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Albania and Albanians through British Eyes, Part 1

In March 2022, students studying Albanian at UCL’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) Short Courses presented an evening of portraits of some of the British travellers and scholars who visited Albania in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In this edition of the Gazette, we include three of those profiles: Edward Lear, Edith Durham and Aubrey Herbert.

The event was organised by Dr Mirela Xhaferraj, one of the Albanian language tutors at SSEES, and co-hosted by SSEES and the AAA. It was one of the AAA’s events celebrating the centenary of the UK-Albanian diplomatic relations.

Our thanks go to Mirela not just for her enthusiasm and organisational skills but also for the art work.

In autumn 1848, Edward Lear visited Albania and kept a detailed account of his travels, published as “Journals of a Landscape Painter in Albania”. In the introduction, Lear recalled that some 60 years earlier Edward Gibbon had written that Albania was ‘a country within sight of Italy, yet less known than the interior of America’. Since then, a number of learned travellers had admirably investigated the subject. There was, Lear wrote, ‘but little opportunity left for the gleanings of the landscape painter’. Yet he believed he was the only Englishman to have published any account of some parts, including Kroia (Krujë).

Lear enthuses about the rare combination of interesting and beautiful objects to be found in Albania: simple and exquisite mountain forms, the lake, the river and the wide plain; the charm of its architecture - mosques, minarets, forts - and a profusion everywhere of the most magnificent foliage. He extols the majestic cliff-girt shores, mountain passes, deep bays and blue seas, ‘olive-clothed slopes, and snow-capped mountain peaks, and with all this a crowded variety of costume and pictorial incident such as bewilders and delights an artist at each step he takes’.

In a more prosaic passage, Lear lists the items needed for travel in Albania: ‘cooking utensils . . . the stronger and plainer the better, for you go into a land where pots and pans are unknown’. Among other necessities were a light mattress, some sheets and blankets, rice, curry powder and cayenne, as well as quinine pills. He recommends taking two sets of clothes: ‘one for visiting consuls, pashas and dignitaries, the other for rough, everyday work’. Also absolutely essential was a good dragoman. Lear recruited Giorgio who was ‘dragoman, cook, valet, interpreter and guide’.

Lear stayed mostly in khans, which he described as ‘a species of public house rented by the keeper from the Government and open to all comers’. What he called the ‘by-road khans’ were ‘infinitely preferable to the vile places in the towns of Albania’. On leaving Tirana he wrote: ‘One consolation there was in quitting its horrible khan, that travel all the world over, a worse could not be met with’. To a reader who might ask whether such suffering was necessary, he explained: ‘If you lodge with Beys or Pashas, you must eat with them at hours incompatible with artistic pursuits, and lose much time in ceremony’.

He travelled from Salonika (Thessaloniki) and on 20th September reached Akhridha (Ohrid), which he referred to as ‘the first town I had seen in Northern Albania’. After Lear encountered some hostility because he was clearly identifiable as a non-Moslem, Giorgio advised him to wear a fez, which he did, though he later complained that in rainy weather a fez was unsuitable headgear for someone who wore glasses.

On 24th September, Edward Lear left the shores of Lake Ohrid, and made for Elbasan. It was heavy going. He wrote: ‘Our progress is of the very slowest: either along sharp narrow paths cut in the rock, at the very edge of formidable precipices, or by still narrower tracks running on the bare side of a perpendicular clay ravine, or winding among huge trunks of forest trees, between which the baggage mule is at one time wedged, at another loses her load or her own equilibrium’. Nonetheless, he ‘could not resist sitting down to draw’. Giorgio besought him not to linger, so ‘to appease [him], I made but a slight outline of that which I should gladly have employed a day to portray’.

Having stayed briefly in Elbasan and Tirana, the party headed for Krujë. During a break for lunch, Lear drew ‘the sublime view before me over the plain, and wide beds of torrents towards the bare, craggy, dark mountain of Kroia, with the town and rocks glittering like silver aloft, below a heavy curtain of black cloud’.

In Krujë, Lear was the guest of the Bey, a lad of 18 or 19, whose uncles were governors of Tirana. Before supper they sat and conversed. The Bey ‘was moved to discourse about ships that went without sails, and coaches that were impelled without horses, and to please him I drew a steamboat and a railway carriage; on which he asked if they made any noise; and I replied by imitating both inventions in the best manner I could think of “Tik-tok, tik-tok, tik-tok, tokka, tokka, tokka, tokka, tokka - tok” and “Squish-squash, squish-squash, squish-squash, thump-bump”’.

They next visited Shkodër and then set out for Berat. After galloping across the plains near Fier, Lear wrote ‘I never saw grander landscape, as majestic Tomohr (Tomorr) grew grey in the waning light’. They suffered many delays caused by bad weather, to the point that Lear dubbed it ‘unreachable Berat’, but they finally arrived on 14th October. Towards evening the next day, Lear was in ‘the market place (in fact, at this season, the dry bed of the river, which does not rise so high until much later in the year). . . . Long mounted lines of elderly men on asses were returning to Berat from vineyards or village gardens higher up the river’.

A further day was devoted to sketching Tomorr. Lear was captivated by the mountain and referred to it repeatedly while he remained in the area around Berat. Then they moved on to Avlona (Vlorë), which for Lear was ‘full of artistic incident… mosques and bazaars, storks’ nests, and picturesque desolation, for it is but a poor place now, having suffered in the latest Albanian rebellion’.

After further excursions, Lear returned to Vlorë, from where he was to visit a monastery. As he and his guide skirted the salt lagoons, he noticed ‘an infinite number of what appeared to be large white stones’, so he ‘resolved to examine these mysterious white stones, and off we went, when - on my near approach, one and all put forth legs, long necks, and great wings, and . . . so many great pelicans rose up into the air’.

On 1st November, Lear reached Arghyro Kastro (Gjirokastër). He described the town as ‘built on three distinct ridges, or spurs of rock, springing from the hill at a considerable height and widening - separated by deep ravines - as they stretch out into the plain. The town stands mainly on the face or edge of these narrow spurs, but many buildings are scattered picturesquely down their sides, mingled with fine trees, while the centre and highest ridge of the rock, isolated from the parent mountain, and connected with it only by an aqueduct, is crowned by the most striking feature of the place, a black ruined castle’. Three days later he departed for Greece.

Aqueduct and fortress of Arghyró Kastro 4th November 1848

Lear eventually settled in San Remo, where he died and was buried in 1888. Engraved on his headstone are some lines from a poem dedicated to him by his friend Tennyson, referring to Mount Tomorr:

Tomohrit, Athos, all things fair,

With such a pencil, such a pen,

You shadow forth to distant men,

I read and felt that I was there.

An adjacent headstone commemorates Giorgio, who had continued in Lear’s service for 30 years.

Joan Pearce

Edith Durham was born in December 1863 and died in November 1944. She became famous for her book, “High Albania”, an account of her travels in northern Albania and Kosovo in the spring and summer of 1908. In May she was in Shkodër, Edith calls it Scutari, at the beginning of her expedition. The city, she noted, ‘swarms with foreign consuls… Austria, by lavish expenditure, strives to buy up the tribes. Italy offers counter attractions. The Albanian has learnt by long practice how to play off one against the other. He accepts money upon occasion from each and all that offer it, and uses it for his private ends’.

That spring, the Ottoman empire was in crisis. Resentment against the authorities was so widespread that the British Vice-consul in Shkodër felt obliged to give Edith a warning:

”It is my duty to show you this," said our Vice-consul; "but, as I know you, I do not suppose it will make any difference”. It was an official letter from our Embassy in Constantinople, warning all persons travelling in the Turkish Empire merely for pleasure, that the British Government would neither be responsible for their safety nor pay ransom.

Of course, Edith ignored the warnings and on May 8th 1908, she left Shkodër before dawn and ‘oozed out of the town by the wrong road’ to mislead the authorities. For the next two months, she travelled in northern Albania, writing, sketching and taking photographs with her trusty Kodak.

Partly because of the title of her book, “High Albania”, Edith is associated primarily with ‘Maltsia e madhe’, the Great Mountain Land of northern Albana. But Edith also visited Kosovo. When she began her journey in May, Kosovo was ‘closed’; the Ottoman authorities refused to give outsiders permission to travel there. In July 1908, the old order was overthrown by the Young Turks and on 24th July a new Constitution was adopted. Edith immediately applied to the new authorities for permission to visit Kosovo:

"I leapt at the chance of being the first foreigner to enter the ‘closed’ districts under the new state of affairs, and applied properly, through the Consulate, for a teskereh (a passport) to travel to Prizren. Djakova was my object. The Young Turk authorities, pleased to find a British female willing to test the new regime in her own person, gave permission at once."

By August, Edith had returned to Shkodër. When she left his time, she headed north-east to Pukë, Han i Arshit and Djakovë, into what she called ‘the Debatable Lands’. After a gruelling three days in blistering heat, the party reached Djakovë: "I beheld it as a dream city… golden in the evening glow."


Edith was impressed by the seven-arched bridge "whose bold elegance of design makes one pardon the fact that it can be used only by foot passengers". But Djakovë itself was grim, a town built of mud bricks whose streets were "incomparably filthy and stinking. All the muck from the privies, and every sort of refuse, are thrown out on to any open spot - street corners and cross roads, and the riverbank - and left to fester. The carcase of a dead horse rotted in the sun, while the hooded crows - the only scavengers - tore at its gaunt ribs".

From Djakovë, the party headed to Prizren. The road, "quite a decent one", Edith notes, followed the left back of the Erenik river, then crossed it on Ura e Terzive, "a grand stone bridge of eleven arches - said to have been built three hundred years ago by the tailors of Djakova and Prizren". Now on the right bank, they crossed the river again where ‘Erenik joins Drin through a narrow gully, where a hill arises from the plain, and is spanned by a lofty bridge of one large arch, Ura e Fshejtë’. They reached Pirona, a large Moslem village on high ground. In the valley below was Prizren with the ruins of an old castle and the white walls of a modern barracks.

Prizren, by Edith Durham, 1908

Edith had timed her visit to perfection. It was 1st September, the Sultan’s accession day, and Prizren was celebrating, ‘the streets gay with flags, tissue-paper chains and fans… bands pom-pommed all night. The heat was intense, and sleep impossible. I did not get to the bazar till 7.30 next morning, a scandalously late hour in these lands’. But the bazaar was ‘worth all the journey’:

"I wandered up and down and in and out the long wooden tunnels of the bazar streets, dark with hot, rich shadow, glowing with goods. Gentian root and iris root are heaped at the herbalists', black nuts for the black hair-dye of the Christians and logwood for the red of the Moslems, henna for the palms and finger-nails. Three-cornered amulets sewn up in velvet, strings of dried bamias for stewing, jeleks and djemadans richly embroidered with thick orange silk cord, horse-trappings with scarlet tassels, and gay saddlebags."

Out in the big open spaces, in a glory of golden light, were piled tons of grapes, peaches, melons, pumpkins, gourds, glowing heaps of scarlet and orange tomatoes, shiny paprikas yellow, green and red, black purple aubergines, long green bamias, cabbage, lettuces in Arabian Nights profusion… And the peace that reigned in the bazar seemed the hush before the storm.

Edith was right. Three years later, the Ottoman Empire imploded and in October 1912, the whole region was engulfed in the first of the Balkans Wars.

John Watkins

Aubrey Herbert wrote in his memoirs: ‘Fate and inclination sent me continually to Albania from 1907 until 1918’. He visited Albania eight times in all. In November 1911, at the age of 31, he was elected as a Conservative MP and championed the Albanian cause in Parliament until his early death in 1923.

After Albania’s declaration of independence on 28th November 1912, Herbert acted to support the newly created state by setting up the Albanian Committee, of which he became President. The committee was formed as the Conference of Ambassadors convened in London to arbitrate on territorial acquisitions, and to determine the future of Albania. The Committee worked in close collaboration with the Provisional Government, arranging for an Albanian delegation to come to London in January 1913. Since the Provisional Government was not officially recognised, the delegates could not participate in the conference. Herbert and other members of the Committee assisted the delegation in presenting a memorandum on Albanian claims, and lobbied British politicians and diplomats.

In May 1913, the six Great Powers signed the Treaty of London which recognized Albanian independence. Herbert believed that the Committee had been ‘instrumental in obtaining advantages for the country which she would otherwise have lacked’. Nonetheless, he was aware that Albania was in a precarious state: the Provisional Government was not recognized throughout the country, the economy was enfeebled and large numbers of refugees had arrived from neighbouring countries.

In late August Herbert travelled to Albania to find out more about the situation. Edith Durham had arrived a few months before him, and they met in person for the first time:

I dined with Miss Durham, under an olive tree in her garden, and had a very interesting talk. I was very glad to meet her, after all I had heard of her; her name is a legend in the mountains. She has grand courage and wit to match it. She told me many vivid stories. She had nursed in hospitals, but her chief work had been refugee work amongst the Albanians, and very few people can have as many saved lives to their credit as she.

In Shkodër, Herbert met a deputation who sought to assure him that relations between Christians and Moslems were harmonious: ‘They told me of the priest of Shkreli who, with his flock of Christians, had helped the Moslems to build a mosque’. Herbert noted that Christians and Moslems were agreed on one thing:

They were not too pleased with the new regime, and did not like the system of fines, for under this system, they say, the rich can always sin without troubling, but sinning would be pain to the poor. I felt that this objection was very reasonable, but difficult to put into practice.

Herbert left Shkodër on 6th September and travelled by boat to Vlorë where he arrived the next day soon after dawn:

We went ashore, rowing over a sea of burning glass, and found the citizens gathered to meet us. The notables of Vlora came forward, and offered me the formal thanks of the Albanian population, which I was to convey to the Albanian Committee, for its work. We went to the Konak, the seat of government, where the deputations began to arrive, with lists of atrocities committed by the Serbs in the north and by the Greeks in the south. Outside, in the blazing sunlight, a large crowd stood and applauded continually; inside, a series of depressing conversations went on. Meymed Bey, Minister for War, arrived. He spoke of the urgent need of help for the refugees, and with bitterness of the way in which the country was being treated. . . . The cheers went on and I felt sick - knowing that nothing could or would be done.

Herbert was summoned to meet the President, Ismail Qemali, who asked him what he thought about the northern regions of the country and the attitude of the English Government to Albania. Herbert referred him to the speeches of Sir Edward Grey, who ‘had been openly favourable to Albania’:

With regard to the North, I thought that things were very critical: much land had been laid waste, and there was no money for the sowing of corn. It was very important to the country that it should retain his services as President, but there was a danger of his falling unless his Government was able to help actively. He could surely raise some thousands from the customs at Vlora and Durrës? That would do good both materially and politically. It would make a great difference in the North. He agreed to this.

Seat of the Provisional Government of Albania, Vlorë, 1913

Herbert then visited the prison in Vlorë. Appalled by the gruesome conditions there, he returned immediately to remonstrate with the President who promised to reprieve immediately those prisoners who were not accused of serious crimes, and to have the quarters of the others changed that day, which was done at once.

From Vlorë, Herbert continued to Berat:

We were a very jolly company of thirteen, and the fact that we were contrasted with each other added salt to the amusement of our journey: a priest-poet rode with us, and a patriot who said he had no politics but the good of his country; also Philippe Nogga, linguist and musician, fiddling upon an invisible violin as he rode - and sometimes falling off; a homicide, who shall be nameless; a fine singer; Mehmed Bey, the diplomatist, who amused each of his companions in turn at the expense of the rest; a Rumanian-Albanian with a Tammany gift for organisation; and lastly a shepherd-king…

On the outskirts of Berat, Islam Bey, a handsome and an aristocratic old Moslem, met us, while the townspeople crowded behind him with banners, and everyone made speeches to the accompaniment of loud shouts of “Roft Inghilterra!” We marched on, with banners flying, until we became thousands strong. I was taken to the house of Aziz Pasha Vrioni, [where] I proceeded to wash from head to foot. As I was becoming clean there were loud shouts. I was urged to huddle on my clothes, and I then made several breathless speeches from a balcony, to the gorgeous crowd below. Afterwards, visitors flowed in. The Mufti, like a jolly monk, who had been out fighting for three months with little luck, he said, now arrived. His fine house had been burnt and his goods taken from him. His courtesy and hospitality remained.

On the following day, they rode to Elbasan, and the town came out to meet them:

We spoke in loud but kind voices to the shadowy crowd that met us as night fell, and lightning played over the mountains that made an amphitheatre about the plain. At Elbasan I had the luxury of being shaved, and was surprised by the barber offering me cosmetics…

The next day we rode from Elbasan to Tirana. It was an enchanting ride along the cobble-stones of the Via Ignatia, through oak-scrub that suggested wolves, and was reminiscent of romantic outlaws at every turn, and through forests where tingling spices were carried on the warm wind. Overhead flew eagles…

We arrived at Tirana; a friendly town, green with cypresses and big gardens, watered by streams, a town with orderly, red-roofed houses, where nested comfortable storks. It was lovely with its grey walls, its cypresses and the sound of running water and of cooing doves.

On 11th September they left for Durrës in four carriages:

Philippe Nogga and I were in the first… talking highbrow ethics as to whether it was better for clean men to keep out of politics and leave politics to the rascals, or to take an active part and be defiled by the pitch. We all assumed that we were the salt of the earth.

At Durrës, they encountered two American missionaries back from Lower Dibra, where they had met Ahmed Bey Zogu, chief of the Mati, a boy of eighteen. He was said to read Shakespeare and to be a fine fighting man.

A week later Herbert was back in Shkodër, at the end of his tour.

Founded in 1912 as the Albanian Committee, in 1918 the Committee evolved into the Anglo-Albanian Society with Aubrey Herbert its president and Edith Durham its honorary secretary. It eventually became the Anglo-Albanian Association.

Joan Pearce


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