- Childe Harold's Pilgrimage in the Balkans
On 19 September 1809, having been away from England for a few months, during which he travelled to Portugal, Spain, and Malta, the twenty-one year-old George Gordon Byron sailed for Greece. His tour of the famous classical sites included a short excursion into Tepelene, Albania, where he was 'excellently treated by the Chief Ali Pasha'1 and where he found the inspiration for the central section (stanzas 36–72) of the second canto of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. The beginning and the end of the canto, mirroring Byron's own travelling schedule, focus on Greece. While the poet's premature death at Missolonghi secured him a place among the champions of philhellenism, his fascination with Turkey, the ruling force in the Balkan peninsula of the time, has brought this traditional conception of Byron as a fighter for Greek freedom into question.2 At the same time, Byron's 'Eastern' poetry has earned him a place in Edward Said's compilation of authors who made 'a significant contribution to building the Orientalist discourse',3 a view that has also come under criticism and one which requires further scrutiny. Harold's adventure in Albania can be read as 'orientalising' in as far as it functions to perpetuate such conventional binary opposites as West and East, progress and stasis, experience and innocence, and so forth, but the stanzas on neighbouring Greece, which frame the experience at Ali Pasha's court in the second canto, muddle the simple East/West opposition. Relying on theoretical models that emerged in response to Said's seminal study Orientalism, such as Maria Todorova's concept of 'Balkanism' and David Cannadine's 'Ornamentalism', this essay seeks to offer a more nuanced reading of Byron's encounter with the Ottoman-ruled Balkans. The Self/Other distinction, typical of travel narratives and foundational to the idea of Orientalism, will be re-examined and complicated in light of the contrast that is employed in Byron's works between Greece as the cradle of Western civilization in decline and Albania as a novel site of discovery.
While Said's groundbreaking work has been criticized for portraying the West too monolithically and for defining it too exclusively in terms [End Page 51] of France and England,4 thereby – to turn his own argument against him – engaging in his own brand of Occidentalism, Childe Harold's travels in the second canto of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage offer an opportunity to revisit the phenomenon in a more geographically circumscribed area and one that belongs neither to the Occident nor to the Orient as defined by Said. Such is the case with the Balkan peninsula, whose proximity to the Orient and its five centuries-long occupation by the Ottoman empire have placed it in the ambiguous position of being viewed as insufficiently Western or European as well as insufficiently Eastern or exotic. Although this term geographically designates a part of Europe, the name 'Balkan' itself, a local Turkish word for 'bare cliffs',5 testifies to the long-standing centre of influence. Furthermore, before Western travellers learned the indigenous name, their common designations for the region bore the stamp of its conflicted identity: 'European Turkey', 'Turkey-in-Europe', 'European Levant', and 'Oriental Peninsula'.6
The name 'Balkan' for the area of Europe that today encompasses the European part of Turkey, Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and the republics of what is now the former Yugoslavia was first coined by the German geographer August Zeune in 1808.7 His description of the boundaries of the Balkans reveals much of the political attitude towards the region: 'In the north this Balkan Peninsula is divided from the rest of Europe by the long mountain chain of the Balkans […] and to the east it fades away into the Black Sea' (emphasis mine).8 It is peculiar how Zeune portrays the region as clearly separated from the more civilized north and as virtually disappearing into the more backward east, making as much an ideological as a geographical distinction between Europe and the 'other' uncomfortably contained within it. It should be no surprise, therefore, that setting off on a journey only a year...