AN ENGLISHMAN IN ALBANIA
Captain D. R. Oakley Hill (1898-1985) was involved in Albanian affairs for over fifty years and in his time was the best known authority on the country. His first assignment in Albania came when he was recruited in 1929 by General Sir Jocelyn Percy, then Inspector General of the Gendarmerie during the reign of King Zog. From the moment he arrived in the country, Oakley-Hill fell in love with Albania. In his memoirs he relates how he travelled everywhere on horseback, there being few roads, usually accompanied by his wife Rosamond. One of these visits was to the North of Albania where he sojourned at the Sarajet e Kapidan Gjon Marka Gjoni in 1935.
Below is an excerpt from his book “An Englishman in Albania – Memoirs of a British Officer 1929-1955” pages 57-59 (London – The Center for Albanian Studies 2002).
Our northern trip gave us much to remember: the Shkalla Tunjanit, the stone-staircase pass north of Mt. Dajti; the night camping at Gurabardhe, a place with an excellent spring on a height beyond the next ridge to the east; down to Klos in Mat district, fording the Mat river, and seeing an old water wheel at the riverside; to Burrel, the Rreth center, and past Derjan and the ruins of Zog’s ancestral home; north through the lovely, rolling Mat country, past Perlat, through Kthelle (the Catholic north of Mat), and into the Catholic Mirdite, to the great house of the Kapidan of Mirdite, Gjon Markagjoni, standing palisaded on its isolated hill below the Mali Shenjt (the Sacred Moutain).
There we met Joe Swire and his wife, by arrangement. The Kapidan’s hospitality was famous and we stayed the night. I think he expected we would all like to be together, so he visited us for a drink of raki in the huge guest dining room, but left us to dine alone, served by his men. The room housed the four of us comfortably for the night. Just before sunset the flocks were brought down from the mountain, and the ewes were sorted into separate pens, so that milking could begin. The goats received the same treatment. Guards watched all night, and more than once we heard shots fired to scare seen or suspected wolves.
In the morning we were allowed to go round the dairy, where the Kapidan’s wife was queen. She and her daughter-in-law1 were testing the pans into which the milk had been poured overnight, to see if the kos (yogurt) had set. Zonja Markagjoni was a magnificent matron, in her hand-made Mirdite dress, with its long ornate apron. With the smell of the dairy, the many men working round the yard and the dust rising as the flocks moved away up to their pastures, I could only think of Abraham in the hills of Canaan.
Before we left, the Rreth commander of Mirdite, a lieutenant, called to see the Kapidan. After their discussion, Markagjoni asked me if this young man could be left in his job and not transferred, as officers had to be from time to time. This, of course, meant that he suited the Kapidan and listened to him. I said I would tell the General, and in fact Percy decided he was a good man for the job and would leave him there anyhow.
We said goodbye and thank you to the Kapidan and went downhill to the Cathedral of Orosh. It was a Sunday morning and we were privileged to look in at the service in the large stone-built cathedral church, with its tall and slender tower, a remarkable and curious landmark in the middle of those rough, empty-looking hills. The men of Mirdite were sitting on one side, and the women on the other. We waited outside to see them come out; there they sat or stood in separate male and female groups, chatting to friends, many of whom they probably only met at the church. It was an impressive sight; the men, in their black-braided white woolen trousers, tight from the knees down, somewhat like jodhpurs, short, tight jackets, and white woolen skullcaps, sat on the long church steps or stood around. Most were carrying rifles, as there had been no disarming as of yet. The women remained on one side, standing, with their long straight robes, decorated apron fronts, and handcloths. This sight will not be seeing again till Communism has gone. And then, perhaps, those splendid costumes will have gone too.
All along the mountain slopes are dotted little houses of the highlanders. Every man according to his degree is master of his own house, grazes his few sheep, and works his little patch of land. In this country blood is thicker than water, and men are bound by ties of family and clan and by traditions which have come down to them out of the dim past. Proud, free and independent, these people are the salt of the earth.
1 Marta, wife of Kapidan Mark Gjon Marku (Gjon Markagjoni’s oldest son).
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