During the course of the XVIIth century the nations of Europe gradually
moved towards a centralized system of government. In France this was summarized
in the sentence L' état c'est moi (I am the nation) which is attributed to King Louis XIV
by this meaning that all power came from him. For the administration of the
country he relied on members of the government, who, even when they belonged to the aristocracy, had responsibility for a function (Finance, Trade or the Army), rather than for a territory.
More or less the same happened in the other European nations and it led to a greater effectiveness and stability of the government action.
The same process did not occur in the Ottoman Empire which remained organized on a territorial basis, with most provinces (sanjaks) run by governors (beys), the most important of whom were given the title of pacha (usually on military grounds). The most remote provinces of the Empire such as Tunisia and Algeria were de facto ruled by local dynasties of beys and in 1805 Muhammad Ali Pacha became the almost independent ruler of Egypt.
The different effectiveness of the government structures between the Ottoman Empire and the other European nations led to a gap between their respective military strength. The Ottomans, after their 1683 failed attempt to seize Vienna, were repeatedly defeated in the late XVIIth century and again during the XVIIIth century by Austrian and Russian armies.
The weakness of the central Ottoman government was such that even Ali Pacha,
the governor of a province not so far from Constantinople,
felt he could carve himself a kingdom in Epirus, a region which historically included parts of
southern Albania and north-western Greece and which bordered on the Ionian Sea.
The present great hero of the Albanians, Ali-pasha, was born in a village near Tebeleni, or Tebdelum, a town twenty-four leagues north of Janina. His father was a pasha of two tails, who commanded in the district; and his mother, who was herself endowed with the courage of the ancient Amazons, did not merely give him existence, but gave him besides courage and talents. At the death of his father, Ali was yet too young to defend his own domains, and would have been deprived of them if his mother had not taken the administration upon herself. Putting herself at the head of the Albanians, by her courage and conduct, and by sacrificing whatever she possessed, she successfully resisted all the attacks of her enemies. (..) Brave among the brave, he went through all the gradations of the military service; and did not rise to the command of his companions till he had rendered himself worthy of it by feats of arms which merited their attachment. It was then that he took the place of his mother. (..) His views were in consequence soon carried beyond the spot where he was born; and the pasha of Janina, whose want of energy had been the occasion of reducing the pashalik to a state of anarchy, having been beheaded, he contrived to be appointed his successor. Prudent in his prosperity, Ali's attention was now principally directed to establishing his power upon a firm foundation. He reduced the rebels to submission, and afterwards contrived to keep them steady to his cause, particularly by patronizing the Greek religion. In due time he associated his two sons with him in the supremacy, by naming them pashas. At length, after a series of successes surpassing even his most sanguine expectations, he received the three tails in 1798. Though now forty-eight years of age, no traces of premature old age are discernible in his exterior. His countenance is open and dignified, indicating a strong mind; and his features always express very powerfully the passions by which he is agitated. Master, however, when he pleases, of the variations of his physiognomy, he can assume at will the most engaging smile, masking by it a sentiment very contrary to what it appears to express. Yet his anger cannot be restrained when he inflicts punishment; it is dreadfully manifested in the workings of his countenance, and by a convulsion of his frame, which unfolds the violence of his character. For the rest, he is courageous in the extreme. His stature is tall and athletic; and he cannot uncover his arms or his breast without showing honourable scars. (..) Convinced that with money he may always retain the favour of the Porte, he has never failed in paying the tributes; and has thus, in wearing the semblance of dependence, rendered himself in fact independent. (..) He has his eyes open with regard to whatever is passing in Europe. He has the newspapers translated to him; he is very desirous of obtaining information on all points; and is no stranger to the ruling events that determine the alliances or divisions formed among its sovereigns. (..) He calls himself the Scanderbeg of Epirus and has consolidated his power still further.
François Charles Hugues Laurent Pouqueville - Travels in the Morea, Albania, and other parts of the Ottoman empire - 1817 edition
Pouqueville was a French traveller and writer who was appointed consul to the court of Ali Pacha in 1805. He extensively travelled in the Ottoman Empire, although his first stay at Constantinople in 1798 was in the prison of Yedikule.
Views of old Ioanina: (upper image) from Ioaninon Nissì, the island opposite the town; (lower image) from the mountain to the west of the town: in this image the citadel is visible to the right
The country increased in beauty at every step as they advanced nearer to Janina;
nature every where wore a more smiling aspect; the fields about Janina, are called by the inhabitants, even in these days, the Elysian Fields. (..) Janina or Joannina, is the chief town of Albania, and of the extensive pashalik governed by
Ali. Situated at the north-eastern extremity of the Elysian Fields, upon the
western bank of lake Acherusia, the view from it extends to Mount Pindus, embracing a horizon no less lovely than majestic. Pouqueville
Ioannina, July 1809. The city occupies the eastern face of the hill of St. George, together with a narrow level lying between it and the edge of the lake, where a promontory of a quadrangular form advances 500 yards into the lake, and widens to about 600 yards at its eastern or exterior side, where it consists of an abrupt rock. This promontory, which forms the citadel, is insulated artificially by a wet ditch across the isthmus, within which it is protected by a lofty rampart armed with cannon, and having a single gate in the middle.
William Martin Leake - Travels in northern Greece - 1835. Both Leake and Pouqueville tried to identify the exact location of Dodoni an ancient oracle in Epirus.
The decision of the Sultan to wage war on Austria and Russia (1787-1792) ended in such a disaster that Ali took advantage of the weakness of the central government to expand and consolidate his power; Ioanina became his main residence for the next thirty years.
The town is located on a headlong projecting into a small lake; on a miniature scale one could say it is a copy of Constantinople, which has a similar shape. Ali emphasized this resemblance by building his residence inside a citadel at the end of the promontory, positioned in the same manner as Topkapi Sarayi, the Constantinople Palace of the Sultans.
Janina was subjected to
the yoke of the Turks in 1424, under the reign of Murat, at the same time that Thessaly and Macedonia were conquered, and it was one of the towns which was the best preserved amid the general spoliation. Pouqueville
August 1813. Yoannina presented, like all Turkish towns, a confused appearance of low houses and cypress trees; it contained but few minarets; to the right and left were seen high buildings, which were Ali Pasha's palaces, and a fort. The lake (which goes by the name of the city) was very extensive to its right, and behind it were very lofty mountains. (..) We entered the city at half-after two, by a street from 35 to 40 feet wide, in which were some handsome arched Turkish tombs.
William Turner - Journal of a Tour in the Levant - 1820
Ioanina flourished in the XIIIth century: after the 1204 fall of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, it became one of the most important towns of the Despotate of Epirus, a Byzantine kingdom where many important families from Constantinople sought refuge. In the following centuries Serbs and the Italian lords of Cefalonia fought for the town, which eventually was occupied by the Ottomans. Ali Pacha strengthened the town walls and decorated its gates with roughly carved reliefs: he was known as the Lion of Ioanina and some reliefs show wild beasts (see the icon of this page) which are similar to those which Ali Pacha placed on a fortress at Preveza.
(left) Round bastion of the town walls; (centre and right) the Citadel: walls and main entrance
(January 1814) He was on that day in the Palace
of the Fortress at the extremity of the rock over the
lake. We passed through the long gallery described
by Byron, and into a low anteroom, from which we
entered a very handsome apartment, very warm with
a large fire in it, and with crimson sofas trimmed with
gold lace. There was Ali, to-day a truly Oriental
figure. He had a velvet cap, a prodigious fine cloak;
he was smoking a long Persian pipe, and held a book in
his hand. Foresti says he did this on purpose to show
us he could read. Hanging beside him was a small
gun magnificently set with diamonds, and a powder-horn; on his right hand also was a feather fan. To
his left was a window looking into the courtyard, in
which they were playing at the djerid, and in which
nine horses stood tethered in their saddles and bridles,
as though ready for instant use. I am told this is a
piece of form or etiquette.
Travels in southern Europe and the Levant, 1810-1817. The journal of Charles Robert Cockerell
The northern side of the citadel is occupied by a range of official buildings, among which is the fatal prison so much the object of horror throughout the greater part of Northern Greece, and which contains at present 250 persons, some of whom have been two or three years immured here. Leake
In addition to strengthening the walls with round bastions, Ali Pacha built a citadel at the south-eastern corner of the town.
The Citadel: (left) the mosque; (right) some cannon
A castle mounted with cannon, commands the peninsula
that runs into the lake; on this stands the seraglio, or palace of the pasha. Here
Ali lives, isolated from the town and from his subjects, surrounded by a select
troop of his followers, not a prey to terrors, but at his ease, in the security that
is inspired by courage and confidence. In this place are assembled his treasures,
his military stores, and his wives; in a word, whatever he possesses of the greatest
value and importance. Pouqueville
The appearance of Ioannina has been greatly improved, since I was here in the year 1805, by the large serai, which the Vezir has erected upon the hill of Litharitza, according to the intention which he then communicated to me. In its form and decorations it is preferable to any other of his Highness's buildings, and though not so spacious as the Sultan's palaces on the Bosphorus, deserves still greater admiration in respect of the surrounding scenery. Standing upon the summit of a fortress which now incloses the hill of Litharitza, it forms by its light Chinese architecture a striking contrast with the solid plainness of the basis on which it rests. The parapets of the fortress are armed with cannon, and the lower part of it consists of casemated apartments, so that it may stand a siege after all the upper structure is destroyed. The entire southern shore of the peninsula is thus occupied by the great palace of Aly Pasha, terminating at the south-eastern cape in a mosque for the use of his household. Leake
The palace where Ali Pacha set his residence is lost: it is said to have housed a harem of more than 300 women (wives, concubines and odalisques) in an attempt to emulate that of the Sultan.
In 1913 Ioanina was incorporated into Greece and the buildings of the citadel went through many changes: in recent times the remaining ones were restored and the citadel was opened to the public.
Old town: (left) Ottoman library; (right) Aslan Pacha Mosque (1618); its minaret is shown in the image used as background for this page
Two principal streets
divide the town in length and breadth; the one begins at the gate of Bonila, and leads
to the bazar, - the other goes from the bazar towards the lake: the latter is called the
Jews' street, because it is principally inhabited by people of the Jewish nation.
The population of Janina amounts to forty thousand persons, and they are
some of the most industrious in the whole Turkish empire. Among them are
many rich merchants, and men who have a sort of cultivation not to be found in
other parts of the country. Pouqueville
Since Ioannina has been the residence and capital of Aly Pasha, its permanent population has been gradually in part exchanged for that of a more transitory kind. The town is now constantly full of the natives of other parts of Greece and Albania, attracted here by the affairs or the expenditure arising from its being the seat of government of a large portion of Greece and Albania. Leake
The number and richness of the shops is surprising, and the bustle of business is such as I have not seen since leaving Constantinople. (..) Then we went to see Pouqueville, the French resident. We found him with his brother, both of them the worst type of Frenchmen vulgar, bragging, genuine children of the Revolution. Nothing worth remembering was said, but I did gather this from his tone that the Empire in France is not likely to last. Cockerell
In 1611 Dionysius, Bishop of Larisa, led a revolt against the Ottomans in the countryside of Ioanina. He was captured and skinned alive; the Greek community was punished by being forced to leave the old town, which after that was inhabited only by Turks and Jews and the church of St. George was torn down and replaced by Aslan Pacha Mosque.
In 1923, at the end of a dramatic war, Greek and Turkish authorities agreed on a vast exchange of population and the Turks left Ioanina; in 1944 the Nazi deported the Jews.
For many years the old town was almost entirely unpopulated: this occurred in many towns of both Greece and Turkey because the refugees preferred to start a new life in the big cities, rather than in the houses vacated by the refugees of the other community. In addition the abandoned buildings were thought to be haunted and they were left to decay.
In recent decades the old town of Ioanina started to live again and the monuments of the past were restored. As a result it now has an Ottoman appearance which some Turkish towns do not have any longer.
Mosques in the part of the town outside the walls
He has always an establishment of 3,000 soldiers, 100 Tartars (the Sultan
himself has but 200), a park of artillery presented
him by the English, and German and other French
artillerymen. We seem to have supplied him also
with arms and ammunition in his wars with Suli and other parts of Epirus. Perhaps it is not much to our
honour to have assisted a tyrant in dispossessing or
exterminating the lawful owners of the soil, who only
fought for their own liberty. Cockerell
(August 1813) He received me very politely, and motioned me to be seated by his side. The Pasha was an old man, (between sixty and seventy) with large features and a white beard. He looked very fat, but this appearance was increased by the bulk of his dress, especially as he was wrapped in English flannels. (..) He had on no turban, but wore a small cap of purple velvet. He was not surrounded with servants, as the Turks generally are; there were none present except himself, Mr. F., the interpreter, and myself. I begged the interpreter, in Italian, to say how delighted I was to see his Highness in such good health; that one great object of my journey had been to see so distinguished a prince, who had such an affection for my country, and for whom England entertained such sentiments of friendship. (..) He told me that he wished all Englishmen to consider Albania as their home, and that he hoped the friendship between our countries would long continue. Turner
Lord Byron who visited Ali's court in 1809 and described it in flattering terms, admitted that Ali was guilty of the most horrible cruelties. Alexandre Dumas père included him in his Celebrated Crimes book of novels.
Ali Pacha took advantage of the political situation on the Ionian Islands, which were ruled in turn by France, by an Ottoman-Russian alliance, again by France and eventually by Britain. He occupied some of the outposts Venice had on the Greek shore (Butrinto, Preveza and Vonizza) and he bought Parga from Britain. He strengthened the fortifications of these towns and built new fortresses.
Ali has accumulated all those resources of which his
provident genius would know how to make the best use if he were ever menaced
with danger. He would issue like a giant from the lake of Acherusia, and the
stranger who should be sufficiently imprudent to hazard his safety in these barren
defiles would never return to the shores whence he came. The peninsula where
stands the palace could even hold out after an enemy had become master of the
town. (..) After having included within his dominion all Epirus and Thessaly, he
now pushes his posts even into Macedonia; and more than once his son Mouctar
has, from the tops of the mountains in the isthmus of Corinth, cast a look of
desire upon the Morea. Pouqueville
Ioanina became the capital of an almost independent state where all the Great Powers sent their envoys. He established good relations with some Greek klephts (bandits), who were seen by the Greek population as a sort of Robin Hood. Ali expanded his power on the Ionian coast of Greece south of Preveza and he thought the klephts could help him to add Peloponnese to his dominions.
Young Sultan Mahmut II became more and more suspicious of Ali. In 1820 an attempt to murder a pacha in Constantinople failed. The would be assassins named Ali as the plot's instigator. The Sultan summoned Ali to his court, but the old man preferred to stay in Ioanina. This refusal was seen as open rebellion and the Sultan appointed the man Ali had tried to kill as the new pacha of Ioanina and provided him with an army to restore his authority in the region. In a desperate attempt to regain the Sultan's favour Ali revealed what he had learned from the klephts about a planned Greek revolt (which eventually broke out in March 1821 in Patras and Kalamata).
Most of Ali's troops deserted him and the Ottoman army easily reached Ioanina and laid siege to the old town. Ali managed to resist for more than one year. In February 1822 he left his fortified citadel and secretly reached Ioanninon Nissì, the island located just opposite his residence.
Ioanninon Nissì: (left) reed thicket; (centre) Filanthropini church; (right) waiting for the ferry
The Nisi, or Island of Ioannina, is half a
mile long and one-third as much in breadth. It
contains a house for the Vezir, five small monasteries, and a village of 100 houses, inhabited by
fishermen, who pay 15,000 piastres a year to the
Vezir for the monopoly of the fishery. Leake
The lake is inhabited by a prodigious quantity of fish, particularly crawfish, which seem to multiply to a degree almost inconceivable. Pouqueville
The island was known for its many Orthodox monasteries, where the monks secretly provided Greek children with education, thus keeping alive the country's cultural and religious heritage.
In general it is thought that Ali Pacha went to a meeting which he hoped would result in the Sultan's pardon; it is not clear whether he took the initiative or was deceived. It was a trap, after a short fight Ali was beheaded and his head was shown to the last defenders of the citadel who surrendered.
Today the monastery where Ali was killed is a small museum catering for those who have a fancy for such horror stories: the locals who go to the island have a different purpose: they go there for the restaurants which specialize in lake fish and particularly in fried eels.
A touch of the past
The Ottoman past of Ioanina is evident in many inscriptions which one can find in various parts of the town (not only the old section). Tarboosh is a felt cap we traditionally associate with Ottoman XIXth century society (the last sultans all wore tarboosh), but it was also popular among the Greeks and one can find in Ioanina a modern mosaic portraying
a saint wearing such a hat. The pastry shops of the town still offer the whole range of traditional honey sweets which are highly popular in Turkey.