VIII. The Albanians
7. "Old Servia"
Prizrend stands on the low foothills of greater mountains. Its precipitous streets — with the brawling stream, the shady poplar groves, the cool rose gardens of dervish monasteries, the graceful mosques, and the secret, all but castellated houses that rarely expose a timid window to the outer world — rise towards the crumbling Turkish citadel on the hill. It is a hill of memories and vistas. At your feet lies the great plain of Kossovo, where the Servian Empire was shattered at the first shock of the invading Osmanlis. Far in the distance, to the north, is a dark range of mountains which is the frontier of New Servia. To the west, beyond Ipek, rises a vast Alpine wall of purple and white, and beyond it, too, is liberty. It is the frontier of Montenegro, where yet another branch of the Servian race has maintained itself and freedom. And behind lies the greater past. A narrow valley runs up to the mountains behind — on the right a green hill, on the left a bare cliff, and between them, in the distance, the blue peaks of the Schar Dagh. In the midst of the valley rises a sheer rock, and on its summit stands the old castle of Tsar Dushan. Here he lived and reigned, a Servian king amid a Servian people.
By some half-ironical convention this country that once was Dushan's, within sight of the two free Servian lands, is known as "Old Servia." It is the Servia that has been. I came expecting to find, as one finds elsewhere in Macedonia, a population by majority Christian, living under the rule of a Moslem minority. Two centuries ago that is what a European traveller would have found. To-day the Serbs are a remnant which has dwindled by emigration, massacre, and forced conversion, to the rank of a mere third of the population. In the two districts of Prizrend and Ipek there are no more than 5,000 Servian householders, against 20,000 or 25,000 Albanian families. In all Old Servia there are not as many Servian families as there are Albanian families in Ipek and Prizrend alone. It was otherwise in the past. History tells of two great emigrations en masse from Old
Servia. In 1680 the Servian Patriarch placed himself at the head of 100,000 of his people who had found Turkish rule intolerable, and with their flocks and herds, their cradles and ploughs, they wandered to Carlowitz in Hungary. Fifty years later a second human swarm, 30,000 strong, took the same road. It was the best and the most patriotic element of the Servian population that sought a refuge and a future in a Christian country, and practically every priest in the diocese followed the Patriarch to save his faith. The Servian population which remained, without leaders, teachers, or priests fell a natural victim to the Turks and the Albanians. Whole regions still Servian in blood and language embraced Islam at the point of the sword. The process went on in this forgotten country on the fringe of Europe even within the memory of the present generation. Thirty years ago the broad district of Gora, near Prizrend, was ravaged, decimated, and converted. Its inhabitants speak only Servian, and as far as they dare they maintain the tradition of their Christian past. They will go to the great monastery of the neighbourhood on its annual festival. The women will often beg a priest to pray for them or to give them holy water, and sometimes they will lie on the ground in the churchyard that the priest may step over them as he carries the Eucharist, in the hope of obtaining a silent blessing. If ever the Turk departs they will venture, no doubt, to return to the faith of their fathers.
Of the rest of the Christian Servian population of Old Servia, for every nine who remain, one has fled in despair to free Servia within recent years. The remainder, unarmed and unprotected, survive only by entering into a species of feudal relationship with some Albanian brave. The Albanian is euphemistically described as their "protector." He lives on tolerably friendly terms with his Servian vassal. He is usually ready to shield him from other Albanians, and in return he demands endless blackmail in an infinite variety of forms. If the Servian has money he pays in money. There is a recognised etiquette even in brigandage. There arrives one fine day an emissary who carries a little parcel which he presents with much ceremony to the headman of the village.
The parcel contains it may be ten, it may be twenty beans, with a cartridge tumbling amongst them. The beans represent silver dollars, and if gold is wanted their place is taken by ears of maize. The cartridge speaks for itself. It is death to refuse. But if the peasants are too poor to be blackmailed there are other methods of exaction. They can be compelled to do forced labour for an indefinite number of days. But even so the system is inefficient, and the protector fails at need. There are few Servian villages which are not robbed periodically of all their sheep and cattle — I could give names of typical cases if that would serve any purpose. For two or three years the village remains in a slough of abject poverty, and then by hard work purchases once more the beginnings of a herd, only in due course to lose it again. I tried to find out what the system of land tenure was. My questions, as a rule, met with a smile. The system of land tenure in this country, where the Koran and the rifle are the only law, is what the Albanian chief of the district chooses to make it. The Servian peasants, children of the soil, are tenants at will, exposed to every caprice of their domestic conquerors. Year by year the Albanian hill-men encroach upon the plain, and year by year the Servian peasants disappear before them. Hunger, want, and disease are the natural accompaniments of this daily oppression. One may gauge the poverty of this country from the fact that a day's wage averages five or six metallics — say three English pence. Round Uskub it stands at tenpence, and Uskub is poor. But then if labour can be had for the asking by a master who has only to toy with a jewelled pistol in his belt the market price is inevitably low. The children grow up half nourished and scarcely clad, and the result, as the doctors of Prizrend told me, is an astonishing prevalence of lung diseases and anaemia in this superb climate with its brisk mountain air, its pure water, and its generous sun. One is a little apt to think of the Albanian question as an interesting diplomatic problem, a fascinating ethnological puzzle. It struck me in a different light on market-day when the peasant women came toiling in, bent and wrinkled, with their babies on their backs, and round their meagre figures
a collection of rags that barely satisfied the demands of modesty. We ask them what they have brought to sell. It may be half a dozen eggs, it may be a dozen. And the price? A halfpenny apiece, or less. And where did they come from? There were some who had come from a village ten and even fifteen miles away. To sell a few eggs for threepence these Servian women will walk a matter of twenty dangerous miles. It is their one chance of keeping alive. The threepence will buy a bag of Indian meal that will serve the family for a few days, eked out with onions and wild herbs. And by next market-day there will be a few more eggs to sell, if the saints are good — unless, indeed, some hungry, unpaid Turkish detachment should pass through the village and requisition the few hens that stand between the peasants and famine.
Those women, in their misery and nakedness, are the other side of the
gay picture of Albanian chivalry. With all my memories of Bektashi tolerance
and Arnaut patriotism, framed in a picture of marvellous mountain scenery
— the white snows of the Schar Dagh, crisp and clean on the midsummer day
when we crossed them, its cold, exhilarating air, its Alpine roses, its
hillsides of gentians and forget-me-nots — I realise painfully that I have
visited the most miserable corner of Europe.
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