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Insight: Encounters with Ali Pasha Volume 52 Number 4, July/August 1999
by James Wiseman

[image] View of part of Nikopolis from the larger Roman theater, whose ruins Ali Pasha discussed with Danish scholar Brøndsted. (James Wiseman) [LARGER IMAGE]

The famous (and infamous) Ali Pasha is the subject of Peter Oluf Brøndsted's Interviews with Ali Pacha (Athens: Danish Institute at Athens, 1999). The book, edited by Jacob Isager of the University of Southern Denmark, is the first publication of Brøndsted's manuscript about his encounters with Ali Pasha in 1812. Ali was descended from a line of bandit leaders who had risen to local high status in the Ottoman Empire. He began his career in the mid-eighteenth century as a bandit leader in the region of his family home in Tebelen, Albania. By the early nineteenth century, he was virtually independent of the sultan; most of Greece was ruled by him and his oldest sons, Muktar and Vely, and he had begun to negotiate with France, England, and other powers for still more territory.

Ali was a gracious host, a shrewd politician, a brave military leader, and a learned man; at the same time he was a cruel and brutal despot whose murders and sexual depredations reached legendary proportions. Byron met Ali in 1809. He and his companion John Cam Hobhouse arrived in Greece at Patras and went to Preveza, near the ruins of Nikopolis, then journeyed to Ioannina. When Ali, staying at the time in Tebelen, invited them to his palace in Albania. Impressed as he was with Ali as a host, Byron had already encountered evidence for his "most horrible cruelties." According to Hobhouse, the two visitors had discovered strung up around Ioannina the dismembered body of Evthymios Vlachavas, a Greek bandit tortured to death on Ali's command shortly before their arrival.

Brøndsted, born in 1780, traveled to Greece to observe and document its topography and culture, both ancient and contemporary. His traveling party included architect Carl Haller von Hallerstein, landscape painter Jacob Linckh, and Baron Otto Magnus von Stackelberg of Estonia. The group reached Athens in mid-September and soon became friends with Byron. They also met Charles Robert Cockerell and John Foster, architects who joined Brøndsted's group in would become the most famous excavations of the time. The first of these, the recovery of sculptures from the Temple of Aphaea on Aegina, was conducted by Haller von Hallerstein, Linckh, Cockerell, and Foster, while Brøndsted and others were traveling in Constantinople and on the coast of Asia Minor. Subsequently Brøndsted excavated on Kea, Aegina, and Salamis. In 1812 most of the team dug at the remote Temple of Apollo at Bassae in the Peloponnese, having purchased permission to excavate from Vely, pasha of the Morea and son of Ali Pasha.

Brøndsted's encounter with Ali Pasha occurred in Preveza in November of 1812. Ali received him with great interest and good humor, overwhelming his guest with his astuteness, his appearance (described by Brøndsted in detail), and his graciousness. In the course of their lengthy and wide-ranging conversation, Ali, in Brøndsted's account, "eagerly demanded if I had been one of those...who had lately given a large sum of money to his son Vely Pacha...for permission to excavate somewhere?" Learning that he was, Ali told him that he also had "old stones" in his country which Brøndsted might excavate, and that he would provide him with as many workers as he might want without cost, but with the understanding "that I will have my share of the marbles, and precious things that we find." Brøndsted tried to decline, pointing out that he was on his way home after many years away, but when Ali appeared annoyed at the response, reluctantly agreed at least to go with him for a single visit to Nikopolis.

At Nikopolis the two examined standing walls. At the small theater, they looked across at the ruins of the large theater outside the walls and at the stadium, discussing their functions and how the stadium might then be put to its original use as a place for running races. At last Ali required Brøndsted to show him some places where they might "dig for ancient marbles and other curiosities." Brøndsted protested that he believed the city had already been plundered in antiquity of its best sculpture, but at last pointed out ruins inside the city walls that he thought might be an ancient temple. At once, an order was given and "about twenty peasants hastened from one of the huts, furnished with mattocks, shovels, axes etc." Eventually the diggers uncovered "three fine square marble slabs," which Brøndsted thought might have been floor paving and which were then placed in a sedan chair for transport to the palace in Preveza. They also found two coins identified by Brøndsted as having been minted in Nikopolis, one in the reign of Commodus and the other under Caracalla, the latter of which Ali gave to Brøndsted. Pocketing the other, he laughed "at this augmentation of his treasury." They then departed for Preveza. Whether Ali continued this first recorded digging at Nikopolis is not known.

In 1820 the Ottoman sultan, exasperated by the independence exercised by his vassal, stripped Ali Pasha of his titles and declared him an enemy of the state. The sultan's troops murdered Ali at Ioannina in 1822. Byron died of fever at Missolonghi the following year, having returned to Greece to fight against the Ottomans. Brøndsted outlived them both. In 1826 and 1830 he published the results of his studies in the two-volume Voyages dans la Grèce accompagnées de recherches archéologiques. In later life he was the royal Danish envoy to the Vatican, professor of philology and archaeology at the University of Copenhagen, and director of the Royal (Danish) Collection of Coins and Medals. He died in 1841 after falling from his horse.

James Wiseman is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY and professor of archaeology, art history, and classics at Boston University. The author thanks Jacob and Signe Isager.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America