Lord Byron (1788-1824), Romantic poet; a man fatally attractive to women; a friend of many literary figures of his day, including the atheist poet, Shelley; a fighter for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire; and an intrepid traveller, was a man who tended to leave scandals in his wake. In 1809, when he was twenty-one, he 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, Albania and Greece, and it seems to have involved a lot of drinking, stupendous scenery, and sex.
Ancient Apollonia, the Agonothetes Monument; a reminder that Albania was once part of Greece
In September 1809, Byron arrived in Albania; once part of Greece, and then absorbed into the Roman Empire. The Ottoman Turks seized the country in the early 16th century.
Ali Pasha, reclining in his boat
By the time of Byron’s visit, the Ottoman Empire was weakening. Ruled, in theory, by the Sultan, in practice, much of it was ruled by a ferocious and able brigand leader, 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.
Looking out over the Ionian Sea
Ali developed 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.
Beautiful Albania: view over the River Vjosa
The moment Bryon landed in Albania, he headed straight for the court of the sixty-nine-year-old Ali Pasha in Tepelena. He was immensely impressed by the scenery. In a letter home, he called it: ‘a country of the most picturesque beauty’. And, later, in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, where his hero visits Albania, he describes the mountains:
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 and bears still roam in Albania’s northern 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.’
Later, he bought himself 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.
Castle of Berat
Ali Pasha could not initially see Byron as he was besieging the castle of Berat. Perched on a precipitous crag, Berat is not a place to be besieged lightly.
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.
Looking down on the River Osum from Berat Castle
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 home:
‘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.’
Gjirokastra Castle dominating the town
At nearby Gjirokastra, another ancient castle substantially re-fortified by Ali Pasha in 1811, there is another reminder of Byron’s time in Albania. There is a portrait of him in the castle but, alas, it was so dark with ancient varnish that it was impossible to photograph – but it is clear that his visit has not been forgotten.
Gjirokastra Castle vaulted room.
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.
Zekate House: wealthy Ottoman merchant’s residence
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.
Reception room (men only) with ornate fireplace
Above is a photo inside one of the typical Ottoman merchants’ houses, built in 1811 by the Zekate family and almost exactly contemporaneous with Byron’s visit. The reception room (men only) had a beautifully painted fireplace and elegantly carved wooden ceiling. There were divans skirting the room for guests. Women had their own quarters.
Zekate House, women’s quarters – note curtains.
Byron, in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage has his hero come to the Pasha’s court and comments on women’s position thus:
Here woman’s voice is never heard: apart
And 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…
His view is very convenient for men. Would the ladies of the harem have agreed, I wonder.
Women’s quarters, another view
But Byron’s ‘pilgrimage’ was more than just an adventure and he wasn’t just a dilettante aristocrat traveller. He was 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, travelling to distract himself. The first two cantos, which contain his Albanian travels, came out in 1812, and brilliantly depict the places, characters and events he meets. As Byron put it: ‘I awoke one morning and found myself famous.’ The rest is history.
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