A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter VIII." by Edith Durham (1863-1944)
From: High Albania (London: Edward Arnold, 1909) by Edith Durham.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom



"For euery Wight that lovede Chyvalrye,
It were a lusty Sighté for to see."

IT was not till August 2nd that Scutari formally accepted the Constitution. We began early in the morning, trooping to the great drill-ground in front of the Government House, under a blazing sun, in a cloud of white dust. The crowd was largely Moslem; tentatively at first came town Christians, then more. A Turkish official on a platform read an inaudible proclamation in Turkish (a tongue understood by very few), a Hodja followed with another. Then a Catholic Albanian, a schoolmaster, leapt up and spoke in Albanian–an impromptu address–and the people found voice.

To the Christians, especially, the moment was supreme. "We are free! We are free!" cried an old man. "All my life I have waited for this moment. Now, thank God, I shall die happy!"

The impossible had happened. Albania's day had dawned. The pent-up emotions of centuries burst forth, and the child-people was whirled away in a torrent of joy and hope.

There is but one way in which joy can be expressed. That is by firing ball cartridge. Every one had weapons: every one fired. The dazzling white cotton and crimson fezzes of the Moslems, the orange barrack walls, the scarlet Turkish standards, the two bands that glared brass and blared different tunes at once, the shrieking pipe and throbbing tomtom of four black gypsies, the clouds of smoke and the showers of sparks from bad powder, and the heavy, cloudless, blue sky over all, were swept into one gorgeous, unforgettable whole.

There is an extraordinary exhilaration in the sound and concussion of continuous firing when you are in the thick of it. It was impossible not to be carried away by the general enthusiasm. By the light of history and experience, the thing was incredible. "The leopard does not change his spots nor the Ethiop his skin," said Reason–"the Turk is always a Turk." But Hope cried, "Albania is free!" And Hope prevailed.

We trooped back through the streets. The artillery that suddenly clattered by showed that the authorities were not, as yet, certain of the effect of the proclamation. But it was not needed. Scutari saw sights it had never seen before. The Moslem band played outside the Cathedral, and Christian and Moslem swore brotherhood on the Koran and a revolver–a sinister combination.

"Ah, la bella cosa, la Liberta!" cried a Christian. "We are united! Albania is free!" But the older Christians mostly kept aloof. "Thirty years ago we rejoiced for this same Constitution," said one, "and what came of it?" Another prayed me not to go into the streets at night. "The massacre will begin. I know it will. It is a Turkish trick to kill us all."

Songs and shots went on till two in the morning. Bullets whistled continuously over every roof–we picked up plenty next day–but there were no fatalities, nor any street fighting nor drunkenness. Without any police force, perfect order was maintained.

After more than fourteen hours' solid firing, Scutari fell asleep, and slept till midday, when it awoke to rejoice and fire again, till not a cartridge was left in any gunshop.

The moment found its poet, and the hymn of the Constitution, written by a native Franciscan, brief and to the point, caught the populace at once. Scarcely printed, it rang down the streets.

There was but one black spot in the general joy. Amnesty of prisoners had been granted. Those of other towns, we heard, were already freed. But Scutari gaol remained grimly closed, and the white-faced prisoners crowded at the windows, vainly waved their hands, and cried to the friends below, who awaited their release.

Next day came the men of the Serb village of Vraka. That they, who never pretend to wish for anything but union with Montenegro, should hurry to hail Turkish rule, caused some surprise. They swung in, in fine style, firing a salute before the Russian Vice-Consulate as they passed, with cries of "Zhivio!" (Long live!) And they heard the incomprehensible proclamation read with cries of "Zhivio!"

"To whom are they wishing long life?–to Turkey or Russia?" asked some one. It did not matter. They were free to fire guns in Scutari, and they did so to their hearts' content, and wound up by building a human tower–six men standing on the shoulders of twelve–and perambulating the drill-ground; then they danced the Montenegrin kolo, and retired happy, after again saluting Russia. Afterwards, they explained that they had come in obedience to Turkish Government orders. They did not know why–but had enjoyed themselves very much.

They had come when called. Would the mountain tribes? Scutari waited. The tribes sent in a strongly-worded ultimatum. The Sergherdé must be dismissed, or those responsible for his retention take the consequences. At this crucial moment it was necessary to buy the tribes at almost any price. The Young Turks dismissed Shachir Bey at once. Then, and then only, the tribes thought Constitution meant a new era of justice.

The first to come were the Postripa men, on August 6th, under four bariaks, great banners with a hand, a sword, a crescent, and star on a red ground with a green border–Suma, Ura Strengit, and Drishti. Scutari had by now gone crazy. Business was at a standstill. The hitherto-forbidden national song, "Shcyptarii" (Albania), heard formerly only in the mountains or in strict seclusion, rang through the streets, till we wished it again forbidden. And if firing ever ceased, we wondered what was the matter.

I was in the thick of everything. Every one knew me. Such was the whirl of Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality, that I was invited to visit the oldest mosque in Scutari, Dzamija Plumbit (Mosque of Lead), and went, to the surprise of some of the foreign consulates, who had tried, in past times, to obtain permission and failed.

It was an amazing visit. I was told–I know not with what truth–that I was the first Giaour female that had been inside it, that I need not put off my boots (of course I did though), that I might photograph, that now we were all free and equal.

It is said to have formerly been a church of St. Mark, and, though much altered, possibly was. It is square, with a big dome, and its square courtyard is surrounded with columns whose capitals are certainly pre-Turkish. The cloister walk that they form round the court is roofed by the many little leaden domes that give the mosque its name. And I was invited into the other small mosques in the neighbourhood–buildings of no interest. The point was that they were open to a female Giaour with boots on.

August 10th was the climax. All else was as naught compared to the Coming of the Christian tribesmen.

It was unrehearsed, undrilled, but no preparation could have made it more magnificent. Summoned by their chiefs, they came–chosen representatives of all the big tribes–one thousand five hundred strong, each tribe headed by its Bariaktar with the bullet-riven banner, and led by its priest or Franciscan–sons of the Church militant (a revolver peeped from the habit of more than one)–riding or marching in front of their men, and marshalling them with a precision that called forth general admiration. Keeping neither line nor step, but in perfect order, they swung down the street with the peculiar stride of the sandal-shod mountaineer.

It was a day of days for the missionaries. For the first time in the land's history they were entering the capital triumphant, with their flocks, to hail the Constitution that was to give equal rights to all nationalities, and to Christian and Moslem alike. Through a cloud of dust, sweltering heat–to the continuous roar of fifteen hundred rifles and the applause and revolvers of the onlookers–singing and shouting, the mass swept into the drill-ground.

Each well-known figure was hailed as he passed. There was the "tiny but terrible" priest of Skreli, a black bundle of energy, looking minute among his men; the priest of Rechi, soldierly, erect on his white horse, with his big hound following; the Bishop of Pulati, in Franciscan habit, but wearing a fez, to the joy of the Moslems; the fighting men of Shala-Shoshi, led by Padre Cirillo, happy and excited; Kastrati, Grudi, Hoti, Boga, Rioli, Plani–all with their priests, and brave in their best array, aglitter with silver chains and weapons.

They swung round in a great circle, in perfect order, and stood expectant. The Hodja and two Turkish officials read the inaudible Turkish proclamations that meant nothing to the tribesmen. But the priest of Rechi sprang to the platform, and, in a stentorian voice that rang clear everywhere, roared an impromptu speech, and cried, "Rrnoft Constitution! Rrnoft Padishah! Rrnoft Schyptarii!" (Long live the Constitution, &c.).

The tribesmen and their rifles roared applause, and, firing and shouting, the whole army rushed off to be fed, Christian Scutari "standing treat."

The addition next day of Dushmani, Shlaku, and Toplana, five hundred strong, taxed the lavish hospitality of the Christian townsfolk to its furthest limits. The Cathedral grounds were one vast picnic. No such sight had been seen in Scutari before. For two whole days and nights over two thousand heavily-armed men were loose in the town–nor was there either military or police force sufficient to have coped with an outbreak,–but not one incident occurred to mar the general joy. They rejoiced like children, too happy to be naughty. Even the representatives of two Consulates, who frankly detested the Albanians, said, "Mon Dieu, under a decent Government, what a people this would be!"

The tribesmen hailed me with joy, pressed weapons into my hands, and swept me away. Down the main street I went, blazing ball-cartridge from a Martini, and ran about the Cathedral grounds, firing any revolver handed me, while the populace applauded and the Archbishop laughed.

It came on me with a great crash that the simple mountaineers believed largely that I had worked this marvel–the dismissal of the Sergherdé and the change of Government. They had begged me to do it, and no sooner had I returned to Scutari than it was done! Some even declared that they would follow me and obey my King. I denied it vainly. Never before have I been so popular; never in my life shall I be so again.

The feasts were over. It was time to return to the mountains. Then came the dramatic climax. The prisoners still stared pitifully from the bars–daily expecting release, daily disappointed. I went to the governor of the prison for news; there was none. The mountain men began to leave the town. The prisoners were in despair. Two were Shala men, and they yelled to their tribe, "Shala, save us!" And all the two hundred prisoners took up the cry. Shala swore promptly not to leave the town till all were freed, and the remaining tribesmen swore to support Shala.

Scutari was anxious. Shala calmly drew up an ultimatum in the terms of "Forgive us our trespasses," saying: "We have been ordered to swear besa among ourselves, to pacify our blood fends, and forgive those that have broken our tribe-law. We obey. But you too must forgive. If the prison doors are not open by noon to-morrow–we force them!"

This was sent to the new Vali. We waited and asked, "Is it peace?" The tribesmen, quite calm, behaved as though nothing were happening. Only their priests, as go-betweens, hurried to and fro, from tribe to Vali, anxious, but conscious that they held the trump cards.

Finally, late in the evening I met a well-known priest coming from the Government House. "What news?" "We are sworn to tell nothing," said he. He looked at me with victory twinkling in his eyes, and burst out laughing. "Thank you!" said I, "I understand." And at midnight quietly the two hundred prisoners were freed.

At seven next morning was a final feast outside the Cathedral before an admiring crowd. The two released Shala men, clad in festal attire that had been brought for the purpose, and already fully armed, ran about madly embracing all their friends. Decked with a scarlet and white tie–the colours of the Constitution–I went round as madly, distributing cigarettes to all.

Shala then started a wondrous dance, the only mountain dance I have seen. Four men pranced grotesquely, stepping high and waving their arms, yelling the while, but unaccompanied with any music. One old boy, in a crimson djemadan, had lost one arm and brandished a sword with the other to make up. Prancing like a maniac, and uttering loud howls, he arrived opposite me. For the time being, at any rate, I belonged to the mountains. I yelled too. He yelled louder, pranced higher, and slashed wildly. I pranced, waved my arms, and shrieked. He shouted me down again. I screwed all my strength into one appalling scream, pitched high enough to carry over the general roar. The crowd of onlookers, including the assembled Churchmen, roared with laughter and applause. The old boy's delight was unbounded. He considered he had made the star performance. The nearest man handed me up bottles of rakia; quite a number thanked me for the beautiful addition I had made to the entertainment. I fired every revolver offered me.

The band played, and triumphant Shala returned to the wilderness. The last of the tribesmen disappeared in a cloud of dust, and Scutari sank into silence.

Twelve days had gone in a wild whirl. Constitution was a fact. It remained to see what it would do.

It blundered from the beginning in Scutari. On the day on which the tribes' representatives were swearing universal besa in Scutari, a tribesman up in Shoshi, unaware of what was taking place, shot another for blood. The tribe had accepted Constitution–so the Young Turk authorities, regardless of the fact that the deed had been done in ignorance of the besa –ordered the slayer to be given up to justice. But he had fled straight to Shala and thence to a Moslem tribe. They then ordered the Shala men who had sheltered him to come down. And they, loyal to Constitution, came down voluntarily at once. To shelter a man that flies from blood, in tribe law, is not merely no crime, it is a sacred duty. But instead of explaining to these men that in future it was punishable to shelter a murderer, and dismissing them with a caution or small fine–the Young Turks cast them all (fifteen) untried into prison.

Nothing more foolish could have been conceived. The revulsion of feeling was immediate. Tactfully handled, the tribesmen would have been a bulwark of the Constitution. But from their own, quite reasonable, point of view they were betrayed the first week. "Cursed be he that putteth his faith in the Turk" was once more the watchword.

Christian Scutari still hoped. And in the new freedom opened a club for the promotion of the hitherto forbidden Albanian language.

As for the Consulates, not one appeared to have the faintest belief in Constitution. Some openly derided it, and intimated that as it did not suit their national plans it would not be allowed to succeed. It had foes without, and was making foes within.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Washington Irving.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom