Above the village of Kamarina, near Preveza, Greece, is the historic cliffs of Mount Zalongo. It was here in 1803, during the Souliote War, some fifty to sixty Souliot women, along with their children committed mass suicide in order to avoid being captured and enslaved by the soldiers of the Ottoman ruler Ali Pasha. According to the legend, the women defiantly danced and sang as one by one they threw their children off the cliff and then followed immediately after. The incident became known as the Dance of Zalongo.
The Souliotes were originally refugees from the Greek village of Paramythia who escaped the Ottomans and settled in the remote mountainous areas of Epirus, where they enjoyed an autonomous status. Attracted by the privileges of autonomy, immigrants from elsewhere assimilated with the Souliotes and they grew in strength and number until they were powerful enough to successfully resist Ottoman rule. The Souliotes didn’t pay taxes to the empire, instead, they demanded tribute from the Turks of the area. At the height of its power, in the second half of the 18th century, they dominated over 60 villages in the region.
The Monument of Zalongo honoring the women who chose death over disgrace and misery. Photo credit: Harry Gouvas/Wikimedia
The Souliotes lived undisturbed for some sixty years, before the Sultan decided that the Souliotes need to be subdued. A series of conflicts ensued, but the Souliotes proved to be undefeatable, until Ali Pasha came into power.
In the first few fights, Ali Pasha’s men, like those who tried before, were soundly defeated. Finally, Ali Pasha realized that an enemy as formidable as the Souliotes can only be defeated through treachery. So first, he cut off all routes of supplies until the enemy was starving. Then with the help of a traitor within the Souliotes, Ali Pasha’s troops laid siege and the Souliotes were forced to surrender defeat. A treaty was signed where Ali Pasha promised no harm to the remaining Souliotes and allow them to relocate wherever they pleased. But Ali Pasha had no plans of honoring it. He ordered his soldiers to seize them as hostage.
The Souliotes who were heading to Parga managed to escape, but the men, women and children who went to Zalongo found themselves cornered. Over one hundred fifty villagers were captured. Some were murdered. One group of over fifty women chose death over enslavement. The women, holding their children in their arms, sang and danced on the cliff at Zalongo. Then one by one they threw themselves over the cliff.
The story of the mass suicide at Zalongo rang throughout Europe and reverberated in the imagination of the people. Tribute in the form of poems, songs, and dances poured out as commemorations of the heroic act. Monumental paintings were made, including one by the French artist Ary Scheffer, which now hang in the Louvre, and melodramas were produced on the stages of London and Paris.
In 1961, a hauntingly beautiful modernist sculpture honoring the women was constructed on the mountaintop site. The monument depicts six abstract female figures holding hands, as they did in dance, with the figures gradually growing in size and heroism towards the edge of the cliff. The 13-meters-tall Zalongo monument is now a popular tourist attraction in the region.
Les Femmes souliotes by Ary Scheffer (1795-1858). Photo credit: Ary Scheffer Museum/Wikimedia
Photo credit: Vassilis/Flickr
Photo credit: Stelios D./Flickr
Photo credit: n.p. photography/Panoramio
Photo credit: Ursula S/Panoramio
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