Albania: history of Shkodra

Shkodra is a city in North Western Albania. It is located on the coast of Lake Shkodra, the biggest lake of the Balkans and surrounded by three rivers, the Buna, the Drin, and the Kiri. Its population is around 120 thousand people, making it the largest city of northern Albania. Outside the city proper, it has three suburbs: Bahcalleku to the South, as well as Shirokaj and Zogaj to the East. To the south and East it is also bordered by the hills of Renci and Tepes. This is where the fortress of Rozafat, famous for the Ottoman sieges of the late 1400s is located. Rozafa is the site of the earliest pre-historic settlements in the area.

Rozafa is a woman’s name. In legend, she was the wife of the youngest of three brothers who built the castle. Though they labored tirelessly, their construction crumbled each night. A wise man told them that in order for the walls to hold up, one of their brides must be sacrificed. The brothers agreed to make a secret pact not to tell their wifes and to sacrifice the bride who next day brought their lunch meal. The two elder brothers broke their pact and alerted their wives. When Rozafa of the youngest brother came, she was to be entombed within. She cried for baby and husband and requested to be entombed with one breast out to feed the baby, one foot out to rock him, and one arm out to hold him. And so the castle got its name.


Shkodra is blessed to be near the Adriatic coast, where the beach of Velipoja is situated. At the same time it is also blessed with an impressive mountain range. To the north, past the lowlands of Fush Shkodra, begin the Alps of Albania, the most dramatic range in a country known for mountains. This dichotomy makes one wonder is Shkodra a mediterrenain paradise? Or is it a rugged highland town? Perhaps it is a bit of both. When sunny, its skies are bright. It has a warm climate down in the plain. However, just outside the city, in the mountainous winter, the climate is harsh. So harsh and life so hard, that perhaps this is why the locals have named them the cursed mountains.

Shkodra is one Albania’s oldest cities, and has been inhabited since the Illyrian Era in the 4th century BC by the Labeats tribe, capable sailors and traders, who laid the foundation for it. Here the likes of King Gent and Queen Teuta ruled until the Roman conquest of 168 BC. It remained in Roman hands for over four centuries. In the fourth century Shkodra was the seat of a bishopric. Then it fell to the East Roman Empire. In 1043, it was captured by Montenegrin Slavs. In 1180, Shkodra was captured by Stefan Nemanja of Serbia. Then it was ruled by the local Balsha family until in 1396, the Venetians moved in and used it for their own mercantile purposes. Italy has historically exerted more influence in the north. The Christian population here is Catholic, unlike the south where Christians are Orthodox. Likewise, after Communism, many Albanians from here have immigrated to Italy as opposed to Greece.

In 1470’s the Ottomans launched two long sieges against the Rozafat Castle. These events were captured by eye witness and Albanian historian Marin Barleti (1450-1512) in his book, the Siege of Shkodra (1504), an international bestseller in the 16th century:

Now it came to pass that the Ottoman, realizing that Shkodra was the most eminent city and epicenter of the region of Epirus…the shield of Italy and all the Christians-began to nurture a great hope that he could subdue it…therefore he decided to dispatch an amazingly large army to invade it…It would be too lengthy to describe here how many thouands of Turks lost their lives there in humiliation and how the Shkodrans fought so corageously, defending themselves, their fatheirland, their women, and their children…The Turk was repulsed by the besieged-and what a loss it was!


Sultan Mehmet II was only 21 when he captured Constantinople, a feat that earned him the name “the Conqueror.” Having reached such heights so fast, his eyes were set on Rome. After decades of conquering the Balkans, he reached Shkodra, the final Balkan frontier. He personally led both sieges of the Rozafat fortress but here his dreams of reaching Rome were cut short. Venice, which was in power, eventually signed the city over to him but his army was too weakened and he died two years later.


When the Ottomans captured it in 1479 they caused further disruption to life and self determination. People fled in mass to southern Italy creating an Albanian-Italian minority that exists today. The Ottomans suppressed native ways and brought in their own culture and religion. Yet, whether in native hands, or under the foreign yoke, in each epoch Shkodra has persevered and remained an important city, both economically and culturally, producing much Albanian talent in the way of art, music, painting and writing.

Shkodra has a cute quarter of old fashioned eclectic architecture. Here the main streets are lined with buildings that date to the 1920s, an era of monarchy in Albania. Today, Shkodra also has the new modern apartment buildings of lean, clean, and light aspect, with bright and colorful paint like pink, orange, and yellow. Although a bit “lego like,” for those unaccustomed to this type, these buildings may please the eye. Besides, athough not famous landmarks, residences do matter; they are what a city is most comprised of. These apartments are the new wave, as if a reaction to the deliberately drab, no-nonsense apartment buildings of Communism. The new apartment complexes can be highly stylish, and have a modern flair unique to the Balkans.

Sources:
“Karakteristikat gjeografike.” Bashkia Shkoder. Sept. 13, 2021.
http://www.bashkiashkoder.gov.al/web/Historia_889_1.php

Dhora, Romina. “The Social and Cultural Impacts of Tourism, A Case of Shkodra.” University of Shkodra Luigj Gurakuqi: 131-135

“Shkodra.” Albania. Sept. 12, 2021.
https://albania.al/destinations/shkodra/


Barleti, Marin. Hosaflook, David, translator. The Siege of Shkodra. Tirana, Albania: Onufri, 2012.

Gjergj Fishta. Elsie, Robert, translator. The Highland Lute. London: IB Taurus, 2005.

Scanderbeg: King of Albania

I really don’t know if I can do this man justice. He is the most renowned national hero to us, the Albanian people. However, if we go back in time into antiquity, we may find more renowned, more famous figures, such as emperors Constantine, Diocletian, or Justinian of the Roman Empire. In fact, for that matter, there were nineteen Roman Emperors believed to be of Illyrian origin, an astonishingly high number if you ask me. However, these leaders furthered the Roman cause and not the Albanian cause and for that reason we Albanians do not revere them. Also, over 1500 years separate us, the moderns, from them, the ancients. Thus, we really trace our roots, the founding of our modern nation to Scanderbeg. We view him as our national hero and founding father. Just as America has George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and the like, we have Scanderbeg. His figure combines fact and fiction, struggle and glory, myth, and truth. Although members of other noble families in his time such as the Dukagjini Family, or the Arianiti family were important, Scanderbeg we may call the king of Albania.

Let me give you a few facts. Scanderbeg was born in 1405 as Gjergj (George) Kastrioti. His father lost his fortress to the invaders, the Ottoman Turks, and his sons, Gjergj and his two brothers, were taken hostage, a cruel yet not uncommon practice, in the Ottoman Empire. While in Adrianople, Gjergj as a youth proved himself capable at war games, just what the Turks were looking for. In his first battle as leader, he did so well that the Sultan, gave him the nick name Iskender Bey, or Lord Alexander, a reference to Alexander the Great. He was known as a great warrior right from the start. He would remain in Ottoman service for twenty years, both as a general and as a governor of several provinces. When the Albanians, who longed for freedom and independence from their new Turkish masters, heard of one of their own, ever so strong, and capable, they dreamed of him to come and rescue them.

Scanderbeg was a symbol of pride and hope for Albania. Although he had his plan in mind, he was wise, patient, and strategic. He was not going rush it and loose his opportunity by attacking the Turks at the wrong time. He waited a lifetime for the right moment to realize his youthful dream. When Scanderbeg was an Ottoman general, several rebellions against the Ottomans broke out, the most notable one being in Hungary, led by Hunyadi. Scanderbeg was called to crush the Hungarians. But since he himself wanted to join the rebellion, and knowing the Hungarians were stronger, he led his troops into a battle that he knew they were destined to lose. Thereupon, he switched allegiance to Albania and forced the Ottoman secretary to write a decree issuing the fortress of Kruja over to him. With this in hand, he rode to back to his father’s fortress and took possession of it. He received a hero’s welcome and made a reclamation of his family’s old feudal territory which the Ottomans had taken. But Scanderbeg’s ultimate mission was to unite the whole of Albania into one country, Christian, and free from the Islamic Turks.

We often think of the Ottoman Turks as Scanderbeg’s only enemy, but there was another major power that had prodded all the way down to Albania, Venice. The Venetian republic held political sway in several cities in northern Albania. Venice was opportunistic, underhanded, and scheming playing both sides, Turkey and Albania. At first it was pro Scanderbeg. Then when it perceived his power, it turned into an enemy of Scanderbeg. It proved to be a major hindrance to his plans for liberty.  To Venice, a mercantile power, Albanian liberty was bad for business because if Albania threw off Turkey, then Venice would be next. So, they conspired with the Ottomans against Albania. Venice openly set out to assassinate Scanderbeg. Scanderbeg’s went to war with Venice. He defeated them in two battles. In the end, a peace treaty was signed. However, when Hunyadi mounted another campaign against the Ottomans, Venetian machinations delayed Scanderbeg from joining him, resulting in a loss that gave much ground to the Ottomans. Scanderbeg’s biggest ally was Naples, under King Alfonso, whose rival was also Venice.

Scanderbeg’s army was always undermanned. While the Ottomans had 20 – 25 thousand soldiers, he usually had about 10 – 15 thousand. These battles he regularly won. Historians only count one defeat, that of Berat where he went against him own intuition by listening to others. In the most astonishing battle, Scanderbeg fought his personal enemy, Sultan Murad II, the man who had favored Gjergj in his youth, and had nick named him Lord Alexander. Murad viewed him as a terrible traitor, and he really wanted to get his revenge on him. Thus, he came with an army of 100,000 soldiers against Scanderbeg’s army of merely 8000. Though one would assume a certain defeat, Scanderbeg successfully resisted the Ottomans. His army didn’t meet them “down in the field.” In that case, the Turks would have crushed a small army of 8000. He strategically hid his archers in the mountains, and they struck the Turks from the upper vantage points. Skanderbeg’s men harassed the Turks to the point of frustration and defeat. The Ottomans retreated and Scanderbeg would go on to have similar victories where his army was very tiny, and Turkey was very large. For this fact alone, Scanderbeg baffles reason. But owing to tactics of guerilla warfare with traps and pouncing, the Albanians did the impossible.

Scanderbeg was physically gifted, big, and strong; these were the days when battles were fought with swords, bows, and spears. Though it is true guns and cannons were a recent invention, and in limited use.  He himself was in frontline combat. He was also gifted at war strategy, brave or even reckless. He was a great leader on and off the battlefield. He was seriously injured only once. Scanderbeg really embraced the cause of the Albanian people: the love of liberty, self-rule, and Christianity. Albania was on the geographic frontline in the battle of Christian Europe against the Islamic East. Scanderbeg lived in a time only 200 years removed from the crusades, when the Christians of Europe went to war to capture Holy Land. Scanderbeg too viewed himself as a defender of the faith. For this reason, the Pope was his biggest supporter and called him a champion of Christ. European leaders often used the word Crusade against the Ottomans, implying a holy war. They united on the basis of faith in order to prevent conversion.

Scanderbeg’s myth spread during and after his time as a warrior who was invincible to human weapons. Certainly, the myth of Scanderbeg has been exaggerated; that’s what myths are, exaggerations. But I dare say there is a kernel of truth here. We’re talking about a leader who had far fewer resources, far fewer men, and he defended his nation against invasion from an army that outnumbered his ten to one or more. Scanderbeg’s story is really the story of David versus Goliath, the extreme underdog versus the giant. If war be a talent, Scanderbeg had it. Now, I’m not sure war is a good thing; in fact, war is good for nothing, if you ask me, but it’s the nature of life, I suppose. We sometimes need war even though we’re all against it. We all want peace. But if there must be war, we need Scanderbeg on our side.

It is interesting to know that today, we Albanians consider the birth of our modern nation with Scanderbeg’s principality even though after his death, in 1468, followed over 450 years of Ottoman occupation. We overlook half a millennium of foreign domination! This fact alone says something about the strength of our national identity and about the nature of nationhood in general. It cannot easily be crushed even when bigger and more powerful neighbors are aiming to assimilate you and take your land.

Sources:
Zavalani, Tajar. History of Albania. London, 1963. Reprint, Robert Elsie and Bejtullah Destani, 2015.

“Skanderbeg.” Wikipedia. Accessed August 18, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skanderbeg

“Illyrian Emperors.” Wikipedia. Accessed August 17, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illyrian_emperors

Malcolm, Noel. Kosovo: A Short History. New York: HarperPerennial, 1999.

Albania: Series II introduction

Friends, here I am. It is now Summer 2021, I have recently completed series I of my blog Curiosities from Albania. What a fun time I had. I did not realize it would be so much fun. I was hesitant to begin but once I got going I got thirsty to learn more and more about my country, to write more and more about it, and to share my experience there on my last trip. Recalling those memories connected me to my roots, to my relatives, and it was a very worthy affair. It gave meaning to my days.


But now I would like to begin a new series; on Albania, of course. However I have a problem. I don’t have any additional trips to Albania that I can write about. My final trip there was in 2014. Typically I visit every four years. My next trip ought to have come in 2018. However owing to poor health I have been unable to travel. I’ve been struck down in my prime! Chronic fatigue syndrome. Not only does it prevent me from visiting Albania, if affects me in my daily life. Yet despite aches, pains, and debilitating fatigue, my spirit soars when I think of Albania! Just like eagles of Scanderbeg which mark the center of my world!

I wish I was half as strong as Scanderbeg. He was known for prodigious physical strength and a great military mind. I don’t know when or if I will improve enough for travel. I may never set foot in Albania again for as long as I live. It doesn’t bother me. I have come to terms with it. But this means this new series will be primarily historical and memorial, since I have no fresh experiences to write about.


Although I have not been able to visit my dear country, Albania, I find nevertheless that in writing about it I get closer to it. I think people have an innate desire to learn about their home; they are fundamentally attracted to their roots, some of us more than others. I am one of those people who is indeed very drawn to home, to the place of his birth. I have an older brother who doesn’t much care about Albania. He is the opposite of me. He is happy here in the US, doing his job, raising his family, and never thinks of his roots. But I am one of those people who roots deeply, as they say. So with that being said, I look forward to a new blog series on Albania. I look forward to learning more and more about my homeland, and to sharing it with you here.

Albania: The Amazing Race

I had completed my long awaited trip. I had spent four weeks in Albania. In this time, I had fulfilled my desire to “be in my country, to walk those streets, to eat that food, to breathe that air.” I had reconnected with my grandparents, as well as many relatives who welcomed me. Though I had been bored, and watched too much TV, though some of my relatives rejected me, and though i did not have the creature comforts of home, or the purpose of the natives and was merely a guest, I achieved my mission. The trip served its purpose. I had gotten Albania out of the system. Now it was time for my flight back home. I said goodbye to my grandma and grandpa and my aunt and I passed through security. I took a seat in front of my small gate. There are only two at the Tirana airport. It was early morning. It was dark outside. I had been told by my mom that I would be meeting a friend at the airport. In fact, I was told it was a young lady who was perhaps five years younger than myself who was immigrating to the US, and I was supposed to help her along the way. Wanting to find her, I reached out to my neighbor who was a girl about this age. I leaned over and said to her, excuse me miss. However, this girl who apparently took herself to be very pretty thought that I was trying to hit on her, and she refused to turn her head towards me. I said excuse me miss, once, twice, three times. I could tell she could hear and even see me, but she would not turn her head. I knew at that moment that her behavior was characteristically the new Albania, souless to the very core. Anyhow, be it as it may I gave up on her and sat very quietly. I then got up, walked over to the airport shop and picked up a bottle of water. I sat back down a few seats further out from the unfriendly girl, and perhaps had a sip or two. Meanwhile, another girl sat to the left of me, and soon after yet another girl. The two of them engaged in conversation, and soon enough I leaned over to one of them and asked, excuse me are you Albana? Yes, said she in a friendly and warm way. Albana had no pretensions to great prettiness but was simple, decent and kind. Once the souless chick saw me engaging in conversation with Albana and her friend she finally looked over my way, though she still refused eye contact in order to maintain consistency and her face assumed a friendly look. I thought I even saw a smile play upon her lips. Apparently, now she thought me a harmless young man and wished to be my friend! Hey, perhaps she wished to be friends with all of us. Well, regardless, now it was too late. Albana was moving to Missouri. Her friend, who was with her mother, told me she was immigrating to Germany. As I heard her say that, I could not believe that people were starting immigration anew this day and age. Perhaps I thought Albania was too good to leave. Perhaps, I thought it absurd that someone should begin anew now that my own battle was over. Perhaps, both. But let the record show that immigration in Albania is still fever pitched. Even thirty years after isolation was broken and the border was opened, everybody wants to still leave. Sure, word has gotten out that life in the world out there is no easy feat for an immigrant. But this does not deter Albanians. They are willing to brave the disadvantages of being a newcomer. America is their number one destination followed by western European countries. However, one thing is for sure. The immigrants of today are not the immigrants of the early 1990s. They are much more advanced and better equipped. They have more skills. For one thing they can now drive. Secondly, they know some English. Thirdly, they have more money to start life out with. In a word, they aren’t as desperate as the immigrants of old. I’m not saying my family was desperate; we were just like everybody else. But the situation in the early 1990s was a desperate one. We landed in Vienna. Albana and I were joined by another girl who was immigrating to Canada. We sat for coffee at a nice airport cafe. Here I was among my peers, setting off for a new frontier, and a new life in the new world. I was doing the right thing, the “in thing,” for that is the perception: “Blessed are the ones who leave.” Dismissive and forgetful are Albanians of the difficulties that await them, such as the low pay and fatigue of manual labor. Many Albanians trade in office jobs, or jobs where they lounge around all day, for the American dream. It is better to be struggling in America, than to live like a king in Albania, the thinking goes. I disagree. I personally like Albania. In Washington DC something strange happened. Albana and I got separated. I was standing after her in line at customs check-in and she got ushered along without me. By the way, as soon as my feet landed on solid ground, I felt entirely disoriented. “Where am I? Albania? America? The moon!” You know how those international flights are; the jet lag makes you lose all awareness of your surroundings. I had not slept a wink all flight. I was as if in a dream state where reality lacked all clarity and nothing could be known. In this state of mind, I would lose my very own head if I could… so it’s probably no wonder that I lost Albana, the very person whom I was entrusted to look out for. “I can’t believe this,” thought I, as I exited customs. “That girl went on without me! Albanians are all crazy.” I looked left and I looked right, amidst a large throng of people. Nope, there was no sign of Albana. She did not even thank me. She did not even say goodbye. She plain old ditched me. How soulless of her! Totally, the new Albania… Well, be it as may, thought I, now I have to carry on alone, without her.After all, I have a flight myself to catch or I may have to spend the night sleeping in ditch. After I checked at the front desk, as everyone must re-enter, I began to get ready for security, yet again. And there, as I first approach, I see a person, a girl who just like myself, was totally lost. It was Albana! She had not ditched me… it was all just a terrible misunderstanding. Finally, my faith in humanity had been restored. I thought I knew this girl and I was right. She was decent, simple, and kind. “George, they won’t let me through,” she said. And it was my turn to “strut my stuff” and come to the rescue. Though I am no globe trekker, I know the basics of international travel. I rushed her to the front desk, got her a ticket for Missouri-coincidentally, the very state of this nice girl I had met last time in the DC airport-and we both went back through security. We then said our goodbyes and she was off to her new life in America. Meanwhile, I had lost so much precious time that my flight was departing in just five minutes. I went on a mad dash from security to wherever the hell that gate was, the fastest airport run walk I’ve ever done. By the time I arrive at the gate, there was no one there! The attendant pulled some strings and allowed me to pass. I was the last person on that plane. It pays to hustle. Mom picked me up in Columbus and I was still on the high of travel. In the car, I madly gulped down a sweet frapaccino from a vending machine, as I had been dying of thirst on my last flight. Boy how I regretted throwing out in DC that full bottle of water I bought in Tirana. On the drive home, I dare say I felt better than the locals, for they had spent the month milling about town, while I had raced halfway around the world. I felt energized with the spirit of Albania deep down in my soul. Soon enough, I returned to my aimless life here in America holding down some volunteer positions such as working in an animal shelter, going to the gym three times a week, and to my usual coffee houses almost five days a week. Though my life was not a paradise, certainly not the so-called American dream, now at least after visiting my country, reality, or at least my reality no longer seemed and felt bleak, for I now knew this: America, was my country. I am content to walk these streets, to speak English, to eat American food, to breath American air, and to flirt with American women! I am home.

Albania: Exodus of the early 1990’s

In the early 1990s, after a 47 year isolationist dictatorial regime, Albania was starting to open up. The Berlin Wall had fallen, the USSR had disintegrated, and Romania’s dictator had been promptly executed. All signs pointed to the end of communism. This was the first time that we as a people were allowed to immigrate in almost half a century. And the general mentality in Albania was “Anywhere but here!” In fact, in 1990 when Europe saw that our borders could no longer hold us in, and that we were dying for a breath of air, they opened their doors to us. Embassies from major western European countries like Germany, France, and Italy set up shop and were filled to the brim with people desperate to immigrate. These people had nothing to lose. They tended to be a bit younger in age and perhaps a bit adventurous too. They stood in line, and camped outside from morning till night for days on end, hoping for the embassy doors to open. They did open and everyone was labelled a refugee and got instant political asylum.

At the same time, there were heart wrenching scenes of large cargo ships being stormed by thousands of people who climbed aboard via ropes! These ships were for the daring and desperate. They sailed to the nearby Italian coast; this journey took place a few times until the final one sunk under suspicious circumstances. The most accessible destination was Greece; it was reachable by foot over mountain and field, or by vehicle. Being the most developed nation in the Balkans, and part of the European Union, it was the default destination for countless Albanian refugees, mainly from the south. It is fair to say there was an exodus of Albanian immigrants in the early 1990’s; something that was bound to happen after a nation was forced into isolation, and thus into poverty, for over 45 years.

America was the ultimate dream for us Albanians. There a culture reigned where America was and is beloved. I don’t know when the love of America began; perhaps it began at the very beginning when America defeated Great Britain to become civilization’s final frontier in 1776. Although, historically, I don’t know when the first Albanians started immigrating to America, by 1900, the largest community was in Boston numbering at about 50,000. Other large cities such as New York and Chicago may have had similar sized communities at the time. Then in 1944, our communist government put a stop to all emigration, particularly to America. We were now allied with Russia, and later with China. These Eastern powers became our mentors, and we were made to believe America was our enemy.

Albania has always looked up to America, and with good reason. It can be argued America is Albania’s greatest ally. In 1920, America came to our aid at the end of the first world war. At this time, our Slavic neighbors, and Greece wanted to use the chaotic opportunity to partition Albania altogether and take it for themselves. Their armies invaded the country and and our very existence was threatened. Although, other major European powers like Italy, Austria, and France were actors in the decision as to Albania’s fate, it would be America under the leadership of President Wilson that supported and conclusively reaffirmed our independence. This made our countries allies. In 1999, it would be with the aid and protection of America that Kosovo’s Albanians would survive the Serbian campaign of genocide. In 2008, our alliance was renewed yet again when Kosovo declared independence, with support and recognition from America.

On top that, like it does to much of the world, to us as people, America gave us hope; in the early 1990s Albania was a small eastern nation with a troubled recent past, and bleak immediate future. By contrast, here was America, a big western nation, powerful, with a storied past and a promising future. We were all dying to come here! It was a dream so big that we dare not dream it. America in our eyes was larger than life. Certainly, part of this impression had to do with the fact that no one had ever come to America and lived to tell about it. America was the dream of the unknown. Although, our dictator had tried to brainwash us that America was an evil imperialist who had intentions of invading Albania for decades on end, and he even forced us to build thousands of unsightly “defensive bunkers,” which littered neighborhoods and the countryside alike, by the fall of his regime we were free to think for ourselves.

Our natural inclination was to look up to America. Not Russia, not China; as the communist regime had bade us do all those decades, but America, the forward thinking western super power. We all dreamt of coming to America. Of all possible destinations, America the best; a nation built by immigrants for immigrants. In my family, in the early 1990’s, my dad really wanted out of Albania. But God knows my family was not “the cargo ship” type. Dad was a musicologist. He didn’t have that sort of daring in him. Dad thought of all possible destinations particularly the ones where he had contacts, through work. In Europe, this included Romania, England and Austria. But none of them came to pass.

Like other western embassies, the American embassy also opened in Albania at this time. There were rumors they were even offering Fulbright Grants to those few who dared apply; this was the type of daring appropriate for dad. He was an academic. However, earning a Fulbright was impossible at first. There were none! However, dad got a chance to meet the person in charge of the Fulbright Program in Albania, a man called John. Dad gave him a copy of his book; this gesture, and the fact he even had written a book, I believe impressed John. John was a kind man, but he could not help dad; there simply were no grants left, for any one. It was a game of numbers; too many applicants, too few grants. The small budget was already spent. Yet, as fate goes, after months and months pass, John calls dad with great news. A few Fulbright Grants had come in from America and he told dad to apply. He applied, and the rest is history. In the meanwhile, dad invited John over to our apartment for dinner; it was a celebration. We never heard from John again. As we left for America, he left for Asia.

Contains excerpts from my essay: “How did I get here? Out of the Old country and into the new World.”

Albania: Feudalism of the Middle Ages

The feudal system of the Middle Ages that we associate with western Europe from about the 9th to the 15th century, was also a part of Albanian society. Although Albania was part of a larger empire, the Byzantine Empire, owing to wars and invasions, the power Constantinople had over Albania was not absolute. The local governors had to have their own armies for protection. Invasion was a constant threat. The commoners had to seek protection from these governors who exploited their power. They took the property of the poor either through unfair rates, or force and turned the peasants into serfs on their large estates. Thus a new aristocracy was born.

Although the emperors from Constantinople attempted to thwart this new societal development, history was not on their side. Moreover, sometimes emperors such as those of the Comneni dynasty supported feudalism, so long as the landlords agreed to go to war for the empire. With time the landlords refused even that, and they were aided by certain events, such as the capture of Constantinople in the fourth crusade (AD 1203). This crusade weakened a crumbling empire, and made it possible for a foreign invader, the Ottoman Turks, to capture Constantinople permanently in the 15th century.


They feudal lords called themselves Dukes, Princes, or Despots, and married only among their own rank; sooner marrying outside their nationality, than outside their caste. They built castles to live in and ran organized societies with their own military, city councils, or even money. Their serfs supplied them with goods as well as money. Peasant life was tough; not only did they suffer hard labor but also tyranny; and this moved them to revolt, from time to time. One revolt in 1336 first brought Turkish soldiers to Albania who were hired to crush it by Emperor, and crush it they did. At that time, peasants were freer on the mountains, as the mountains were inaccessible to the feudal landlords. These communities bred animals and were most independent. But by the same token, owing to isolation, they were less civilized.

Although Albania was often made part of larger empires, often led by outsiders, such as the Byzantine Empire, or the Bulgarian Empire, or short lived empires liked the Serbian Empire, Albanian towns always had some degree of self governance. After the 12th century, major towns like Durres, Shkodra, and Lezha became largely independent. These free cities sooner had to struggle against the feudal princes nearby than against the emperor in Constantinople. These princes waged a heavy tribute tax on these tows. But as tyrannous and miserly as the feudal princes were, it was even worse when independence was lost altogether to a foreign power, like Venice, and soon after the Ottoman Empire.

Source:
Tajar Zavalani, History of Albania

Albania: Memories of Durres

During this visit i had a most unremarkable time in Durres; being so near Tirana, less than one hour away, my company and I drove there haphazardly one Sunday, coupling it with a visit to the Bay of Lalzi; a secluded beach that in my view outdoes the one at Durres. At Lalzi, we parked our car, walked past the woods and to my pleasant surprise were met with a white sand beach strewn with cute wooden umbrellas the kind of which I’d never seen before. The only catch was it was a cool, cloudy and somber day and not a soul was around. We strolled a bit, jumped back in the car and zigzagged through a suburban neighborhood of nice, gated houses; a concept that didn’t even exist back when I was growing up here. We only stayed in Durres for lunch, eating in the restaurant of a random hotel. The food was average, the weather dreary and rainy…

I prefer to remember the Durres of my youth. Back then, Durres was a popular beach destination. Being on the Adriatic coast not too far from Tirana, though back in those times one took the train, it was the default destination for middleclass Albanian families of all nearby towns. We went there every summer, for one or maybe two weeks.

One particular vacation to Durres that comes to mind is 1990. I know this because it was a World Cup year, and being a young Albanian kid, I was mad about soccer. I was only seven but I understood the game and I loved watching it and playing with my friends outside on the dusty asphalt of our apartment building. Today, except for the World Cup, you can’t pay me to watch your soccer! I prefer football but back in that time and place I was a fanatic, like my brother and our friends. All the men in the country were soccer heads. All the women never watched a single game! But now times have changed there and girls and women participate in athletics.

That year a friend and colleague of my dad’s was also vacationing with his family in Durres. This guy had a kind of gift at getting ahead in life under communism. He always found a way to make friends with those in power and in turn secure advancement for himself and his family under the most meagre of material circumstances. Well, in Durres, he did it again! He had pulled some strings, and booked a room for his family in the fanciest hotel in town, reserved at that time for western tourists and the political elite only. We would visit them daily and live the high life which to me today seems standard, but back in that day when material possessions were so very lacking, everything this hotel had was a big deal.

It was the at that very hotel that I first became exposed to color television. At home, all throughout my life we only had black and white TV. Seeing this new color TV set in the lobby of the hotel was a huge deal. It was a new thing for us. Moreover, it was absolutely awesome because that World Cup I mentioned was taking place at this time. We could watch games on color TV! Boy oh boy, I have seen one of the wildest soccer games of my life on that TV. It went into overtime and then into penalties. We were loving every second of it, only as a fanatic can!

Another incident that took place at this hotel was more comical. It was here that I tasted Coca Cola for the first time in my life. But not in the usual way, where one buys a drink and enjoys it. No, we weren’t staying at the hotel so I suppose we weren’t allowed to buy anything. Besides we didn’t know what coke was. Anyhow, my mom, my brother and I, and her friend and her two sons went up to an empty table spontaneously on a patio cafe where the privileged westerners had just leisured and left all their pop cans. Well, we saw the remains of a dark fizzed drink at the bottom of their glasses. Out of curiosity to know what it was, and perhaps to see what the fancy tourists were having, we picked up their cans and had a taste. It was awesome! It was Coca Cola. It was also pathetic that our country’s economy could not even provide us that…

Albania: Invasions of the Middle Ages


In 395, after the division of the Roman Empire into East and West, the Illyrian lands of Moesia (Serbia) Dardania (Kosovo) and Epirus (Albania) fell to the east. The east, the Byzantine Empire, called their political units themes, large states led by a deputy to the emperor, with several provences such as Vlora, and Lezha, in central Albania or Praevlitania, in the northern Albania, or Moesia in modern Serbia; each were ruled by nobles. On a larger level, there were four prateorian prefectures, which were divided into dioceses.


Emperor Justinian, 527 to 565, built many fortifications to defend the Empire. Eventually, the invaders would come, and great as defence was, the wave could not be stopped. Though he built 26 forts in Illyria, his home, IIlyria itself would be most affected by invasion. The first invaders came from central Europe from the Germanic peoples. The Goths, and the Iranian Sarmatians, swept through Balkan regions such as Thrace (Bulgaria), Macedonia, Dardania, Epirus. etc. Though they wrought great violence and suffering, they left no trace on the people and place. The Huns came from the east in 441 followed by the Avars, to further ruin Dardania and Macedonia. Ostragoths from the north would follow in 459.


These periodic invasions however would only increase in the 500s and 600s. The new wave would begin from the East where the Bulgars, a Turkic people, would defeat an Illyrian army in Thrace and settle the land. Constant wars would weaken the Byzantine army and its capacity to defend the empire, which only led to further invasion, and finally permanent settlement. The waves of settlers would come from the north and east, from the Slavic peoples; these people, who were numerous and particularly ruthless, would ravage the empire, killing, expelling or assimilating the natives. So bold and unstoppable were these invaders that they attempted to capture Constantinople itself; in this ambitious campaign, however, they were defeated. But they would forever change the ethnic composition of the Balkans. Today their descendants live in the modern countries of Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia and Bulgaria.


Illyria would loose Moesia to the Serbs and all territory north of modern Albania; though today there exists an Albanian minority in neighboring Slavic countries, like Monte Negro, as well as Macedonia, which is 25 percent Albanian. Ancient Dardania, modern Kosovo, would have centuries of conflict with the Serbs, until it gained independence as its own country in 1999.


From the east came further invasion into central Albania, this time from the Bulgars, who themselves now had been overrun by the more numerous Slavs. The Bulgarian Slavs were to build a kingdom in 851 whose zenith would be in the 10th century, and whose reach would extend through Macedonia, northern Greece, and central Albania. Though it would last for close to two centuries, until 1018, it would have no permanent impact on Albania, other than some Slavic place names or words.


From the west, Albania and the Balkans would have yet more invasion, this time from the Normans, an adventurous Viking people, who are most known for conquering England in the year 1066. In 1081, the Normans invaded Vlora and proceeded to Durres without much resistance. Meanwhile Emperor Alexius called on Venice for support. On the sea, the Normans would loose to the Venetian force, but not on land; all of Albania and Thessaly (Northern Greece) would be occupied until 1085, when Alexius raised another army and routed the invaders. Yet the Normans would return once more in 1107, this time without success. So weak was their campaign in Durres that their leader Bohemond instead of conquering, joined the Empire as a governor in Asia Minor.


Sources:
Zavalani, Tajar. (1903-1966) Histori e Shqipnis, 1957, Tirana. History of Albania. London, 1963. Reprinted, 2015 Robert Elsie and Bejtullah Destani, editors.


Elsie, Robert. (1950-2017) Albania in a Nutshell, 2015.

Painting by Viktor Vasnetsov 1881

Gjirokastra: the fairy tale city

I have been to Gjirokastra four times since my emigration from Albania. My most memorable visit came in 2004 on my first visit back to the country. The bus dropped my mom and I off at the side of the road. I was tired and certainly not in the best of spirits. A relative of mom’s was sent to pick us up. He took us to a clothing shop that he and his family owned. I was still not impressed, though the atmosphere inside the store was pleasant. Afterwards, his wife and us went to a cafe, and sat on its balcony on the second floor of a  building overlooking the main street. Beneath I could see a lot of life; people coming and going, running errands, or just standing and talking to friends. I also couldn’t help but notice how many pretty girls there were; I was young back in those days, only 21… And as I was sitting there in that balcony cafe, something strange happened; I was overcome by an unexpected feeling of traveler’s bliss. The atmosphere of the town was awesome. It was small, cute, warm, and it’s fair to say, I fell in love with Gjirokastra.

After the cafe, we were to go over to another relative’s house which was in the old town in one of Gjirokastra’s several boroughs that climb up the mountainside. If the modern town kindled my love for this place, the old town sealed it. These 19th century villas are nothing short of astonishing. I was amazed by their beauty and looking over them outside on the balcony I was overcome by a feeling of wellbeing that was utterly unique to me at that time. This is the most wonderful place on earth, thought I. It’s like a fairy tale. I spent the remainder of the evening in conversation with our relatives ranging in age from the elderly to a  young kid. This particular family sprang from my grandpa’s sister who was still alive. She and her daughter in law cooked dinner for us that evening and even the food was spectacular! Why can’t I get food half that good at the most expensive restaurant in my town? These feelings are those that can only grow from your home.

Gjirokastra gets it right in every way shape or form; more so than any other city in Albania. However, perhaps one may accuse me of over-exaggeration. And it is true that on my subsequent visits to Gjirokastra the magical spell was never quite recreated. But every time I visit, I am struck by Gjirokastra’s beauty. It makes you understand firsthand of the highest possibility of travel: completely unexpectedly running into a part of the world that you did not know about and being overcome by feelings of happiness at your novel surroundings. Personally, Gjirokastra has a special meaning for me because it’s also the home of my family. My mom grew up in one of those historic houses while my dad grew up in a nearby village. Though I grew up in the capital, Tirana, I am not a big fan of Tirana. When I visit, I find it hectic, chaotic and even rude. Gjirokastra is charming and sweet. Though I have never lived there a single day, when there, it feels as if I am home.

Albania: Gjirokastra history

Gjirokastra is a small picturesque old town in southern Albania. Its population is said to be about 25,000 but may range as high as 30,000. Nothing can be definitely known about its ancient history. It does not have ancient ruins but it is within the vicinity of two nearby ancient sites, one of Greek origin, Antigonea, an important polis, founded by King Pyrrhus in 295 BC, and the second one of Roman origin, Adrianopolis, site of an amphitheater that seated up to 4000 people. However, the picturesque old town we think of today mainly dates from the 19th century, though it is true some structures, such as mosque which dates from 1557, are much older. It is in this period from 1800 to 1830 the town flourished, resulting in the construction of magnificent large villas with ornate stone and wood facades, that reveal both unique character and taste. These villas combined with the meticulously cobbled stone streets on a mountainous terrain, make Gjirokastra an artistic city that to this very day stands the test of time.


Gjirokastra was first recorded by the chronicler John Kantakuzenos in the year 1336 as Argyrokastro; this name means Silver Castle in Greek, owing to the silver aspect of its stone walls. The origin of the city is this castle, still standing today in good shape, as Albania’s largest castle. Ceramics within have been unearthed dating back to the 5th century. Here, traces of an ancient wall suggest a pre-Roman settlement. Its early stages began in the 5th century; the general form was established in the 13th century, and it was expanded and finalized under the rule of Ali Pasha of Tepelena in the 19th century. It served as a fort akin to one of today’s military bases where soldiers, and high ranking officials could live with their families. It is said that even civilians lived within it during the middle ages. Today this castle lends a mysterious historic aura to the old town.


In 1336 Gjirokastra was under the feudal power of the Zenebishi family and was part of the Despotate of Epirus, a small successor state of the Byzantine Empire, in the wake of the fourth crusade. By the year 1419 it had completely fallen to the Ottomans who had conquered much of the Balkans, and would stay part of their empire until the early 20th century. In the late 19th century Gjirokastra became a center of Albanian patriotism, hosting a congress demanding freedom the Ottoman Sublime Porte. In 1908, the first Albanian language school in all Albanian speaking lands opens here. After the Albanian declaration of independence in 1912, Gjirokastra fell under the sway of General Zografos who owing to its Greek minority and proximity to Greece, attempted to unite it to Greece. However the Entente Powers, Britain, France and Russia, prevented this majority Albanian town from being taken by Greece.


When Communism fell, in the early 1990s, people emigrated and shuttered many historic villas letting them fall into disrepair. In 1997 Gjirokastra as well as the country at large suffered great instability, when pyramid schemes lured the populace to invest their hard earned savings, and lose all of it. In the anger and chaos afterward, the people burned the town bazaar and another mass exodus and abandonment ensued. Today, however, Gjirokastra is experiencing a renaissance. Moreover, with the opening up of Albania to more and more tourism each year, Gjirokastra is destined to keep growing as one of Albania’s top attractions.

Sources:

http://www.gjirokastra.org/albanian/al_sublinks/per_gjirokastren/mbi_gjirokastren_historia.html

http://albania.al/destinations/gjirokastra/