In 1809, Lord Byron arrived in Albania.At the time of Byron’s visit, was part of an ailing Ottoman Empire. In theory,
Albania was ruled by the Sultan; in practice, much of it was ruled by a ferocious and
able brigand leader who later became known to history as Ali Pasha (1740-1822). The
Sultan, forced to recognise Ali’s diplomatic and administrative abilities, as well as his
military prowess, persuaded him to abandon brigandage and serve the Ottoman
Empire instead. Ali did so to great effect and was rewarded in 1787 by being
appointed Pasha. In theory, he was under the Sultan but, in practice, he extended his
Albanian territory considerably to include much of northern Greece and ruled it more
or less as an independent territory.
Ali developed his own independent relations with Europe, initially with Napoleon, but
his main interest was the extension of his own power, in particular, establishing a
strong Mediterranean sea presence. When he discovered, in 1807, that Napoleon was
discussing plans with the Tsar to dismantle the Ottoman Empire, Ali switched sides
and made overtures to the British.
In 1809, Byron left England for the continent on what he called a ‘pilgrimage’. In
effect, it was a Grand Tour, taking in Portugal, Spain, Sardinia, Sicily, Malta and
Greece, and it seems to have involved a lot of drinking, sex and scenery. In
September, he arrived in Albania and headed straight for the court of Ali Pasha in
Tepelene. He was twenty-one and Ali Pasha was sixty-nine.
Bryon was impressed by the scenery. In a letter to his mother, he called it: ‘a country of
the most picturesque beauty’. His travels inspired Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the narrative
poem which made his name as a poet, where his hero visits various countries and has
Here, Childe Harold describes the mountains in Albania:
Here roams the wolf, the eagle whets his beak,
Birds, beasts of prey, and wilder men appear,
And gathering storms convulse the closing year.
Wolves, bears and eagles are still found in the mountains.
Byron was even more impressed by the Pasha’s court. He wrote: ‘The Albanians in their
dresses (the most magnificent in the world, consisting of a long white kilt, gold-worked cloak, crimson-
velvet gold-laced jacket and waistcoat, silver-mounted pistols and daggers,) the Tartars with their high
caps, the Turks in their vast pelisses and turbans, the soldiers and black slaves with the horses,….
The kettle-drums beating, boys calling the hour from the minaret of the mosque… formed a new and
delightful spectacle to a stranger.’
He acquired an Albanian costume and wore it for his 1814 portrait by Thomas
Phillips (see above), now in the National Portrait Gallery. And one must admit that he looks spectacular on it .
Ali Pasha could not initially see Byron: he was besieging the castle of Berat. Perched
on a precipitous crag, Berat is not a place to be besieged lightly, as you can see.
When Ali Pasha returned, he received Byron with great honour in ‘a large room paved
with marble; a fountain was playing in the centre; the apartment was surrounded by scarlet
ottomans.’ Britain was now Ali’s ally and he may have viewed a visit by a British
aristocrat as a compliment.
Byron appreciated all that Ali Pasha did for him: offering him accommodation,
servants, etc. and loading him with ‘almonds and sugared sherbet, fruit and sweetmeats.’ But
he did not ignore his host’s other, darker side. As he wrote to his mother:
His highness is sixty years old, very fat and not tall, but with a fine face, light blue eyes and a white
beard; his manner is very kind and at the same time he possesses that dignity which is universal
among the Turks.
Gjirokastra is a World Heritage site, not only for the castle but also for the unique
series of late Ottoman houses that climb precipitously up the hillside.
Byron, in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage has his hero come to the Pasha’s court and
comments on women’s positon there:
Here woman’s voice is never heard: apart
And scarce permitted, guarded, veiled, to move,
She yields to one her person and her heart,
Tamed to her cage, nor feels a wish to rove…
A view very convenient for men! Would the ladies of the harem have agreed, I wonder.
But Byron’s ‘pilgrimage’ was more than just an adventure and he wasn’t just a
dilettante aristocrat traveller. He was honing his skills as a poet and working on Childe
Harold’s Pilgrimage. (‘Childe’ is a young man of noble birth.) Harold is a young
melancholy but defiant outcast with nameless sins in his past, traveling to distract
himself. The first two cantos, which cover his Albanian travels, came out in 1812, and
brilliantly depict the places, characters and events Byron saw. It also made his name as
a poet. As Byron put it: ‘I awoke one morning and found myself famous.’ The rest is history.