Hyacinthe Hecquard:

A Description of Plava and Gucia

The French explorer Hyacinthe Hecquard (1814-1866), from Lisieux in Normandy, joined the diplomatic service and was sent to Albania, where in 1854 he served as French consul in Shkodra. He travelled widely in northern Albania and got to know the region well. Particularly well informed for the period is his 535-page book “Histoire et description de la haute Albanie ou Guégarie” [History and Description of High Albania or Ghegeria], Paris 1858. Given here is his account of the fabled mountain region of Plava and Gucia [BCS: Plav & Gusinje], now in southeastern Montenegro, with the description of an armed conflict between the fanatically Muslim inhabitants of the valley and the rapacious Catholic Kelmendi tribesmen of the surrounding mountains. View of Gucia (Gusinje) in southeastern Montenegro and the mountains of northern Albania (photo: Stephan Trierweiler, July 2015). The Region of Gucia This region, situated between Rugova, Bihor, Rožaje and Kolašin, borders on one side on Kuči and on the other side on Kelmendi. This zone dominates all the surrounding countryside and is noted for its cliffs and high mountains covered in thick forests where one can come across bears, wolves, deer and wild goats. Brooks and streams irrigate these magnificent valleys. The Vruja River winds its way placidly across the plain to disappear all of a sudden into an abyss and, after flowing underground for some time, reappears impetuously on the surface. Thanks to natural irrigation, the region of Gucia [Gusinje] is one of the most affluent of all Albania. All types of grain thrive here, and in the luxuriant meadows graze large flocks of cattle, sheep and sure-footed horses. In the forests there are oak, beech and pine trees that could provide the navy with well-contoured ships and excellent masts if only there were roads to transport the trunks. The climate, that is harsh up in the mountains, is mild in the valleys such that blackberries are grown and pomegranates grow wild. Commerce is of great importance here because of the valley’s advantageous position, but it would be all the more important if there were roads. Large quantities of cattle, sheep and horses are exported to various provinces of the empire, as are great quantities of hides, wool, butter and cheese. The mosque and wooden minaret of Gucia (Gusinje) in southeastern Montenegro (photo: Robert Elsie, April 2009). Gucia Gucia is now the capital of the region of the same name and is governed by one of the old beys of the country. It is located in the middle of a long and narrow valley in the midst of fair and prosperous farmland. It is separated from the high snow-covered mountains by a ridge of verdant hills. The sparkling waters of the Grnčar River, which is called Ganglari on the Austrian map, irrigate this plain before they flow into the Lim. Not far from Gucia is a little stream called the Vruja, formed by the Odolia. Its water gushes out of a natural basin at the foot of Mount Vuthaj [Vusanje]. The town of Gucia is a collection of houses built in the valley in a rather disorderly fashion, the settlement becoming denser as one approaches the centre of town. Most of the houses are built of wood. It is only the homes of the few old beys that are made of stone. The roofs, made of shingles and extremely steep because of the snowfall, remind one of Swiss chalets. Each house has a garden of its own, surrounded by hedges or low drystone walls. In some parts of town there are large open spaces planted with magnificent trees where the Muslims bury their dead. The Population The layout of the houses gives the impression that Gucia is a very large town. However, it only has four thousand inhabitants, most of whom are Muslim. The fifty or so families of Christian Slavs who have settled there, have to live in a separate quarter. They are not allowed to have any contact with the Muslims. Mosque near Vuthaj (Vusanje) in southeastern Montenegro (photo: Robert Elsie, July 2015). The Fanaticism of the Inhabitants Nowhere else in Turkey is the separation of the two religions so complete as in Gucia. The inhabitants of the town, who live in a state of extreme ignorance, are fanatic and extremely arrogant. Each street, considered as a quarter in itself, is named after the family from which the inhabitants descend. These families, twelve in all, stem in good part from the neighbouring mountains. They have sacrificed the freedom they enjoyed in the mountains and the religion of their forefathers for the comforts of life on the plain. The main buildings in the town are two mosques that have no special appeal and a stone house in which the commander, always a local bey, resides. At the gate of his house are two little bronze cannons in a bad state that were taken from the fortress of Plava [Plav]. The bazaar, situated in the centre of town, consists of about fifty shops. Every year in October, there is an important fair to which people from throughout Rumelia come. The Fortress Near Gucia, on the banks of the Grnčar River is a small fort that is now in ruins. It was constructed by the Turks in 1612 to defend Plava from attack by the formidable Kelmendi tribe. Its Foundation according to the Kelmendi There is an oral tradition handed down by this tribe that was told to me by one of the chieftains. I am including in this narrative all the naivety and original observations it contained. After the Serbs were defeated in Kosovo by the Turks, with the help of the Kelmendi, the sultan bestowed upon the latter the right to impose a tax called poressi on all the Slavic inhabitants of the mountains, from Plava to Kosovo and from Bijelo Polje to Gjakova. When the Turks later took possession of these mountains, the inhabitants submitted in part. Having become colonists, they refused to pay the tax, either because they were encouraged by their new masters not to do so or because they regarded the Kelmendi as responsible for their wretched situation. The latter were furious and not only used force to try to get them to pay, but even attacked them in a series of çetas (invasions, raids), seizing men and beasts to sell them elsewhere. The Turks then took to the defence of their rayah, and made war on the Kelmendi who closed in on Plava, a little town located near their borders, in such a way that the inhabitants could not escape. They were thus forced once again to pay the poressi tax. The Springs of Ali Pasha near Gucia (Gusinje) in southeastern Montenegro (photo: Stephan Trierweiler, July 2015). Several years had passed, some in war and others in peace, when a certain Mustapha Agha, the feudal governor of Plava, went to Constantinople and asked the sultan to abolish the tax, stressing that the highland Albanians were barbarians with a penchant for thievery and that the Muslims of Albania were shocked to see such a right being accorded to the infidels. However, mindful of the services that the Kelmendi had rendered to him, the sultan refused to hear any more and threw the plaintiff into prison. There he remained for three years until his brother, Regepp Agha, cunning and cruel as he was, devised a terrible plan that, when carried out, caused the downfall of the Kelmendi, who had been satisfied by the punishment inflicted upon Mustapha Agha and by the protection afforded to them from the sultan. Regepp Agha collected a great number of body parts, such as arms, ears, women’s breasts etc., had them salted, put into sacks and sent to Constantinople, intending to accuse the Kelmendi of having committed these crimes on the rayah and on the Muslims. “In actual fact,” said the chieftain who told me about this, “Regepp Agha got the body parts from corpses because you know that we in the mountains have such respect for women, even those of our enemies, that they can go about freely even in time of war. They are the ones who always serve as intermediaries for concluding besas (truces). They are held in such respect that the women of Kuči often serve as human shields for their husbands who hide behind them and shoot at their enemies. This forces the latter to withdraw. A man would rather die than shoot a woman. Killing one of them would be such a shameful act that the killer would no longer be able to show his face in his mountain homeland. This custom, faithfully preserved, has been passed down to us by our ancestors.” Once in the Turkish capital, Reggep Agha did not dare to present himself to the sultan for fear of suffering the same fate as his brother, so he took advantage of a Friday when the sultan went to the mosque, and laid the frightful body parts out on the road that the sultan was to take when he returned home. He then hid in the crowd. Struck by the horrible sight, the sultan asked his entourage who had had the audacity to place such a spectacle before him and in which one of his lands such atrocities were being committed, swearing to punish all the culprits. Regepp Agha hastened forth and fell to the sultan’s feet, telling him that he was from Plava and that his brother, Mustapha Agha, was in prison under the sultan’s orders, without having been heard. He explained that the body parts were those of Muslims killed by the Kelmendi who were acting in a high- handed manner and were committing unspeakable atrocities since they knew that they were being protected by the sultan. The enraged sultan ordered Mustapha Agha to be freed from prison and placed him at the head of an army to go and punish the cruel highlanders. When the two brothers got to Plava in the middle of winter, they prepared to attack the Kelmendi. Having assembled their troops, they decided to build a fort on a hill near the Grnčar River to serve as a place of refuge if they should be thrown back and to protect Plava from Kelmendi attack. All winter long they worked on the construction of the fort and by the spring it was ready and fortified with low-calibre cannons. The Kelmendi were unaware of what was going on as they were separated from the region by ranges of high snow-covered mountains and could thus do nothing to stop the fort from being built. When the flowers began to bloom and there was no more fear of avalanches, and when the south wind melted the ice and snow in the mountains, some of the Kelmendi came down to visit their grazing lands and repair their huts that had been damaged by the storms. How surprised they were when they got here! Where their summer huts had been, they saw new houses, some finished and others still under construction. On the river bank they noticed a fort on which fluttered a standard in the colour of leaves. The site had once been the tranquil winter habitat of bears, wolves and boars. Now they could hear military trumpets blowing. Terrified, they hastened back to their mountains to inform the chieftains of their clans who did not believe them and went down to the valley to have a look for themselves. Dukl Vuka, the descendant of a priest called Vik or Clement, was thunderstruck and called the Kelmendi to a general assembly to decide whether they should attack the Turks without warning and destroy their fortifications or negotiate with them. They chose the latter and sent envoys to Mustapha to ask him why he had seized their land. They told him that if his intention was to build a town as a centre of trade and commerce for the people living on the banks of the Cem [Cijevna] and Lim Rivers and for the Kuči tribe, they would gladly give up their land on condition that it be available to both Slavs and Albanians. Otherwise, he ought to have asked for their permission. Mindful of what he had gone through and confident in the support of the sultan, Mustapha wanted not only to punish the Kelmendi but to subjugate them to the Porte, and he haughtily rejected their conciliatory offer. When they returned home and assembled their leaders once again, the Kelmendi envoys told them of the rejection and vividly described the contempt and hatred of which they had been the object in the speeches of Mustapha. On hearing this, the assembly rose to a man and decided to make war until their usurped lands were given back. All able-bodied men set off immediately, led by the skillful and courageous Dukl Vuka. A good number of women also joined the force, wearing long knives in their sashes. Their duty was to carry the dead from the battlefield and to tend to the wounded. When they got to the banks of the Grnčar River, they ordered Mustapha to get off their land. He asked for three days to do so, to which they agreed. Taking advantage of the truce, he called together the Muslim Slavs and marched on the Kelmendi but, although his forces fought with great courage, they were defeated by the latter. Further skirmishes took place on the following days, too. Seeing that his army was being decimated and was losing courage, Mustapha decided to withdraw to behind the walls that he had built. To disguise this move, he had some of his men attack while the others were retiring. The attackers were, however, soon overwhelmed by the force of the Kelmendi assault. The Muslims ran for it and there was much carnage. The men of Kelmendi themselves suffered few losses because they knew how to take advantage of the terrain when moving backwards, and the cannons in the fort proved to be of no use. A traditional kulla near Gucia (Gusinje) in southeastern Montenegro (photo: Stephan Trierweiler, July 2015). Considering that their efforts would be in vain and they would suffer great loss if they tried to attack the fortifications outright, the Kelmendi decided to besiege the Muslims and starve them out. To this end, they occupied the Gagraja gorge that one needs to cross to get from Gucia to Plava. Several months passed. One day, a large cavalry detachment escorting a convoy of ammunition turned up to aid the men under siege. Having been warned by their scouts, the Kelmendi crossed the Grnčar and lay in wait in a grove of beech trees. They let the Turks enter the grove, but blocked their exit with tree trunks. When the signal was given, they attacked from all sides. Not one Turk survived and the Kelmendi took possession of great stores of weapons, horses, food and ammunition. While the siege continued, Plava was being ravaged by the incursions of the Kelmendi who destroyed the fields and carried off all the animals and men who ventured outdoors. However, summer drew to a close and the Kelmendi were to return to their mountains. Dukl Vuka assembled the chieftains of the tribe to decide whether they should abandon their campaign and give the usurped territory to Mustapha or make a final assault. They decided on the latter, that they would make one last-ditch attempt. The fort was thus attacked again. On suffering major losses while fighting in the open, the Kelmendi set to building large wickerwork gabions filled with wool and wet sand, and hid behind them as the women pushed the baskets forward. With the military balance restored, the Muslims made a sortie to repel the assault, but were forced once again to take refuge behind the walls because the Kelmendi were advancing under the protection of their moveable gabions. Realising that they were surrounded, the besieged men decided to abandon the fort. In order to do so without being decimated, they sought a three-day truce that the Kelmendi agreed to, seeing that their opponents were in a precarious position and not wanting to push them to the extreme. During these three days, noticing that the Muslims had given up all hope of reinforcements, the Kelmendi, now assured of success, ordered wine and spirits to be brought to them in order to celebrate their victory. In the drunken stupor that followed, they began dividing up the lands that Mustapha had taken from them. In the meanwhile, Mustapha, who did not drink wine but only the crystal-clear water of the Vruja, was pondering on how to overcome imminent defeat and take advantage of the drunkenness of the highlanders. Something unexpected then happened that gave him the advantage he so desperately needed. Among the men of Kelmendi, there was certain Gjon Balla of the family of Vuka-Clement. He had often given proof of his courage and prudence in times of war, but he was haughty and ambitious by nature. Convinced that he was a hero above all others, he demanded respect from everyone else, not to mention a greater part of the booty. This ambition was to be his downfall. To satisfy his needs, he betrayed the others and sacrificed his people’s glory. As he was not given the plot of land he wanted, he believed he could get it from the Turks. Consequently, one night, he secretly approached the sentries and was taken to their commander. Complaining of the ingratitude of his compatriots, he told the commander that he could get the Kelmendi to withdraw from Gucia if he were given the land he wanted. Mustapha jumped at the offer. Gjon Balla told him what to do. “Have a great number of stakes hewn and sharpened, and plant them in the ground so that the gabions used by the Kelmendi get stuck in them and cannot move. But leave large empty spaces between them. When the gabions get caught up in the stakes they will not be able to move forwards or backwards. Other gabions will continue rolling forwards, with the Kelmendi hiding behind them. When they are in disarray, send out your cavalry at intervals. When they see that they are cut off from one another, the Kelmendi will abandon their moveable gabions, take to the hills and not re-form. The cold has forced them to send their families and animals home and the snow that will soon be falling will put an end to all their incursions this year. Should they advance against you next year, you will have time to prepare your defences.” Mustapha was delighted by what he heard. When the truce expired, he followed what Gjon Balla had told him, with the desired results. Despite courageous fighting, the Kelmendi were forced to abandon the battlefield and take flight, leaving many dead and wounded behind them, as well as many of their women who had been taken prisoner. They were later exchanged for Muslim prisoners. The men under siege pursued the fleeing Kelmendi for a while but, fearful of ambushes, they did not take advantage of their victory and returned to their camp. The Village of Hakaj After the Kelmendi defeat, Gjon Balla got the land he had been promised, where his descendants still live to this day. A few other families from Kikej joined them and established the village of Hakaj [Hakanje] that now has about seventy families. They remained Catholic for a long time, under the spiritual care of the Franciscan missionaries of the Kelmendi, but about fifty years ago, they turned Muslim. Mustapha finished off his fortifications when the Kelmendi were defeated and divided the land up among his soldiers. He called in reinforcements and soon made Gucia a large town. As a reward for his services, the sultan bestowed upon him the title of bey that he handed down to his family. It is from them that Ali Bey, the present governor, received his title. Plava Plava, situated three leagues from Gucia, is located at the side of the lake of the same name, from which the Lim River flows. After crossing the territory of Bijelo Polje, it flows into the Morava in Bosnia. It is a delightful town situated in the middle of a fair plain divided in all directions by little brooks of clear-flowing, silvery water. The kulla of Redžepagić (Kula Redžepagića) in Plava (Plav) in southeastern Montenegro (photo: Stephan Trierweiler, July 2015). Its Antiquity Plava is known for its antiquity and is remembered for the numerous tribulations it has undergone under various regimes over the course of the centuries. Remains of marble columns, pieces of architraves, and bits of well-fashioned sculptures lay around on the ground or have been used for new buildings. This proves how important the town once was. According to local tradition, it was founded by Flavius on the ruins of a very old settlement. It was he who is said to have given the town its name that was subsequently transformed into Plava. I was unable to get to the origin of this assertion. After the fall of the empire, it became a little republic of its own and was long able to maintain its independence because of its favourable geographical position. Plava was taken and destroyed three times by the troops of the kings of Serbia, but was rebuilt three times. Finally, after the Battle of Kosovo, which brought about the downfall of the Serbian Empire, its futile resistance was punished by the execution of half of the population. All their possessions were taken and the fortifications were razed, although they were later rebuilt in part by the Turks. The buildings of the town bear traces of the various political regimes and there are remnants of various architectural styles built into some of the houses. Nowadays, the three hundred houses of the town are surrounded by an old crenellated wall which seems about to collapse in several places. Two-thirds of the homes are inhabited by Muslims and the other third by Orthodox Slavs. Outside of town there are several tiny settlements formed of houses scattered in the countryside. The Population The total population is about 3,500. The houses, all of stonework, have extremely steep roofs of rounded pine shingles placed one on top of the other like the scales of a fish. Plava has no monuments worthy of mention and, although there are many Muslims, there is only one small mosque built by some pious individual, whose example was never followed. The Orthodox have no churches. The priests, who receive scant wages, hold their services in private homes and it is only on major religious holidays that the Christians attend mass at a church situated in a village one league away. In the middle of the town there is a little bazaar with about thirty shops. Market day is Thursday. The Fortress There is a perfectly square-shaped fortress on the banks of the Lim River and on a little hill just outside Plava. In each of the corners of it there is a round tower. It is now unfortified and is manned solely by four irregular soldiers. Inside the fortress there is an important mine and pieces of marble slabs lie around that once must have covered tombs. On them are some unreadable inscriptions. Plava is commanded by a local bey who descends from Regepp Agha, the brother of Mustapha who founded Gucia. Has Has, that is also part of the region of Gucia, is an agglomeration of some 250 houses inhabited by Orthodox Slavs. The homes are usually at some distance from one another, as a result of concessions once given to the families who inhabit them. The population is about 2,250. On the fertile plateau rich in grazing land where they live, there is a large and attractive church called Sveti Ivan (Saint John’s). There is also a monastery nearby that is inhabited by four monks under the care of a prior. According to an oral tradition preserved by the monks, the two buildings were constructed on a vow by Tsarina Ivania, the sister of one of the Nemanja kings of Rascia. This church is venerated by the Slavs of the surrounding region and the feast day of its patron saint is celebrated with great solemnity. Two hans [inns], one near the church and the other one two hours away, were built to serve as accommodation for the numerous Serbian and Bosnian pilgrims who attend the festival every year. [Extract from Hyacinthe Hecquard: Histoire et description de la Haute Albanie ou Guégarie (Paris: Arthus Bertrand, 1858), p. 95 111. Translated from the French by Robert Elsie.]
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