Oscar Baumann:

From Tuzi to Scutari

Oscar Baumann (1864-1899) was an Austrian explorer and cartographer, remembered in particular for his travels in German East Africa. He was the first European to visit Rwanda, explored the source of the Nile and served briefly as Austro-Hungarian consul in Zanzibar, before dying of an infection at the age of thirty-five. Baumann was raised in Vienna where he studied geography and natural history. Before he achieved fame as an explorer on the “dark continent,” he explored the equally little known regions of Montenegro and northern Albania. The following is an account of a journey he undertook on foot, at the age of nineteen, from Tuzi (south of Podgorica in Montenegro) to Scutari (now Shkodra in northern Albania) in August 1883. Heavy grey clouds covered the heavens as I set off across the broad, tawny plain of Crmnica at the Montenegrin-Turkish border in early August 1883. In front of me walked my guide, Jakub, humming a Serbian folksong as we proceeded across the arid land with hardly a blade of grass on it. He was a Muslim. On his bare head he wore a white Mirdita cap and around his thighs swirled his pleated fustanella, specially washed that day for the feast of Bayram. Behind us vanished the green groves of the town of Podgorica and the rugged mountains of Crnagora [Montenegro] gradually dissipated in the azure distance. In exchange, we could now see the foothills of Mirdita land. To the southeast was Mount Dechich [Dečić/Deçiq], the site of recent fighting between the Hoti and the Turkish military. My guide’s eyes lit up as he told me how the Hoti had taken their first heads behind such-and-such a tree and how they had driven the Turks back on such-and-such a hillock. The latter would never have won if Hafiz Pasha had not taken control of the mountain peak during the ceasefire. Now the mountain was crowned with a fort and we could see the road winding its way up to it in endless serpentines. Next to Dechich was Mount Shipchanik [Šipćanik/Shipqanik] where the Turks had built fortifications. The Cijevna or Cem River in Montenegro that once formed the border between Montenegro and Ottoman Albania (photo: Robert Elsie, May 2013). We had now reached a stone bridge. Jakub said it was the granica (border), and I realised that we were in the process of crossing over from Montenegro to Albania. The bridge led over a long, narrow expanse of terribly jagged rocks cleft in the middle by a deep ravine. Down at the bottom of it flowed, or rather trickled the crystal-clear, light-green water of the Cijevna [Cem] River, in which the projecting cliffs on both sides reflected. On the Turkish side crouched a man with a Martini rifle and in the faded uniform of a guard. The sombre expression on his face betrayed keen displeasure. Perhaps he was longing for his distant homeland in Asia, but it seemed more likely that he was not thinking of anything at all. The desolate and monotonous plain stretched out before us. In the far distance to the west gleamed Lake Scutari [Shkodra/Skadar], like a thin blue line. Having passed Shipchanik, we reached our destination, Tuzi. Anyone who read the cables from Albania last year will have seen this place name almost daily. The reader will probably have imagined a town or at least a larger village, but this is far from the case. Around a central square of grass were about thirty wooded huts, like the stalls of a fair. They offered passers-by fruit, coffee and, most of all, raki (liquor). The authorities were accommodated in a little stone building with large barn doors and a Turkish flag. Jakub took me to the inn, in front of which several Turkish officers were sitting and eating watermelon. The moment they saw me, suspicious foreigner that I was, they bombarded me with questions. As I understood no Turkish, all I could do was to show them my passport. Now it was they who understood nothing, least of all the visa of the Ottoman Consulate General in Vienna, written in French. There was total confusion. They had no idea what to do with me, so after much discussion, they decided to take me to the kaymakam, the local political authority. I was led through one of the barn doors and up a rickety staircase strewn with rotten food. We were told to be seated on a long wooden bench at one end of the sparsely furnished room. On a divan in the middle of the room lounged the kaymakam, a Muslim Albanian wearing a fustanella and a huge red fez. His expressionless face gave no rise to apprehension. The Ottoman-Albanian village of Tuzi, now in Montenegro (photo: Alexandre Baschmakoff, 8 September 1908). What did give me an uncanny feeling initially were the Hercules-sized figures around him, all staring at me. These were malissori [Highlanders], men from the Catholic tribes of Hoti and Gruda. Their muscular legs were wrapped in tight trousers of sallow sheep wool, and on their feet they wore the sandal-like opankas that gave their movements something inaudibly elastic. Their colossal, tanned chests were covered by short vests of the same material and seemed to burst open at the front. Their clothes were embroidered with black piping, characteristic of each tribe. The colourful shawls wrapped not only around their heads but also around their chins and necks gave them a wild look, as did their black moustaches and aquiline noses, a look that was enhanced all the more by the infamously frigid stare of the Albanian. Despite the fact that they were Christians, their heads were clean-shaven, with the exception of a tuft of hair at the back. Around their waists were broad sashes in which they stuffed their revolvers, sabres and pistols, and I noticed that they kept their right hands on the triggers. The small Turks in European uniforms looked quite curious by contrast. The malissori stared at me in silence for quite some time and then one of them, a six-foot Gruda man, made the sign of the cross ceremoniously. I swiftly copied his movements to show that I, too, was a Christian because I felt much more intimidated by these fellows than by their enemies, the Turks. One of the men then sauntered over to me and whispered that I was not to be afraid because I was now under their protection, their besa. Encouraged by the presence of what were now my bodyguards, I called out to a dragoman [interpreter] as I did not know very much Albanian. He turned up in the form of the Italian-speaking Pietro Mileti of Scutari [Shkodra], who was the telegraph agent. He explained to the kaymakam what my passport was all about. The document was then returned to me and I was allowed to go my way. View of the plains of Tuzi in Montenegro (photo: Robert Elsie, March 2014). In the company of Pietro and my bodyguards, I then went out to have a look around Tuzi. The first thing I noticed were the malissori women who stood out like poppies in a field of grain with their tight, cherry-red-and-black- striped garments made of the same material as those of the men. In actual fact, they had little to do with blossoms because only the old ones came down to Tuzi to serve as porters. The young ones were wisely left at home. There were many nizams [Turkish infantrymen] standing around the drinking stalls, mostly short, sturdy men in shabby uniforms with opankas on their feet and Martini rifles hanging from their shoulders. A crowd formed as we were sitting in front of a hut drinking coffee and there was suddenly much shouting. “What is going on?” I asked Pietro. “Nothing particular, a Gruda man has just been killed in a blood feud,” he replied. They had just found his body lying in a field. Everything was soon forgotten and the malissori decided to have a race. Everyone hastened out to the fields and about thirty of the young men ran for about three-quarters of an hour until they disappeared in the distance. At the finishing point stood a rich Hoti man in a gold embroidered costume. Together with a Turkish officer he was holding a sack in which there were a few piastres for the winner. Suddenly they all sprang to their feet and began shouting. The runners had reappeared on the horizon. The spectators all went wild, screaming, running out towards the competitors and cheering their friends and fellow tribesmen on. Shots were fired into the air from revolvers, pistols and even from rifles. The runners approached, dressed in nothing but a sheet around their thighs. Their ponytails flapped wildly in the wind as the sturdy bronze-coloured figures advanced swiftly towards us. First among them were a fellow from Hoti and another from Gruda, each trying to overcome the other. But only one of them could take the prize and have the honour. They ran side by side right to the end. Then the many Hoti spectators let out a frightening holler. Their man made one last effort, advancing a metre in front of his rival, and hurled the sack triumphantly into the air. Then he fainted and collapsed. The uproar continued. The Hoti were of course in ecstasy and fired into the air. They raised their hero off the ground and carried him back to Tuzi in victory. The shouting soon ceased, as did the cursing of the losers. All that remained on the silent plain were the rays of the setting sun and the figures of praying Turks. I went back to the inn with Pietro where we were served pilav and sour wine. As we were eating, crowds of malissori dressed in black and white pushed their way through the entrance until there was no room left in the place. Silent and unmoved they stood around our table with their weapons gleaming dark red in the reflection of the little furnace. Then the questions began. Their eyes flashed as their leader spoke out in the hissing sounds of the Albanian language. Their requests made it clear to me that they had completely misunderstood the motive of my journey, which was entirely scholarly. They had expected of me things that I was not able to do for them. It was embarrassing for me to explain to them that they were mistaken. I was relieved when I finally got to the door, yet I was overcome with emotion as these sons of nature kindly shook my hand and, in deep voices, sang for me one of those Albanian songs that sound odd but are somehow beautiful. It was dark outside. Only the jackal-like dogs were out prowling around in search of scraps of meat left over. The stars twinkled serenely and the clear southern skies stretched over the land. And yet things were boiling in this land. Here there lived a people with an unconscious longing in their breasts to lift themselves out of the night of savagery and to achieve the same level of civilisation as peoples in other nations, the nations that are currently looking down on these “Albanian sheep thieves” in contempt. When I got up the next morning in my room at the telegraph office, I went over to the window and saw before me a handsome young highland lad with two revolvers and a Martini rifle. He greeted me kindly and presented himself as my zaptieh (gendarme) whom the kaymakam had ordered to escort me to Scutari, or as he said politely, to accompany me. He had my passport with him. I was initially rather confused by the forthcoming attitude of the authorities towards me, but I resigned myself to my fate since from then on, the government would be taking over responsibility for my journey as well as for my food and shelter. We had coffee together and then set off. The zaptieh walked in front of me, carrying in his hands two live ducks that he was to take to Scutari with him as well. Pietro accompanied me as far as Hun [Hum]. We hiked over the plain in a southeasterly direction. The monotony of the landscape was only interrupted by the occasional hill. Almost all of the hills were fortified and trumpets echoed from them, giving false signals. Soon we could see Lake Scutari before us, its surface and the mountains on the other side being enveloped with a slight mist. We passed around the hill of Hun because we wanted to catch a boat to take us from the arm of the lake that stretched here deep into the mountains, the Liqeni Hoti [Lake Hoti] and Liqeni Kastrati [Lake Kastrati], to get out into the main body of the lake. The surroundings were bleak. Instead of villages only piles of blackened ruins rose into the air. A detachment of Turkish cavalrymen passed by to the clip- clop of their horses. At 7 o’clock we reached Han Hun [The Inn of Hum], where there was a wretched little coffeehouse amidst the ruins. It swarmed with officers, nizams and malissori. Pietro said farewell and a few Hoti men yanked me immediately into the smoke-filled café. The swarthy Syrian soldiers stared at us, touched and smelled my cane, my hiking boots and my body. The atmosphere was oppressive and, to make things worse, the Hoti and my zaptieh insisted that I try the dreadful beverage they were drinking. I eventually managed to escape their kind attention and went outside to sit with my bodyguard. You could really tell in this settlement that the “Turks had been here.” They had done their best to burn down and destroy all the houses. I was obliged to wait there for an hour and a quarter before we could move on. There was a vast marshland that began at Hun and filled the whole area out to Lake Scutari. A few stones had been placed in the black morass and, after jumping from one to another, we soon found ourselves amidst metre-high rushes. The stones were as slippery as ice because of all the opankas that had stepped on them, and I fell into the mud again and again. It was thus with great relief that we reached the drier Samabor area where a londra [caïque] was waiting at anchor. This large flatboat was coated in pitch inside and out and was put into motion, almost unnoticeably, by an oarsman and a helmsman. The vessel that we took belonged to the Turkish Government and ensured the connection between Hun and Scutari. On it, huddled together, standing and crouching, were nizams, malissori and their wives, as well as sacks and heaps of dead fish that lay around. Since the floor of the boat was covered in a yellowish swill and the owners of the sacks shouted the moment anyone tried to sit down on them, there was nothing for me to do but to take refuge at the bow which was dry because it was slanted. The londradji [boatman] pulled the stone what he used as an anchor up out of the mud and we set off. The channel used by the boats was narrow. The water on both sides was shallow and its surface was of a sallow-greyish colour. In the water were reeds and the gnarled roots of willow trees. We could hear choirs of frogs croaking around us and watched the silver seagulls gliding swiftly and deftly over the rushes. From time to time we approached the barren, reddish hills of the northern bank, most of which had guard posts, below which nizams were standing waiting for a ride. When the boat stopped, the nizams would spring into the water, wading up to their knees and then up to their waists to reach it. They then heaved themselves into the londra, spraying us with mud. When the sun is shining, clothes dry quickly, but when it is raining, everyone gets drenched, so there is really no need for a wharf. It took us some time to reach the Liqeni Hoti Arm, at the end of which was a green field and a chain of rugged hills in Hoti territory. Behind the hills to the east were lofty mountain peaks. We sailed slowly towards the other bank, part of the red jagged promontories of the Kastrati hills. Amidst the cliffs shone a group of white tents. We landed a few steps away from the mouth of a river of ice-cold water and the passengers made a lot of noise as they disembarked. I preferred to stay with a Hercules-sized Hoti warrior, though I was quite indifferent as to what he was doing. His sabre brushed dangerously against the tents and then he brandished it to pronounce some solemn oath or curse, the meaning of which I could not fathom. However, the others did not leave me in peace for long. My zaptieh was soon at me and insisted that I follow him. A Turkish major and several officers were sitting on the ground in one of the tents. He spoke to me at length in Turkish but eventually realised that he was wasting his time. The major then informed me in his rudimentary Albanian that I would not be able to continue my journey that day because he wished to carry out a full search. I was not too amused to hear this but there was nothing to be done. At that moment, a French-speaking military physician turned up and insisted energetically that I be released at once. I stuck to this very nice young man until the londra departed. He had had quite enough of life in the Albanian mountains and, to the amazement of the Turks, was considering emigrating to Australia. In the end, he brought out a violin and in no time, the hills of Kastrati were alive with the sound of waltzes from The Merry War. We continued down the arm of the Liqeni Hoti to a narrows where it divides from the Liqeni Kastrati, and thus entered the lower arm which was directly linked to the main body of Lake Scutari. The banks of the Liqeni Kastrati are dull and marshy. The sun burned its imprint onto the filthy grey surface of the water. A silvery fish jumped out of the water from time to time, but everything else was monotonous – the rhythmic lapping of the oars and the singing of the nizams. As such, it is no wonder that I soon fell asleep. When I woke up, we were already in the middle of the lake. To our north stretched the plains, covered in bushes and groves of trees, over the greenery of which the white walls of villages rose. Behind the plains there were abrupt mountains rising to an extraordinary height. The lake stretched southwards to the Rumija mountain range in the distant mist. On our side of the lake and indeed on the little islands, we could see larger and smaller settlements, and to the southwest we could now see our goal, the fortress of Scutari on the hill. The surface of the water was ruffled as a slight head wind rose, forcing the oarsmen to put more effort into their movements. The wind gradually transformed itself into a storm that rose to such an extent towards evening that the boatmen declared they could go no further. We would have to continue our journey on foot. As such, we landed and all jumped out of the boat in wild commotion, the nizams and the zaptieh with them. We hastened forth over the sandbanks into which our feet sank and then through the dense fragrant bushes. When we reached an open meadow, we came across a group of men from Koplik who, with their women, had set up a bazaar to sell wood. It was night now and my zaptieh told me that he did not want to carry on to Scutari for several hours in the dark. I am not sure whether he was afraid that I might escape and continue on my own, but he turned with me and we walked in the direction of some houses in the village of Amaranj or Omar [Omaraj]. We then entered the home of a Muslim who greeted us with a loud as-salamu aleykum.” He relieved us of our backpacks and invited us in as his guests. We took our shoes off and sat, in oriental manner, on a plank in the back of the room. There was already a young hodja sitting there in a white turban and two Muslims in clean pleated fustenellas. They were making themselves cigarettes. They had taken advantage of the feast of Bayram to visit their friend in the countryside. Our host’s wife and his young daughter, who was unveiled and dressed in light white garments down to her knees, stoked the fire. A young gypsy boy in rags was invited in and stared mindlessly at the glowing coals that reflected the nuances of his Hindu- looking face. The airy cottage made of wood and straw, the now blazing fire, and the supplies of milk and coffee on the wall gave the place a rural charm, a cozy atmosphere that one would hardly have expected in the huts of the malessori. The dinner, consisting of eggs and pilav, was more than satisfactory, though, in my opinion, my companions at table made rather too ample use of their hands. Thereafter all the Muslims in our company said their evening prayers and we lay down to sleep. My zaptieh and his rifle were right beside me. I had no complaints to make about him. He was a pleasant lad of the Gruda tribe who only asked me for baksheesh once. In the morning, our host, who had staunchly refused any payment for our stay, loaded his mules with watermelons and we set off. We passed many caravans led by heavily armed malissori walking behind their heavily loaded womenfolk. Some of the women took the easy way out and mounted the horses to gallop over the plains as the men did, with their hair fluttering in the wind. Two hours later we reached the outskirts of Scutari, but we had to walk for some time between the high garden walls to get into the town itself. The Marsh of Hum (Humsko Blato/Këneta e Humit) in Lake Hoti, an arm of Lake Shkodra at the Montenegrin-Albanian border (photo: Robert Elsie, May 2013). I immediately asked to be taken to the Austro-Hungarian Consulate General. My gendarme replied in the friendliest possible way that this was not possible because I would soon have the pleasure of being given an audience with His Excellency, Mustapha Asim Pasha, the Governor of Scutari. As such, we made our way across the dusty square to the government building. It had nothing imposing about it and could only be recognised as an official building by the present of the lazy watchmen in a corner. One enters the offices directly from the street. A red divan stretched along the wall. Several officers were sitting and lounging on it and without delay they inquired about me in Turkish, refusing to believe that I did not understand their language. One of them then led me outside and up a staircase to the upper floor where we entered a rather long hallway. My initial impression was that it was a sort of storage room or prison. Spiders had spun their webs in all the corners of the filthy brown walls. The windows had never been cleaned and some of the panes were broken. The ceiling looked as if it were about to collapse. To the left was the doorless entrance to a sombre, smoke-blackened kitchen in which two unwashed lads were preparing food on the fire, all of which smelled unpleasant. To the right was a curtained hallway that separated us from the reception room of Asim Pasha. This was, so to speak, the antechamber, and the two unpleasant-smelling lads were his cooks. What a coming and going there was in the hallway! A couple of dark Sudanese negroes held watch at the door through which a hunchbacked hodja in a huge turban was making his way. Next to him was the more imposing figure of the Catholic Bishop of Pulat [Pult]. I advanced, but tripped over a couple of gypsies lying on the floor and stumbled into a giant malissor who happened to be caught up in a hefty discussion with some sleek Scutari men. In addition to these were some Syrian nizams who were vociferously demanding that they be let in. Doors led into offices in which officials were frantically busy, i.e. drinking coffee and rolling themselves cigarettes. Finally I was led in to see the Pasha who turned out to be a friendly blond gentleman in a European uniform. I was relieved when he inspected my passport, found that everything was in order, and sent me on my way. However, it took another three hours of waiting around for the commander of the gendarmerie to inform me through his interpreter that I could wander around Scutari as much as I liked but that I was not to leave the town without permission. This brought my Turkish stint and my journey from Tuzi to Scutari to an abrupt end. When I look back on Albania and think of the grandiose spectacle of the snow-covered Albanian Alps that I had so often gazed at from the towers of Montenegro, and when I reflect on the wild and robust Albanians, I cannot help but wonder why scientific research and practical endeavour have ignored this wonderful country bordering on civilized nations and have left it unexplored, at a time when many lives and so much money are being spent on exploring distant Africa. [Oscar Baumann, “Über Tuzi nach Scutari,” in: Globus, Illustrierte Zeitschrift für Länder- und Völkerkunde, 45 (1884), p. 106 - 119. Translated from the German by Robert Elsie.]
Robert Elsie Texts and Documents of Albanian History
Oscar Baumann (1864-1899).
Tombstone in Vuksanlekaj, south of Tuzi in Montenegro (photo: Robert Elsie, May 2016).