Alexandre Degrand:

A Visit to Tirana

The French diplomat and writer, Baron Alexandre Degrand (1844-1911), was born in Paris where he joined the French foreign service. From 1893 to 1899 he served as French consul in Shkodra. Baron Degrand was especially interested in the history of the region, in particular its prehistory and antiquity, and visited fortresses, mediaeval churches and ruins, noting what he saw and what he was told by the people he met. Two years after his departure from Albania, he published his ‘Souvenirs de la Haute- Albanie’ (Memories of High Albania), Paris 1901, a well-documented description of northern Albania of the period. The following is the narrative of his visit to Tirana. A good horse can easily get you from Durrës to Tirana in eight hours if the countryside is not wet. You leave ancient Petra to your right, where the Roman Senate once camped out during the conflict with Caesar, and continue in open country dotted with groves of trees here and there. It is fertile land and yields a good harvest. The people work out in the fields without their rifles, and they look less wild. I would like to have seen their homes, but did not meet any of them along the way. The fair plain is sparsely populated – vast stretches of uncultivated land with no people at all and, what is more, no roads to transport rice and other cereals to Durrës, the port of departure. Entering Tirana is a charming experience, and a very agreeable impression is to be had from the houses in the outskirts and the beautiful trees in the extensive gardens. The journey ends on a large square on which are situated a clock tower and the Haji Ethem Bey Mosque. The mosques of Tirana are all covered in ornaments and tempera painting and their bright colours produce a wonderful effect in the sunshine. None of the towns I have visited in Albania has so much character. Founded by a Muslim, it has changed little in the last three or four centuries. One does not see the transformations and changes one encounters in other towns. It is the town in which Muslims find what they are always looking for: water, flowers, good fruit and an agreeable climate, i.e. a place where life is good. It has an important and curious bazaar, with wooden houses and galleries, enormous caravanserais, and alleyways continuously cleansed by streams of flowing water. The population is thought to be about 25,000. The ‘namazgjah’ (prayer grounds) of Ahmed Bey in Tirana (photo: Alexandre Degrand 1901). I had just got off my horse at the caravanserai where I intended to stay, when Mr Petrovici, the director of the Régie Ottomane des Tabacs in Durrës, having heard of my arrival, came to see me and inform me on behalf of Fuad Bey, one of the rich landowners in the region, that rooms had been made available for me and my entourage. He noted that when news of my arrival spread, several beys had wanted to be my host and, had he not been in the house of Fuad Bey, who convinced them to give way so that we could all be together, I would have been forced to choose from among several invitations. Fuad Bey received me very kindly. He was still quite a young man and was dressed in European fashion. He had been abroad and both he and his children bought their clothes in Paris. To my great surprise, the room to which I was led, was completely furnished in French style, including the bed. As a result, of course, it lacked local colour, but I must admit I felt very much at home there. The hospitable reception was charming and boundless. It was the home of a great landowner. The table, on which a great variety of meals were offered to us, was often used by up to thirty passing visitors. Both wine and beer were set out for me. Gypsy dancers in Tirana (photo: Alexandre Degrand 1901). I spent many leisurely hours in the garden under the orange trees, listening to the prattle of the children and answering the questions of my host’s daughter and niece. It was a great surprise when he acquainted me with these two girls, who were almost young women with their hair done up, and dressed in the latest French fashion. They were not too shy and spoke a very good Italian. We got along immediately. The next day, the two girls, Delfikiar [Delfiqarë] (mistress of thought) and Khédivié [Kedivije] (princess), agreed to let me photograph them in Tirana Muslim dress. They looked delightful in their white silk bloomers covered with other vestments of silk gauze. Their cuffs were of red velvet covered in gold embroidery, as were their little vests. What charming faces appeared in the photos that I took for their families! They will soon be shut up in their homes, no longer to be seen by strangers. Muslim women of great families rarely go out. The part of the house reserved for them has beautiful gardens in which they can take a walk. They occasionally spend a few weeks with their relatives. They receive many guests and are rarely alone because their brothers and the brothers’ families live in the same house. The national costume of the beys is also quite elegant and one can see the parallels with the garments of Epirus. It is very much like Greek dress. Despite their decreasing wealth as a result of the dividing up of land, and the lack of prospects to increase the yield on their magnificent properties, my kind host and many of his relatives led a good and sumptuous life. These families enjoy great influence. The family heads provide so many services that they have many clients. In the Middle Ages, families were counted by the number of lances they had. In Tirana, nowadays, they say that a great family is one with 300 to 500 rifles. When the bey summons them, at the smallest necessity, all of his friends arm themselves and hasten to his home, ready to support him. Occasionally, indeed far too often, disputes arise between these great families and take on such a character that the shops in the bazaar close up because of the probability of street fighting. When one of these rich beys, who normally go out with an armed retinue, walks through the bazaar, all work ceases immediately in the alley through which he passes. The workers and shopkeepers rise to their feet and stand respectfully in front of their shops to greet him. The day before my arrival, a young bey of the Toptani family, a relative of Fuad Bey, who was sitting in a shop, was shot in the back with a revolver belonging to a first cousin of his. It was a cowardly deed, the motif of which has remained obscured from the public. He was carried back home in a terrible state but, although gravely wounded, he was not killed. The bullet passed through his ribs and came out below his stomach, without causing any mortal injuries. He was the only son of one of the most powerful families in Tirana. There was great uproar in town and no one knew if the victim’s family intended to take revenge immediately. Troops sent from Durrës arrived a few hours before I did to put down any unrest. These great families are traditionally more or less allied to one another, and the troops surrounded four or five houses. It was said that the victim’s father wanted to make responsible not only the murderer, who escaped, and his parents (two of his brothers who were to travel from Durrës to Tirana at the same time as I did, were taken into custody so that they would not be shot on their way), but also the men who were with his son when he was shot, those who gave asylum to the murderer, and those who helped him escape. Fortunately, despite his grief, the father was able to retain his composure and hold back his friends and supporters at home. When I went to see him to express my condolences, the old man, bent by this cruel blow of fate, was surrounded by well-dressed, solemn Muslim clergymen resigned to the will of God. I will never forget the silence that weighed heavily on all of these men, while waiting to find out if the last scion of the dynasty would survive. The victim was young and, as I learned, he recovered. It is to be hoped that the friends of both sides will intervene and manage to reconcile the two families because otherwise the hostility between them will inevitably lead to a long series of murders. As it turned out, the bey who wounded the young man was slain three years later. The custom of vengeance in Albanian style which, it must be said, means murder, is just as deeply engrained in the people of Tirana, despite their much more civilized appearance, as it is in the inhabitants of the northern mountains. I was told that, following a dispute, an officer killed one of the brothers of my host. A few days later, the brother and the son of this officer were killed, too. They have since made peace with one another and met later at my place in Durrës. Many of the young beys in Tirana have studied in Constantinople. They dress in European style and speak and write French quite well. Their native town does not have much to offer them. After a stay in the capital, they are torn between their former existence and their new ways. Despite the satisfaction they have from meeting their families once again, they look back in nostalgia at what they have lost. Once acquainted with our language and writers, they are different beings. Can three souls live together in one body? I dare say not. They are Albanians, and enthusiastic Albanians at that. And they often dream of an Albanian fatherland. I once heard one of them recite the Marseillaise in Albanian, with lyrics he had composed himself. Speaking about the peasants one day, he said to me: “They are not my brothers.” I could hear his French soul speaking. As to the other, Muslim soul, fanatically religious as it is, what would it have responded to this? But the gentle young man said nothing further. If there were roads, the rich young men of Tirana would be busy running their huge estates and increasing their income. As it is, they cannot even keep up with what their badly cultivated land offers them. In addition to this, censorship is such that most of them are unwilling to buy newspapers or books. They live in isolation, and solitude is a bad companion. Under such conditions – financial ruin and intellectual ruin – they easily comprehend that the government is at fault for this disastrous situation. It is sad because most of them seemed to me to be quite intelligent and more cultured than people in and around Shkodra. The Albanian race in the south and in Epirus has provided the Ottoman administration with numerous magistrates, officers and physicians, most of whom speak several foreign languages and could be men of real value to the country. There is not much fun to be had in Tirana, with the exception of the major religious holidays of the Muslims – Bayram and Kurban Bayram. A large meadow next to my host’s home, bordered by wonderful cypress trees, was bequeathed by his father, a descendent of the illustrious beys of Tirana, for the celebration of religious ceremonies during these feast days. Much of the population gathers there. A tribune was constructed on it for the hodja to lead the prayers. Marriages and circumcisions are always accompanied by exorbitant feasting and it can last for several days. Gypsy dancers are bought in. Tirana is famed throughout Albania for these Bohemian women of great beauty and elegance. I took part in one of the celebrations. Each time a dance was over, the dancer did the rounds in the room, and the spectators, if satisfied with her, placed coins on her forehead, face and neck. The coins stuck to her because she was perspiring. It is said that some of these dancers are quite wealthy. The Karapici (Esnaf) Mosque in Tirana, once situated on Scanderbeg Square, demolished in 1929 (photo: Alexandre Degrand 1901). With the exception of about fifty Catholics who have a little chapel of their own, and of about 2,000 Christians of Greek rite (Slavs and Kutzovlachs), the population practises the Muslim faith, but most of them belong to the sect of the Bektashi, or howling dervishes. Their ceremonies have been described so often that I will not detail them here. But the tyrbes (mausoleums) of their saints, objects of very pious and fanatic veneration, are extremely interesting. And what tranquillity is to be found in their tekkes (houses of prayer) hidden in the silver foliage of the olive trees and surrounded by sombre and gigantic cypresses! Inside, they are exceptionally clean. The floors seem to be of polished marble and are covered in a circle of sheep skins on which they stretch out and rest when they have accomplished their rites. On the walls are superb collections of ancient weapons, the whole arsenal of Islam: huge olivewood clubs, gigantic halberds, many other heavy weapons and the memorabilia of earlier adherents to the sect. Perhaps they belonged to those dervishes who once inspired and led Muslim troops into battle in the attack on Constantinople. The sheikh was very hospitable and allowed me to inspect and touch all the objects. He showed me some ancient Hungarian sabres and old Polish swords fallen, perchance, out of the hands of Sobieski’s angels. It was an intoxicating review of military history. Colour photo of the same Karapici (Esnaf) Mosque in Tirana (photo: Auguste Léon, 18 October 1913). Compared to the other towns of upper Albania, Tirana does not have a long history. On flat land, it was impossible in times of war and defence, to found a settlement as it would have fallen prey to enemies, of which there was no lack at the time. Only powerful conquerors could found a settlement here. The Muslims are well-off here, as I noted earlier, and the site offers all that is needed to charm an Oriental. The town is a bit away from the famous Via Egnatia that linked the Romans with Salonica via Elbasan (Albanopolis) and Ohrid. These plains were no doubt crossed by Pompey when he escaped from Caesar who forced him to flee eastwards towards Thessaly. In Tirana, when a child is unruly, they say to him: “Be quiet or Pope Roma to come and get you.” I was unable to ascertain who this ogre actually was, but some people interpreted it as a mangled form of ‘Pompey the Roman.’ Is it possible that, out of that great man who made such a name for himself in the region, only a mangled form of his name remains, a posthumous scarecrow to frighten Muslim children? One could certainly find other, more interesting traces of the passage of the Romans in this plain where the armies of these two ambitious men met and where they aspired to rule the world. On one of my walks between Tirana and Kruja, on the steep banks of the river Lum, I was shown the remnants of long, thick tiles under which they had found a skeleton, the bones of which turned to dust in a few hours’ time. Walking a bit further along the banks, I came across a rather long stratum of tiles mixed with ash and bones. It would be easy to excavate this necropolis. A bit farther on, in the direction of Kruja, there were two fine tumuli.   [Excerpt from Alexandre Degrand, Souvenirs de la Haute-Albanie (Paris 1901), p. 184-196. Translated from the French by Robert Elsie.]
Robert Elsie Texts and Documents of Albanian History
The bey of Tirana in national dress (photo: Alexandre Degrand 1901).