"At a distance we first beheld it, this city once, if not the largest, one of the prosperous and the most brilliant in the Turkish dominions, still looked imposing; but when I entered, I soon found that all preceding desolation had only been preparative to the vast scene of destruction now before me. We proceeded through a street winding in its course, but of very great length to our quarters. Ruined houses, mosques with their tower only standing, streets utterly rased. These are nothing. We met great patches of ruin a mile square as if a swarm of locusts had had the power of desolating the works of man as well as those of God. The great heart of the city was a sea of ruin. Arches and pillars isolated and shattered, still here and there jutting forth, breaking the uniformity of the desolation, and turning the horrible into the picturesque. The great bazaar, itself a little Town, was burnt down only a few months since, when an infuriate band of Albanian soldiers heard of the destruction of their chiefs by the Grand Vizier6."
Albanian warriors, horrified by the atrocious massacre which had taken place at Monastir, had indeed razed the great bazaar of Janina to the ground in revenge. Yet the city bustled with life. Disraeli had finally reached the Orient and was exhilarated by the atmosphere he encountered.
"Military chieftains, clothed in the most brilliant colors and most showy furs, and attended by a cortege of officers equally splendid, continually passed us. Now, for the first time, a Dervish saluted me and now a Delhi with his high cap reined in his desperate steed, as the suite of some Pacha blocked up the turning of the street. The Albanian costume, too, is inexhaustible in its combinations, and Jews and Greek priests must not be forgotten. It seemed to me that my first day in Turkey had brought before me all the popular characteristics of which I had read, and which I expected I occasionally might see during a prolonged residence.7... I longed to write an eastern tale."
Disraeli, who had bid farewell to his Albanian bodyguard and found accommodation at the house of a Greek physician, was overwhelmed. The next morning, after having delivered Sir Frederick's letter to the Grand Vizier's secretary, Disraeli, Clay and Meredith set out for the fortress, "greatly battered by successive sieges, but still inhabitable" for their audience with the Grand Vizier.
The audience hall was "the finest thing of the kind I had ever seen... built by Ali Pacha purposely to receive the largest Gobelin carpet that was ever made, which belonged to the chief chamber in Versailles, and was sold to him in the French Revolution." Some of the details of this scene were later to be incorporated into Disraeli's novel The Rise of Iskander, as were the accompanying descriptions of Janina at the foot of "purple mountains of picturesque form". Indeed much of what Disraeli saw and experience in southern Albania was used in his writing, not only in The Rise of Iskander, but also in Contarini Fleming and The Wondrous Tale of Alroy.
"Conceive a chamber of great dimensions, full of the choicest groups of an oriental population, each individual waiting by appointment for an audience, and probably about to wait for ever. It was a sea of turbans, and crimson shawls, and golden scarfs, and ornamented arms. I marked with curiosity the haughty Turk, stroking his beard, and waving his beads; the proud Albanian, strutting with his terragan, or cloak, dependent on one shoulder, and touching, with impatient fingers, his silver-sheathed arms; the olive- visaged Asiatic, with his enormous turban and flowing robes, gazing, half with wonder and half with contempt, at some scarlet colonel of the newly disciplined troops, in his gorgeous but awkward imitation of Frank uniforms; the Greek still servile, though no more a slave; the Nubian eunuch, and the Georgian page8."
The three mylort inglez were then received in the audience hall by the Grand Vizier who offered them coffee and pipes.
"Here I beheld, squatted up in a corner of the large divan, a little, ferocious-looking, shrivelled, care-worn man, plainly dressed, with a brow covered with wrinkles, and a countenance clouded with anxiety and thought... I seated myself on the divan of the Grand Vizier ('who', the Austrian consul observed, 'has destroyed in the course of the last three months', not in war, 'upwards of four thousand of my acquaintances') with the self-possession of a morning call. At a distance from the Grand Vizier, in a group on his left hand, were his secretary and his immediate suite. The end of the saloon was lined with lackeys in waiting, in crimson dresses, with long silver canes... We congratulated him on the pacification of Albania. He rejoined that the peace of the world was his only object, and the happiness of mankind his only wish: this went on for the usual time. He asked us no questions about ourselves or our country, as the Turks did, but seemed quite overwhelmed with business, and, although courteous, moody and anxious. While we were with him, three separate Tartars arrived with despatches. What a life! And what a slight chance for the gentlemen in the antechamber9!"
Disraeli spent a 'wondrous week' in Janina with visits to military leaders and local dignitaries, and experienced scenes comparable 'to anything in The Arabian Nights'. In a letter written to Austen from Nauplia on 18 November 1830, he wrote of the delight he felt "at being made much of by a man who was daily decapitating half the province."
From Janina, the party proceeded to Corinth, Athens and Constantinople and then on to the Middle East. Further adventures came to an abrupt end on 19 July 1831, however, when William Meredith died of smallpox in Cairo. It was a tragic loss for Disraeli who abandoned the tour and returned to England. He reached English soil by the end of October 1831, and was now about to embark upon another adventure: a double career as a politician and as a writer.
Disraeli the writer and 'The Rise of Iskander'
Benjamin Disraeli was an imaginative and witty writer though he is not usually considered to have been among the sublime literary figures of his age. His best novels, Coningsby: or the New Generation (1844) and Sybil: or the Two Nations (1845), are entertaining and embody, as one might suspect of a statesman, his political creed: a mixture of social response to the misery created by the Industrial Revolution and of idealism and faith in the monarchy and the aristocracy to give proper leadership to the working class. Present in much of his work are a dash of adventure in foreign locales and a touch of oriental philosophy, the "great Asian mystery" which the author was wont to profess. It was Disraeli's tour of the East which proved to be decisive not only for his political thinking and his attitudes in foreign policy, but also for the Levantine atmosphere which comes to the fore in many of these novels and romances: Contarini Fleming: a psychological autobiography (1832), The Wondrous Tale of Alroy (1833), Tancred: or the New Crusade (1847), and Lothair (1870).
A fine example of Levantine atmosphere was Disraeli's The Rise of Iskander (1833), a prose work based on the life of the Albanian prince and national hero George Castriota (Alb. Gjergj Kastrioti), better known as Scanderbeg (1405-146 .
The Rise of Iskander is a short novel or novelette, 113 pages in the 1904 edition. It was most likely written in the southwestern English town of Bath in the winter of 1832-1833, two years after Disraeli's Albanian tour and was first published in London in 1833 together with the novel The Young Duke. The plot of the novel, which is divided into twenty-two chapters, may be summarized as follows:
1.) The tale begins with a description of a noble stranger in Albanian dress on the Acropolis in Athens. It is the Turkish commander Iskander who has come to visit his youthful friend Nicaeus, Prince of Athens, before departing for war as the head of the Epirotes. A crypto-Christian, Iskander betrays to Nicaeus his abhorrence now at having for the first time to make war on his own religion and his own country. 2.) Iskander, the 'Grecian Prince' from Croia, capital city of Epirus, who as a child had been given over to the Sultan as a hostage and educated as a Moslem and warrior in Adrianople, must now prepare for the battle between the invading Christian forces under John Hunniades and the Turks under Karam bey. He bids farewell to his friend Nicaeus. 3.) Iskander, now at the Turkish camp near Mount Haemus, discusses battle plans with Karam bey. 4.) At night, Iskander disguises himself and slips over to the Christian camp to reveal himself to Hunniades. There he first meets the latter's fair daughter, Lady Iduna, who shows a marked interest in his presence. Iskander announces to Hunniades his unwillingness to fight Christian forces and his intention of defecting from the Turkish side. 5.) The battle scene during which Iskander calls upon his men, "All who love their country, follow me!" and, with his five thousand Epirote horsemen, abandons the battle and takes flight. 6.) Iskander returns to Croia which he takes by a ruse. The town is liberated to cries of "The Cross, The Cross! Liberty! Greece! Iskander and Epirus!" 7.) Word of the fall of Croia spreads. The castle of Petrella, too, is taken and all of Epirus is freed. Nicaeus arrives on the scene. The tragic news is announced of Lady Iduna's capture by the Turks. Nicaeus, obviously in love with Iduna, plots with Iskander to rescue Iduna from the Seraglio in Adrianople. 8.) Iskander, arranging for affairs in Epirus to be taken care of, announces his immediate departure. The two heroes reach Adrianople, Iskander dressed as an Armenian physician and Nicaeus at his side disguised as a page. Nicaeus reveals to Iskander his love for Iduna who is reported to be pining away in captivity. A reward of one hundred purses of gold is said to be offered to anyone who can cure her. 9.) Iskander presents himself to the Chief Eunuch with a bribe and offers to cure the captive lady. 10.) The eunuch introduces Iskander and Nicaeus into the Seraglio. The Armenian physician meets Iduna and reveals to her in Greek that he is acting on behalf of Nicaeus, Prince of Athens. She is to ready herself for escape. 11.) Mahomed, her captor, who has sworn to have the heart of Iduna and the head of Iskander before the new moon, meets the foreign physician. Iskander advises him to plunge his scimitar into the fountain of Kallista in Epirus at midnight and call out the name of the enemy he desires to meet. 12.) Iduna is rescued and the three escape on horseback. Iskander is now torn between his growing affection for Iduna and his friendship with Nicaeus. The party is pursued by the Turks. Iskander, finally revealing his identity to Iduna, remains behind at a three-arched bridge to fight off the pursuers, while his companions take flight into the mountains. Iskander defeats the Turks single-handedly. 13.) In a wild ravine, Nicaeus and Iduna find shelter in the cavern of an Eremite. Nicaeus resolves to have Iduna, by abduction if needs be. 14.) Nicaeus declares his love for Iduna and is rejected. 15.) Nicaeus and Iduna depart for Epirus and spend the night at the home of the former's friend Christo, the father of seven daughters. 16.) Nicaeus and Iduna carry on to a fair castle, said to be owned by one Justinian, and take quarters there. 17.) A feast scene. 18.) Nicaeus delays at the castle and tries in vain to please Iduna who wishes to proceed to find her father. The castle of Kallista overlooking the Ionian Sea proves to be Nicaeus' own, and Iduna is now his prisoner. 19.) Iduna escapes out of the window and flees at midnight to a fountain in a grove of olive trees. There to her horror, she comes upon Mahomed, plunging his sword into the water and calling out the name of Iskander. At this moment, Iskander and Hunniades rush forth from the wood to rescue Iduna. Mahomed and Iskander agree to do battle with their respective forces the following day. Iduna tells Iskander and her father of her second captivity. The repentant Nicaeus then arrives on the scene and is forgiven by Iduna and Iskander. 20.) An account of Iskander's earlier return to Croia and his endeavours to find Iduna and Nicaeus. The battle between the Christian forces and the Turks culminates in a Christian victory due in great part to the heroism of the Prince of Athens. 21.) Mahomed is routed and takes flight. The mortally wounded Nicaeus withdraws over a mountain pass to die in solitude at a Doric temple. 22.) Iskander receives the hand of the fair Iduna to jubilant cries of "God save Iskander, King of Epirus!"