Ali Pashë Tepelena

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

When Ali Pashë (1740-1822) was young, his father, Veli, who was a minor local bey [governor] in Tepelenë, ensured that he received a good education. However, Veli was betrayed by some of his associates and died in poverty when Ali was only 14 years old. In order, to restore the family’s political and material fortunes, Ali’s mother Khamco formed a group of brigands who operated in the mountains. Ali joined the group and quickly rose to a leadership position among them. They carried out raids and ambushes on caravans passing through the gorges of Tepelenë and amassed wealth and power.

After gaining notoriety as a brigand leader, Ali Pashë attracted the attention of the Ottoman government, who took the bold step of recruiting him to help ensure safe passage through the gorges. While he fulfilled his duty, Ali also found ways to enrich himself. Moreover, he sent gifts to Constantinople (now Istanbul) and acquired some powerful patrons. In recognition of his service, Ali was ultimately appointed as the governor of Trikkala. However, his ambition did not stop there, and he continued to employ tactics such as intrigues, extortions and murders to expand his power. Ultimately, he succeeded in seizing the governorship of Ioannina in 1788, further consolidating his control over the region.

Despite restoring to ruthless tactics such as intrigue, extortion and murder, Ali Pashë was able to increase his wealth and extend his authority. At the peak of his power, he was a quasi-independent despot within the Ottoman Empire, ruling over a vast region that included Albania, Macedonia, Epirus, Thessaly and the Morea. He established twin capitals at Yannina and Tepelenë. Although he was infamous for being a ruthless ruler, he was also a visionary leader who developed the region through the construction of fortifications, roads, bridges and aqueducts, as well as by promoting trade and culture.

Sultan Mahmud II initially valued Ali’s services and allowed him a great degree of autonomy. However, Ali grew increasingly independent and powerful, often challenging the sultan’s authority. He also established separate diplomatic relations with major powers such as England, France and Russia. Eventually, in 1820, the sultan sent a large army to remove Ali from power and ordered his assassination. Following two years of fighting, during which Ali was abandoned by his sons and allies, he was finally captured and beheaded by the sultan’s solders. As proof of his death, messengers brought his severed head to the sultan. Ali Pasha has been regarded, like Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu, as a national hero who rose against Ottoman rule, even though his intention was not to build a nation-state.

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’.

The power and exotic personality of Ali Pashë intrigued many Western travelers. In 1809, Lord Byron embarked on a grand tour of the Mediterranean, visiting Spain, Malta, Albania, Greece and Asia Minor. The infamous pasha himself welcomed the famous poet in Tepelenë, and the experience left a lasting impression on Byron. It inspired some of the verses of ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’, which 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 and in a letter to his mother, criticized his 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.”

Today, there are several memorials and sites associated with Ali Pashë’s legacy in Albania and Greece. The most prominent reminder of his reign in the region are the castles he built, including the Kalaja e Ali Pashës [Ali Pasha’s Castle] in Tepelenë and Castle of Ioannina in Greece. There are also several museums in the region that showcase artifacts and information related to his life and legacy, such as the Ali Pashë and Revolutionary Period Museum in Ioannina. His tomb can also be found in Ioannina.

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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