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Cyprien Robert:

The Albanians

The French scholar and Slavic philologist Cyprien Robert (1807-1860?), born in Angers, studied Slavic under the great Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz whom he succeeded as a professor of Slavic languages and literature at the Collège de France in Paris (1845-1857). He was also editor of the influential 19th-century periodical ‘Revue des Deux-Mondes.’ After extensive travels in the Balkans, he published a lengthy work on the Greek- Slavic world, including an interesting chapter on the Albanians, of which the following is an extract. At the western edge of the Greek-Slavic world is a nation, always under arms, that constitutes a veritable caste of warriors in the Ottoman provinces. They are no less formidable and are freer than the military castes of central Asia. This nation, that has always had a major influence on the Empire, is still providing Turkey with the best and almost the only troops it gets. This tribe of soldiers are the Albanians, literally the ‘whites,’ (i) or in the actual meaning of the Oriental expression ‘independent men.’ Their nationality, the origins of which are obscure, goes back to the time of the Pelasgians, and the Greek and Slavic races probably found a common cradle in Albania. This ‘white’ people once inhabited almost all of the Greek-Slavic Peninsula, (ii) where their presence is attested by a number of Albanian names for towns and villages now inhabited by the Serbs and Greeks. Indeed, in various parts of Bulgaria, Macedonia and Bosnia, there are old villages where the Albanians are mixed with the Tzintzars (Hellenized Slavs). Although they were spread over a vast territory, the Albanian race has diminished substantially in size and there are now only over a million and a half real Albanians in this land that, at the time of Ali of Janina forty years ago, counted over two million people. Although it is closer to civilised Europe than most of the regions of the Orient, since it is only separated from Italy by a narrow channel, Albania ought normally to be subject to more civilising influence from Europe. Yet this is the very part of the Turkish Empire that has the most barbaric elements. What is at the origin of this phenomenon? Some believe it is due to the way the Albanians cling to their system of tribes and clans that is more ingrained in Albania than it is in the other provinces of the Ottoman Empire. But it would be wrong to attribute the barbarity of Albania to this. It is linked not only to the system of tribes, but to the system of warrior tribes, to the unruly spirit of the hordes. The determination of this people, even in times of peace, to maintain their martial ways has hindered all social development. As they are not able to make war abroad, they make war on one another, as do the Bedouin Arabs. They have been decimated more and more by minor clashes between families and this has enabled neighbouring peoples to infiltrate increasingly onto their land. This foreign infiltration, mostly gone unnoticed, has caused Albania to be subjected to two foreign influences, one Slavic and one Greek, the two of which are now in conflict with one another over a land in anarchy. The Albanians use two general terms to refer to themselves. The term Mirdite, taken from Persian mardaites (courageous), is used to refer to the more noble part of the population and would seem, like the terms German, Slav and Franc, to have been a title of honour. The word Shkipetar (inhabitants of the rocky cliffs) is used to designate this nation in general. Hippocrates once said: “All those who live in mountainous regions with water and who are subjected to frequent variations in the seasonal climate are of necessity tall, given to physical exercise, courageous, and fierce and savage in character,” and this is a fit description of the Albanians. As to the latter, one must add that they have small eyes, an unflinching glance, thin eyebrows, sharp noses, longish heads, flat foreheads, very long necks, and extremely thrown-out chests, with the rest of the body being thin and sinewy. As they are endowed with impressively supple muscles, they maintain in their gait and attitudes the rather theatrical air of an athlete of ancient times. Although they have much natural spirit, they are not particularly endowed with intelligence. More than anything else, they are soldiers – the Swiss of the Orient. They sell their blood to any banner and serve any master with equal fidelity. One can find them as members of the Papal Guard, at the Palace of Naples, in the seraglios of Baghdad, Cairo and Morocco, and in the reception halls of the Moldavian and Wallachian boyars. Alexandre-Gabriel Decamp (1803-1860), “Duel between Albanians,” ca. 1828 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London). Voluntary recruitment campaigns take place all over Albania every year. The rich inhabitants have the right to hold the rank of a buluk-bashi [non-commissioned officer] or captain. He will hire men, paying them wages as agreed upon with them, and will take his band of adventurers with him, who become his adopted family. He goes pillaging with them abroad or enters the service of a foreign prince or pasha. The ‘fathers’ of these bands share all the toil and pleasure with their adopted sons and are not distinguished from them by richer weapons or by costumes of gold and silver brocade. The normal pay of these burrë (fighters), who make up these small military families, is from seven to nine francs a month, excluding food. Inclined to marauding, but frugal in their ways, they steal from the peasants what they generally need in the way of food. In times of war, their cupidity knows no bounds. They fall upon those they have defeated with cries of: “Aspra, aspra! i xilon, xilon, kai xilon!” (Money, money! Or beatings, beatings, beatings!). In battle they instinctively know how to take advantage of the terrain, and know all the strategies of partisan warfare. They excel in deceiving their enemies by fake movements and by seizing their opponents in rush attacks. They can run over great lengths of terrain in small groups and thereby set up a chain of small command posts that communicate with one another by means of indefatigable scouts. When they set up an ambush, they often place their caps and coats in the opposite direction to where they are hiding. Lying flat on the ground or hidden behind the trees, they take aim at their foes with certainty in their glance. If they take their enemies alive, the latter become their slaves. If their enemies are killed, their heads, cut off and salted, are taken home and placed on lances in their villages. This customs is also respected by Catholic burrë. The Albanians who do not enroll in the military also go abroad each year in search of work as stone- workers, masons and reapers. They return home in the winter with the money they have earned. A nomadic existence, without the presence of women has given rise among the Albanians, more than among any other people in Europe, to the shameful vice necessitated by this lifestyle. On the other hand, they are frank, hold their promises and know how to wage open war on their enemies. The licentious proclivities of the Albanians do not resist marriage and their attitude to married life is particularly severe. Even those among them who are Muslim have only one wife. Prostitution is virtually unknown in this country, and any woman caught in flagranti perishes together with the man she has seduced. Despite the severity of their morals, the Albanians are little affected by jealousy. They allow their wives to go out everywhere unveiled. As with all warrior races, the women here are looked down upon and charged with a great burden of work. They drench the land with their sweat and, on occasion, even do battle in feuds together with their husbands. These energetic women deserve a better lot in life. They have not only beauty that does not always fade in old age, but also all the virtues of a housekeeper. Each house in this strange country is like a little fort, with loopholes that serve as windows. The homes are built of clay, and are always at a distance, if possible, on hilltops that can only be reached by a staircase that usually terminates in a ladder - the only way of entering the vulture’s nest. The interiors are virtually devoid of furniture, sometimes even of doors. The smoke has no way of getting out but through a hole in the ceiling. The windows are never glassed. In the wintertime, they are just stuffed with paper. The manors of the principal beys are, however, somewhat more ornate. The exteriors are painted in gaudy colours. The interiors offer a profusion of arabesques, seascapes, visions of Oriental architecture, hunting scenes and amiable landscapes, carried out by the Greek rayah. The magnificence of Albanian costumes is quite proverbial. However, in essence, they are variations of Greek dress. Their jerkins glitter with gold buttons and silk embroidery of all colours, from their necks down to their waists. It highlights their figures and all their movements. The two sleeves, usually open and detached from the arms, flutter like wings behind their shoulders. What characterises the scions of these Albanian fis (clans) are their fustans that remind one of the kilts of the ancient Celts and the short skirts of Roman soldiers. These fustans or fustanellas are composed of 122 pieces of cloth cut crosswise and very broad at the hem, with innumerable folds. This sort of tunic is about two feet long. It is scalloped in embroidered silk and is wrapped around the thighs with a top hem. It gives their gait a certain lightness and dynamic that strikes the foreigner. It must be noted, to the shame of the Albanian warriors, that clean, white fustanellas are rare. The warriors are proud of owning only one and they wear them, without ever changing them until they are in rags. With this, they endeavour to show their disdain for femininity and luxury. The Albanians shave their heads as the Turks do, the only difference being that, at the back, they keep a long tuff of hair that they never cut. The usual headpiece is the red fez. The Ulema are the only ones to wear turbans and beards. The other Albanians only grow moustaches. The headdress of the women differs only in that coins are added. They also have braids falling from all sides. The footwear of the warriors is a sort of cloth gaiter with hooks and silk braiding, rather like the buskins of ancient times. It extends from the knee to the foot and is covered there by Moroccan red leather shoes or by a simple piece of untanned leather attached to the leg with cords, like a sandal. The Albanians have no other bed than the ground. On it they spread matting of palm leaves or the rich carpets they plundered from an Asian town. They remain fully clothed while sleeping and make a pillow with their abas, a goat-hair coat, or with a sheep skin. They are no more demanding with regard to food than they are with regard to bedding. When travelling, they take only one meal a day. At home they are quite content with a rice or cornmeal soup diluted in milk. On feast days, they eat a yahhni, a meat stew with dry peas, a Turkish pilaf or a koçé, which is a roast of goat or mutton served in one piece on an oak-wood platter. The burrë sit around in a circle and tear it to pieces with their daggers, devouring it immediately without any need for a fork. As among the Bosnians, the meal concludes with a dessert made up of bits of honey mixed with cream. Despite their barbaric look, the banquets are not devoid of grandeur. Europeans are surprised by their open-hearted cheerfulness and their often dignified manners. The servants stand in rows with their hands crossed over their chests, and there are gold embroidered napkins that are passed around from one guest to the next. Huge gem-studded crystal goblets are brought forth for toasting. After the meal, bright red ewers are brought in by the young women, in which the guests wash their hands and faces, and then curious dances are performed. The traveller is reminded of the customs of ancient times; everything is designed to delight him. However, his joy is soon replaced by pain and pity when he sees the head of a family, full of awe and superstition, take up the shoulder-blades of the roasted sheep and study them in the light as a haruspex to determine the fate of his people. The meals are often accompanied by song. Each tribe has its own bard, who is usually an aged member of the family. The bard sings for this grandchildren and great nephews of the exploits of their ancestors and of the current head of the tribe, grand deeds often marred, in the eyes of civilised men, by cruelty and atrocious treachery. But there is nothing dishonourable about them in the eyes of this people. The songs, divided into couplets, are sung in a monotonous drone, interrupted regularly by shrieks and cries. Their brokovalas, military marches once sung by the companions of Scanderbeg on marching into battle, and that may stem from the time of Pyrrhus, make an awesome impression. The lifestyle of the Albanians makes them robust by nature and insensitive to the weather and changing seasons. What ends their lives is almost always the only illness they have ever had. They have an utter disinterest in medicine. In the whole country there are not more than a dozen Greek doctors trained at the schools of Pisa, Vienna and Paris. As to surgery, this is left to witch doctors who, with their salves and cabalistic prayers, claim that they can heal all illnesses. The main breeding ground for these kaloyatri, medicine men, is the district of Zagoria in the Pindus Mountains. Here there are thousands of traditional healing practices, some of which, it must be admitted, are quite effective. With their medicinal plants, the kaloyatri know how to get rid of terrible sabre wounds. What is odd is that, in these cases, the medicine men allow the patients to drink nothing but brandy in order, as they claim, to keep the skin healthy and to avoid gangrene. Not much is done for chronical illnesses. They often just carry the ill to the village church where the papas recites a prayer over them. If they are too ill to be transported to church, someone will take their clothes to a holy place. Even Muslims indulge in these pious practices. Women do not make any changes in their daily routine when they are pregnant. They sometimes give birth out in the fields where they are toiling. They place the new-born child in their bosom and hasten home to go to bed, although they are by no means ailing. It is custom for a woman who has just given birth to remain unseen for several days. For seven nights in a row, all the neighbours come around and make a racket around the house to prevent her and her child from sleeping, out of fear that demons will cast spells on them when the sleep. The mentally ill and those ‘possessed’ are only treated by priests who put them in chains and beat them with canes until they confess the names of all the devils who have entered them. These names are written down, with anathemas, on pieces of paper that are then burned. The Albanians have innumerable superstitions. Priests solemnly curse insects in their chants, and are said to be able to ward off hail and storms. On the trails, one often sees stones stuck in the branches of trees. These are ex voto offerings which the simple people place there on their journeys so that the spirits of the forest, touched by the gift, will deliver their limbs from the weariness of the road. On the top of fountains one often sees an empty niche that looks as if it were waiting for a statue. Those who drink from the fountain put in this niche a flower, a pebble, a green branch, or hair from their beards as a gift to the good spirit (kalodaimon) of the wilderness. Above all, the Albanians are afraid of the ‘evil eye.’ Whenever they think they have been the object of such a glance, they touch iron and fire off a couple of shot with their pistols. Without this, they would certainly get lost on their journey, fall off a cliff or plunge into a pit inhabited by vroko-laks  [vurkollak], bloodthirsty werewolves. Different from the vukodlak of the Serbs, who is simply a man, dead or alive, possessed by a murderous, wandering demon, the vurkollak is an indestructible spirit. It often arises out of the ground in the form of a black snake to bite men taking a siesta in the grass. The strongest oath is to swear by this snake. When a man sets off on a long journey, his wife will sew some pieces of her own garments into his clothes and will remain in the vicinity of things dear to her husband. She will consult these objects for omens of the future. She will fall into despair and anguish if dogs bark in the night for no apparent reason because she believes they are reacting to her husband’s groans when he is taken prisoner and perhaps slaughtered in the sands of Tunis or Palmyra. All these superstitions can be explained by the barbarity of the Albanians rather than by their Oriental upbringing. The influence of the Orient is perhaps less present in their customs than that of ancient Europe. Nothing is more contrary to the thinking of a pious man of the Orient, for example, than hunting, yet hunting is a favourite pastime of the Albanians, as it is of German barons. Mirdita is the only Turkish territory where customs are little influenced by the Orient, and combat between animals was very much enjoyed there at the time of Ali Pasha. These people know little aside from shepherding. They are not interested in skilled trades. The young men wander about in the mountains with their flocks while the beys and tribal chieftains take up the palankas [fortified camps]. However, the people of high Albania grow grapes and those of Epirus grow olives. They also cut down oak trees and transport them to the coast where they are sold to the commissioners of the Austrian and English fleets. The Hellenized Albanians in some towns, like Janina, on the other hand, only take up skilled trades. They are the artists of Turkey-in- Europe. They journey through all the provinces, often in wandering groups, like the lame prayers of Jove that follow where Injustice lies, and rebuild towns that their compatriots, the pastoral warriors, have destroyed. Auguste Raffet (1804-1860), “Two Studies of an Albanian Guardsman,” Egypt, 1840 (private collection, New York). Every large family has its escutcheon and every tribe has its banner that is handed to the young men when they set off on a distant expedition. The weapons that these irregular bands take with them consist of knives and hanjars, the handles of which are often ornate, sometimes in silver or mother-of-pearl; two or three rather long pistols with pointed copper grips; and rifles, usually damascened. The most popular weapons among them are the carbine, called a djeferdan [xheverdare], and the large Albanian rifle called the Arnautka weighing twelve pounds. Thirty links [?] support the barrel that can fire at a distance of 300 paces. The Albanians do not use bayonets, and use the same bullets in their pistols as they do in their rifles. Sometimes, their leaders will dress up in the rich toke of the Middle Ages, Bosnian armour-plating in silver and bright red, with types of wings on the shoulders. But the metal plates of which the armour is made are so thin that they would hardly withstand the blow of a sabre. To protect themselves from injury, the fighters rely more than anything on amulets that they never leave behind. Sometimes they are passed on from father to son. Proud and happy to be able to live in a camp, the young men draw new strength. Of ten thousand Albanians going into battle, one will not find more than thirty who are ill. But once their stint has expired and they are still far from their own country, these proud Albanians cannot be held back anymore. Their national pride causes them to despite the Turks: “Osmanlis einai kalos dia to chorba (The Ottomans are good for nothing but soup), they say. They despise the Europeans even more. They only have confidence in their own race and in those who have been adopted by their tribe. The social organisation of the Albanians cannot be easily defined, because it includes almost all types of governance, none of which is dominant. In reality, the Albanians are the only community living in Europe at the moment who live as did our ancestors in the age of feudal anarchy and during the Norse invasions. Civilian authority is based purely on the sword. All military leaders serve as judges in peacetime and take on the religious aura of old men in an ancient patriarchal system, however young they may still be. They are followed to church with the greatest devotion by the members of their tribe, as they are in the camp, and are obliged to treat them as their own children. The Albanian tribe is called a farë or çeta, terms derived from Greek and Slavic that signify hearth or family. Wherever this nation has been in direct contact with Europeans, be it in the formerly Venetian isles or in the Kingdom of Naples that included many Albanian colonies, the tribes gradually took on a feudal character. But in the interior of Albania, they have retained the democratic character inherent to the population as a whole. With their excessive family spirit, one might say that the Albanians are scattered into a mass of little groups or tribes. Each of these groups, within the protective walls of their kullas (fortified towers), believes that it can successfully challenge the others and, obsessed with the interests of its own family, it refuses to accord justice to neighbouring tribes that its members may have wronged. The excessive freedom and power of the family gives rise to private justice. As such, one murder can give rise to hundreds of others committed in revenge. These domestic feuds are called çetas, a Tatar word still used by the Turkomans of Anatolia to mean an attack on a merchant caravan. In early Illyrian (iii) četa means ‘pillage’ and četovati ‘to pillage.’ An ambush during a çeta is called a çak. What is going on in Algeria at the moment between the tribes friendly to France and the enemy tribes can give one an idea of the raids being carried out in Albania, Herzegovina and Montenegro. The warrior clans steal flocks, destroy homes and uproot fruit trees. Only the churches and women are spared. In the midst of the fury of a raid, women remain inviolable and can move freely from village to village. When two Albanians from different tribes meet, the first question they ask is: “Kum fis?” (Which tribe are you from?). And they ask this question with their hands on their pistols, each suspecting that the tribe of the other owes him blood. The whole moral system of this society rests on the terrible maxim: “Ko ne se osveti, on ne se posveti.” (Whoever does not take revenge, does not sanctify himself), i.e. that by being lax, he will be cursed for having encouraged the other side to attack. It is the closest relative of the victim who is obliged to take revenge. If one of two brothers kills his father, the other must kill his brother to pacify the soul of the deceased. If he does not, it is his son who is obliged to replace him in carrying out the vengeance. It can go on and on until the whole family has been wiped out. At the bedside of the victim, an old man will enumerate the number of men of his tribe who have died and piously recommend that his sons take vengeance. When the tribe under attack is of a considerable size, one occasionally sees hundreds of men rushing into the fray at once. There are also national çetas sent against neighbouring provinces such as Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro. Çetas of this type are usually composed of some three thousand men and form three corps. In broad daylight, they will haughtily attack an enemy fortress. The inhabitants who have not managed to lay in wait in some gorge near their village to attack the assailants as they pass, will barricade themselves in and wait for their allies to arrive. Çetas composed of Albanians from the coast, for example from the Gulf of Volos, often go by sea. They are much feared by the Greeks of Thessaly and those of Acroceraunia. Skimming over the waters with frightening rapidity, their Tartanes (single-mast sailboats) with peaceful names such as ‘doe,’ ‘dove,’ and ‘she-goat’ pursue and rob the cruelest pirates of the Mediterranean. Other çetas are devoted solely to plundering across the border. They are given the melancholic name kurbet ‘sorrow of emigration,’ and those who take part in them are pitied, much like people in southern European countries sympathise with the poveri brigandi. As in the age of feudal chivalry, the çetas are subject to certain moral restrictions. For instance, at the time of sowing or harvesting, or when there is much work to be done in the fields, one may not attack the people working there. One is only allowed to shoot at the village. Whenever someone cries out, “Nu vras” (do not kill), his adversary must hold back his fury and stop. If a traveller should happen to appear in the midst of a skirmish, they stop fighting at his approach and escort him onwards. Should a foreign enemy attack, all the feuds cease spontaneously. And finally, should a weaker tribe be threatened with complete extermination, the neighbouring tribes will unite and force the victor to make peace.   (i) The etymology is taken no doubt from Latin adjective albus ‘white.’ (ii) i.e. Balkan Peninsula. (iii) Meant is Slavic. [Extract from Cyprien Robert, “Le monde gréco-slave: les Albanais,” published in: Revue des Deux- Mondes, Paris, vol. 31 (1842-1843), p. 85–92. Translated from the French by Robert Elsie.]
Robert Elsie Texts and Documents of Albanian History
Carl Haag (1820-1915), “Greek Warrior” (Benaki Collection, Athens).
Amadeo Preziosi (1816-1882), “Albanian Fighter,” 1845 (Museum of Cyprus).
Otto Stackelberg (1786-1837), “Wife of an Albanian,” lithograph, Rome, 1825.
Louis Dupré (1789-1837), “A Suliot Palikar,” Corfu, 1819.