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Robert Elsie

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Photo of Janina, 1862.

Photo of Janina, 1862.

Robert Curzon:
Through Albania on the Road to Meteora

English aristocrat and scholar Robert Curzon (1810-1873) travelled extensively in the Levant (the eastern Mediterranean) in search of old manuscripts and hidden treasures, many of which are now in the collections of the British Museum in London. In 1833-1834, he journeyed to Egypt, Syria, Turkey and Greece, and it was on the last leg of that long expedition, on his way from Corfu to Meteora, that he passed through what was southern Albania (now northwestern Greece), visiting Paramythia and Janina (Ioannina), the then capital of Albania and onetime abode of Ali Pasha (1744-1822). His travel impressions were recorded in his much-read volume "Visits to Monasteries in the Levant" (London 1849). Curzon's sense of humour comes out in his description of Albanian Epirus.



Albania - Ignorance at Corfu concerning that country - Its reported abundance of game and robbers - The disturbed state of the country - The Albanians - Richness of their arms - Their free use of them - Comparative safety of foreigners - Tragic fate of a German botanist - Arrival at Gominizza - Ride to Paramathia - A night's bivouac - Reception at Paramathia - Albanian ladies - Yanina - Albanian mode of settling a quarrel - Expected attack from robbers - A body-guard mounted - Audience with the Vizir - His views of criminal jurisprudence - Retinue of the Vizir - His troops - Adoption of the European exercises - Expedition to Berat - Calmness and self-possession of the Turks - Active preparations for warfare - Scene at the bazaar - Valiant promises of the soldiers.



Corfu, Friday, October 31, 1834


I found I could get no information respecting Albania at Corfu, though the high mountains of Epirus seemed almost to overhang the island. No one knew anything about it, except that it was a famous place for snipes! It appeared never to have struck traveller or tourist that there was anything in Albania except snipes; whereof one had shot fifteen brace, and another had shot many more, only he did not bring them home, having lost the dead birds in the bushes. There were some woodcocks also, it was generally believed, and some spake of wild boars, but I had not the advantage of meeting with anybody who could specifically assert that he had shot one; and besides these, there were robbers in multitudes. As to that point, everyone was agreed. Of robbers there was no end, and just at this particular time there was a revolution, or rebellion, or pronunciamiento, or a general election, or something of that sort going on in Albania, for all the people who came over from thence said that the whole country was in a ferment. In fact there seemed to be a general uproar taking place, during which each party of the free and independent mountaineers deemed it expedient to show their steady adherence to their own side of the question by shooting at anyone they saw, from behind a stone or a tree, for fear that person might accidentally be a partizan of the opposite faction.


The Albanians are great dandies about their arms. The scabbard of their yataghan and the stocks of their pistols are almost always of silver, as well as their three or four little cartridge boxes, which are frequently gilt, and sometimes set with garnets and coral. An Albanian is therefore worth shooting, even if he is not of another way of thinking from the gentleman who shoots him. As I understood, however, that they did not shoot so much at Franks because they usually have little about them worth taking, and are not good to eat, I conceived that I should not run any great risk and I resolved, therefore, not to be thwarted in my intention of exploring some of the monasteries of that country. There is another reason also why Franks are seldom molested in the East. Every Arab or Albanian knows that if a Frank has a gun in his hand, which he generally has, there are two probabilities, amounting almost to certainties, with respect to that weapon. One is, that it is loaded, and the other that, if the trigger is pulled, there is a considerable chance of its going off. Now these are circumstances which apply in a much slighter degree to the magazine of small arms which he carries about his own person. But, beyond all this, when a Frank is shot, there is such a disturbance made about it! Consuls write letters, pashas are stirred up, guards, kawasses, and Tatars gallop like mad about the country, and fire pistols in the air, and live at free quarters in the villages. The murderer is sought for everywhere, and he, or somebody else, is hanged to please the consul, in addition to which the population are beaten with thick sticks ad libitum. All this is extremely disagreeable, and therefore we are seldom shot at, the pastime being too dearly paid for. Le jeu ne vaut pas la chandelle.


The last Frank whom I heard of as having been killed in Albania was a German who was studying botany. He rejoiced in a blue coat and brass buttons, and wandered about alone, picking up herbs and flowers on the mountains, which he put carefully into a tin box. He continued unmolested for some time, the universal opinion being that he was a powerful magician, and that the herbs he was always gathering would enable him to wither up his enemies by some dreadful charm, and also to detect every danger which menaced him. Two or three Albanians had watched him for several days, hiding themselves carefully behind the rocks whenever the philosopher turned towards them; and at last one of the gang, commending himself to all his saints, rested his big gun upon a stone and shot the German through the body. The poor man rolled over, but the Albanian did not venture from his hiding-place until he had loaded his gun again, and then, after sundry precautions, he came out, keeping his eye upon the body, and with his friends behind him, to defend him in case of need. The botaniser, however, was dead enough, and the disappointment of the Albanians was extreme when they found that his buttons were brass and not gold, for it was the supposed value of these precious ornaments that had incited them to the deed.


I procured some letters of introduction to different persons, sent my English servant and most of my effects to England, and hired a youth to act in the double capacity of servant and interpreter during the journey. One of my friends at Corfu was good enough to procure me the use of a great boat, with I do not know how many oars, belonging to government; and in it I was rowed over the calm bright sea twenty-four miles to Gominizza, where I arrived in five hours. Here I hired three horses with pack-saddles, one for my baggage, one for my servant, and one for myself; and away we went towards Paramathia, which place we were told was four hours off. Paramathia is said to be built upon the site of Dodona although the exact situation of the oracle is not ascertained; but some of the finest bronzes extant were found there thirty or forty years ago, part of which went to Russia, and part came into the possession of Mr. Hawkins of Bignor in Sussex, where they are still preserved.


Our horses were not very good and our roads were worse, and we scrambled and stumbled over the rocks, up and down hill, all the afternoon, without approaching, as it seemed to me, towards any inhabited place. It was now becoming dark and the muleteers said we had six hours more to do. It was then seven o'clock p.m. We could see nothing, and were upon the top of a hill, where there were plenty of stones and some low bushes, through which we were making our way vaguely, suiting ourselves as to a path, and turning our faces towards any point of the compass which we thought most agreeable, for it did not appear that any of the party knew the way. We now held a council as to what was best to be done; and as we saw lights in some houses about a mile off, I desired one of the muleteers to go there and see if we could get a lodging for the night. 'Go to a house?' said the muleteer; 'you don't suppose we could be such fools as to go to a house in Albania, where we know nobody?' 'No?' said I; 'why not?' 'Because we should be murdered, of course,' said he, 'that is if they thought themselves strong enough to venture to undo their doors and let us in; otherwise they would pretend there was nobody in the house, or fire at us out of the window and set the dogs at us; or...' 'Oh!' I replied, 'that is quite sufficient. I have no desire to trouble your excellent countrymen. Only I don't precisely see what else we are to do just now on the top of this hill. How are they off for wolves in this neighbourhood?' 'Why,' quoth my friend, 'I hope you understand that if anything happens to my horses you are bound to reimburse me. As for ourselves, we are armed, and must take our chance; but I don't think there are many wolves here yet. They don't come down from the mountains quite so soon, though certainly it is getting cold already. But we had better sleep here at all events, and at dawn we shall be able, perhaps, to make out a little better where we have got to.' There being nothing else for it, we tied the horses' legs together, and I lay down on a travelling carpet by the side of my servant, under the cover of a bush. Awfully cold it was; the horses trembled and shook themselves every now and then, and held their heads down, and I tried all sorts of postures in hopes of making myself snug, but every change was from bad to worse. I could not get warm anyhow, and a remarkable fact was, that the more sharp stones I picked out from under the carpet, the more numerous and sharper were those that remained. My only comfort was to hear the muleteers rolling about, too, and anathematising the stones most lustily. However, I went to sleep in course of time, and was, as it appeared to me, instantaneously awakened by someone shaking me, and telling me it was four o'clock and time to start. It was still as dark, as ever, except that a few stars were visible, and we recommenced our journey, stumbling and scrambling about as we had done before, till we came to a place where the horses stopped of their own accord. This, it seemed, was a ledge of rock above a precipice about two hundred feet deep, as I judged by the reflection of the stars in the stream which ran below. The dimness of the light made the place look more dangerous and difficult than perhaps it really was. It seems, however, that we were lucky in finding it, for there was no other way off the hill except by this ledge, which was about twelve feet broad. We got off our horses and led them down; they had probably often been there before, for they made no difficulty about it, and in a few hundred yards, the road becoming better, we mounted again, and after five hours' travelling, arrived at Paramathia. Just before entering the place we met a party on foot, armed to the teeth, and all carrying their long guns. One of these gentlemen politely asked me if I had a spare purse about me, or any money which I could turn over to his account; but as I looked very dirty and shabby, and as we were close to the town, he did not press his demand, but only asked by which road I intended to leave it. I told him I should remain there for the present, and as we had now reached the houses, he took his departure, to my great satisfaction.


On inquiring for the person to whom I had a letter of introduction, I found he was a shop-keeper who sold cloth in the bazaar. We accordingly went to his shop and found him sitting among his merchandise. When he had read the letter he was very civil, and shutting up his shop, walked on before us to show me the way to his house. It was a very good one, and the best room was immediately given up to me, two old ladies and three or four young ones being turned out in a most summary manner. One or two of the girls were very pretty, and they all vied with each other in their attentions to their guest, looking at me with great curiosity, and perpetually peeping at me through the curtain which hung over the door, and running away when they thought they were observed.


The prettiest of these damsels had only been married a short time. Who her husband was, or where he lived, I could not make out, but she amused me by her anxiety to display her smart new clothes. She went and put on a new capote, a sort of white frockcoat, without sleeves, embroidered in bright colours down the seams, which showed her figure to advantage; and then she took it off again, and put on another garment, giving me ample opportunity of admiring its effect. I expressed my surprise and admiration in bad Greek, which, however, the fair Albanian appeared to find no difficulty in understanding. She kindly corrected some of my sentences, and I have no doubt I should have improved rapidly under her care, if she had not always run away whenever she heard anyone creaking about on the rickety boards of the ante-room and staircase. The other ladies, who were settling themselves in a large gaunt room close by, kept up an interminable clatter, and displayed such unbounded powers of conversation, that it seemed impossible that anyone of them could hear what all the others said; till at last the master of the house came up again, and then there was a lull. He told me that I could not hire horses till the afternoon, and as that would have been too late to start, I determined to remain where I was till the next morning. I passed the day in wandering about the place, and considering whether, upon the whole, the dogs or the men of Paramathia were the most savage; for the dogs looked like wolves, and the men like arrant cut-throats, swaggering about, idle and restless, with their long hair, and guns and pistols and yataghans. They have none of the composure of the Turks, who delight to sit still in a coffee-house and smoke their pipes, or listen to a story, which saves them the trouble of thinking or speaking. The Albanians did not scream and chatter as the Arabs do, or as their ladies were doing in the houses, but they lounged about the bazaars listlessly, ready to pick a quarrel with anyone, and unable to fix themselves down to any occupation. In short, they gave me the idea of being a very poor and proud, and good-for-nothing set of scamps.



November 2, 1834


The next morning at five o'clock I was on horseback again, and after riding over stones and rocks, and frequently in the bed of a stream, for fourteen hours, I arrived in the evening at Yanina. I was disappointed with the first view of the place. The town is built on the side of a sloping hill above the lake; and as my route lay over the top of this hill, I could see but little of the town until I was quite among the houses, most of which were in a ruinous condition. The lake itself, with an island in it on which are the ruins of a palace built by the famous Ali Pasha, is a beautiful object; but the mountains by which it is bounded on the opposite side are barren, yet not sufficiently broken to be picturesque. The scene altogether put me in mind of the Lake of Genesareth as seen from its western shore near Tiberias. There is a plain to the north and north-west, which is partially cultivated, but it is inferior in beauty to the plains of Jericho, and there is no river like the Jordan to light up the scene with its quick and sparkling waters as it glistens among the trees in its journey towards the lake.


I went to the house of an Italian gentleman who was the principal physician of Yanina, and who I understood was in the habit of affording accommodation to travellers in his house. He received me with great kindness and gave me an excellent set of rooms, consisting of a bed-room, sitting-room, and ante-room, all of them much better than those which I occupied in the hotel at Corfu. They were clean and nicely furnished; and altogether, the excellence of my quarters in the dilapidated capital of Albania surprised me most agreeably.


The town appears never to have been repaired since the wars and revolutions which occurred at the time of Ali Pasha's death. The houses resemble those of Greece or southern Italy. They are built, some of stone, and some of wood, with tiled roofs. On the walls of many of them there were vines growing. The bazaars are poor, yet I saw very rich arms displayed in some mean little shops, or stalls, as we should call them; for they are all open, like the booths at a fair. The climate is rainy, and there is no lack of mud in wet weather, and dust when it is dry. The whole place had a miserable appearance, nothing seemed to be going on, and the people have a savage, hang-dog look.


I had a good supper and a good bed, and was awakened the next morning by hearing the servants loud in talk about the news of the day. The subject was truly Albanian. A man who had a shop in the bazaar had quarrelled yesterday with some of his fellow townsmen, and in the night they took him out of his bed and cut him to pieces with their yataghans on the hill above the town. Some people coming by early this morning saw various joints of this unlucky man lying on the ground as they passed.


I occupied myself in looking about the place; and having sent to the palace of the Vizir to request an audience, it was fixed for the next day. There was not much to see, but I afforded a subject of uninterrupted discussion to all beholders, as it appeared I was the only traveller who had been there for some time. I went to bed early because I had no books to read, and it was a bore trying to talk Greek to my host's family; but I had not been asleep long before I was awakened by the intelligence that a party of robbers had concealed themselves in the ruins round the house, and that we should probably be attacked. Up we all got, and loaded our guns and pistols. The women kept flying about everywhere, and, when they ran against each other in the dark, screamed woefully, as they took everybody for a robber. We had no lights that we might not afford good marks for the enemy outside, who, however, kept quiet, and did not shoot at us, although every now and then, we saw a man or two creeping about among the ruins. My host, who was armed with a gun of prodigious length, was in a state of great alarm; and, having sent for assistance, twenty soldiers arrived, who kept guard round the house, but would not venture among the ruins. These valiant heroes relieved each other during the night; but as no robbers made their appearance, I got tired of watching for them, and went quietly to bed again.



November 4, 1834


At nine o'clock in the morning I paid my respects to the Vizir, Mahmoud Pasha, a man with a long nose, and who altogether bore a great resemblance to Pope Benedict XVI. I stayed some hours with him, talking over Turkish matters, and we got into a brisk argument as to whether England was part of London, or London part of England. He appeared to be a remarkably good-natured man, and took great interest in the affairs of Egypt, from which country I had lately arrived, and asked me numberless questions about Mohammed Ali, comparing his character with that of Ali Pasha, who had built this palace, which was in a very ruinous state, for nothing had been expended to keep it in repair. The hall of audience was a magnificent room, richly decorated with inlaid work of mother-of-pearl and tortoise-shell. The ceiling was gilt, and the windows of Venetian plate-glass, but some of them were broken. The floor was loose and almost dangerous; and two holes in the side walls, which had been made by a cannon-ball, were stopped up with pieces of deal board roughly nailed upon the costly inlaid panels. The divan was of red cloth, and a crowd of men, with their girdles stuck full of arms, stood leaning on their long guns at the bottom of the room, listening to our conversation, and laughing loudly whenever a joke was made, but never coming forward beyond the edge of the carpet.


The Pasha offered to give me an escort, as he said that the country at that moment was particularly unsafe; but at length it was settled that he should give me a letter to the commander of the troops at Mezzovo, who would supply me with soldiers to see me safely to the monasteries of Meteora. When I arose to take my leave, he sent for more pipes and coffee, as a signal for me to remain. In short, we became great friends. Whilst I was with him, a pasha of inferior rank came in, and sat on the divan for half an hour without saying a single word or doing anything except looking at me unceasingly. After he had taken his departure, we had some sherbet; and at last I got away, leaving the Pasha in great wonderment at the English government paying large sums of money for the transportation of criminals when cutting off their heads would have been so much more economical and expeditious. Incurring any expense to keep rogues and vagabonds in prison, or to send them away from our own country to be the plague of other lands, appeared to him to be an extraordinary act of folly; and that thieves should be fed and clothed and lodged, while poor and honest people were left to starve, he considered to be contrary to common sense and justice. I laughed at the time at what I thought the curious opinions of the Vizir of Yanina. I have since come to the conclusion that there was some sense in his notions of criminal jurisprudence.


In the afternoon, as I was looking out of the window of my lodging, I saw the Vizir going by with a great number of armed people, and I was told that in the present disturbed state of the country, he never went out to take a ride without all these attendants. First came a hundred lancers on horseback, dressed in a kind of European uniform; then two horsemen, each with a pair of small kettle-drums attached to the front of his saddle. They kept up an unceasing pattering upon these drums as they rode along. This is a Tartar or Persian custom, and in some parts of Tartary the dignity of khan is conferred by strapping these two little drums on the back of the person whom the king delighteth to honour; and then the king beats the drums as the new khan walks slowly round the court. Thus a thing is reckoned a great honour in one part of the world which in another is accounted a disgrace; for when a soldier is incorrigible, we drum him out of the regiment, whilst the Tartar khan is drummed into his dignity. After the drummers came a brilliantly-dressed company of kawasses with silver pistols and yataghans; then several trumpeters; and after them the Vizir himself on a fine tall horse. He was dressed in the new Turkish-Frank style, with the usual red cap on his head, but he had an immense red cloth cloak sumptuously embroidered with gold, which quite covered him, so that no part of the great man was visible, except his eyes, his nose, and one of his hands, upon which was a splendid diamond ring. Two grooms walked by the sides of his horse, each with one hand on the back of the saddle. Everyone bowed as the Vizir went by, and I became a distinguished person from the moment that he gave me a condescending nod. The procession was closed by a crowd of officers and attendants on horseback in gorgeous Albanian dresses, with silver bridles and embroidered housings. They carried what I thought at first were spears, but I soon discovered that they were long pipes; there was quite a forest of them, of all lengths and sizes. When the Vizir was gone and the dust subsided, I strolled out of the town on foot, when I came upon the troops, who were learning the new European exercise. Seeing a man sitting on a carpet in the middle of the plain, I went up to him and found that he was the colonel and commander of this army. So I smoked a pipe with him and discovered that he knew about as much of tactics and military manoeuvres as I did, only he did not take so much interest in the subject. We therefore continued to smoke the pipe of peace on the carpet of reflection, while the soldiers entangled themselves in all sorts of incomprehensible doublings and counter-marches, till at last the whole body was so much puzzled that they stood still all of a heap, like a cluster of bees. The captains shouted, and the poor men turned round and round, trod on each other's heels, kicked each other's shins, and did all they could to get out of the scrape, but they only got more into confusion. At last a bright thought struck the colonel, who took his pipe out of his mouth, and gave orders, in the name of the Prophet, that every man should go home in the best way he could. This they accomplished like a party of schoolboys, running and jumping and walking off in small parties towards the town. The officers wiped the perspiration from their foreheads and strolled off, too, some to smoke a pipe under a tree, and some to repose on their divans and swear at the Franks who had invented such extraordinary evolutions.


In the evening, among the other news of the day, I was told that three men had been walking together in the afternoon. One of them bought a melon, and his two companions, who were very thirsty but had no money, asked him to give them some of it. He would not do so, and, as they worried him about it, he ran into an empty house, and, bolting the door, sat down inside to discuss his purchase in quiet. The other two were determined not to be jockeyed in that manner, and finding a hole in the door, they peeped through and were enraged at seeing him eating the melon inside. He jeered them and said that the melon was excellent, until at last one of them swore he should not eat it all, and putting his pistol through the hole in the door, shot his friend dead. Then they walked away, laughing at their own cleverness in shooting him so neatly through the hole.



November 5, 1834


The next day I went again to the citadel to see the Vizir, but he could not receive me, as news had arrived that the insurgents or robbers - they had entitled themselves to either denomination - had gathered together in force and laid siege to the town of Berat. There had been a good deal of confusion in Yanina before this, but now it appeared to have arrived at a climax. The courtyard of the citadel was full of horses picketed by their head-and-heel ropes, in long rows. Parties of men were, according to their different habits, talking over the events of the day, the Albanians chattering and putting themselves in attitudes; the Arnaouts, or Mohammedans of Greek blood, boasting of the chivalric feats which they intended to perform; and the grave Turks sitting quietly on the ground, smoking their eternal pipes, and taking it all as easily as if they had nothing to do with it. Both before and since these days I have seen a great deal of the Turks, and though, for many reasons, I do not respect them as a nation, still I cannot help admiring their calmness and self-possession in moments of difficulty and danger. There is something noble and dignified in their quietness on these occasions. I have very rarely seen a Turk discomposed. Stately and collected, he sits down and bides his time; but when the moment of action comes, he will rouse himself on a sudden and become full of fire, animation and activity. It is then that you see the descendants of those conquerors of the East whose strong will and fierce courage have given them the command over all the nations of Islam.


Although I could not obtain an audience with the Vizir, one of the people who were with me managed to send a message to him that I should be glad of the letter, or firman, which he had promised me, and by which I might command the services of an escort, if I thought fit to do so. This man had influence at court, for he had a friend who was chiboukji to the Vizir's secretary, or prime minister - a sly Greek, whose acquaintance I had made two days before. The pipe-bearer, propitiated by a trifling bribe, spoke to his master, and he spoke to the Vizir, who promised I should have the letter; and it came accordingly in the evening, properly signed and sealed, and all in heathen Greek, of which I could make out a word here and there, but what it was about was entirely beyond my comprehension.


Whilst waiting the result of these negotiations, I had leisure to notice the warlike movements which were going on around me. I saw a train of two or three hundred men on horseback issuing out from the citadel, and riding slowly along the plain in the direction of Berat. They were sent to raise the siege; and other troops were preparing to follow them. As I watched these horsemen winding across the plain in a long line, with the sun glancing upon their arms, they seemed like a great serpent, with its glittering scales, gliding along to seek for its prey; and in some respects the simile would hold good, for this detachment would be the terror of the inhabitants of every district through which it passed. Rapine, violence and oppression would mark its course; friend and foe would alike be plundered; and the villages which had not been burned by the insurgent klephti would be sacked and ruined by the soldiers of the government.


As I descended from the citadel, I passed numerous parties of armed men, all full of excitement about the plunder they would get and the mighty deeds they would perform; for the danger was a good way off, and they were all brimful of valour. In the bazaar all was business and bustle. Everybody was buying arms. Long guns and silver pistols, all ready loaded, I believe, with fiery-looking flints as big as sandwiches, wrapped up first in a bit of red cloth, and then in a sort of open work of lead or tin, were being handed about; and the spirit of commerce was in full activity. Great was the haggling among the dealers. One man walked off with a mace; another, expecting to perform as mighty deeds as Richard Coeur-de-Lion, bought an old battle-axe and swung it about to show how he would cut heads off with it before long. Another champion had included among his warlike accoutrements a curious, ancient-looking silver clock, which dangled by his side from a multitude of chains. It was square in shape, and must have been provided with a strong constitution inside if it could go while it was banged about at every step the man took. This worthy, I imagine, intended to kill time, for his purchase did not seem calculated to cope with any other enemy. He had, however, two or three pistols and daggers in addition to his clock. An oldish, hard-featured man was buying a quantity of that abominably sour white cheese which is the pride of Albania, and a quantity of black olives, which he was cramming into a pair of old saddle-bags, whilst his horse beside him was quietly munching his corn in a sack tied over his nose. There was a look of calm efficiency about this man which contrasted strongly with the swaggering air of the crowd around him. He was evidently an old hand; and I observed that he had laid in a stock of ball cartridges - an article in which but little money was spent by the buyers of yataghans in silver sheaths and silver cartridge-boxes.


'Hallo, sir Frank!' cried one or two of these gay warriors, 'come out with us to Berat. Come and see us fight, and you will see something worth travelling for.'


'Ay,' said I, 'it's all up with the enemy, that's quite certain. They will be in a pretty scrape, to be sure, when you arrive. I would not be one of them for a good deal!'


'Sono molto feroci questi palicari,' said my guide.

'O yes, they are terrible fellows!' I replied.

'What does the Frank say?' they asked.

'He says you are terrible fellows.'

'Ah! I think we are, indeed. But don't be afraid, Frank, don't be afraid!'

'No,' said I, 'I won't, and I wish you good luck on your way to Berat and back again.'


This night the people had been so much occupied in purchasing the implements of death that I heard no accounts of any new murders. In fact it had been a dull day in that respect; but no doubt they would make up for it before long.



[from Robert Curzon: Visits to Monasteries in the Levant, London 1849, reprinted as: Visits to Monasteries in the Levant. Introduction by John Julius Norwich. London: Century 1983, p. 254 271.]


Photo of Janina, 1862.