Despot in Epirus

THE GREEK ECONOMY is in a parlous state, being largely dependent on EU bail-outs. Winning extra funds hardly counts as a Eureka! moment, a concept which the ancient Greek Archimedes gifted us. Currently, successive bundles of EU benevolence are only bestowed if the Greek government implements further austerity measures, something that Greeks don’t appear to be too happy about.

A while back an alternative panacea (another Greek concept!) was sought. A Greek-Australian treasure hunter undertook a search in the mountains of northern Greece for the long-lost – and possibly fictional – booty of Ali Pasha, a 19th-century Ottoman-appointed governor of a swathe of territory across northern Greece and Albania. It was hoped that the loot would be so substantial that it would shower riches on its discoverer and service a decent portion of Greece’s national debt. In the wash up, like current and future EU handouts, it didn’t amount to untold wealth; in fact, nothing was found, apparently.

His loot may remain undiscovered, but it is well known that Ali Pasha’s capital was at Ioannina (Ιωάννινα), now the capital of the Greek administrative region of Epirus. Ioannina is one of the most intriguing cities in Greece, I think. It forms a neat counterpoint to Gjirokastra across the Greek-Albanian frontier. While Gjirokastra, an Albanian museum city, reveals a distinct Greek imprint, Ioannina on the Greek side of the border displays the legacy of its Albanian-Ottoman history. Only 90 kilometres separates the two. Their physical proximity is matched by similarities in environment and in the movements of peoples over the centuries. Perhaps rather than being exclusively, classifiably Greek or Albanian cities both of them are elemental Balkan entities, essential creations of their individual terrains and histories.

Approaching Ioannina from Igoumenitsa on the Ionian coast in 2004, I was struck by the Balkan nature of the terrain. The twists of the road as it climbed, flowering pomegranates, the implausibly pink fairy-floss blossom of tamarisk (it was May). Purple-grey rock, Spanish broom and groves of myrtle. Out of the corner of my eye I saw, in a gravelly layby, Greek soldiers in camouflage chatting while leaning on the bonnet of their jeep beneath shady plane trees. I told myself – somewhat fancifully – that I was heading into frontier territory. Returning in 2008 I travelled effortlessly on the Via Egnatia motorway built with EU money.

Ioannina has had something of a roller-coaster history. It was noted as well fortified by Procopius in the 6th century. Later it received large numbers of Greek refugees who fled Constantinople when it was rolled by the knights of the fourth Crusade in 1204. At this point, Ioannina was an important city in the despotate of Epirus (presumably ruled by an eponymous despot), but it was to be captured by the Serbs in the late 14th century. The Ottoman Turks then romped in in 1430 taking the city without bloodshed; Epirus remained part of the Ottoman realm until 1912. A scholarly paper by Brendan Osswald investigating the ethnic composition of medieval Epirus reveals that this period saw extensive ethnic and cultural mixing, not always happily it must be said.

Ottoman control didn’t herald the smothering of the Greek identity of the city, despite what some Greek nationalists might assert. Greek aristocratic families in Ioannina retained their privileges and estates after the conquest, living alongside Turks, Albanians and Jews. Capitalising on the city’s favourable location at the meeting point of trade routes across the Balkans, local merchants grew wealthy and endowed the city with schools, grand buildings and printing presses (the height of technological advancement at the time). A 18th-century French visitor opined that it was “a little Marseille” and the poet William Haygarth, during the reign of Ali Pasha, regarded it as the capital of Greece (a country, which at that point, didn’t exist). Ioannina became a centre of Greek literacy and learning – the centre of the “Greek Enlightenment” which fed an awakening sense of Greek nationhood. One 19th-century observer commented that “all Greek authors” were either schooled here or had links to the city.

It is Ali Pasha, of Albanian descent, however, who remains the most notorious Ioanninian. The French diplomat and writer François Pouqeville recounted his meeting with Ali Pasha, remarking on “the lightning of his eyes, his starting convulsive twitches; I observed his discourse apparently vague, but full of purpose and artifice”. Pouqeville, an early Hellenophile, observed that “the fire of his little blue eyes… impressed on me the alarming idea of deep cunning, united with ferocity” and noted freshly cut-off human heads that were planted on stakes in the pasha’s court.

Lord Byron after meeting Ali Pasha called him the “Muslim Bonaparte”. Katherine Fleming used this designation as the title of her monograph on Ali Pasha. Fleming says that most writing on Ali has high “titillation” factor; he is seen as a colourful character and is portrayed as such albeit in a negative way. Pouqeville’s depiction, Fleming asserts, is “exaggerated, biased and unreliable” highlighting picturesquely unctuous aspects of his temperament and exploits to portray him – as many other writers have – as the archetypal “Oriental” despot.

Pouqeville was dismissive of Ioannina, which “like all other towns of Turkey, consists of a dirty bazaar; of crooked streets, not one of which deserves notice”. Parts of Ali Pasha’s Ioannina are still standing. It is these that make the city unlike any other that I have seen in Greece. The Mosque of Aslan Pasha, standing on a headland jutting into Lake Pamvotis, is an Ottoman mosque unlike any that I have ever seen in Turkey, with an air of dilapidated elegance, untouched since (presumably) 1912. The slate roofs of houses on the island in the lake are identical to those in Gjirokastra. A wonderful unnamed gift shop outside the entrance to Ali Pasha’s citadel sells wooden Karagöz shadow puppets (Καραγκιόζης in the Greek) similar to those found in Turkey. There has clearly been a whole mess of cultural mixing going on here for centuries.

But there are quintessentially Greek aspects to the city, too: the tailor in the Old Town with his Singer sewing machine sitting in the window of his shop, and the old local I spied as I was eating my dinner in the tavern who came in to claim what was clearly his regular table where he sat all night wordlessly observing the goings on. These things will no doubt continue no matter what the state of the Greek economy.


2 thoughts on “Despot in Epirus

  1. Great post! I’ve visited both places on a hitch-hiking tour. I was enamoured with Southern Albania and absolutely unimpressed with Ioannina, but maybe I wasn’t looking close enough. Time to return, it seems.

    • Hey Steven, thanks for your comment! Well, I agree that the new part of Ioannina is pretty drab, but I found the Its Kale, Ottoman mosques and streets of the old town fascinating. Another interesting place in that area is Metsovo – an alpine town, with a Greek flavour and Vlach locals. Quite a brew! THanks again and happy travels, Will

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