Albania and the Eastern Key
of the Adriatic
Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941) was a renowned British archaeologist remembered primarily for his discovery in 1900-1903 of the Minoan ruins of Knossos on the island of Crete. Less known is his passionate interest in the Balkans, as evinced not only by his publications "Through Bosnia and Herzegovina on Foot during the Insurrection" (London 1876), and "Antiquarian Researches in Illyricum" (London 1885-1996), but also by his many letters. His Balkans works have been republished recently in "Ancient Illyria: an Archaeological Exploration" (London: I.B.Tauris 2006) and "Albanian Letters: Nationalism, Independence and the Albanian League" (London: I.B. Tauris 2008). Among his many letters from the Balkans is this one on the ancient port city of Durrës, written in May 1877.
"Visit to Albania and Durazzo. Importance of Durazzo in past ages. As a Turkish town. Monuments of ancient splendour and modern degradation. Flotsam and jetsam of antiquity. Reflections suggested by present state of Dyrrhachium. Contrast between Turkish administration and lively spirit of Albanians. The Highlanders of Turkey. Tosks and Gheggas and their respective Greek and Montenegrin affinities. The Miridites. Possibilities of Italian Protectorate in Albania. Pessimist views of situation there among Turkish employer. Preparations of Greek Committees for revolt in Epirus. The Mahometan population biding its time."
Ragusa: May 27, 1877
I have just returned from a short trip to Albania, and more especially to that city which from the traveller's point of view anciently stood to the eastern shores of the Adriatic in the same relation as Brindisi still stands to the Italian. Durazzo - Durs, as the Albanians call her, better known, perhaps, to English readers as the classic Dyrrhachium owed its former importance not only to the fact of its being the most convenient port at the point where the Adriatic cul de sac begins to narrow and the Italian shore draws near to that of the Balkan peninsula - not only to its being opposite to the great Italian harbour of Brindisi, but to its standing at the embouchure of the main pass that conducted the land traffic from Thessalonica, Constantinople, and the furthest East to meet the Adriatic seaways to West and North. Durazzo was the Western terminus of the great commercial highway to the East, the Via Egnatia, which was barred from debouching in a more northerly direction by the mighty parallel ranges of what is now Bosnia and the mountain knot-work of Montenegro and North Albania. Thus Durazzo stood to Brindisi in much the same relation with regard to the Greek and Latin worlds as Calais stands to Dover; commercially she stood to Venice as at the present day New York stands to Liverpool. Thus in all past ages, whether as a Greek republic (known also as Epidamnos), a Roman colony, a Byzantine municipality, or dependency of Venice, Durazzo ranked among the most important commercial cities in the whole of Eastern Europe. Whenever the West moved its aggressive force against the East, from the time of the Roman civil wars - for the conflict between Pompey and Caesar was in some sense a conflict between East and West - to the day when the Norman invaders of the Byzantine Empire threatened to make Durazzo the Hastings of the Eastern world (and, by some strange fatality, it was beneath these walls that the English exiles who fought as mercenaries in the service of the Greek Emperor tried to avenge the shame of Senlac an the kinsmen of the Conqueror) - in every age, classical and mediaeval, Durazzo has been regarded by the ambition of Latin Europe as the most important stepping-stone to Greek and Oriental conquest - the first and richest prize of successful valour.
What, then, is the Durazzo of the Turk ? It was with no ordinary feelings of curiosity - my mind filled with the memories of her mighty past - that I took my stand an the deck of the little Austrian Lloyds' steamer that now forms almost the only link between Durazzo and the outside world to catch the first glimpse of the modern Albanian town. The bare limestone ranges of Dalmatia and the Black Mountain had been long left in our wake, and, as the steamer sped along the Albanian coast, gave place to hills of a more fertile formation, overgrown with luxuriant verdure, infinitely refreshing to the eye wearied with the wilderness of the Dinaric Alps, but with fields and houses how few and far between! Then we passed the promontory of Cape Pali, which, jutting out into the Adriatic, offers a welcome bulwark against the force of the boreal gales, and is the northern arm of the bay which forms the harbour of Durazzo. In this bay the steamer anchored, but some way from the shore, as the harbour has to a great extent been allowed to silt up, and no attempt to improve or in any way secure it has been made by the Turkish authorities. From the sea opens the best view of Durazzo as it still exists, extending up the hillside, enclosed in a triangle of mediaeval walls. The walls in their present state, as I discovered from an almost effaced inscription an the northern tower, date from the year 1474 - from the period of Venetian dominion, when, in the universal anarchy of the Balkan peninsula, the overthrow of the commercial empire of Byzantium, and the ravages of the Turks, the fortunes of the city were at a very low ebb. There can be little doubt - and the remains of old walls on the hills and plain about bear out the assertion - that Durazzo in her palmier days occupied a much larger area than that enclosed by the fifteenth century walls. But the few hundred houses that compose the modern townlet do not nearly occupy even this more limited area, and the whole of the upper town is now an aching void, set apart at the present moment for Turkish soldiers. As one lands on the cranky wooden pier and makes one's way into the narrow streets through a gloomy sea-gate which seems the portal of a dungeon, the melancholy impressions suggested by the first sight of modern Durazzo from the sea are increased by the signs of squalor and stagnation around. From the Lloyds' agent here I learned that the whole population, including that of the dirty little suburbs outside the east gate, amounts to no more than 4,000 souls. He told me that trade was almost extinct. In ordinary years there was a small export of corn and oil from Durazzo and the neighbourhood to Trieste; but the commercial intercourse with Italy, the overland traffic with Stamboul, have long since vanished, and now even the export of corn has been prohibited by reason of the war. Nay, the very channels of Durazzo's former affluence have by a strange irony of fate been perverted to add misery to her present degradation, and the splendid maritime canal, which once cut across the peninsula on which she stands and gave two havens to the city, has partly silted up and partly spread itself in a great stagnant pool which makes Durazzo a perpetual fever haunt.
But what a field for the antiquary! I do not mean that classic temples and palaces still rear themselves amid the ruins of Dyrrhachium. There is nothing here to compare with the hoary piles of Treves or Nismes, of Spalato, or Pola, or Verona. Time and the Turk have done their work too well for that! But in the smaller fragments, the flotsam and jetsam of ancient magnificence, Durazzo exceeds any old-world city I have ever seen. In the courtyard of the Turkish Konak, whither I proceeded, to be informed that without a special order from the Sublime Porte no one could view the antiquities of Durazzo (by which he meant the mediaeval walls), amidst filth and rubble lay two beautiful monuments of Hellenic art, the torsos of a hero and a goddess, both of superhuman mould; and near lay a slab in the very act of being broken up by the barbarian, but the pieces of which I collected and put together. On this slab was a Greek inscription in iambic verse, recording how a Byzantine prince built one of the towers of the ancient city. The tower in which it was originally fixed was still existing only the other day, but the Turks had pulled it down to hunt, I believe, for treasure! Despite my appeal for mercy, I can hardly hope that the inscription will long survive it; but one half of it may endure a little longer, as it has been made use of to support the wooden pillar of a cranky Turkish verandah!
In the streets people follow you with handfuls of silver coins, most of them from the Dyrrhachian mint, coined in the days of the old Greek Republic; and it is noteworthy, as attesting her ancient commercial importance and the consequent activity of the mint, that the cow and calf, or gardens - if so they be - of Alcinous, displayed upon her coins, are familiar to every numismatist. Stuck anyhow into the pavement, the gateways, the walls of the modern houses, are the waifs of Durazzo's shipwrecked fortunes - a Corinthian capital, a Roman inscription, the fragments of a temple cornice; the turbaned pillars that mark the last resting-place of true-believers are economically wrought from the shafts of pagan columns, and Roman gravestones mingle with the Turkish. The city walls, the exterior of which I succeeded in exploring - taking French leave, as I could not get Turkish - are a vast museum of ancient monuments.
But where are those mightier relics of antiquity mentioned as existing here by Barlettius, the contemporary of Skanderbeg? I looked in vain for the consecrated buildings, the temples august and sumptuous, the statues of kings and emperors, the mighty colossus of Hadrian standing aloft at the Cavalla Gate; the amphitheatre lying to the west of the city, constructed with wondrous art and beauty, and with walls strengthened and adorned with towers and works of splendour. At the moment of Turkish conquest all these existed at Durazzo; it was reserved for the Asiatic barbarian to level with the dust what Goth and Avar, Serb, Bulgarian, and Norman had respected. Yet, after all, it is less the actual ruin of what has existed that rouses the indignation of the observer than the absence of anything to worthily supply its place. To me the sight of the squalid rows and beggarly hovels of modern Durazzo is more eloquent as to the evils of Turkish rule than the blackened ruins of rayah villages and all the monuments of Bashi-bazouk ferocity. To me Turkish rule is infinitely more pernicious for what it does not do than for what it does. Great cities in other parts of Europe have passed away even more completely than Durazzo, but others have sprung up to fulfil their functions in the world's economy. To go no further than the Adriatic shores, Salona lives again in the modern Spalato, and Aquileja has found her commercial representatives in Venice and Trieste. But Durazzo in her decrepit age has left no children. The commercial highway between Europe and Asia has sunk into a mule track; but no railroad supplies its place.
The merchant navy has vanished from her waters, but it frequents no rival port; it has simply ceased to be. Really, the Sick Man's passion-fits of savagery are quite a vivifying break to this normal paralysis of all the most necessary functions of government - to this brutal torpor and squalid negligence, that have converted what was once Dyrrhachium into a fever-stricken hamlet - to this reign of Chaos,
"At whose felt approach and secret might
Art after art goes out, and all is night"
However, the narcotic fumes of Ottoman administration do not seem to have affected the character of the race that peoples Durazzo and its neighbourhood. The brisk, lively tread, the haughty bearing, the keen, flashing eyes, the powerful yet finely-chiselled features, less, as it seemed to me, in contradiction with pure Hellenic types than those of any other race, the modern Greeks included; the white, flowing fustanella, calling up at once reminiscences of Roman warriors; the carnation vest - a male costume out-and-out the most magnificent in Europe - everything reminds me that I am among people neither Turk nor Slav. These are the meet compatriots of Skanderbeg and Ali of Jannina - Albanians, Skipetars, 'children of the rock,' - the Highlanders of Turkey - the most warlike and indomitable race that owns allegiance to the Sultan.
The Albanians about Durazzo, and indeed the whole group of clans, Mahometan and Christian, that lie to the north of the Shkumbi river and the ancient Egnatian Way, belong to the Ghegga division of the race; those to the south of this line, including the non-Greek population of Epirus, being known by the general appellation of Tosks. The Gheggas, though to myself, coming from the Slavonic regions beyond them, they appeared very unslavonic in their characteristics - more lively, more masterful, and haughty - are described by travellers who are well acquainted with Tosks as less energetic and keen-witted than their southern relatives, and as more approaching the Slavs in temperament and manners. Certainly the Gheggas have in the course of their history had a large intermixture of Slavic blood, both Serb and Bulgarian, and I found that the Serbian language was intelligible to many at Durazzo, while at Antivari and elsewhere it is spoken by a large part of the population. The Tosks, on the other hand, have had at different times a large Greek intermixture, and it is a significant fact that in certain localities in their area the ancient Hellenic type of beauty (some approaches to which I noticed among the Gheggas), which has vanished elsewhere, survives in its full perfection. To this Hellenic intermixture is probably due the superior keenness of the Tosk intellect.
Thus it is that by their special characteristics and antecedents the two great divisions of the Albanian race, each jealous of the other, turn their eyes in different directions. The independent spirits among the Gheggas seek allies among the Slavs, the Tosk and Epirote malcontents turn to the Greek kingdom. The Christian hill tribes of North Albania, the Clementi, Miridites, and others who have never conceded more than a vague suzerainty to the Porte, are at the present moment in the closest relation with Montenegro; indeed, if the report current among the Albanians is to be relied on, the Miridite Prince (or 'Prink,' as he styles himself; most words for civilized ideas having been borrowed from their Roman conquerors by the Illyrian forefathers of the Albanians) - Prink Bibedoda, a young man of about twenty-three, has recently concluded a negotiation of eventual marriage with one of the little daughters of Nicholas of Montenegro. So, while the clans both in North and South Albania bide their time, the Miridites and Clementi wait for a signal from the Montenegrin camp; the Epirotes are at the beck of the Greek committees.
And Italy? What is the meaning of an Italian transport taking soundings in the harbour of Durazzo, flitting from Durazzo to Antivari, from Antivari to Valona, scattering rumours of the approach of the Italian fleet? What is the meaning of solemn warnings addressed to little Montenegro against a too adventurous policy on the Albanian side? It is true that in the towns of the Albanian littoral Italian is the language of civilized intercommunication; it is true that Albanian colonies exist in Southern Italy and Sicily, and that particularly close relations have always subsisted between the Catholic Albanians and their co-religionists on the other side of the Adriatic. Yet until some further development takes place there is no real need to assume that the Roman Cabinet has any other object than the protection of co-religionists and what small commercial interests Italy still possesses on this coast. It must, however, always be borne in mind that for this reason alone anarchy in Albania may render at least a temporary Italian protectorate indispensable; nor can it be denied that the recent 'observations' of their neighbours have created a belief among Adriatic populations beyond the borders of Albania that Italy, being notoriously weak in harbours on her Eastern coasts, and possessing none, indeed, between Ancona and Brindisi, covets the Eastern key of the Adriatic, and would make use of any favourable opportunity to seize Durazzo. Perhaps the best security against such a step is to be found in the determined opposition of Austria, which, even in the event of Bosnian annexation, would hardly be inclined to grant Italy compensations on the side of Albania, much less to place such an important naval station as Durazzo in the hands of her Adriatic rival. Nor, on the whole, is an Italian occupation of Durazzo to be desired in the general interests of the Balkan peninsula. Durazzo belongs by nature to whoever rules in Macedonia - it is the natural western outlet for the commerce of those midland regions. If this generation lives to see the revival of the industrious Bulgarian nationality on both sides of the Balkan, there can be little doubt that it will also see Durazzo and Salonica dependencies of the Crowned Lion.
Meanwhile the Turkish employees, with whom I conversed here and at Antivari, took a most pessimist view of the situation from the Ottoman point of view, and their apprehensions were borne out by the opinions of European residents. They did not conceal their belief that the fate of Albania was being decided on the Danube, that a great Russian victory might kindle the flames of revolt from end to end of the province. They admitted that the reported subjugation of the Miridites, in spite of the influence which the Romish propaganda exercised on behalf of the Turk, was a mere sham; that the Miridites had but retired to the more inaccessible peaks of their own mountains to choose their own moment for taking action; that 20,000 armed Clementi were biding their time; that in Epirus, or South Albania, especially the districts of Suli and Zagori, the Greeks and allied Albanian clans were expected to rise any day. Sixteen thousand men are said to have been already well supplied with arms on that side by the Greek committees, and the inhabitants pay besides a war tax of from four to ten piastres a house to a secret government of their own.
But the greatest anxiety of the Osmanli officials in Albania is the uncertain reliance to be placed on the native Mahometans.
Albania is like Bosnia in this respect, that the Mahometan population is Turkish neither in race, language, nor sympathies. Here, too, there exists still a half-feudal aristocracy, and each of the Albanian Begs has his clannish following of true-believers, and resembles a Highland chieftain of a century or so back. The clan organization is far more developed than in Bosnia, and the Begs are proportionately more powerful. But what chiefly distinguishes Albania from other provinces lies in the peculiar characteristics of the race. By nature quick, energetic, intolerant of control, sceptical, and fickle, the Skipetar, unlike the Slav, has ever made freedom all in all, and religion a question of secondary importance. 'Religion goes with the sword' is an Albanian proverb; and whenever his profession of faith stands in the way of his interests your true Arnaout does not hesitate, at least outwardly, to conform to a more convenient creed. Thus about Prisrend and elsewhere there are thousands of Roman Catholics (Crypto-Catholics they are called) who made a public profession of Islamism to avoid the vexations to which as rayahs they were subjected. An Albanian will attend a mosque at noon and a church at night with the greatest sang froid. The memory of Skanderbeg - the last and mightiest champion of Christian Albania against the Turks - is treasured by the Mahometans of the province with a fanatical devotion which strangely contrasts with the cold respect they vouchsafe to the founder of their faith. The subtle genius of the Albanian knows how to put forward religion as a pretext, but his own interest has ever been the mainspring of his action.
The Turks have reason not to place reliance on the fidelity of such a race, and grave fears are excited at Durazzo by the result of an attempt of the Turkish authorities to call out the Mustafiz, the militia or 'Landsturm,' an alias for the Bashi-bazouks. I saw a few gangs of them defiling through the streets to receive new breechloaders in place of antiquated flintlocks; but in some of the neighbouring hill districts the Mahometan villagers have taken to the mountains to avoid the conscription, and are burning and plundering the villages of their neighbours, chiefly Mahometans, with great zest. What will be the effect on the Albanian 'true-believers' of a complete triumph of the Russian arms, of a Greek declaration of war, a general revolt of the Christian hill tribes from the Black Mountain to those mysterious precincts of Dodona where the Zeus of once-free Hellas is preparing even now to speak in tones of thunder? The Turks may rely that Kismet is inscrutable; but meantime this much is certain, that in Albania 'nothing succeeds like success.'
[excerpt from: Arthur J. Evans: Illyrian letters, a revised selection of correspondence from the Illyrian provinces of Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Dalmatia, Croatia and Slavonia, addressed to the Manchester Guardian during the year 1877 (London: Longmans, Green and Co. 1878), p. 131 142.]