Thursday, May 09, 2013

Book Review (#9 of 2013) Incidents of Travel in Greece, Turkey, Russia, and Poland (Vol. 1) by John Lloyd Stephens (1838)

I never expected a book published in 1838 to be so fascinating and educational such that I could hardly put it down. Stephens was an American lawyer-turned-adventurer, who wrote three books on his three separate excursions to Europe, the Middle East, and Central America. This was the first chronologically.

This book is as much about American history as it is the history of the countries he visits because Stephens runs into various Americans abroad-- perhaps known in the 1830s to America at large but lost to the annals of history.

When Stephens visits newly-independent and impoverished Athens, he finds the only school in the city is run by American missionaries, who have earned great graces of the new Greek king. When he arrives in Istanbul, he finds the legacy of Henry Eckford, an American shipbuilder, hero of the War of 1812, who left amid a scandal to become shipbuilder to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.  Stephens befriends Eckford's American protege and watches a grand new ship launch in the Bosporus while the masses are impressed by American ingenuity. The U.S. Ambassador to Turkey was also an interesting character.

In Odessa (then part of Russia), Stephens meets a Mr. Sontag (I can't find a link to any information on him!) an American naval veteran who left the U.S. Navy to join Russia's instead, then spent 20 years climbing the ranks including a land command during the Napoleonic Wars. He marries a Russian of distinction and ends up with plenty of land and title-- and caucasian slaves, which horrifies Stephens (black slaves would not have surprised him, he writes). Some of the characters he meets also published books during that time, some of which are also available for free download. I can't wait to read further.

Everywhere Stephens goes, he finds great interest and curiosity about America, still a new experiment in the world. He runs into all kinds of stereotypes as well-- some well-traveled people expect him to behave like a Native American. In those days, the U.S. didn't have a consular service-- traveling diplomats simply commissioned locals to act on Americans' behalf. Stephens finds quite a few shady people bearing the title of "Consular" and this disturbs him-- he urges Congress to put some money into a diplomatic corps.

Due to Stephens' attention to describing the context and cultures, I learned a lot about the Greek war for independence, concluded in 1828, including the atrocities at Chios, the ruins of which Stephens visits. I got a great picture of Izmir (Smyrna) and the inter-ethnic culture of the Ottoman empire. Stephens celebrates Easter at a Greek Orthodox service in Turkey, and visits the homes of Armenians and Jews as well as Turks.  His travels in Russia begin in Odessa, which starts with a long quarantine set up to cleanse and fumigate travelers from bringing plagues into the city. Odessa was essentially a newly-constructed city at the time.

I give this book five stars because it's so well-written and fascinating. I feel that Stephens observes the same things I would observe, and glad he took the time to write it all down. I look forward to Volume II.

This book (and Volume II) are available for free at Gutenberg.org. There are also some interesting expressions/vernacular from 1838 that make it handy to read on an e-reader so you have a dictionary a tap away.

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