“Ali deemed anchorite, or saint a pawn –
The crater of his blunderbuss did yawn,
Sword, dagger hung at ease….
… for Janina makes
A grave for thee where every turret quakes…”
To the Albanians, Ali Pasha Tepelenjoti is a hero, a symbol of Albanian nationalism and of the struggle for emancipation from the Ottoman yoke. For the Greeks, he is an ambiguous figure, whose shadow still looms large over Epirus, the seat of his power.
On the one hand, he is renown as a bloodthirsty tyrant, the drowner of the hapless Kyra Phrosyne in Lake Pamvotis, slayer of the Gardikiotes and annihilator of the Souliotes, yet on the other hand, he used Greek as the language of his court, honoured Saint Kosmas the Aetolian, secretly funded the Philike Etaireia and employed Greek warriors who would come to play pivotal roles in the Greek Revolution. We do not know what to make of him. Though through him, the word Τεπελενλής has come to be synonymous with malevolent guile, he is also known as the “Lion of Ioannina,” and his grave, in Ioannina fortress, on the highest point of the city, is still approached today, if not with reverence, then certainly with undiminished awe.
When he was not plotting, scheming or killing, Ali Pasha concerned himself with the acquisition of beautiful objects. The famed Spoonmaker’s diamond, the fourth largest of its type in the world, was acquired by Ali as a gift for his mistress, Kyra Vasiliki. He also owned the largest Gobelin carpet ever made. As author and future Prime Minister of England Benjamin Disraeli wrote to his father in 1830 upon visiting the ruins of his serai: “The Hall was vast, built by Ali Pasha purposely to receive the largest Gobelins carpet that was ever made, which belonged to the chief chamber in Versailles, and was sold to him in the Revolution. It is entirely covered with gilding and arabesques.” When Lord Byron visited Ali in 1809, the wily potentate showed him his prized possession: the sword of Orhan, founder of the Ottoman dynasty.
Viewed in this light, as connoisseur and collector, it is easy to fall under the spell of the infernally charismatic Ali, centuries after his death. One can easily imagine him reclining languidly in his longboat, being rowed across the now drained Lake Lapsista by burly foustanella-clad Souliotes, as he fingers his favourite objects.
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What is relatively not known about the multi-faceted Ali Pasha is that he, along with his son Veli, was one of the first Greek archaeologists. This side to him is revealed by Danish archaeologist Peter Oluf Brondsted, in his manuscript ‘Interviews with Ali Pasha’.
Brondsted relates that he met Ali in 1812, having travelled to Greece with architect Carl Haller von Hallerstein, landscape painter Jacob Linckh, and Baron Otto Magnus von Stackelberg of Estonia. Arriving in Athens, the party befriended the ubiquitous Lord Byron, as well as meeting Charles Robert Cockerell and John Foster, who would become the most famous archaeologists of their time.
Prior to arriving in Epirus, Brondsted excavated on Kea, Aegina, and Salamis and subsequently, the party travelled to the Peloponnese, where they received permission from Ali’s son, Veli, who was the Pasha of Morea, to excavate the fifth century BC Temple of Apollo Epicurus at Bassae. Described by antiquarian William Gell as “the most amiable of tyrants, not thirsting as he said himself for blood, but only for money.”
Veli had come to realise that archaeology could prove a lucrative stream of income. To this effect, he had conducted excavations of his own at Argos and Mycenae, which explains how three of the green marble pillars flanking the entrance to the treasury of Atreus, found themselves in the Marquis of Sligo’s house in Ireland. In order to be able to better pinpoint sites of archaeological interest, Veli even had the ancient travel writings of Pausanias translated into Modern Greek. One of the products of the collaboration between Brøndsted and Veli was the discovery of the temple frieze at Bassae by Parthenon architect, Iktinos. Like its later Attic counterpart, it ended up in the British Museum.
Taking his leave of Veli, Brondsted first encountered his father Ali Pasha, in Preveza in November 1812. Brondsted records that the ruler of Epirus received him with great cordiality, conversing with him in Greek and creating a lasting impression upon him as to Ali’s perspicacity, intuitiveness and imposing appearance. During their lengthy discourse, over a wide range of topics, Brondsted claims that Ali, “eagerly demanded if I had been one of those…who had lately given a large sum of money to his son Veli Pasha…for permission to excavate somewhere?”
When Brondsted replied in the affirmative, (an affirmation that later caused the pernicious Pasha to demand a large sum of money from his son), Ali was enraptured, confiding in him that his land too was possessed of “old stones” which could lend themselves to excavation, in the furtherance of which, Ali could provide as many workers as may be required, ostensibly without charge, but on the proviso that he would have his “share of the marbles, and precious things” found.
Brondsted attempted to decline the despot’s invitation, expressing the desire to return home, but it is a perilous thing to peeve a pasha and upon realising that he had annoyed Ali with his disinclination, he agreed to accompany him to the ruins of the city of Nicopolis, built by the Romans overlooking the bay where Octavian finally defeated Mark Antony and wrested complete rule over the Roman Empire.
Arm in arm – for even Lord Byron records that Ali was a touchy-feely, tactile tyrant – Ali and his pet archaeologist strode among the extant walls of the ruined city, Ali eager to discuss the functions of the two ancient theatres on the site, musing as to whether the ruined stadium could be restored for the purpose of conducting running races.
Having exhausted all small talk, Ali then turned to Brondsted and demanded that he identify locations where they could “dig for ancient marbles and other curiosities.” Although Brøndsted demurred, believing that Nicopolis had been thoroughly plundered of decent sculpture since times ancient, under the influence of Ali’s ever tightening grip upon his forearm, he finally last pointed out some ruins inside the city walls which he speculated could an ancient temple. Instantaneously, Ali barked out an order and “about twenty peasants hastened from one of the huts, furnished with mattocks, shovels, axes…” After some desultory digging, the peasants uncovered “three fine square marble slabs,” probably floor paving, according to Brøndsted and two coins minted in Nicopolis, one in the reign of Commodus and the other in that of Caracalla. Fittingly, Ali pocketed the Commodus coin and granted Brøndsted the other, chuckling “at this augmentation of his treasury.” They then departed for Preveza, the marble slabs being carried in a sedan chair.
Yet this was not the only instance of Ali cajoling foreign travellers to assist him in his archaeological pursuits. In his travels in Greece, Sicily and Albania, Thomas Smart Hughes records that Ali Pasha accompanied famed architect Henry Holland to Nicopolis, there to supervise excavations, that reflected the potentate’s paranoia at a time when he was falling increasingly into disfavour with the Sultan and thus had urgent need of fortification material:
“There is one spot, where the agents of the pasha had been making excavation, upon which some superb temple must once have stood: the numerous marble shafts and pieces of entablature that are discovered, are all carried off to be worked up in his forts and serai at Preveza – thus perish even the ruins of Nicopolis; and the monuments of Augustus’ glory serve to decorate the dwelling of an Albanian robber… I understand his excavators have discovered a very fine bust of Trajan which now decorates one the principal rooms in the seraglio of Preveza.”
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Pilferer or not, the Pasha displayed uncommon interest in an ancient heritage he identified with and became obsessed with finding the site of the ancient oracle of Dodoni, at that time, associated with the most ancient religious site of the Greeks of old and not the cheese that came to share its name as Edward Everett, the first American to visit Ioannina recorded in 1820, in The North American Review and Miscellaneous Journal. Ali never found Dodona, nor did he achieve his dream of ruling Greece and Albania as one autonomous kingdom. Nonetheless, his archaeological pretensions offer a fresh and intriguing insight into one of the most notorious and eminently fascinating figures of modern Greek history.