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Thursday 30 July 2020

A Conversation with the Ottoman Postmaster of Mont Athos, 1883

Athelstan Riley and a friend, both from the University of Oxford, visited Mont Athos for six weeks in 1883. Riley published a travelogue, Athos or the Mountain of the Monks in 1887. At one point, he and his friend Arthur Owen visit the Ottoman post office in what was then and still is the small administrative centre of Karyes. This is Riley’s narrative:

“So we had breakfast and about noon sallied forth towards the town. First we went to the post office, where by good luck the postmaster spoke French and several other languages besides. We sat and talked to him for more than an hour, smoked his cigarettes, and consumed rahatlakoum and coffee. He was a very intelligent young Greek who had been sent here from Constantinople to take charge of the post station, and very dull he found it.

‘I have not a soul to speak to’, he complained, ‘there are no educated people in Caryes [sic] except a few monks, and I soon get tired of them. And no women of any kind. Ah, c’est affreux, messieurs, c’est affreux!’ [Ah, it's awful, gentlemen, it's awful!]

And the poor fellow begged us to sit and talk to him a little longer. This we did, and amused ourselves by sending a telegram to the telegraph clerk at Salonica, wishing him a very good day, a wire having recently been laid from that place to Caryes.

‘For’, said our friend, ‘we may just as well use it, for nobody else does. Perhaps fifty telegrams are sent in the course of the year, chiefly about the steamers which call here, for who would want to telegraph to Athos? So when I feel very dull I just ring up the clerk at Salonica and ask how the world is going on’. 

[This passage is in chapter XV]
I suspect that over time telegraph traffic did increase and became more varied. Here, for example, is a 2 May 1888 telegram from St Petersburg to Athos routed through Salonique [ see top left annotation Salq.]. The word count is 15 [ though I count 16] because the address counts and takes six words, rendered by the clerk on the reverse as Monaster Andre√©, Superieur Theoklitos,Mont Athos - the Monaster is in fact the Russian Andreevski Skete, located close to Karyes. As for the message, I can't quite resolve whether the Family Z or L asks for 30 roubles to be sent to pay for the distribution of Easter Eggs, or whether 30 roubles has been sent to pay for such distribution. The latter seems more likely. The Athos receiving officer has signed his name at top left [ besides L’Employ√©], but whether he is the  postmaster who welcomed Riley and Owen, I don't know. But note that he writes in a confident Roman script.

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