We are now in the Matja valley, at its outlet towards the plain and the sea. It is one of the most feared ways of invasion that from the distant times threatened Durazzo, Alessio and all of central Albania.Hence it is recalled that Philip V of Macedonia descended to occupy the Illyrian-Roman bulwark of Alexis, from which we saw that the Turkish army led by the traitor Hamza, grandson of Skanderbeg, descended.
The town, in its toponymy, seems to preserve some memories in "Bulgri", the mountainous region that we see in front of us on the right of the river: perhaps, passing from there the Bulgarians who went as far as Durazzo, they left a colony there.
Looking in that direction, beyond the vast shoreline, we contemplate the series of the last slopes that accompany the Matja to the sea. To the left of the viewer of the tallest of them (recognizable by the new winding road that cuts the coast) at a certain point of the saddle stands the church of Bëdhana (toponym referred here and there with the inexact spellings of Pedana, Pezana, Pilana , Pdhona) is a medieval construction that for the remains of its frescoes deserves to be visited by the Byzantine art lover.
On the last hill, barren and reddish, the usual popular tradition that also refers to the fact that there have been so many houses in the past "from being able to pass the roof of a cat through a vast stretch", puts us to attention, it is not a question of one ancient city or at least castle. Even its position, as the last buttress of a valley outlet on the plain, reminds us of the ancient local custom of exploiting these positions for the construction of city-castles.
And in fact Livio tells us that in the year 168 a.
C., Gentio, the last Illyrian king, put himself in defense against the Romans and sent his brother to occupy the region as far as Caravantis (Kurbini) to the left of the Matja, to support the expedition, tried to lurk in a city, five miles away from Alessio, called Bassania, while his fleet kept the sea and the coast in awe. But the Bassanii were allies of the Romans, (as indeed was the whole Illyrian population) and they did not see the king beone and fratricide too favorably, while they did not have cha to be praised of the just Roman government; therefore they closed the doors in front of him who came with beautiful promises and set about supporting the siege.
The praetor Anicio, sure of them, did not hurry to bring direct help but he gave him to the gentian fleet, thus getting rid of the coast between the Boiana and the Voiussa from the continuous threat of landings and looting, and forcing Gentio, who was uncovered next to the sea, retreating hastily to Scutari. Thus Bassania remained free.
He wonders now where the ancient Bassania was. Old writers, deceived by an apparent similarity of names, yielded to recognize it in Elbasan.
But, besides knowing that this city is Turkish by name and by construction and that the city that occupied its place in Roman times was called not Bassania but Scampa, from Alessio to Bassania it was measured five miles, while up to Elbasan the distance is much greater; nor can it be understood how Gentio could have ventured so far with the danger of being cut off by the Roman garrison of Durazzo, while his brother - whom he had pushed forward - would have had to content himself with reaching as far as Kurbini.
And then what relationship with naval operations could a city as inland as Elbasan? For these reasons the Patsch (and already others before him) opted for Bëdhana, whose position corresponds to all the data. F. Andrea Mjedja also observed that the two toponyms also correspond phonetically to each other: reduced to the primitive form «Ba» the first syllable now weakened in «Bë» with and changes according to the modern habit, the difference «ssadha» remains; but it is known that the Latin, poor in signs and sounds, reproduced the foreign names with its alphabet, and in particular we know that to reproduce a Gallic sound akin to the current Albanian "dh", it resorted to the aes. Here is how Bassania is nothing but a Latin transcription of Badiana.
We arrived at the beautiful and long Vittorio Emanuele III bridge on the Matja, built some years ago by the Albanian Economic Development Society. Beyond it, the road forks; with an hour of available time, taking the right branch that goes up through the Matja valley and then that of its tributary Fandi, we can make an excursion to Robigu, an ancient Ascension monastery which, like other sanctuaries of the same name in Albania, it is perched on the top of an isolated and characteristically sharpened hill. Accessing it, one has the impression of approaching a proud medieval castle still in efficiency. The church is not large, and at various times tampered with, it still preserves in the beautiful frescoes of the apse the central and most significant part of what was to be a great artistic poem of the Eucharist. At the center the Redeemer and around, in a wise arrangement adherent to the architecture, the Madonna, St. John the Baptist, the theories of the Apostles who are devoted to the invitation "accipite et manducate, accipite et bibite", there is no lack of other saints and the abbot church builder. The fact of the Latin writings and not undoubted stylistic signs lead to see that the apparently Byzantine work is by the hand of a Western artist, one of those that spread from Latin Dalmatia very deeply into Albania. It is commonly said that the destruction of the previous church took place in the year 1267 at the hands of Andrea Vrana, the dominion of King Manfredi in Durazzo and then that of Urosio.
From the height of the esplanade, the view extends over the valley as if from a vertiginous aerial observatory, presenting a suggestive mixture of grandiose, beautiful horrid, peaceful peace in the olive groves and fields.
Returning to our street, past the Bëdhana saddle and descending for fearful zigzags again on the flat, we go along the so-called Montagna d'Alessio, a system of karst hills, very tormented and picturesque with their olive trees, tufts of green and rocky vegetation. , the lonely stone houses. It is the headquarters of the Four Flags of the Tribe of Zhuba, a strong and proud tribe that for some centuries has been inextricably linked with the Five Banners of Mirdita. If it is true that the house of Gjomàrkaj is a descendant of the Dukagijni, the fact could be explained by recalling how precisely in Alessio the Dukagjini had their main center until the end of the XIV century.
The road we take must have been followed by Philip V of Macedonia, when in the 213 a.
C., with a trip of two days, "overcome the jaws of the Artaxan (Matja)", came to occupy Alessio.
The dramatic description of his enterprise, as found in Polibio, will allow us to reconstruct the events on the spot, and also to better determine the ancient toponyms.
From somewhere on the road along the "plain of Tirana" and the Arben, and now all the more closely, the gaze of the traveler is attracted by a high, isolated, sugar-loaf hill that rises to the north; this too today bears the name of the Redeemer or of the Ascension. Now next to him, on our left, we also see another hill, considerably lower, with a flat top crowned with walls. Polybius will allow us, as we shall see, to assert that the low hill was the Syracusan walled colony of Lissos (now Alessio) founded by Dionigi the Elder while on the Ascension hill, now crowned by a "tyrbe" or marabout, was erected the Acropolis, Acrolissos. Only many centuries later the Acrissis was definitively abandoned, when the Venetians found them too badly damaged
rebuild it, and built or reinforced the castle crowning the low hill of the city.
At the time of Philip the Romans had entrusted the walled city and the Acropolis to the most loyal Illyrian population, although perhaps not yet supported by a Roman colony, and in the reputation of warlike people.
The Macedonian king, approaching as we do, and observing the high and inaccessible position of the Acropolis, certainly despaired of ever being able to buy it by force, went so far as to recognize the terrain.
Between the Acropolis and the city there is a slightly narrow saddle, which at that time was covered with bush. Here the attention of Philip stopped and his action took its place.
After a first tasting skirmish and a day of rest, before dawn came, he sent for cover in the shade of the bush on the saddle, the bulk of his well-trained army of what to do.
When it was day, he turned the hill of the city towards the Drino on the other side, and pushed a small group of light armed men to the assault, to tempt the numerous defenders, because Illyrian volunteers had gathered there even from afar. After brave skirmishes, the assailants retreat to their plain companions and, pursued by the Illyrians, all pretend a disorderly flight towards the sea.
The defenders of the Acropolis, - few, because the place defended themselves - by observing this spectacle from above did not move and, first hesitating at the calls of duty, then running, attracted by the hope of prey, abandon the guard and they throw themselves down in pursuit.
So much was expected Filippo, good connoisseur of this ancient and ugly soldier's vice, the lyric that so many misfortunes caused the nation: after a first and magnificent victorious impetus, to give himself to dead body to the booty.
The bulk of the Filipino army then came out of the woods, climbed the Acropolis hill, and defeats of the few remaining - if there were any - occupied it permanently, surrounding it with good guard posts.
At a given sign the fugitives turn and repel the Alexandrians who are forced to return to the city where they barricade themselves. The same would be done for those of the Acropolis in their place, but as soon as they have taken the climb, they run into the guard posts that cut them off. The Acropolis was lost!
The next day, after a fierce assault, the city was also in Filippo's hands.
As can be seen, if the Acropolis, as some believe, had been in place of the present castle, all this strategy would lack a topographical foundation, because there is no space between this hill and the river. One difficulty, however, is still to be found: having attempted the inspection several times, turning round and around the top of the Acropolis by plane, you could not see traces of ruins, as others claim to have noticed you going there in person; it is true that also other ancient constructions erected with the same limestone of the mountain in other localities, once in ruins, are confused with the mountain in an unrecognizable way. Instead it seems to be able to recognize a striking street layout perhaps Roman up the coast, open with large zigzag escarpments in the rock.
Now looking instead towards the sea, we observe a vast swampy plain, evidently formed by the Drino delta. Up until the Middle Ages, a good part of it must have been understood by the two branches with which the river flowed into the gulf while now it is all a maze; and this is demonstrated by the toponym, since then attested and still subsisting of Isola d'Alessio (Ishulli i Lezhes). When the Venetians in the 1479 had to cede the city with the burning castle to the Turks, this island, previously prepared despite the malaria, and fortified with trenches, embankments and gabions, were reserved as last foot on the ground; thus, against the cannons, it served better than with the stone walls, and it is to be calculated that it is one of the first steps of the new art of fortification against artillery based on soft building material, while the other based on the pentagonal profile of the bastion dating back some thirty years, and yet the Venetians who knew them well, it is not known why, did not put it in these regions.
The Sultan insisted at every opportunity to exclude them also from the Island which seemed to him a thorn planted on his side, but they were precisely a deaf ear because, besides the strategic importance of the landing place, a good market had begun to flourish: with Antivari and Dulcigno on one side and Durazzo on the other, could say that they still had the commercial control of high and middle Albania, after having lost their political dominion.
The negotiations went on for a long time for years and years. In 1504 the secretary Zorzi Negro had to be sent to Constantinople with the instruction to cede the island when it could no longer be resisted, which occurred, but on his return, Zorzi providentially fell ill and died in Corfu; it did not take any better for the Senate, which, preaching the lack of report of its secretary on the conditions of the delivery, could procrastinate until the 1506, when after long and dramatic discussions that lasted for days and weeks, it finally had to… procrastinate again.
It is not known to resist the temptation to bring back here the naive, realistic and moving relationship that the good Venetian merchant Girolamo Priuli makes of it in his diary: «Mr. Turcho really did not have the great instant instant appeal to the Statto Veneto, which was at the heart of having that citade of Alessio, called Chussi, in Albania, because if he said that in the conclusion of peace he had been granted and that he had a place of very little moment, et, still that if he called citade, tamen hera of very little moment et locho quassi without people and it could be called deshabitatto. And, still above that I have written about this difficulty to render this locus to Mr. Turcho, who gave it to the disputed Senate very much, tamen, wholly wanting Mr. Turcho so much a great Mr. to have it, he needed the Venetian Fathers, inclined see, return it, because the Venetian forces could not resist the great Turkish power. Tamen these Venetian Fathers, who always longing for indusia and prolonging as much as they could, retreated the cossa in longum and for similar reasons they did not send the Baylo to Constantinople, because they did not know how they could send the Baylo to Constantinople and which he acted out to Great Lord, not wanting to satisfy him by giving him this locho de Alessio, and by force he agreed to give it to his own. Hence the iterum in el Consyl of Pregadi was over great disputation in this matter. Tandem, post fine, I deliberate de differ and prolong more than if you could. And for this cauxa certiam, the Baylo in Constantinople does not expedate that the sary in the matter in order to be able to understand the trends and progress of that Lord ».
In reality, the Sultan with his insistence showed that he attributed much importance to the Isle of Alessio that he did not pretend, and from the Venetian side the Provveditore Bon justified the tergiversazioni of the Senate by telling us that «lost this insula, all the coast is lost not if I hope the meter in Albania ».
Finally they gave up. and they gave order to the retreat, ordering the artillery to also remove the faithful inhabitants who were worthily placed in Venetian territory as their brothers in Scutari.
From then on, in the desolate island, the ditches were filled, the embankments returned to slime, and no trace reminds the fisherman and the hunter of ducks of the last bastion of Venice on the banks of the Drino.
The article of Father Giuseppe Valentini S.
J. was published in N. 3 - Year II of DRINI - Monthly Bulletin of Albanian Tourism - Tirana, Thursday 1 May 1941
The original photographs come from the Archive of Franco Tagliarini
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