Changemakers: The Women of Souli

The Women of Souli 

The Greek people of Souli, Epirus, treasured their independence, and lived somewhat freely in the mountains in a remote area. Unhappy with this independence, the Ottoman ruler, Ali Pasha, engaged in several battles with area residents to gain control of the area.

In 1803, Ottoman troops began an assault on the village of Zalongo. The women were trapped. They valued their freedom, and knew that their capture would result in their enslavement. As the troops drew near on December 16, 1803, the women and children of Souli danced and sang, then jumped off a steep cliff to their death.  The following excerpt from the song “Dance of Zalongo” emphasizes how deeply they valued freedom:

Στη στεριά δε ζει το ψάρι
ούτ’ ανθός στην αμμουδιά
Κι οι Σουλιώτισσες δεν ζούνε
δίχως την ελευθεριά.

The fish cannot live on the land, nor the flower on the sand. And the women of Souli cannot live without freedom.

The women of Souli became known in Europe, and were painted by Ary Scheffer (1795-1858) in “Les Femmes Souliotes.”  This painting now hangs in the Louvre in Paris, France.

Learn more about the Monument of Zalongou in this short video. Additional reading can be found on Hellenic Communication Service, Inc.

A note from Irene Savas, President, Boston Lykeion Ellinidon

The historical background leading up to the mass suicide of women of Souli and their children invites further examination.

In the years before the revolution, Souli was an Orthodox community of shepherds and peasants. The people were known for their military prowess, having trained in arms from their childhood. The Souliotes established an autonomous confederation of neighboring villages, where they successfully resisted Ottoman rule. Anti-Ottoman activity in Souli dates from 1685. In the 1700s, they thwarted six attacks and expanded their territory. In the late 1780s, Ali Pasha became the local Ottoman ruler. He was obsessed with the capture of this center of resistance. It was several years of many assaults and sieges that were met with counterattacks and resistance – and even revolts – mostly to the advantage of the Souliotes.

The defeat of the Souliotes occurred in 1803. Ali Pasha had built tower fortifications around the area, successfully shutting off Souli from supplies and provisions. A truce was made, but falsely adhered to. The starving inhabitants were forced to evacuate. After first barricading themselves, they decided to form three teams that would escape in different directions: one to Parga, one to Voulganeri, and one to Zalongo. The team traveling to Parga escaped successfully, and eventually went on to the Ionian Islands. The second group escaped, but ended up wandering until spring.

However, the Ottoman forces surrounded the team destined for Zalongo. They closed in on a group of women, preventing their escape. There was no alternative to the women’s fate, of submission to the enemy, enslavement, rape, loss of family, loss of honor. In despair, their only choice was freedom through death. Tradition holds that as they danced and sang, one after another they threw first their children and then themselves off a steep cliff, committing suicide.

“The Dance of Zalongo”

These are the lyrics of the well-known folk song that commemorates this event. A rendition of the song by Kostas Mitsis can be found here.

English Greek
Farewell poor world,
Farewell sweet life,
and you, my wretched country,
Farewell forever.Farewell springs,
Valleys, mountains and hills
Farewell springs
And you, women of Souli.

The fish cannot live on the land
Nor the flower on the sand
And the women of Souli
Cannot live without freedom.

Farewell springs…

The women of Souli
Have not only learnt how to survive
They also know how to die
Not to tolerate slavery

Farewell springs…,

Έχε γεια καημένε κόσμε,
έχε γεια γλυκιά ζωή
Και ’συ δύστυχη πατρίδα
έχε γεια παντοτινή.Έχετε γεια βρυσούλες
λόγγοι, βουνά, ραχούλες
Έχετε γεια βρυσούλες
και σεις Σουλιωτοπούλες.

Στη στεριά δε ζει το ψάρι
ούτ’ ανθός στην αμμουδιά
Κι οι Σουλιώτισσες δεν ζούνε
δίχως την ελευθεριά.

Έχετε γεια βρυσούλες…

Οι Σουλιώτισσες δε μάθαν
για να ζούνε μοναχά
Ξέρουνε και να πεθαίνουν
να μη στέργουν στη σκλαβιά.

Έχετε γεια βρυσούλες …

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