Life and Times of Edith Durham

Edith Durham

Edith Durham was an English woman who explored the Balkan region in the beginning of twentieth century just prior to the first world war. Her several writings about the region give us a deep insight into the times when the Ottoman Empire was on decline in eastern Europe and the unique culture and traditions of the region.

She was born on 8 December 1863, in London, England. She was the eldest of the nine siblings. Her father Dr. Arthur Edward Durham was a renowned surgeon of his times. Being a progressive and liberal man, he encouraged all his children to attain a good education. All of the children of the Durham household did interesting and scientific things. Edith was trained as a painter at the Royal Academy of Arts. She created many book illustrations of amphibians and reptiles, for the Cambridge Natural History. But after the death of Edith’s father, the care of her invalid mother befell upon her. She took care of her ailing mother dutifully for some years, until it began to take a toll on her mental health. As a prescription, change of place was recommended by her physician. Edith took her first journey abroad at the age of 37 years. She chose Montenegro in the eastern Mediterranean as her destination, mainly because it was in her budget. Hitherto unknown to her was that this maiden trip will be life defining for her. This chance trip that began in 1900, took her around the Balkans for about two decades. She was a keen observer and curious to learn about other cultures and people. Although she had no formal training in field research methods, her keen sense of observance and curiosity to learn about other cultures enabled her to write about Balkan region extensively. The painter in her disguised the Ethnographer and Anthropologist within her, the Balkan journeys unveiled her true potential.  The convoluted history of the region interested her and the Balkans, especially Albania became her subject of interest. She traversed through Albania on foot, on Donkey and sometimes on horseback.  She was in fact one of the first on-field journalists in Albania. During these trips her easel and watercolors, and a Kodak camera aided her in recording local cultures through paintings and photography. Her writings, notes, paintings and photography were the basis of her historical, ethnographic and anthropological researches, on the basis of which she wrote several books. In her writing she never shied away from political engagement which she felt was inseparable from her field research work.

Her first book ‘Through the Lands of the Serbs’ (1904) describes her journey through Montenegro and Serbia. This book was her first brush with fame. In the beginning of her Balkan journey, she was an admirer of the Serbs, although she loathed the complicated and bureaucratic structure of the country; but overtime she developed disdain for Serbs. Gradually her affections were focused mostly on Albania and Albanians. She came in contact with Albanians while working in a British relief camp in Macedonia in 1903. It was then that she decided to travel to North Albania. When she arrived in Albania she was shocked to see the primitive living conditions of the people. In her description of North Albania, she wrote, ‘Few people in the West- none, I might almost say, who have not been to Albania- can realise that to-day in Europe there lives a whole race, a primeval lot of raw human beings, in a land that is not only almost entirely without carriageable roads,….the conditions of life are those of prehistoric barbarism, and the mass of the people have barely even attained a medieval stage of civilization.’Gradually she became a proponent of the Albanian cause. She plunged into the power politics of those times, to fight for a struggling nation, advocating that a small nation should be treated in the same way as a strong one. In her book, High Albania she describes the traditions of Albania and Kosovo. Descriptions of the blood feuds of the north Albanian region didn’t go well with her critics, who felt she liked writing about gory things who failed to realise that the blood feuds were entrenched in local customs of the region. In her book she drew similarities between the blood feuds and wars happening elsewhere in the world. She wrote in High Albania, ‘And lest you that read this book should cry out at the “customs of savages,’ I would remind you that we play the same game on a much larger scale and call it war’.

Nations during their existence big and small alike, both historically and in the contemporary world have faced conflict at some point of time or other. But these ‘turmoils’ have a long history of simmering and a careful study of history can better equip us in handling them if not altogether avoid them. The undercurrents of the Kosovo crisis of 1998-99, were noted by Edith in one of her writings. She wrote in ‘High Albania’, in the chapter aptly titled “the debatable lands” about irreconcilable differences between Serbs and Albanians,‘Mitrovica(sic), was the most dangerous of phenomena, a strategic town bestriding an ethnic frontier. To the south lay the solidly Albanian lands….. To the north lay the lands of Serbs. Two worlds and two competing narratives, Slav and non-Slav, Christian and Muslim, collided in this dreary town on the Ibar.’

Edith Durham was forever a proponent of  Albania, and the Albanians have always felt grateful to her for fighting for their cause and introducing it to the world when so little was known about it. She is lovingly referred to as the Mountain Queen of Albania.  Last time she went to Albania was after the first world war in 1921, but she continued to fight for the Albanian cause till her death in 1944. King Zog of Albania paid her tribute by writing, “Albanians have never forgotten and will never forget- this Englishwoman”. There can be no truer words.

Livneet Shergill has a PhD in Economics. She works as an Independent Researcher and Freelance Writer.

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