Ali Pashë Tepelena

Ali Pashë (1740-1822) was one of the most powerful autonomous Ottoman Albanian rulers who served as pasha of the Ottoman Empire’s European territories, the Pashalik of Yannina. He is also known as the ‘Arslan [Lion] of Yannina’.

His father, Veli, was a minor local bey [governor] in Tepelenë and ensured that he received a good education. His father was betrayed by several of his associates and died a poor man when Ali was 14. Subsequently, his mother, Khamco, formed a mountain brigand band to restore the political and fortunes of the family. Ali went to live with the brigands who ambushed and raided the caravans going through the gorges of Tepelenë. He soon rose to leadership among them.

As a notorious brigand leader, he raised the attention of the Ottoman government. They made a bold move and recruited him to provide safe passage through the gorges. Besides policing the route, Ali made sure that he is enriching himself as well. Moreover, he sent presents to Constantinople and acquired some powerful patrons. Consequently, he was rewarded with the governorship of Trikkala. Ali did not stop here – after a series of intrigues, extortions and murders his power grew and he seized the governorship of Yannina in 1788.

By sticking to his old methods of intrigue, extortion and murder, he further increased his wealth and extended his authority. At the height of his power, Ali Pashë was a quasi-independent despot within the Ottoman Empire over most of Albania and Macedonia, Epirus, Thessaly, and the Morea. His twin capitals were at Yannina and Tepelenë. While he was a ruthless despot, he was a far-sighted ruler who developed the region by building fortifications, roads, bridges and aqueduct, and encouraging trade and culture.

Valuing Ali’s services, the Sultan Mahmud II let him to do as he wished. However, Ali became increasingly independent and powerful, often challenging the sultan’s rule. He also started to develop separate diplomatic relations with the Great powers, including England, France, and Russia. Eventually, in 1820, the sultan dispatched a large army to unseat Ali and ordered his assassination. After two years of fighting, deserted by his sons and allies, Ali was captured and beheaded by the sultan’s solders. Messengers took his head to Constantinople (now Istanbul) as proof of his demise.

Ali Pashë has been an inspiration for numerous European poets, novelists, painters and musical composers, who regularly cast him as a villainous figure, given to fits of whimsy and acts of great atrocity. The most famous literary works inspired by the pasha’s life are Lord Byron’s epic poem ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’, Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Orientales’ and Ismail Kadare’s historic novel ‘The Traitor’s Niche’. Ali is also a major character in Alexandre Dumas’s novel ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ and Mór Jókai’s Hungarian historic novel ‘The Last Days of the Janissaries’.

Many Western travelers were intrigued by his power and exotic personality. In 1809, Lord Byron set out on a grand tour of the Mediterranean, in the course of which he visited Spain, Malta, Albania, Greece and Asia Minor. The infamous pasha himself welcomed the famous poet in Tepelenë. The experience made a lasting impression on the poet and inspired some of the verses of ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’ (which, by the way, catapulted him to fame as a writer in 1812).

The sun had sunk behind vast Tomerit,
The Laos wide and fierce came roaring by;
The shades of wonted night were gathering yet,
When, down the steep banks winding wearily
Childe Harold saw, like meteors in the sky,
The glittering minaret of Tepalen,
Whose walls o’erlook the stream; and drawing nigh,
He heard the busy hum of warrior-man
Swelling the breeze that sighed along the lengthening glen

Seeing the splendor of Ali’s court and the Greek cultural revival, he describes it as being “superior in wealth, refinement and learning” to any other Greek town. However, Byron had mixed feelings about the Pasha. In a letter to his mother, Byron criticized Ali’s cruelty:

“He said he was certain I was a man of birth because I had small ears, curling hair, and little white hands, and expressed himself pleased with my appearance and garb. He told me to consider him as a father whilst I was in Turkey, and said he looked on me as his son. Indeed he treated me like a child, sending me almonds and sugared sherbet, fruit and sweetmeats twenty times a day. He begged me to visit him often, and at night when he was more at leisure… 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 I find universal amongst the Turks. – He has the appearance of anything but his real character for he is a remorseless tyrant, guilty of the most horrible cruelties, very brave and so good a general, that they call him the Mahometan Buonaparte… He has been a mighty warrior but is as barbarous as he is successful, roasting rebels etc. etc.”

Fleming, Katherine Elizabeth (1999) The Muslim Bonaparte: Diplomacy and Orientalism in Ali Pasha’s Greece
Freely, John (2016) The Art of Exile: A Vagabond Life
Marchand, Leslie A. (Ed) (1973) Byron’s Letters and Journals, Volume 1: ‘In My Hot Youth’, 1798-1810

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