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1867-Mark Twain in Athens during a cholera spread in Europe and the Middle East

Updated: Jul 2, 2021

Mark Twain travelled in Europe and the Holy Land between June 8th-November 19th in 1867, as correspondent of the San Franscisco Alta California. He traveled on Quaker City, a steamboat of 150 passengers and the travel letters he sent to his employer as well as the New York Tribune and New York Herald became the source for his travel book, The Innocents Abroad. Mark Twain travelled during interesting times, times of transition: the world was changing rapidly due to industrialization. His travel accounts provide precious insights to his era but also offer interesting parallels to our challenging and changing times of today.

Mark Twain in 1867 was 31 years old. (photo downloaded from pinterest)

Mark Twain was eager to visit the Acropolis of Athens; approaching Greece from Italy, the Quaker city crossed the Straits of Messina at 2:00am:

At two in the morning we swept through the Straits of Messina, and so bright was the moonlight that Italy on the one hand and Sicily on the other seemed almost as distinctly visible as though we looked at them from the middle of a street we were traversing. The city of Messina, milk-white, and starred and spangled all over with gaslights, was a fairy spectacle. A great party of us were on deck smoking and making a noise, and waiting to see famous Scylla and Charybdis.

Photo of the crossing of the Straits of Messina in 2018 on board the Aegean Odyssey (personal archive)

Later on, the vessel crossed the Ionian Sea offering a magnificent sunset:

We had one fine sunset—a rich carmine flush that suffused the western sky and cast a ruddy glow far over the sea.

Ionian Sea sunset behind the island of Zakynthos- February 2020 (personal archive)

Despite the beautiful sunset, Mark Twain was really excited about approaching Athens:

What were sunsets to us, who were about to live and breathe and walk in actual Athens; yea, and go far down into the dead centuries and bid in person for the slaves, Diogenes and Plato, in the public market-place, or gossip with the neighbors about the siege of Troy or the splendid deeds of Marathon? We scorned to consider sunsets.

The ship finally reached Athens, on August 14th, 1867. However, his plans had to change; The local authorities ordered that Quaker city needed to stay in quarantine for 11 days since the ship was coming from Italy that was suffering from cholera at that time. before they were allowed to disembark. The captain decided to stay in the port of Piraeus overnight and sail for Istanbul the next morning. One night was sufficient time for some passengers who would do anything not to miss the Acropolis; the full moon provided excellent conditions for making their visit possible without using artificial light managing to avoid been spotted by the local authorities who have announced that the fine would be very high for those that broke the quarantine. Mark Twain wouldn't miss the opportunity of visiting the Acropolis:

"At eleven o’clock at night, when most of the ship’s company were abed, four of us stole softly ashore in a small boat, a clouded moon favoring the enterprise, and started two and two, and far apart, over a low hill, intending to go clear around the Piraeus, out of the range of its police. Picking our way so stealthily over that rocky, nettle-grown eminence, made me feel a good deal as if I were on my way somewhere to steal something. My immediate comrade and I talked in an undertone about quarantine laws and their penalties, but we found nothing cheering in the subject. I was posted."

Mark Twain with three fellow passengers managed to escape the ship and walked for a few hours through the plains of Athens with occasional stops for having grapes as a snack or have some water from somebody's well. When they finally reached the Acropolis the gate was locked. But they didn't give up that easily:

It was locked! So, after all, it seemed that we were not to see the great Parthenon face to face. We sat down and held a council of war. Result: the gate was only a flimsy structure of wood—we would break it down. It seemed like desecration, but then we had traveled far, and our necessities were urgent. We could not hunt up guides and keepers—we must be on the ship before daylight. So we argued. This was all very fine, but when we came to break the gate, we could not do it. We moved around an angle of the wall and found a low bastion—eight feet high without—ten or twelve within. Denny prepared to scale it, and we got ready to follow. By dint of hard scrambling he finally straddled the top, but some loose stones crumbled away and fell with a crash into the court within. There was instantly a banging of doors and a shout. Denny dropped from the wall in a twinkling, and we retreated in disorder to the gate. Xerxes took that mighty citadel four hundred and eighty years before Christ, when his five millions of soldiers and camp-followers followed him to Greece, and if we four Americans could have remained unmolested five minutes longer, we would have taken it too.

Fortunately, though, it the Acropolis garrison who were woken up and finally let Mark Twain and his company enter the site. Their nocturnal adventure finally rewarded them:

We crossed a large court, entered a great door, and stood upon a pavement of purest white marble, deeply worn by footprints. Before us, in the flooding moonlight, rose the noblest ruins we had ever looked upon—the Propylae; a small Temple of Minerva; the Temple of Hercules, and the grand Parthenon.[...]
The Parthenon, originally, was two hundred and twenty-six feet long, one hundred wide, and seventy high, and had two rows of great columns, eight in each, at either end, and single rows of seventeen each down the sides, and was one of the most graceful and beautiful edifices ever erected.
Most of the Parthenon’s imposing columns are still standing, but the roof is gone. It was a perfect building two hundred and fifty years ago, when a shell dropped into the Venetian magazine stored here, and the explosion which followed wrecked and unroofed it.

Having the site for themselves, walking around at night time offered them an "out of this world" experience that many of us would envy today:

As we wandered thoughtfully down the marble-paved length of this stately temple, the scene about us was strangely impressive. Here and there, in lavish profusion, were gleaming white statues of men and women, propped against blocks of marble, some of them armless, some without legs, others headless—but all looking mournful in the moonlight, and startlingly human! They rose up and confronted the midnight intruder on every side—they stared at him with stony eyes from unlooked-for nooks and recesses; they peered at him over fragmentary heaps far down the desolate corridors; they barred his way in the midst of the broad forum, and solemnly pointed with handless arms the way from the sacred fane; and through the roofless temple the moon looked down, and banded the floor and darkened the scattered fragments and broken statues with the slanting shadows of the columns.[...]
We walked out into the grass-grown, fragment-strewn court beyond the Parthenon. It startled us, every now and then, to see a stony white face stare suddenly up at us out of the grass with its dead eyes. The place seemed alive with ghosts. I half expected to see the Athenian heroes of twenty centuries ago glide out of the shadows and steal into the old temple they knew so well and regarded with such boundless pride.

But one of the most impressive moment of their visit, was the magnificent views over the city of Athens:

The full moon was riding high in the cloudless heavens, now. We sauntered carelessly and unthinkingly to the edge of the lofty battlements of the citadel, and looked down—a vision! And such a vision! Athens by moonlight! The prophet that thought the splendors of the New Jerusalem were revealed to him, surely saw this instead! It lay in the level plain right under our feet—all spread abroad like a picture—and we looked down upon it as we might have looked from a balloon. We saw no semblance of a street, but every house, every window, every clinging vine, every projection was as distinct and sharply marked as if the time were noon-day; and yet there was no glare, no glitter, nothing harsh or repulsive—the noiseless city was flooded with the mellowest light that ever streamed from the moon, and seemed like some living creature wrapped in peaceful slumber. On its further side was a little temple, whose delicate pillars and ornate front glowed with a rich lustre that chained the eye like a spell; and nearer by, the palace of the king reared its creamy walls out of the midst of a great garden of shrubbery that was flecked all over with a random shower of amber lights—a spray of golden sparks that lost their brightness in the glory of the moon, and glinted softly upon the sea of dark foliage like the pallid stars of the milky-way. Overhead the stately columns, majestic still in their ruin—under foot the dreaming city—in the distance the silver sea—not on the broad earth is there an other picture half so beautiful!

View of Athens from the Royal Palace 1853-1857 (photo from James Robertson's book Views of Greece)

Athens at that time was a small town of not more than 70,000 inhabitants( including the surrounding areas). Greece gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1830 and Athens became the capital of the new-born state in 1830. The medieval town was located around the Acropolis while the new city centre was planned around the Royal Palace. In the photo above, we can see the Royal Palace where king Otto, the first king of Modern Greece resided. The photo was taken by the Scottish photographer James Robertson in the mid-1850s. This is how Mark Twain must have seen it on the night of August 14th, 1867.

Today Athens is a vibrant city of approximately 4,000,000 people. The Acropolis still dominates the Athenian landscape and attracts millions of tourists every year. This year Athens experienced another quarantine like most parts of our planet,as a result of the measures taken to contain the Sars-covid-2 virus. Usually a very busy city, Athens has been very quiet with a clearer than ever atmosphere.

A view of the Acropolis from Aeolou street near Monastiraki (April 2020, personal archive)

Despite the lockdown the National Guards are always on their duty (April 2020, personal archive)

Fireworks at Lycabetus hill during the Easter celebrations of Easter 2020. Despite the lockdown, the Athenians celebrated Easter from their balconies


237 views2 comments


Dec 21, 2022

How wonderful to imagine the sublime experience of the Acropolis by moonlight, and to sneak there in the fine company of Mark Twain! Thank you!


Sep 29, 2021

Excellent blog!! Twain is a favorite of mine. It was a joy to see Athens through his eyes. Thank You, Noreen

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