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Robert Elsie

Texts and Documents of Albanian History

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Albanian costume (Joseph Cartwright, 1822)

Albanian costume
(Joseph Cartwright, 1822)
Webdesign J. Groß

James Henry Skene:
The Albanians

Scottish traveller and diplomat, James Henry Skene (1812-1886), lived for twenty years in the “east” and served as British consul in Aleppo from March 1855 to about 1877. As author of “Anadol: the Last Home of the Faithful” (London 1853) and “The Frontier Lands of the Christian and the Turk, Comprising Travel in the Regions of the Lower Danube in 1850 and 1851" (London 1853), he showed a lively interest in the peoples of the Ottoman Empire, including the Albanians. The present article was read before the Ethnological Society of London in June 1848, and appeared in the “Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal” in 1849 and in the “Journal of the Ethnological Society of London” in 1850. Skeene provides a typical account of Western knowledge of the Albanians in the mid-nineteenth century.


Albanian Wedding Rejoicings, 1892

Albanian Wedding Rejoicings, 1892

Albanian Wedding Rejoicings,

There are three principal distinctions among the inhabitants of the Greek provinces, still forming a part of the Turkish empire. The Osmanlis, of pure Asiatic blood, and the Greeks, are two of these great families, differing in race and in faith: the third, which is composed of the Albanian nation, is distinct from either of them, with respect to its origin and descent, while it is divided between the two religious sects to which they belong. In habits, appearance, character, and language, the Albanians are also eminently dissimilar from both the Greeks and the Turks; and they side, in faith, partly with the Christians and partly with the Mahometans. These three races now live in close contact with each other; and they are at such constant variance, on every subject which implies the slightest interest in common, that a great political change can alone produce an approximation of feeling among them.

The Turks and Greeks have been so often the subject of the lucubrations of travellers and political speculators, that their characteristics are comparatively well known in the west of Europe. The Albanians have attracted less attention; and, when they have been taken into consideration as a nation, they have generally been misrepresented or confounded with the other inhabitants of European Turkey. The Mahometan Albanians have thus been identified with the Osmanlis, and the Christians with the Greeks; while the ferocious and treacherous character of one of their tribes has been attributed to the whole nation.

The Albanians are divided into four tribes. These are, the Gheghides and Mirdites, the Toskides, the Tsamides, and the Liapides.

The Gheghides, who boast of having numbered among them such a hero as Scanderbeg, unite, according to the learned topographer of Greece (Colonel Leake), “the cruelty of the Albanian to the dulness of the Bulgarian.” They have long enjoyed a greater share of independence, under the Pashas of Scodra, than any other of the Albanian tribes. They are equally good soldiers with the latter, and have preserved more of their natural stubbornness, from the fact of their having been less often employed as such by the Turks. Their country extends from the frontier of the Austrian territory of Cattaro round the Montenegro, which may be considered an independent state; and, following the ridges which unite it to Mount Scardus, it reaches the Herzegovina, while it is bounded on the south by the river Drino. Scutari, or Scodra, is their chief town, and Dulcigno, Alessio, and Durazzo belong to them.

The Mirdites are merely a branch of the Gheg tribe, and they speak the same dialect. They occupy the pashalik of Croja, and their capital is Oros. Many of them are Roman Catholics.

The tribe of the Ghegs and Mirdites are of lofty stature and athletic frame; and their swarthy complexion and black eyes still retain the characteristics of their supposed Caucasian origin. The distinguishing mark in the dress of these two sections of the same family is, that the jacket of the Ghegs is red, and that of the Mirdites is black. Both branches of the tribe are entitled to much credit for their daring disobedience to the tyrant Ali Pasha, when he ordered them to fire upon and destroy the remnant of the Gardikiotes, which he had enclosed in a courtyard for cold-blooded butchery.

The Toskides are the most handsome of the Albanians. They have noble features, with fair hair and blue eyes, indicating the mixture of Georgian blood, which probably flows in their veins : less warlike than their countrymen of the other tribes, their stature is also less Herculean. They are supposed to have derived their name from the Toxidae, mentioned by Chardin as inhabiting Mingrelia. The country now occupied by this tribe lies to the south of that of the Ghegs and Mirdites, and extends to the river Vojutza. It is called by themselves Toskouria. Their chief places are Elbassan and Berat, called by the Turks Arnaout Belgrad, in order to distinguish it from Belgrade on the Danube. Tepellene, the birth-place of Ali Pasha, is now included in their territory, although it was formerly considered as belonging to the infamous Liapides. The great despot declared it, however, to be in Toskouria, and no one dared to gainsay him on a point which affected the respectability of his origin. The women of the Toske tribe are remarkable for their beauty, like those of Georgia, whence they issue, according to the conjecture of some antiquaries.

The Liapides are the worst of the Albanian tribes. Living only by rapine and murder, they offer the most frightful picture of a degraded state of society; and their evil name has sullied the reputation of the whole nation. They infest the roads, plundering the wayfarer, and often ransacking villages. They convert their booty into arms, curious collections of which may be found in their mountain-homes, whither they retire at the end of their roving campaign. They are cruel, fierce, and treacherous,—of forbidding countenances and sinister expression, and short and ungainly in person. Their dress displays the greatest possible want of cleanliness, and they even pride themselves on allowing it to rot on their bodies. They consider this to be a proof of warlike habits, and they boast of a brave countryman being washed only three times, namely, at his birth, his marriage, and his death. Liapouria, which includes the whole country inhabited by the Liapides, extends as far south as the plain of Delvino, and is composed of bleak and barren hills, feathered with trees only near their base. The proneness of these rude highlanders to lead a life of plunder, and their filthy habits, aided by the great similarity of the names, the d, or delta of modern Greek, being pronounced like th, have given rise to a conjecture, that they may be the remains of the ancient Lapithrae.

"Bashibazouk” (Léon Gérôme, ca. 1857)

"Bashibazouk” (Léon Gérôme, ca. 1857)

(Léon Gérôme, ca. 1857)
The Tsamides are the most peaceable and industrious of the tribes, and are devoted to trade and agriculture. The purity of race has been less scrupulously preserved than with the northern tribes, yet they are for the most part fair-haired. They dress with great splendour, their clothes being covered with gold lace and embroidery, and they carry arms like their more warlike countrymen, notwithstanding that they do not make so much use of them. They inhabit the country, watered by the Thyamis, which is opposite the island of Corfu, and the regions about the river Acheron, extending nearly as far as the gulf of Ambracia, on the south. They call their territory Tsamouriá, which, together with the name of Tsamis which they bear, is probably derived from the river Thyamis. The site of the well-known Soali is in this district, as also the ancient Buthrotam, now a small military position seen from the town of Corfu. Margariti, Paramythia, and Philates, are their principal towns.

The existence of a nation in the very heart of Greece, which is totally different from the original inhabitants in manners, appearance, language, and costume, has naturally roused the curiosity of antiquaries, and given rise to much research on the subject of their origin.

The Albanian language being merely oral, the want of written documents renders their history exceedingly obscure, and the silence preserved by the Greek and Byzantine writers on the subject has reduced the data within a very narrow compass. They are called Arvaniti by the Greeks, and Arnaout by the Turks, both names being derived, along with that of Albanians, from the Albanes, an ancient people of the shores of the Caspian Sea, which may have incorporated itself with the Illyrians. The town of Elbassan or Albanopolis in Illyrian Macedonia, took its name from them, as it is supposed to have been built by a horde of these Asiatic barbarians, who were driven to the coast of the Adriatic by the advancing tribes of the east. In their own language they call themselves Skipetar, which name bears some affinity with that of the Skitekip, mentioned by the Armenian geographers as inhabiting a territory near the Caspian. One of the best authorities on the subject (Colonel Leake) compares the name of Skipetar with that of the Selapitani, a people of Illyria, noticed by Livy. The modern denomination of Liapides may be derived from this ancient tribe, rather than from the still more ancient Lapithae, as the name becomes almost the same when the first two letters are suppressed, and the termination, which is always variable, altered. A similarity of names, however, is but a feeble indication of the origin of a people or town, especially in a country where so many dialectic changes have taken place, and it often leads into error. For instance, there is a village near Elbassan, which bears the name of Pekin, without the slightest difference from that of the great city of the Celestial Empire; but it cannot be said, even by the wildest etymologist, to be inhabited by a people in any way kindred to the Chinese.

Another hypothesis holds that the Albanians derive their origin from Alba, in Italy, and that they are the descendants of a colony of the Praetorian guards, dismissed from Rome, by the Emperor Septimius Severus, for having been accessory to the assassination of Pertinax. Their dress, the words coming from Latin roots, which are to be found in their language, and a vague tradition prevalent among themselves, support this idea. Chalcocondyles thinks that the Albanians came from the other side of the Adriatic. But, as Justin says, that the Albani of Asia were originally brought by Hercules from Italy, the Albanians may have been first Italian, and then Asiatic, although their migration, in this case, must have been much anterior to the time of Septimius Severus. The Albans of Asia, mentioned by Tacitus, occupied the modern country of Shirvan.

Little is known about them, however, previously to their occupation of parts of Macedonia and Epirus, excepting that they entered these provinces from Illyria, and nothing else has hitherto been proved on the subject. They are supposed to have overrun Epirus about the time of the fall of the Byzantine Empire. In advancing towards the south, they also spread over the greatest part of Greece Proper, and many villages of the Morea are Albanian. Indeed, with the exception of the Mainotes or modern Spartans, the most warlike communities of Greece, such as the islands of Hydra and Spetzia, are formed of this nation, and not of Greeks. Attica, Argolis, Phocis, and Boetia, are likewise all peopled by them, and there are Albanian colonies even in Calabria and Sicily.

The Albanians call their language Skipt. It is totally different from the Turkish. Greek, and Sclavonian dialects, and it contains a great number of words, closely resembling the Spanish, French, and Italian languages. This would imply that they had undergone some process of amalgamation with the remains of Roman armies. If this had not been really the effect of their descent from the Praetorian guards, it might be attributed to an admixture with the troops of Roger, king of Apulia, who fled to these mountains, and took refuge there. Some of his soldiers may have remained as settlers. The Albanian dress, also, is an exact antitype of that of the Roman army, with the exception of the helmet, which has been replaced by the red skull-cap, and, of the coat of mail, which is imitated by the close embroidery on the jacket. There are, likewise, Gothic words in the Albanian language. These must have been derived from the incursions of Alaricus, in the fifth century, when his Goths made themselves masters of Epirus. It is recorded by Procopius, that Goths were to be found settled in Dalmatia, when Justinian forcibly annexed that country to the Roman Empire. Some of them may, therefore, probably have remained also in Albania. Now, the ancient Illyrian language was as completely distinct from the Greek tongue, and, if it is not now extant in the form of the Skipt or Albanian, it must be concluded that it has totally disappeared; which is hardly credible. There is no record in history of the extinction of the Illyrian language and people. If, then, the modern Albanians came directly from Alba, in Italy, as some assert, what can have become of that ancient tribe and dialect? The first mention of the Albanians, by the Byzantine historians, although cursory and imperfect, represents them as they now are; and Ptolemy, the geographer, who is the first of the ancient authors to notice them, distinctly places them in Illyria. Anna Comnena makes the next allusion to them; so that history is totally silent on the subject of this people during ten centuries. It appears, however, that they were known, at a much more remote period; for Dion Cassino, in enumerating the Roman conquests, implies that he knew of another Albania. Therefore it is impossible to assign a later date to their settlement in Illyria, with any degree of plausibility, as some do, because this proves that they had then already separated from their mother tribe in Asia. They had probably become incorporated with the ancient Illyrians, and both races are now represented by the modern Albanians. As the remains of the Illyrians, they have perhaps altered less, during this long succession of ages, than any other people of Europe. The study of this tribe is, therefore, the more interesting, inasmuch as it is almost an initiation into the habits and condition of a nation of past time, while much remains, even in their physical appearance, to recall the admixture with a still more ancient Asiatic tribe. This is corroborated by one of the most intelligent and also learned of the English who have seen this people (Dr Hughes). He says, that “the features of the Albanian, his narrow forehead, his keen grey eye, small mouth, thin arched eyebrow, high cheekbones, and pointed chin, strongly mark a Scythian physiognomy.”

After Anna Comnena, the first mention of the Albanians, in the middle ages, is by Nicephorus Bryennius, who describes them as having formed part of the army of Nicephorus Basilaces, when he rebelled against his Emperor Nicephorus Botaniates, and was vanquished and taken by Alexius Comnenus, in the year 1109. They next received the aid of the Normans against the Greeks, and Robert Guiscard, who led them, together with his son Bohemoud, took Durazzo, Ochrida, and Jannina. Durazzo was well defended by George Palaeologus, who waited for the coming of Alexius Comnenus, the father of the historian Anna Comnena. Again, in the end of the twelfth century, the Norman kings of Sicily, with their relatives the princes of Taranto, formed permanent settlements in Albania, under the Byzantine emperors, Andronicus Comnenus and Isaac Angelus. The Albanians were thus early connected with the natives of the west. The Crusades next left a sensible impression on this people, as their ports were constantly resorted to by the Frank chiefs, during at least a century and a half; and Durazzo, in particular, was the depôt of the crusaders. In the beginning of the thirteenth century, when the oriental empire fell to pieces, on account of the occupation of Constantinople by the Franks, a principality of Albania was founded by an illegitimate son of one of the Comneni, named Michael Angelus, and it existed for more than two centuries, under the title of the Despotate. Jannina was the capital of this state, and Albanopolis also became one of its principal towns. Theodore Lascaris the Second, emperor of Nicea, sent a Praetor to the latter place, in the year 1257, hoping to recover it; but the Albanians preferred the protection of the despot to that of the emperor, and the praetor, who was the historian Acropolita, was obliged to abandon it. In the same century, they plundered the city of Durazzo, which had been destroyed by a violent earthquake; but they afterwards rebuilt it themselves. Pachymer, who records this in his history of the reign of Michael Palaeologus calls them Albanians and Illyrians indiscriminately; and he says that they enjoyed acknowledged independence of the Greek emperor, and were allies of Charles king of Sicily, who then occupied the island of Corfu and the town of Kanina, anciently Bullis, near Aulon. In the year 1294, Philip, duke of Taranto, the son of Charles the Second, king of the Sicilies, having married the daughter of the despot Nicephorus, received possession of some territory in this country, and called himself Lord of Albania.  This title descended to his brother and nephew, but these Latin princes never enjoined much authority on this side of the Adriatic. The Albanians are next mentioned by Cantacuzenus, as having aided Andronicus Palaeologus, in his struggle with his grandfather, in 1327, and as having submitted to him, in number about 12,000, when he, being then sole emperor, made an incursion in IIlyrian Macedonia against some rebels of their race. The historian says, that it was in Thessaly; but it is more probable that his knowledge of geography was deficient, than that the Albanians were ever to be found in Thessaly. The same emperor took advantage of the death of the despot John, in the year 1338, and the minority of his son Nicephorus, to revenge himself on the Albanians, for their frequent attacks on his towns, and to overthrow the despotate. In this he was reinforced by a body of Asiatic Turks, which was the first appearance in Epirus of the future lords of the country. Two Albanian chiefs, named Balza and Spata, became formidable to the Byzantine empire about this period, as is related by the historian Chalcocondyles. Towards the commencement of the fifteenth century, the Albanians came under the rule of a sovereign from the west of Europe in the person of Charles Tocco, who was made despot by the Emperor Manuel Palaeologus. He was one of the Frank princes of the Ionian Islands, and he took the independent possession of Epirus Proper and Acarnania from them. The Turks now commenced their invasion of Albania, although the first battle which had been fought against them, dated as far back as the year 1383. It took place near Berot, and the Albanians were totally routed by the army of the Sultan Murat the First, their general, the only son of Balza, being killed on the occasion. By the year 1431 they were nearly subdued by the Turks, although their total reduction was warded off for some years longer by the brave Scanderbeg and his father-in-law Arianita Topia. Their last struggle was the siege of Scodra, which was described by a native and eyewitness, Marinus Barletius, in a Latin publication, dated at Venice, 1504. The defence was conducted by a Venetian general, and the attack by Mahomet the Second himself. The Albanians displayed a degree of gallantry worthy of their warlike name, in baffling the utmost efforts of a greatly superior number of troops during a whole year, until famine reduced them to the necessity of yielding. The Venetians then stepped in to protect them, and obtained for them an honourable retreat to Venice as refugees, while the town was given up to the Turks. Since then, the Ottoman dominion over the Albanians has been nominally undisputed, but the authority of the Sultan has never been sufficient to enable him to suppress the spirit of revolt which is still strong within them.

This is nearly all that is known of the history of the Albanians, and, although it is uncertain and obscure, still several heroes of this race have arisen to adorn its pages. There is first the great Scanderbeg; then the more ancient Balsa and Spata; there is Ali Pasha of the present century; and in the last, Ghalil or Patrona. The latter headed a sudden revolution which overwhelmed the capital in 1730, and he became absolute master of Constantinople, as recorded by Lord Sandwich.

Many communities of Albanians, which were formerly Christian, have become followers of Mahomet. Some of these were forced to become apostates by Badjazet, their conqueror, very few having had the constancy to resist this conversion by means of the sword. There were, however, instances of fidelity to the Cross, under the most difficult and trying circumstances, the most remarkable of which were the Souliotes, Chimariotes, and Parganotes, who remained faithful to the Greek Church, and the Mirdites, to that of Rome. Others again changed their religion from motives of interest and ambition. One inducement to adopt the Mussulman faith, which was held out to the Albanians by the Turkish government, was in the shape of a law, securing their property to each family which should bring up one of their sons as a Mahometan. Many proselytes were thus gained, and the succession of land was diverted from the Christians to the Mussulmen. Again, soldiers by necessity and from choice, the Albanians could attain rank and power only through a conformity of faith with their military superiors; while religion sat so lightly on this class of the population, that it was of little consequence to themselves which rite they followed, as they were never strict in the observance of any form of worship. This was not the case with the Greeks of Albania; for not only Christianity seems to have taken a much deeper root in them, but also their prospects in life did not depend so immediately on a recantation of religion. The adoption of Mahometanism was certainly advantageous, in a worldly point of view, to the whole Christian population of European Turkey; but the pursuits of most of the Greeks did not render them exclusively dependent on it for their welfare, as occurred with the Albanians. More addicted to commerce, the Greeks cherished rather any connections which they could form with Western Europeans; or, when induced by vocation or persecution to become soldiers, they preferred the life of the free Klepht to that of the organised Armatoli bands.  Their religion was then optional, and they rarely became renegades. This tendency evidenced the natural breach which existed between the Albanians and the Greeks; and the Turks were wily enough to foresee the advantage which they might derive from it by making use of the former against the latter. Indeed, it is an undoubted fact, that the Turkish government succeeded in keeping Greece in subjection, up to the time of the revolution, solely by means of the Mussulman Albanians. Gratitude has not been the recompense of the latter, for the Osmanli despises the Mussulman Skipetar, even more than he does the Christian Greek. They have earned the just reward of all traitors and renegades, having betrayed their country and renounced the true faith. A curse seems to have settled on this unhappy people; and they deserved it for the rejection of that Gospel which was given to them by St Paul himself, before their descent into Epirus. For the great Apostle of the Gentiles preached “round about unto Illyricum.” Their present state proves that they have inherited the doom which was entailed on them by their apostate forefathers. Unhappy in their faith, and mistrusted of both Greeks and Turks, there is little doubt, however, that they might again be restored to Christendom, were the Albanians, who have not abandoned the cross for the crescent, admitted to equal privileges. There are still many of the latter class, as one of the best authorities on this subject (Colonel Leake) gives it as his opinion, that only one half of the Albanian nation has relinquished their fidelity. Christianity seems, however, never to have taken a very firm hold on this race, which is morally and intellectually, if not in strength and physical courage, greatly inferior to the Greeks. Their interests dictated their apostasy; and however unworthy the motive may be, a similar agency may lead back these lost sheep to the fold. The very readiness which many of them shewed to adopt Islamism, is an earnest of their easy recantation and return; and, were the allurements of military advancement to be equally the right of every distinguished soldier, whether Moslem or Giaour, the Mahometan Albanians would probably again become Christians. This would most likely be the first effect— and it is no paltry or insignificant one—of the emancipation of the latter in Turkey, and of the establishment of a complete system of general and mutual religious tolerance, provided always that it is enforced, and does not remain a mere project on paper, unseen and unfelt in real life. A radical change in this, as well as in their social and political circumstances, would certainly afford tranquillity to these restless and rapacious tribes, which, in their present state, are constantly at war among themselves.

An incident occurred about two months ago, which illustrates the actual condition of society in Epirus, while it is also highly characteristic of the primitive and patriarchal manners of the Albanians. A feud had existed for some time between two villages of the Tsami and Liapi tribes, and various acts of reciprocal vexation had kept it alive, without its having exploded, until now, in open hostilities and bloodshed. These were produced on this occasion by the following circumstance. A Tsami shepherd, being alone on the hill, was overpowered by a party of Liapides, and his flock of sheep was driven by the latter to the wild mountains of the Chimara. A detachment belonging to the village of the Tsami was bold enough to enter this rugged and hostile country in search of the stolen sheep, or of revenge. They met a number of Liapi, inhabitants of the obnoxious village; the sheep were demanded and refused, a volley of abuse ensued on both sides, and the signal for action was given. The manoeuvres consisted for some time in their favourite mode of fighting, which resembles the service of riflemen; they fired at each other from a considerable distance, and sheltered by trees and rocks. But emissaries had been dispatched, at the commencement of the fight, for succour by both contending parties, and in a few hours hundreds were engaged. Not many, however, had been killed and wounded as yet, considering the mode of skirmishing which was going on, but in a short time they would have thrown down their long guns and used their pistols and yataghans. The Albanians are in the habit of rushing upon each other with loud shouts, when their fury is lashed into charging order by a few successful shots. On this occasion, before they had come to close quarters, several of the old men of the respective villages had come to the spot, and one of the Liapi tribe, who was respected for his age and wisdom, called out that he demanded a parley. It was immediately granted, and in a few minutes the scene was totally changed. Ten or a dozen of the patriarchs of both tribes were now seated on the ground, smoking their long pipes and discussing the terms of peace in the most solemn manner, while the palicara or fighting men stood around them, leaning on the muzzles of their guns, looking fierce at each other, and twisting their long mustachios. The killed and wounded of both parties, being but few in number, were already in the hands of the women, who are never far distant from a scene of conflict; and, on comparing notes, it was found that the respective tribes had suffered an equal loss in this way. The old men of the Liapides then tendered an offer of restoring the stolen flock of sheep, but the Tsami spokesmen demurred, on the plea of the proverbial bad faith of the former clan. They therefore asked for hostages, or security in money. None of the latter article was forthcoming, so the Liapi offered an amount of solid silver equalling thirty okes, or nearly ninety pounds weight. This was accepted as a pledge, and the one tribe had such a degree of confidence in the oath and honour of the other, that they agreed not only to leave their property in their hands, but also to disarm themselves by doing so, for the silver, which was of much greater value than the sheep, consisted in the mountings of guns and pistols, in cartouch boxes, and in hilts of yataghans. The oaths were sworn, the silver was handed over, and the late combatants separated, amicably wishing each other lives of a thousand years. A few days later the sheep were found at sunrise quietly grazing near the Tsami village whence they had been stolen; and the silver was immediately deposited in a ruined church half way on the road to the Liapi village. Thus terminated the feud for the present, although the feeling of hostility has very little abated, and will again burst forth in the same way at the first opportunity. The Turkish government took no notice whatever of this affair. An often-quoted author (Colonel Leake) says of the Albanians, that “they are in the constant habit of either warring upon each other, or of hiring themselves to some powerful chieftain of Albania, or of seeking their fortunes as mercenary troops in other parts of the empire. Although preserving a marked distinction from the Greeks, in form and physiognomy, having light eyes and high cheek-bones, they resemble very much in character and manners, the natives of the more mountainous and independent districts of Greece. They possess, perhaps, more evenness of conduct, more prudence, more fidelity to their employers, and, at the same time, more selfishness, avidity, and avarice; but there is found among them the same rigid observance of religious prejudices, the same superstitions, the same active, keen, and enterprising genius, the same hardy, patient, and laborious habits.” This is certainly a portrait drawn from the life, and it is strikingly resembling, although there is one point which does not now appear to be an exact copy of the original, but the lapse of years since the picture was painted may account for the discrepancy. The valuable work (Researches in Greece), from which the extract is taken, was published more than thirty years ago, and then the Albanian may have been more wedded to “religious prejudices and superstitions” than he is now. It is a sad state of society for the century in which it exists, and for the geographical position of the country, which is so near the civilized nations of Europe. But even, bad as it is, it fosters many fine qualities in the Albanians, which are brought out by their adventurous life. For instance, they possess great presence of mind when exposed to danger, and in general they know not of the existence of such a feeling as the fear of death. They are strong and fine-looking men, with the exception of the Liapi tribe, and bear in their gait and carriage a consciousness of physical power and determined courage. A well-known traveller (Dr Holland) says, when landing in Epirus, “the Albanian peasant or soldier, words which, in this country, seem to be almost synonymous, is here seen in the completeness of his national character and costume.  Generally masculine in his person, having features which shew him not subdued into the tameness of slavery, and with a singular stateliness of his walk and carriage, the manner of his dress adds to these peculiarities, and renders the whole figure more striking and picturesque than any other with which I am acquainted. They are devoted and obedient to their chiefs, whom they love, and follow from generation to generation. A species of hereditary and feudal aristocracy thus exists, and its power among themselves is unlimited. The title of these nobles is that of Bey, which originates with the Albanians. Many of this people know no language but their own; and those who can speak Greek are easily recognised by their strong guttural accent. Their conduct to their women is one of the worst traits in their character: they marry, as they would buy a donkey, not to enjoy conjugal happiness, but to have their fire-wood carried home, and to have their provisions conveyed to and from the nearest market. They are constantly to be seen on the road, riding the horse whose load has been transferred to the back of the master’s wife; and the poor creature, bent nearly double as she creeps slowly along, is perhaps knitting a stocking for her husband all the time. This has been remarked by most of those who have visited the country; and one of them (Dr Hughes) thus describes the state of the Albanian women: “They are in general too poor to avail themselves of the license which their religion grants for polygamy, but are content with one wife, who is chosen like any other animal, more for a slave or drudge than for a companion. They are by no means jealous of their women, nor do they confine them like the Turks and Greeks. The wretched creature of a wife, with one or two infants tied in a bag behind her back, cultivates the ground, and attends to the household affairs by turns, whilst her lordly master ranges over the forest in search of game, guards the flocks, or watches behind a rock with his fusil ready to aim at the unwary traveller. These women are in general hard-featured, with complexions rendered coarse by exposure to all varieties of weather, and with persons attenuated by constant toil and scanty fare. In some districts they meet with better treatment, and are found ready to share the dangers of war with the men, as well as the labours of agriculture” (Travels in Greece and Albania, vol. ii, p. 106). But the least expression of compassion from a stranger enrages them, for they consider their bondage honourable; and the only disgrace with them is to be without children, or to remain unmarried.

The Albanians are compared with the Highlanders of Scotland, by a writer (Mr Urquhart) well acquainted with their present state, and their character and habits, as well as their dress and appearance, certainly bear a strong mutual resemblance. Active and daring, hardy and frugal, they may become the finest light infantry in the world; and, in fact, the Turkish ranks are solely dependent upon them for that branch of their army. They were first employed as regular soldiers in the time of the Byzantine empire, when the bands of Armatoli were formed; and the Turks were wise enough to continue this system of militia, for the defence of the many defiles and mountain-passes of continental Greece. They had also the responsible protection of all the roads, when brigandage was rife; and although the travellers in general suffered robbery equally frequently, yet a strict superior officer could make the system efficacious. A chief functionary under the Turks commanded them, with the title of Dervendji Bashi, from the Persian word derbend, or pass; and it was this post which commenced the extraordinary career of Ali Pasha of Jannina. He made the Armatoli so efficient as road-guards, that highway robbery was effectually put a stop to. One of his expedients to intimidate by example was to cut off the hands and feet of all the brigands whom he captured, and to leave them on the most frequented roads to die of hunger, and the effects of their mutilation. So appalling an example did not, as it is said, require a very frequent repetition, for in a short time the roads became as secure to travellers as those of the most civilized countries; and a man might have walked in perfect safety, with his purse in his hand, from one end of the province to the other. The terror of Ali’s name alone was an invisible Aegis to protect him.

Besides the three great families of Turks, Greeks, and Albanians, there are to be found, in the Greek provinces of European Turkey, two other tribes, equally distinct from these and from each other, though infinitely less numerous. These are the Bulgarians and the Vlachs.

The Bulgarians are a race of Sclavonian origin, and are supposed by some to have been a tribe of the Huns. Their physical appearance is totally different from that of the Greeks and Albanians. More powerful in form, they are of a heavy build, while their features are coarser, and devoid of the acute and intelligent expression which is so remarkable in the Greek and even in the Albanian physiognomy. The Bulgarians are brave but cruel, strong workmen, but brutal in their habits and manners; and the best and most advantageous of their characteristics is their aptness for country labour. They are, in fact, the best agriculturists of European Turkey: diligent husbandmen, they have consequently spread their colonies partly over Thrace, and partially even in Macedonia; although in the middle ages they had extended them over the greatest part of what is called now European Turkey.

The Bulgarians crossed the Danube before the reign of Justinian, and kept constantly pouring down from the vast plains of Poland, Lithuania, and Russia, during the sixth century; and they continued gradually gaining ground in the fine countries of Macedonia and Illyria, until the fall of the Byzantine empire. Their relations with the emperors were those of peace, when it was purchased by the latter, or of hostilities generally successful on their part; and they consequently overran a large part of the empire. They made a permanent alliance in the year 360, with Michael the Third, which stipulated, by treaty, their conversion to Christianity; and, on the other hand, the grant to them of a tract of hilly country around Mount Rhodope, to which they gave the name of Zagorá, still extant. In the tenth century they are said by the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogeunctus to have occupied even the Peloponnesus, and he dates their possession of it from the time of the Emperor Constantine Copronymus, in the eighth century. The epitomiser of Strabo, who wrote in the time of Basil Bulgaroctonus, that is about the year 1000, goes further, and gives the whole of Greece to the Bulgarians, whom he calls Scythian Sclavonians. They established their capital at Achris or Achrida, the ancient Lychnides, and, their chief, by name Peter, was dignified with the title of King by the Emperor Romanus, who gave him also his granddaughter in marriage. When this town was destroyed by Basil the Second, at the opening of the eleventh century, a treasure was found by him there, amounting to the weight of ten thousand pounds in gold. The Bulgarians had driven the Albanians back to the more mountainous tracts of country, but the destruction of their capital Achris enabled the latter to gain head again, and it is then that they first appear on the page of history as acting a conspicuous part. The Bulgarians however recovered their power before another century had elapsed, and they extended to the southernmost parts of Epirus; Cedrenus records, in confirmation of this, that they had even taken possession of Nicopolis. They formed an alliance with the Blacks in the year 1186, and rebelled together against the Greek empire; they succeeded in founding another kingdom, of which Turnovo was the capital.

The Bulgarians have fallen very much in power, although they have not become incorporated with any of the other portions of the population of European Turkey. They still remain a distinct people, and they occupy different parts of Macedonia, Illyria, and even Thessaly, where they devote themselves solely to agriculture. Many places which were formerly possessed by them, have fallen to the share of the Greeks and Albanians; and the Bulgarians have left traces of their occupation, in the names of these towns, by adding the Slavonian terminations ovo, avo, ista, itza or itzi.

Their language is a corrupt Sclavonian dialect, and their religion is that of the Eastern Christian Church, although some of them have espoused the Mahometan faith. Rude and ignorant, they still seem to retain the same habits which they possessed before their descent from the forests of Russia and Poland; and, with their kinsmen the Servians, Bosniacs, and Croatians, they form a family, totally distinct from the Greeks and Albanians.

The Blacks are chiefly migratory shepherds originally from Wallachia, but now to be found all over Turkey in Europe, and even in free Greece. They possess large flocks, which they move from the hills to the plains, and vice versa, according to the season; living on the produce of these, they attempt no species of agriculture or settlement, in general. They still hold, however, several towns and villages, which were taken by them in their first incursions. Well armed and courageous, they are ready to protect their lives and property, but it is rare that they act on the offensive or become Klephti. The celebrated Catz Antoni was an exception however to this statement; and the Greek revolution also roused them to take a part in it. The Blacks of the towns are good artisans, and the best goldsmiths are of this tribe; they make the silver yataghan hilts and mounting of fire-arms, which the Greeks and Albanians are so fond of investing their money in; and the rough cloaks, called cappa or capotes, are made by them, forming an article of extensive manufacture and exportation.

The Wallachians of Greece or Blacks are first mentioned in history about the eleventh and twelfth centuries; they are noticed by the travelling Jew, Benjamin of Tudela, by Anna Comnena, and by Nicetas in the thirteenth century; and the latter author states, that their settlements were on Mont Haemus. Towards the end of the twelfth century, when they joined the Bulgarians in their revolt against the weak Emperor Isaac Angelus, they contributed so greatly to the foundation of the second Bulgarian kingdom, that two of their own chiefs, Peter and Asan, were the first of its kings. In the year 1205, under their third king, John, they were instrumental in an eminent degree towards the gaining of the great battle of Adrianople by the total defeat of the Franks, which led to the dethronement of Baldwin, Emperor of Byzantium, and his subsequent death in captivity. When their power was greatest, in the end of the twelfth century, a part of the province of Macedonia, with several forts, was successfully held by Chrysus, one of their chiefs, against the utmost endeavours of the Emperor Alexius Angelus to take them. Anna Comnena next represents them as being, in her time, exactly as they are now, a wandering hardy race of shepherds. Nicetas calls them cruel, and relates the havoc which they made in Thrace during the reigns of the Emperors Andronicus Comnenus, Isaac Angelus, Alexius Angelus, and Baldwin. He says that they had not yet been converted to Christianity, and this historian wrote about the year 1200. But the Blacko-Bulgarian kingdom was for a time attached to the See of Rome by Pope Innocent the Third, therefore their conversion must be ascribed to some date in that interval. The correspondence on this subject with the Archbishop of Zagorei, alludes to the Italian origin of the Blacks, and, it seems to have been admitted by all the Byzantine historians, that they were the remains of the Roman Colonies, planted by Trajan in Dacia and Moesia. Chalcocondyles notices the Blacks, in the fifteenth century, as extending from Dacia to Mount Pindus; and their principal town in the present day is Metzovo, situated on that great mountain range.

These are nearly all the data, which have been handed down, with regard to this people, which still exists in the identical state described by the writers of the Lower Empire. Their language appears not to be a Sclavonian dialect, as some have said, but it contains so many words of Latin derivation that a western origin must be assigned to it, in preference to a northern one. It is a singular fact, that the Blacks call themselves in their own patois, Romans. Their total number in the provinces of European Turkey is supposed to exceed half a million; and, during the Greek revolution, they furnished at least ten thousand armed men under Zougas. This leader was formerly the protopalicar, or lieutenant, of their famous chief Catz Antoni, who was put to death in the most cruel manner by Ali Pasha for numberless acts of brigandage. Zougas and his Blacks were the executioners of the unfortunate Gardikiotes, whom Ali immolated to his thirst for revenge.

Some inhabitants of this ill-fated town had outraged the mother and sister of the “Albanian Leopard,” about forty years before. On her death-bed, the old woman obliged her two children to swear that they would inflict a bloody vengeance for her insulted honour; and Ali kept his vow. The whole population of the place was drawn by him into an ambuscade, where seven hundred and thirty of them were massacred, and the rest, who had settled or were born at Gardiki after the insult, were sent to Prevesa to be embarked as slaves. Ali was stirred on by the malignant vindictiveness of his sister, who left him neither rest nor quiet until the bloody deed was done. She herself perpetrated the most unheard-of cruelties on the persons of the women of Gardiki, and she had a mattress made of the hair of her victims, on which she slept ever after. Many of the inhabitants who had been inveigled into the town of Jannina under various pretences, were seized and thrown into the lake on the same day; and the place where the others were murdered was built up, when they were all dead, and the bodies were left unburied. Ali had a stone tablet placed over the principal entrance, now closed for ever, with an inscription in Modern Greek, recording the facts, and containing the words, “Thus perish all the enemies of Ali.” He fired the first shot himself, as he sat in his carriage at the gate. Several of the principal Gardikiotes having been absent at the time of these events, he found means of laying hold of them subsequently, when he put them to death, and sent their bodies to rot in the same court yard with those of their countrymen. The destruction of Gardiki, a town of six thousand inhabitants, which was condemned never to be occupied again, took place in the year 1812; and it was a monument of private vengeance, unparalleled in history, ancient or modern.

The Ghegh and Mirdite Albanians were intended to have been the executioners, but they obstinately and nobly refused; the Blacks were then called upon to fire, and Zougas having been but lately pardoned, with his followers, for previous misdeeds as Klephti, he thought that it would be unsafe to decline. The usual headsmen in European Turkey are chosen from among Gipsies, who possess skill in this, as well as many other professions of doubtful respectability.

There are a great many Gipsies in these provinces, where they are called Tshingaries, probably a corruption of the Italian word Zingari. Several villages on the coast between Alessio and Durazzo, are inhabited exclusively by these strangers; and in the large towns, they are also to be found in considerable numbers. They do not mix, however, with the Greek and Albanian inhabitants, but they establish themselves in the suburbs. The town in which they are most numerous is Jannina, where there are at least two thousand of them and Premiti is also one of their favourite resorts. Besides that of public executioners, they exercise the trade of blacksmiths and tinkers, and they also tell fortunes here, as in the other countries of Europe. Constantly on the wing, they wander from town to town, and even their settlements are often handed over to new comers of the same race. They are easily recognised by their swarthy colour and filthy habits; and, despised and maltreated by all classes, more than in other countries, it is only surprising that they are to be found in such numbers in Turkey.

There are also a great many Jews in Macedonia, Thessaly, and Epirus, but more especially in the capital of the former province, where there is a large community of them of Spanish descent. They are to be found, however, wherever there is a possibility of gaining money, and the small courts of the Pashas offer peculiar facilities to them, from the monetary transactions which are imperative in a country without a paper currency. One classic publication on the subject of Turkey (Lady M. W. Montague’s works) gives them perhaps more than was their due, by saying, that “every Pasha has his Jew, who is his homme d’affaires; he is let into all his secrets, and does all his business. They are the physicians, the stewards, and the interpreters of all the great men.” They are to be found, however, in great numbers, and everywhere they seem to earn their bread, while some enrich themselves.

Such is the motley population of European Turkey, and such the elements of the future destinies of these provinces. That they may be happy, it will only require the care and consideration of statesmen, enlightened by the laudable wish to improve them, while certain misery, such as they now endure, and possibly violent convulsions in their political state, await them, if matters are allowed to remain as they are.

[Henry Skene: The Albanians, in: Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal (1849), p. 307-329, and in: Journal of the Ethnological Society of London, papers from vol. 1, 2 (1850), p. 159-181.]


Albanian costume (Joseph Cartwright, 1822)