During the long decline of the Byzantine empire, interrupted as it was by violent irruptions of barbarians, Greece was reduced to the status of obscure provinces in a lawless world. After 1204 Crusader knights each other fought over its towns, castles and islands, until in the fifteenth century the the long dark night of Ottoman rule began. Form that time onwards, Greece was usually by-passed by Western travellers on their way to Constantinople and the East by sea through the corsair infested archipelago. In such times, visitors to foreign parts were, of necessity, extraordinary characters: men of action or missionaries, not inclined by temperament to making meticulous record of what they saw.
"The Great Cistern of Europe"
One of the first of the modern Western adventurers to reach Athens was William Lithgow, a tailor from Lanark, Scotland; known as "Cut-lugged Willie" on account of an injury he had suffered at the hands of the outraged relatives of a lady. He found it advisable to flee his home town and seek his fortune in the Levant, in or near 1609. His understanding of geography seems to have been "approximate", since he thought that Athens was in the Peloponnese. He was dogged by a succession of mishaps, culminating in what has been described as "an unpleasant encounter with the Spanish Inquisition." Such a writer was more inclined to tell us how the people treated him than what he saw. Of Athens, he wrote: They have abundance of all things requisite for the sustenance of humane life, of which I had no small proof. For these Athenians, or Greeks, exceeding kindly banqueted me four days, and furnished me with necessary provision for my voyage to Creta; and also transported me by sea in a brigantine freely, and on their own charges to Serigo [Kythera], being forty-four miles distant. After my redounded thanks, they having returned, the contemplation on their courtesies brought me in remembrance how curious the old Athenians were to hear of foreign news, and with what great regard and estimation they honoured travellers, of which as yet, they are no ways defective." (William Lithgow, Totall Discourse of the Rare and Painefull Peregrinations (London, 1632))
In 1667, the indefatigable Turkish traveller, Evliya Tchelebi, visited Greece. He was most impressed by Athens. He wrote that he had never seen in any country as many marvels as at Athens, but he was hardly a good witness. He believed that the city had been founded by King Solomon, who had once visited it in company with the Queen of Sheba on flying thrones. He thought that the Tower of the Winds, which he called the Tent of Plato and tomb of Philip of Macedon, had borne in its roof a magic mirror which would reveal approaching enemies. He believed that similar ancient magic had protected the city from fleas, lice, bedbugs, etc.
Shortly afterwards, Father Jacques-Paul Babin, a Jesuit missionary based in Smyrna toured Greece. On his return journey he stopped off in Constantinople in 1672, and was asked by agents of the French Ambassador to write down his impressions.
He wrote: "One can enter the city without crossing a gate, although I have noticed two or three gates which are never closed, since the city has no walls. Most of the streets resemble village roads. Instead of the superb buildings, the glorious monuments, and the rich temples which were once the ornaments of this city, you can see narrow unpaved streets, poor houses built from the ruins of ancient buildings, decorated with marble columns. These houses have only pieces of marble columns as decoration, sparingly built on the walls, and some marble steps with carved crosses which were once found on the doors and doorsteps of the now ruined churches. Nearly all the houses are of stone and not wood as in Constantinople. One can even find some beautiful ones, considering that this is a country in which luxurious houses are prohibited today.
We owe our first really detailed description of the remains and monuments of modern Greece to Jacob Spon and George Wheler. They teamed up in Venice in 1677, and visited Greece together, and both wrote accounts of what they saw.
The Grand Tour
During the eighteenth century the practice of sending wealthy young aristocrats on the Grand Tour after university became the custom. The Revolutionary Wars interrupted their travels in France and Italy, and many young British aristocrats came to Greece instead. John Bacon Sawry Morritt was one such. He inherited the estate of Rokeby, in Yorkshire at the age of nineteen, having graduated at Cambridge, and set off on the Grand Tour in 1794 with the Reverend James Galloway. This passage from Morrittʼs book exemplifies both the ruthless attitude many of the aristocratic collectors of the period and the superficial reasons why they wanted them.
"It is very pleasant to walk the streets here. Over almost every door is an antique statue or basso-relievo, more or less good though all much broken, so that you are in a perfect gallery of marbles in these lands. Some we steal, some we buy, and our court is much adorned with them. I am grown, too, a great medallist, and my collection increases fast, as I have above two hundred, and shall soon, I hope, have as many thousands. I buy the silver ones often under the price of the silver, and the copper ones for halfpence. At this rate I have got some good ones, and mean to keep them for the alleviation of Sir Dilberryʼs visits, as they will be as good playthings as the furniture and pictures for half an hour before dinner...' (Letters of John B.S. Morritt of Rokeby, Descriptive of Journeys in Europe and Asia Minor in the Years 1794–1796, ed. G.E. Marindin, (London, 1914))
There are many reasons for reading travel literature, and one is the personality of the raconteur. Usually the reader looks for a narrator who is interested in the same things as himself; but occasionally the narrator is such an obnoxious character that although travelling with him would be a nightmare, reading his accounts of his travels is amusing. Such a writer is Charles Robert Cockerell. A descendent of the diarist Samuel Pepys, he initially went out to the Mediterranean as a Kingʼs Messenger with dispatches for the fleet. He arrived in Greece in 1810, and during a four year stay "excavated" the temples of Aphaia in Aigina and Apollo at Bassae, took their carvings abroad and auctioned them to the highest bidder. Later in life he became an eminent architect and member of the Royal Academy, and designed the Ashmolean Museum.
"There is hardly anything that can be called society among the Greeks. I know a few families, but I very rarely visit them, for such society as theirs is hateful. As for the Greek men, in their slavery they have become utterly contemptible, bigoted, narrow-minded, lying, and treacherous. They have nothing to do but pull their neighboursʼ characters to pieces. Retired as I am, you would hardly believe there is not a thing I do that is not known and worse represented. Apropos of an act of insolence of the Disdar agaʼs (which I made him repair before the waiwode, the governor of the town), I heard that it was reported that I had been bastinadoed. This report I had to answer by spreading another, viz. that I should promptly shoot anyone, Turk or Christian, who should venture to lay a hand upon me. This had its effect, and I heard no more of bastinadoing. I do not think we are in much danger here. The Franks [Westerners] are highly esteemed by the governor, and the English especially. (C. R. Cockerell, Travels, ed. Samuel Pepys Cockerell (London, 1903))