"Chapter XI." by Edith Durham (1863-1944)
I LEFT Prizren finally with the same Moslem kirijee I had come with, planned no route, and left all to luck. Towns are hotbeds of gossip. If you do not know yourself where you are going, nobody else can. Once off, we decided to make for Han Brutit, and learn further possibilities there.
The plain was dusty, the track fair. We crossed the Prizren river, went on over the plain, passed two fine springs that joined and made a fair stream, on which was a mill and a group of houses–Vrmitza–and soon reached the White Drin (Drin i bardh). On the farther bank were a village, Selchan, and the ruins of a great kula, the former home of a powerful Moslem family that had recently, after twenty-four hours' heavy fighting, been conquered by soldiery from Prizren. We were now in purely Albanian territory, and halted at midday at Han Lachit, farther down on Drin's left bank. Following Drin down its lonely and most beautiful valley, we came to its junction with Lumi Ljums (the river of Ljuma), and crossed it by a slim and elegant stone bridge, guarded on the farther side by a kula. We were in Ljuma, the land of the most notoriously independent of all the Moslem tribes.
As we were watering the horses, up rode a fine old man, who leapt from his saddle and greeted us hilariously–shook hands with me and rubbed cheeks with Marko. My presence struck him as a huge joke. No strangers were allowed in his land, he said, but, as they had given besa, I could go where I liked. He wished us "Tun ghiat tjeter," and rode off. The men at the kula roared with laughter. He and his whole house were the most notorious "holders-up" of wayfarers in the district. Our kirijee told with glee how this very man and his party had "held him up" on this very track two years ago, when he was travelling with a priest, to whom he had promised safe-conduct. "'Stand aside,' they said; 'you are a Moslem. Our business is with the Giaour.' I said: 'Those I convoy are my business. If this is a joke, it is a silly one. I am a Vula. If you shoot me you will have to settle with all my people.' They let me through. Not many people care to quarrel with all the Vulas."
Following down the White Drin, we crossed it by the Ura Nermienies (middle bridge), one of many arches built by the Vezir who built Ura Vezirit, and came to where White Drin meets Black Drin.
A little below this stands Han Brutit, by a stream that flows to the river. The han is a large stable, with a small house attached. The hanjee and two wayfarers were hobnobbing outside.
"You can have a room up there," he pointed, "if you like. But I am an honest man, and tell you plainly it is swarming with bugs. I wouldn't sleep in it myself. You had better sleep in the stable." The rest of the company corroborated this–from experience. I decided on the stable. There was hay to sleep on; three eggs each for supper. Board and lodging were secured.
Route was the next question. I did not want to go through to the Christian tribes by the Ura Vezirit, like other travellers. What I wanted was something new–through Moslem lands, which, perhaps, when the besa was over, would again be closed.
Fortune favoured. Our stable companions were a very pleasant Catholic and his servant, bound for Arnji, in the heart of the Moslem land, to start a shop. He was travelling under the besa of Arnji, with two packbeasts laden with salt, sugar, and coffee. We should be safe with him, he said, under the double besa –the general one and the private and particular one of Arnji; and Arnji would give us safe-conduct on.
It was night. The full moon rose majestic, flooding the vale with mystic splendour. Somewhere out in "that faeryland forlorn" lay Arnji. I did not stop to ask in which direction, but accepted the salt-and-sugar man's offer at once.
We retired to the stable, lit a fire in the middle, and I slumbered peacefully on hay, till waked by a horse, that had broken loose, eating it from under me.
We started very early. After this for three days the Austrian staff was useless. Its makers, I learnt afterwards, had not been through here, and had relied on imagination. I made such notes as I could, but even had I had the means of making a survey, it would have been too dangerous in a land where all strangers are suspect.
In order to cross the Drin we went down to Ura Vezirit, a majestic bridge of seven arches, no two the same size, but the effect of the whole quite admirable. It is the work of a great artist, for nothing more in harmony with the landscape could be imagined.
Unfortunately a great tree-trunk, brought down by last winter's flood, has shattered the last arch badly and lies jammed against a buttress, blocking the stream.
Having crossed, we went back up the river to a point opposite Han Brutit. And I saw that there were two, not one, tributary streams by the han, and that Bruti, the village, lay high on the hill between them, not on the river-brink as in the map.
Striking uphill from the Drin, we reached a fine grassy plateau and village, Kolchi, and then came to a tributary of the Drin that flows into it, opposite to and rather above Han Brutit.
We rode up its right bank till it forked in two, then followed its right branch, bore to the left away from it, and came out on the top of the watershed. Here, on a grassy plateau, is the village of Mal i zi. The whole district is called Mal i zi (Black Mountain). According to the map we should then have been on the mountain-side above the Drin; but the men assured me that Drin was far, and we were on the other side of the mountain.
We continued through beech-wood, passing an unmapped village, Chinimak (? Chin i madh) and dropped down to Sroji, a village in a valley. Some one at once welcomed us. We sat in the shade of a doorway and ate our lunch. An old man lay in the full glare of the midday sun, shivering in the cold fit of an intermittent fever.
Two men–one a very fine young fellow–swaggered up and demanded what right we had to come, and who had given us leave. He was the nephew of the old brigand we had met at the bridge. He and his family had hitherto occupied such leisure as their other profession left them, in selling salt, sugar, and coffee in Sroji, and the Arnji people had had to come and fetch it. Now, Arnji meant to have a shop of its own, and, what was worse, had invited a Catholic to keep it. The nephew, furious, prowled round the packbeasts, growling.
Marko told him sweetly that we had the pleasure of his uncle's acquaintance. The salt-and-sugar man said he had brought us; the Government was now in Prizren; we all had permission to travel, and had all Arnji on our side.
The nephew grumbled that if Constitution meant the arrival of Giaours, and that any one could come and sell what he pleased, he would have no more of it. He eyed the packbeasts covetously. He cared not a rap for Constitution; but–as the plunder was not worth the wrath of Arnji and the vengeance of all the Vulas–he withdrew, saying many things, without molesting us.
Our hosts pointed out the rocky crest of the mountain, south of the village, as the "fortress of Lek Dukaghin," and told that Lek, to show his strength, had cleft a rock in twain with one blow of his yataghan. Otherwise all they knew of Lek was that he was a great hero and made the Canon a long while ago.
Sroji gave us an old man as safe-conduct, and we started up the Lek Dukaghin range, a long and steep ascent through fine beech forest to the pass, Chafa Benks, at the top. This is unmapped, as is indeed the whole route. We descended a steep slope on the other side (rough above, and studded with bushes of sweet yellow plums, and cultivated below), and reached Arnji, a wide level, covered with well-irrigated maize fields, and scattered with good stone kulas.
Our Salt-and-Sugar friend led us straight to one of the largest, which stood in an enclosure with a second smaller house within it. Out came the whole household of staring, wondering people. The Head welcomed the Sugar man warmly, and looked at us with doubtful astonishment. I had been instructed to hold my tongue, and did so.
After explanations, he laughed at our coming, and said, had we not been brought by his good friend here, he would certainly not have admitted us, as the tribe wanted no strangers. As it was, we were his guests, and very welcome.
The women were sent in to make ready, and Marko and I were left alone, sitting on the ground outside. Time passed. Marko was depressed. It was not till the light was fading that we were summoned within to a large, very clean room, with an earthen floor and a low ceiling. A pile of logs blazed on the hearth. I lay on sheepskins, and stretched blissfully in the grateful warmth, for evening brought a touch of autumn chill to the air. A dozen or so of men came in–fairish, with grey or hazel eyes–all friendly. Talk and tales went round.
The Salt-and-Sugar man told
THE STORY OF THE BRAVEST MAN.
Some forty years ago a Djakovan and a Scutarene were each known in his own town as the bravest man in all the land. The Djakovan, in anger, swore to kill the Scutarene; there could be but one bravest man.
So he journeyed over the mountains to Scutari, where he knew no one, and in the streets he asked, "Which of you is the bravest man in this town?" And the people said, "He is yonder, in the bazar." And showed him the man's shop.
The Djakovan stood without and looked at the goods. The Scutarene asked him whence he came and what he wanted.
"I come from Djakova, and I want nothing," he said.
"Have you friends in the town?" asked the Scutarene.
"Not one," said the Djakovan.
"If you have come so far," said the Scutarene, "you must be very weary and thirsty. Come in and rest."
And the Djakovan entered and sat down.
The Scutarene gave him cold water, and then coffee, and spoke to him kindly. The Djakovan drank it, and said nothing. Thrice did the Scutarene serve him with coffee as is meet for an honoured guest. Then he said to him, "You have drunk and have rested. Now tell me your business here. In all the town you have no friend; it will be hard for you–let me help you."
The Djakovan sat silent, and bitterly repented of the vow that bound him to slay a man so kind to a friendless stranger. The Scutarene urged him to speak.
"I cannot trouble you with my business," he said.
"But you have come so far," said the Scutarene, "to you it must be important."
"I have come to shoot you," said the Djakovan at last, and told him the whole.
"Shoot me, then," answered the Scutarene. "Here am I. It were a pity that you should take so long a journey for nothing."
"We cannot fight here," said the Djakovan, reluctant.
The Scutarene arose, and thrust his pistols into his sash. "Come out on to the plain if you wish," he said.
The Djakovan followed him till they came to a lonely spot.
"Now shoot me," said the Scutarene; "here is my heart."
"But you must shoot too!" cried the Djakovan.
"I have made no vow," smiled the Scutarene. "Shoot, lest when you go back men laugh at you."
The Djakovan drew a pistol, fired, and it flashed in the pan.
"I have lost. It is your turn," he cried, much relieved.
"Nay," said the Scutarene. "There is one thing I can never do, and that is kill a guest from under my roof. You have your second pistol; remember your vow. Try again."
The Djakovan, reluctant, drew his second pistol; fired, and grazed the Scutarene's coat. Then, throwing down his weapons, he embraced the Scutarene warmly: "I could not stand up to be shot at without defending myself!" he cried. "You are the bravest man in all the world." They swore brotherhood, and remained fast friends ever afterwards.
Our Djakovan kirijee heartily confirmed the tale, which shows indeed the noble traits of the Albanian character–the duty of hospitality–the sacredness of the guest–and courage. It was much applauded.
The women spread supper–a large bowl of cheese melted in butter, into which we dipped our maize bread, and very good it was. Then came the inevitable sour kos, followed by hand-washing, mouth-rinsing, and sweeping up of the crumbs. The whole was over in twenty minutes. Large stones were then set in the two loopholes that were the only windows, to make all safe for the night.
We lay down and slept on sheepskins. The women slept in another room. They were not veiled, and wore, like the Mirdite women, long cotton drawers, with knitted ankle pieces in red and white patterns, which show beneath the skirt; also Mirdite pattern earrings, and four or five large silver coins on a black cord round the neck.
Arnji is a small independent tribe that goes with Debra. I am told it is an offshoot of Berisha, but my men were fearful of arousing suspicion by asking questions for me. It is all Moslem now, but crosses stood in many maize fields.
The other Moslem villages we passed belong to Prizren district, and are offshoots of various Christian tribes–Shala and Fandi among others–dating, I believe, from about two hundred years ago. At five next morning our host made us each a cup of black coffee, and sent us on our way with a dark, surly-looking man as safe-conduct to Katun i veter in Luria.
We left Arnji by a good track along the hillside, high above the Mola (Mala), a tributary of the Drin. Three-quarters of an hour after starting, we headed a small tributary stream, and saw three villages not on the map–Djur on the opposite side of the Mola, and Mars and Domi on the tributary. We continued on the high level for an hour, passing from Arnji land into Rechi, another small tribe, and then descended into the valley by a long steep track by a very large "house"–a group of three houses (one a large kula), and a number of sheds and outhouses–the house of the Dedas, the mightiest in the neighbourhood–seventy-two in family. Thirty-three are armed men; they have twelve serving-men, and live in great state. There are three brothers, each has his own house, and all goods are shared in common. They are said to possess vast flocks and rich lands. At the beginning of each year each reckons what he will require for household expenses and takes it. The remainder, which is said to be large, is almost all used for hospitality. A whole flock of sheep and one of cattle is set aside yearly for guests, and any one who comes to the house, be it never so early, must stay and be feasted till next morning. I was strongly tempted to call but was advised not, and regret now that I took the advice.
Sketch Map–Arnji to Luria (see page 319).
We zigzagged down a very rough track on foot for over an hour. The guide then, though it was quite early, insisted that he could go no farther without resting, and stopped at a group of houses on the brink of the Mola, called Naramal (? Maranal), just beyond which rose a great cliff-like mountain, Guri kuch. Really he had relatives there, and wished to give information about us.
We were inspected. A long parley took place. We appeared to be most unwelcome, but were told to come in. I was hastily instructed to walk last and keep quiet.
The house was very large. We went up a pitch-dark ladder staircase that stunk, and into a clean and decent room on the first floor, very low-ceiled, dark, save for two loopholes, and full of men who seemed angry. I went and sat in a far corner which was pointed out to me, and looked modestly at the floor. "Now we are in a wasps' next," murmured Marko uneasily.
A great noise went on, but we were served with coffee. I suggested to Marko on the first chance that as we were so unwelcome we had better leave, but our guide meant to stay for dinner, and refused to go. Dinner was ready at ten o'clock. I was invited to the sofra, on which was a bowl of kos (so sour that it drew the mouth), with lumps of sheep-cheese in it, and maize bread steaming hot. I could tackle neither kos nor cheese, but they gobbled so fast that it was all done before I had decided how to avoid it politely. A jar of honey followed and a cold heavy pancake apiece, with which to scoop it up and carry it to the mouth–eating honey with one's fingers is very difficult. More kos, even sourer, followed, and a very unsatisfactory meal was concluded. Our guide then announced it was too late to get to Luria that night, and we must stay where we were till to-morrow. That he wished to delay us seemed clear. Marko appealed to me. I was convinced that our host at Arnji did not mean to betray us, and he had said we should reach Katun i veter in Luria early.
All the time the general attitude and conversation had seemed most uncomfortable, so I said, very decidedly, that I meant to go, and that there was plenty of time. We got off at last. Once outside, I asked what all the row had been about.
One of the men had asked the kirijee how things were going in Prizren under the new rule. "Quite quietly," said he. They then all asked if the news had yet come when they were to begin expelling the Giaours. Constitution was not going to tolerate Giaours any more; the land was to be swept clean of them. They were only waiting orders to kill the lot, and hoped it would be soon. That was what the new rule was made for.
And, as they knew we were Giaours, this was not a polite thing to say.
We crossed the Mola, and went up a very steep ascent away from the stream, through oak and beech wood, then through a fir wood of splendid trees. Here the guide halted and quarrelled badly with the kirijee. He demanded pay for the corn the horses had eaten. The kirijee said I had already paid enough there. He retorted by calling the kirijee dirty names. An awful row ensued. As soon as I knew what was the matter, I settled matters by paying. It was only sixpence. But the kirijee's honour had been wounded by the names, and he lamented loudly that he was unarmed. For the first time in his life he was without his revolver–every one had said under Constitution all was safe–and this was the result! If he had but had his revolver, he would have shot the beast dead through the forehead so soon as the words had left his lips. He should feel the vengeance of the Vulas later.
The guide pocketed the piastres, and then sat down and said he would go no farther till he had been paid for the whole job.
This I flatly refused. I fancy he had been told at the house we had left to delay us or leave us in the lurch. After a lot of shouting, we got under way again. According to the map, we were going quite in the wrong direction. Luckily, the map was wholly incorrect.
We came out of the wood, and dropped down over grass land to the river. We were in a splendid and most fertile plain, ringed round with lofty mountain and lordly forest–quite the finest spot I know in all Albania. Beyond the river stood the wretched half-ruined church and house of Katun i veter, where a luckless young Franciscan–a solitary outpost in a Moslem land–wrestles vainly with his first parish.
Luria tribe is of great interest, as here one sees Christianity disintegrating and giving way before advancing Islam, as history shows it has been slowly doing for the last four hundred years in these parts.
Luria consists of two hundred houses (average ten to a house). Of these now only twenty are Christian at all, and scarcely one wholly Christian–some, indeed, mainly Moslem, with a few Christian members.
Within the last five-and-thirty years, eleven whole houses have turned Turk, and members of very many others. A mosque is being built, and a Hodja had already arrived. The Franciscan was in despair. The Church, with curious apathy, let the whole district slip without making an effort till too late. Luria is in the diocese of Durazzo. The former Bishop, an Italian, had only Italian friars. By the time one knew the language, he was changed for another. And, till lately, there was no priest at all in Luria, save in the summer.
Islam all the time has kept on a steady propaganda. No persecution of any kind has taken place. All has been done by persuasion and heavy bribes. The beggarly methods of Christianity, compared with the open-handed liberality of Islam–the wretched hovel of the church and the new mosque–were enough alone to convince a quite ignorant people that the one was a dying, the other a living, cause.
The ground fact is this. The North Albanian tribesman is an Albanian first. He has never absorbed the higher teaching of either Christianity or Islam (I speak of the masses only). Christ and Mohammed are to him two supernatural "magic dickies," each able, if propitiated, to work wonders. Looked at, impartially, through the eyes of a tribesman, which has succeeded better? As a Christian, the tribesman was trampled by that hated unbeliever, the Slav (he has never called the Slav a Christian). With the help of Islam, on the contrary, the Slav has been beaten back. The Albanian has regained much territory. But for foreign intervention, he would have regained much more. The magic of Mohammed has given him fat lands, ruling posts in the Government, has not exacted compulsory military service, has paid him well when he chose to fight, and has never troubled to teach him Mohammedanism properly, but has left him free to keep his old customs.
He does not veil his women, nor seclude them more than do many Christians, and rarely has more than one wife, save a sister-in-law. He pays no more attention to his Hodja than to his priest. Except at a mosque, I have never seen him perform either the proper prayers or ablutions. If he be an earnest believer, he belongs to some Dervish sect–preferably the Bektashes–which love the Orthodox Mohammedans as do the Dissenters the Church of England. Briefly, he has had all the advantages of Islam, and gone his own way. As a counter-attraction, Christianity offers him the position of underdog, problematic advantages in another world, and, mark this, probable foreign domination in this one.
Roman Catholicism, to-day, in Albania is, as the Moslem knows well, an Austrian propaganda, worked for purely (or shall we say impurely?) political reasons, caring, so far as Austria is concerned, neither for the moral nor mental development of the people–desiring, indeed, to retard it–for a Bishop, an Austrian subject, has been known to refuse permission for a school in a tribe anxious to have one.
Till recently, fights between Moslem and Catholic have been all either intertribal or "blood," just as between Christian and Christian or Moslem and Moslem. Religion has not been more of an excuse for fighting than have other things. Only quite lately have Moslems persecuted Christians as Christians. This is because the Moslem sees that Catholicism is the thin end of the wedge for a foreign invader–to wit, Austria. He has no particular quarrel with Catholicism as such, but foreign rule, disguised as Catholicism, he will resist as long as he can stand and see. From his own point of view, he is reasonable. And those who have seen and understood the results of Austrian rule in Bosnia, cannot but sympathise with him, even though they may deplore his methods.
I was a Giaour–a being from the outside world, that plots annexation–therefore, and reasonably, Luria was not at all pleased to see me. Moreover, I was the guest of the Franciscan.
Katun i veter turned out in some force to inspect me. I sat on the grass, and the heads sat around in a circle.
To me, personally, I do not believe that anywhere the Moslems had any objection. Were it not that I was suspected of being the forerunner of Giaour interference, they would have regarded my tour as rather sporting, which some of them indeed did, and myself as quite as amusing and welcome as is a dancing bear or an organ-grinder's monkey in an English village.
The tale had gone round that I was sister to the King of England. My appearance, however, justified them in believing my statement that I was of low degree. The Bariaktar's son said they did not want the King of England, or any king, interfering in Luria. Luria is a free country. If he thought I was really the King's sister, he would cut off my head at once. He asked if I were afraid. I, entering into his pleasantry, replied that if some one would lend me a revolver I should be very pleased to shoot him. This is the sort of joke they like. He became quite affable, and suggested showing us what sort of a shot he was himself. They started shooting at a white stone–a long shot, across the valley–which he hit every time he tried, to our admiration and his great satisfaction.
I had not been many hours in Katun i veter when a good-looking Greek turned up, and asked the Franciscan's hospitality for the night. He was a serving-man from the great house of Deda, had come on foot as fast as he could, in order to attend Mass to-morrow, so he said. But really, beyond doubt, to see and report on me.
He chatted of the wealth of the Dedas–was in a comfortable berth there, but had had a bad time before. Had knocked about eleven years in Albania–horrible country–worked his way up from the South. Would be jolly glad to get back home again.
I asked him how many men he had killed there–guessing at once that he had fled from blood. "Two," he replied at once, and he told us of his escape over the border, under cover of night and a thunderstorm. It was an affair of honour. He was no vulgar criminal–was indeed, as I learnt later, a skilled craftsman, and could find work anywhere. In four years he would be free to return home–murder charge would then have lapsed. Fifteen years' exile had been a long price to pay for his honour, but there was no other way. In a like case he would do the time again.
He joked freely about Islam; said his present employers wanted him to turn Turk, but it wasn't good enough. Had eaten and smoked even in Ramazan. Had lived much with Moslems.
Which shows that it is not so much the religious views of the Giaour that these most exclusive of the Moslem tribes object to as the political results that may come in his train. A Giaour that comes for reasons with which all can sympathise is a man and a brother. Yarns spread by imaginative newspaper correspondents to the effect that the Moslem tribes–which they have not visited–have been known to capture foreigners and hold them as slaves, are wholly imaginary.
Mass was early on Sunday, and the congregation strangely mixed. Besides Marko, who assisted at the altar, and a Catholic woman and child, were the Greek–who stood all the time and crossed himself, in the manner of his Church–and myself. After service had begun, came four women and two men, all Moslem, crawled up on their hands and knees, lifted the altar cloth, and all crowded in under the altar, the women taking three babies in wooden cradles with them. The space was packed tight, and the babies' muffled squalls disturbed the service.
When it was over the party came crawling out, and wanted to be blessed. The Frate complied; it was the only way they would come, he said, sadly. The three babies were not well, so their mothers had brought them, and the three other adults were all ill. Moslem charms had not succeeded, so they were trying Christian ones. It was a most difficult parish. They explained to him that they were pleased to receive him in their houses, but he must not talk about religion.
Lately, a young Catholic had married a Moslem girl, who had turned Christian and been baptized. The Moslems, much annoyed, then bribed the youth, who was barely twenty, to turn Turk. He had just done so. Now his wife is very unhappy, and came to the Franciscan to know if she could have her marriage dissolved, and has refused to live with her husband.
The Greek said he had come expressly to hear Mass, and should leave directly after; but, when he found I was staying, said he was rather tired, and stayed too.
The Bariaktar–a fine old man–and several others flocked in. Talk ran entirely on "Konstitutzioon," the mysterious unknown something that had come upon the land. What it was, said the old man, no one knew. That it meant war against Giaours was certain, but whether with the Russians, Austrians, or Italians remained to be seen. They were ready in any case. "We are a free people," said the old boy, with a grin; "we do not obey Abdul Hamid except when we choose. But wherever he makes a war we flock like butterflies."
The Greek said there would be a big war. He had seen it a few days ago in a glass of wine. I wondered if it were a case of in vino veritas, and noted that wine was drunk in the Moslem strongholds of the Dedas.
Luria is the head bariak of the redoubtable Debra group–the "tigers of Debra," as some even of their Moslem compatriots call them–Luria, Matija, Debra. Matija is a very large tribe of some 1200 houses. The three tribes are intermarriageable, and claim Lek Dukaghin as former lord of the land. Their law, so they said at Luria, is the Canon of Lek. But they do not compound feuds by blood-gelt. Unless the families concerned choose to make peace, it continues indefinitely. I need scarcely say they pay no fine to the Turkish Government, nor, indeed, recognise it, except as an ally against the Giaour in general and Slav in particular.
The Bariaktar said he must know where I was going and what I was doing. I asked permission to visit certain lakes in Luria of which I had heard. He did not smile on the notion. An Austrian Consul had been there; they wanted no more Giaours. It would have to be referred to a medjliss of the whole tribe. That would take some days. I found I should have to pay a heavy fee for this legal opinion–if it were to be in my favour–and decided it was not worth while; also a bad precedent for the next traveller.
When they had gone to their midday meal, and I thought the coast clear, I went out and drew a characteristic kula. (By special request of my companions, my camera had been hidden since we left Prizren.) A boy of nine, swaggering up, said, "You are not to write about our houses," and went off to report. Back came stringent orders that nothing was to be written in Luria. Luckily I had finished.
What I really wanted to find out was where I was and the lie of the land. According to the map, the river Mola ran quite straight from Guri Kuch to the church of Luria, and we should have followed the stream up. Instead of this we had left it, crossed a mountain, and come straight down on to what I took for another river–but it was the Mola after all.
I was bound for Mirdita, to see the reception of the Hereditary Prince of Mirdita, Prenk Bib Doda, whose return from exile was, in the eyes of both Moslem and Christian tribesmen, far more important than the Constitution. News came in that night that Prenk had been shot by the Young Turks at Saloniki. Luria was excited, for Prenk represents the blood of Lek Dukaghin, and Prenk's mother is from Luria. I hastened to start for Mirdita. A guide was easily found, and we started along the mysterious river. We followed down the left bank, high above the stream, through fir wood, making a detour to head a tributary. The track was good. We came round a big bend, and soon I saw the unmistakable Guri Kuch rising, a great cliff, from the stream. The land lay below me in bird's-eye view, and I saw where the map had gone wrong. The church was marked in the straight of the river instead of on the other side of the great bend, and the names were wrong. We crossed two tributary streams, on which stands Krejs, a fair-sized village, on the left bank of the river (not the right as marked on the staff map). Passing round Guri Kuch by a track high above the water, we saw Naramal below us, rather farther down stream, and farther still, high on the valley side, the house of the Dedas. Leaving the river's course we struck straight inland a steep ascent by the side of Guri Kuch to Vlas, a high-lying village. Vlas is all Moslem, and goes with Ljuma (see sketch map, p. 309).
Shortly after this we reached Mirdita territory. The fir woods around Vlas were a sad sight, hundreds of big trees had been felled and left to rot, with the mistaken idea that pasture would grow in their place. But denudation and desolation follows speedily, and the people do not learn by experience. I spoke vainly. They said it was the custom, and must be. Grass, it was true, had not grown in this spot. That was no reason why it should not in another. Then they would have flocks and be rich.
We rode through more forests, when entering Mirdita, of huge fir trees, quite magnificent, and came out on a large plain with rude wooden huts–the summer quarters of the herd folk–dotted about. Out came the people, running to welcome us, bringing a wooden vessel full of buttermilk and a large sheep-cheese, which they insisted on our taking as a gift. "Thank God!" cried Marko; "now we are in a Christian land!"
By a stony track we went on till the summit of Mal i shaint (the Holy Mountain), with the Abbate's summer residence upon it, rose before us against the sky, and pulled up by the ruins of the old church and Benedictine monastery, from which the mountain takes its name and the Abbate his title. We ascended on foot to the little wooden house and chapel. The Abbate knows many things; among others, how to place his summer quarters on one of the finest spots in Europe. A wondrous, wild scene lay below. All Albania glowing in golden light, cleft by great blue shadows–Rumia beyond Scutari Lake in the dim distance–the ragged, jagged Shala range–far on the other side Guri Kuch, with the Debra Mountains beyond.
From the men in charge we learnt that the rumour of Prenk Pasha's assassination was false, and started down through woods by a good track to Oroshi, that lies some 2000 feet below. Kapetan Marko Ghoanni, Prenk Pasha's cousin, had kindly told me to come to his house if I went to Oroshi, and thither, finding it was no house of mourning, we went. He was absent, but his brother Kapetan Nue and his cousin received us with the greatest hospitality.
The great stone house, high on a shelf on the mountain-side, its big, airy, white-washed rooms, the great hooded hearth, the solid native-made furniture, chip-carved in old Albanian style (alas, that it should ever be replaced by commonplace machine-made European stuff!) is the fitting home of a mountain chief, and harmonises with the simple dignity of its owners.
We dined and supped excellently well with our two hosts. The younger men of the family waited on us, stately and mediæval, in the fine dress of the Mirdites. I thought of Chaucer's "Yonge Squire,"
"Of his stature he was of even length,and hoped that Constitution would not entail the loss of what was good and beautiful in the old life–old lamps for new.
And wonderly delyver and great of strength...
Curteys he was, lowly and servysable,
And carve beforn his fader atte table,"
Mirdita numbers some three thousand houses, said my host, all Christian, and consists of five bariaks, of which Oroshi, Spachi, and Kushneni are of the same blood as Shala-Shoshi, and not intermarriageable either among themselves or with Shala-Shosi. They came from the Pestriku Mountains, near Djakova, when the Turks first oppressed the land. Lek Dukaghin, they said, was one of their own ancestors, and ruled all the mountains in the time of Skenderbeg; Luria was part of his lands. Skenderbeg ruled farther south. Lek was followed by his nephew, Paul i bardh (White Paul), and it is from his house that the Montenegrin tribe Bijelopavlich (son of White Paul) descends, though it is now Serbophone and Orthodox. Skenderbeg and Lek, they said, were related, therefore Mirdite women wear the black gjurdin in mourning for Skenderbeg, which in all other tribes is a man's garment only. But no authentic pedigree exists, nor could I from tradition compile one that fits.
Before their migration the Mirdites say that they belonged to the Ipek group, which was then all Christian. This statement is not easy to reconcile with history, as in the first days of the Turkish conquest, Ipek must have been almost wholly Serb and Orthodox. Was Mirdita one of those tribes of mixed blood that became Serb or Albanian, according to the Church with which it threw in its lot?–as has undoubtedly been often the case.
Or is the further tradition true that the Mirdites, after the death of Skenderbeg, when the Turks took Scutari, and were harrying the land, fled from Mirdita, and returned again to Pestriku, and came back once more to Mirdita two hundred and fifty years ago? The tale of a double shifting is complicated, but I incline to believe it, as it accounts not only for the connection with Ipek (which by that time was already almost overwhelmed by Albanians), but accounts also for the fact, commented on by many writers, that previous to the latter half of the seventeenth century there is no historical reference to the Mirdites. Probably before their second shifting they were known only as Dukaghini.
The other two bariaks, Fandi and Dibri (not to be confounded with the Moslem tribe of Debra) are not related by blood, but only adopted by Mirdita. Fandi used to belong to the Ljuma group, but left it when Ljuma turned Moslem and joined Catholic Mirdita. In battle Kthela, the border tribe, goes with Mirdita. Kthela in several particulars resembles Mirdita, but is not blood-related.
Mirdita had not yet decided to accept Constitution, till it knew more about it. It had sworn besa when the others had. Otherwise, by now it would have declared war on the Moslem tribes of Djakova, and have gone to avenge the wrong done to the Frate and the Christian villages. I gathered that something like a "Cross and Crescent" war had been contemplated–and relinquished with regret. It feared that by accepting Constitution–unless with special conditions–it would lose status. It had never from the beginning accepted Turkish rule, nor paid a tax.
My hosts were astonished at the taxes we pay in England, and thought it showed very bad management. I daresay they are right. But they admitted that for blood alone, a very considerable tax is paid in Mirdita.
A regular outbreak of shooting was going on. It was rumoured that blood-vengeance was to come to an end, so all were paying off old scores while yet there was time. Mirdita has special blood laws of its own. Immediately on the death of a man, the slayer must pay the Kapetan and ox and £T.5. A medjliss is then called to decide what more fine he pays. His house is not burnt. The fine varies from ten to twenty sheep or goats according to his means. To make peace blood-gelt is paid. The whole expense, including fee to the medjliss, is about £60. After the first twenty-four hours, when a man may be expected to act in hot blood, vengeance may be taken only on the guilty party, and not on any relative. This is an emendation of the old law.
On a point of honour Mirdita can and has shed blood in torrents. The Mirdites are famed of old as cattle-lifters, going a-raiding joyfully, as did the clans on the English border, and successfully capturing a hundred head at a time from the plains–of which they were the terror–and even from far Moslem tribes.
The trade route from Prizren to Scutari was a rich plundering ground, and the Mirdite zaptiehs, instituted to safeguard it, are, so runs the tale, the only gendarmes regularly paid by the old Turkish Government, as, if their pay is more than a week or so in arrears, they promptly "hold up" the road and–in bad cases–cut the telegraph line. They were in like manner subsidised to "protect" the plains in part.
The Mirdites by no means always shave the head, as do most other tribes. In many instances, indeed, they shave only a very small patch on the temples.
As two of the five bariaks are of different blood, it is not surprising that the type should vary much. Tall, grey-eyed men and small, dark ones both occur frequently, and all the intermediates.
Travellers who have described Mirdites as all "dark" or "fair" have visited only one part. So far as I know, none of the Mirdites tattoo.
Mirdita's recent history has been tragic. By the side of Kapetan Marko's house stand the ruins of the house of the head of the tribe, Prenk Pasha, burnt by the Turks in 1877. Mirdita had taken no part against the Montenegrins during the beginning of the war of 1876, but was known to be planning independence. Prenk was in treaty with the Montenegrins, when Servia and Montenegro made a temporary peace with Turkey. This set free the Turkish troops, eight battalions marched on Mirdita. The Moslems of Djakova, Ljuma, Matija, who all had old scores to pay, attacked at the same time, and Mirdita was overwhelmed on all sides at once. The Turkish troops reached Oroshi, and burnt the house of the young chief, who then escaped. As we looked at the ruins, I was told how he was treacherously captured later. This was in 1881. The Albanian league had resisted the cession of Albanian territory to Montenegro, ordered by the Powers. The Turkish Government, which had made peace with the Mirdites, now suspected the young Prince as a possible champion of Albanian independence. Meeting him one day, at dinner, at the Austrian Consulate, Dervish Pasha invited him to inspect a Turkish war vessel, then off Medua. Contrary, it is said, to the advice of his friends, the young Prince went. The vessel at once got up steam, and the little pleasure trip became a twenty-eight years' exile, passed, for many years in Kastamuni, in Asia Minor. Recently, the Prince was taken into favour at Constantinople, and made aide-de-camp to the Sultan, but not permitted to return home.
His coming was now daily nearer, and Mirdita was aflame with expectation, and torn by doubt of Turkish promises.
From the house of the Kapetan I went to that of the Abbate, the brain of the Mirdita–perhaps the strongest personality in North Albania. When anything of importance is on hand, one of the first questions asked by all, priest, layman, Consul of every nation–is, "What does the Abbate think of it?" And they never know.
Of his church, designed by himself–the largest in all the mountains–his great house furnished throughout in European taste, and his princely hospitality, I need not here tell. They are well known to all who visit Scutari and make a trip in the mountains.
He was not then at home, but his sister, who greeted me kindly as a former acquaintance, and the priest of Oroshi, did the honours of the house. But Oroshi without the Abbate is "Hamlet" without Hamlet, and Prenk Pasha was not yet due.
A Kthela zaptieh, off duty for a time, was on his way home–a dark, gay, boyish thing. I started off for Kthela with him as guide. He was a Kthela man, he said, but was originally of Kilmeni (Seltze). "A long time ago" a family had emigrated and settled in Kthela, and had now expanded into twenty houses, which are intermarriageable with the rest of Kthela. The track, a good one, led along the left bank of the Fani i vogel, over it and up the other side to the church-house of Blinishti, in the bariak of Kushneni.
The little old church is of the usual Mirdite pattern. The tiled roof projects at the end, and is supported on posts to form a large entrance-porch or verandah. A huge oak hard by was thickly covered with a species of mistletoe–not the English one. I asked about it in hopes of learning some superstition, but found it an object of no interest. From Blinishti we went on to Shpal–the church which is the gathering-point for all Mirdita–and, descending again into the valley of the Fani, crossed it at Peshkes and struck up through wooded slopes for Kthela. A sad massacre of big oaks was going on. A tree is felled, and then the whole trunk is chopped down into one small, irregular plank. The track and the hillside were heaped with chips. A man was hard at work hacking the last felled giant. I vainly urged that a saw was very cheap, and that four or five planks at least could be made from one trunk–much more result for the labour. He and the Kthela men were cross at this, and said this was the proper way. They had always made planks like this, always would, and did not want to be interfered with. They had the right to do as they pleased with their own trees–which was unanswerable.
We rode through wood along the hillside, and, coming out of it at the end, saw all Kthela below us–a sea of forested hills in which scarce a house is visible. One great square-headed mountain, Mal Selatit, rose on the left. At its foot, said our guide, was a fortress of Lek Dukaghin, and beyond it, on the other side, the "city of Skenderbeg," ruins which few strangers have ever seen. His account was vague; he had been there, but it was very dangerous–all Moslems.
The priest of Kthela welcomed us. His house was very primitive, the short broad planks all axe-hewn, and his beehives, at the back, fenced round with ox and horse skulls on posts, "to keep off the evil eye," he said, laughing.
Kthela consists of three bariaks–Kthela, Selati, and Perlati. Kthela is all Catholic, the two others mixed. They border on Luria, and Islamism is spreading.
Kthela is chiefly forest, and lives largely by cattle-lifting. It had not accepted Constitution, asked doubtfully, "What is Constitution?" and opined that if it were Turkish it was bad.
"Has the prison in Scurtari been pulled down yet?" they asked eagerly. "If it is true that Konstitutzioon means that all the land is free, it will not be wanted any more!"
"But how can the Constitution punish a thief without a prison?"
"Chop off his hand," said every one promptly.
"That is very cruel," said I.
"Not half so bad as prison. He has stolen with his right hand. Very well. Chop it off, but do not take away his freedom." (I have even met priests who upheld this theory. Knowledge of Turkish prisons makes it not so extraordinary as it appears.) "If Konstitutzioon means prisons–down with it."
Our lively guide explained to me, before an applauding audience, that, so far, Konstitutzioon was a dead failure. "It promised to give us roads, and railways, and schools, and to keep order and justice. We have had it two whole months, and it has done none of these things. We have given our besa till St. Dimitri, and if it has not done them by then–good-bye Konstitutzioon!"
I said no Government, however good, could do all these things in the six weeks left. They shouted me down.
"It could if it chose. A Government can do just as it likes, or it is not a Government."
I urged the cost–railways, for example.
"Railways, dear lady, cost nothing. They are always made by foreign companies."
"Schools cost thousands of piastres–the house, the master, books."
"Schools in all civilised lands cost nothing. They are all free. The Government pays for them."
"In England," I said, "we have to pay a great deal for schools."
They retorted that the English Government must be bad, and they did not want a poor one like that. I said, firmly, that every other land had to pay for all these things, and Albania must too, or go without. But one of the party knew as a fact that, in Austria and Italy, the Government built most beautiful things and paid for them itself.
In despair, and thinking it was a subject they could understand, I pointed out that it would take more than six weeks to organise gendarmerie to keep order in all Albania. They were indignant, and said they did not want Turkish zaptiehs in their land, were not afraid of them, and would defend their kulas even against artillery.
"But you say you want a good Government and law and order. How can order be kept without zaptiehs or a prison?"
"By the Konstitutzioon."
I fell back exhausted from the unequal combat, and they triumphed.
"When all is set in order," they said, "when we have" (here followed a list of all required to fit out a first-class Power and a small Utopia), "then if we are quite satisfied, it would be right for us to pay a little tax. But it would be silly to pay for a thing before we know how we liked it. If Konstitutzioon is not rich enough to do these things, it can go to the devil–the sooner the better."
I was filled with sorrow for this child-people, helpless before the problems of grown-up life. Loyal, capable of much hero-worship, they would follow to the death a Prince in whom they believe; but of this intangible, invisible Konstitutzioon, they understood, and could understand, nothing.
It is hard to be hurled from somewhere about the fourth century, at latest, into the twentieth, without one breathing-space. I asked myself doubtfully whether Konstitutzioon understood them any better than they did it. Above all, I was anxious that by no futile and ill-timed revolt they should damn themselves in the eyes of Western politicians, to whom the blessed word Constitution seems to be a sort of Morison pill to cure all evils.
Time did not permit further wandering in Kthela. I left it for Robigo, where, said the priest, I should find good quarters at the Franciscan's. The Kthela lad volunteered to guide us again. Passing through Rsheni, where there is a flourishing school–due to the energy of the local priest–we descended to the Fani i vogel, followed it, and crossed it just above its junction with the Fani i madh (which is, I believe, the same river whose source I saw on the Chafa Malit, under a different name). Here there is a piece of debatable land, claimed both by Mirdita and the tribes of the Alessio Mountains, over which there has been so much bloodshed, that for the time being it has been left by both, and the trees have grown tall and fine. Then we pounded along the shingly half-dried bed of the united Fanis till, as evening was closing in, we saw the church of Robigo high on a crag above the river, approached it on the wrong side, found no track in the dim light, and scrambled up on foot.
I was extremely surprised on the top to find a large block of buildings, and not at all surprised to be met by a stern and foreign Franciscan and the word "clausura." It was a friary, and he could do no other than refuse me admission. My faithful guides were horrified. As usual with Albanians, they cared no pin for Church rule when it ran counter to Albanian custom. Hospitality to a stranger guest was a sacred duty. To refuse it was an outrage on the Albanian people. They told the foreign Franciscan their opinion of him. They would, I believe, have spoken in like manner to the Pope himself. I was anxious only to go and find other shelter before it was pitch-dark.
The foreign Franciscan, naturally, remained unmoved by the tale of my many virtues and the quantities of ecclesiasts much higher than himself who were only too glad to know me. But he sent a boy to guide us to possible quarters.
We forded the river in the dark, and stumbled along to a large house, whose owner received us at once, lamenting only that he had not been warned in time to make preparations. To all he had we were welcome. A ladder in the dark led us to a great cavernous room devoid of all furniture and lighted only by the fire that blazed beneath the huge hood that reached from the raftered roof to within some three feet of the floor. We sat round it with the large family. Our host was very angry at my rejection by the friary. I said in vain that they could not do otherwise. It was an insult, he said, to Albanian hospitality. He made broad remarks on the celibacy of the clergy, heard with great interest of all our wanderings, but only returned to rage that I should have gone so far and have been insulted at Robigo. Nor would he look on it in any other light.
We sat on the floor and supped around the sofra. He pointed out his eldest daughter, a nice-looking girl of sixteen. She ought, by now, to be married, he said. He betrothed her as a child. The marriage day had been fixed. Priest and bridegroom were all ready, and then she said she would not have him. She had never seen him before. The priest refused to marry them without her consent. Her parents had tried to force her. The bridegroom had then gallantly offered to release her without demanding blood, saying very sensibly, that he did not want a wife who did not want him, and that she could marry whom she pleased so far as he was concerned–the only case I met in which a reasonable view was taken of a girl's refusal. Marko, who has enlightened views on the subject, suggested that child betrothals must generally cause trouble. But the father maintained, "She must marry according to my pleasure and not for hers." When it was sleep-time they gave me a yorgan to lie on. But the rest of the company simply lay down on the boards anywhere, and slept.
Next morning early saw us on the way to Alessio, riding down the left bank of the Fani, and passing, on the way, its junction with the Mati. Our lively zaptieh cheered the route with an instructive tale of the siege of a certain kula we passed, by soldiers from Scutari sent to collect cattle-tax. The tax had been, so the district thought, exorbitantly raised. The district already paid some. The headman was bound to resist. "So the soldiers were sent. As I am a zaptieh, I had to go too. What did I do? Oh, of course all we zaptiehs fired in the air. We were all on the man's side. We had to go because we were told." He roared with laughter. Aided thus by the zaptiehs, the tax-collecting expedition naturally failed.
By noon the wonder-world of the mountains was left behind us; we rode out on to the plain–into the commonplace–and stopped at Miloti, a pretty village, where its charming old priest at once invited us in. We had a festive lunch with the old gentleman, who was grieved to hear about the Robigo adventure, and, to my surprise, thought the friary had acted wrongly. We parted here with our friend of Kthela, no more guiding being required; but our courteous old host insisted on having his horse saddled and riding with us as far as the ford. He waited till we reached the other side, waved farewell, and rode away.
We followed the kaldrmi through Shenkol to Alessio, I remembering the track as one does a bad dream. Four years before I had crawled and staggered along it on foot, through mud and water, half starved. One broken-down hut recalled to me vividly how I had thought there that I could go no farther, and knew that I must.
The theory of beating the boundaries is correct. There is nothing like pain for stamping minute details ineradicably in the mind.
Alessio had improved since my last visit, and had a "hotel"–humble, it is true, but the bed was clean and the supper good. Alessio was much excited. Prenk Pasha had arrived that very morning at Medua, been met by a large party, and had gone to Scutari. Events were likely to march, and we must march too.
And to Scutari we hastened next morning.
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 volunteers
Natasha Gapinski and Marie Butler-Aerts.