Lord Byron in Albanian costume by Thomas Phillips, 1814.
Albania, at the time of Byron’s visit, was part of an ailing Ottoman Empire. In theory, Albania was ruled by the Sultan; in practice, much of it was ruled by a ferocious and able brigand leader who later became known to history as Ali Pasha (1740-1822). The Sultan, forced to recognise Ali’s diplomatic and administrative abilities, as well as his military prowess, persuaded him to abandon brigandage and serve the Ottoman Empire instead. Ali did so to great effect and was rewarded in 1787 by being appointed Pasha. In theory, he was under the Sultan but, in practice, he extended his Albanian territory considerably to include much of northern Greece and ruled it more or less as an independent territory.
Ali Pasha reclining in a boat
Ali developed his own independent relations with Europe, initially with Napoleon, but his main interest was the extension of his own power, in particular, establishing a strong Mediterranean sea presence. When he discovered, in 1807, that Napoleon was discussing plans with the Tsar to dismantle the Ottoman Empire, Ali switched sides and made overtures to the British.
In 1809, Byron left England for the continent on what he called a ‘pilgrimage’. In effect, it was a Grand Tour, taking in Portugal, Spain, Sardinia, Sicily, Malta and Greece, and it seems to have involved a lot of drinking, sex and scenery. In September, he arrived in Albania and headed straight for the court of Ali Pasha in Tepelene. He was twenty-one and Ali Pasha was sixty-nine.
View over the River Vjosa
Bryon was impressed by the scenery. In a letter to his mother, he called it: ‘a country of the most picturesque beauty’. His travels inspired Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the narrative poem which made his name as a poet, where his hero visits various countries and has adventures.
Here, Childe Harold describes the mountains in Albania:
Here, Childe Harold describes the mountains in Albania:
Here roams the wolf, the eagle whets his beak,Birds, beasts of prey, and wilder men appear,
And gathering storms convulse the closing year.
Wolves, bears and eagles are still found in the mountains.
Byron was even more impressed by the Pasha’s court. He wrote: ‘The Albanians in their dresses (the most magnificent in the world, consisting of a long white kilt, gold-worked cloak, crimson-velvet gold-laced jacket and waistcoat, silver-mounted pistols and daggers,) the Tartars with their high caps, the Turks in their vast pelisses and turbans, the soldiers and black slaves with the horses,…. The kettle-drums beating, boys calling the hour from the minaret of the mosque… formed a new and delightful spectacle to a stranger.’
He acquired an Albanian costume and wore it for his 1814 portrait by Thomas Phillips (see above), now in the National Portrait Gallery. And one must admit that he looks spectacular in it.
The Castle of Berat
Ali Pasha could not initially see Byron: he was besieging the castle of Berat. Perched on a precipitous crag, Berat is not a place to be besieged lightly, as you can see.
View looking down from the castle of Berat.
When Ali Pasha returned, he received Byron with great honour in ‘a large room paved with marble; a fountain was playing in the centre; the apartment was surrounded by scarlet ottomans.’ Britain was now Ali’s ally and he may have viewed a visit by a British aristocrat as a compliment.
Byron appreciated all that Ali Pasha did for him: offering him accommodation, servants, etc. and loading him with ‘almonds and sugared sherbet, fruit and sweetmeats.’ But he did not ignore his host’s other, darker side. As he wrote to his mother:
His highness is sixty years old, very fat and not tall, but with a fine face, light blue eyes and a white beard; his manner is very kind and at the same time he possesses that dignity which is universal among the Turks. He has the appearance of anything but his real character; for he is a remorseless tyrant, guilty of the most horrible cruelties, very brave, and so good a general that they call him the Mohametan Buonaparte.
Gjiokastra castle dominating the town.
At nearby Gjirokastra, another ancient castle substantially re-fortified by Ali Pasha in 1811, I came across Lord Byron again. There is a portrait of him in the castle but, alas, it is so dark with ancient varnish that it was impossible to photograph – but it is clear that Albania has not forgotten his visit.
Ali Pasha spared no expense to make the castle impregnable as the huge vaulted rooms attest. It is built to withstand a siege with its huge water cistern, bread ovens, and bristling with weaponry.
Vaulted room, Gjirokastra Castle
Gjirokastra is a World Heritage site, not only for the castle but also for the unique series of late Ottoman houses that climb precipitously up the hillside.
Ottoman house, Gjirokastra, built in 1811
We visited a typical wealthy Ottoman merchants’ house, built in 1811 by the Zekate family (who still live there). The reception room (men only) had a beautifully painted fireplace and elegantly carved wooden ceiling. There were divans skirting the room for guests, though not, alas, in scarlet. Women had their own quarters.
Fireplace in reception room.
Byron, in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage has his hero come to the Pasha’s court and comments on women’s positon thus:
Here woman’s voice is never heard: apartAnd scarce permitted, guarded, veiled, to move,
She yields to one her person and her heart,
Tamed to her cage, nor feels a wish to rove…
A view very convenient for men! Would the ladies of the harem have agreed, I wonder.
View from the castle of Gjirokastra
But Byron’s ‘pilgrimage’ was more than just an adventure and he wasn’t just a dilettante aristocrat traveller. He was honing his skills as a poet and working on Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. (‘Childe’ is a young man of noble birth.) Harold is a young melancholy but defiant outcast with nameless sins in his past, traveling to distract himself. The first two cantos, which cover his Albanian travels, came out in 1812, and brilliantly depict the places, characters and events Byron saw. It also made his name as a poet. As Byron put it: ‘I awoke one morning and found myself famous.’ The rest is history.
Photo: Lord Byron by Thomas Phillips, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
Elizabeth travelled to Albania with Andante Travels: www.andantetravels.co.uk