a happy, childless partnership, spent exploring for nearly the next 20 years the Eastern Mediterranean, Africa and Arabia, until Theodore’s untimely death in May 1897, returning from east of Aden – as fatal then as now.
Mabel was brusque, pragmatic, robust, fearless, obsessive and totally dedicated to Theodore’s work – their work – as expedition quartermaster, photographer, and chronicler. She was also to the right of fanatical. Theodore died in days, and Mabel found herself equally abruptly adrift – she turned to her faith and spent several years rootling around Palestine, soon becoming embroiled in the early doings of the Anglo-Israeli Association (various aliases) and remained a member for 30 years until her death in 1929. (One of the many archaeological ironies is that co-adherents desecrated the ‘Hill of Tara’ (Co. Meath, and just a few kms south-east of Mabel’s birthplace) in the early 1900s, looking for the ‘Ark of the Covenant’; and there is the on-going controversy about ‘The Bethel Seal’ – did Mabel plant it as a love-token for her dead spouse?)
Arguably, none of this detracts, in the end, from Mabel’s Herculean (Amazonian?) efforts to support Theodore, and contribute to the many successes of their adventures in the field, from Aksum to Zimbabwe.
And the reason for the anniversary nod to her, anyway, is just to point out this aspect of Mabel’s nature (and he that is without, etc.), and note the arrival at the Bent Archive (thanks to Anna Cook) of a signed and incompletely dated card from Mabel to Charlotte Bellingham Wrench (addressed to her fine house, Killacoona, Ballybrack, Co. Dublin), asking if she (Mabel) could forward a magazine (presumably anti-AIA) to Lawrence Roberts, ‘our secretary’ (and committed AIAist), and write to ‘that man’ (Mabel could be a dogged and ruthless adversary).
The year is hard to make out from the postmark, but thanks to John Enfield, President and Journal Editor of the British Postmark Society (pers. comm., July 2019), we have it catalogued as 1909. Mabel was in full voice and causing trouble in Jerusalem; unswerving in her views, she had just published her ‘Anglo-Saxons from Palestine; or, The imperial mystery of the lost tribes’ (1908, London: Sherratt & Hughes) – it is an absurd tract, and, fortunately, almost impossible to read or obtain today.
Never mind, ‘Ní bheidh a leithéid ann arís – Her like will not be seen again’ (as goes the Irish epitaph later selected for one of Mabel’s great-nieces). She is buried with Theodore in St Mary’s, Theydon Bois, outside London, go visit her…
Death of a noted Baildonian – Theodore Bent, 5 May 1897
Theodore Bent died on this day (5 May) in 1897. The adventurer was susceptible to malarial infections ever since his visit to Andros in the Cyclades in 1884. The diary of his wife Mabel, his permanent travel companion, records this initial event: “Wednesday [12 March 1884, Gavrio, Andros]. I did not go to bed or undress last night. I had no bed to go to and T’s temperature was a little over 104. I rolled myself up in my fur cloak and screwed myself up on the corner of the bed and would have been more comfortable if there had been no ﬂeas. The doctor came last night and this morning. He says it is from cold. I don’t know what it is… The doctor, who constantly strolled in and screamed at T, is only an old man with some knowledge of herbs. He wanted to give T kina and was not at all satisﬁed that quinine was the same thing.” [The Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Vol. 1, 50-51, Archaeopress 2006]
This predisposition did not prevent Bent from risking his health in dangerous conditions in the Levant, Africa and the Middle East for the next 13 years, until, on his last explorations, he and Mabel found themselves malaria victims and stretcher-cases east of Aden in the spring of 1897. Mabel’s book Southern Arabia (1900) has the full, and very sad story. Thanks to their long-term Anafiote dragoman, Matthew Simos, the couple were taken by boat back to Aden, where they recovered somewhat in the infirmary there (their hospital bill has outlasted them both).
After a few weeks they were fit enough to travel, and an unnamed steamer took them via Suez to Marseilles. It seems that southern France disagreed with Theodore and his malarial symptoms returned. Alarmed, Mable rushed with her patient by train and ferry to their London home, where he died a few days later on 5 May 1897. On Theodore’s death certificate, Dr A. Elliot M.D. registered that the cause of death was “Malaria 6 weeks, Pneumonia 5 days”. The recurrence of fever as the predominant symptom tends to suggest that Theodore’s illness on his final tour was more likely to have been malaria rather than other diseases such as pneumonia or dysentery, although it would be consistent with other infections such as typhoid: there would seem to be no reason to question the diagnosis.
His early death (he was just 45) prompted eulogies in America and Europe, such was his reputation as a cavalier explorer and archaeologist. His many achievements can be seen via this link. It seems appropriate to quote from (among dozens of obituaries) the following from his local newspaper, The Shipley Times of Saturday, 15 May 1897 (the town of Shipley is a few miles from Bradford and Baildon, where Theodore grew up; the paper also misinform us of Bent’s place of birth incidentally):
“Death of a noted Baildonian – The death recently took place at his house in Great Cumberland Place, London, of Mr Theodore Bent, the well-known traveller and archaeologist. He was the only son of the late Mr James Bent, of Baildon, and was born in 1852 in the house at Low Baildon now occupied by Mr Smith Feather. Mr Bent was educated at Malvern Wells, Repton School, and Wadham College, Oxford, where he took his honours in the history school. After his marriage, in 1877, to Mabel, daughter of the late Mr Robert Westley Hall-Dare, D.L., of Newtonbarry House, County Wexford, and Wennington House, Essex, he, with his energetic and accomplished wife, spent several months each year in exploring little known districts and sites, from which he never failed to reap a rich harvest of geographical and archaeological knowledge. Mr Bent was an excellent linguist; he spoke modern Greek like a native. One of his earliest visits was to the Republic of San-Marino, on which he wrote an interesting little volume. He travelled extensively in Greece and Asia Minor, and in 1885 published a volume on “The Cyclades; or life among the Insular Greeks”. He afterwards visited the Bahrein Islands, on which he contributed a paper to the Royal Geographical Society. Perhaps he is best known by his investigations of the Zimbabwe ruins in Mashonaland, which he and Mrs Bent visited in 1891. The narrative of this interesting expedition has gone through several editions. In 1893 they visited Abyssinia, and made some valuable investigations among the ruined cities of that country. The last and fatal visit was the third visit to Southern Arabia, where Mr Bent succeeded in adding considerably to our knowledge of the Hadramut country. In 1895-96 the western shores of the Red Sea and the north of Suakim was the scene of Mr and Mrs Bent’s explorations, and here amongst the coast some remarkable remains of old Roman gold workings were discovered. Thus year after year Mr Bent continued to do good work for archaeology and geography, and he has at last fallen a martyr to his zeal. Mr Bent’s death will be a great shock to a wide circle of friends, to whom his kindly, genial, unaffected disposition had greatly endeared him. He was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and of the Royal Geographical Society; of the latter he had been a member of Council. On October 11th, 1894, Mr Bent delivered a lecture to the members of the Bradford Philosophical Society on his travels in Arabia.”
Mabel was devastated by the loss, and her own full potential as an explorer and photographer was never to materialise; she died in 1929. The couple are buried together in the Hall-Dare (Mabel’s Essex and Irish family) plot in St Mary’s, Theydon Bois. Go visit, take some flowers.
It seems Theodore Bent visited Cycladic Amorgos, briefly, twice, once for Orthodox Easter in 1883 (April 28 – 1 May, Old Style) and then again in February the following year. Mrs Bent presumably joined her husband for the first visit (although Mabel does not make this clear), after they had been to Tinos for the “great pilgrimage on the Greek March 29th, that is in the beginning of our April 1883”. There are no first-hand accounts of Amorgos in Mabel’s Chronicles, but she makes clear in her 1884 diary that “During the last week of my stay [on Antiparos], T went to Amorgos. I was not well and remained for further rest. I joined [him] on the steamer Eptanisos at Paroikia on Ash Wednesday, February 27th, after having waited a day and a night as the weather was stormy”. Theodore chose to end his great book on the Cyclades (1885) with an account of these two visits, suggesting how much he/they enjoyed this lovely and fascinating island that acts as a stepping stone between the distinct styles of the Cyclades and the Dodecanese.
Bent’s Amorgos chapter in The Cyclades, or Life Among the Insular Greeks is well known and can be easily found freely on line. Less well known is the article he wrote first for Macmillan’s Magazine, Easter Week in Amorgos (1884, Vol. 50 (May/Oct), 194-201; reprinted in Littell’s Living Age, Vol. 162 (1884), 402ff), and on which he generously based his chapter, no doubt supplementing the latter with material from his second visit (a Cycladic figurine he acquired there is in the British Museum). Thus a longish, edited, extract from the Macmillan’s piece follows, and will, we trust, entertain and perhaps inspire an Easter visit for 2020!
EASTER WEEK IN AMORGOS – J. Theodore Bent
“This, the remotest island of the Cycladic group, and the bulwark, so to speak, of the modern Greek kingdom, would well repay a visit at any other time than Easter week, for its quaint costumes and customs, and unadulterated simplicity; but Easter week is the great festival of Amorgos, and is unlike Easter in other parts of Greece, for the Amorgiotes at this time devote themselves to religious services and observances, which now scandalise the more advanced lights of the Hellenic Church, and greatly annoy the liberal-minded Methodios, Archbishop of Syra, in whose diocese Amorgos is situated, and who cannot bear the prophetic source for which this island is celebrated, and would stop it if he dared; but popular feeling, and the priests, who gain thereby, prevent him.
“The steamer now touches here once a week a dangerous enemy, indeed, to these primaeval customs, but pleasanter than a caique so we availed ourselves of it, and carried with us a letter of introduction to the Demarch of Amorgos from the head functionary in these parts, the Nomarch of the Cyclades. It is seldom calm between Amorgos and her neighbours; the full force of the Icarian sea runs into a narrow channel which separates her from some smaller islands. This fact, again, prior to the advent of the steamer, tended to keep the Amorgiotes to themselves.
“The first object which struck us was the costume of the elderly women; that wretched steamer has brought in western fashion now, so that the younger women scorn their ancestral dress, but the old crones still seem to totter and stagger beneath the weight of their traditional headgear. There is a soft cushion on the top of the head, a foot high at least, covered with a dark handkerchief, and bound over the forehead with a yellow one; behind the head is another cushion, over which the dark handkerchief hangs half way down the back, and the yellow handkerchief is brought tightly over the mouth so as to leave only the nose projecting, and is then bound round so as to support the hindermost cushion. This complicated erection rejoices in the name of ‘tourlos’, and is hideously grotesque, except when the old women go to the wells, and come back with huge amphorae full of water poised on the top of it, plying their distaffs busily the while, totally unconcerned about the weight on their heads. Naturally a head-dress such as this is not easy to change, and the old women rarely move it until their heads itch too violently from the vermin they have collected within. We only saw the rest of the old Amorgiote costume on a feast day; with the exception of the ‘tourlos’, the silks and brocades of olden days are abandoned in ordinary life.
“The demarch received us rather gruffly at first; he was busy with the weekly post which had arrived by our steamer. He distributes the letters, there being no postman in the island. But when his labours were over he regaled us with the usual Greek hospitality, with coffee, sweetmeats, and raki, and then prepared to lay out a programme for our enjoyment. ‘Papa Demetrios’, said he, ” is the only man who knows anything about Amorgos.” So the said priest was forthwith summoned, and intrusted with the charge of showing me the lions of Amorgos. ‘We had better visit the points of archaeological interest first’, said he. ‘Next week we shall be too busy with the festival to devote much time to them.’ So accordingly the three next days were occupied in visits to remote parts of the island, old sites of towns, old towers and inscriptions, whilst the world was preparing for the Easter feast.
“I do not propose to narrate the usual routine of a Greek Easter, the breaking of the long fast, the elaborately decorated lambs to be slaughtered for the meal, the nocturnal services, and the friendly greetings of these everybody knows enough; but I shall confine myself to what is peculiar to Amorgos, and open my narrative on a lovely Easter morning, when all the world were in their festival attire ready to participate in the first day’s programme.
“First of all I must take the reader to visit a convent dedicated to the Life-Saving Virgin (Chozobiotissa), the wonder of Amorgos. It is the wealthiest convent in Greece next to Megaspelaion, having all the richest lands in Amorgos and the neighbouring islands, besides possessions in Crete, in the Turkish islands, and elsewhere. The position chosen for this convent is most extraordinary. A long line of cliff, about two miles from the town, runs sheer down 1,000 feet into the sea; a narrow road, or ledge, along the coast leads along this cliff to the convent, which is built half way up. Nothing but the outer wall is visible as you approach. The church and cells are made inside the rock. This convent was founded by the Byzantine emperor, Alexius Comnenus, whose picture existed until lately, but they suffer here frequently from rocks which fall from above, one of which fell not long ago and broke into the apse of the church and destroyed the picture of the emperor.
“We entered by a drawbridge, with fortifications against pirates, and were shown into the reception room, where the superior, a brother of the member for Santorin, met us, and conducted us to the cells in the rock above, to the large storehouses below, and to the narrow church, with its five magnificent silver pictures, three of which were to be the object of such extraordinary veneration during Easter week. The position of this convent is truly awful. From the balconies one looks deep down into the sea, and overhead towers the red rock, blackened for some distance by the smoke of the convent fires; here and there are dotted holes in the rock where hermits used to dwell in almost inaccessible eyries. It is, geographically speaking, the natural frontier of Greece. Not twenty miles off we could see from the balcony the Turkish islands, and beyond them the coast of Asia Minor. Our friendly monks looked too sleepy and inert to think of suicide, otherwise every advantage would here be within their reach.
“Three of the five silver eikona in this church were to be the object of our veneration for seven days to come. One adorns a portrait of the Madonna herself, found, they say, by some sailors in the sea below, and is beautifully embossed and decorated with silver; one of St. George Balsaniitis, the patron saint of the prophetic source of Amorgos; and the other is an iron cross set in silver, and found, they say, on the heights of Mount Krytelos, a desolate mountain to the north of Amorgos, only visited by peasants, who go there to cut down the prickly evergreen oak which covers it as fodder for their mules.
“We were up and about early on Easter morning, the clanging of bells, and the bustle beneath our windows made it impossible to sleep. Papa Demetrios came in dressed exceedingly smartly in his best canonicals, to give us the Easter greeting. Even the demarch and his wife were more genial and gay. At nine o’clock we and all the world started forth on our pilgrimage to meet the holy eikons from the convent. The place of meeting was only a quarter of a mile from the town, at the top of the steep cliff, and here all the inhabitants of the island from the villages far and near were assembled to do reverence.
“I was puzzled as to what could be the meaning of three round circles like threshing floors, left empty in the midst of the assemblage. All round were spread gay rugs and carpets, and rich brocades; every one seemed subdued by a sort of reverential awe. Papa Demetrios and two other chosen priests, together with their acolytes, set forth along the narrow road to the convent to fetch the eikons, for no monk is allowed to participate in this great ceremony. They must stop in their cells and pray; it would never do for them to be contaminated by the pomps and vanities of so gay a throng. So at the convent door, year after year at Easter time, the superior hands over to the three priests the three precious eikons, to be worshipped for a week.
“A standard led the way, the iron cross on a staff followed, the two eikons came next, and as they wended their way by the narrow path along the sea the priests and their acolytes chanted montonous music of praise. The crowd was now in breathless excitement as they were seen to approach, and as the three treasures were set up in the three threshing floors everybody prostrated himself on his carpet and worshipped. It was the great panegyric of Amorgos, and of the 5,000 inhabitants of the island not one who was able to come was absent. It was an impressive sight to look upon. Steep mountains on either side, below at a giddy depth the blue sea, and all around the fanatical islanders were lying prostrate in prayer, wrought to the highest pitch of religious fanaticism. Amidst the firing of guns and ringing of bells the eikons were then conveyed into the town to the Church of Christ, a convent and church belonging to the monks of Chozobiotissa, and kept in readiness for them when business or dissipation summoned them to leave their cave retreat. Here vespers were sung in the presence of a crowded audience, and the first event of the feast was over. Elsewhere in Greece on Easter day dancing would naturally ensue, but out of reverence to their guests no festivities are allowed of a frivolous nature, and every one walks to and fro with a religious awe upon him.
“Monday dawned fair and bright as days always do about Easter time in Greece. Again the bustle and the clanging of bells awoke us early. There was a liturgy at the Church of Christ where the eikons were, and after that a priest was despatched in all hurry up to the summit of Mount Elias, which towers some 2,000 feet above the town. Here there is a small chapel dedicated to the prophet, and this was now prepared for the reception of the eikons by the priest and his men, and tables were spread with food and wine to regale such faithful as could climb so far. Meanwhile we watched what was going on below in the town, and saw the processions form, and the eikons go and pay their respects to other shrines prior to commencing their arduous ascent up Mount Elias. It was curious to watch the progress up the rugged slopes, the standard-bearer in front, the eikons and priests behind, chanting hard all the time with lungs of iron. Not so my friend the demarch, with whom I walked. His portly frame felt serious inconvenience from such violent exercise, so we sat for a while on a stone, and he related to me how in times of drought these eikons would be borrowed from the convent to make a similar ascent to the summit of Mount Elias to pray for rain, and how the peasants would follow in crowds to kneel and pray before the shrine.
“It is strange how closely the prophet Elias of the Christian Greek ritual corresponds to Apollo, the sun god of old; the name Elias and Helios doubtless suggested the idea, just as now St. Artemidos in some parts has the attributes of Artemis. When it thunders they say Prophet Elias is driving in his chariot in pursuit of dragons, he can send rain when he likes, like Zeus of ancient mythology, and his temples, like those of Phoebus Apollo, are invariably set on high, and visited with great reverence in times of drought or deluge.
“After the liturgy on Mount Elias the somewhat tired priests partook of the refreshments prepared for them, for Phoebus Apollo was very hot to-day, and the eikons were heavy, and my host, the demarch, enjoyed himself vastly, for his pious effort was over, and the descent was simple to him. All the unenergetic world was waiting below, but we who had been to the top felt immensely superior, and Papa Demetrios gaily chaffed the lazy ones on the way to vespers in the metropolitan church for their lack of religious zeal. Here the eikons spent the second night of their absence from home. I was very curious about the next day’s proceedings, for on Tuesday the eikons were to visit the once celebrated church of St. George Balsamitis, where is the prophetic source of Amorgos. So I left the town early with a view to studying this spot, and if possible to open the oracle for myself before the crowd and the eikons should arrive. It is a wild walk along a narrow mountain ridge to the Church of St. George, about two miles from the town. Here I found Papa Anatolios, who has charge of this prophetic stream, very busily engaged in preparing for his guests. A repast for twenty was being laid out in the refectory, and he said a great deal about being too much occupied when I told him I wished to consult his oracle.
“On entering the narthex Papa Anatolios still demurred much about opening the oracle for me, fearing that I intended to scoff; but at length I prevailed upon him, and he put on his chasuble and went hurriedly through the liturgy to St. George before the altar. After this he took a tumbler, which he asked me carefully to inspect, and on my expressing my satisfaction as to its cleanness he proceeded to unlock a little chapel on the right side of the narthex with mysterious gratings all round, and adorned inside and out with frescoes of the Byzantine school. Here was the sacred stream which flows into a marble basin, carefully kept clean with a sponge at hand for the purpose lest any extraneous matter should by chance get in. Thereupon he filled the tumbler and went to examine its contents in the sun’s rays with a microscope that he might read my destiny. He then returned to the steps of the altar and solemnly delivered his oracle. The priests of St. George have numerous unwritten rules, which they hand down from one to the other, and which guide them in delivering their answers. Papa Anatolios told me many of them. These and many other points Papa Anatolios told me, and I thanked him for letting me off so mercifully. To my surprise on offering him a remuneration for opening to me the oracle he flatly refused and seemed indignant.
“About midday we heard the distant chanting of the procession, and soon the three eikons and their bearers were upon us. After the liturgy was over and the religious visit paid, we had a very jolly party in the refectory. Papa Anatolios produced the best products of the island lambs, kids, fresh curdled cheese, wines, and fruits and it was not till late in the afternoon that we started on our homeward route, still chanting and still worshipping these strange silver pictures from the convent.
“We were all rather tired that evening on our return from the oracle, so next morning the bells failed to wake us early, and I was glad to learn that the eikons had started on a visit to a distant place where I had already been, Torlaki, where is an old round Hellenic tower; so during the early part of the day I strolled quietly about the town. I was strong enough that evening to walk down to the sea-shore to see the arrival there of the eikons, with their wonted accompaniment of chanting and festivity. The little harbour village was decked with flags, the caiques and brigs were also adorned, and a good deal of firing was going on in honour of the event.
“That night the eikons and I passed by the harbour certainly to my personal discomfort, for never in the course of my wanderings did I rest under a dirtier roof than that of Papa Manoulas. He is a proverbial Greek priest, having a family of eleven children; he keeps a sort of wineshop restaurant for sailors, and excused the dirtiness of his table by saying that men had been drunk in his house the night before. He cooked our dinner for us in his tall hat, cassock, and shirt sleeves, and then put me to sleep in a box at the top of a ladder in one corner of the cafe, which was redolent of stock-fish, and alive with vermin. I wanted no waking next morning, and was pacing the sea-shore long before the eikons had begun their day’s work ; it was fresh and bright everywhere except in Papa Manoulas’ hole.
“To-day was to be the blessing of the ships, and as every Amorgiote, directly or indirectly, is interested in shipping, it was the chief day in the estimation of most. When the procession reached the shore the metropolitan priest of the island entered a bark decorated with carpets and fine linen, carrying with him the precious eikon of the Life-Saving Madonna (Chozobiotissa); he was rowed to each ship in turn, and blessed them, whilst the people all knelt along the shore, and as each blessing was concluded a gun was fired as a herald of joy. The rest of the day was spent in revelry. I was glad not to be going to pass another night under Papa Manoulas’ roof, for I felt sure that it would be dirtier than ever. Friday and Saturday were passed by the eikons and priests in complimentary visits, and liturgies in the numerous churches in and around the town. I did not accompany them on these journeys, and persuaded Papa Demetrios to come off with me on an excursion, for he too was tired of these repeated ceremonials, and was not sorry to transfer his eikon to inferior hands. The week’s veneration for the eikons was at an end, and the Amorgiotes were now prepared for enjoyment. Every one knows the beauties of the Greek syrtos, as the dance goes waving round and round the planetree in a village square, now fast, now slow, now three deep, now a single line, and then the capers of the leader as he twists and wriggles in contortions. Here in Amorgos the sight was improved by the brilliancy of one or two old costumes. One lady especially was resplendent; her ‘tourlos’ was of green and red, her scarf an Eastern handkerchief such as we now use for antimacassars, coins and gold ornaments hung in profusion over her breast, her stomacher was of green and gold brocade, a gold sash round her waist, and a white crimped petticoat with flying streamers of pink and blue silk, pretty little brown skin shoes with red and green embroidery on them. She was an excellent dancer, too, a real joy to look upon. The men wore their baggy trousers, bright-coloured stockings, and embroidered coats; but the men of Amorgos are not equal to the women. The beauty of an Amorgiote female is proverbial.
“My stay in Amorgos ended thus gaily. Next day the relentless steamer called and carried me off to other scenes.”
For an excellent introduction to the Bents on Amorgos, see the site simply called The Cyclades.
Unmissable (if you can access it) – this 1958 episode of the BBC archaeology series ‘Buried Treasure’, in which Sir Mortimer Wheeler scrambles over the site of Great Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia). The 1891 explorer of this still-astonishing monument, Theodore Bent, is unfairly (only for this blog, of course) dismissed in Wheeler’s exposé as a ‘gullible antiquary’: Bent was paid to give some sort of explanation, and he did. ‘No ancient site in the world’, mutters Wheeler lugubriously through his pipe, ‘unless maybe for the Pyramids and Stonehenge, is more clogged than Zimbabwe with sticky romance…’ Wheeler explores the awe-inspiring stone ruins in the controversial company of Roger Summers, then Chairman of the Southern Rhodesia Historical Monuments Commission. The title of the episode is unhelpful – King Solomon’s Mines – but the programme is a delight for the fabulous black and white filming, and the sight of Wheeler in shorts chasing hippopotami. For modern interpretations of the Great Zimbabwe site, you must, of course, look elsewhere.
Greek Dress at the Hellenic Centre, London – 4 February until 2 March 2014 – with Bent references!
Marylebone, in Central London, might seem an unlikely place for an exhibition of Greek costume, but it is the home of the Hellenic Centre, a focus for philhellenes and London’s Greek community. From 4 February until 2 March 2014, there was a rare opportunity to see an impressive range of Greek dress outside its native land. As part of the event (on Friday 28 February, 7.15pm), Ann French, Textile Conservator at the Whitworth Art Gallery, the University of Manchester, used selected embroideries from the 1914 pioneering embroidery exhibition (click for the online catalogue) at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in London, to trace their individual collecting histories and reveal the different contexts, interpretations and values placed on them within UK based collections and museums. This exhibition, which drew on the leading collections of the day, primarily from the collection of Theodore and Mabel Bent and the archaeologists R M Dawkins & A J B Wace, of Greek Embroideries displayed, for the first time in the UK, historic Greek Embroideries as an art form. The exhibition features several of the Bent’s finest pieces and Ann refers to them in the last five minutes or so of her talk in a fascinating account of how, on Mabel’s death, one of her Karpathos frocks found its way back to Greece! (One other is in store at the V & A, and two more from Nisyros are untraced – if you have them, let us know!) The talk was called “Old Embroideries of the Greek Islands and Turkey: An Exhibition at the Burlington Fine Arts Club 1914: A Celebration and Commemoration”, and can be seen on the video linked here, entitled ‘Patterns of Magnificence’.
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’ 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
Divisional Manager Eastern
Born in Halifax Nova Scotia
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
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.
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.
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
Born in Smyrna Dec 12 1783
Died in Syra Sep 26 1861
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:
to the memory of
born Aug. 1, 1853 died Oct. 27, 1855
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
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.
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.
A superficially unremarkable photograph sent in recently by Anafi specialist Prof. Margaret Kenna contains a remarkable clue. The clue is a family name – Simos – on a plaque commemorating benefactors to the Association of Anafi Islanders (Greek Cyclades) in the early 1950s: a relatively prosperous family, thanks to one Matthaios Simos.
There is an archetype waiting for psychoanalysts to explore – the dragoman, the person you employ to facilitate your travel in foreign lands. Wiktionary helps here (if you want more, you are on your own): ‘From Middle English dragman, borrowed from Old French drugeman, from Medieval Latin dragumannus, from Byzantine Greek δραγομάνος (dragomános), from Arabic تُرْجُمَان (turjumān, “translator, interpreter”)’.
What type you get depends on your luck – from an Aristotle to a Zidane – and all travel narratives contain them, none more so than our great 19th-century accounts. And Theodore and Mabel Bent had an extraordinary one: not their first, Kostandinos Verviziotes (for the couple’s 1882/3 visit to Greece and Turkey), nor their second, George Phaedros from Smyrna, who started with the Bents as they left for the Cyclades in the winter of 1883. Theodore and Mabel engaged George on the recommendation of Mr Dennis at the Smyrna consulate. That he was only a moderate success may be inferred by Mabel’s initial lack of enthusiasm when he joins them again, at Ermoupolis, Syros, in December 1883. Apparently he enjoyed a drink, but he was also a grumbler and a terrible sailor – a distinct disadvantage when island-hopping, out of season, on small ﬁshing boats. By Naxos, a few weeks later, the Bents had had enough of him, and one day, high up in a mountain village, they ﬁnd themselves sitting in a warm room, and, “When Mr. Konstantinides our host came home he found 10 people drying their clothes, us two and Phaedros, Mr. Swan, and a man called Mantheos, a native of Anaphi who is to show Mr. Swan mines there…” George was dismissed on Naxos in January 1884 – with just five words in Mabel’s notebook: “We left Phaedros at Naxos”. The Bents went on, of course, to explore Anafi a few weeks later.
There is a sad letter (in English) from George folded into Mabel’s 1883/4 diary asking for remuneration, and although diversionary, no apologies are given for including it here, just skip it if you wish:
[C/O British Consulate Smyrna 1st February /84] Dear Mr Bent I am happy to learn from your favours of 20th January which I received on the 30th of the same, that both you and Mrs Bent are quite well. I have been always thinking of you how you managed with the continuation of your excursion, and how you got on with the unusual rough winter of this year exposing yourselves so, to the mercy and providence I dare say of God. As regards my passage to Smyrna after we departed, you will please learn that your hopes did not prove as expected for I did not escape of what I was fearing. The wretched steamer ‘Eptanisos’ which took you from Naxos on Monday the 7th of January 1884, did not come back to that island to pick me up for Syra until Wednesday the 9th January, (and about noon) and subsequently she kept going so slow, that I missed the Messageries steamer for Smyrna which was leaving Syra (bound for that town) on the same day. I have been waiting consequently six days in Syra and was obliged to spend almost all the money you gave me at Naxos, (viz: the 100 francs) that is to say in expenses for the Hotel in Syra, in changing my broken and shabby hat, and in paying for my passage or fare ticket to Smyrna which brought me home almost penniless. And my wife had already spent also, what I had sent her from Syra in buying some necessary things for the house, with the cause of the holidays etc. So my friends who expected me to return quite a rich man, contemplating, in their idea and opinion that I was getting £T5 [Turkish pounds] per day in consideration of the winter season travelling, were quite disappointed to ﬁnd that I was obliged and in need to borrow money off them. Mr Dennis also told me that he did not think it was right for me to pay out of my pocket my passage to Syra and back and the expenses for the delay in waiting you in Syra etc., etc. As regards the salary I do not exactly appreciate the opinion of my friends, but I think it is fair that you should make a little allowance for the winter season, that is to say if you do not ﬁnd it so inconvenient, so as to make it worth my while, as I am a fellow with a family as you know. I left Syra on the evening of Monday 14th January. I don’t know where you have spent that fearful evening and night but it was in my destiny to ﬁnd myself in a most violent gale, but fortunately in a brave Arab steamer with Greek captains which was ﬁghting with the elements of the nature that night and stand up like a giant against them. All the plates and glasses are broken and the water found its way in to the cabins. We overtook a steamer called ‘Simiotis’ and saw her bow deeped into the water and we thought she was going to be lost but we learnt that she turned back to Tinos. We kept up but we suffered until we faced the Bay of Smyrna. The impression of that night is still very brisk in my memory. But the necessity of a man is superior to the impression of fear. Although I foresee still bad weather going to be, I made up my mind to come and accompany you again and to be at Syra on the 16th February with the hopes that we shall ahoy the caïques and you will pay for my passage, etc. Please send through Mr. Binney some money for my travelling expenses, etc., enabling me thus to make my start. With my best regards to Mrs. Bent and Mr. Swan. I remain yours sincerely… George Phaedros.
This proved a letter in a bottle however and no reply to him is referenced. Within a few days of Phaedros’ abandonment, a whiskery Ariadne on Naxos, and Matthaios Simos (Mabel Bent spells him a multitude of ways over the next ﬁfteen years, but ‘Manthaios’, awkwardly, seems to predominate) gets the top job as dragoman for the Bents, and begins a partnership – friendship really – with Theodore and Mabel that continues until 1897 and Theodore’s death. Missing only two or three seasons, Theodore (using the English telegraph station at Ermoupolis to reach him) wires Matthaios from London that he might be, on such and such a date, at Syros, or Rhodes, or Chios, or Alexandria, or Port Said, or wherever, to act as their translator, guide, cook, lodgings ofﬁcer, victualler, foreman and general factotum. This small and wiry islander, who waited to marry until he had finished his career with the Bents, having by then sufficient resources, ‘plusios’ even, and a good catch. (As was the case with so many young Greeks who ventured far afield to escape difficult conditions back home.) Matthaios left his footprints in the sands of Southern Arabia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Egypt, Socotra, Yemen, as well as all around the Aegean.
It is fascinating to see in print and photographs how such a relationship developed. In his great book “The Cyclades”, this is Theodore in 1885: ‘My ﬁrst experiences [of the islands] were made with the assistance of a dragoman; but, on better acquaintance with the language, I learnt to despise his services, and took as servant a native of one of the islands, who became invaluable in assisting me to discover points of folklore which without him it would have been impossible to arrive at.’
In the Community ofﬁces of Anaﬁ, two hours’ ferry ride away and a little southeast of Santorini, the early registers of births (men only) record the arrival of Matthaios in 1846, son of a subsistence farmer, like nearly every other child. The chance that led him to Naxos and a meeting with the Bents in 1884, aged nearly forty, alters his life (there is a later reference by Theodore that he might have had a tobacco shop on the island as a younger man). In Mabel’s 1897 ‘Chronicle’, the year of her husband’s death, there is a list of travel costs payable, in Theodore’s hand. Matthaios’ wages for the trip to Socotra and Aden are £50, about £5000 today, and a huge sum for a Cycladic farmer at the turn of the 19th century; he is able to effectively retire to Anaﬁ, marry, have a family (his descendants are now in Athens and no Simoses remain on the island), and tell of his adventures in foreign lands as dragoman and friend to an extraordinary English couple. He died in the mid-1930s, ﬁve years after Mabel’s death.
Mabel took his photograph on several occasions, the final one in Bent’s last camp, on Socotra in 1897: Theodore is on the left, taking down notes for his arcane dictionary of Socotran dialects. As well as their assistant Ammar, an unmistakable English figure in a topee, one Ernest Bennett, sits to the right. And between the two, just in the background, and alas not clear, stands a middle-aged man in his working clothes… this is Matthaios Simos. (There is also another splendid image of him sitting on a Sudanese camel.)
There was another serendipitous meeting for Matthaios Simos. The writer Vincent Scott O’Connor travelled in the Cyclades in the 1920s and found his way to Anaﬁ. O’Connor had a copy of Bent’s book on the islands and jumped at the chance of an interview with Theodore’s famous (at least on Anaﬁ) dragoman. He records him one evening, up in Chora, “The story-teller relaxed from his labours; a ﬁne little old man with a curved nose and clean-cut features…” Manthaios tells of how he ‘saved’ the Bents from pirates on Samos in 1886: “At Samos,” he said, “there were pirates, who had made up their minds to kidnap the English travellers, and for that reason my master was unable to leave the island. It was I who circumnavigated their wiles… But it was not in these isles that we had our greatest adventures, it was in Arabia… Mrs. Bent was always eager to press on. One night we slept in a damp spot, and while there I had a dream in which I saw two horses and a chariot in Anaphe; but there was no driver, and one of the horses fell down and died. The chariot was overturned. My interpretation of the dream was that this portended a disaster to our party. But Bent only laughed at my fears. He said dreams were nothing but dreams. Nevertheless, as I expected, Mrs. Bent fell seriously ill of a fever which each day grew worse. She could ride no more, and the Arabs refused to carry a Christian, especially a woman. But the Sheikh put his shoulder to one end of the litter, as I did to the other; and so we carried her till the rest of them became ashamed and each took his turn. We arrived at the sea and the Sheikh sent out some milk for the lady, but she was so ill that she could not retain it and daily she became worse; yet she went on, saying that it was only a little fever, and she would not hear of our abandoning the journey… I decided then to act upon my own initiative, and a dhow having come into the harbour, I spoke to the Captain and contracted with him to take us to Aden. Then, for I knew how obstinate are these English, I went to Bent and said, ‘Kyrios, why not take ship to Aden?’ ‘Nonsense,’ he replied, ‘you know very well that there is no ship.’ ‘Maybe, Kyrios, but suppose that there were one, would you take it?’ ‘Well! Yes,’ he said, ‘I would, for she is very ill.’ I took him to the top of a hill and showed him the Dhow at anchor! So we started; but on arriving at Aden, there was a ‘quarantine’ and Madame was not allowed to land. The Governor however intervened in her favour and a doctor came at once to see her. He was only just in time, but her life was saved. It was after this that Bent himself began the illness that ended in his death… All were agreed that here was a great traveller, one like unto Odysseus himself.”
And the same, of course, must be said of the dragomános extraordinaire, Matthaios Simos, of Anafi in the Cyclades, and all points south-east!
(The excerpts above are mostly taken from ‘The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J. Theodore Bent, Vol. 1’, Archaeopress, Oxford, 2006)