Twenty Years of Balkan Tangle

How a British Lady became Queen of the Albanian mountains

Maria Wiesner


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It was in the town of Shkodra, in northern Albania, that I first picked up the name Edith Durham. Strolling the streets in the dry midday sun, I was looking for a museum, but nobody could give me the right directions. so I kept on wandering through dusty roads and suddenly faced a street sign bearing her name. In the middle of Albania, it was somewhat alien. Who was this lady? I asked my Albanian friends. She was a British traveller, an artist, and an ethnologist, they told me. But how did she get here? Let’s allow her to answer this question in her own words: “It was in Cetinje in August, 1900, that I first picked up a thread of the Balkan tangle, little thinking how deeply enmeshed I should later become, and still less how this tangle would ultimately affect the whole world.” Edith Durham wrote in her memoir, Twenty Years of Balkan Tangle, published in 1920 in Great Britain. Few people know about it anymore.

But in Albania, Edith Durham is still very well known. Somewhere in the mountains, atop a pass to Montenegro, there is a stone in her memory. The endearment “Queen of the Mountains” is chiselled into it. What did it take for a British woman from the early 20th century to become Queen of the Mountains?

If someone had asked that question to 32-year-old Edith Durham in 1895, she might have laughed, but shrugged her shoulders. There was simply no time for such thoughts. Her father, a respected surgeon in London, had just died at the age of 61. The eldest of nine siblings, it fell to Edith to take care of her ill mother. One can only guess what it meant for the family’s most artistic child to be bonded to the house whilst watching her siblings pursue their careers and adventuring out in the world.

Growing up in a quite progressive family, the Durham children were encouraged to make the most of their talents. Edith’s younger brothers became famous in their fields of medicine and engineering; one of her sisters even went into science and specialised in evolutionary theory. Edith herself was educated at Bedford College and the Royal Academy of Arts, where she studied painting. She was creative and free-spirited. Having to stay at home caring for her mother brought her to the edge of depression.

Edith describes this time of her life as “endless years of grey monotony,” from which, “escape seemed hopeless.” Fortunately, she met a doctor who understood her condition and prescribed a most unusual cure: two months of holiday every year. For the first time in her life, Edith went abroad, heading into the unknown.

“Along with a friend I boarded an Austrian Lloyd steamer at Trieste, and with high hopes but weakened health, started for the ports of the Eastern Adriatic. Threading the maze of mauve islets set in that incomparably blue and dazzling sea; touching every day at ancient towns where strange tongues were spoken and yet stranger garments worn, I began to feel that life after all might be worth living and the fascination of the Near East took hold of me.”

Though her first description of the Balkans reads like a stereotypical, overexcitable travelogue of a rich Western traveller, her view became very distinct quite shortly. She was not a person to follow a trodden path, but was determined to discover the unknown, to make up her own mind about politics and society in the countries she visited, and therefore to talk to as many people as possible. In that time, this was not always easy.

After her first visit to Montenegro, Edith ventured deeper into Serbian territory. During the visa application process, she had many obstacles to overcome. A long conversation with the Serbian administrator was followed by more questions about what she wanted to do in the country. She replied honestly: “Travel and sketch and photograph and collect curios.” But she received the stern answer that there were other lands in Europe where all this could be done.

“He found me quite incomprehensible for, like many another Balkan man, he could conceive of no travel without a political object,” Durham wrote later about that situation. She added: “And I was quite unaware that the murders upon which Great Serbia was to be built were even then being plotted. Point blank, I asked, ‘Is travelling in Serbia so very dangerous then?’ The shot told. ‘Not at all!’ said he hastily. ‘Then why may I not go?’ After more argy-bargy he consented to give me the visa.”

It is episodes like this which reveal how determined Durham was about her travels. And it shows too how unconventional her travel methods were. One should not forget that we are talking about a time when women in Britain were just starting to fight for the right to vote, and be seen as equal to men. Durham seized equality for herself. She adopted a male style of travel: she wore her brown hair short, and rode horses with saddles made for men. Though the Balkans were a region where patriarchy ruled, Durham was accepted as equal by the men. She ate with them, slept in dormitories, and had conversations eye to eye with the leaders and chiefs she visited. Frequently, the local rulers were so impressed by her personality that they approached her with marriage proposals. Politely, Edith always declined. She loved her freedom.

It might not only have been her behaviour which guaranteed her equal treatment: many of her hosts will surely have assumed that she was some kind of official British emissary. Why else would a lady from Britain take such painful journey on her own without a real purpose? Edith took advantage of that assumption, asked questions of everybody she met, made her own observations, and started writing about them. First she wrote for British newspapers such as The Times and Manchester Guardian. but as her insight brought her to increasingly uncomfortable conclusions about the politics on the Balkans, and the smouldering conflicts in that region, Edith’s views became a matter of controversy in Britain.

In TwentyYears of Balkan Tangle, Edith recalls an observation she made back in 1906. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was arriving in Ragusa, the earlier name for Dubrovnic in what is now Croatia. Durham states that the city was almost entirely decorated in Slavic colours; only the government offices appeared in Austria’s yellow and black. But the real affront happened when the Archduke was supposed to be greeted by the national anthem: “A silence absolute and unbroken continued ‘til the unhappy man, who sat motionless and erect, his face as blanched as a corpse, drove out of the further gate of the town. Then the crowd burst into one huge laugh. So complete was the demonstration that it was certainly pre-arranged.” To a fellow correspondent, Durham remarked that they now had something to write to their papers about.  “But he replied that as we were on friendly terms with Austria he should certainly not report it. Nor did the papers to which I wrote think fit to publish this highly significant affair.”

It was the first, but not the last, time Durham felt that her view from working and reporting with her boots on the ground would not fit with political views at home. There, the mood was pro-Serbian. Even though Durham had herself been advocating the Serbian cause during her first visits, her excessive travel made her change her mind. In her memoir, she remembered vividly how her opinions changed: “I went to Serbia as a tourist, but, thanks to the misdirected energy of the Serb police, was made aware for the first time of the unseen forces which were at work in the Balkans. […] I was severely disillusioned as to Great Serbia. Instead of brethren pining to be united, I had found a mass of dark intrigue — darker than I knew — envy, hatred, and all uncharitableness. No love was lost between Serb and Montenegrin. […] ‘Something’ would happen soon.”

Instead of rooting for Great Serbia, as most of her fellow correspondents and political analysts back home did, Durham became very critical towards the Great Serbian cause, and instead became an advocate for the independence of Albania. This is one reason her name is still so popular in Albania. Durham argued strongly against the idea of incorporating parts of Albania into a Yugoslaw territory. And then the event occurred which confirmed her dark premonitions and fears: on 28 June, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo by the young Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip. This was the catalyst which sparked the First World War.

After the assassination, Durham attacked Belgrade regularly in her articles and letters to magazines. She even made her point of view clear to the Serbian king himself. He had decorated her with the medal of Saint Sava, a national symbol of Serbia, years before. After the historic event in Sarajevo, she sent him back the medal with a letter, telling him that she had heard rumours in Serbia about the planning of an attack on Austria the year before, and that she blamed “him and his people for the crime”.

In the end, her concerns were not in line with British politics. Britain joined the war in August 1914 as a member of the Entente Powers, meaning that they fought together with France and Russia. Serbia became an ally, and Durham’s views became very unpopular.

Another British travel writer took over the public discourse: Dame Rebecca West had travelled through Yugoslavia in 1930. Her travel companions were government officials, and her conclusions were pro-Serbian. She published the travelogue Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and included in it a verbal slap to Durham’s face. West described Durham as the sort of traveller who came back “with a pet Balkan people established in their hearts as suffering and innocent, eternally the massacree and never the massacrer”. Durham had always been a fighter, and she sued West for this wording. It was deleted from the next edition.

Instead of becoming bitter about the rejection of her analysis and insights, Durham kept on with her work. During the first Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913, she had started to organise supplies for refugees and war victims. She kept that fighting spirit up in her later years. In 1939, the now 76-year-old writer went onto the street in London to demonstrate against the occupation of Albania by Mussolini’s troops. Though her home country mostly forgot about Durham after she died in London in 1944, Albania never did. Copies of her memoir, Twenty Years of Balkan Tangle, can still be bought in the Balkans, and her name can be found on street signs in the most remote parts of Albania. She is still the Queen of the Mountains.

Maria Wiesner

is a

Contributor for Panorama.

Maria Wiesner has been travelling the world for more than a decade. She visited remote islands, reported from film festivals and researched looted art in Nigeria. She published essays on film in magazines and anthologies, and has penned several non-fiction books with HarperCollins Germany. Since 2016, Wiesner has been editor for the German newspaper F.A.Z.