Το Σιδηρόκαστρο το 1903 στο βιβλίο The tale of a tour in Macedonia του Abbott, G. F.


Το Σιδηρόκαστρο το 1903 στο βιβλίο
The tale of a tour in Macedonia
by Abbott, G. F. (George Frederick), 1903
Διαβάστε το ΕΔΩ σε pdf σελ 93 (Αγγλικά)
Chapter XI 
DEMIR-HISSAR 

Mr. G. fortunately was able to accompany me part of 
the way on business of his own, and so we ordered a 
chariot to come round for us on the following day. It 
arrived full two hours before the time, the charioteer 
protesting loudly, with much rolling of eyes and twirl- 
ing of moustache, and with many parenthetic appeals 
to Allah and his Prophet, that it was not a bit too 
early. When he realised the impossibility of convin- 
cing us, he promptly squatted on the door-step, left off 
rolling his eyes, but instead rolled a cigarette between 
his finger and thumb, and waited. Time is no object 
in the East. 

At the last moment we were joined by the versatile 
schoolmaster of fiddle fame. During the past few days 
I had seen a good deal of this wonderful individual, for 
he was a great favourite with the G.s, and the more I saw 
of him the more deeply interested I grew in his person- 
ality. He was a most instructive study of a character 
not uncommon in these parts. He was, as I said before, 
a teacher in a village school, but teaching, I soon found, 
was only a relaxation with him : politics were the- 
serious occupation of his life. In that village, as in 
many others in Central Macedonia, the feud between 
Bulgarians and Greeks raged fiercely, and our school- 
master had thrown himself into the conflict with a zest 
to be found only in Greeks and Irishmen. The result 



94 A TOUR IN MACEDONIA 

was that he came to be regarded by both parties in the 
light of au unmitigated nuisance, and he was deposed. 
At the time when I made his acquaintance he was 
bringing all the resources of his fertile genius to bear 
upon one object — his restoration. He said that he was 
travelling on business, meaning thereby political busi- 
ness, as it afterwards transpired, and that he would be 
glad of a lift ; so we gave him a place in our chariot, 
and merrily rode out of town. 

We found the railway station crowded with invalid 
soldiers on their way to Salonica, and pitiful they were 
to look at. Their shrunk, livid cheeks, and deep-set, 
lustreless eyes betokened intense suffering. Many of 
them were barefooted, others shod with peasant sandals. 
Their tattered uniforms — two - thirds of a coat and 
trousers to match — bore eloquent testimony to a long 
and weary service. And yet there was not the slightest 
indication of discontent. Were they called upon to 
march to battle on the morrow, they would obey the 
summons without a murmur, ay, and fight for their 
God and His representative on earth better than many 
a well-fed and well-clad soldier of the West. This is 
the greatness of Islam. Resignation, which in time of 
peace turns man into a block of wood, makes a hero of 
him at the sound of the trumpet-call to battle. 

The train was due at 8.30 — Turkish time — and, by 
the grace of Allah and the engine-driver, it arrived at 
9.20. We booked to Demir-Hissar, which was to be 
our starting-point north, and took our seats. Our 
travelling companions were a party of young Turkish 
officers in print shirt-sleeves and boisterous spirits. 
They continually smoked, jested, and roared at each 
other's stories of gallantry, some of which would have 
made a green tomato turn red with shame — so said 



DEMIR-HISSAR 95 

the witty schoolmaster, and he evidently was an 
authority on tomatoes, as on most other subjects. 

One of these merry blades was in command of a 
company theoretically engaged in the extermination 
of brigandage, which, nevertheless, appeared to be 
flourishing in the district. The name of one chief 
was especially mentioned with fear, not unmixed with 
admiration and envy. Dontsos was said to be at the 
head of a Bulgarian band, which had defied the autho- 
rities and terrorised the countryside north of Serres 
for no less than twenty-five years. This success, how- 
ever, in justice to the authorities be it said, was not 
entirely due to his own prowess, any more than were 
the profits of his career exclusively confined to his 
own pockets. The authorities had a full share of both 
the glory and the gain. The only real sufi"erers had 
hitherto been the hapless peasants, some two hundred 
of whom were said to have perished at different times, 
partly for refusing to supply Dontsos with provisions, 
and partly for complying with his demands. The 
peasant in this part of Macedonia stands between 
Dontsos and the Turkish devil : 

Both are mighty ; 

Each can torture if derided ; 

Each claims worship undivided. 

The young spark already mentioned was alone believed 
to have, during his short career, squeezed over ^T.300 
from various natives under the pretext that they had 
been aiding and abetting the brigands. 

At 10.20 we reached Demir-Hissar station, and 
after a lively argument we chartered one of the three 
quaint things on wheels, which stood outside. It was 
a hearse-like fabric drawn by three quadrupeds abreast, 



g6 A TOUR IN MACEDONIA 

small creatures, probably related to the equine genus, 
and not burdened with more than the minimum of 
flesh or harness. The other two vehicles, filled with 
the Turkish officers, followed behind. We moved off 
at a mournful pace, stumbling against stones, jerked 
over deep ruts, and splashing through pools of stagnant 
water, to the knell of the rusty brass bells which 
dangled from the horses' necks. 

Our way lay mostly through an uncultivated waste, 
broken by four dry water- courses, across the gravelly 
beds of which we drove gingerly. At rare intervals 
we passed a hedge of dusty pomegranates enclosing a 
maize-field. A high ridge of mountains behind, a 
range of bare hills close on the left, and another far 
away on the right, embraced a valley which, but for a 
few Bulgarian and Turkish hamlets scattered here and 
there, would have presented as perfect a picture of the 
Valley of the Shadow of Death as can be found in a 
country not utterly devoid of a human population. 

As we drew near the town a few tobacco planta- 
tions in blossom greeted our eyes, but failed to 
obliterate the general impression of desolation. For, 
not far from them there stood a vast Mohammedan 
cemetery, its headstones lying about in fragments, its 
straggling tombs overgrown with weeds, and offering 
an easy prey to numerous flocks of carrion crows. 
One of these at the sound of our wheels rose from 
amidst the habitations of the dead like a huge black 
pall — an ugly and revolting sight to us, but one to 
which the inhabitants are only too well accustomed. 

Two sheer rocks — one of them capped by the 
crumbling ruins of an obsolete fortress — with a broad, 
rapid brook foaming down the middle, form a ravine 
between the narrow flanks of which is wedged the 



DEMIR-HISSAR 97 

town of Demir-Hissar, the " Iron Castle," so called 
by the Turks on account of the difficulty which they 
experienced in reducing it to submission five centuries 
ago. As we entered, a tribe of mountain goats, under 
the leadership of a long-bearded, long-horned, solemn 
old patriarch, crossed our path and saluted our nostrils 
with the rank, pungent odour to which the word 
hircine owes its particularly untranslatable meaning. 

Having engaged two bedrooms in the best inn 
of the town, we strolled into a chemist's shop next 
door which was kept by a friend of the versatile 
schoolmaster. The chemist was a tall and fragile 
individual with a long face, the cadaverous pallor of 
which seemed to indicate a regular diet on the con- 
tents of his own shop, and was accentuated by an 
enormous pair of despondently drooping black mous- 
taches. He received us with funereal cordiality 
and did the honours of his establishment in the way 
characteristic of the East, namely by offering us cigar- 
ettes and ordering coffee. In that shop I met another 
severed limb of the scholastic body : a second Greek 
master on the look-out for a post, which, however, 
being an unambitious and unversatile youth, with no 
taste or talent for a parliamentary career, he easily 
found a few days later. In the company of these two 
devotees of the Muses, who politely offered to act as 
my guides, I climbed the steep cliff on which stand 
the ruins mentioned before. These consist of a gate- 
way and one or two stone walls. The ascent wound 
through the narrow and filthy lanes of the Gipsy 
quarter, but the view from the plateau, when once 
gained, was superb. 

Immediately below and a little to the left lay the 
Turkish mahallah, spreading over one side of the 




98 A TOUR IN MACEDONIA 

ravine, and forming by far the larger portion of 
the town. On the opposite slope stood the Greek 
quarter, numbering some two hundred houses — a 
colony from Melenik, to the ecclesiastical jurisdiction 
of which it belongs — with a sprinkling of Bulgarians, 
"just enough to make life worth living," as one of 
my guides pleasantly remarked. Between the two 
quarters rushes the brook, aptly symbolising the gulf 
which separates the Cross from the Crescent, two 
forces existing side by side, and yet never meeting. 
From this height the stream could be seen meander- 
ing over the valley until it joined the Struma, which 
glittered like a long silver thread at the foot of the 
distant blue mountains in the south. The sun had 
just sunk behind the western wall of the valley, 
transforming the sky above into a sheet of gold, 
edged with pale green enamel, the glow whereof was 
faintly reflected upon the bosom of Lake Butkovo at 
the base of the ridge. 

An interesting reminiscence of King Philip of 
Macedon still lingers on these rocks. On the slope of 
one of them there are two smooth slabs to which the in- 
habitants apply the quaint name of the ** The Princesses' 
Washing-boards," narrating how in olden times the 
daughters of King Philip used to bleach their clothes 
on those slabs, just as the maids of Macedonia do at 
the present day. A big stone jar, discovered among 
the ruins of the fortress, goes by the name of " King 
Philip's Treasury," and to that king are also attributed 
by popular tradition the ruins of the fortress. When 
one considers the waves of barbarism which have swept 
over the country during the last twenty centuries, these 
memorials of the great king's fame, slight and fabulous 
as they are, have an interest none the less real because 



DEMIR-HISSAR 99 

it is not antiquarian. They show that national con- 
sciousness is not dead. The glorious past still shines, 
though with a dim and fitful light, through the misery 
of the present. 

Darkness grew apace, and soon the lights of the 
town began to twinkle in the depths of the ravine. 
A strong breeze from the valley wafted to us the notes of 
numberless frogs and crickets, softened and sweetened 
by distance. My two companions had all this time 
been sitting on the corpse of a gun which lay dead 
and deserted on the very edge of the plateau. They 
were absorbed in a political discussion in which the 
words patriarch and exarch, Greek and Bulgarian, 
orthodoxy and schism were frequently and emphati- 
cally pronounced. I interrupted the debate with the 
suggestion that it was perhaps time we should descend 
to lower levels. They offered no opposition as they 
could continue the argument on the way down, which 
in fact they did, ay, and long after we reached the inn, 
until they separated for the night. Even then it was 
easy to see that the subject was not dropped, but only 
postponed to the next meeting. No other evidence of 
their Hellenic origin was needed. 

Our dinner that night consisted of some cutlets, 
which we owed to Mrs, G.'s forethought, reinforced by 
what the inn could offer — a flat loaf of brown bread, 
eggs, cheese, grapes, and vinegar, which in this district 
is called wine. This banquet was eaten from plates of 
tin and with forks of lead, both of which luxuries had 
to be specially ordered, and ordered more than once. 
For the officers who had travelled with us and stopped 
at the same inn, being Turks, naturally engrossed all 
mine host's attentions. I say naturally, for whether 
he neglected us or no he was certain to get his money, 



100 A TOUR IN MACEDONIA 

and nothing but money from us ; whereas, had he not 
devoted himself heart and soul, kitchen and cellar, to 
his Turkish guests, he might have lost his money or 
got it substituted by something that he had not bar- 
gained for. 

Dinner over, we went down to the stables to hire a 
horse for myself. Mr. G. had his own horse waiting 
for him here, and as for the versatile schoolmaster, he 
could not make up his mind whether he was going 
with us or staying behind. The ways of genius are 
many and uncertain. 

The usual practice is to engage horses for the 
journey only. The Keradji, or muleteer, accompanies 
you, and at the end of the journey you pay him off. 
My Keradji turned out to be a very reasonable man. 
For a sum corresponding to little over four shillings he 
agreed to let me have a horse as far as Melenik. I was 
to form one of a caravan bound for that town, and 
*' personally conducted " by himself and another mule- 
teer. 

This business satisfactorily arranged, we retired for 
the night. I secured my bedroom door, placed my 
revolver and note-book under my pillow, put the light 
out and myself into bed, fully resolved to go to sleep. 
But, alas for the futility of human resolves ! Le 
voyageur propose, mais le KJiandji dispose. The 
pallet on which I lay was as hard as the " Princesses' 
Washing-boards," only not quite so smooth. It consisted 
of two planks resting on three packing-cases, and sup- 
porting a straw mattress covered with a coarse sheet, 
which among its virtues did not count immaculate 
purity. But the hardness of my couch would scarcely 
have prevented me, weary as I was, from carrying out 
my resolve, were it not for the legions of *' nocturnal 



DEMIR-HISSAR loi 

enemies " of all arms by which I felt my body invaded. 
I then realised for the first time the meaning of a 
certain Hindoo form of self-mortification. Oh that I 
were a Brahman, to send my soul forth on a heavenly 
tour, leaving my senseless carcass behind, a prey to the 
enemy ! But it was not to be. Resignation was my 
only resource. Allah's will be done in bed as it is on 
the battlefield ! 

In addition to those insidious but inaudible 
enemies, there were noisy rats holding a race-meet- 
ing inside the hollow wall close to my ear, while 
from the stables under the window came an incessant 
concert of jingling harness, neighings and brayings, 
punctuated now and again by a thundering kick 
against the wooden partition. The whole animal 
kingdom had evidently conspired to drive me to 
despair. 

However, notwithstanding the strenuous efi'orts 
of mine enemies, fatigue, my great ally, finally pre- 
vailed, and I sank into a deep, dreamless sleep from 
which I was roused at dawn by the shrill crowings 
of many cocks. I opened my eyes and lo ! rosy- 
fingered morn was smiling at me from over the 
shoulder of yon blue mountain. 

It was 11.40 — Turkish time. I got up and per- 
formed my matutinal ablutions in a tin basin which, 
after a long and laborious exploration, I discovered 
in the hinterland of the premises. 

" Dans la guerre comme dans la guerre^^ was Mr. 
G.'s cheery comment, when, on emerging from his 
own room, he witnessed my primitive attempt at a 
toilet. 

Our breakfast was not a very elaborate afi'air 
either. A glass of hot milk — real milk, not the spuri- 



102 A TOUR IN MACEDONIA 

ous concoction with which the civilised world would 
fain deceive itself — formed the main part of the meal, 
followed by a small cup of black coffee and the in- 
evitable cigarette. 

Having paid our bill, which altogether amounted to 
some five shillings, and given mine host a gratuitous 
lecture on the treatment of guests, we descended the 
stairs, or rather ladder, leading to the street. Mine host 
accompanied us to the door with many apologies : — 

" They are Turks, sir ; they are Turks," he 
whispered, jerking his head in the direction of the 
room in which the officers still lay asleep, and there 
was a world of meaning in those simple ethnological 
terms. 

We mounted our horses, which waited ready 
saddled in the street, and retraced our steps to the 
station. In three-quarters of an hour we managed 
to cover the distance which had taken us well over 
an hour the evening before, and found the rest of 
the caravan prepared to start. 

Here I parted from Mr. G. and the versatile school- 
master, who were both going to Petritz, with a promise 
to meet them there in the course of a few days, and 
I joined the party bound for Melenik.  σ. 537-538.

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