The Excesses of Ali Pasha

From Ali Pacha by Alexandre Dumas, Père. Ali Pasha (1740 – 1822) was an Ottoman Albanian ruler who served as pasha of a large part of western Rumelia, the Ottoman Empire’s European territories.

Ali hated his fellow-men. He would have liked to leave no survivors, and often regretted his inability to destroy all those who would have cause to rejoice at his death, Consequently he sought to accomplish as much harm as he could during the time which remained to him, and for no possible reason but that of hatred, he caused the arrest of both Ibrahim Pasha, who had already suffered so much at his hands, and his son, and confined them both in a dungeon purposely constructed under the grand staircase of the castle by the lake, in order that he might have the pleasure of passing over their heads each time he left his apartments or returned to them.

It was not enough for Ali merely to put to death those who displeased him, the form of punishment must be constantly varied in order to produce a fresh mode of suffering, therefore new tortures had to be constantly invented. Now it was a servant, guilty of absence without leave, who was bound to a stake in the presence of his sister, and destroyed by a cannon placed six paces off, but only loaded with powder, in order to prolong the agony; now, a Christian accused of having tried to blow up Janina by introducing mice with tinder fastened to their tails into the powder magazine, who was shut up in the cage of Ali’s favourite tiger and devoured by it.

The pasha despised the human race as much as he hated it. A European having reproached him with the cruelty shown to his subjects, Ali replied:–

“You do not understand the race with which I have to deal. Were I to hang a criminal on yonder tree, the sight would not deter even his own brother from stealing in the crowd at its foot. If I had an old man burnt alive, his son would steal the ashes and sell them. The rabble can be governed by fear only, and I am the one man who does it successfully.”

His conduct perfectly corresponded to his ideas. One great feast-day, two gipsies devoted their lives in order to avert the evil destiny of the pasha; and, solemnly convoking on their own heads all misfortunes which might possibly befall him, cast themselves down from the palace roof. One arose with difficulty, stunned and suffering, the other remained on the ground with a broken leg. Ali gave them each forty francs and an annuity of two pounds of maize daily, and considering this sufficient, took no further trouble about them.

Every year, at Ramadan, a large sum was distributed in alms among poor women without distinction of sect. But Ali contrived to change this act of benevolence into a barbarous form of amusement. As he possessed several palaces in Janina at a considerable distance from each other, the one at which a distribution was to take place was each day publicly announced, and when the women had waited there for an hour or two, exposed to sun, rain or cold, as the case might be, they were suddenly informed that they must go to some other palace, at the opposite end of the town. When they got there, they usually had to wait for another hour, fortunate if they were not sent off to a third place of meeting. When the time at length arrived, an eunuch appeared, followed by Albanian soldiers armed with staves, carrying a bag of money, which he threw by handfuls right into the midst of the assembly. Then began a terrible uproar. The women rushed to catch it, upsetting each other, quarreling, fighting, and uttering cries of terror and pain, while the Albanians, pretending to enforce order, pushed into the crowd, striking right and left with their batons. The pacha meanwhile sat at a window enjoying the spectacle, and impartially applauding all well delivered blows, no matter whence they came. During these distributions, which really benefitted no one, many women were always severely hurt, and some died from the blows they had received.

Ali maintained several carriages for himself and his family, but allowed no one else to share in this prerogative. To avoid being jolted, he simply took up the pavement in Janina and the neighbouring towns, with the result that in summer one was choked by dust, and in winter could hardly get through the mud. He rejoiced in the public inconvenience, and one day having to go out in heavy rain, he remarked to one of the officers of his escort, “How delightful to be driven through this in a carriage, while you will have the pleasure of following on horseback! You will be wet and dirty, whilst I smoke my pipe and laugh at your condition.”

The Tavern-Haunters

From the Gulshan i Rāz (The Secret Rose Garden) of Sa’d Ud Din Mahmud Shabistari, translation by Florence Lederer, 1920.

The tavern is the abode of lovers,
The place where the bird of the soul nests,
The rest-house that has no existence
In a world that has no form.

The tavern-haunter is desolate in a lonely desert,
Where he sees the world as a mirage.
The desert is limitless and endless,
For no man has seen its beginning or ending.
Though you feverishly wander for a hundred years
You will be always alone.
For the dwellers there are headless and footless,
Neither the faithful nor infidels,
They have renounced both good and evil,
And have cast away name and fame,
From drinking the cup of selflessness;
Without lips or mouth,
And are beyond traditions, visions, and states,
Beyond dreaming of secret rooms, of lights and miracles.
They are lying drunken through the smell of the wine-dregs,
And have given as ransom
Pilgrim’s staff and cruse,
Dentifrice and rosary.
Sometimes rising to the world of bliss,
With necks exalted as racers,
Or with blackened faces turned to the wall,
Sometimes with reddened faces tied to the stake.
Now in the mystic dance of joy in the Beloved,
Losing head and foot like the revolving heavens.
In every strain which they hear from the minstrel
Comes to them rapture from the unseen world.
For within the mere words and sounds
Of the mystic song
Lies a precious mystery.
From drinking one cup of the pure wine,
From sweeping the dust of dung-hills from their souls,
From grasping the skirts of drunkards,
They have become Sūfīs.

The mouse of darkness, the honey of delusion, and more…

The excerpt below, a parable told by Barlaam the Hermit to King Josaphat, is from William Caxton’s beautiful translation of the Legenda Aurea, The Golden Legend, a collection of hagiographies by Jacobus de Varagine that was widely read in late medieval Europe. Note the black mouse of night and the white mouse of day, gnawing ceaselessly at the Tree of Life. They appear in the illumination (above) and in the carving on the Baptistery at Parma (below). Comparative religion buffs will know that the story of Barlaam and Josaphat is a Christianized version of the story of Siddhartha Gautama, who became the Buddha.

They that desire the delights corporal, and suffer their souls to die for hunger, be like to a man that fled an unicorn that he should not devour him, and in fleeing he fell into a great pit, and as he fell he caught a branch of a tree with his hands and set his feet upon a sliding place, and then saw two mice that one white and that other black, which without ceasing gnawed the root of the tree, and had almost gnawed it asunder. And he saw in the bottom of this pit a horrible dragon casting fire, and had his mouth open and desired to devour him. Upon the sliding place on which his feet stood he saw the heads of four serpents which issued there, and then he lifted up his eyes and saw a little honey that hung in the boughs of the trees, and forgat the peril that he was in and gave him all to the sweetness of that little honey. The unicorn is the figure of death which continually followeth man and desireth to take him. The pit is the world which is full of wickedness. The tree is the life of every man, which by the two mice, that the day and night and the hours thereof, incessantly be wasted and approached to the cutting or gnawing asunder. The place where the four serpents were, is the body ordained by the four elements, by which the jointure of the members is corrupt in bodies disordinate. The horrible dragon is the mouth of hell which desireth to devour all creatures. The sweetness of the honey in the boughs of the tree is the false deceivable delectation of the world, by which man is deceived so that he taketh no heed of the peril that he is in.

The Archer and the Nightingale

A parable by Barlaam the Hermit, in the Caxton’s translation of the Legenda Aurea.

An archer took a little bird called a nightingale, and when he would have slain this nightingale there was a voice given to the nightingale which said: O thou man, what should it avail thee if thou slay me? Thou mayst not fill thy belly with me, but and if thou wilt let me go, I shall teach thee three wisdoms, that if thou keep them diligently thou mayst have great profit thereby. Then he was abashed of his words and promised that he would let him go if he would tell him his wisdoms. Then the bird said: Study never to take that thing that thou mayst not take. And of things lost which may not be recovered, sorrow never therefor. Ne believe never thing that is incredible. Keep well these three things, and thou shalt do well. And then he let the bird go as he had promised. And then the nightingale flying in the air said to him: Alas! thou wretched man, thou hast had evil counsel, for thou hast lost this day great treasure. For I have in my bowels a precious margaret which is greater than the egg of an ostrich. And when he heard that, he was much wroth and sorrowed sore because he had let her go, and enforced him all that he could to take her again, saying: Come again to my house and I shall show to thee all humanity, and give to thee all that shall need thee, and after shall let thee go honourably whereas thou wilt. Then said the nightingale to him: Now I know well that thou art a fool, for thou hast no profit in the wisdoms that I have said to thee. For thou art right sorrowful for me whom thou hast lost which am irrecuperable, and yet thou weenest to take me where thou mayst not come so high as I am; and furthermore where thou believest to be in me a precious stone more big than the egg of an ostrich, when all my body may of not attain to the greatness of such an egg. And in like wise be they fools that adore and trust in idols, for they worship that which they have made, and call them whom they have made keepers of them. 

The Life and Times of Judas Iscariot

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A fascinating account of Judas, from William Caxton’s translation of the Legenda Aurea, The Golden Legend, a collection of hagiographies by Jacobus de Varagine that was widely read in late medieval Europe.


S. Matthias the apostle was in the place of Judas the traitor, and therefore first we shall rehearse here the birth and beginning of Judas. It is read in a history, though it be named apocrypha, that there was a man in Jerusalem named Reuben, and by another named Simeon, of the kindred of David, or, after S. Jerome, of the tribe of Issachar, which had a wife named Ciborea, and on the night that Judas was conceived his mother had a marvellous dream whereof she was so sore afeard. For her seemed that she had conceived a child that should destroy their people, and because of the loss of all their people her husband blamed her much, and said to her: Thou sayest a thing over evil, or the devils will deceive thee. She said: Certainly if so be that I shall have a son, I trow it shall be so, as I have had a revelation and none illusion. When the child was born the father and mother were in great doubt, and thought what was best to do, for they durst not slay the child for the horror that they should have therein, neither they wist not how they mightnourish one that should destroy their lineage. Then they put him to a little fiscelle or basket well pitched, and set it in the sea, and abandoned him to drive whither it would. And anon the floods and waves of the sea brought and made him arrive in an island named Scarioth, and of this name was he called Judas Scariotes. Now it happed that the queen of this country went for to play on the rivage of the sea, and beheld this little nacelle and the child therein, which was fair, and then she sighed and said: O Lord God, how should I be eased if I had such a child, then at the least should not my realm be without heir. Then commanded she that the child should be taken up, and be nourished, and she fained herself to be great with child and after published that she had borne a fair son. When her husband heard say hereof he had great joy, and all the people of the country made great feast. The king and queen did do nourish and keep this child like the son of a king. Anon after, it happed that the queen conceived a son, and when it was born and grown Judas beat oft that child, for he weened that he had been his brotber, and oft he was chastised therefore, but alway he made him to weep so long that the queen which knew well that Judas was not her son, and at the last she said the truth, and told how that Judas was found in the sea. And ere this yet was known Judas slew the child that he had supposed to be his brother, and was son to the king, and in eschewing the sentence of death he fled anon and came into Jerusalem, and entered into the court of Pilate which then was provost. And he so pleased him that he was great with him, and had in great cherety and nothing was done without him.

Now it happed on a day that Pilate went for to disport him by a garden belonging to the father of Judas, and was so desirous to eat of the fruit of the apples that he might not forbear them. And the father of Judas knew not Judas his son, for he supposed that he had been drowned in the sea long tofore, ne the son knew not the father. When Pilate had told to Judas of his desire, he sprang into the garden of his father and gathered of the fruit for to bear to his master, but the father of Judas defended him, and there began between them much strife and debate, first by words and after with fighting, so much that Judas smote his father with a stone on the head that he slew him, and after brought the apples unto Pilate, and told to him how that he had slain him that owned the garden. Then sent Pilate to seize all the good that the father of Judas had, and after gave his wife to Judas in marriage, and thus Judas wedded his own mother.

Now it happed on a day that the lady wept and sighed much strongly and said: Alas! how unhappy that I am! I have lost my son and my husband. My son was laid on the sea, and I suppose that he be drowned, and my husband is dead suddenly, and yet it is more grievous to me that Pilate hath remarried me against my will. Then demanded Judas of this child, and she told him how he was set in the sea, and Judas told to her how he had been found in the sea, in such wise that she wist that she was his mother, and that he had slain his father and wedded his mother. Wherefore then he went to Jesu Christ, which did so many miracles, and prayed him of mercy and forgiveness of his sins. Thus far it is read in the history which is not authentic.

Our Lord made Judas one of his apostles and retained him in his company, and was so privy with him that he was made his procurator, and bare the purse for all the other, and stole of that which was given to Christ. Then it happed that he was sorry and angry for the ointment that Mary Magdalene poured on the head and feet of our Lord Jesu Christ and said that it was worth three hundred pence, and said that so much he had lost, and therefore sold he Jesu Christ for thirty pence of that money usual, of which every penny was worth ten pence, and so he recovered three hundredpence. Or after that some say that he ought to have of all the gifts that was given to Jesu Christ the tenth penny, and so he recovered thirty pence of that he sold him, and nevertheless at the last he brought them again to the temple, and after hung himself in despair, and his body opened and cleft asunder and his bowels fell out. And so it appertained well that it should so be, for the mouth which God had kissed ought not to be defouled in touching, and also he ought not to die on the earth because all earthly creatures ought to hate him, but in the air where devils and wicked spirits be, because he had deserved to be in their company.

Then when the time came between the Ascension and Whitsuntide, S. Peter beheld that the number of the apostles was minished, he arose up in the middle of the disciples and said: Fair brethren, ye know how our Lord Jesu Christ had chosen twelve men for to bear witness of his resurrection, and Judas was gone the evil way, it behoveth to accomplish the number of twelve of such as have been with him. And sith they chose two of them that were there, that one was named Joseph surnamed Justus, and that other was Matthias. And then they made their orisons and said: Lord God, which knoweth the hearts of all the persons, show to us whom we shall choose of these twain here. And after, they cast lots, and the lot fell on Matthias, which forthwith was enumbered with the other eleven, and then were they twelve. But the holy S. Denis saith that the lot was a ray and a shining which came and shone upon him. And anon he began to preach, and had his predication about Jerusalem, and was much virtuous, and did many miracles as is written of him, of whom the legend followeth, which legend is found at Treves in Almaine. S. Matthias which was set in the place of Judas was born in Bethlehem of the tribe of Judah. He was set to school andin a little time he learned all the science of the law and of the prophets; he was afeard of fleshly lusts, and he passed his youth in good manners. His courage was inclined to all virtues, for he was humble and debonair, and alway ready to do mercy, and was not proud in prosperity, ne frail in adversity. He did that which he preached, he made the blind to see and healed the sick men, he raised the dead men, and did great miracles in the name of Jesu Christ. And when he was accused hereof tofore the bishop of Jerusalem, it was demanded him that he should answer thereto and he said: It behoveth not much to answer hereto, because for to be a christian man it is nothing criminal but it is a glorious life. Then said the bishop that he would spare him and give him respite to repent him, and S. Matthias answered: God forbid that I should repent of the truth that I have truly found, and become an apostate. He was firm in the love of God, and clean of his body, and wise in speaking of all the questions of scripture, and when he preached the word of God many believed in Jesu Christ by his predication. The Jews took him and brought him to justice and had gotten two false witnesses against him and for to accuse him, the which cast on him first stones, and the other after, and so was stoned, and he prayed that the stones might be buried that the false witnesses had cast upon him, for to bear witness against them that stoned him, and finally he was slain with an axe after the manner of the Romans. And he held up his hands and commended his spirit to God. Andafter it is said that his body was brought to Rome, and from Rome it was translated to Treves. Another legend saith that his body lieth at Rome, and buried under a stone of porphyry in the church of S. Mary the major.

St Francis in Venice

The excerpt is from William Caxton’s beautiful translation of the Legenda Aurea, The Golden Legend, a collection of hagiographies by Jacobus de Varagine that was widely read in late medieval Europe.

“He [St Francis] went on a time by the morass [marshland] of Venice and found there a great multitude of birds singing and he said to his fellows: Our sisters, these birds, give laud to their Maker, let us go in the middle of them, and sing we our hours canonical to our Lord. And they entered in among them and they moved not, but because they might not hear each other for the chittering and noise of birds he said: My sister birds, cease your songs till we have yielded unto our Lord due praisings. And then they held them still, and when they had finished their lauds, he gave to them licence to sing again, and anon they reprised their song after their custom.”