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: Durres history


With a history as old as Europe, Durres is Albania’s most ancient city. The fame of Durres rose with the Greek Colony. It was here by the Adriatic Sea, on the land of the Illyrian tribe of the Taulanti, that they would settle in the 627 BC. They came from Corinth and Corcyra and would stay for over 300 years; until the city was captured in 312 BC by the Illyrian King Glaucus. Appian Alexandrinius, a writer of the 2nd century BC tells us the founder of Durres was called Epidamnos and named the town after himself. His nephew was called Dyrrachion and built a pier on a bay near the city which he named after himself. Later Strabo, the Greek geographer, writes Dyrrachion took its name from the peninsula on which Durres was founded.

The Greeks set a foundation for a city that would stand the test of time. For several centuries, when part of the Roman Empire, Durres became the greatest city on the Adriatic. In the first two centuries of Roman power, an amphitheater, a library, public baths, an aqueduct, and many luxurious villas were built. It was at its port that the Via Ignatia, the Military Highway of the Balkans, began and led to the east past other major cities of the time like Manscio Scampa (Elbasan) and Thessaloniki to Byzantium. Durres’ ancient port, the largest of Illyricum, has survived over 2000 years, and is still Albania’s largest port today. The city became a center of trade and gave and took goods from other major cities of the Adriatic, the Mediterranean, and the Italian Peninsula.


Durres like the rest of Albania has been invaded often through the ages. Perhaps, even more so, owing to the fact it is susceptible to invasion by sea. Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Goths, Bulgars, Serbs, Normans, Achaeans (Greeks), Venetians, Sicilians, Turks, Nazi Germans, Italians, and the like have all passed through Durres. Some stayed a very long time. The ancient Greeks spent over 300 years here; the Romans over 400; the Byzantine Empire held Durres for 800 years, the longest of all, with periodic interruptions from Albanian families or invaders, which lasted for years to decades to even centuries. After the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire held Durres for over 400 years.


Of all eras, a little to a lot of evidence can still be found today. Greek artifacts abound. Numerous historical sights worthy of recognition stand today. The Romans built the 1500 seat amphitheater, the second largest in the Balkans. The Roman era also gave Durres a castle, a small part of which still stands. The Byzantine Empire which held Durres the longest time, built a church in the 9th Century. The Venetians built a tower in the 1500’s, which still stands and in good shape, although as a cafe. While the Turks who would hold Durres for four centuries converted the population to Islam and built mosques. Later in the early 20th century, the Italians built roads and government buildings.


Important personages have noted Durres. Aristotle wrote of its constitution. Cicero wrote “I came to Durres because this is a free city and loyal to me,” and may well have lectured here, perhaps at the amphitheater itself. Julius Caesar came here probably during Rome’s fight with Pompey, which happened on the Adriatic coast. Durres captures the imagination for its ancient storied past, in particular for its classic Greco Roman civilization. While today it has been outshined by Tirana, it was in fact declared modern Albania’s first capital in 1912, and remains Albania’s second largest city. Though Durres may be thought of as second best, and a “has been,” its history is old as Europe itself.


Sources:


Hoti, Afrim. Epidamnos-Dyrrhachion Durres. Cetis. Tirana, 2006.


http://www.britannica.com/place/Durres


http://albania.al/destinations/durres/

Photo:

Venetian Tower https://wherefoodtakesus.com/tirana-day-trip-what-to-do-in-durres/

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

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/

Albania: The Name and the Flag

(in Albanian/ne Shqip)

The personal name Ilir has survived as a clue between the continunity of the modern peoples and the ancient. I lir means to be free in modern Albanian; thus the name of our ancestors, the Illyrians, can be thought to mean the free ones. This name is in fact in used to this very day. There are several names from antiquity that are currently in use in Albania today, such as Teuta, Agron, or Genti. All these names were ancient Illyrian Kings and Queens of various tribes. 

While some suppose the modern name for our country, Albania, to be derived from the word Alps, another more plausible theory is our name comes from the word Arberia, one of the ancient illyrian tribes in central Albania. In the second century AD the geographer Ptolemy, placed the location of Arberia in central Albania, but he corrupted the word as Albanoi. However, we Albanians call ourselves Shqiptare; this name is an abbreviation from the word Shqiponje-tare, meaning the people of the eagles. Our language we call Shqip, also an abbreviation of the word, Shqiponje, or eagle.

But let us ask, where does this name come from? What is its genesis? It must come from the eagles on our flag, the very same flag that our founding father, Scanderbeg, (1405-1468) raised up on the fortress of Kruja in the year 1443, when he established independent Albanian principality free from Ottoman rule that would endure 25 years. The Double Headed Eagle was a symbol of the Byzantine Empire (330-1453).

But there is yet more history to decipher here. Let us ask, where does the Double Headed Eagle symbol of the Byzantine empire originate? This image has a very curious history and a very ancient one. In fact, it dates back to over 3500 years ago, perhaps as early as 1600 BC, to the ancient Mycenaeans and Hittites!

Mycenae is the epoch of time that has perhaps Greece’s oldest civilizations that we know of. Even to classical Greece that started at about the year 600 BC they seem ancient. The Hittites are contemporaries the Mycenaeans of Greece; they were located in central Turkey.

Hittite Eagles from Central Turkey
Mycenaean Eagles from Southern Greece (reproduction)

Both cultures made use of the double eagle probably as a royal or noble family insignia or emblem. The Hittite Eagle however is a large 2 foot engraving, and clutching rabbits, while the Mycenaean Eagle is the size of a necklace. It is difficult to say who invented the double eagle; it is just as likely that each culture came up with it on its own. 

But let us ask, what is the meaning behind the double eagle? For symbols often have meanings or even good stories behind them. The double eagle seems to represent a crossroads, a convergence of the East and the West, and there is good evidence to support this view. About 1000 years after the creation of this symbol, a very curious story surfaces relating it to Delphi, an important center to ancient Greece with a religious shrine and an oracle to Apollo called Pythia.  

According to Greek myth, Zues, the god of the sky, released two eagles from the ends of the earth. Flying at the same time and at the same speed, they would cross at the center of the world. Zeus then dropped a large stone from the sky and it landed on Delphi, the center of the world, and a crossing of east and west. Indeed, Delphi’s original name was Krisa, meaning Crossing or Crossroads.This story seems to show the eagle is in fact not double headed but is two eagles crossing in flight.

To the Romans, who conquered Greece this symbol came to mean dominion over east and west. Centuries later in the Byzantine era, Scanderbeg, who lived in the crossroads of east and west, obviously felt most drawn to this symbol and used it for his coat of arms and for the flag of his people, the Albanians, who began to call themselves the Shqiponjtare, the people of the eagles.

Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delphi

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double-headed_eagle

Images:

http://www.hittitemonuments.com/alacahoyuk/alaca08.htm

https://www.harvardartmuseums.org/collections/object/59553

https://www.inyourpocket.com/tirana

Albania: A Visit to Elbasan

After getting my fill of Tirana, I decided it was time to go off and see some other relatives. First up, was my first cousin Leda who lives in Elbasan. Elbasan is a city in central Albania, about one hour drive south of Tirana, but even closer now that the roads are better. It is the third largest city, but like every other Albanian city, it pales in comparison to Tirana, having only about 75,000 residents in the city proper. Occupied by Illyrians, in ancient times, the via Ignatia, the ancient military road from the Adriatic coast to Constantinople went through this area. Back then it was just a trading post called Mansio Scampa. Mansio Scampa grew into a city of 2000 by the 3rd century and was an early center of Christianity. However, once Rome fell, so did ancient Mansio Scampa.
The Ottomans set up a huge fortress here in the 15th century, that they called il-Basan, it’s namesake, meaning simply the Fortress. For the next four and a half centuries Elbasan stayed in Ottoman control and understandably turned Muslim. At the beginning of the 20th century the population had grown to 15000. During Communism the city became an industrial center enabling population growth. Recently, in 2014 it became the host city of the national football team, a surprise to me, considering Tirana is the capital.

***
My aunt, on my dad’s side, and her family lived in Elbasan. My grandma used to take my brother and I there as kids. I don’t have any outstanding childhood memories, though I do remember that she and her husband lived in a house, something utterly unusual for an Albanian city, as apartments are always the norm.  I have been to Elbasan twice since my family immigrated, once in 2004, on my first visit back to Albania. Back then my aunt and my grandma were still alive. We had a drink inside the castle, though it was “gutted” as I heard a recent tourist put it. This time, I sat alone one morning, outside facing this fortress, having a drink on the piazza, and truly felt an American on tour.

***
I have never been drawn to Elbasan. It has an industrial feeling, no doubt due to the decades it spent as a town with iron works and other factories. Someway, somehow, as happens to people, its trade became incorporated into its look, giving it a gritty feel. It is not a tourist destination and has no standing historical sites other than the Ottoman castle, which is large but does not impress. The social life of the city centers around this fortress, which also has restaurants, and houses.

***
My aunt was gone. What drew me back to Elbasan was her daughter, who though a decade older, I am good friends with. We had kept in touch through Facebook, enough so to warrant an in-person visit, if the opportunity should arise. This was a calm visit. Not a lot happened, but she and her young teenage daughter were gracious hosts to me. We chatted and caught up as cousins might, when reuniting after a few years. I was long lost American convert, who could still relate to my Albanians counterparts. We get along well. Unfortunately, she had me housed in her father’s house-you know the spacious commodity so unusual for Albanian cities, that I remembered from my youth-well, as soon as she went to work on Monday morning, her father, secretly rushed me off to the bus station and sent me back to Tirana! Poor Leda, she was upset when she found out…I spared her the fact that her father kicked me out.

***
But what a scene that bus station was! That was one of those “only in Albania” moments I witnessed. It was outside the fortress, so there was a lot of people watching, something I personally like. My “gracious” host and I were standing amidst a large gathering of people. “You wait here,” he told me. “There are no empty seats unless you rush in.” Fine, thought I,  there’s no way I can hussle my way into an overcrowded Balkan bus. I come from America, the place where buses go empty. So I stood there, people watching, and my eye caught this girl. She had curled hair, your typical brunette Albanian complexion, and was wearing stylish jeans. She had the aura of Albania, slightly yet unmistakably different from American girls. She was pretty but she was preoccupied, no doubt worrying about shoving her way into an overcrowded bus.

***
Then the bus came, and I can tell you, all of the people huddled in the station gathered around the door, but before they could enter, the people on the bus had to exit. You see it was already full! Only  a few seats opened, and it was a mad scramble for them. I never could have gotten one. I entered the bus with a delay, and took the seat my host had got for me. Give the man credit, he was good at saving a seat, though his motive was questionable… Only about half the people did not get on. I don’t know what became of my bus station beauty.

***
The ride went without incident. But I will remark here that I did witness a special moment. It was a sunny day and our bus now came near upon a mountain. In the olden days, when I was a kid, this route would zigzag around every bend. But today Albania had drilled a tunnel right through the mountain. My small country has progressed! Now you’ll say, big deal George, America has been drilling tunnels since Albania was under the Ottoman yoke. True! But never have I seen a tunnel as picturesque as that one. The traffic lights, the entryway, the sun’s light hitting the mountainside; it was a moment where Albania shined.

Albania: Then and Now

Today, Albania has all material goods that money can buy. What it lacks is not material, but rather spiritual. People don’t care for their neighbor, because the country’s social fabric has been torn. One extreme, communism led to the other, extreme individualism. But I will give credit where credit is due. In many aspects Albania today has made many improvements. Power and water is one big example. In the eighties when I was living there as a kid power and  water outages were a fact of daily life. Today, they are far less frequent. Moreover, as Communism was collapsing, food shortages were also turning commonplace. My grandma stood in line at 6 AM to buy milk and eggs for the day, every day. Today there are no food lines. Back then there were no other goods for purchase. There were very few stores.  Today there are many stores with many goods. Back then, finding something, whether be it clothing, or some other commodity like a home appliance was comically difficult.

***
In Communism,  scarcity was appalling. For example, when one needed a suit or a jacket he couldn’t just go out and buy it. There were no suit or jacket stores. There were a few stores that sold dubious fabrics at certain times of the year. One had to buy the fabric then find a tailor, a friend of a friend, secretly mind you, because private enterprise was illegal and pay him under the table. Home appliances were assigned by the State. Apartments were assigned. Cities were assigned. Universities and majors were assigned. Everyone was a state employee; doctors, lawyers, garbage men… Pay for all workers was the same, seven dollars a month. So nobody worked hard; why try when there is no prospect of upward mobility? People socialized a lot for they were one big state run family; the catch was they could say nothing against Comrade Enver, the dictator, and the regime.

***
Finally, when the system did collage, the populace went mad. It all erupted into a self destructive spree against its own society. Any and all things were looted, vandalized, violated. My school windows were broken. The hanging lamp in my classroom was clipped off at the ceiling. Neighborhood trees were chopped off at the roots. Nights were spent in a state of fear. New European embassies were stormed by throngs of Albanians desperate to leave. Cargo ships were madly boarded by the same crowd of desperate people. With standing room only, they made three or four trips to the nearby Italian coast. Greece, close and reachable by bus or even foot, became the most frequent immigrant destination.  Such was the frightful state of Albania that kicked out my family along with many others in the early 1990’s.

Albania: history of Tirana

I was first stationed in Tirana. It was there that I would spend the following two weeks, the bulk of my stay, at my grandparents house, and when I say house, I mean is apartment because the vast majority of residents live in apartments. Tirana is a city in the absolute sense, not in the suburban sense. I grew up in Tirana till age 9, so I am most familiar with it, but before I give you my impressions of it during this visit, and a bit of my memories of it growing up there, let us delve back in time and discuss its history from its humble beginnings to the present.

Tirana is the capital of Albania. It is centrally located bridging the gap between the north and the south, two distinct geographical regions with two cultures and dialects: the northern Highlanders we call the Ghegs, and the southerners which we call the Tosks. Although both regions are mountainous, the north is the more rugged, while the South is the more refined, if i’m not mistaken. Tirana itself is very near the north and is more sharp than sweet. It’s also nestled between rugged mountains, the most prominent being Mount Dajti.

Tirana was proclaimed the modern capital in 1920, 8 years after Albania declared independence from the Ottoman Empire. The region has had settlements perhaps dating back to the bronze age, though the evidence is ever so vague when we go so far back in time. All we have is tools, ceramics, artifacts; the earliest near Mount Dajti and The Cave of Pellumbas. We do have a mosaic from the first century and evidence of a Christian from the fifth century.

It was 400 years ago, in 1614, that Tirana became officially established as a city of the Ottoman Empire. At that time a feudal Lord from the nearby town of Mullet built a mosque, a bakery and a Turkish bath in this city of 7000 people. But it is true that Tirana existed well before 1614. Marin Bartletti the Albanian Byzantine historian refers to Tirana in the 15th century. Since then, the population in fact decreased. Tirana lost 13000 residents from 1583 to the date of its Ottoman founding, in 1614, a very substantial loss, leaving it with only a third of its population.

The decrease continued and the population appears to have bottomed out at 4000 residents in 1703. From then it grew gradually reaching 12000 in 1820 and there appears to be no decline since. By 1945 the population had boomed to 60000. Considering it was the capital, Tirana has always been a favorite city of residence for all Albanians. During communism it was particularly difficult to move here. Housing and job opportunities were scarce. Moreover, the authorities did not wish to promote villagers into city dwellers. At the same time, they did build drab but sufficient apartments for Tirana’s residents, establishing an acceptable living standard.

Today, Tirana’s population has boomed exponentially to over 500,000 residents. The drab old apartments have often in central streets, turned colorful, thanks to a creative former mayor, an artist by training. But it is a cramped city. The open spaces that once were even a decade ago are no more. There is always something being built every day, it appears. Tirana has begun to sprawl in the surrounding counties, once considered outside its realm, and even is growing up the mountainside of Mount Dajti, an absurdity in and of itself. But that is Tirana: an absurd and eclectic city.

 

Sources:

http://www.visit-tirana.com/explore-tirana/good-to-know

NY Times

http://www.worldmayor.com/worldmayor_2004/tirana_history.html

photo: Visit-tirana.com