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: 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