Ottoman History

“The Muslim Bonaparte” is Rising: The Building of Albania and Ioannina by A Skilled Landlord

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Ali Pasha of Ioannina was a powerful figure in Western Literature. While English poet Lord Byron was calling him “the Muslim Bonaparte” because of his diplomatic talents, French novelist Alexandre Dumas used him as a powerful leader in “the Count of Monte Cristo”.

The role of Ioannina (Yanya) as the heart of life in Albania

In this summary, I attempted to investigate the book “The Muslim Bonaparte: Diplomacy & Orientalism in Ali Pasha’s Greece (Princeton, 1999)” by Katherine Elizabeth Fleming who greatly examined Ali Pasha and his surroundings. I emphasized two chapters of this valuable work in probing the role of the geographic, economic, and cultural life of Ioannina. Besides these elements, Ali Pasha of Ioannina played a huge role in this society through his ambitious policies. Starting his carrier as the leader of brigands, he became the governor of Ioannina in the Ottoman Empire because of his military skills. Mahmud II eliminated him due to his growing power in Greece and Albania in 1822. 

Initially, K. E. Fleming claims that there is much shortage of Ali’s lands in his hand. We can learn about the geographic and sociologic structure in Ioannina and Albania from travelers’ writings. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Ioannina was a center of arts, “a focal point of Greek intellectual and educational activity”. (p. 36)

Ioannina was tremendous since “it had long-standing overseas contacts with Venice… and by land it had important links with Belgrade, Sarajevo, Vienna….” (p. 36) Ioannina was also a critical point on the map since in this area the living population was engaged in mercantile and commercial activities. That is to say, the main reason for these improvements was largely related to his economic policies. As a territory builder,

Ali married off his family members to surrounding chieftains to get a foothold in neighboring territories. (p. 36)

To be precise, Marriage arrangements contributed to his economic interest. Ali Pasha’s sons also used this way. There is much debate on the effects of Ali’s rule on his region’s economy. Some claim he did nothing but devastation, and his advocates argue that he saved the region from political chaos.

Ali Pasha’s “Trade Wars”: Every way is legitimate for the sake of economic gain

Today, the term “Trade Wars” was used by policital scientists to describe the fluctuating relationships between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping. However, in Ali’s time or the nineteenth century, trade wars were a common method in providing economic power in my view. For Fleming, “trade was used not just for economic gain but also as a political tool.” (p. 38) For example, Ali blockaded his ports to French ships and fostered Greek shipping for displaying his will and power. Moreover, Ali took at least one essential family member as a traveler prisoner, thus he guaranteed the family’s return to take that prisoner back.

Ali Pasha was depicted as a stingy landlord (ayan) in travelers’ notes. In Ioannina, his primary objective was to protect his wealth. Travelers also noted the local discontent with this policy. Ali’s public works for his use were funded in raising revenues and built by unpaid labourers. Even Ali increased the productivity and trade of his regions, he depleted and consumed these increased revenues through economically burdensome policies like extortion, high taxation, and forced donations.

Nevertheless, the overall results were

  •  the uniformity of economic law
  •  the freedom from piracy and brigands
  • a  mark in increased trade
  • a more cosmopolitan and literate population
  • a safer and more orderly society.
To succeed this, he

  • encouraged trade
  • promoted agricultural activity
  • established a comprehensive system of revenue collection
  • began a program of public works which fostered mobility and growth.
To sum up, even though Greek polemicists regarded him as “a rapacious [greedy, açgözlü] and avaricious [stingy, paragöz] ruler”, his consolidation and centralization policies led to the agricultural productivity” and contributed to the rise of a strong Ioanninite mercantile class.

Fleming claims that his power was affected by not only military strength but also his economic policies and his measures not just improved but also transformed the economic life of Ioannina. To understand how he succeeded in such an economic improvement, we need to look at six areas in Fleming’s point of view.

The lion of Ioannina in the Ottoman Mountains as a bandit

Ali’s first step to hold the power was banditry despite his family’s noble title. This is because rank and power were the reward after making renegade activities. Besides, banditry was a recognized mechanism in claiming primacy. The fame of a brigand leader is worthier than a title given by the sultan. Fleming underlines that “when a society undergoes increased institutionalization” (p. 41) people turned from brigandry [haydutluk] to military activity. Ali was an instance. This centralization blocked brigand activities. It is interesting that the relationship between the thieves and the militia was not always hostile. Thus, Ali made a transition from banditry to his first duty: Derbendler başbuğu [chief of police of the mountain passes].

To clarify the situation, the author distinguishes two different groups in Ioannina. On the one side “the armatoloi” “as a disciplinary force” and on the other the klephts who caused chaotic activities. The goal of the armatoloi was to control the klepths. By dealing with the klephts, Ali gained some economic wealth. After that, Ali himself switched to back brigandry and this increased his wealth. He attacked the neighboring territories and embezzled state funds. Thus, his insurrection undermined the government as a bandit again.

Finally, when he compromised the state about his power, he tried to eliminate brigandry. Prior to Ali’s time, brigandry was so pervasive that travel was virtually impossible. However, Ali’s measures brought about

the opening of the countryside to merchants, increased revenues, and improved living conditions! … Ali’s actions persuaded the valide sultan to give critical territories to him and he understood that internal security was a key component of successful empire building. (p. 43)

Donations, Castles, Education, and Public Works: Physical Marks of Ali Pasha in His Territories

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To demonstrate himself as a true ruler, he wanted to mark his mark on physical lands. Therefore, he began “a program of public works, building roads and lodges, improving communications routes, and encouraging trade.” (p. 39) He portrayed himself as “a benevolent and protective ruler” who improved people’s conditions in opening their lands and decorating them with architectural works. Besides, he was safeguarding himself against the possible revolts.

Ali spent his time traveling in his territories. These construction activities enabled him to make his travels easier. Summer homes and secondary residences were built for him in all major towns.

In addition to facilitating his travels, such structures provided the local population with a physical reminder of its overlord’s power over them. (p. 45)

These constructions like bridges and military lodges in passes also increased the safety and reliability of other routes. They altogether made Ioannina accessible to merchants regardless of their identity.

Ioannina was a center for numerous exports and imports and had annual fairs. Ali’s policy of preventing the emigration of families from his dominions by taking “hostages” developed trade as I mentioned above. Such local figures founded educational institutions. As a result, Ioannina gained as a place of letters that attracted students.

The close link between economic prosperity and the rise in literacy played a key role in the Greek War of Independence and made Ioannina a particularly desirable destination for a growing number of philhellenes. (p. 49)

Ali Pasha’s Economic Benefits or Peasantry’s Fiscal Losses: The Burden of Taxation in An Agricultural Society

A picture of Fethiye Mosque and Ali Pasha’s tomb in Ioannina

These taxes undermined many of the positive economic effects of his policies. Even as he encouraged growth in several sectors of the economy, he harmed it with his financial demands. Ali also generated the revenues demanded by the annual tribute to the sultan. In case of any payment, the prison was the punishment and giving ransom could change the situation. People were

exposed to a tax burden consisting of at least three tiers: the Porte sum had to be raised; Ali’s demands had to be met; and the tax collector had to raise an amount to cover the costs of leasing the right to collect the revenues. (p. 52)

This tax burden depressed industry and agricultural output in several areas. In addition “official” taxation, Ali also gained income from outright extortion. He imprisoned wealthy individuals to obtain their holdings.

Trade was the primary activity but countryside preferred agricultural activities and lived in a pastoralist lifestyle. Ali himself was from a pastoralist region, and most of his wealth was based on shepherding. Shepherds earned money for Ali and “paid an annual capitation tax (kefaliatikon) for each animal, plus a pasturage fee (nomistron) for the right to graze them.” (p. 49)

In addition to livestock, Ali founded a monopoly over the revenues in Lake Ioannina’s fisheries and exportable grains. The draining of marshes expanded the agricultural activities in the area. Moreover, Ali implemented his custom rules in borders and chose illegal trade if necessary. He preserved his monopoly in justifying new customs and illegal ways as official mechanisms.

The Direct Control of Lands Resulted in Greek Reaction

Ali practised taking direct control of privately held lands. It was “the most dramatic change” on the landholding patterns. Ali took control of these lands from the private landholders of the area, thus undermined timar. Lands were usurped in various ways. The impositions made on the landholders were so great that many sold off their Çiftliks (plots of land) to Ali and fled. Ali would automatically buy the land of individuals who left no inheritors.

The dissolution of the landed gentry through military conquest, usurpation of timar lands, and self-serving regulation, Ali set about populating them to ensure an increase in his tax revenues. He repopulated devastated areas and founded new towns to participate in the market. That shift led to the emergence of a proto-nationalism and the rise of a Hellenic consciousness.

The Cultural Triangle of Ali: Ethnic, Linguistic, and Religious Mindset of Ioannina

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Greek sailors were too much effective in mercantile activities in the Aegean Sea when the Ottomans dominated the Balkans.

In the Ottomans, Fleming highlights that economic and religious conflicts caused widespread nationalistic uprisings and cut across the communal categories of the empire in a new and destabilizing way. The Greek War of Independence was not a simple expression of religious and ethnic outcry find their roots in questions of class, social status, and economy.

Ali’s systematic destruction of old Turkish landed interests in the area and the consequent emergence of precisely the sort of new social order. (p. 59)

For Fleming, economic policies produced several proto-nationalist groups. These groups were defined by factors like religion, language, class, and ethnicity. People found a sense of identity and communal meaning in them but these factors did not mark discrete categories and the weight of each varied according to the circumstances. To exemplify, Albanians, settled in Greece, used as their primary tongue Greek, but practiced Islam and identified themselves as Albanian. Similarly, Turkish beys regarded Ali as untrustworthy: Albanian, Bektashi background marked him as such. In addition to these indigenous factors, there were also external influences like French and Russian in the changing communal groupings.

Ali was manipulator in this changing world and used communal groupings of his subjects in significant ways as he attempted to expand his power and establish his independence. Just as his economic policies fostered regional nationalisms, so too did this manipulation of the many socioeconomic divisions of his population.

The Angle of Ethnicity: “Nation” as territory

Ali used Greek in his court and Turkish for Istanbul but regarded himself as an Albanian.

In the territories of Ali’s paşalık, historical geographic origin played the most pivotal role in one’s identification and self-identification. (p. 61)

Ethnicity was mostly determined not by physiology, religion, or language but by geography. Albanian or Greeks were motivated by the physical land from which they came. The national consciousness of the Albanians was largely shaped by Albania’s resistance to Ottomans. Similarly, there was also a connection between ethnicity and land in Greek case. When philhellenes traveled the land, they looked for the places written by Homer. There is much connection between nationalist hopes and geography for Fleming.

In this regard, Ali realized the centrality of geography in the communal grouping. He insisted that Ioannina was Albanian and viewed the Albanians as indigenous inhabitants, not immigrants. He justified his struggle over the coastal Ioannina by claiming that they were part of “Albania.”

Language Matters: Living in a multi-lingual society

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Despite losing too much territory, the Ottoman Empire lasted to dominate vast geography at the beginning of the nineteenth century with a decentralized political system and destabilized economic control.

It was a defining element in the identity of Ali, his government and district. Albanians and Greeks exchanged their languages in the 18th century. Ali’s court gave up Turkish and preferred Greek. This use affected language, education, and culture.

Ali’s adoption of Greek signaled a stage in the development of Greek and played a determining role in its academic consolidation and codification. This official adoption was related to the predominantly Greek-speaking population. It made easier to link between the ruling class and ordinary people. His embracing of Greek in official business also furthered its education. Wealthy Greek merchants furthered education in Ioannina by endowing schools. These schools constituted the academic elite and they played roles in the Greek Independence. Ali depended on them to provide future members of his court with a background in Greek. In so doing, he also helped form a large Greek literary class.

The Consideration of Religion in Ali’s Lands

There were four groupings as Sunni, Bektashi Sufi, Orthodox, and Jewish. Greek revolutionary propaganda viewed church hierarchy in a bad way like Turkish beys and Greek merchants.

Class concerns led to the grouping of Greek merchants, Turkish beys, and Orthodox religious leaders under one heading. (p. 67)

The religion was not the religion of the church but the people. Ali did not persecute people due to their religion and he was a Bektashi. Nonetheless, he converted to Christianity to gain Greek support but it was unsuccessful. Religion was an “important symbolic point” in Ioannina.

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