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: 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: 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.