Lord Byron, Ali Pasha and Albania
Koka në Stamboll Trupi ne Janine
Traditional Albanian song
When Lord Byron visited Albania in 1809 while he was on his Grand Tour with his friend John Hobhouse, he found much inspiration, writing his epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage based in part, on his experiences there, and finding himself accepted in a wild land on the fringes of Europe. Byron also acquired a traditional Albanian costume, which he wore in the famous portrait, the costume capturing the romantic splendour of the Romantic poet. Once in Albania, Byron met with Ali Pasha (1740-1822), an Albanian warlord who is now celebrated for fighting the Turks. Ali Pasha found his way into Byron’s epic poem:
‘I talk not of mercy, I talk not of fear;
He neither must know who would serve the Vizier;
Since the days of our prophet, the crescent ne’er saw
A chief ever glorious like Ali Pasha.’1
So who was this great Albanian who had made such an impact on Byron? Ali Pasha of Tepelena rose to prominence as a bandit, and his success brought him to the attention of the Ottomans, the warlord eventually gaining power over a territory that covered parts of southern Albania and northern Greece, and ruling from Ioannina, which is now situated in north western Greece. Ali Pasha admired Byron, and Ali certainly made a lasting impression on the poet, being referred to in Childe Harold and Don Juan. Indeed, in a letter to his mother, Byron described his meeting with Ali:
‘He told me to consider him as a father whilst I was in Turkey, & said he looked on me as his son. – Indeed he treated me like a child, sending me almonds & sugared sherbet, fruit & sweetmeats 20 times a day. – He begged me to visit him often, and at night when he was more at leisure – I then after coffee & pipes retired for the first time.’2
Ali Pasha had been expecting Byron, though when Byron arrived at Ioannina, Ali was away fighting on a brief campaign, and Byron then travelled to Ali’s home town of Tepelena to meet him. There is a theory, commented on by Byron scholar Peter Cochran, that Byron’s meeting with Ali Pasha may have been ‘encouraged’ to flatter Ali with his visit, with a view of getting Ali Pasha’s support for British interests in the Ionian Islands.3 If this indeed was the case, it would not be the last time that Byron would flirt with political intrigue.4 Byron later revisited memories of his meeting with Ali Pasha in that other epic poem of his, Don Juan, where he referred to the image of a fountain in the room:
‘A Marble fountain echoes through the glooms…’5
And the footnote from the bottom of the page that features the line from Stanza 55 presents the origin of this image:
‘A Common furniture. – I recollect being received by Ali Pacha in a room containing a marble bason and fountain &c. &c. &c.’6
The Canto recounts a tale of Ottoman seduction with a ‘black Eunuch’ leading ‘purchased Infidels’, and as Don Juan enters into the room, there is a hint at the sadness and the soullessness of the large empty room.7
After Byron left the hospitality of Ali Pasha for the Greek territories, he would meet Andreas Londros, who would later become a leader in the Greek war of independence, and a valued associate for Byron on his return there in 1823. Ali Pasha would meet his end in 1822, fighting the Turks. His head was cut off and presented to the Sultan Mahmud II. His body rests in a mausoleum next to the Fethiye Mosque in Ioannina.
Many thanks to Mevi Rafuna who inspired this post.
1. Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, (LXXII).
2. BLJI228, taken from Peter Cochran, ‘Byron and Ali Pasha’, The Newstead Abbey Byron Society, p.10.
3. See Cochran, ‘Byron and Ali Pasha’, The Newstead Abbey Byron Society, pp.7-12.
4. See David Harrison, ‘Sex, Seduction, and Secret Societies: Byron, the Carbonari and Freemasonry’, Acta Macionica, Vol.27, (2017), pp.85-95.
5. Byron, Don Juan V, Stanza 55. See also Cochran, ‘Byron and Ali Pasha’, The Newstead Abbey Byron Society, p.10.
6. Byron, Don Juan V, Stanza 55.
7. Byron, Don Juan, V, Stanza 54.