In 1908 the writer Edith Durham ventured for the first time beyond the wooded Has hills into the territory we today know as Kosovo. She was very chuffed to stand at the top of Prushi Pass and look down towards Gjakovë.
“I beheld it as a dream city,” Edith Durham writes in her book High Albania, in which she uses an alternative spelling for the town: Djakova. “I thought of the aching days of toil I had gone through vainly five years before, only to be turned back. I hurried down the stony track — too steep for riding — on foot. Finally, we came down to the banks of the Erenik. On the farther bank lay Djakova, golden in the evening glow.”
Once inside the town, Durham discovered that the warm glow of Balkan hospitality was tarnished by communal strife. “My wish to go through town caused much nervousness,” she records. Just prior to Durham’s arrival in Gjakovë, a Muslim policeman had shot dead a Christian in the town’s market.
The climate of fear which Edith Durham encountered in many Kosovo communities finds a parallel in more recent Kosovo history. The rough track over Prushi Pass ( Qafa e Prushit in Albanian) was seen on television screens across the world in late March 1999 as film crews recorded the flight of Muslim refugees from Gjakovë. In a single day, more than 5000 people trudged through mud and sleet to reach Albania.
That a book written more than one hundred years ago might still be relevant to travellers today says much about Edith Durham’s nuanced appreciation of issues of identity and nationhood.
That a book written more than one hundred years ago might still be relevant to travellers today says much about Edith Durham’s nuanced appreciation of issues of identity and nationhood. Her Kosovo journey took place at a critical juncture in the political affairs of the region.
Less than one month before Edith Durham rode on horseback over Prushi Pass, the Young Turk revolution had shaken the Ottoman world. Sultan Abdul Hamid II capitulated to pressure for reform and in July 1908 he restored the 1876 constitution with the promise of multi-party elections and enhanced rights for non-Muslims. These dramatic developments ushered in a period of great optimism in Kosovo (where the Young Turk movement commanded a strong following). But that optimism was sometimes laced with apprehension, as in Gjakovë, where Edith Durham encountered a worry that the constitution was merely a device to allay the fears of Christians who would in time be massacred.
Such was the climate of distrust which prevailed in Kosovo in Edith Durham’s day. A similar distrust still inflects everyday life in the fledgling country. Inclusiveness is the official order of the day and many enlightened Kosovo politicians recognise that the government needs to come to an accommodation with the country’s Serb minority.