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Ali Pasha – the Lion of Ioánnina

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As an “heroic rebel”, the Muslim Albanian Ali Pasha assumes an ambivalent role – for his only consistent policy was that of ambition and self-interest. As frequent as his attacks on the Ottoman authorities were, he also engaged in acts of appalling savagery against his Greek subjects. Despite this, he is still held in some regard by locals for his perceived role as a defier of Istanbul, the common enemy – folk postcards of the man abound, and a platía in the citadel is named after him.

Ali was born in 1741 in Tepelene, now in modern Albania, and by 1787 had been made pasha of Tríkala as a reward for his efforts in the war against Austria. His ambitions, however, were larger, and the following year he seized Ioánnina, an important town since the thirteenth century, with a population of 30,000 – probably the largest in Greece at the time. Paying perfunctory and sporadic tribute to the sultan, he operated from here for the next 33 years, allying himself in turn, as strategy required, with the Ottomans, the French or the British.

In 1809, when his dependence upon the sultan was nominal, Ali was visited by the young Lord Byron, whom he overwhelmed with hospitality and attention. Byron, impressed for his part with the rebel’s daring and stature, and the lively revival of Greek culture in Ioánnina, commemorated the meeting in Childe Harold. This portrait that he draws, however, is ambiguous, since Byron well knew that behind Ali’s splendid court and deceptively mild countenance were “deeds that lurk” and “stain him with disgrace”.

Ali met a suitably grisly end. In 1821, the Ottoman sultan resolved to eliminate Ali’s threat to his authority before tackling the Greek insurgency, and he sent an army of 50,000 to capture him. Lured from the security of Ioánnina citadel with false promises of lenient surrender terms, he was ambushed, shot and decapitated, his head sent to Istanbul. The rest of Ali supposedly lies in the northeast corner of the inner citadel.

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