Edward Lear

Part 6



Great was my alarm when two hours before sunrise the whole khan was knocked up by a Government Tatar, raging for horses to proceed towards Skodra. All that were to be found in Elbasan I had engaged for my own journey, and the fear was, that should the Khanji yield our steeds to the new-comer, my detention in so charming a place as this might be indefinitely prolonged; but for some reason of his own the Khanji chose to lie in the most fertile manner, saying that some of his horses were ill, some away; and so the baffled Tatar retreated; and as the fibs were not uttered by my orders I became composed and went to sleep again with a good conscience. At half past six A. M. we left Elbasan, Giorgio growling at all the inhabitants and wishing they might be sold to the Czar, according to their fears. In any case, attachment to Abdul Medjid is not the reigning characteristic of this forlorn place. It was long before we left the walls and lanes (there is more cultivation, especially of the olive, in these environs, than in any part of Albania I have yer seen) or ceased to jostle in narrow places against mules laden with black wool and driven by white-garbed, black-cloaked men; but when the route began to ascend from the valley the view southward over to Skumbi, in which the giant Tomhor or Tomorit forms the one point of the scene, was remarkably grand. In the early morning's ride there was but little interest, the greater part of it being through the narrow valley of a stream tributary to the Skumbi, the winding bed of which torrent we crossed more than thirty times ere we left it; and much after-time was occupied in painfully coasting bare clay hills till we began to climb the sides of the high mountain which separates the territory of Elbasan from that of Tirana.
How glorious, in spite of the dimming sirocco haze, was the view from the summit, as my eyes wandered over the perspective of winding valley and stream to the farthest edge of the horizon -- a scene realising the fondest fancies of artist imagination! The wide branching oak, firmly riveted in crevices, all tangled over with fern and creepers, hung halfway down the precipices of the giant crag, while silver-white goats (which chime so picturesquely in with such landscapes as this) stood motionless as statues on the highest pinnacle, sharply defined against the clear blue sky. Here and there the broken foreground of rocks piled on rocks, was enlivened by some Albanians who toiled upwards, now shadowed by spreading beeches, now glittering in the bright sun on slopes of the greenest lawn, studded over with tufted trees, which recalled Stothard's graceful forms, so knit with my earliest ideas of land-scape. These and countless well-loved passages of auld lang syne, crowded back on my memory as I rested, while the steeds and attendants reposed under the cool plane-tree, and drank from the sparkling stream which bubbled from a stone fountain. It was difficult to turn away from this magnificent mountain view -- from these chosen nooks and corners of a beautiful world -- from sights of which no painter-soul can ever weary: even now, that fold beyond fold of wood, swelling far as the eye can reach -- that vale ever parted by its serpentine river -- that calm blue plain, with Tomhor in the midst, like an azure island in a boundless sea, haunt my mind's eye and vary the present with visions of the past. With regret I turned northwards to descend to the new district of Tirana, the town (and it is now past eleven) being still some hours distant.
By half past twelve we had descended into a broad undulating valley-plain, with limits melting into undistinguishable hill and sky (for the day was a sirocco with its dust-like mist and the atmosphere like an oven), and were soon at a roadside khan, where a raised platform, with matting shelter, was by no means unacceptable. The magnificent Akhridhan, Bekir, who was charged to accompany me as far as Tirana, is of very little service in any way; his first care is to secure a good place on the platform -- to take off his shoes and smoke; while Giorgio's alacrity in cooking a good dinner is a strong contrast to the Albanian's idleness. There were whispering olives hanging over the khan yard; and while a simple melody was chanted by three Gheghes in the shade the warm, slumbrous midday halt brought to memory many such scenes and siestas in Italy.
Starting at two, the scenery along the banks of a river, a noble stream enclosed bewteen fine rocks (the name of which I know not), was fine and varied; but the fear of arriving late at Tirana urged me onward, to the omission of all drawing -- though had timed allowed it would not have been easy to have selected only one from so many continually changing pictures as the afternoon's ride afforded. Other things also, good and bad, were included in the day's carte, such as capital grapes at the khan and from frequent gardens as we approached Titana -- many objects of costume among the peasantry – great flocks of turkeys -- and insecure wooden bridges over little streams which obliged us, for fear of the horses falling through the planks, to make detours through charming bosky oases of cultivation. At four we forded the river and hastened on, gradually descending by low brushwood undulations to the plain of Tirana, while to the east the long rugged range of the Kroia mountains bacame magnificently interesting from picturesqueness and historical associations.
A snake crossing the road gave Giorgio an occasion, as is his afternoon's wont, to illustrate the fact with a story.
'In Egitto,' said he, 'are lots of serpents; and once there were many Hebrews there. These Hebrews wished to become Christians, but the King Pharaoh -- of whom you may have heard -- would not allow any such thing. On which Moses (who was the prince of the Jews) wrote to the Patriarch of Constantinople and to the Archbishop of Jerusalem, and also to San Carlo Borromeo, all three of whom went straight to King Pharaoh and entreated him to do them this favour; to which he only replied, "No, signori!"
'But one fine morning these three saints proved too strong for the King, and changed him and all his people into snakes; which,' said the learned dragoman, 'is the real reason why there are so many serpents in Egypt to this day.'
Wavy lines of olive -- dark clumps of plane, and spiry cypresses marked the place of Tirana when the valley had fully expanded into a pianura, and the usual supply of white minarets lit up the beautiful tract of foliage with the wonted deceptive fascination of these towns. As I advanced to the suburbs I observed two or three mosques mostly highly ornamented, and from a brilliancy of colour and elegance of form by far the most attractive of any public building I had yet beheld in these wild places; but though it was getting dark when I entered the town (whose streets, broader than those of Elbasan, were only rafted and matted half-way across) it was at once easy to perceive that Tirana was as wretched and disgusting as its fellow city, save only that it excelled in religious architecture and spacious market-places.
Two khans, each abominable, did we try. No person would understand to guide us to the palace of the Bey (at some distance from the town), nor at that hour would it have been to much purpose to have gone there. The sky was lowering; the crowds of gazers increasing -- Albanian the only tongue; so, all these things considered, I finally fixed on a third-rate khan, reported to be the Clarendon of Tiana, and certainly better than the other two, though its horrors are not easy to describe nor imagine. Horrors I had made up my mind to bear in Albania, and here, truly, they were in earnest.
Is it necessary, says the reader, so to suffer? And when you had a Sultan's Bouyourdli could you not have commanded bey's houses? True; but had I done so, numberless arrangements became part of that mode of life, which, desirous as I was of sketching as much as possible, would have rendered the whole motives of my journeys of no avail. If you lodge with beys and pashas, you must eat with them at hours incompatible with artistic pursuits, and you must lose much time in ceremony. Were you so magnificent as to claim a home in the name of the Sultan, they must needs prevent your stirring without a suitable retinue, nor could you in propriety prevent such attention; thus, travelling in Albania has, to a landscape painter, two alternatives; luxury and inconvenience on the one hand, liberty, hard living, and filth on the other; and of these two I chose the latter, as the most professionally useful, though not the most agreeable.
O the khan of Tirana! with its immense stablesfull of uproarious horses; its broken ladders, by which one climbed distrustfully up to the most uneven and dirtiest of corridors, in which a loft some twenty feet square by six in height was the best I could pick out as a home for the night. Its walls, falling in masses of mud from its oasier-woven sides (leaving great holes exposed to your neighbour's view, or, worse still, to the cold night air); its thinly raftered roof, anything but proof to the cadent amenities resulting from the location of an Albanian family above it; its floor of shaking boards, so disunited that it seemed unsafe to move incautiously across it, and through the great chasms of which the horses below were open to contemplation, while the suffocating atmosphere produced thence are not to be described!
O khan of Tirana! when the Gheghe Khanji strode across the most rotten of garrets, how certainly did each step seem to foretell the downfall of the entire building; and when he whirled great bits of lighted pitch-torch hither amd thither, how did the whole horrid tenement seem about to flare up suddenly and irretrievably!
O khan of Tirana! rats, mice, cockroaches, and all lesser vermin were there. Huge flimsy cobwebs, hanging in festoons above my head; big frizzly moths, bustling into my eyes and face, for the holes representing windows I could close but imperfectly with sacks and baggage: yet here I prepared to sleep, thankful that a clean mat was a partial preventive to some of this list of woes, and finding some consolation in the low crooning singing of the Gheghes above me, who, with that capacity for melody which those Northern Albanians seem to possess so essentially, were murmuring their wild airs in choral harmony.



Though the night's home was so rude, fatigue produced sound sleep. The first thing to do was to visit Machmoud Bey, Vice-Governor of Tirana, to procure a Kawas as guardian during a day's drawing, and a letter to his nephew, Ali Bey, of Kroia, for to that city of Scanderberg I am bent on going. Of the Bey's palace, nothing can be said beyond what has already been noted of the serais of similar grandees.
Returning to the khan, I gave five dollars to Bekir of Akhrida, for his five days' service, an expense I resolved in future to forgo, as the chance of robbery in these mountains seems a great deal too small to authorise it -- the more, that the only assistance I really want (that of a guard while sketching in the towns) I have no difficulty in producing.
But even with a guard it was a work of trouble to sketch in Tirana; for it was market or bazaar day, and when I was tempted to open my book in the large space before the two principal mosques (one wild scene of confusion, in which oxen, buffaloes, sheep, goats, geese, asses, dogs, and children were all running about in disorder) a great part of the natives, impelled by curiosity, pressed closely to watch my operations, in spite of the Kawas, who kept as clear a space as he could for me; the women alone, in dark feringhis, and ghostly white muslim masks, sitting unmoved by their wares. Fain would I have drawn the exquisitely pretty arabesque-covered mosques, but the crowds at last stifled my enthusiasm. Not the least annoyance was that given me by the persevering attentions of a mad or fanatic dervish, of most singular appearance as well as conduct. His note of 'Shaitan' was frequently sounded; and as he twirled about, and performed many curious antics, he frequently advanced to me, shaking a hooked stick, covered with jingling ornaments, in my very face, pointing to the Kawas with menacing looks, as though he would say, 'Were it not for this protector you should be annihilated, you infidel!' The crowd looked on with awe at the holy man's proceedings, for Tirana is evidently a place of great attention to religion. In no part of Albania are there such beautiful mosques and nowhere are collected so many green-vested dervishes. But however a wandering artist may fret at the impossibility of comfortably excercising his vocation, he ought not to complain of the effects of a curiosity which is but natural, or even of some irritation at the open display of arts which, to their untutored apprehension, must seem at the very least diabolical.
The immediate neighbourhood of Titana is delightful. Once outside the town and you enjoy the most charming scenes of quiet, among splendid planes and the clearest of streams. The afternoon was fully occupied on the road from Elbasan, whence the view of the town is beautiful. The long line of peasants returning to their homes from the bazaar enabled me to sketch many of their dresses in passing; most of the women wore snuff-coloured or dark vests trimmed with pink or red, their petticoats white, with an embroidered apron of chocolate or scarlet; others affected white capotes; but all bore their husband's or male relative's heavy black or purple capote, bordered with broad pink or orange, across their shoulders. Of those whose faces were visible -- for a great part wore muslim wrappers (no sign hereabouts of the wearer being Mohammedan, for both Moslem and Christian females are thus bewrapped) -- some few were very pretty, but the greater number had toil and careworn faces. There were many dervishes also, wearing high white felt steeple-crowned hats, with black shawls round them.
No sooner, after retiring to my pigsty dormitory, had I put out my candle and was preparing to sleep, than the sound of a key turning in the lock of the next door to that of my garret disturbed me, and lo! broad rays of light illumined my detestable lodging from a large hole a foot in diameter, besides from two or three others, just above my head; at the same time a whirring, humming sound, followed by strange whizzings and mumblings, began to pervade the apartment. Desirous to know what was going on, I crawled to the smallest chink, without encountering the rays from the great hiatus, and what did I see? My friend of the morning -- the maniac dervish -- performing the most wonderful evolutions and gyrations; spinning round and round for his own private diversion, first on his legs, and then pivot-wise, sur son séant, and indulging in numerous other pious gymnastic feats. Not quite easy at my vicinity to this very eccentric neighbour, and half anticipating a twitch from his brass-hooked stick, I sat watching the event, whatever it might be. It was simple. The old creature pulled forth some grapes and ate them, after which he gradually relaxed in his twirlings and finally fell asleep.