“…the fire of a stove burning fiercely under a smooth and polished surface.”
Sir Henry Holland describing the demeanor of Ali Pasha, 1813 (1)
The graceful iron filigree cover over the tomb of Ali Pasha (1740-1822) bellies a larger than life reality for this “Robin Hood” of the Ottoman Empire. The famous Lion of Ioannina’s tomb is not to be missed when visiting the Castle of Ioannina. Yet this respected and feared ruler, a high-ranking noble of the Ottoman Empire, was a Greek speaking Epirote born in that northwestern most province of Greece, Epirus.
As a historian and journalist I have had extraordinary access to experts specializing in the convoluted 5,000+-year-old history of Greece. I’ve enjoyed many meals in small local tavernas and homes listening to life. Memories may differ, but in Ioannina it’s possible to explore layers of history intentionally preserved.
Epirus is a rugged, heavily forested and mountainous region largely made up of the Pindus Mountains. The ridges of the Pindus run north-south and generally are so steep that the valleys are suitable more for pasture than large-scale agriculture. The Adriatic coast of Epirus enjoys a Mediterranean climate while the interior is Alpine.
Considered the “spine of Greece,” the Pindus Mountains separate Epirus on the west from Macedonia and Thessaly to the east. It borders the Gulf of Corinth to the south and historically the northern frontier included a large part of today’s southern Albania. The partition of Epirus in the 1920s remains a tender issue.
On the shores of Lake Pamvotis, Ioannina is not an ancient city by Greek standards – 1,500 years old. Even though established in the 6th century by Byzantine Emperor Justinian, archaeologists have uncovered evidence of Hellenistic settlements dating thousands of years. Not far is Dodona, established in the 2nd millennium BC, the site of the Oracle of Dodona dedicated to Zeus. Considered by many equal to Delphi, it continued its pantheistic mission until the end of the 4th century AD.
The region surrounding Ionnina flourished for most of its history as it, and Epirus, were positioned on trade routes between the Aegean and Adriatic coasts and up to the Balkans. Traditional heavy woven and embroidered wool clothing, copper and wood kitchen utensils and intricate goods crafted from silver were Epirus exports along with exotic Asian products. It helped that close ties were forged with Macedonia when Olympias, daughter of the King of Epirus, married Phillip II and gave birth to Alexander the Great.
Traditionally the Epirotes spoke a Northwest Greek dialect, Aromanian, which in turn is a dialect of Vlach spoken in the Balkans south of the Danube River. Different from the Dorian of classical Greece, Epirotes, along with Macedonians, were regarded as “barbarians” by some during the Greek Golden Age. In Epirus and Macedonia the Aromanian dialect has waned in favor of modern Greek.
According to the Ottoman censuses of 1893, the city included a population of 3,334 Jews. These were not Sephardic Jews given protection by the Ottomans in the 15th century after the Spanish expulsion. These were Romaniote Jews who were firmly established in Greece as early as the 3rd century BC.
The Romaniote community thrived in Ioannina from the city’s Byzantine founding until its extermination in 1944 during the Holocaust. Less than 200 out of nearly 2,000 Romaniote Jews survived. Within the protective fortified walls of the Castle of Ioannina is the existing synagogue, constructed in 1829, located at 16 Ioustinianou Street. The names of the Ioanniote Jews who were killed in the Holocaust are engraved in stone on the walls of the synagogue.
Keller Street, just one of several pedestrian streets, runs from town center along the walls of the Castle (or Kastro) of Ioannina to the shore of Lake Pamvotis. Ioannina (elevation 470 meters/1,540 feet) fronts Lake Pamvotis, the only significant lake in Epirus (20 sq km/ 7.5 square mile). Both Keller Street and the lakefront are lined with cafes, bars, shops and vendors selling roast corn on the cob and chestnuts.
Hugging the shoreline of Lake Pamvotis for several kilometers is a wide and peaceful promenade with the thick, well preserved walls of the kastro on the opposite side. Often misrepresented as the “castle” of Ioannina, a kastro was a fortified city, usually including an easily defensible high point – its acropolis. The Kastro of Ioannina encompassed a sizable area including two acropoleis, religious, administrative, commercial and residential buildings.
The narrow, twisting, car defying streets of the Kastro are lined with a jumble of now fashionable historic commercial and residential structures. The streets are well signed pointing the visitor in the direction of major sites.
Head first for the Municipal Ethnographic Museum of Ioannina. This well curated, thoughtful and multi-lingual museum honors the cultural influences on Epirus and Ioannina in particular. It will provide you with information as well on the other important sites within the Kastro.
The Municipal Ethnographic Museum of Ioannina was the Aslan Pasha Mosque (1618 – 1933) one of two mosques within the Kastro. After brutally subduing the only serious Greek revolt in 1611, the reign of Aslan Pasha ushered in two centuries of regional and economic growth for Epirus. Politically within the Pashaluk (province) of Ioannina an uneasy but profitable peace was maintained among ethnic groups.
An old gate still provides the entrance to the Municipal Ethnographic Museum grounds. An 18th century library sits in a lot filled with wild grasses just opposite the gate. It’s in a state of unfortunate decay – unfortunate except to photographers.
The Aslan Pasha Mosque was a compact complex of mosque, madrasa (school) and practical out buildings such as the kitchen. The gracefully colonnaded madrasa, bordered by lush plantings, still evokes the quiet needed for deep thought.
Off to the side in the open near the roofless kitchen lies a display of remarkably preserved 15th century Byzantine Empire cannon clearly embossed with the double-headed Imperial Eagle. Situated atop the northeastern acropolis, the site was easily defensible with panoramic views of (modern day) Ioannina and the lake.
The Aslan Pasha Mosque is modest lacking any of the glitz that might be expected considering its patron wanted to cement the primacy of the Ottoman state. In 1933, 20 years after Epirus was reunited with Greece, the mosque was converted into the municipal museum. Considering the founding predates the Nazi Holocaust, it has gone through changes. Yet despite the 1924 Exchange of Populations and the 1944 Holocaust, the exhibit space in the entrance hall equally honors the legacies of Romaniote, Muslim and Greek Eporites.
The prayer hall of the Aslan Pasha Mosque seems frozen in time. Although the rugs that would have covered the floor are missing, the interior is a jewel box of minimalist Islamic script as art, color and deftly positioned windows all to draw the eye toward Mecca. It’s an extraordinary city museum that passes no judgment on the city’s history.
After an easy walk down the hill to the additionally fortified Citadel on the southeastern acropolis, a tomb honors another great Eporite – the Lion of Ioannina. Ali Pasha was born in northern Epirus to what is often described as “local Albanian nobility.” Yet the area, including his accepted birthplace of Tepelena, lies within the boundaries of historical northern Epirus that has been part of Albania only since the 1920s.
This “ethnicity” question brings up a recurring theme for countries that undergo historic transformations of population and identity. Ali Pasha was born Muslim, after Greece had been conquered, to an Eporite family ennobled by the Ottoman Empire. If identify was only based on religion, than should all Greeks revert to pantheism?
After his father’s assassination by political rivals when Ali Pasha was only a boy, his resourceful mother took revenge by successfully leading a band of brigands and teaching her young son the trade. He succeeded in recovering many times over his family fortune. From successful outlaw Ali rose as a state sanctioned warlord putting down rebellions that created order and prosperity within this mountainous region of the far-flung Ottoman Empire.
By the mid-1780s Ali was appointed by Constantinople as Pasha of Ioannina ushering in a golden age for the city. Although economically conservative (aka taxes), Ali Pasha’s court promoted the expansion of education, including Greek and Jewish schools. He spoke Greek, like most Eporites, and it was the official Court language. Ironically for this iron-fisted ruler, his Court supported what came to be known as the Greek Enlightenment – essential to the budding independence movement.
Under Ali Pasha’s forty-year reign Epirus achieved nearly autonomous status within the Empire. Its boundaries grew to their largest extent incorporating parts of western Macedonia and Thessaly as well as sections of northern Peloponnese. Yet personal fame earned Ali Pasha jealous enemies at the court in Constantinople.
Stripped of his position in 1820 at the age of 80 Ali Pasha refused to accept surrender. He died resisting at Ioannina in 1822 only enhancing his reputation as a respected opponent by his former enemies, including Sultan Mahmud II, and his legacy among Eporites as the Lion of Ioannina. He is buried next to Fethiye Mosque within the Citadel on the southeastern acropolis.
Greek Eporites were active in the 1821-1830 War for Independence, but separation from the Ottoman Empire was not achieved until 1913. Sir Henry’s reaction to Ali Pasha, a stove burning fiercely under a smooth and polished surface, could describe Epirus. With Ioannina as its capital, honoring the layers of history fuels a stronger future.
When you go: Ioannina is an easy 250 mile drive from Athens or 165 miles from Thessaloniki on modern highways. Numerous coach buses make the trip from Athens in 6 hours and 4½ hours from Thessaloniki. It is possible to fly from both cities to Ioannina.
Special Thanks: Although Epirus was a private trip extending a lengthy sponsored press tour concentrating on the Macedonian Front during World War I, I wish to thank Sofia Bournatzi of Pass Partout Tourism Marketing, DMC, Thessaloniki, and Kostas Doucas of Doucas Tours & Travel for encouraging me to start exploring Epirus.
(1) drawing of Ali Pasha by Louis Dupré, 1825, public domain