Chimara is located directly opposite the north coast of Corfu. The surrounding district, which includes the eponymous town of Himarë, also includes seven other villages – (Dhermi, Palase, Vuno, Pilur, Qeparo, Shen Vasil, Kudhes, Ilias). It is part of a larger region known as Laberia.
The whole region is characterized by high mountains falling steeply to meet a crystal clear sea. There are long white sandy beaches and the few hills close to the sea are generally terraced and planted with olive, orange and citrus trees. The Chimara region as a whole is quite small, about 50 km (31 miles) long by 10 km (6 miles) wide.
At the north the region begins with the Acroceraunian mountains, (which the Roman poet Horace mentioned as "infames scopulos Acroceraunia"). Then from the Llogara national park the "thunder mountains" (locally called malet e vetetimes) extend along the northeast with their constantly misty complexion. The national road that winds down from the Llogora canyon towards the sea is one of the steepest and most dangerous high-ways (literally speaking) in Europe. The road's lethality is graphically illustrated by numerous commemorative markers on the spots where unfortunate motorists have rolled down the canyon in the past decades. The mountainside is known locally as the faieo, a Greek word meaning "ravaged" or "eaten", in reference to the deforestation that has left the seaward side of the mountain bare in contrast to the landward side, which is fully vegetated, especially with Mediterranean black pines.
The views are breathtaking on the way down to Palase, the first village encountered after passing through the "faieo". A short distance south lies Dhermi village, the biggest in the region after the town of Himarë. The English landscape painter Edward Lear visited Palase and Dhermi while traveling through Albania in 1844 and described them as "more magnificent in his location than any other village I have seen in Acroceraunia and resemble no little Atrani and Amalfi".
The journey then continues through rugged mountainous terrain along the sea coast towards the village of Vuno before reaching the town of Himarë and further south ending in the village of Qeparo, which is the third largest hamlet in the region.
In antiquity the region was inhabited by the Chaonian Epirot tribe. Greek contemporaries mention the Chaones as very warlike, engaged mainly goat and sheep herding and trade with the nearby island of Corfu.
The town of Himarë is believed to have been founded by the Greeks as a trading outpost on the Chaonian shore. Little else is known of the Chaonians, except that the men wore white kilts (which are still used to this day, a type of dress also referred to as fustanella). Their music was also referred to as "sheep bleating" in a comment by Aristonmachus, probably referring (derogatorily) to the polyphonic musical traditions of the region which survive to this day throughout the larger part of the region.
Pliny the Younger also mentions the Chaonians in a comment he makes in the context of an Aristophanes play; "This man must be certainly Chaonian because he looks like a mushroom due to his oversized cranium, which is certainly to his advantage because he does not thus need an umbrella to protect himself from glare of the sun".
Another anecdote about the Chaonians comes in reference to their battle against Philip II of Macedon (the father of Alexander the Great) who attacked Himara in 214 BC. The Macedonians were close to being defeated completely when Phillip devised a clever ruse. He ordered the cooks of the army to prepare large quantities of food and wine. Having done so, the Macedonian army abandons the camp to the advancing Chaonian charge. Upon discovering the food and wine left behind by the enemy, the Chaonians settled down on the food and wine and pretty soon became sick with diahrrea. The Macedonians, who were apparently expecting this, counterattacked and won the battle.
Following the breakup of Alexander the Great's empire, Himarë became part of Epirus under the rule of Pyrrhus of Epirus, known for his Pyrrhic victories against the emerging power of Rome. When the region was conquered by the Roman Republic in the 2nd century BC, its settlements were badly damaged and some were destroyed. The remains of one of these settlements, a site close to the shore below the faieo called Megalohora, can still be seen today (although with difficulty, as its remains are now mostly submerged).
Local tradition identifies the area around Himarë as the site of Julius Caesar's landing in Epirus in pursuit of Pompey the Great during the Roman civil war. He is said to have assembled his army at the place known today as "Pllaja e Qesarit" (Caesar's Plateau) before marching on to take the town of Oricum on the other side of the mountains, near modern Vlorë. On the journey Caesar's ship ran into a storm, during which he is famously said to have told the ship's pilot, "Go on, my friend, and fear nothing. You carry Caesar and his fortune on your boat."
Middle Ages and early modern times
Himarë and the rest of Epirus passed into the hands of the Byzantine Empire following the fall of Rome, but like the rest of the region it became the frequent target of various attackers including the Serbs, Bulgarians, Saracens and Normans. The use of the name "Kaonia" in reference to the region apparently died out during the 12th century, the last time it is recorded (in a Byzantine tax collection document).
The encroaching Ottoman Empire overran the rest of Albania from the 13th century, but along with the northern enclave of Mirdite, Himarë was the only region in Albania that did not submit to Ottoman Turkish rule. It became a symbol of resistance to the Turks but suffered an almost continuous state of warfare.
In 1481, one year after the Turks had landed in Otranto in southern Italy, the Himariotes rose with the aim of liberating the whole of Albania from the Ottoman yoke and help Gjergj Kastrioti (known as Skanderbeg, renowned as the national hero of Albania) to regain the lands lost after the death of his father. This forced the Turks to abandon their campaign in Italy. The attempt failed, but the Himariotes rose again in 1488, and between 1494-1509, destabilising Turkish control and expanding their area of influence but failing to liberate the rest of the country.
The Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent personally led a large army in 1537 in a particularly bloody confrontation in Himarë, which at the time controlled more than 50 villages (the whole territory of present day Laberia). The oral lyrical traditions of the region commemorate the war with many folkloric songs. One such song tells the story of the massacre of the faieo. The Sultan apparently sent word to Palasiotes hiding in the mountains that he wanted to make peace and withdraw from their land and invited them to come down to the faieo for talks. All those who took the Sultan at his word had all four limbs amputated and the living torsos thrown down the faieo into the depths of the ravine.
He was aided in this campaign by several traitors from Himarë, including one Ilia Konomi, born in Palase, who upon converting to Islam had changed his name to Iliaz Pasha and was promised the governorship of Himarë by the sultan should he be successful in subduing the land. He failed in this objective and so never received his reward.
Another song tells the story of one Damianos, who came close to killing the sultan himself, after which point the Ottoman army retreated. Suleiman instead recognized the de facto independence of Himarë, setting forth a number of laws (or venomet) to regulate the relationship with the Empire. These included such rights as the exemption of the Himaroites from taxes, the right to sail under their own flag into any Ottoman port, and the right to carry guns while travelling in Ottoman territory.
Despite this agreement, the Ottomans subsequently made several unsuccessful attempts to conquer Himara, first in 1571, then again in 1595, 1690 and 1713. During these years, the people of Himara established close links to the Italian city states, especially Naples and the powerful Republic of Venice, and later with the Austro-Hungarian Empire , which controlled Corfu and the other Ionian Islands. In a letter to the Austrian emperor in 1712, the leaders of Himarë asked to be incorporated into the empire and rejected any prospect of being ruled by the hated Turks.
During this time and thereafter, many Himariotes emigrated to the outside world and brought valuable skills back home with them. In 1848 even a small village like Dhermi could boast two doctors graduated in Athens and Vienna. However, emigration has also been a source of tragedies and disillusions. Petro Marko a writer born in Dhermi, describes this wound:
- It's said that the big stones below are the men that had returned back and had died here. While the men that had left and died abroad are transformed in clouds. They come, shed tears and leave. And the big stones, near the shore, collect their tears as the rain is collected.
From 1799 to today
In 1799, Himarë came under the rule of the tyrannical Ali Pasha – ironically, a fellow Albanian despite the Turkish name – who had risen from being a bandit leader to the position of ruler of most of southern Albania and northern Greece. Some Himariotes, notably people from Qeparo and surrounding areas, supported Ali and formed the elite part of his army, while the rest were against him.
The story goes that Ali ordered his soldiers to set the forest above the village of Dhermi on fire. Many Himariotes from the parts that opposed Ali Pasha migrated at this time only to return after Himarë had regained its independence.
Ali Pasha's rule over Himarë lasted about 20 years until it was abruptly terminated by his murder at the hands of the Turks in his castle of Ioannina. Himarë subsequently reverted to its status quo ante of an enclave surrounded by Ottoman territory. To emphasize the region's special status, the terms that the Himariotes had reached with Sultan Suleiman were inscribed on bronze tablets at the request of their leaders, who wanted to record the agreement on a durable medium so as to stress its importance.
In 1822-1833 the Himariotes played an important role in the Greek War of Independence, fighting in several major battles including the decisive battle of Messolongi. The Souliotes, who were major players in the war, are said by some to have been transplanted Himariotes. One of the first Prime Ministers of Greece after independence was a Souliot by the name of Kitsos Tzavellas. The contributions of the Himariotes were commemorated in verse by Lord Byron, who wrote:
- Shall the sons of Chimari who never forgive
- the fault of a friend, bid an enemy life?
- Let those guns so unerring such vengeance forgo?
- What's mark is so fair as the breast of a foe?
Himara was liberated from the Turks, during the First Balkan War, not by the Greek army but by a group of local volunteers led by Spiros Spiromilios. However, Chimara was awarded to Albania by the Great Powers although in March 1914 the region was declared autonomous. It was occupied by Italy during the First World War, when the Italians used Austro-Hungarian war prisoners to build a road running through Himarë, which greatly reduced the region's isolation. Following the war, the Protocol of Himara was agreed in 1927, recognizing special rights and privileges for the region. However, in 1930 Greek-language teaching was ended in Himarë. It was again occupied by Italians and Germans during the Second World War.
The isolationist and xenophobic rule of the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha after the Second World War relegated Himarë to the status of a backwater town, forcing many Himariotes to migrate to other parts of Albania in search of a better life. It gained a small local tourist industry as well as continuing to pursue the traditional local industry of fruit growing.
After the fall of communism in 1992, the people of Himarë emigrated in very large numbers, especially to Greece. Many villages were reduced to ghost towns inhabited mostly by old people. Younger people did return temporarily, though, especially during the months of summer. In recent years, the population has expanded somewhat due to a growth in the region's tourist industry. The region has benefitted from the resumption of contacts with the large Himariote diaspora around the world, with communities existing as far afield as the USA, Australia and France as well as closer to home in Greece and Italy.
On August 13, 2010, Chimara was in the news as ethnic Greek, Artistotelis Goumas, was killed by a gang of Albanians. Earlier in the day, they had argued with Goumas over his speaking Greek. The populace of Chimara occupied the town's main road, demanding justice and fair coverage from the Albanian media.
Chimara is a multilingual society in which Albanian and Greek-speakers predominate. The villages of Dhermi, Palase and the town of Himarë are bilingual in Greek and Albanian. Other languages are spoken as well, especially Italian, French and English.
Himariotes practice Orthodox Christianity, which is particularly strong in this region compared to the rest of Laberia, where no single religion predominates.
Himariotes are a culturally homogenous people, regardless of their linguistic diversity. While some of them may speak Greek at home and others Albanian, the cultural aspects of their life are pretty much the same throughout.
For example, upon somebody's death, people who had known the deceased compose mourning songs or ballads (called vaie) which summarize the legacy that the dead person leaves among those still alive. These vaie are always recited in the Albanian language throughout the region of Himarë, and closely resemble the vaie of the greater region of Laberia.