The Three-Arched Bridge

February 21, 2012

If you read the Valentine’s Day posting on the legend of Rozafa, you no doubt found inspiring the purity of Rozafa’s self-sacrificial love for her child and her country, yet you also noticed the ambiguity surrounding the brothers’ decisions and actions.  On the one hand, to their credit, the two elder brothers break their pledges to keep secret the imminent human sacrifice in order to protect their wives, and the youngest brother, seemingly a man of honor, keeps his “besa,” his pledge to say nothing about the immurement to Rozafa.  On the other hand, the elder brother hangs his head in shame when he tells Rozafa that the wall demands a human life, for Rozafa has been chosen not by “chance,” as he claims, but rather by the elder brothers’ manipulative hypocrisy.  Further, if the sacrifice must be determined by chance, then the three brothers might have drawn lots so that one of them, not one of their wives, would die.  The men, in other words, find motives for their actions in self-preservation and fear.  Only the woman, Rozafa, overcomes her ‘trembling’ and gives her life for her child and for Albania.

Cover of The Three-Arched Bridge

Cover of The Three-Arched Bridge

Albania’s great novelist Ismail Kadare draws on the legend of Rozafa in his 1976 novel  The Three-Arched Bridge (Ura Me Tri Harqe), another story of immurement that roots the theme of sacrifice in the ambiguity of motives.  Kadare has set his story in the late fourteenth century, just one generation before the Albanian hero Skanderbeg leads the resistance to the Ottoman invasion of 1444, a resistance that ends in 1479 at the Siege of Shkodra, where the triumphant Turks littered the Citadel of Rozafa with 60,000 Albanian corpses to be shredded by vultures.  With the monk Gjon narrating Kadare’s novel, we learn that Albania stands in need of another building project, this time a bridge, to link Albania to the rest of the Balkans at a time when Ottomans have already infiltrated the culture, a precursor to invasion.   Though this bridge, just like Rozafa’s castle, goes up quickly, after each night the piers and arches show signs of damage no hammer or claw could inflict, generating wide-spread gossip in favor of another “sacrifice for the sake of the thousands and thousands of travelers” who will cross the bridge “down the centuries to come” (105).

Well informed about Rozafa’s patriotic act, Gjon immediately notices that this call for sacrifice has more to do with commerce than with defense, so he wonders who might be willing to die for a significantly lesser cause.  But someone does volunteer to be walled in the bridge, Murrash Zenebisha, an “ordinary” man, a mason, just like Rozafa’s husband (114).  Yet instead of responding with adulation for Murrash when Gjon hears rumors of his heroism, Gjon reacts with confusion over the mason’s lack of a clear motive for martyrdom, then with horror when he sees Murrash “planted in the stone,” his face “splattered” with a “mask” of plaster, his “arms and legs…merged with the wall (115), his “oblivious white eyes” staring out at the monk (117).  Gjon’s terror grows, too, when he notices Murrash’s “wounds…between the neck and collar bone” (122), and when Murrash’s family members, seemingly “petrified” with grief initially, soon bring suit against one another after quarreling over “compensation” for their kinsman’s death (131, 177).  Has Murrash been murdered, caught sabotaging a bridge he believed would benefit only foreigners and a corrupt local Count?  Has Murrash’s family sold him out for profit?

Ura e Mesit (Mes Bridge), Shkodra, Albania

Ura e Mesit (Mes Bridge), Shkodra, Albania

With Murrash supporting the bridge, Gjon concedes that it quickly becomes a splendid “rainbow” structure.  But this supposed guarantor of a prosperous future, Gjon knows, has “death at its foundations” (157, 151), a martyrdom tainted by lies.   Eventually, Kadare’s narrator acknowledges his own complicity, confessing his presence as the Count and the bridge-builders planned the murder of Murrash (184, 122).  Yet Gjon persists courageously with his chronicle to the end, even as the Turkish horsemen clash with Albanian patriots on the bridge (179), thus mitigating his role in the death of the mason.  But fear for his country blends with his courage, and that fear roots in self-knowledge, as Gjon imagines his ethnic identity plastered and dead in the bridge, a bridge built—as was Rozafa’s castle—with sacrificial blood and soul-withering lies.

The significance of Kadare’s novel rests not only in the morality tale—break not thy besa—but also in Kadare’s Faulkner-like capacity to paint so vividly the truths of the human heart, a heart sometimes strong enough to die for others but often weak enough to succumb to fears and lies.  If these same kinds of hearts beat in Asia and the West as well as in Albania, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe, then we may read Kadare’s work as a prophecy for us all.  As we behold Rozafa’s milk streaming down the fortress walls, then Murrash’s eyes peering from the bridge, we witness at once our past and our future, our collective magnificence and our self-inflicted doom.

For a full discussion of Kadare’s novel in the context of the legend of Rozafa, see my article “Albania Immured: Rozafa, Kadare, and the Sacrifice of Truth,” published in the South Atlantic Review, volume 1, number 4, fall 2006, pages 62-77.  The ideas above and much of the language come directly from the article.

6 thoughts on “The Three-Arched Bridge

  1. I largely agree with Professor Richard when he implies that If this human sacrifice was to be made by “chance” for the sake of their country why would not be a male for example, but a female. Though Albaian highlanders were known for their courage and bravery ,in the legend of Rozafa they lack these manly virtues. First of all, they break “the besa” by divulging the secrets to their wifes. Second of all, they display lack of courage and bravery in choosing to wall a woman insetad of a man. This shows that no matter how tough and brave you are sometimes there are situations where you find reasons to escape the reality and justify your actions. This happens with two elder brothers when they tell their wifes in advance about the immurement so that they could concoct reasons for that day. Even though the third brother was the youngest he did not break “the besa” inistead, he remained silent util the day when one of the wifes were suppposed to be walled. He must have been very affraid of the fact that her beautiful Rozafa may be one. He might have stayed awake durig the nights fighting fear and temptation to tell her the truth. Perhaps he wanted to tell his wife about the plan like his brothers did but, his manhood and highlander attitude did not allow him succumb to such weakness. So, yes it is true when Professor Richi says that “a heart sometimes strong enough to die for others but often weak enough to succumb to fears and lies”

  2. I love this folk tale for several reason. Firstly, it centres around a woman who puts her life at service of her children and her country. Secondly, it’s compeling because throughout Albanian history you encounter men as key figures but rarely women portrayed as heroines or you see them as such but with manly virtues. In this legend Rozafa is a loving mother and a good housewife who does not object to be walled but instead shows great courage and bravery. I also find this legend touching because Rozafa does not know that she is to be sacrificed. This makes the legend more moving and enthralling because the key figure now is a woman. The person who is going to save the country and whole Albanian dignity is a woman. This is very powerful. Manhood, bravery, and valient virtus were one of the main features of Albanian highlanders. They fought and died for these qualities. They lived with such moral and integrity all their lives. All this virtuousness and dignity is at stake now and It is this courageous woman who offers her life in defence of these merits. Rozafa is a woman but is braver than her male counterparts. Judging from phallocentric point of view this is a legend where men dominate but interestingly enough, it’s women who triumph over the battles which men fail to win.

  3. A breathtaking and heartrending folk-tale; a jewel of Albanian legends. It shows the outstanding character and the magnificent stamina of the Albanian women, presented in the best possible manner through Rozafa’s character. She willingly meets her death, knowing that her name would become immortal as her immurement/sacrifice would be narrated from one generation to the other and would serve as a role-model and as an inspiration not only to the Albanians but also to all the people who come to visit Shkoder or read about this heartbreaking legend.
    This folk-tale definitely celebrates women’s strength, courage and vigour for life, whatever the cost may be. On the other hand, when it comes to the spiritual and psychological ‘earthquake’ in Rozafa’s soul, I would also like to say that I would not like to be in the shoes of a young mother who, all of the sudden, realizes that she will have to die for a noble aim and I would also not like to be in the shoes of her husband, who realizes that he is the only one who has kept the sacred promise and that his beloved Rozafa will have to pay the highest price of the highlander’s honor. I feel sorry for them but at the same time, I feel extremely proud of both of them because they show that only ultimate sacrifices and noble hearts can transform the stones of a citadel into the foundation of a ‘rock-solid’ country.

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