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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Accidental Ethnographer (1a)—The Isle That Is Called Patmos

One year ago on Round and Square (29 May 2011)—Hurtin' Country: I Wonder How Far (It is Over You)
Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "The Accidental Ethnographer." (Coming Soon)
[a] Calling Patmos RF
I am scheduled to give a lecture on Friday at the Doylestown Historical Society, as part of Doylestown, Pennsylvania's big bicentennial celebration. The subject is the American explorer and evangelist William Edgar Geil (1865-1925). This is part of a larger project that I will be working on this summer in Doylestown with the help of Beloit College anthropology major Megan Nyquist '14. As I did a few weeks ago in preparation for another lecture (on another subject), I am going to spend the next few days posting some of Geil's own writings. This was enormously helpful to me the last time I tried it, and I think it is worth another try. 

[b] Travelin' RF
William Edgar Geil was a world famous figure in his day, and the reasons he has been lost to history (from his death until now) are as interesting as the underpinnings of his fame. Here is a very brief overview. In a day before anthropology or Chinese (or African or Micronesian) studies had a toehold in world universities, William Edgar Geil traveled the world, took extensive notes, returned to Doylestown, and wrote books. Depending on how you count them, he wrote almost a dozen—many of them thick and substantial in ways that a turn of the (last) century reader would understand, even if many people today would not. He traveled across central Africa in the first decade of the twentieth century, spent a year in Australia and New Guinea, and then found an abiding love for the study of China (which is where I "met" him, in a manner of speaking). He traveled the length of the Great Wall, journeyed the Yangzi River from Shanghai into southeast Asia, visited all of China's provincial capitals, and is the only Westerner to have written a book about his travels to all five sacred mountains of China.

He wrote about it all, and he took pictures. The former is not without problem; the latter is easily his legacy. It is all a fascinating picture of an American abroad in a peculiarly resonant time in American history—from the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 to the end of World War I. This series will grow as my research does, but let's get started with Geil's own words—a little from each of his published books.
 ***  ***
[c] Early RF
William Edgar Geil had already had a pretty full career, it would seem, by the time he got the itch to travel abroad. I can't help but think that the Chicago World's Fair (the Columbian Exhibition of 1893) played a role, but something led him to stop focusing his observational and evangelical skills on the cities and towns of the American northeast. In the late-1880s Geil realized that he had a gift for oratory, and he sharpened his skills in the northeastern United States. He traveled to Trenton, Albany, Schenectady, and points within a several hundred mile radius of Doylestown. 

Then he started traveling, and it went deeply into his blood, his oratory, and—soon thereafter—his writing. His first full-length book deals with Patmos, and we will spend today's and tomorrow's posts giving a sense of his writing. I will have much to say about Geil, but let's soak in some of the early paragraphs of his earliest work.

The Isle That Is Called Patmos
William Edgar Geil (1897)
St. John saw Palestine, Epheseus, and Smyrna, before he lifted up his eyes and looked on the prison island of Patmos. Probably it was just eighteen centuries afterward, for it was Tuesday, July 14, that the writer, after having visited Mt. Nebo, in the Land of Moab; Hebron of water-skin and Abrahamic fame; the pools of Solomon and their myriads of green-backed bull-frogs; Bethlehem, the City of David; Jericho and Bethany; Mt. Calvary, without the city wall, with the old graves on its summit and a shepherd tending his sheep; Cana, Nazareth, and the beautiful Galilean Sea; Damascus, the oldest city on the planet, and the Lebanon railroad, with its cog-wheel device; the fair spot on the Beirut mountains where the magnificent Syrian gambling house is being erected; Rhodes, Cyprus, and Smyrna—took his way with Mr. McN—, an American missionary, as companion en route to St. John's place of banishement. After much deliberation as to whether I ought to tell the simple story of my journey, or use big words and arrange in more scientific forms the tale of my visit to Patmos, I have decided that, as the masses of the people are to be the readers of this book, my narrative shall be related simply, and in it shall be told the incidents of the journey. 

[d] Nearing RF
The clock pointed to 5 P.M., when we boarded a small Greek steamer lying by the wharf at Smyrna. There was nothing especially to brag about concerning this craft (except its filthy condition), but it must be recollected that only in most recent times has there been aught but a sailing vessel. Mr. J.T. Bent found no steamship going that way in 1887. The Marquis of Bute had steam, but it was his own beautiful private yacht. So we held ourselves thankful for steam craft of any kind. We left the wharf late, for our boat had a foul anchor which could not be heaved. In coming in she had cast her shank too far out, and an English ship's huge sheet anchor had fallen across our chain. After pulling and hauling and whistling and—well, I am glad to say I did not hear any swearing, which may have been due to religious scruples of the young captain, or to the fact that modern Greek was Greek to me—finally, after having shouted his order in English down a tube to the engineer's room, he let the chain go and headed out to sea.

[e] St. John RF
Now behold the "Crown of Ionia," "the flower of the Levant," "the queen city of the East." Smyrna is beautiful, lying from the water's edge up to the solitary cypress tree which, like a lone sentinel, keeps watch beside the grave of "the angel of the church at Smyrna," Polycarp. Fortunately we had provided a large basketful of excellent eatables, and getting hot water from the cook (?) we had tea. The boiling water and the whites of eyes appeared to me the only things clean aboard. Thence to the deck, and in conversation passed pleasantly and spiritedly the time...[1]

We were now in sight of Scala Nova, Asia Minor, the modern port of Ephesus. My friend retired, I remaining on deck to enjoy what of landscape might be seen at night; and what thoughts coursed through my brain! Here shall be a quotation from my note-book, written on the spot.

"At anchor, Scala Nova, Asia." 'Tis nearly 10 P.M. I have seen a hippopotamus lying with its back only above the water; so Bird Island lies like some huge monster, a dark mass against a moonless sky, and reminds me of those descriptive lines which the pen of might Milton traced on paper:
                                                                  In bulk as huge
                    As whom the fables name of monstrous size,
                    Titanian, or earth-born, what warred on Jove,
                    Birareus, or Typhon, whom the dew
                    By ancient Tarsus held, or that sea-beast
                    Leviathan, which God of all his works
                    Created hugest that swam the ocean stream:
                    Him, haply slumbering on the Norway foam,
                    The pilot of some small night-foundered skiff
                    Deeming some island, oft, as seamen tell,
                    With fixed anchor in his scaly rind
                    Moored by his side under the lea, while night
                    Invests the sea, and wished morn delays.

[f] Echo RF
Thus Bird Island seems to sleep at night upon the summer sea. The ancient fortifications are hardly visible; only alight streak tells where they are. A gleam flashes from the dark bulk, a warning or an invitation across the waves. The village lies from the bay up against the mountain side. In an oil painting of even a prairie landscape, the sky line is half-way up the frame; but here it is in reality, the farther portion of the town being near the summit of the hill. The lights of the village seem to blend into the lights of the sky. It is not easy to tell where lamps end and stars begin; where earth ceases and sky towers onward, upward. Black spots come and go between the ship and the shore. The mountain side is growing darker as one by one the lights are extinguished, the people retiring for the night.

And thus the city is retiring from view, leaving, if all the candles be snuffed, but a black mass of mountain against a star-lit midsummer's night sky. It compels me to think that it was thus with the greatness and glory of Ephesus. How one by one its lights of commerce, culture, and religion disappeared, until now there is but the dark heap of ruins, black against the mountains of the past. The ship's whistle startles as with marvelous echo it rolls over the water to the shore, and then up the mountain, and then from hill to hill, finally dying away amid the wreck of the once fair Temple of Diana, causing one to meditate on how the proud city is now but an echo of a power and attraction once sufficient to call the merchandise and commerce or the world to her shore and ships.

One light continues bright and steady; it is in the lighthouse on Bird Island. The milky-way sweeps down to the middle of the village. A great rattle of chains; anchor up; helm hard a-port; we head for Samos, across the Ægean Sea to Patmos, taking much the same route that St. John must have taken. It was then the bewitching time of night; but being anxious to have an early look at "The isle that is called Patmos," I descended to the solitary first-class (?) cabin. Two berths were arranged, one above the other; thus two sides of the room were used for sleeping accommodations. After reading the first chapter of Revelation, and kneeling to thank God for blessings bestowed, I climbed into the upper shelflike bed.[2] 

William Edgar Geil, The Isle That Is Called Patmos (Philadelphia: A.J. Rowland, 1897), 3-5.
Geil, Patmos, 11-12. 

Geil, William Edgar. The Isle That Is Called Patmos. Philadelphia: A.J. Rowland, 1897.
[g] Transport RF

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