What marks a man ? What scores his soul ? What glimmer of another person's passing experience can affect us these many long years later ? Lord Byron enjoys a reputation for being one of England's most famous poets. His flamboyant life has been inspiring books since his untimely death from malaria in 1824. A mystique surrounds his life, his looks, his loves, and his loss. Yet it is often the object resting in plain sight that is overlooked in favor of a more exotic piece of a famous person's life. Perhaps that is why all the biographers have failed to tarry over the equestrian journey Lord Byron made in 1809. The country he chose, Albania, had been a backwater satrap of the Ottoman Empire since 1478. Its hidden valleys were inhabited by fierce mountain tribesmen. The country's ruler was the very definition of an "Oriental despot". Albania had nothing to show an educated, sophisticated, elitist such as Lord Byron, except the raw courage of its unvanquished people. Perhaps that is what lured Lord Byron, and his diary-writing friend, J.C. Hobhouse to ride through this savage mountain kingdom? Regardless of what prosaic cause took them there, the world of literature changed forever when Byron wrote his famous poem, "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" upon the completion of the journey described below.
This is the place to give you some information as to our equipage and the preparation made by us for travelling in Turkey. This detail, into which travellers seldom condescend to enter, and which may be a little tiresome, would, however, I believe, be useful to you were you to make a tour in the Levant.
We had been provided at Patrass with a Greek to serve as dragoman, our interpreter to us. He could not however speak the Turkish language, which is not indispensable to know in Albania as the Mahometans of the country for the most part speak Greek. The professional interpreters, by which I mean those who are in the habit of being recommended to travellers, are mostly exceedingly roguish, and there is no advantage which they will not endeavour to take, especially of Englishmen, who are generally suspected to have more money than wit. It is well to know this, for a great deal depends upon your choice of a dragoman. He is your managing man, he must procure you lodging, food, horses and all conveniences; must direct your payments - a source of continual disturbance; must support your dignity with the Turks, and show you how to make use of the Greeks. He must, consequently, be not only active and ingenious but prompt and resolute.
Our dragoman was recommended to us as the most upright of men, but we found him to be one of those servants whose good conduct does not so much depend upon their own probity, as upon the vigilance of their masters. He never lost an opportunity of robbing us. He was very zealous, bustling and talkative; and when we had him, we thought it would be impossible to do without him; when he was gone, we wondered how we had ever done with him. However, he was a good-humoured fellow and having his mind intent upon one sole thing, that is, making money of us, was never lazy, or drunken, or out of the way. He was up early and late, for he always slept under his saddlebags without undressing. His name was George, but he was usually called Mr. George.
We had only one English servant with us, who was my friend's valet; for I was fortunately disappointed the day before I left London of the man who was to have accompanied me in our travels. I say fortunately, because English servants are rather an encumbrance than a use in the Levant, as they require better accommodation than their masters, and are a perpetual source of blunders, quarrels and delays. Their inaptitude at acquiring any foreign language is, besides, invincible and seems more stupid in a country where many of the common people speak three, and some four or five languages.
Our baggage was weighty, but I believe we could not have done well with less as a large quantity of linen is necessary for those who are much at sea or travel so fast as to not be able to have their clothes washed. Besides four large leathern trunks, weighing about eighty pounds when full, and three smaller trunks, we had a canteen which is quite indispensable; three beds, with bedding, and two light wooden bedsteads. The latter article some travellers do not carry with them, but it contributes so much to comfort and health as to be very recommendable. We heard that in Asiatic Turkey you cannot make use of bedsteads, being always lodged in the inns. But in Europe, where you put up in cottages and private homes, they are always serviceable, preserving you from vermin, and the damp of mud floors, and possessing advantages which overbalance the evils caused by the delays of half an hour in packing and taking them to pieces.
We were also furnished with four English saddles and bridles which was a most fortunate circumstance, for we should not have been able to ride on the high wooden pack-saddles of the Turkish post-horses; and though we might have bought good Turkish saddles, both my friend and myself found them a very uncomfortable seat for any other pace than a walk. Whilst on the article of equipage, I must tell you that as all the baggage is carried on horses, it is necessary to provide sacks to carry all your articles. These sacks are of a very useful kind and are made of three coats; the inner one of waxed canvas, the second of horsehair cloth, and the outward of leather. Those which we bought were large enough to hold, each of them, a bed, a large trunk, and one or two small articles. They swing like panniers at each side of the horse.
Some travellers prefer a large pair of saddlebags and to have a large chest or trunk which they send round by sea to meet them or leave at one fixed spot; but this is a bad plan. The saddlebags will not carry things enough for you; and then to have your wardrobe at any fixed spot binds you to one route and prevents you from taking advantage of opportunities.
Equipped in the manner which I have thought it necessary to premise, we procured a large boat to convey us down the Gulf and on 1st October proceeded on our journey. We sailed part of the way, being assisted by a strong breeze, the forerunner of a thunderstorm that was collecting over the mountains to the north. In two hours and a half we had reached the place of our destination, where we had been informed we should find horses and be enabled to proceed to Arta the same evening. But we were surprised to find that there was only one house there and a new-built barrack at a little distance.
We landed just in time to avoid the storm at a little rugged pier and put the baggage under cover, at the same time delivering a letter given us by the Vice-Consul's brother to the Greek inhabiting this wretched-looking place, which we found was the custom house. The Greek, who was collector of the duties, was extremely civil to us; but said there were only four horses ready and that we should be obliged to sleep in the adjoining barracks.
After accusing ourselves for not having sent before us the order to procure horses, we of course consented to what we could not prevent and were shown into the barracks. This belonged to the Vizier, Ali Pasha, as he is known throughout his extensive domains. The under part of the barrack was a stable and the upper, to which the ascent was by a flight of stone stairs, consisted of a long, open, gallery of wood with two rooms at one end of it and one at the other. In the single room, which was locked up, the vizier was accustomed to lodge when he visited the place; but the other two rooms were appropriated to ten Albanian soldiers, placed there to protect the custom house.
We were introduced to the Captain of this guard and, as we passed that evening and the next day in the barrack, we had at once an initiation into the way of life of the Albanian Turks. It was impossible for any men to have a more unsavoury appearance; and though the Captain, whose name was Elmas, was a little cleaner than the others, yet he was not too much to be distinguished from his soldiers, except by a pair of sandals, and a white thin round stick, which he used in walking and which, like the rod of the Roman centurion, is a badge belonging to the better sort of soldiers in Turkey. Notwithstanding, however, their wild and savage appearance, we found them exceedingly mild and good-humoured and with manners as good as are usually to be found in a garrison.
We put up our beds in one of their apartments and were soon well settled. Immediately on our entrance, the Captain gave us coffee and pipes; and after we had dined in our own room on some fish, bread, and wine, he begged us to come into his chamber and pass the evening with him, to which we consented. The only furniture in the soldier's apartment was a raised, low stage, and upon this, covered with a mat, we seated ourselves cross-legged - next to the Captain. This officer lived in a very easy familiarity with his men; but had a most perfect control of them, and they seemed to do everything he wished very cheerfully.
All the Albanians strut very much when they walk, projecting their chest, throwing back their heads, and moving very slowly from side to side; but Elmas had this strut more than any man perhaps we ever saw afterwards; and as the sight was then quite new to us, we could not help staring at the magisterial and superlatively dignified air of a man with great holes in his elbows, and looking altogether, as to his garments, like what we call a bull-beggar.
You may suppose that an Englishman has many articles about him to excite the curiosity of such people; but we found this curiosity, though incessant, to be by no means impertinent or troublesome. They took up our watch-chains and looked at them, then looked at each other, and smiled. They did not ask a great many questions, but seemed at once satisfied, that the thing was above their comprehension; nor did they praise, or appear to admire much, but contented themselves with smiling, and saying nothing except "English goods!"
About seven the Albanians made preparations for their supper by washing hands. They placed a round table, raised three inches from the ground, before the Captain. The supper was fish fried with oil, which they ate with their fingers out of one dish, and curded goats' milk with bread; but in the second course they made use of horn spoons.
After supper, the Captain washed hands with soap, inviting us to do the same, for we had eaten a little with them. He put the ewer into my lap; but he would not give the soap into my hands, though I was sitting close to him, but put it on the floor within an inch of me. This he did with so singular an air, that I enquired of our dragoman, Mr. George, the meaning of it; and found, that in Turkey there is a very prevalent superstition against giving soap into another's hands. They think it will wash away love.
We now smoked, ate grapes, and conversed, and everything was much to our satisfaction. We retired to bed before ten; and the Albanians pulled out their pistols from their waist, loosening their girdles, and wrapping themselves up in their shaggy great coats, lay down and slept upon their mats.
It rained hard the next day, and we spent another evening with our soldiers. The Captain tried a fine gun belonging to my friend, and hitting his mark every time, was highly delighted, and offered to receive it in exchange for his own; but being informed that it was intended for his master, the Vizier, Ali Pasha, he did not press the bargain.
We were now quite familiar and on very easy terms together. In the evening they laughed and sung, and were in high spirits. One of them, as in other small societies, was their butt and they made us the instrument of their jokes against him. We were enquiring names, one of them was Abdoul, another Yatchee, and a third we were told to call Zourlos. This person did not seem pleased with our dwelling on his name, and it was not long before we learnt that we had been calling him "Blockhead."
They finished our entertainment by singing some songs, both in Albanian and Greek. One man sang and was joined in the song by the whole party. The music was extremely monotonous and nasal; and the shrill scream of their voices was increased by each putting his hand behind his ear and cheek to give more force to the sound. They also dwelt a considerable time on the last note (as long as their breath would last), like the musicians of a country church. One of the songs was on the capture of the city of Prevesa, an exploit of which the Albanians are vastly proud; and there was scarcely one of them in which the name of their Vizier, Ali Pasha, was not roared out, and dwelt upon with peculiar energy. Ali Pasha is indeed a very great man, as you will be inclined to acknowledge, if you have the patience to proceed with me on my journey.