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Robert Elsie

Texts and Documents of Albanian History

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View of Durrës, ca. 1930.

View of Durrës, ca. 1930.

Simon Fitzsimons:
Itinerary from Ireland
to the Holy Land

Narratives of pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land provide a primary source of information for much of the eastern Mediterranean in the first half of the second millennium, and in one such narrative (1) dating from the year 1322, we find a passage about Albania. Although many pilgrims showed no more than a passing interest in the lands they visited en route to their goal, two Anglo-Irish pilgrims of the Franciscan Order, Symon Semeonis and Hugo Illuminator, whom we may refer to in English as Simon Fitzsimons and Hugh the Illuminator, were impressed by their short stopover in Albania, and the former vividly recorded what he saw, a rare glimpse of the Albanian coast in the first half of the fourteenth century. The 'Itinerarium Symonis Semeonis ab Hybernia ad Terram Sanctam' (The Itinerary of Simon Fitzsimons from Ireland to the Holy Land) contains a wealth of information on matters as varied as customs inspections and procedures, costumes, coinage, raw materials and products of the countries he visited and of course on churches and holy sites. It is apparent from the narrative that in 1322 the port of Durrës had not recovered entirely from the disastrous earthquake which had struck it half a century earlier. The original population of the city was replaced to a certain extent by an influx of Albanian nomads from the countryside. That Albanian must now have been widely spoken on the coastal plain and in the mountain regions at the time can be inferred from Simon's initial observation that the province had a language of its own, i.e. Albanian. Within the city of Durrës, however, the 'barbaric Albanians' are referred to only fourth, after the urban Latins, Greeks and Jews, an indication that they had not yet formed the majority group. Interestingly enough, Simon refers to the Albanian 'barbarians' in Dubrovnik, too, noting: "In eadem dominantur Veneti, et ad eam confluunt Sclavi, Barbari, Paterini et alii scismatici negotiatores qui sunt in gestu, habitu et lingua Latinis in omnibus difformes" (The Venetians dominate in it (Dubrovnik) and Slavs, Barbarians, Paterines and other schismatic merchants frequent it, who are entirely different from the Latins in their customs, dress and language).

And then after spending a few days, we passed through the city of Ulcinj, which belongs to the king of Rascia (2), and sailed to Durrës, a city once famous and mighty by land and sea, subject to the emperor of the Greeks but now belonging to the prince of Romania (3), the brother of the aforementioned king of Jerusalem (4), (this city) being in the province of Albania. It should be noted that Albania is a province between Slavonia (5) and Romania, having a language of its own and which the aforementioned schismatic King of Rascia has subjected to his rule. For the Albanians themselves are schismatics, using the rites of the Greeks and are entirely like them in their dress and manner. For like the Greeks, they rarely if ever wear the cowl, but rather a white hat lowered almost flat to the front and raised at the back so that their hair, the length and beauty of which they are extremely proud, may appear more attractive to the eyes of the beholder. The Slavs on the other hand, of whom mention was made above, wear a white hat, oblong and round, on the top of which their nobles stick a long feather in order to be distinguished and recognized more easily by the peasants and common people. The city itself is very extensive in the circuit of its walls, but small and unpretentious in its buildings because it was once razed to the ground in an earthquake (6), and in the destruction, its wealthiest citizens and inhabitants were buried beneath their own palaces and indeed a good 24,000 are reported to have died. It is now sparsely populated and divided in religion, customs and language. For it is inhabited by Latins, Greeks, perfidious Jews and barbaric Albanians. In use among them are small tournois coins of which eleven are worth one Venetian grosso. They are in use at this rate in all of Romania. This city is two hundred miles from Dubrovnik. And then, taking advantage of favourable winds, we continued on to Vlora, a fortress of the Emperor of the Greeks, and to the island of Corfu on which there is a city called Corfu belonging to the aforementioned King of Jerusalem, this place being two hundred miles from Durrës.


(1) cf. R. Elsie: Two Irish travellers in Albania, in: Albanien in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart. Internationales Symposium der Südosteuropa-Gesellschaft..., Munich 1991, p. 24-27.
(2) Stephan Urosh III (r. 1322-1333).
(3) Romania refers here to territories in the possession of the Byzantine Empire, in particular the Morea, and has nothing to do with modern Romania. The Prince of the Morea at the time was John, Count of Gravina (r. 1316-1335).
(4) Robert the Good (r. 1309-1343).
(5) The term Slavonia refers here to the Slavic territories of Dalmatia and Croatia.
(6) The earthquake referred to Byzantine historian George Pachymeres probably occurred in July 1267.

[Extract from: Mario Esposito (ed.): Itinerarium Symonis Semeonis ab Hybernia ad Terram Sanctam, Dublin 1960, p. 36 40. Translated from the Latin by Robert Elsie. First published in R. Elsie: Early Albania, a Reader of Historical Texts, 11th - 17th Centuries, Wiesbaden 2003, p. 26-27.]