Sunday, 20 August 2017

Greece and Albania: In the Kingdom of Ali Pasha

While travelling through the Balkans, Morelle Smith gets to know the infamous Ali Pasha, the “Lion of Ioannina.” First through the eyes of nineteenth-century writer Dora d'Istria and then through the impressive architectural heritage he left in Albania and Northern Greece. And she falls for his charms. And how could she not, knowing how fiercely Ali Pasha treated the women who turned him down?
Text and photographs by Morelle Smith

On the ferry from Brindisi to Igoumenitsa, there was a thin haze over the sky and a stiff breeze on deck, so at first I sat inside next to a window, and watched the green sea surface ruffle and dance.

When the haze faded, I sat up on deck in the sunlight. By the time we reached Igoumenitsa the sun was going down and the whole bay was flushed with pink. As I walked along the road from the ferry terminal, the air was filled with scents of heated pine needles and jasmine blossom. Lights began to flicker on along the sea-front and big trucks went past, heading for the night ferries.

I stayed overnight at the Hotel Oscar and after a walk through the town I sat out on the balcony. I watched people coming and going in the cafés and restaurants below me and the twinkling lights of the moored ships and the harbour lights dropped into the water, agitated shivers of spilled light.

I'm heading for Ioannina and in the morning I try to locate the bus station. It's marked on my guidebook but does not appear to be there. When I ask somebody I'm directed further along the promenade but discover these are only tourist buses. So I go into one of the many offices selling ferry tickets and a helpful young woman explains to me in German - the second language of many tourist guides in Greece - where to go. I find the bus station, tucked away unobtrusively, and successfully purchase a ticket.

As it's some time before the bus is due to leave, I wander in the pedestrian area, buy boureki for breakfast and survey the many café tables. I choose the least touristy looking café, with several Greek men sitting outside. Inside it is full of old men, some of them wearing the orthodox robes and tall hats of priests. The only woman, apart from myself, is behind the counter. When I ask for coffee, it seems there are a range of possibilities, according to the size of the cup (small cup, espresso, large cup, Nescafe). I point to the medium-sized one, an unknown quantity, and to my delight, it turns out to be café turque, which I keep forgetting is called Greek coffee here. As I sit outside, some of the men move clacking wooden prayer beads between their fingers and the smell of roasting meat drifts along the cobbled street. There's a 'Fresh Fish' shop opposite and next to it one called (curiously) 'Funky Fish', selling jewellery and trinkets, bags and sunglasses.

The cloud cover is thinning and the sky is turning blue.

The bus to Ioannina passes through breathtaking tree-covered mountains. A river takes a winding course in the valley below. There are olive trees, fig, birch and oak. And some yellow daisy-like flowers. Some of the mountain peaks are rounded, others are sharp. The road hugs the sheer mountainside. We pass cypresses and little wayside shrines. It is heart-stoppingly beautiful. The layers of rock bend and sag like curvaceous, frozen waves.

I spot a donkey with a square wooden saddle, the first I've seen in Greece, but so typical of Albanian donkey saddles. After several loops and coils the road starts to descend. We pass a sign for Zalonga and catch a glimpse of a white-stone pedestrian bridge over a stream. In the distance, there are snow-capped mountains.


Dora d'Istria was a nineteenth-century Albanian-Romanian writer, who wrote extensively on the Balkan countries. Through translating her work, I became engrossed in the characters and landscapes of her histories and folk tales and in particular, her accounts of the infamous Ali Pasha, the “Lion of Ioannina.”

Ali, following the traditions of the time, worked his way up to becoming the pasha – under the nominal authority of the Ottoman Sultan – of most of present-day Albania and the north-west portion of Greece, then known as Epiros, whose capital was Ioannina. The traditional system of promotion was to get as many people on your side as possible and then defeat all others who did not back you, using all the means at your disposal – force, bribery and trickery. Ali came to be adept at all of these methods.

Though Ali had many fortressed palaces scattered over Albania and Epiros, his main seat of government in the late eighteenth – early nineteenth centuries, was at Ioannina. I wanted to see this place as described by Dora d'Istria, where Ali hatched his plots and pronounced sentence on those who resisted his domination. Among the men, the harshest punishments were usually reserved for guerrilla fighters, but it was the women who resisted his (debatable) charms, who fared worst. But to uphold a semblance of high morality he would conjure up other accusations to charge them with. Most tyrants seem to have a sticky end and Ali's took place on the island in the middle of the lake on whose shores the town of Ioannina is built.

The ancient part of the town is on undulating land beside the lake, but most of the more modern buildings are on the north-west slope of a mountain. The bus station was about half way up this slope and I found a hotel in a narrow little street nearby. Then I set off downhill in the direction of the lake. Ahead of me, in the distance, I could see a solid creamy-white minaret rising out of a mass of green foliage, so I headed towards it.

This beautiful mosque of Aslan Bey is now a museum, standing in the middle of a park of massive fir and pine trees. The park crests a knoll and its peaceful silence feels far away from the traffic and bustle of the city. The museum is more like a sanctuary, which is in keeping with its original purpose of a place of worship. I chat to the friendly guide about Ali Pasha and Dora d'Istria's writing, and she directs me to the site of Ali Pasha's palace, which is where he is now buried.

To reach what was once the original old town, you pass through ancient fortified archways into narrow streets paved with yellow marble, similar to the long uphill road to the citadel in Berat, Albania. Apart from renovated outbuildings and a small mosque – a memorial to Ali Pasha, only ruins remain of his once magnificent palace but low boundary walls give some impression of its size. The minaret of the Aslan Bey museum can be seen in the distance.

These largely empty grounds are peaceful in the spring sunshine. Apart from the straight and manicured paved walkways, there are also meandering dirt paths that trail around the remains of the walls. I imagine they were worn by many decades of curious feet, come to see the site of such turbulent history. But today there are only a few tourists wandering in the grounds. Grass, wild ferns and other uncultivated plants are allowed to flourish where there are no paths.

The doors of the memorial mosque are firmly closed. The Greek War of Independence that took place shortly after Ali's death in 1822 was fought against the hated Ottoman domination and the only reminders of a time in their history when they were not free, but were a subject people, have been turned into museums, like the one of Aslan Bey. The beautiful objects of that time are preserved but the message is clear, that these belong to the past, and that is where they remain.

Close to the memorial mosque is Ali Pasha's burial place, enclosed by a delicately wrought monument. This metal tracery over Ali's final resting place feels like a necessary mark of respect to such a monumental historical figure.

For the flip side of his barbarism and cruelty was the fact that he managed – by however dubious means – to unite almost the whole of present-day Albania and Epiros. He brought cohesion to what had formerly been a virtually lawless country, with near-constant tribal warfare. But it did occur to me that the surrounding ironwork is also protective, should anyone have desecration in mind.

The following day I take a boat trip out to the island in the middle of the lake. It is immensely peaceful, full of flowers, birds and lizards, with scents of jasmine and frying meat. There don't appear to be any cars here at all. At first I wander along a deserted path and see a long snake, the same colour as the lizards, sliding away into the undergrowth. On the way back, I follow some other people who are being given a guided tour of the grounds of a monastery, which is no longer inhabited. Inside the small church there are some remarkable frescos that you are not allowed to photograph. They depict monks doing strange things, holding devilish creatures in their hands at arm's length. One holds a long, curling snake in his left hand, and what looks like flowers in the other.

Finally I go to the site of the place where Ali Pasha spent his last hours. It was an odd sensation, to have read so much about this location, to have followed the adventures of this man, from his earliest bids for power in his youth, right up to the point where his followers, some enslaved by gold, others by fear, began to desert him, and opened the gates of the town of Ioannina to the Ottoman Sultan's army. Ali was forced to retreat inside the fortified walls of his palace. Finally he was tricked into going to the island in the middle of the lake, where he was told his life would be spared. This was the kind of dissembling tactic he had used himself more than once, to allow hope to grow in prisoners or unarmed people, before ordering his soldiers to show no mercy and there was a kind of poetic justice in this ruse being used against him in his final hours. It was here that the life of Ali Pasha came to an end, at the entrance, so it is claimed, of the underground cave a few metres away from the museum.

The museum displays hubbly-bubbly pipes, wooden carved and painted water bottles, and rugs and carpets in the sombre and gorgeous colours typical of Albanian weaving - beige, red and black. There's an enormous painting by one Agim Sulaj, an Albanian artist, of Ali Pasha's head being brought triumphantly before the Sultan. There are also paintings of the unfortunate Euphrosine who resisted Ali's charms and was thrown into the lake, along with several other women, to make it clear that he was not singling her out for special treatment.

The next day I head for Gjirokaster in Albania, to visit my translator and her family. The bus leaves at 4am and the ticket office is opened 5 minutes beforehand. (I'd tried to buy a ticket the day before but was told that was not possible.) The only unoccupied seat is right at the back, beside some sleeping children. The bus has come from Athens and I'm the only person to get on here. It's just beginning to get light when we reach the border, where we all have to get off and file through border control. The Greek official looked at my passport. Turned it over, looked inside. “British!,” he announced triumphantly. “I am Greek,” he said, pointing to himself, a little unnecessarily, I felt. “Bubble and squeak!,” he says, and his laughter rings out breaking the tense silence reigning among the seated officials and the queue of passport-holding passengers. I smile politely, though it is much too early in the morning to make any sense to me. I wondered if perhaps when visiting the UK he had once eaten Bubble and Squeak (fried cabbage and potatoes) and could not believe the rigours of the British cuisine. (Back in the UK a friend explained it to me. Bubble and squeak is Cockney rhyming slang for Greek).

From the border the road levels out into a flat plain. Gjirokastër is built into the mountainside and so, when I get off the bus I have to climb up through steep narrow cobbled streets. It's still too early, I feel, to knock on anyone's door, so I sit on the steps outside Haxhi's house. After a while a woman appears on a balcony on the other side of the street, and calls out “O Haxhi!” I hear a voice from inside reply and a shouted conversation then ensues though Haxhi does not appear. But I hear sounds of movement so Haxhi is clearly up and about. I knock on the door. Haxhi appears in the doorway, a large white paintbrush in one hand.

“I am washing the walls,” he says, “how do you say?”

“Whitewashing,” I reply. “Yes, yes,” he says, “come in!”

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Read more of Morelle Smith’s stories on Rivertrain, her blog about writing and travelling




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