Autonomy & Dynasty – Muhammad Ali Pasha: Maker of Modern Egypt (Part Four)

By the late 1830’s, Mehmet Ali (Muhammad Ali Pasha) was at the peak of his power. For an ethnic Albanian, hailing from a provincial Ottoman city on the coast of Greece, who had first set foot in Egypt with 300 men and very little military experience, Ali had succeeded beyond all expectations except his own. He had achieved the impossible by taking Egypt from a dismal backwater of the Ottoman Empire to a reformed and rejuvenated, quasi-autonomous state. This made him more powerful than the Sultan in Istanbul. With his son Ibrahim leading Egyptian forces in Syria to a crushing victory over the Ottoman Army at the Battle of Nezib in June 1839, the Ottoman throne was now within Mehmet Ali’s grasp. Ibrahim wanted to march on Istanbul and take the Ottoman capital. Mehmet hesitated. He was more interested in seeing what concessions he could get from Sultan Mahmud II (1808 -1839), including territory and complete autonomy for Egypt. Forcing the Ottoman Sultan to agree on his terms would be the crowning achievements of Ali’s three-and-a-half-decade long struggle to build Egypt into a regional power whose wishes could not be ignored.

Standing tall in Cairo – Mosque of Mehmet Ali (Credit: ezzat hisham)

Dreams Deferred – A Negotiated Settlement
Mehmet was on the verge of breaking Egypt completely free of external influences, but he also knew that the Great Powers of Europe – particularly Britain – wanted to stop him from growing more powerful than the Ottoman Sultan. Following the Battle of Nezib it looked like Mehmet Ali might get everything he wanted. The entire Ottoman fleet defected to his side and Sultan Mahmud II (1808 – 1839) died. The Ottoman Empire could either collapse or become a plaything of Mehmet Ali. From the perspective of Britain, if either of these occurred than the entire European security architecture that had existed in the post-Napoleonic era would be threatened. It was in there interests along with several Continental powers to prop up the Ottoman Empire. Mehmet Ali was forced into negotiations. This was what he had wanted, but with the Ottoman Sultan. Instead, he would have to deal with the Great Powers who would defer many of his dreams forever.

The truth was that Mehmet Ali had become too powerful for his own good. If he had been the Ottoman Sultan, then the Great Powers would have dealt with him as an equal. Instead, they felt the need to put him in his place. Ali was a danger to their interests, especially British ones, as well as the balance of power. His military could not be allowed to control Syria because it could render British plans to develop alternate access routes to India null and void. While Ali was more than the Ottoman sultan had been able to handle, he could not stand up to Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia, all of whom were backing the Ottomans. When the British and Austrian navies blockaded the Nile Delta in 1840, Ali was forced into an agreement he had little choice but to accept. He would pull Ibrahim and the army out of Syria. The army would also undergo severe cutbacks. A force that had numbered up to 130,000 would be reduced to 20,000. This was enough to allow Ali to keep his grip on power in Egypt, but nothing more than that.,

Sign of the times – Flag of Mehmet Ali

Dynastic Cycle – The Long Goodbye
Despite those setbacks, he was able to win several major concessions. The Ottoman Sultan was forced to recognize Ali and his heirs as the leaders of Egypt. The province would now be an autonomous part of the Ottoman Empire, enjoying virtual independence. Unfortunately for Ali, this independence had its limits. He was entangled by the British in an Ottoman-Anglo trade agreement that opened Egypt up to cheaper British imports and powerful industrial entities. There was no way Egypt could compete with British trade and industry. This would have ramifications for government revenue. Ali’s power was weakened by his agreement with the Great Powers, but his greatest achievement was still intact, Egypt now enjoyed virtual independence. His heirs would rule over it until the mid-20th century.

By the late 1840’s, Egypt was sinking into debt and Ali into senility. There were disagreements with Ibrahim and wild fits of temper, signs of a once great leader losing his mental acuity. Ali’s cognitive decline worsened to the point that Ibrahim traveled to Istanbul and received the Sultan’s blessing to take over as ruler of Egypt. Tragically, a guilt-ridden Ibrahim succumbed to despair and failing health. He soon died of tuberculosis. Meanwhile, Ali’s health continued to worsen and his grandson Abbas I became Viceroy of Egypt. In 1849, Ali died in Alexandria. Abbas, who had little use for Ali, did not even declare a period of mourning in Egypt. The man who had brought Egypt into the modern age was an afterthought. This slight did nothing to reduce Ali’s remarkable historical stature which grew with each passing decade. While Ali built up Egypt to consolidate his grip on power and out of self-interest, those actions modernized the country.

Elder stateman – Mehmet Ali in the 1840s

Lasting Monuments – Mehmet Ali & Modernity
It is hard to believe just how far Egypt came under Mehmet Ali’s leadership. Prior to Ali assuming power in 1805, Egypt was at its lowest historical point in thousands of years. The country suffered from a wide range of ills. By the time Ali died, Egypt was autonomous, administered by educated bureaucrats and contained a professional army led by a highly trained officer corps. Ali was responsible for bringing order and prosperity to Egypt. The dynasty he created would live on into the mid-20th century. It helped pave the way for independence in 1952 when the last leader of Ali’s dynasty was overthrown. Even with the rise of nationalism, Ali still held his place as the founder of modern Egypt.

Anyone who might wonder about Ali’s importance to Egyptian history should look no further than the skyline in its greatest city, Cairo. The Mosque of Muhammad Ali can be seen from most vantage points in the city. Its twin minarets rising above domes and piercing the sky. The mosque is located at the summit of Cairo’s famed Citadel, much of which was rebuilt by Ali. His mosque and the Citadel are lasting monuments that remind Egyptians of his greatness. Modern Egypt would not be the same without Mehmet Ali. As a matter of fact, it might not exist at all.  

Tunnel Vision – The Bar to Belgrade Railway: Yugoslavia’s Greatest Achievement (A Balkan Affair #19)

I selected my accommodation in Bar based on only one thing, its proximity to the train station. The apartment was within a one-minute walk of the station entrance. The proprietress informed me during check-in that I had plenty of time to purchase my ticket for the Bar to Belgrade journey the next day since this was the off season. I nodded in understanding, finished our conversation quickly and proceeded to immediately walk to the station. Bar’s railway station was an elongated, two story functionalist structure that could have been found almost anywhere and used for anything. The style was architecturally anonymous. It just so happened that this structure was the point of departure/terminus for one of the world’s great railway journeys.

Climatic Conditions - Palm trees in front of Bar Railway Station

Climatic Conditions – Palm trees in front of Bar Railway Station

Lending an air of exoticism was a circular island in front of the station with two squat palm trees. I was suddenly reminded of the palms that framed Split’s station further up the coast in Croatia. The palms were likely a nod to the coastal climate, but they endeared me to these otherwise forgettable ex-Yugoslav stations. Another exotic twist was the station name in both Latin and Cyrillic characters posted above the entrance. I stepped inside wondering what I would find. The answer was a place that looked more like a driver’s license examiner’s office than an end of the line for Montenegrin Railways. A beefy woman behind a glass window said something to me in Serbo-Croatian, which I assumed was, “Can I help you?” I handed her a paper with tomorrow’s date and Belgrade written on it. She proceeded to begin creating a ticket for me.

When I asked for a seat reservation on the left side of the train, she stated in broken English, “left, right I don’t know which on the train”. Her voice was a combination of indifference and annoyance. She had that good old Communist era customer service ethic which refuses to die in state run railway stations. The lady handed me the ticket after I paid a grand total of 24 Euros for what amounted to a Montenegrin version of the great train robbery for tourists. I now had my long-awaited ticket for the next day’s journey. At 9:10 a.m. the train would depart for Belgrade.

Barring the Way - Entrance to Bar Railway Station

Barring the Way – Entrance to Bar Railway Station

Rolling Stock – From The Mountains To The Sea
The Belgrade to Bar railway has possessed the imagination of railway enthusiasts ever since it was completed in 1976. To bring the idea to fruition took a quarter of a century. A great deal of blood, sweat and toil were expended in constructing what turned out to be a magnificent feat of engineering. It would not be an exaggeration to state that this was one of the greatest achievements in the history of Yugoslavia. The terrain it crossed, especially through Montenegro, was formidable in the extreme. While the distance to be covered was daunting. By the time of its completion, the railway threaded its way through 455 kilometers (296 miles) of canyons, alpine terrain, mountain passes, farm fields, villages and cities. On one end was Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia. On the other was Bar, a jumping off point for the sublime seafront along the country’s Adriatic coast.

To construct the Belgrade to Bar railway, it only took the most expensive public works project in the history of Yugoslavia. It is not hard to understand why? To make the route viable, 254 tunnels and 435 bridges were built through some of the most rugged terrain a railway line has ever crossed. It is little wonder that the railway was built in sections, starting out with easier terrain in Serbia and getting progressively more difficult as construction proceeded. And difficult was the operative word when it came to the railway’s construction. Beginning in Bar, just a few meters above sea level, the route slowly climbs up to 1,032 meters. Along the way it crosses three different mountain ranges. Even though the route winds it way through mountain valleys, the gradient reaches up to 25% in places. Though the railway length is much shorter through Montenegro (175 kilometers) versus Serbia (301 kilometers) it is also where the most difficult construction work took place. Specifically, along the karst terrain in the Moraca River canyon.

Waiting on a Train - Tracks at Bar Railway Station

Waiting on a Train – Tracks at Bar Railway Station

An Ironic Achievement – A Communist Era Vanity Project
I was looking forward to seeing the Montenegrin portion of the route more than any other. Since it was winter, there would be a lack of daylight during the final third of the journey for me. By starting in Bar, I would see the most impressive sections before sunset. I could hardly contain my excitement. After purchasing my ticket, I went out to see the lines of track and platforms adjacent to the station. For a major railway terminus, the Bar station was eerily quiet. I knew Montenegro’s railways network was quite small when compared to other European countries. I had noticed a poster in the station listing all the different routes and their timetables. It was the shortest list I had seen in any country. Nonetheless, what Montenegro lacked in rolling stock, it more than made up for with the attention bestowed upon its stretch of the Bar to Belgrade railway. It was the lucky recipient of a communist era vanity project. No private enterprise would have undertaken such a financial albatross, only a totalitarian state with the ability to harness massive resources could make this work. The little country of Montenegro would certainly not have attempted such an infrastructure project.

The railway line was also an ironic achievement. These days not many kind words are spoken about Yugoslavia. The violent breakup of that ill-fated polity in the 1990’s led to the loss of thousands of lives, millions of refugees and the splintering of Yugoslavia into seven different nations. In retrospect, it looks like an ill-conceived idea bound to fail. That is just what happened without Josip Tito to keep everyone in line. Many people living in its successor states, such as Montenegro, are uneasy with the idea of Yugoslavia. That does not mean everything the country did was bad, but its violent dissolution casts a shadow over some of its more notable achievements. From everything I read the Belgrade to Bar Railway was one of Yugoslavia’s greatest triumphs. Just how great, was something I planned to find out on my journey.

Click here for: Titotecture – The Bar To Belgrade Railway: Mountains & Monstrosities (A Balkan Affair #20)

Pyramid Schemes – The Afterlife of Enver Hoxha: A Nation Entombed

You can tell a lot about an Eastern European nation by the most famous building in its capital city. In Budapest, there is the exquisite eclecticism of the neo-Gothic Hungarian Parliament, a statement of grandeur so striking that it single-handedly transforms how one sees the city. In Bucharest, stands the gargantuan Palace of the People, a hulking edifice of such ridiculous proportions that it acts as the ultimate monument of megalomania and an expression of just how depraved the ruling regime of Romania became after forty years in power. In Belgrade there is the Church of Saint Sava, a supersized Serbian rendition of sacred architecture that represents the centrality of Orthodoxy in the country’s consciousness.

In Prague, there is the Castle, a suite of structures so spectacular that the visitor senses a greatness in Czechs much greater than they could have ever imagined. Iconic buildings are more than capital improvement projects, they are expressions of the national soul captured at a particular point in time. This might also be said of the Pyramid in Tirana, Albania. It is a symbol of decadence and depravity, a mirror image of both the time period and man it was meant to extol, Enver Hoxha. What was once a dead dictator’s mausoleum/museum is now the symbol of an era in Albanian history that continues to rear its ugly head.

A Diabolical Design - The Pyramid of Tirana

A Diabolical Design – The Pyramid of Tirana (Credit: David r 1929)

Diabolical Designs – A Vanity Project
Pyramids must plague the nightmares of Albanians. If the one standing at the heart of Tirana was not bad enough, there is also the living memory of a pyramid scheme in 1997 that developed into a full blown financial crisis. The resultant fallout led to unrest throughout the country. The incident also resulted in hundreds of thousands of Albanians losing their savings. While the memory still haunts, the economy has thankfully moved forward since those dark days. On the other hand, Albanians have to live with more than a memory when it comes to that other pyramid. Those who live in Tirana cannot help but notice the pyramid that occupies an important space in the city center. This was just the way Enver Hoxha’s daughter and her co-architects envisioned it. Following Hoxha’s death in 1985, they designed a monument to the man they worshiped and almost everyone else in Albania loathed. It was a pyramid covered in marble tiles. Inside was a museum and mausoleum to the late, not so great dictator.

The pyramid was problematic from the very start. The country was so impoverished by the time of Hoxha’s death that it could scarcely afford such a vanity project. While Albanians were starving, construction proceeded apace. After three years the pyramid was complete. Ironically, the expenditures on the Pyramid likely helped to expedite the coming change of system. In another three years, the pyramid’s original function was rendered useless by the collapse of communism. Almost overnight, Hoxha became a pariah. His body was removed from the mausoleum and the building was re-purposed into a convention center. It is interesting to speculate what Hoxha, the human embodiment of resistance to capitalism would have thought about his tomb becoming an economic apparatus to stimulate the economy he had ruined.

Into the Abyss - Entrance to the Pyramid

Into the Abyss – Entrance to the Pyramid (Credit: Quinn Dombrowski)

Surreal Symbol – The Modernist Albatross
Unfortunately for Albania, the post-Hoxha years may have offered freedom, but they failed to bring prosperity. The Pyramid soon became a surreal symbol of post-communist Albania’s deterioration. The convention center failed, just like much of the nation’s economy. Various investors attempted to revive this modernist albatross without success. Meanwhile, vandals covered it in graffiti and souvenir sellers tore off the marble tiles to hock them for hard cash. At one point, there were several night clubs housed inside the structure. Once a tomb, then a house of tawdriness, the Pyramid was symptomatic of a nation lost in a maze of depravity and degeneration. Hoxha’s ghost was haunting Albania at its very heart.

In another bit of bizarre irony that would have made Hoxha turn in his tomb (if he had not already been removed from it), the Pyramid was used by NATO as a humanitarian staging area during the war in Kosovo. Hoxha hated foreigners with a passion and suspected that every one of them were spies. Now they were occupying his most sacred former space. When NATO vacated the Pyramid, in came television stations. Now mass media, something else Hoxha hated and feared in equal measure, was calling his former death digs home. The Pyramid could not escape the ghost of its Red Pharaoh.

Nothing to see here - View of Tirana from the top of the Pyramid

Nothing to see here – View of Tirana from the top of the Pyramid (Credit: Albinfo)

A Memory Marker – Sliding Down The Surface
A strange thing happened on the way to oblivion for the Pyramid, many Albanians began to grow fond of it. When the government wanted to have it torn down and a new parliament built to occupy the space, protests began to break out. The proposal went nowhere, as did the Pyramid which stood silent and forlorn. Meanwhile, young Tiranans got a cheap thrill from climbing atop and then sliding down what were left of the marble tiles. The Pyramid in Tirana had inevitably become another piece of communist kitsch, joining the ranks of Trabants, innumerable Lenin statues and red stars in the dustbin of history. The Pyramid went from loathed to not quite loved. Every time the government talked about tearing the Pyramid down, protesters rose to the occasion and managed to save it from destruction.

Why would any Albanian want to save the Pyramid? Because it was a reminder of a darkness that had nearly destroyed the nation and that should never be forgotten.  In a strange twist of fate, the Pyramid had returned to its original intent, a marker of memory. What had started off as a grand homage to Hoxha, had become a monumental monstrosity to his rule. The Pyramid was, like the system that gave rise to it, forever falling apart. It defeated all ideas for improvement. A waste of resources both financial and material, the Pyramid could be forever re-purposed and still be a useless eyesore. It was a money pit, in a land without money. A museum, whose only artifact was itself. A dangerous idea that never made sense. The Pyramid was the Hoxha era’s most lasting work of art and Albania has been all the worse for it.


Concrete Constructions – “Bunkerization” in Albania: Monuments To Megalomania

It is said that every country gets the leader it deserves. That is not quite true, because no country in the world deserved the leadership of Enver Hoxha. Hoxha’s forty-one year reign of staggering mismanagement and political malevolence in Albania was downright appalling. The regime he led was most notable for a backwardness not to be found anywhere else in Europe. The Hoxha regime provided a new definition to the phrase “regression to the mean.” The Albanian government was dishonest and depraved. The people were to be controlled rather than ruled, everything was done to keep power in the hands of one man, Enver Hoxha. For that, Albanians suffered grave injustices

Relief only came with Hoxha’s death in 1985 and the collapse of Albania’s communist government in 1990.  The nation finally had a chance to move on or at the very least to move forward. Unfortunately for Albania, a large proportion of its population, some 800,000 fled the country in the years since communism’s collapse. As for those Albanians left behind, there is always something left to remind them of the dreadful Hoxha years. Specifically, Albania is covered in concrete bunkers. These unsightly edifices pockmark the country’s otherwise beautiful landscape. To say that they are a constant reminder of the Hoxha regime is an understatement.

Bunker mentality - Concrete bunker on city street in Shkoder, Albania

Bunker mentality – Concrete bunker on city street in Shkoder, Albania (Credit: Jeroenverp)

Hunkering Down – War On Every Front
Some dictators secure their legacy by building monuments to themselves, Enver Hoxha built bunkers. At the midpoint of his long and terrifying tenure Hoxha became infatuated with bunker building. He ordered concrete bunkers constructed across every square kilometer of Albania. It was an infrastructure project of depressingly epic proportions informed by a dangerous combination of megalomania and stupidity. Meanwhile, Hoxha and his henchmen did not bother with building decent roads, because their construction efforts were consumed, quite literally, by a bunker mentality. The upshot was a profligate symbol of paranoia in almost every place imaginable. There are more concrete bunkers in Albania than the population of all but two of its cities.  From remote mountain passes to beaches, city streets to cemeteries, concrete bunkers grew like mushrooms. The policy that led to their construction was dubbed “bunkerization.” The kind of idea that a paranoid megalomaniac might find appealing.

The reasoning behind the bunkers was both ridiculous and predictable. Hoxha saw enemies everywhere, not only on the streets of Albania, but also casting covetous eyes on the nation’s territory. The Greeks were supposedly eyeing territory in the south. The Italians wanted to pounce on Albania’s Adriatic coastline. In the north stood Marshal Tito, a man who Albanians were told wanted to make their country another Yugoslav province. Hoxha’s vision of Albania’s future was the opposite of peace and prosperity. His dream would be most leader’s nightmare. It consisted of a multi-front war which would be led by NATO or Warsaw Pact forces looking to destroy Albanian independence. Thus, he needed to ensure his people’s preparedness at all costs. This was the reasoning behind the policy of bunkerization. Never mind that the policy made no sense.

The countries Hoxha claimed were potential invaders of Albania could never have afforded to occupy and rebuild a nation that by the standards of modern civilization was in a complete state of ruin. Members of Albania’s military and political apparatus who knew better did not dare voice their disapproval of Hoxha’s permanent state of war policy. Dissent was a virtual death sentence. Hoxha’s minions feared for their lives and marched in lockstep behind him as he led Albania into oblivion. It was an entirely emasculated nation. Hoxha’s diabolical leadership style was marked by regression rather than progression. Concrete bunkers were just the most recognizable symptom of a terrible illness that Albania contracted from Hoxha’s hard line brand of communism.

Getting defensive - Concrete bunker in an Albanian cemetery

Getting defensive – Concrete bunker in an Albanian cemetery (Credit: Elian Stefa & Gyler Mydyti)

Destructive Constructions – In Favor of The Imaginary
Building the bunkers was part of a decades long process to militarize the populace. Civil defense was taken with the utmost seriousness. Twice a month Albanians were required to take part in drills that often lasted for several days. They were even issued guns. Of course, the authorities kept the ammunition out of their hands. In Hoxha’s mind, Albania had to be ready for war at a moment’s notice and they were. Living under Hoxha’s regime required a wartime mentality, the only problem was that the real enemy was within. Albania’s government inflicted grievous wounds upon the citizenry. For instance, the spending on concrete bunkers came at the expense of nearly everything else in the economy.

Despite incessant professions of militarism during Hoxha’s campaign to keep Albania on a permanent wartime footing, the armed forces were badly equipped, poorly clothed and lacked modern weaponry. Meanwhile, the nation’s infrastructure fell further and further into disrepair. Every pound of concrete that went into the bunkers was a pound less that could be used to improve horrifically potholed roads. The concrete was also needed for building apartment blocks to alleviate a housing shortage. One bunker used enough material to build a two-room apartment. Unfortunately, the people had no say in the matter. Adding insult to injury, ordinary citizens were commandeered to keep the bunkers clean. Reality was ignored in favor of the imaginary.

The bunkers became hot spots for sex or other illicit activities kept from the prying eyes of state control. In truth, this was probably the sanest use of these structures. Scarcely any of Hoxha’s henchman cared to analyze their military efficacy. One Defense Minister who did publicly question their utility was promptly executed. The most common type of bunker was the pre-fabricated, dome shaped QZ Qender Zjarri (“firing position”) which could house one or two men at most who would fire out of a slit. Anyone trying to defend one of these bunkers in a shooting war would have been a sitting duck. The QZ was one of several types of bunkers Hoxha had installed across the country to fend off the invasions which were only imminent in his mind.

Scene stealer - Bunker in the Albanian Alps at Velbona

Scene stealer – Bunker in the Albanian Alps at Velbona (Credit: Elian Stefa & Gyler Mydyti)

Nowhere To Hide – Every Man Against Himself
In 1985 Enver Hoxha died and most of his worst ideas went with him to the grave. Bunker construction was halted not long after his death. In a tragic bit of irony, the bunkers were finally used in a shooting war during the early 1990’s as Albanians fought one another in a civil war to decide who would rule the country after communism collapsed. What no one seemed to notice is that Albanians had been fighting each other during the entirety of Hoxha’s reign. For forty-one years there was nowhere for Albanians to hide, not even in the concrete bunkers which covered their country.


An Empire State of Mind – The Albanian Grand Viziers of the Ottoman Empire

In the center of Tirana stands a monument to Albania’s greatest hero, Skanderbeg.
It is not surprising that Skanderbeg would be venerated in this small Balkan nation’s most sacred public space. He is universally revered as both a freedom fighter and symbol of resistance against the Ottoman Turkish onslaught during the 15th century. Following Skanderbeg’s death, the Turks occupied and administered Albania for over 500 years. Skanderbeg’s military and political skills were the only things keeping the Turks at bay. He was a unifier, bringing more Albanians under his leadership than anyone up to that time. This was as close as the notoriously fragmented Albanians would get to unification until the 20th century. Thus, the Skanderbeg Monument occupies the most prominent space (Skanderbeg Square) in the nation’s capital –- just as he occupies the most important place in Albanian hearts. There is also the fact that any man reduced to a single name in the Balkans (for example: Tito) is a historical figure of outsized importance. Skanderbeg was certainly that. His life, legacy and legend dwarfs that of all other Albanian historical figures.

An Albanian Original - Skanderbeg Monument in Tirana

An Albanian Original – Skanderbeg Monument in Tirana (Credit: Wolfgang Pehlemann)

Ottoman Albanians – Hard to Find Heroes
Skanderbeg is the essence of Albanian national heroism. This is in stark contrast with the most prominent national figures of modern Albania, King Zog and Enver Hoxha. They are viewed as either ridiculously corrupt or horrendously malevolent. Men who put their own self-interest over the national one. Ironically, their faults and foibles make Skanderbeg’s historical legacy shine that much brighter. Strangely enough, though Skanderbeg was a Christian fighting Muslim, Albania is now a majority Muslim nation venerating a Christian. Five centuries of Ottoman rule transformed Albania. Yet there were also many Albanians who transformed the Ottoman Empire. Consider that other than Skanderbeg, the most famous and powerful Albanians in history were the numerous Grand Viziers this small Balkan territory produced. The position of Grand Vizier in the Ottoman Empire was essentially a Prime Minister, conducting the most important imperial affairs.

By one calculation, there were 292 Ottoman Grand Viziers, 49 of these were of Albanian origin. This was second only to ethnic Turks in holding the empire’s second most powerful position. The position of Grand Vizier afforded a long list of Albanians the opportunity to exercise an unprecedented amount of influence over the empire. A Grand Vizier had power over all military and administrative appointments, as well as being the empire’s supreme judicial official. Grand Viziers could also command the army in battle. One Albanian family, the Koprulus, provided some of the most powerful Grand Viziers in Ottoman history, so much so that an entire era was named after them. The Koprulu era (1656-1683), saw several members of this powerful Albanian family reassert the empire’s dynamism through a series of reforms. These included anti-corruption measures. The empire was revived and expanded under their rule.

Survival of the Greatest - Koca Sinan Pasha served 5 terms as Ottoman Grand Vizier

Survival of the Greatest – Koca Sinan Pasha served 5 terms as Ottoman Grand Vizier

Grim Realities – The Grand Executions
Since Grand Viziers served at the Sultan’s pleasure, they could also be deposed at any time. This made their position precarious, if not downright dangerous. For instance, the aptly named Selim the Grim went through seven Grand Viziers during his eight years as Sultan. One of those was the Albanian, Dukakinoğlu Ahmed Pasha, who held the office for only two and a half months before Selim had him beheaded. While Grand Viziers executed affairs of state, they were also liable to end up the recipient of a very different execution. 44 Grand Viziers were executed and another 11 killed during rebellions. They were often sacrificed by the Sultan as scapegoats for campaigns or policies gone wrong. Albanian Grand Viziers were certainly not immune to this unkind fate. Take the example of Kemankes Kara Mustafa Pasha, who on multiple occasions attempted to save himself by resigning. After falling from favor due to lurid court politics, Kara Mustafa was executed on the orders of Sultan Ibrahim “the mad”.

One of the most intriguing Albanian Grand Viziers was Mere Huseyin Pasha. He was given the name Mere, which means “take it” in Albanian because he used this word when ordering his henchmen to behead enemies. Reputedly, Mere was the only Grand Vizier who did not speak Turkish. He served in the role twice with the second time proving fatal. No one knows if Sultan Mustafa I gave the order for his Grand Vizier’s execution by saying “Mere.” Not every Albanian Grand Vizier met a deadly end, one even managed to live a long life while holding down the job multiple times. Koca Sinan Pasha managed to survive all five of his terms as Grand Vizier from 1580 – 1596. The fact that he died in peace with a large fortune speaks to his talents as a politician and administrator.

Grand Viziers were not the only high-level Ottoman officials to come from Albania. There were also approximately one hundred Grand Masters of the elite janissary guard. They also dominated much of the upper ranks of the bureaucracy and military right up until the Empire’s waning days. To give but a couple of examples, two of the five Ottoman generals at the Battle of Gallipoli were Albanian. Two Ottoman Prime Ministers during World War I were also of Albanian descent. Some historians also believe the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk may have been an ethnic Albanian.

Ethnicities of all 292 Ottoman Grand Viziers - Albanian Grand Viziers are in lime green

Ethnicities of all 292 Ottoman Grand Viziers – Albanian Grand Viziers are in lime green

Ottomania – An Albanian State of Affairs
All these examples lead to one overarching question: Why were Albanians so prominent in the upper echelons of the Ottoman Empire? After all, Albania is not a very large place and its population base was smaller than many other areas of the Empire. One reason may be that Albanians were more willing to convert to Islam than other ethnic groups within the empire. This was a path to upward mobility that Albanians often followed. It was also a way to avoid extortionate levels of taxation that were imposed from the 17th century onward to religious minorities. Meanwhile, converts to Islam would not only pay lower taxes, but also receive land grants.

At a time when society and the economy were chiefly based around agriculture, free land was a major draw. Albanians took advantage of all these paths to gain an exalted place in imperial affairs. Yet five hundred years of Ottoman rule retarded economic and social growth in Albania as well as the development of a national consciousness. Paradoxically, since Albanians held many powerful positions within the Ottoman Empire they partly had themselves to blame. All the way to the end, they were as Ottoman as anyone in the empire.

A Pistol Beneath His Pillow – Leka of Albania: The Failed Restoration (Part Two)

One would think that life as an exiled heir to a royal throne would be rather relaxing. There is little to do all day except meet with fellow emigres who generally agree with everything you say. Answering correspondence and taking calls are your most taxing pursuits. Surrounded by sycophants while living in semi-posh circumstances, you stay on as the guest of a dictator who guarantees your perpetual safety. You play a waiting game, hoping that circumstances beyond your control finally take a turn for the better. The heady days of dodging revolutions, ordering enemies imprisoned or shot and fleeing from mass movements that threaten your well being are a thing of the past, as is your claim to a throne which has long since been abolished. This is unfortunate but compared to the alternative – life in prison or execution – it’s not bad work if you can get it. That is unless you were Crown Prince Leka, heir to the Albanian throne. Leka aspired to greater things than being a royal has been. Enjoying the good life in Spain as a guest of Generalissmo Francisco Franco was never going to be enough for Leka.

A Royal Family - Leka flanked by his wife Susan and mother Geraldine

A Royal Family – Leka flanked by his wife Susan and mother Geraldine

Armchair Warrior – Taking Target Practice
Crown Prince Leka was a man with the military on his mind, if not in his blood. The “Royal Minister of His Court” said from the time Leka was born, there had always been a pistol tucked beneath his pillow. He was being subconsciously and at other times not so subtly groomed for a militaristic upbringing. He was educated at the British Military Academy at Sandhurst. He then received a commission in the British Army as a Second Lieutenant or perhaps it was his imposing physical presence. At six feet, eight inches he certainly towered over everyone around him. Maybe his martial instincts stemmed from an effort to overcompensate for being heir to a throne not many in the western world took seriously. Whatever the case, Leka’s life was devoted to the martial arts. His main profession was as an armchair warrior and arms dealer, though publicly he claimed to be selling industrial and agricultural equipment to Middle Eastern nations.

Whatever his real line of work, it is indisputable that Leka was able to accumulate his own reserve of armaments. This in turn gave him credibility as president of the Military Council for the Liberation of Ethnic Albania. Leka always denied claims that he was an arms dealer, stating that such rumors were the product of Albanian communist propaganda that tried to undermine him. Later in life, he would sue and win two defamation lawsuits against French magazines that had referred to him as an arms dealer. As for his own collection of weapons, Leka needed these to protect himself from potential assassination. He feared throughout his life that the Albanian secret police were targeting him. There was certainly some truth to this story. Leka always professed a readiness to expel the communist government of Albania. Just how he might do this was open to question.

Keeping Up Appearances - Leka in suitable attire

Keeping Up Appearances – Leka in suitable attire

Armed To The Teeth – King For Less Than A Day
At his villa in Madrid, Leka trained or at least pretended to train liberation forces to free Albania from the communist yoke. This brought him attention from journalists and the Spanish government, which post-Franco did not need an Albanian pretender playing wargames on their soil or stating that he planned to overthrow the Albanian government. When a large arms cache was discovered in his home, the Spanish government forced Leka to leave the country. The next port of call for this pariah were pariah states, first Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) and then apartheid South Africa. The only question for Leka was whether he would make it to southern Africa. When his flight across Africa stopped to refuel in Gabon, government troops surrounded it. The soldiers were under orders to detain Leka and deliver him to Enver Hoxha’s Albanian government who preferred his head on a stick rather than wearing a crown. True to his martial form, Leka appeared at the aircraft’s door brandishing a bazooka. Soon he was on his way to South Africa, where he and his Australian wife Susan would live until communism collapsed in Albania.

The ridiculous notion that Leka could someday reign as king became a possibility during the 1990’s as post-communist Albania was riven by economic shocks and political chaos. Only a man with pretensions to greatness, a massive ego and a daunting lack of diplomatic ability would have been arrogant enough to believe he could stroll into Albania and lead such an unruly nation into the bright uplands of democratic freedom. Leka was that man. For Albania, he was to become a royal pain in the ass. His first attempt to assume what he felt was his rightful inheritance took place in 1992. While trying to enter his homeland for the first time in over half a century, Leka produced a passport that had been issued to him by his own Royal government in exile. It listed his occupation as “king”. The Albanian authorities failed to see the humor in this quasi-official document, nor did they honor it. Leka was told that he would need a real Albanian passport, not a made up on. He was dutifully turned away. This only stiffened his resolve to return.

A Family Affair - Leka with his Australian wife Susan

A Family Affair – Leka with his Australian wife SusanA Family Affair – Leka with his Australian wife Susan

Optimistic Opportunism – Grasping For Power
All Leka needed was another opportunity. That opportunity arrived sooner than he might have expected. After pyramid schemes collapsed, leading to a financial crisis that destroyed the savings of Albanians, anarchy consumed the country. The government had trouble keeping any semblance of order. Shots were fired, people died, riots ensued. Albania was in complete turmoil. As the crisis worsened, Leka became a potential savior for Albania. A referendum was soon organized to decide whether Albania would restore the monarchy. Leka had high hopes that he would be victorious. His confidence was not shared by the masses. Two-thirds of Albanians voted against a restoration of the monarchy.

Leka was infuriated by the result and refused to accept it. He claimed the government had organized a campaign of voter fraud to defeat the referendum. He took to the streets with his supporters. After shots were fired, Leka’s stay in the country was short lived. Meanwhile, the populace was more concerned with their own personal financial distress than Leka’s failed power grab. He was forced to flee the country once again. In truth, the failed referendum may have saved Leka from an even worse fate. Albania was no place for political novices or pretenders to an obsolete throne.

Click here for: Rolling Up The Red Carpet – Leka of Albania: The Comeback King (Part Three)

From Nothing More Than His Imagination – Leka of Albania: The Man Who Would Not Be King (Part One)

Back in my college days I had a friend who had grandiose ambitions of making deep, meaningful films. The kind of art house fare that is the preserve of pretentious pseudo-intellects, whose main attribute is a high opinion of themselves. This certainly explains the cinematic designs of my friend, who made possibly the worst films I have ever seen. Imagine a young man standing in front of a mirror with a zombie like expression plastered on his face. Then suddenly stock footage is shown of a freight train steaming down a track with its whistle blaring. This was a surprising take to say the least. My friend tried to attach himself to other misunderstood film directors who were shunned by the unenlightened public. He stated that his main influence was the German director Wim Wenders, who made the second worst films I have ever seen.

Not long thereafter, my friend became a former one, as he recoiled angrily at my questioning of his incomprehensible films. He grew increasingly haughty and arrogant, viewing anyone who could not understand his artistic endeavors for their greatness as little more than provincial fools. As a sort of laughable thought experiment, I used to imagine my former friend graduating to self-declared greatness. He was the kind of guy who would have awarded himself an Oscar, if that accolade had not been beneath him. My friend was akin to a self-declared monarch who had no throne to ascend. He would have made a great would king of Albania. If it did not already have one.

Like Father Like Son - King Zog & Leka

Like Father Like Son – King Zog & Leka

Setting A New Course – A Royal Mess
This friend came to mind while I was reading about Leka, Crown Prince of Albania. Here was a man who aspired to royal greatness, but whose efforts. whether by a perpetually unenlightened Albanian public or the vicissitudes of geopolitics were thwarted. His attempts to assume what he considered his rightful place among European royalty were not successful. That never stopped Leka from having a high opinion of himself, to the point where he saw Albania as his personal inheritance. This was stretching the limits of credulity. Leka spent almost none of his childhood in the country and never set foot on Albanian soil until he was 48 years old. Nevertheless, Leka was nothing if not ambitious, something he shared with his father, King Zog.

It was Zog who created a monarchy out of nothing more than his imagination and then proclaimed himself King of Albania. He single-handedly founded a European house of royalty just a decade after such exalted dynasties as the Habsburgs and Romanovs were ruined by revolution. An impressive accomplishment, even if some did not take Zog seriously. Leka had the same sort of delusional grandeur as his father. Being heir to the throne his father created only stimulated a need for recognition. He thought himself born of greatness, a man who might lead Albania out of the Stalinist wilderness in which it was lost. This was enough to set his life on one of the strangest courses any prospective monarch has ever followed.

Mothers Finest - Queen Geraldine with Leka I

Mothers Finest – Queen Geraldine with Leka I

At Home Abroad – The Albanian Globetrotters
The heir to the throne of Albania was born in the early morning hours on April 5th, 1939 in Tirana at the Royal Palace to King Zog and his wife Queen Geraldine. While the king was Albanian through and through, the mother’s background was a quixotic mixture of Hungarian aristocratic and American blue blood. The heir was given the name Leka, which is the Albanian form of Alexander. Unfortunately for the infant heir, only two days after his birth the royal family was forced to flee the country. The Italians were tired of propping up Zog’s profligate corruption. They invaded when Mussolini decided to invade in the hopes of recreating what he believed would be a new Roman Empire. Leka and his mother were put into an ambulance and transported through the mountains to Greece. Zog would soon follow with over a hundred members of his retinue in tow. Along with him came ten cases of valuables. These, along with the gold reserve of Albania’s treasury, which Zog had secretly been moving to England and Switzerland, would ensure he and his family would live comfortably on the proceeds of his theft.

Zog never returned to Albania. It would be over fifty years before Leka would return to the land that might have been his to rule. He would have no historical memory of Albania to base his future claims to the throne upon. That never stopped Leka from trying to get back to his royal roots. His lightning quick exile meant Leka would spend much of his life globetrotting. He and his parents would live in Great Britain at several addresses. The most notable of these was an entire floor of the Ritz Carlton Hotel in London. They then spent several of his formative years as the guest of another embattled monarch. King Farouk in Egypt. At an English school there, he became boyhood friends with the heir to Bulgaria’s throne. Leka was educated at a variety of highbrow institutions, including Sandhurst in England and the Sorbonne in France. His education at Sandhurst led to Leka receiving a military commission in the British Army.

The Man Who Would Not Be King - Leka I

The Man Who Would Not Be King – Leka I

The King & I – Would Be Monarch
After his father died in 1961, Leka was proclaimed King of Albania by the Albanian National Assembly in Exile at a hotel in Paris. This state of royal affairs fit the strange pattern of Leka’s life as a would-be monarch. He was the nominal choice to lead the country by Albanians abroad, but their support and his title meant next to nothing. Albania was a hermit nation locked in the iron grip of the Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha. A hardline communist dictatorship that did not allow outsiders in or its citizens out. Leka had no military or political power with which he might attempt to overthrow the regime. All he could do was look on helplessly from abroad while tending to dubious business interests. Leka was said to trade in commodities. His definition of commodities would give new meaning to that word. Leka’s life was about to enter a much more bizarre phase.

Click here for: A Pistol Beneath His Pillow – Leka of Albania: The Failed Restoration (Part Two)