The colors of time

Panorama of Durrës in the direction of the bay. 16 October 1913

On 16 October 1913, two Frenchmen landed in the port of Durrës, or as it was then called, Durazzo, in the recently created Albania. They opened an elongated lacquered trunk, and took out a folding camera mounted on a tripod. They inserted a glass plate, and made photographs of the port, a curious kid in the gate of the former Venetian fortress, two Muslim boys at the base of the wall – one of them also separately –, a man with an attractive face with three or four chickens in his hand, a master who offered his services on the square with a huge-wheeled oxcart and a Ferris wheel pieced together from raw beams. Then they removed the glass plates, and repacked the camera into the trunk. These were the first color photos ever created on today’s Albania.

Albanian Muslim. Durrës, 16 October 1913

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The two men, one the chemist and photographer Auguste Léon, and the other, Jean Brunhes, professor of human geography at the Collège de France, came to the Balkans on behalf of Albert Kahn, a Parisian banker. Their task was to travel throughout the peninsula, and to “record, once and for all, the aspects, practices and customs of human activity, the fatal disappearance of which is only a question of time,” as formulated in the statutes of Kahn’s ambitious visual archive, the Archives de la Planète.

Albert Kahn was born in Alsace to a Jewish merchant family. At the age of sixteen he went to Paris, where, as an exemplary employee of the Goudchaux bankhouse, he made enormous wealth both for the bankhouse and himself with investments in South African gold and diamond mines. As he also wanted to learn, but had no time for the university, he engaged a private tutor who was none other than the philosopher Henri Bergson. The two men became close friends, and under Bergson’s influence, Kahn established a number of philanthropic foundations, such as the program Autour du Monde, which allowed future teachers travel all over the world, to acquaint them with other cultures. Or the Comité national d’études sociales et politiques, which supported international specialists to come together and discuss the important problems of mankind. And the Archives de la Planète, which set out to document the variety of human cultures in photos and film. This latter project used the autochrome technique patented by the Lumière brothers in 1904, the first true color photographic technique, about which we have written in detail here. Kahn financed the training and travels of photographers and filmmakers, who were sent all over the world to document “the surface of the globe occupied and fashioned by man, as it appears at the beginning of the twentieth century.” He trusted the professional direction of this ambitious project to Professor Jean Brunhes, whose first trip took him to the Balkans. Until 1931, when the project fell apart as a result of the global economic crisis, they collected 72,000 autochrome photographs and 170,000 meters of film from 48 countries of the world, thereby offering an unparalleled slice of time covering the conditions of humanity. The digitization and publication of these images began in the 1990s at the Albert Kahn Museum, founded in the banker’s former Boulogne villa. The already processed photos are presented from year to year on thematic exhibitions, and published in albums that embrace the material of a chosen region. These include the selection Albania and Kosovo in Colour 1913, compiled in 2008 by the great Albanologist Robert Elsie, which is the source of the illustrations of our post.

The “fatal disappearance of the practices and customs of human activity” seemed particularly topical in the Balkan Peninsula, which had been in continuous wars since 1912, and perhaps that was why Professor Brunhes choose this region. In October 1912 they set out, together with Auguste Léon, on their first photo trip in Bosnia, from where in May 1913 they went to Kosovo, then through Skopje and the at that time still Ottoman Thessaloniki to Bursa. In October 1913 they arrived in Albania, where they were able to travel under the patronage of and in the territory controlled by Essad Pasha of Durrës, who was opposed to the government in Vlora, recently recognized by the Great Powers. Essad Pasha’s soldiers accompanied them from Durazzo to Tirana along the Erzen river. They stopped in Rreth, at the Pasha’s palace. In Tirana, which was just a small Ottoman town at the beginning of its development, they took a dozen photos around the market square with its three 16th-century mosques, two of which have since been demolished for the creation of the monumental Skanderbeg Square.

Row of columns lining the marketplace in Tirana. 18 October 1913

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Returning to Durrës, they set out to the north. On 21 October they arrived in Shqodra, or as it was then called, Scutari. The last Ottoman fortress of the Balkan Wars had been occupied on 22 April by the Montenegrin army, leaving massive destruction behind them. In the color photos the ruins stand in peculiar contrast to the rich and colorful costumes of the Catholic Albanian mountaineers.

Two young highland women from Hoti in front of an old house. Shqodra, 21 October 1913

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The siege of Shqodra was still going on, when the two Frenchmen visited the other Albanian majority area, Kosovo. After bloody fighting and mutual ethnic cleansing, the former Ottoman vilayet had gone under Serb military control in October 1912, but it was not yet annexed to Serbia: this only happened on 7 September 1913. The photos taken in Prištin, Gračanica, Lipljan/Lipjan and Prizren clearly attest to the Serb military presence and the close coexistence of the two ethnic groups. This latter was the reason for the tragic fate of the region. Similarly to Galicia, which was at the same time the cradle of the national rebirth of the Poles and the Ukrainians, Kosovo was also considered to be the birthplace of both the Serbs and the Albanian national movement. Between 1878 and 1881, the Albanians established here the League of Prizren with the purpose of establishing the national self-determination for all the Albanian-inhabited lands. As for the Serbs, to them Kosovo was the cradle of Serbian statehood. The town of Peć was the seat of the Serbian Patriarchate, and Lazar, the greatest Serbian king, fell here in the 1389 Battle of Kosovo while defending his homeland against the Ottoman army of Murad I.

(It is worth noting that Hungarians also contributed to the tragic fate of this region. After 1687, with the liberation of Hungary from the Ottomans, the army of the Holy League reconquered the entire Northern Balkans from the Turks, and the Serbian Christians were happy to support them. The Sultan then agreed with the Hungarian Protestant baron Imre Thököly, that if the latter attacks the almost defenseless Transylvania with an army of Crimean Tatars, he would be recognized as Prince of Transylvania. This was done in 1690, and the Habsburg army had to be withdrawn from the Balkans for the protection of Transylvania. They were followed by 40,000 Serbian families from Kosovo under the leadership of Patriarch Arsenije III Čarnojević, who had every reason to fear revenge from the returning Ottoman army. The Serbs of Kosovo now live in the town of Szentendre, north of Budapest, where the statue of King Lazar stands in the garden of the Serbian cathedral. And the now-deserted Kosovo was repopulated by the Porta by Albanians, who over the previous two centuries had converted to Islam.)

Blacksmiths. Prizren, 7 May 1913

Hekuran Xhamballi, Phirava dajle. From the album Kabà & Vàlle d’Albania (2001)

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View of the Serbian quarter. Prizren, 8 May 1913

Henri Bergson, the spiritual father of the Archives de la Planète, in his main work, Time and Freedom, makes a famous distinction between science’s measurable and homogenous time, and the individuum’s subjective time. The latter, called by him durée réelle, “real duration”, is preserved for us by the images of our memory.

In measurable time, more than a hundred years have passed since the Frenchmen’s photo tour. A hundred very bad years in the Balkans, with many cruelties, genocide and death. The “fatal disappearance of the practices and customs of human activity” has become a reality. Nevertheless, these photos, the images of collective memory, with their vivid colors, and the impressionist tones of the technique, the sensitive faces of their figures and the richness of their world in spite of every poverty, are still alive today. They are saturated with real duration, which they pass on to us, elevate us above the past hundred years, and expand the limits of our subjective time.

Miss Ljubica dressed in a rich Serb costume with a pink silk scarf on her head. Prizren, 8 May 1913

Come with us to Albania

Albania is one of the last “wild regions” of Europe, where, until recently, the mountaineers have lived in tribal communities and blood feud was a widespread custom, and where the medieval bazaars and Ottoman merchant houses are still alive in the rural towns. The second half of the twentieth century almost hermetically isolated the country from any change. It just starts to recover and to modernize itself in an ever-increasing pace. Roads are being built towards the secluded valleys, and Western European tourism begins to explore this stunning landscape. This is the last moment when we can see the country more or less as the great early 20th-century travelers, Baron Franz Nopcsa or Edith Durham saw and described it. That is why, in this September, we go to a one-week round trip to Albania, where we try to visit the most beautiful regions of the country.

Due to the great interest, we announce two consecutive trips. The first one, between 5 and 12 September, is already full, but for the second one, between 12 and 19 September, still there are places, and everyone is welcome.

We meet in Tirana. To fly there, we recommend the low-fare flight of Wizzair (now only 70 euros there and back, including a free small and big cabin bag) from Budapest, but you can choose any other flight as well. From there we travel around the country with a 18-seat bus, covering about 800 kms during the week. We focus on the northern mountains, the most beautiful region of the country, where, due to the difficulties, travel agencies still do not really organize tours. But we also visit the old towns of the historic cities of Shqodra, Tirana and the wonderful Berat, the beautifully preserved ancient Greek cities of Byllis and Apollonia, and travel along one of the most beautiful coastal routes of the world from Vlorë to the Llogara Pass.

Our planned route is as follows:

• Sept. 5 / 12 Tuesday: Departure from Budapest at 13:25. Arrival to the airport of Tirana, from where the bus takes us directly to Shqodra. Sightseeing and dinner.

Sept. 6 / 13 Wednesday: We set out to the north, the most secluded and most romantic region of the Albanian mountains, the National Park of Theth, “Albania’s Tibet”. We cross beautiful mountain ranges and majestic passes, and cover the last 10 kms of the route on unpaved road, with four-wheel cars. If we are lucky, we can even caress little bear cubs at our family guesthouse.

Sept. 7 / 14 Thursday: Excursion in the valley of Theth. We go with an off-road vehicle up to the hillside, and then we do an about two-hour walking tour (on not difficult terrain) to the Grunasi Falls. For lunch we return to our guesthouse, and then in the afternoon we go back to Shqodra.

Sept. 8 / 15 Friday: We sail along the Drin River. We start early in the morning (around 6:30 a.m.) from Shqodra to the Komani ferry station. The ferry leaves at 9 a.m., and goes about four hours long to the other station in Fierza between beautiful mountains, which recall the Norwegian fjords. Then we get on bus again, and go up to perhaps the most beautiful mountainous region of Albania, Valbona, where we dine and stay in a quite high-standard family guest house.

Sept. 9 / 16 Saturday: In the morning we do a short (about 2-kilometer) walking tour in an extremely beautiful valley of Valbona, and then go back to Tirana on a mountain road winding along the Drin river. We stop to take photos at the magnificent panoramas, and later at the former Catholic center of Northern Albania, the Franciscan monastery of Rubik. Afternoon and evening sightseeing in Tirana.

Sept. 10 / 17 Sunday: In the morning we go over to Berat, a well-preserved Ottoman-era trading town, the most beautiful historic city of Albania (World Heritage site). We spend the whole day rambling in the old town. We visit the Turkish quarter, the ethnographic museum installed in an old merchant house, the fortress, and the splendid Icon Museum in the former Church of the Dormition of the Virgin.

Sept. 11 / 18 Monday: From Berat we head towards the sea. We stop at the ancient Greek town of Byllis, situated in a wonderful place, on the top of a high rock. From Vlorë to the Llogara pass and look-out we go along one of the most beautiful seaside routes of the world. We spend our last night in Vlorë, on the beach, preferably arriving there in time to have an afternoon bath.

Sept. 12 / 19 Tuesday: In the morning we leave for Tirana. On the way we stop at Apollonia’s ancient Greek city and 10th-century monastery. Our plane sets out at 3:30 p.m., so we plan to arrive at Tirana Airport at about 1 p.m.

The participation fee is 550 euros per person, which includes hotels with breakfast, the bus, off-road vehicles and ferry fees, as well as guiding. Flight tickets should be arranged individually. Registration deadline: July 25, Tuesday evening, at It is recommended to register well in time, because travels are usually quickly overbooked.

Until departure we will publish a number of posts about the locations of our Albanian tour, as well as photos on our Facebook. Stay with us.

Un testigo

«Estamos en 1920. Salamon Tannenbaum toma asiento en la Posada del Emperador de Austria, cuyo nombre cambió hace dos años pero a la que ningún cliente, tampoco Salamon Tannenbaum, llama Posada de los Tres Ciervos, según mandan las ordenanzas municipales. Es más, cuando Salamon lanza su gorra desde un extremo a otro de la habitación y siempre acierta a colgarla en el perchero, exclama: ¡Moni ha llegado a El Emperador de Austria! Y el coro de borrachines allí presentes responde así: ¡Que el buen Dios le otorgue larga vida!»

Miljenko Jergović: Ruta Tannenbaum

En Sarajevo, que —salvo unos años terribles— ha sido respetado por la historia y donde los estratos del tiempo se han acumulado como la hojarasca quieta de un bosque, desde los pequeños cementerios turcos y las cornisas Art Nouveau hasta los edificios cubistas, se encuentra junto al bazar Baščaršija, en la calle Brodac, donde el fundador de la ciudad, Beg Isa Ishaković en 1460 fundó su primer monasterio de derviches, una pequeña planta baja con tres puertas. No se sabe cuánto lleva cerrada. Tal vez sea una de las que Ozren Kebo describe en su Sarajevo za početnike (Sarajevo para principiantes), que trata del asedio de 1992-1996:

«El primer abril en guerra estuvo marcado por un gran éxodo. Los más avisados escaparon atemorizados. Los menos prudentes no supieron reconocer el miedo. La ciudad estaba paralizándose. En Baščaršija dos tiendas aún vendían el burek, comida tradicional, una čevapčiči, y tan solo quedaban dos pastelerías. Cada mañana aparecía una más con un candado en la puerta. Solo habían pasado dos semanas desde que se oyeron los primeros disparos y nadie imaginaba qué clase de hambruna se nos venía encima.»

Esta tienda, sin embargo, no tiene candado. Su persiana solo está medio bajada, quizá no hubo tiempo para más al salir corriendo. Por ello la inscripción oxidada de la cerradura es visible aún con claridad.

«Patent Polivka & Paschka, Budapest»

Ya escribimos sobre la la imperial y real fábrica de persianas Paschka, de la isla de Csepel, al sur de Budapest, cuyos productos todavía se encuentran delimitando la frontera de la antigua Monarquía. Después de cien años de destrucción, se ven en Lemberg y Košice, Bačka y Böhmerwald. Y, como podemos comprobar, también en Bosnia, puesta bajo protección austro-húngara en el Congreso de Berlín de 1878. Pasaron guerras y asedios, ustashas y chetniks vinieron y marcharon pero la marca del cerrajero del emperador de Austria, junto a los habitantes de la ciudad, permanece.

The witness

“It is the year 1920. Salamon Tannenbaum is sitting in the inn of the Austrian Emperor, which was given a different name two years ago, but, just like Salamon Tannenbaum, no guest calls it the Three Deers Inn, as prescribed by the city. Furthermore, when Salamon throws his hat from one end of the room to the other, and always hits the hat-rack, he shouts: Moni has come to the Austrian emperor! And the sots present reply like this: may Good God give Him long life!”

Miljenko Jergović: Ruta Tannenbaum

In Sarajevo, which, with the exception of a few terrible years, has been avoided by history, and where the layers of time pile up on each other, from the small Turkish cemeteries through the Art Nouveau ledges to the Cubist buildings, like unstirred litter in the forest, there stands next to the Baščaršija bazaar, in Brodac Street, where the founder of the city, Beg Isa Ishaković in 1460 established his first dervish monastery, a small three-door stop. It is not known how long it has been closed. Perhaps it is one of those of which Ozren Kebo writes in his Sarajevo za početnike (Sarajevo for beginners), dealing with the 1992-1996 siege:

“The first month of April in war was marked by a great exodus. The wise fled in panic. The less wise did not know how to recognise the panic. The city was shutting down. At Baščaršija, two shops were still selling burek, one traditional food, one čevapčiči, with just two cake shops. Every morning a padlock appeared on a different one. It had been just two weeks since the first shots were fired and no one knew what kind of hunger was coming our way.”

This shop, however, has no padlock. Its shutter has been pulled down only halfway, maybe there was no time to do more before the escape. So the rusty inscription of the shutter label is still clearly visible.

“Patent Polivka & Paschka, Budapest”

We have already written about the imperial and royal shutter manufacturer Paschka from Csepel Island in southern Budapest, that its products still designate the boundaries of the former Monarchy. After a hundred years of destruction, they still can be seen in Lemberg and Košice, Bačka and the Böhmerwald. And, as we see, also in Bosnia, placed under Austro-Hungarian protection by the Berlin Congress of 1878. Wars and sieges subside, ustashas and chetniks come and go, but the shutter label to the Austrian emperor, just like the inhabitants of the city, perseveres.

Dissolving: The fall of Icarus

Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The fall of Icarus, 1560 (probably a copy after Bruegel’s lost original of 1558). Brussels, Royal Museum of Fine Arts

W. H. Auden: Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brussels 1938

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Kerry Skarbakka: Photo from the series Struggle