Syreja bey Vlora:

The Age of Albanian Independence

Syreja bey Vlora (1860-1940), known in Turkish as Avlonyalı Süreyya bey, was an Albanian political figure of the Ottoman and early independence periods. Stemming from a rich landowning family of southern Albania, he was the son of Mustafa Nuri Pasha Vlora (1824-1885) and Naile Hanëm Janina, and was the elder brother of the grand vizier, Ferid Pasha Vlora (1851-1914). He married Mihri Hanëm Toptani and was the father of Ekrem bey Vlora (1885-1964). In July 1912, as a deputy of the Turkish Parliament representing Vlora, Syreja bey attacked government policies on Albania with such vehemence that he was obliged to flee the country. He played an active role in Albania around the time of independence. Under the ephemeral reign of Prince Wilhelm zu Wied and later under Essad Pasha Toptani, Syreja bey was Albanian ambassador in Vienna, and he settled in Rome at the end of the First World War. He returned to his native Vlora definitively in 1925 where he lived, withdrawn from public life, for the rest of his days. Syreja bey Vlora was the author of two Turkish-language book publications. The first is “Fetretü-l islâm” (Islamic Interregnum), Constantinople 1909, a history of Islam and the life of Muâwîyah ibn Abî Sufyân (602-680), the first caliph of the Umayyad dynasty. Of Albanian interest is his work: “Tarih-i osmanide Arnavutluk” (Albania in Ottoman History), Constantinople 1911, which was republished in modern Turkish under the title “Osmanlı sonrası Arnavutluk, 1912-1920” (Post-Ottoman Albania, 1912-1920), Istanbul 2009. It is from this work that the following extract has been taken, dealing with Syreja bey’s activities at the time of Albanian independence. Austrian Politics I left Vlora on 7 October 1912 [20 October 1912] and arrived in Vienna on the 11th. I had sent a cable to Abdi bey Toptani two days beforehand, informing him that I would be coming via Durrës. He told me that he was getting ready to go to Vlora and could not catch the boat so he asked Don Kaçorri and Mustafa Effendi Kruja to come and meet me instead. I beseeched both of them to continue with their patriotic endeavours to organize national defence and they assured me that they would do so. As we sailed, I could see the Montenegrin electric projectors in the border region between Shëngjin and Ulqin. From the fervent demonstrations of the people of Ulqin/Ulcinj in favour of the conflict, it was evident that Montenegro had indeed declared war. View of Vlora (Valona) in Albania, looking southward (Purger coloured postcard, Munich, No. 13357, ca. 1914). When I got to Vienna, I met Herr Rappaport, a high-ranking official at the Foreign Ministry, and explained the reason for my visit. The next day, I was received by Count Berchtold. He asked me why I had come, although he was no doubt well aware of the purpose of my visit. I explained that I was certain that Turkey would lose the war from the start and wanted to know what position Austria would take on Albania. I also handed him a memorandum that I had prepared with all the requisite information I wanted to give him. The document provided an overview of the general situation in Rumelia, the moral situation of the population and the existing forces. It contained a precise analysis of the national defence capacities the Albanians were hoping to set up with Austrian help. Berchtold perused it attentively and made a few notes on it with his pen. I still have the copy. He replied that he did not believe in a Turkish defeat and for this reason he could not follow my logic, adding that he only received me because he had full confidence in me.  He was convinced that even if the Ottoman army were defeated in its initial confrontation with the Bulgarians and Serbs, it would regroup a few days later and overcome the two allies. I asked Count Berchtold if he would support Albania in achieving a high level of administrative autonomy if his analysis turned out to be true and the Empire won the war, or in gaining its independence if the Empire lost. Since he had earlier supported the principle of territorial division for the peoples of Macedonia and an autonomous government for each of them, he replied simply that the Albanians could achieve their national rights on the basis of this principle. I then asked him about the border between Albania and Macedonia. He responded that he had spoken about this earlier and now wanted to know my views on the subject. Since I had set forth Albania’s borders in the memorandum I gave him, I asked him to have another look at it. He called in Count Szapáry, Count Nemes, and Herr Rappaport, the responsible officials at the Foreign Ministry, as well as the two consuls and they began conferring on the draft I had presented to them. Berchtold told me that I had somewhat exaggerated Albania’s borders and said that if the rail line from Mitrovica to the Gorge of Kaçanik were to be excluded from Macedonia and left within Albania, it would cut off the direct link between Austria and Macedonia, and as such would be unacceptable. He stressed that it was essential that our border be withdrawn to the gorge and mountains of Shimilina (Shibenik-Jabllanica). After much discussion he stated that Austria would accept a border from the Gora Mountains in the north along the water divide between the rivers flowing into the Adriatic and those flowing into the Kalahari (?) Bay and the Aegean Sea in the south, leaving Cape Fanari in Chameria to Albania, and would support the creation of Albania in this form. As to the details of the arms shipments I had asked for in support of our national objectives, he replied that I should meet with the chief of general staff, General Conrad von Hötzendorf. I thanked him for his time and noticed that he telephoned the General about this. As such, I decided to go and meet the General after lunch. I returned to Hotel Sacher where I was staying and, as we were having lunch, Colonel Speich and a lieutenant who was an adjutant of General Conrad came by to take us there. I met General Conrad at three o’clock. General Conrad was equally convinced that the Ottoman Army would win the day. He was willing to provide any support we needed to defend Albania. However, he stressed that the War Ministry could not supply arms covertly and sent a message to the director of the Austria Oriental Company in the form of a usual Note suggesting that he meet with me. I expressed my thanks and took my leave of him. I met the director at ten o’clock the next morning. He took us in his automobile and together we visited the Steyr Factory not far from Vienna. There we learned that fifteen thousand Mannlicher Schönauer rifles, the type which the Romanian Government had also received, were to be made ready for Albania. When this part of my visit was over, they organised a conference to win over people of influence and Austrian public opinion. With the assistance of Foreign Affairs Counsellor Herr Riedl, of the adjutant Count Paar, of the minister of the palace of Archduke Ferdinand, Colonel Baron von Bolfras, and of Baron von Chlumecký, invitations were sent out to the Deutsche Herren Club for all officials, directors of financial institutions, representatives of the press, and other interested figures. Syreja bey Vlora and his family. Seated (from l. to r.): 1. Syreja bey Vlora, 2. Izedin bey Vrioni. Standing (from l. to r.): 1. Ekrem bey Vlora, 2. Dr. Hajdar bey Vlora, 3. Hadije hanëm Vlora, née Vrioni, the wife of Ekrem bey Vlora, 4. Selma hanëm Vlora, the wife of Hajdar bey Vlora, 5. Riaz bey Vlora, the son of Nuredin bey Vlora, 6. Xhemalë hanëm Vrioni, the wife of Izedin bey Vrioni, 7. Rukije hanëm Vlora, née Vrioni, the wife of Sefa bey Vlora (Photo by Sefa bey Vlora, courtesy of Afife and Tanush Frashëri). That evening, I spent three or four hours explaining what the outcome of the war declared by the four Balkan governments would be and spoke of the history and current situation of Albania. I stressed that the agreements between Belgrade and Cetinje and between Sofia and Athens constituted a threat to Austria and that, in order to counter this threat, there was an evident need to revive and set up Albania as a buffer zone between these countries. The next day, all of the newspapers in Vienna carried articles on the conference and stressed a need to support the existence of Albania in order to preserve the balance of power in the Balkans. The publication of these articles had an influence on public opinion in Hungary, too, that had been against us, such that it gradually began to see things more moderately. When I met General Conrad the next day, he confirmed that the rifles would be delivered by the Austria Oriental Company. He also said that they had decided to send them to Albania on a small vessel that would depart from the port of Fažana near Pula, but that, since the National Defence Council that we were setting up in Albania was on the point of beginning its work, it would be appropriate to despatch the weapons with about thirty officers who knew the language. I expressed my thanks and departed with Foreign Affairs Counsellor Herr Riedl for Schloss Belvedere. There we were received by adjutant Colonel von Bolfras. After a short discussion with him, I was received in an audience by the Crown Prince, Archduke Ferdinand. I told him why I had come to Vienna and explained how delighted and proud I was at the pledges given to us for assistance. I did not fail to add that we needed his support to defend our very existence as a nation. The Crown Prince stated, as the sole figure in Vienna to do so, that he was convinced Turkey would fall and that there would be great calamity in the Balkans. A reception given in 1934 at the Vlora family residence for the diplomatic corps. Seated (from l. to r.): Naile hanëm Vlora, the daughter of Sefa bey Vlora, 2. Baroness von Wimmer, 3. the 76-year-old Syreja bey Vlora, 4. Mihirie hanëm Vlora, née Toptani, the wife of Syreja bey Vlora. Standing (from l. to r.): 1. Ekrem bey Vlora, 2. Sefa bey Vlora, 3. Shefqet bey Libohova, 4. Nexhmedin bey Vrioni, 5. the wife of the Italian consul, 6. the Italian consul, 7. Fezilet hanëm Libohova, née Vlora, the wife of Eqrem bey Libohova, 8. the Yugoslav consul, 9. the Greek consul, 10. Baron Lothar von Wimmer, the Austrian minister to Greece, responsible for relations with Albania, 11. Rukije hanëm Vlora, née Vrioni, the wife of Sefa bey Vlora, 12. Hadije hanëm Vlora, née Vrioni, the wife of Ekrem bey Vlora (Photo courtesy of Afife and Tanush Frashëri). “As to Albania, the defence of its existence as a nation enjoying the right to live as such in all aspects, is in conformity with Austrian policy and is essential for the preservation of the general balance of power,” he concluded solemnly, and added: “The hour is approaching, a time that will determine not only the fate of Albania, but also the future of Austria. We may perhaps be able to regain the opportunity we lost a year and a half ago – a reference to Italy – and maybe we will see the time come that we and you will be the decisive factors in preserving the general balance of power in the Balkans. However, if we lose this opportunity, I don’t think we will get another chance.” With this, he expressed his best wishes for the future of Albania and gave his word in support of the pledges made. His wife, the Duchess of Hohenberg, was also present at the discussions. I then withdrew, having given expression to my great esteem for him. The next day I set off for Trieste. When I got there, I was given word of the Kumanovo disaster and the advance of the Serbs. Soon after I arrived at the hotel, General Conrad called me on the telephone and told me that, to his great regret, my pessimistic view of the situation had indeed come about and that he was disappointed in the analyses provided to him by his military attachés. He ended the call by stressing that the National Defence Council to be formed in Albania should begin its work immediately and confirmed his support for a declaration of Albanian independence. National Independence Orders had been sent from Janina to Berat to pursue and capture Ismail Qemal bey and his companions who were on their way to Vlora on the Durrës-Lushnja road, and troops had been sent out to intercept them, but had not been able to catch them. Ismail Qemal bey and his men arrived safely in Vlora where almost all the leaders and dignitaries of the country were gathered at my invitation.  Despite the thousands of Ottoman soldiers in the region of Fier and Berat, they unanimously decided to raise the Albanian flag and declare the country’s independence on 28 November. As they did not have a flag on the day of the ceremony, they used the old Albanian flag that my son Ekrem had kept at our home since 1908 and it was raised and saluted to the acclamation of the crowds. A government was created immediately: Ismail Qemal bey as prime minister and foreign minister, Monsignor Don Kaçorri of Durrës as deputy prime minister, Myfit bey Libohova as minister of the interior, Lef Nosi of Elbasan as minister of posts and telegraphs, Abdi bey Toptani of Tirana as minister of finance, Petro Poga of Gjirokastra as minister of justice, Luigj Gurakuqi as minister of education, Pandeli Cale effendi of Korça as minister of trade and agriculture, Mit’hat bey Frashëri as minister of public works, and Mehmet Pasha Deralla of Tetovo as minister of war. As head of the eighteen-member council of state, they chose Vehbi Effendiu, the mufti of Dibra, and Ekrem bey Vlora as his deputy. There was then another turn of events. Twenty days before Ismail Qemal Bey reached Vlora, two detachments of bandits calling themselves the “Cretan gendarmes” under the command of Colonel Spiro Milos had disembarked at Himara. The population of Vlora was terrified when the news spread, as the situation was worrying indeed. The leading officials, gathered at government house, decided to send Ekrem with any forces he could muster to Himara to prevent the bandits from enlarging the territory under their control. Ekrem spent two days in Smokthina and Velça where he gathered several hundred men. When he got to Kuç, they were joined by another two hundred men from the Kurvelesh region and about two hundred soldiers sent from Gjirokastra. Enemy forces, supported by the local Christians, posed a danger, but the courage and actions of the fighters prevented them from breaking out of the Himara region and, after a series of clashes, the two sides went back to their original positions. Ismail Qemal bey sent a letter to Ekrem to inform him that since the provisional government of Vlora was waiting for the reaction of the Conference of London, it was important not to provoke any of the Balkan countries with military activity. As such, the soldiers and volunteers were to keep to their defensive positions. However, it proved very difficult to keep a thousand volunteers in defensive positions for a longer period of time, as Ismail Qemali bey had requested. There was much misunderstanding and confusion when four emissaries arrived at the military staff from Vlora to advise Ekrem to show restraint. The volunteers huffed and went their way, and only a small force holding unassaultable positions remained. The Island of Sazan in the Gulf of Vlora had been occupied by the Greeks from the start of their operations. There were several Greek ships there and the Christians who supported Greek rule were becoming more and more aggressive by the day. The ships penetrated the Gulf of Vlora several times and fired at the walls and the office buildings at the docks. Although no great damage was caused, the people of Vlora were very upset. One day, when the ships had entered the gulf and were about to repeat their attack, Ismail Qemal bey sent Luigj Gurakuqi, representing the government ministers, and Sami bey Vrioni, representing the leading officials, bearing a white flag out to the commander’s ship to inform him that Vlora was now the capital of Albania that had declared its independence, that Albania was not at war with any of the Balkan States and that the population was surprised and indignant that the Greeks were firing at the flag raised by the Albanians to revive the country’s independence after five hundred years of enslavement instead of firing in salute. The commander of the Greek ships received Luigj Gurakuqi and Sami bey and, having cabled their message to his government, stated that he would follow any new instructions he received. The Greek government must have given instructions to cease fire because there was no more bombardment of Vlora from the ships from that time on. The change of strategy was also, no doubt, influenced by their fear of Italy. View of Vlora (Valona) in Albania, looking northward (Purger coloured postcard, Munich, No. 13358, ca. 1914). This was a time when many of the Albanian soldiers stationed in the fortifications of Janina were taking flight, more and more every day. Encouraged by patriots and intellectuals, the government sent Mit’hat bey Frashëri to Janina, via Përmet and Gjirokastra, to speak to the soldiers. However, he realised not only that no real effort was being made by the provisional government to save Janina, but also that Ismail Qemal bey was showing no interest in the question. As such, Mid’hat bey failed to send the soldiers back to their barracks and to convince the rest of them who had not fled to have patience and put up resistance. Some of the deserters, for example most of the men from Chameria, were worried about their families because of the violent attacks being carried out in the region by Greek bandits. They had lost all hope that they could win the war in Janina and looked towards Albania. The simple people, deceived by exaggerated news from Vlora, believed that they would now be safe and protected. The army corps and high command, for their part, attributed the desertion of the Albanian soldiers from Janina to negative pressure from Vlora. […] Shkodra I left Shkodra and returned to Vienna where I met the personal advisor of the Crown Prince, Baron von Chlumecký. I informed him I had just come from Shkodra and wanted to meet General Conrad von Hötzendorf and Count Berchtold, and told him briefly what I had learned in Shkodra. The very same day I was received by General Conrad. He expressed his regret that they had not taken our information and the explanations of my son Ekrem seriously and had not taken any serious steps to prevent the Balkan War. I replied that if the fall of Shkodra were indeed in Austria’s interests, the town should not be given to the Slavs but to Albania. As a great supporter of Albania, he replied proudly and gave his word that they would strive and do all they could to achieve this. I also met Count Berchtold that day. He expressed his regret that the memorandum I had sent to his predecessor, Baron Ahrenthal, about not abandoning Novi Pazar and about preventing the unification of the two Slavic States, had not been taken into consideration, and that they had not heeded the warnings of my son, Ekrem bey. He then asked me what I knew and had seen in Shkodra. I replied that unless something terrible happened, Shkodra had enough food and arms to resist for four months, but that it would eventually fall. I also gave him a list of the existing food stocks and arms. He told me that the information given to him by the Austro-Hungarian consul general in Shkodra had led him to believe that the town could resist longer than that. I insisted that a solution be found for Shkodra before it fell and was occupied. He hesitated somewhat and then said: “You know, the population of Shkodra is not Albanian. They are all Slavs. But this is not a reason for Austria to change its policy. You may be assured of Austria’s unfailing support for the Albanians in this question.” I thanked him for his support and then ventured to give him the true statistics about the population of Shkodra. I met General Conrad the next day, and told him how misinformed Count Berthold had been about Shkodra. He looked quite puzzled and said that the Foreign Ministry had received its report on Shkodra from the Austrian member of the delegation seconded in April of the previous year to set forth the border with Montenegro. He noted that I should be very careful when talking to the Foreign Minister about this. Since Count Berchtold had invited me over that day to provide him with some information on Shkodra and to repeat to the Ministry what I had told him, I did not fail to bring up the issue of the report of the Austrian member of the border delegation. Count Berchtold called in Herr Rappaport, one of the officials of the Foreign Ministry who deserves the most credit for his services to Albania beforehand and thereafter, and requested that the said report be brought to him. The contents of the report were completely in line with the information I had given him and stated that the said town was inhabited by 14,000 Muslims, 12,000 Catholics, 700-800 Orthodox Albanians who made up about 80 families, and about 2,500 Muslims from the surrounding regions. This showed that there was not a single person of Slavic descent among the Highlanders and inhabitants of the region around Shkodra. In my presence, the Minister then called for Baron Macchio, Count Szapáry, Count Nemes, and Herr Rappaport, as well as other high-ranking ministerial officials whose names I cannot remember and repeated what I had told him about Shkodra and the report. He said he was now convinced that Shkodra was on Albanian land. I had the impression that some of the officials present still held a different view and were acting in line with the false information they had earlier received. As soon as I took my leave of Count Berchtold, I went to meet the other above- mentioned figures to repeat my request concerning Shkodra. Count Berchtold later returned my visit when he came around to Hotel Sacher to see me. He informed me that he was leaving for Budapest. The next day, Count Nemes invited me to come and see him. He gave me his word and the news that Count Berchtold had received an imperial order stipulating that Shkodra would remain in Albania at all costs. I paid a final visit to General Conrad that day to tell him what I had achieved and to express my infinite gratitude to him. I then set off for Istanbul. The Duke of Montpensier The provisional government of Vlora was still very much a child in a cradle. There was not yet any public order or organisation in the country, and we were deafened by the awesome echo of Serbian, Bulgarian, Greek and Montenegrin victories all around us. Elements of the Ottoman Army, defeated and in flight, were wandering about aimlessly in the Vlora region, although the fortresses of Shkodra and Janina were still in Ottoman hands. From the political negotiations taking place in London, we learned of the pronouncements of Russian diplomats who continued to deny our existence as a nation and felt the suffering of the parts of our territory that the British and the French intended to give away to the Greeks and Serbs. We understood that Albania’s consolidation and interests could only be protected under the aegis of Italy and Austria. View of Vlora (Valona) in Albania, looking northwards (Photo: Mer Bali, pre-1918). At this critical moment, a comedy or tragedy was being played out in Vlora. The Duke of Montpensier, scion of an old French dynasty, had entered the bay of Vlora, still under blockade, on his personal yacht, the Mekong. No one knew who this gentleman was or who had invited him, or indeed the purpose of his visit. From the honours that were paid to him, people surmised that he had come to Vlora as a sovereign for the country. Ismail Qemal bey received him respectfully but, according to reliable sources, did not give him any hope that he would be able to mount the Albanian throne. The position of the other ministers was unclear as no one would admit knowing anything about the affair. It would seem, from what I learned from others who investigated the matter, that, relying on his wealth and nobility, the prince arrived of his own will or was invited by someone or other to have himself crowned as King of Albania. Ismail Qemal bey seems to have been reluctant to assist the men behind him who were hoping to confront the country with a fait accompli, without considering what impression this would have on Europe, and especially on the two States on which we were relying. Ismail Qemal bey was to receive the Prince on a certain day. It was all unimaginably absurd. My son Ekrem was sent off to Fier with about twenty- five companions to endeavour, with the help of the Ottoman troops gathered there, to put an end to the show. The royal dreams of the duke soon went up in a puff of smoke and the name of Albert Ghica, who was accompanying the duke, was heard no longer. Ismail Qemal bey then accompanied the duke to Brindisi, quite innocently in fact, but their departure together led to endless rumours and speculation. The rumours died down when it was understood that Ismail Qemal bey had seen no other way of getting to Europe because of the ongoing naval blockade and had simply taken advantage of the duke’s steamer to get to Brindisi. It is, nonetheless, conceivable that Ismail Qemal bey accompanied the duke to ask the governments in Rome and Vienna what they thought of his candidacy and, when they rejected it, the idea was abandoned.   [Excerpt from: Syrja bey Vlora, Shqipëria pasosmane, 1912-1920 (Skopje, Logos- A, 2015), p. 130-159, translation of Avlonyalı Süreyya bey, Osmanlı sonrası Arnavutluk (Istanbul: Klasik Yayınları, 2009). Translated from the Albanian version of the Ottoman Turkish original by Robert Elsie.]
Robert Elsie Texts and Documents of Albanian History
Syreja bey Vlora (1860-1940)