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Athens in the time of cholera

Ioannis Benizelos must have spent many sleepless nights pacing up and down the hayat (open hall) on the upper story of his mansion in the late winter of 1789. He could feel a menacing presence making its way along the muddy streets of Ottoman Athens. This invisible visitor felt like an old, albeit unsought, acquaintance, who tended to arrive every so often accompanied by some formidable friends i.e. hunger, captivity, and fire. The plague was a great evil whose rampages had claimed countless victims in the past. Benizelos was well aware of the disease’s symptoms and terrible consequences, but he had no answer to the most pertinent question: should he panic?

The calm before the storm

At the time, Athens was a fairly prosperous provincial town. It was divided into 36 quarters (enories), each centered around a church or a mosque. The population consisted of 1500 Christian and 400 Ottoman households. A handful of aristocratic families (proestotes) played a crucial role in town administration, alongside the Ottoman authorities. Benizelos belonged to one of the oldest and most respected proestotes families. There were also a few dozen wealthy land and property owners or merchants. The majority of the Athenians earned a living as craftsmen and farmers. The poorest Ottomans labored as cobblers, tanners, barbers or tailors, but most Muslims were affluent landowners who enjoyed a luxurious and peaceful life. 

Patient zero

On the evening of 30 January 1789, one of Constantine Ademakes’ children fell ill and died within a few hours. The proestotes ordered Ademakes to remove himself and his family from the city. There was no proof that the child had succumbed to the plague, but the family had recently arrived from Livadeia, where the disease was known to be present. Ademakes pleaded with the authorities to allow his family to stay in the city since it was winter and the conditions in the countryside would be too harsh. 

When he failed to sway the proestotes, Ademakes took his family to a property north of Athens. In less than a month, Ademakes’ wife, father, mother, mother-in-law, his remaining children and a woman who had taken care of the deceased child had succumbed to the plague. He buried them all…and then died himself. Three days later, a passing woodcutter discovered his body and quickly buried it in a shallow grave.

Give us this day our daily bread

In the meantime, the proestotes congratulated themselves on their prompt response. There was no further evidence of the plague in Athens, but now they faced another serious problem. Last year’s poor harvest meant that there was not enough food; grain had to be imported from the neighboring communities of Livadeia and Thebes. The plague was raging there and the authorities had forbidden the entry into Athens of travelers or traders from that area. For some bizarre reason, though, they allowed Athenians to travel back and forth in order to bring the necessary foodstuffs. 

As soon as a supply of flour reached Athenian bakeries, throngs of starving people gathered outside the stores and fought each other for bread. The bakers were so terrified of the crowds that they sold their goods from the windows and kept their doors shut, lest the mob ransack the store. As winter came to a close, people were so hungry that they set upon the dwellings of the proestotes and the Ottoman authorities and demanded permission to go wherever they desired in search of food. They deemed it was better to die once from the plague (should God will it) than die every day from starvation.

The cluster

Their wish was soon granted. On March 9, a monk at the church of Megali Panagia in the middle of the market (present-day Hadrian’s Library) fell ill and a widow was called in to rub him down. That same night, the monk died. The proestotes visited the widow and asked her if she had noticed any boils or rashes on the monk’s body. She had not, but then she told them that the monk had vomited blood. That was more than enough for the proestotes, who sealed the church and the widow’s house. Within a week everyone at the church (a priest, a monk, and four children) was dead. 

The widow and her three daughters showed no signs of the disease and survived on food sent to them by the authorities. On the 16th day of their quarantine, though, the smallest child came down with the plague. The mother took her family to an orchard outside the city, where the two youngest children died. The neighbors forced the mother (who was by now also sick) and the surviving daughter to flee, but the woman was too sick to walk. The grave-digger who had buried her children loaded her on his mule and took her to the chapel of Saint Marina, where she died (taking another old woman with her).   

The best-laid plans

The disease made a mockery of the proestotes’ containment plans. It spread rapidly and afflicted one or two houses per day. The residents tried to flee to the countryside, where they mixed with refugees from the plague in Thebes and Livadeia. Those who remained in Athens celebrated Easter in a climate of fear and anxiety. They were terrified of approaching each other and did not perform the traditional embrace when the priests proclaimed that “Christ is risen”. Every orchard, monastery, farm, and village around Athens was full of scared people, while downtown streets and marketplaces were empty.


But it was of no avail. The plague followed the hordes of refugees wherever they went. Men, women, children and the elderly suffered in the open air and died in droves. Most of the dead remained unburied for days since the two public grave-diggers could not keep up with the demand for their services. 

While the Christians perished in the countryside, the Muslims suffered within the town walls. They refused to abandon Athens, but they also failed to take any measures to protect themselves. Benizelos claims that this attitude was born out of their belief that whatever happened was God’s will, and he mocked the fatalism that sent them “to enjoy, according to the teachings of Muhammad, piles of pilaff and rivers flowing with milk and honey”. 

The survivors

The disease devastated Athens. At its height, it carried off 30 to 40 people per day, with almost 500 people dying in a single day. It raged until the 20th of June, at which point mortality rates fell to one or two per day, before fizzling out in early August. By then, 1200 Christians and 500 Muslims were dead, and the survivors faced the renewed prospect of famine. Benizelos survived the plague and his urban house survived the ravages of time. It still stands on Adrianou Street in Plaka, a magnificent and extremely rare example of an Athenian mansion from the Ottoman period.

The Survivor – Mentor in Greece
Link to The Survivor – Mentor in Greece

The Survivor – Mentor in Greece

In Athens every corner holds a surprise! In this two-hour walking tour, you will explore an off the beaten track trail in the heart of the city and discover a neighborhood inspired by the architecture of the Cyclades, imperial churches, ancient ruins, and countless spots totally suited to that perfect Instagram picture.