In the 1941 - 1942 the DISTAPTUR publishing house of Tirana had planned to publish a book by the great albanologist Father Giuseppe Valentini SJ, which would collect his articles published in the Albanian tourism magazine "DRINI". This is the fourth article, ALESSIO.
The current town that stretches between the foot of the hill and the bank of the Drino occupies the place of the ancient market along the river port; further on, in a creek now almost entirely underground, between Alessio and the current port of S. Giovanni di Medua, there was also the seaport, called the nymphaeum.
The position is the most favorable, strategically and commercially. Two good harbors, sufficient for the needs of the ancient canals, well guarded against enemy enterprises from the heights above them, rich in agricultural products (the plain of Zadrima) and mining (territory of the Pirusti, probably the current southern Medizia); important roads that lead to it, one river (the Drino), the other terrestrial for Dagno (now Vau i Dejës) where it forked going on one side to Scutari, on the other up the Drino valley to Apicaria (Puka) and Naissus (Nish in Serbia) and from there to Singidunum (Belgrade).
It is therefore no wonder that the Illyrians had placed one of those characteristic fortifications that they always lurked on the last hill at the mouth of each valley, and it certainly could not surprise them that by undertaking Dionigi the old man of Syracuse an Adriatic imperial policy, he placed there the eye and led a colony that was then flourishing and sumptuous.
It is true that some might question whether this Dionysian colony is our Lissos or Lissa in Dalmatia and not without good arguments, not least, albeit negative, what so far in Alessio a coin of the Syracusan origin was not found. Furthermore, the sumptuous description of the buildings of such a colony that gives us Polybius would rather be attributed to the metropolis. The fact is, however, that the ruins emerging even today up the slope of the hill where the castle stands and where the city once stood attest undoubtedly that Greek art flourished there and made it a magnificent urban center. At the next dig you dig the last word.
However the Syracuse empire in the Adriatic did not survive its founder, Dionigi the old.
Alessio with the rest of Illyria went subject to the alternate story of the hours domination of the Illyrian kings residing in Scutari, now of the Macedonian kings.
We mentioned the lack of Syrian-Syrian numismatic material in this region; however, we have some later pieces of Agathocles, and above all, of the local currency, perhaps autonomous, of the era and of fruit salad. The symbols of Jupiter, the goat and the lightning predominate.
A brief excursion up the hill is very interesting, among the magnificent white marble bases of the ancient buildings, up to the Venetian castle.
Venice, in fact, that, for commercial and strategic reasons, considered Alessio "the right eye of Durres", as soon as he was the master of this great emporium, he worked to be able to also buy the city of Drino, buying it from the Dukagjini who came down from the nearby Kalimeti perhaps two centuries had placed there the capital of their vast fiefdoms.
And in fact in the 1393 Alessio was Venetian and this remained uninterruptedly and faithfully until the 1479. Venice governed it by means of an administrator, leaving the municipal government to a "voivode of the men of Alexis".
The ancient Roman castle had already been so badly reduced since then that it could no longer speak of restoration. Venice replaced one in place of the ancient city, and it is the one that still exists today, remodeled here and there by the Turks.
But unfortunately, in addition to the city walls, no more monument attests to the historical events that made Alessio one of the sanctuaries of Albanian national history: not the cathedral of St. Nicolò, episcopal seat already in the IV century. There, guests of Venice, the Albanian princes must be gathered in parliament when Skanderbeg in the 1443 returned to his homeland, he called them to form a league against the Turkish and he was appointed head. There the hero, having come to arrange a last campaign in agreement with the Venetians, was struck by a late infection of autumnal malaria and was executed to death in January of the 1468. His body lay in this cathedral until the revered bones were dispersed by the invaders after only eleven years.
The population of Alessio, already Romanized at the time of Livio so much as to constitute an «oppidum civium romanorum» remained lukewarmly Latin until the XV century as Durazzo, Scutari, Dulcigno, Antivari and the cities of Dalmatia: of the language used therein, similar but distinct from veneto, we have interesting documentation in the "chapters" or instances presented by that community in the Venetian Senate.
But also the Albanian population of the suburb and of the district competed in fidelity to the Serenissima with the Latins of the city: still in 1571, while the battle of Lepanto was being prepared, the populations of these surroundings, organized by someone from the Dukagjini family, were preparing to drive out the Turks from the castle and deliver it to Venice, and they would have done it if they were supported.
After the bridge, we pass under the remade of the PP hospice: Franciscans, an old tradition wants that s. Francesco, returning from the East, passed away here founding the Hospice and thus giving rise to Albanian Franciscanism. Certainly the Franciscans begin to appear in Albania from the earliest times.
From Alessio to Scutari
We now enter the fertile and beautiful plain of Zadrima. Looking at Alessio we left behind, we can again enjoy the view of Lissos city and the Acrissis. The majestic mountain of Velia dominates, a classic name that recalls the Velia of Lucania. What relationship will there be between the two?
The first town we meet is Balldreni, an ancient toponym that means "front of Drino", which in fact the Drino we go along. Now it's just a toponym; in the past it was a flourishing village, a fiefdom of the Dukagjini in compensation for the lands that were damaged by the Turks; the little church that rises on the last spur of hills is among the ancient ones of the region, and from the Ippen it is assigned to the XIV century; a small stone on the apse on the outside, we witness the devotion of the Dukagjini of the Perlati branch who put it in the 1462, when already from 59 years enjoyed that fief:
MEMTO DNE FAMULUM
TVV PERLAFARUM CUM
Remember, Lord, of your servants the Perlates with all their friends.
Their friends of Balldreni with all their descendants are now dead and their crumbling houses are scattered across the desolate hill: what the Turks did not do, the "sanguis" and the malaria in three centuries, was done by cholera at the beginning of last century, and poor Balldreni with her little church looks sadly at the mouth of the deadly swamp that rots between the two rows of stony hills.
Now it runs along the limestone chain called Kakarriqi from the village that is at the foot towards the middle: an impressive group of two-sided pebbles, which a few decades ago, so sparsely overhanging the road, gave the shiver to the passengers and the caravans passing by on horseback. It was also a village of some importance and a fief of the Dukagjini with Balldreni; the church is somewhat of the same age and type. Also Kukli we see leaning against the hill a little further away from the point where the road turns off has had a larger population and a certain number of small feudal lords under the Venetians.
Proceeding now on the plain we meet Barbullushi, the village, we would say, of S. Barbara. Barbarossi used to say the Venetians, although there is no memory of St. Barbara. Instead, on a tiny slope to the right of the road before leaving the village altogether, we see a small church restored, small but glorious with great memories.
In the Venetian period, Barbullushi was very flourishing with a large population and many of those small feudal lords called "proniari" who, in return for the "communal" lands that they enjoyed in concession, served in war with their men and horses as good street riders; then the church was served by a large chapter clergy, headed by an archpriest with the title of Crosignor (perhaps something like the "monsignor") with rich incomes and valuable exemptions.
Later, under the Turk, excluding the bishop of Scutari from his residence in the city, this small church which by coincidence was dedicated to St. Stephen as the cathedral, replaced it and was enriched with indulgences and privileges; here lived the great bishop Bogdani, the most learned of the Albanian writers of the seventeenth century, but he was the last one because he had to flee them persecuted by the Muslim begs and agas who had replaced the Venetian proniari.
Passing through some light little hills, we come to another sector of the Drin plain, and we see a beautiful green hill in front of which a beautiful church stands out: it is Bushati, the last term to which the vast extension of the scutar lords' vineyards in the Middle Ages was pushed ; this also earned her the name of Bulchia (campaign) big. There one wants to take refuge a scion of the Cernovichis lords of Zeta and Montenegro, giving rise to a family that in the eighteenth century, seized by Scutari and freed almost entirely from the game of Stambul, made a place in history precisely as Bustatli.
With all the pomp and comfort required by the Turkish customs of the time, and that the commercial wealth of Scutari then allowed, this sort of dynastic cradle of the vesirs of Scutari became a true place of pleasure that he wanted to compete in his own small way with the villas around Stambul; gardens and baths, orchards and vineyards and hunting estates, all ruined and disappeared with the fall of the Bushatli, leaving only a memory in the legends and toponymy.
The group of low hills towards which we approach after Bushati responds to the name of Beltoja, the medieval Blatomia.
It is one of the strategic positions that had the greatest importance in all the siege of Scutari. In the 1478, at the top of these hills Mahomet II pitched the curtains and from there he looked out over the immense his camp spread throughout the Zadrima up to the Drinassa flowing at the foot of the castle of Scutari; on this top, then lined with trees and pleasant, the large Veronese canvas is to be seen, which on the ceiling of the Senate hall in Palazzo Ducale reminds Venice of Scutarina's loyalty.
Inside the valleys that run along the sides of the hill between Beltoja and Berditza on the night of the 9 February 1813 were lurking the Turks and the sibranos of Esad pasha Toptani who supported the siege of Scutari; the Serbs, moved by Bushati to the aid of the Montenegrins, came with the usual arrogant confidence, when, entangled in the fences, they began to feel the thick hail of the machine-guns lurking, the rifle fire, the deadly cannons; but, as stubborn as ever, they tried and tried again, when from their and our right, they began to feel enmeshed they had to give up leaving little more than 250 prisoners and the rest, a thousand, of dead; the bare and yellowish hill that we touch on our left is a whole cemetery.
The article by Father Giuseppe Valentini SJ was published in N. 4 - Year II of DRINI - Monthly Bulletin of Albanian Tourism - Tirana, Sunday 1 June 1941.
The original photographs come from the Archive of Franco Tagliarini
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