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Robert Elsie

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1858 — 1869
Guillaume Lejean:
Travels in Albania and Kosovo

Guillaume Lejean (1824-1871) was a Breton cartographer and geographer who travelled much in European Turkey, making maps for the French authorities. He was born in Plouegat-Guerrand near Morlaix in Brittany, and studied at the College de France in Paris under the noted historian Jules Michelet, where he had occasion to meet numerous students from the Balkans. He worked as secretary to the writer and politician Alphonse de Lamartine and became passionately interested in geography and travel. In 1860 Lejean was sent by Emperor Napoleon III on an expedition to the source of the Nile and was appointed French vice consul in Massawa on the Red Sea (1862-1864). After his return to France, he turned his attention to European Turkey and convinced the authorities of the necessity of having reliable maps of southeastern Europe. Lejean was in the Balkans six times and was the author of five books and numerous articles and letters. He seems to have crisscrossed Albanian lands several times between 1858 and 1869. The following are excerpts from his writings on Albania.

Into the Northern Albanian Mountains (1858)

After finishing the business I had in Dubrovnik [Ragusa], I set off on a Lloyd steamer serving Albania, with the intention of getting off at Bar [Antivari] and travelling eastwards into the mountains of the autonomous tribes. […]

The Boga Valley in northern Albania (photo: Ismail Gagica, May 2013).

The Boga Valley in northern Albania (photo: Ismail Gagica, May 2013).

At a turn in the ancient road, we reached the banks of a beautiful lake of silt-laden water. We proceeded along it with caution because parts of the road had fallen into the water. While we were admiring the shade of the dense foliage on the other side, I noticed that the water was flowing ever so slightly. After exchanging a few words with my guide I realised my error. What I had taken for a long lake was in fact a bend in the Buna [Boyana] River that served as an outflow for the lake and for water from Montenegro. This river is in fact navigable up to two leagues below Shkodra. Unfortunately, across from the village of Obot [Hoboti], there was a sandbank where the water is never more than three metres deep that blocked almost all navigation. The Turks and the natives were not the sort of people who would likely get rid of this obstacle and provide the town of 40,000 inhabitants with free access to the sea. Up to here on the Buna, aside from Albanian londras [dugouts], there have only been small gunboats destined to defend the country against Montenegro.

Despite Oriental composure, we were all getting impatient when, suddenly, we saw an isolated hill rise before us, crowned with a huge Venetian fortress. I recognised it easily without ever having seen it. It was idyllic Rozafa, the historic fortress of Shkodra. After a further half an hour of stumbling along the trail around Mount Tarabosh, we entered a village of picturesque filth called Galata (probably a joke). We crossed the long wooden bridge called Uzun Köprü [Long Bridge] and entered the commercial centre, known as the bazaar, nestled at the foot of the fortress. Here I left my companions and, having cross a large wasteland, made my way to the French Consulate situated in the new town, where I was graciously received by the dragoman, Mr Robert, who was carrying out consular functions on behalf of Mr Hecquard who was absent.

The next morning, Mr Robert and I went out to a hill called Kodra which provided a splendid view of the surroundings. Around us stretched a plain 27 leagues long and of varying widths, which followed the contours of the Moraça River, the lake and the Buna down to the sea. The heights of Kodra and Rozafa form a little chain of isolated shale hills in this plain. Towards the northeast, we could see the marvelous panorama of the lake ending in a cone shape towards Montenegro, the distant mountains of which were visible in the morning mist. To the right was a closer and therefore more visible range of mountains with steep slopes covered in forests. It is there that the semi-independent herding tribes live that are called the Seven Banners. At the base of Mount Cukali, the southern-most peak, we could see the deep valley of the Drin flowing out of the mountains. It separates this mountain from the rugged black Mirdita range. Chateaubriand once said, “Freedom has always lived in the mountains.” I wonder what the Pasha of Shkodra thinks about this if he happens to raise his eyes from his fortress to the other formidable fortresses that nature has given to the Albanians by convention and privilege and to the Montenegrins by virtue of their arms. “Can you imagine what these Montenegrin bandits are like?” an Ottoman consul said to me in good faith. “They are starving in their abominable caves and yet they want to work. They make excellent farm labourers, gardeners, and even sailors. We offer to allow them to descend to the flatland and to have Zeta, a beautiful plain fifty leagues in circumference, on the sole condition that they recognise that they are Turkish subjects. And do you know, Monsieur, what these starving wretches reply? They say that this would dishonour them.”

The lake that the Slavs call Blato and the Albanians call Liqeni [Likieni] is a fair expanse of water bounded to the west by a grey ridge, the last foothills of which reveal rocky promontories and a few fishing villages. To the east, the plain, inhabited by the Buza e Ujit [Busahuit] and the Hoti [Hotti], ends in such a slight incline such that it is difficult to draw a line between the water and the land. They are fields in the summer and swamps in the winter. Here we encounter the eternal lakeside traditions of Ancient Greece and the modern Celtic countries. The natives state that the lake was not always as big as it is today and that on the eastern bank there was once a plain covered in villages called Fusha e Proneve [Fuscha Proneve]. Following an earthquake that damaged the region, this plain vanished under the water and the old people add that when the water is calm, one can see the ruins of houses and the tops of trees in the depths. […]

In Shkodra, I only spent the time I needed to prepare for my journey into the interior. Something happened that impeded me from delivering the mail that the pasha had given me for Prizren. But as I had hired post horses and a suvari [mounted policeman] as escort, I decided, as consolation for this disappointment, to make an excursion among the free tribes of the Seven Mountains. My friends in Shkodra accompanied me to a huge tree that marked the northern limit of the town. As I was saying good-bye to them, a strange cry from the surudji [mounted escort] caused our three horses to set off in a gallop over the heath that much resembled the vast moors of the west of France. There were several groups of houses on the heath that conveyed an impression of the general prosperity of Albania. Coming from the distance, we saw long flocks escorted by splendid-looking shepherds with pointed moustaches who, instead of staffs, were carrying their ubiquitous Albanian rifles. Even little thirteen-year-old shepherds carry rifles over their shoulders. The coarse-haired dogs gave us a less friendly glance. Even the sheep looked threatening under their stupid exterior. One could see from the start that we were among real Albanians, a race of muscles and iron hearts.

The soil was similar to the people. We crossed the brook of Vraka, a crystal-clear stream into which our horses plunged with delight. The poor beasts seemed convinced that there would be no more water for the two long days of our journey. This verdant plain is a sort of Albanian crau over which our horses proceeded with great difficulty. The beds of the creeks that we came upon offered us nothing but their blinding white sand which the local people used to polish their weapons. After a three-hour march, we came upon a shady trail and stopped at the village of Koplik [Kopilik], the centre of a tribe of some 4,500 people who were once all Catholic, but now half of them have converted to Islam. It must be said that they are not normal Muslims because they are greatly devoted to Saint Nicholas and Saint George and light candles in their honour.

The Fortress of Shkodra (photo: Robert Elsie, March 2008).

The Fortress of Shkodra (photo: Robert Elsie, March 2008).

Koplik is of particular interest. It is the gathering place of the bandits of the surrounding country. The police in Shkodra would be very hesitant to trouble their crooked dealings. I had the impression that many pashas were convinced that a month of banditry constituted better training for their infantrymen than three years of European-style training. To do justice to the Serbian and Albanian bandits, it must be noted that, in time of war, they serve faithfully under the flag of their tribe and they would certainly not do this if the authorities decided to choose that very moment to impose upon them. A mile before Koplik, the road is intersected by a trail leading to the lake of Rjoll [Rioli]. As we were approaching the crossroads, five men coming from the east took up position in front of us. Their costumes, their weapons and their attitude were such that I was obliged to admire them. My suvari saw them, too, but was not in an admiring mood. All of a sudden, he gave us a sign, to me and the surudji, and set off in a gallop in the direction of the village. I thought he was in a hurry to get to our lodgings, but two or three minutes later, he returned to the road. He had simply wanted to avoid being within firing range of the five men. I was mortified to have unwittingly played the role of a coward, all the more so since, as far as I could see, the five men were out to avenge a blood feud and would not have molested travellers. They did not seem to take offense at the suspicion shown by our gendarme and continued their journey as the good people they most likely were. […]

We left the Proni i thatë [Proneu-Saad] for a while to enter the valley of Dedaj where, following information from Mr Viquesnel, I hoped to find a veritable quarry of fossils, but my lack of knowledge of Albanian did not enable me to ask the natives, who might have been able to show it to me. I spent my time instead sketching a map of the valley and the impasse north of the plain, and was surrounded all the time by the people of Dedaj who marvelled at my instruments. […]

One might ask whether blood feuds are common in Albania. I would reply with one fact. I had with me a village-by-village table of all murders committed in Pulat from 1854 to 1856. The general proportion is one death for ten homes. In the municipality of Niksaj, it is one man per family in thirteen years. If one adds to this the long list of attempted but unsuccessful murders, one realises that a thirty-year-old Gheg Albanian who has not yet killed anyone is as rare as a regular patron of Parisian salons who, at the same age, has not yet had an article published in one of the better revues.

In Dedaj, I had occasion to study the mountain Gheg type that living conditions and the climate have made somewhat different from the inhabitants of the towns. The people here are herders rather than farmers. They are tall and slender, and their thin, proud-looking faces are well known to those who have travelled in Greece where Albanian blood has greatly mixed with that of the Greeks. Their traditional costumes, a red vest and a fustanella, are reserved for festive occasions and are replaced in daily life by a long woollen coat and a rifle in a shoulder strap. As I have remarked, the rifle is more or less an integral component of the independent Albanian. As can be noted in the writings of Mr von Hahn, use of a rifle is formally forbidden for Catholic priests, but they ignore this ban. Here, one can see a priest giving the last rites to a dying man and then, on his way back, shooting at some suspicious Turk who did not respond to his greetings. As to the women, hard labour and early childbirth ruin them at an early age, but home life and relative well-being allow the young girls to conserve their beauty that radiates purely and vigorously with young blood.

A shepherdess from Dedaj in Shkreli territory (photo: Ismail Gagica, May 2013).

A shepherdess from Dedaj in Shkreli territory
(photo: Ismail Gagica, May 2013).


I then entered the land of the Shkreli tribe, one of the most important tribes in the mountains because it consists of 2,500 souls and easily supplies 600 rifles. We crossed a heath down a slope and descended to the Proni i thatë which is only crossable here. There we came across a man, about forty years old, six feet high and of good appearance, who was guarding his flock on the heath. He addressed me in Italian and I took advantage of the opportunity to get some useful information from him. He was a well-situated peasant from the village of Zagora and was of the Shkreli tribe. His name was Çuka and every year in the spring he went down to Medua [Shëngjin] on the coast where his tribe had pastureland given to them by Osman, the Pasha of Shkodra. He had learned Italian to serve as a dragoman for the Italian and Austrian merchant marine captains who stopped at Medua and conducted trade in coarse wool and other articles with the mountain men. He invited me to pay him a visit on my return to Zagora, assuring me that he would have accompanied me to Boga if he had had someone there to inform his family. I asked him about the Proni i thatë. He told me that water only flowed in it for about a day or two once every ten years after a period of exceptional rainfall in the Accursed Mountains. It is hard to attribute the current arid state of the creek to the partial deforestation of the mountains because it is impossible that such a ravine could have been cut out by an occasional torrent flowing once every ten years. […]

From there to Boga, the trail followed the left bank of the ravine and passed through more cultivated countryside despite the colder climate. The change in climate was evident from the lack of certain plants like wild vines that are common in the region of Berzela [Bzheta]. After travelling for two hours, and not five as Mr Boué states (whose book is admirably precise for this trail and for the others, with the exception of two or three important details), we reached the village of Boga that according to Mr Boué belongs to the Kelmendi tribe, and according to Mr Jubany belongs to the Shala tribe. The latter based his writings on official information and, though it may be subject to doubt, I preferred the version of Boué and the thought that I had reached a part of the country belonging to the famous Kelmendi who for two centuries were the pride of Catholic Albania and the terror of all the west of the Ottoman Empire, from Dalmatia to the Pashalik of Adrianopolis [Edirne]. These mountain men, who resisted armies of one hundred thousand men, fell victim to their own internal quarrels and were deported en masse to Serbia. They later grew homesick and returned to their native land, crushing anyone who tried to stop them. The laziness of the Turks enabled them to settle, but they were now only a feeble imitation of their former tribal grandeur because they consisted of only four villages and 4,000 inhabitants.

I was warmly received in Boga thanks to a recommendation from the consulate and the traditional hospitality of the Ghegs. I did not abuse my stay because I was only there for the time I needed to carry out my topographic work. Like Berzela, Boga is situated in the bed of a former lake that dried up because of the lack of water in the Proni i thatë. The valley presents the same curious series of horizontal strata indicating successive dry periods. The village is scattered on the right bank of the valley. An isolated church rises on the other side. Such strata of diluvian soil are almost as striking as the Piatra valley in Moldavia, one of the most interesting studies a geologist can make. I arrived at the head of the Proni at one thirty in the afternoon (I cannot really call it the source of the creek because it has no water). I would like to have gone further up into the gorges of the Accursed Mountains and, if it had not been too far away, to have seen the beautiful basin of Gucia [Gusinje] and the little sapphire called Lake Plava, but there was no time and I was unfortunately forced to return using the same trail.

A little while after Dedaj, we crossed the Proni on a wooden bridge that was so rickety that we tiptoed over it, one by one, leaving our horses to be dragged behind us. The bridge did not fall in and, having got back onto our horses, we rode through cultivated land, proof of the industriousness of the Albanians, and reached Zagora where my giant Gheg, good Çuka, was waiting and received us with great hospitality. I will not bother my readers with tales of village hospitality in the Orient. Suffice it to say, for the information of sybaritic travellers, that I slept in an orchard under the stars.

Zagora is an Albanian village but it bears a Slavic name, meaning “at the foot of the mountain.” This would seem to indicate that it was one of the places where the Ghegs drove the Slavs out, possibly at a time immediately after the Turkish conquest. The land originally belonged to three Serbian tribes: the Petrovich, the Tutovich and the Pelaj, who formed a group of one hundred houses around Mount Veleçik. […]

Old photo of the Fshaj Bridge (Ura e Fshajt) in western Kosovo.

Old photo of the Fshaj Bridge (Ura e Fshajt) in western Kosovo.

Four hours after having crossed the Proni again, this time on a stone bridge that was in good shape, I returned to Shkodra where I was very busy organising my next excursion to Montenegro. […]

Journey through Kosovo and Northern Albania in 1869

The rather ugly castle that dominates Prizren nowadays is of no particular historical interest. At its foot, one can see a mosque that was once a Christian church, violated and profaned by the Turks (as has been the case in numerous places) probably at the time of Sinan Pasha. I followed the zigzag path along the side of the castle and descended into Prizren where I was hospitably received by the Archbishop, Monsignor Dario Bucciarelli, who was still very young, a charming man in every sense.

I spent several days in Prizren delving into archaeology and geography. As an observation point, I chose a cliff up behind the Bistrica River, above the Christian cemetery. I noticed a Turkish tomb there, damaged but still standing in part, and I asked what it was. I learned that it was the tomb of a local fanatic who, furious that he would not be able to oppress the Christians after his death, insisted that he be buried above the Bulgarian cemetery in order to dominate the infidels under his three gravestones. His wish was accomplished. But a man with such a strange interpretation of tolerance cannot count on the tolerance of the people he wanted to insult. The Christians who passed by his tomb made this known. Undoubtedly it would have been better for them to leave the tomb of the insolent fellow alone, but after all, who was the first to provoke?

It is a six hour journey across the plain from Prizren to Gjakova [Djakova]. About half way along, there is a beautiful bridge, boldly spanning the Drin River at the end of a narrow gorge. It once defended a Roman castle, or perhaps two. In Albanian, the bridge is called Ura Fshajt, the Bridge of Fshaj, a neighbouring village, and also Ura Shejnt (the Bridge of the Saint), a name associated with a legend. The local people claim that the said gorge was dug out by Saint Nicholas who wanted to open a passageway to the Drin and dry up a lake that once covered the plain of Gjakova. People have their own ideas about geology, ideas that are less scholarly and true than ours, but one must admit that these tales are not lacking in charm.

The plain of Gjakova has been partially colonised by Catholic Albanians from the Fani [Fandi] tribe of Mirdita whose land is less productive than the rest of Mirdita. This led them to come and settle on this plain as farmers for the Muslims. The latter, being lazy, villain and haughty by nature, like the hidalgos, were delighted to see their lands prosper without having to do anything themselves. But once the land was in full productivity, they endeavoured brutally to expel those who had made it fertile. Fortunately, the Fani are just as skilled with their rifles as they are with their spades, and the Muslim faithful were forced to limit themselves to cursing their industrious farmers.

The warlike spirit of the Fani to which I have just alluded, broke out recently. At the edge of the plain of Gjakova, there was a fortified home inhabited by Muslims who lived the life of Riley. They went into the surrounding Bulgarian villages and took whatever they wanted – food, money, women, cattle. This went on for quite a while and the authorities then had to intervene. As there were only Turkish police and soldiers, the bandits could do whatever they wanted, but finally, impatient consuls demanded of the Pasha of Prizren that he rid the country of this nest of thieves. The matter was handed over to an officer from Gjakova, a well-known bandit himself, but a man capable of action. Instead of taking his subordinates with him, he called upon the Fani, assembled seventeen of them and went off to attack the bandits’ fortress (kulla). It was taken by assault, the bandits were slain and two Fani men were seriously wounded. I need not add that these two men, wounded while in public service, never received their promised wages. They were lucky enough to be left alone. After all, they had dared to kill “believers,” and everyone knows that in Muslim countries, the life of a Muslim thief is sacred for any infidel whose wallet he is after. […]

The Upper Valbona Valley (photo: Robert Elsie, October 2013).

The Upper Valbona Valley (photo: Robert Elsie, October 2013).

Up to Prizren, I had travelled in complete safety. It was in Podrima that my problems began. I had reached the town of Gjakova from where I wanted to continue on in a straight line to Shkodra through the autonomous regions. It is impossible to travel in this country if one is not accompanied by a native who recommends the traveller in friendly villages. One continues changing guides and guarantors from village to village. Any offence committed against the traveller must be avenged by the guarantor or his tribe as soon as the opportunity arises. It was bad timing on my part. While I was in Gjakova, a fight broke out in Koronica one hour from the town. Two tribes had attacked one another the day before at Bytyç [Boutouch] on the trail I intended to take. I was advised to go to Peja [Ipek], a pleasant little town a day’s march away, to get guarantors there. I went there and found the town in complete disarray. A young Muslim in love with a Muslim girl from a good house decided to kidnap her with rifle in hand, although he could probably have had her if he had simply asked for her. The whole town had taken sides and there was shooting all night and many victims. I expected to end up in the middle of the battle, but things were calm when I arrived. However, the countryside was unsafe, as I learned the next day. […]

I did not find the guide I was looking for in Peja and was forced to return to Gjakova where I was finally given two men, one of whom was a Muslim priest of the Krasniqja tribe. We were to travel for two days through a country of fanatic and independent Muslims. As such, George, although an ardent Catholic, judged it appropriate to pretend to be a Muslim and made up a story, pretending to be a certain Rashid Aga, son of Mulla Hussein, attached to the grand mosque of Shkodra, and of Lady Gulnare, his wife. This little story helped him make friends with a Muslim bigot who confided in him his hatred of Christians. He spoke constantly of the pleasure he would take in having them massacred, burned and impaled in this world before they were roasted eternally in the next. […]

Leaving Gjakova, we crossed the plain for two hours and then proceeded up into the mountains from where we descended into a beautiful valley called Boutandj [Babaj-Bokës] where we spent the night. The next day, I left Boutandj with two village warriors who escorted me to the limits of their tribal land, two leagues away. We stopped there on a high pass where we had an admirable view of a broad valley, both populated and wooded, through which flowed a beautiful river with a Latin name, Valbona. There were two hills that somewhat spoiled our view, so I climbed one of them, to the horror of my guides who warned me that the first mountain tribesman who caught sight of me would shoot me without even asking who I was. In the final analysis, it probably did not really matter to them whether or not I got killed, but if something did happen to me in their company, they would have been personally responsible according to custom and would have been forced to take blood revenge on the neighbouring tribe for an affair that did not concern them at all. I promised not to wander off, but as soon as I was out of sight, I forgot my promise. I am accustomed to life in the wilds and know what precautions to take. I took great care until the moment when my passion for geography took hold of me and made me forget everything but the splendid countryside in front of me. In less than an hour, I had made a detailed map of the valley and returned to the men, to the great relief of my guides who could now return home. I continued on with the others and crossed the Valbona River in the afternoon, and an eastern tributary of it bearing the Slavic name of Bistrica. From the Valbona I continued along the winding, though cultivated slopes and was received hospitably in an isolated house, a veritable Albanian fortress consisting of a ground floor with neither door nor window, and an upper floor reached by a ladder that could be removed at the slightest sign of danger. All the houses here are built this way and offer eminent proof of the state of war that is normal in this region.

Our priest who, despite his profession as a man of the cloth, had gone off to steal some grapes in a vineyard he knew about, arrived in time for dinner, recited a fatiha and then a namaz or evening prayer, to which George pretended to reply. They went on and on.

The next morning we got rid of our bothersome companion, and the men of the Krasniqja tribe accompanied us to Mërturi, a dreadfully steep region. It was well populated but there was not too much agriculture. We were now in the midst of a Catholic tribe. It is true that Albanian Catholics are difficult to categorize. I was witness to a curious example of this in Mërturi. In a house where I had stopped at noon to make a rustic meal, I saw an adolescent of some eighteen to twenty years of age, almost beardless. His mother, a strong matronly figure like all Albanian women, was inveighing upon him in a way that did not seem to please the lad. George translated what was going on. The boy was married. He had successively lost his two brothers, who were both married, too. At the death of the first brother, he had, according to custom, married his brother’s widow and thus committed bigamy. But the other brother died, too, and he was unwilling to submit to custom again and commit trigamy. The mother, conservative and respectful of customs as mothers are in other countries, tried to make her son understand that a man of honour could do nothing other than inherit the widows of his brothers, even if there were five or ten of them. The expression on the boy’s face amused me greatly. One could see that two wives were quite enough for him. He did not want the third one.

Four hours after this intimate spectacle, I was surprised to come across a little group of Europeans – four Italian missionaries who were camping out in a hut made of leaves in front of a church that they were trying to rebuild. We spent a pleasant evening together and the next day, having climbed up a beautiful gorge called Lumi i zi (the Black River), I hiked down into another valley called Shala and knocked on the door of the bajraktar or mayor of the parish of Abat. Of course it was a metaphorical knock because houses in this country rarely have doors. As I noted, one enters and leaves a house by an upper-floor window. Had there been a door and had one knocked, there is a good chance that one would have been shot in the head. One has to stop ten paces from the house and shout “Izot, schpii?” i.e. “Lord of the house, are you there?” A female figure then usually shows up, the matter is discussed and one is then usually received hospitably. The bajraktar offered to have me stay at his place but I declined the offer, explaining to him that since I did not know Albanian, I would feel more at home with the parish priest who knew my language. The real reason was that I was afraid that it would be a bothersome evening. The Albanians of Montenegro are excellent people but their conversation is focussed solely on who has been shot and who ought to be shot. This is interesting for a day or two, but in the long run, it is a bit monotonous. The mayor gave me a guide to take me to the parish priest about a kilometre away, excusing himself that he could not accompany me personally because there was a neighbour on that trail to whom he owed blood in a feud.

A fortunate coincidence had it that the priest serving at the church of Abat was the same man as the parish priest of Kiri, a village I was to pass through the next day, so he decided to come with me.

We left late the next morning, George, the priest and I, followed by a servant with a cow that the priest intended to sell en route. The animal represented a semester of his income as parish priest of Abat. We met some Gypsies and later some mountain men who were so intrigued by my presence that their repeated questions inspired the priest to play a joke on them that amused me, too. He told them that I was the King of France (kral i Francit) who was visiting friends among the free Christians of Montenegro.


[Excerpts from: Guillaume Lejean, Voyages dans les Balkans, 1857-1870 (Paris: Non Lieu, 2011), pp. 129; 135-149; 374-382. Translated from the French by Robert Elsie.]

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