George Kastrioti-Skanderbeg’s resistance to the Ottomans. Heroicity as part of the Albanian individuality.
In 1924, a brilliant Bulgarian observer and connoisseur of Albania, gave the following description of the Albanians: “…isn’t the Albanian, who, being a slave, did not allow enslavement, freedom- loving? This is a question that could hardly be understood by anyone who has not lived in Albania. The most liberty-loving people in the Balkans is the Albanian people. The Albanian, taken alone, as an individual, is an anarchist by nature. He would brook no bondage let alone on his people, he would not let anything, seen as possibly humiliating, befall his house. The Albanian house stands alone and apart from the rest… The Albanian, being very touchy and left with no law enforcement, during long ages had been forced to defend his freedom and family honour with arms and so bear today the stigma of being a killer.”
The political situation in Albania prior to the Ottoman invasion had been very complicated because of the high level of feudal partitioning of the country. There were several independent principalities ruled by the most powerful Albanian feudal lords: of Durrës in Central Albania, ruled by Carlo Thopia; of despot Spat in Epirus; of the Balsha family in Northern Albania; of Theodore Muzaka of Berat, comprising the lands around Berat.
In the 1430s the ruling circles in Constantinople, represented by Andronicus III and John Cantacuzenus were reconciled with the loss of Asia Minor to the numberless Turkic tribes and beyliks. The territory of the entire peninsula of Asia Minor was Turkicised and Islamised. It was there, on the ruins of the older political and cultural institutions, that the Muslims, the steppe peoples and tribal unions set up a new type of polity and socioeconomic system. The policy of the Byzantine rulers was directed to the strengthening of the Balkan positions of the empire, and the Muslim beyliks in Asia Minor were expected to contribute to its realisation. With the help of mercenaries from Ayd?n, Andronicus III and John Cantacuzenus managed to conquer Epirus, Thessaly, and Southern Albania. From the Byzantine point of view, the activation of the Balkan politics was the only move the empire could make in the 1330s. In the Balkans perspective, however, such action involved the risk of aggravating the inter-Balkan relations, something particularly dangerous in the face of a strong Asian enemy.
By the beginning of 1386 the lord of Yanina, the Florentine Esau Buondelmonti declared his vassalage to the Ottomans and confirmed it appearing in person in the town of Edirne. In the same period, his southern neighbour and rival Albanian despot Gjin Bua Spata, had to do the same. Until his death in 1400 despot Gjin Bua Spata more than once resorted to Ottomans help in the wars he waged against the Rhodes Knights Hospitallers, who at that time made efforts to gain a firm foothold in Lepanto and Corinth. Individual members of the Albanian clan of Muzaka also became Ottoman vassals.
During the siege of Saloniki in the summer of 1385, the Ottoman ak?nc? troops made their way through Berat and the Devoll River into the central parts of the Albanian littoral. And they met with no organised resistance there, although they were confronted with a seemingly strong state – Zeta, dominated by the three Balsha brothers who had succeeded after 1371 to spread their domination as far as Valona. The consolidation of power of the Balsha family in Albania was hindered by their continuous conflicts with local Albanian feudal lords and the obvious territorial particularism of their possessions. The only Christian ruler who attempted to stop Hayreddin Pasha was Balsha II Balsha. He had to face a 40,000-strong army, commanded by Evrenos-beg, called in, as a matter of fact, by the rival clan of the Thopias. According to the historian Orbini of Dubrovnik, the army of the Balsha, numbering a thousand soldiers, was routed and Balsha II died on the battlefield. Balsha’s death in the battle of Savra made it possible for the Kastrioti family to restore their possessions and even multiply them at the expense of the Ballsas, expanding to the south as far as the lands along the Black Drin River, as well as westwards and northwestwards. Following the bloody battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389, in which some of the Albanian princes also took part, the feudal particularisation of the country even magnified. Taking advantage of George
II Balsha’s weakness, many of his feudal vassals – the Dukagjin, Zachary, Yonima, etc., seceded from the North-Albanian principality and established their independent dominions.
In 1392 Carlo Thopia’s successor, George, signed a document the clauses of which provided that after his death Durrës would be inherited by Venice. George II Balsha, too, could not sustain the pressure by the Venetian Republic. He also accepted vassalage, conceding to the Venetians a large portion of his principality, the town of Shkodra included. Very soon, however, he became disappointed by the Republic’s endeavours to restrict his revenues, as well as by the Hungarians’ defeat at Nikopol, and turned for support again to the Ottoman governor of Skopje Yi?it Pa?a. One after another the feudal lords in Central and Southern Albania came to declare their independence, splitting and weakening further the country’s power of resistance.
The strong economic pressure exerted by Venice on the vassal provinces, accompanied by religious persecution of non-Catholics, compelled the Albanian feudal lords to make war with the Venetians in defence of their own independence. This demoralised them even more. Many of them preferred to negotiate with the Ottoman conquerors, in order to keep their positions and autonomy. All the more that in the time of Sultan Murad I (1360-1389) the Ottomans were in no hurry to introduce their administration in these territories recognising instead the vassalage of the Albanian feudal lords.
The severe battle at Kosovo Pole in 1389, the defeat of the Ottomans by Tamerlane in the battle of Ankara in 1402, and the internecine dynastic strife checked for some time the appetite of the Ottoman Empire for a rapid expansion westwards. Simultaneously, the Ottomans persisted in their policy of making use of vassalage for draining the resistance of the Christian feudal lords and princes. The troops of the vassals were used for expansion eastwards against the non-Ottoman beyliks in Asia. In a letter of 1391, Emperor Manuel Palaiologos mentions “Tribals, Moesians and Illyrians” (Serbs, Bulgarians, and Albanians), who fought fiercely against the Anatolian beyliks, “believing they were punishing those who had made them suffer in the past.” In other words, in defying the Islamic enemy, the Christian vassals sought a kind of compensation for their own defeats by the Ottomans in the Balkans.
The dismembered Albanian territories and the unceasing pressure by Venice provided favourable conditions for the Ottoman expansion. In the period of 1415-1419, Sultan Mehmed I (1402-1421) managed to oust the local princes from Southern Albania, to deprive them of their possessions and establish the Ottoman military-feudal order in their place. He recognised only the vassalage of the large clans in Central and Northern Albania.
The heroic resistance of the Albanians led by George Kastrioti-Skanderbeg, which lasted even after his death, until almost the end of the 15th century, is of key importance in understanding the mentality and folk psychology of the Albanians. It portrays the Albanians, in the context of the Balkan peoples’ history, as an ethnos that confronted most valiantly and steadfastly the Ottoman conquerors. In terms of the issue of the Albanian identity, the uprising of Skanderbeg and the enduring resistance add further touches to the collective portrait of the Albanians – they stand out as a people characterised by a freedom-loving mind and rebellious spirit, coupled with unyielding belligerence. The facts from this period, and from later times, provide convincing evidence of the anthropogeographical characteristics which Cvijic, and Hösch in the present regard as a typical zone of patriarchal order in the highland regions of the Western Balkans, where the dominant social human type is one having a markedly manly-heroic ideal of life.
As a vassal of the Ottomans, one of the Albanian feudal lords, Gjin Kastrioti, was forced to send in 1423 his son George as a hostage of Sultan Murad. There the Albanian was converted to Islam and was given the name of Iskender. George Kastrioti – Iskender took part in the military campaigns of the sultan, distinguished himself, and was granted the title of bey. In 1438, he was appointed subay of the vilâyet of Kruja, a town having been once part of the possessions of the Kastrioti family. In 1440, he was promoted to sancakbey of Debar [Alb. Dibra]. Although he served at the Ottoman court, George Kastrioti sought opportunities to organise a resistance against his suzerain. First, with the mediation of his father, he entered into negotiations with Venice, later, on 28 November 1443, taking advantage of the wars waged by John Hunyadi, he proclaimed a
rebellion and made efforts to unite the Albanian forces to ensure its success. It is a curious circumstance that Skanderbeg’s mother was a Slav woman, according to some sources a Bulgarian named Voisava, a fact recorded in an anonymous Venetian chronicle: “Huic uxor fuit Voisava, Pologi Domini filia, est autem Pologum oppidum in Macedoniae et Bulgarie confinibus” (the provinces of Upper and Lower Polog ranged over the territory of the Tetovo plain – A.t.).
After the proclamation of the uprising against the Ottomans, Skanderbeg with his troops destroyed the garrison of Kruja and restored the independent principality of the Kastrioti. At that time, the Ottoman administration was already functioning in the family’s estates – Ottoman garrisons had been stationed in the fortresses, any traces of the former rule of the Kastrioti had been erased. In this situation, Skanderbeg’s struggle for overthrowing Ottoman power coincided with his desire to restore and keep the feudal heritage and authority of the Kastrioti clan.
Skanderbeg’s example gave impetus to the liberation movements in Central and Northern Albania. Nearly all princes rejected the Ottoman rule, and the big Albanian clans reestablished their principalities. George Kastrioti made efforts to unite all moral and material resources of the individual families in a successful struggle against the Ottomans. To this effect, on 2 March 1444 he called in Lezhë an assembly of the Albanian princes, where almost all of them gathered: the Arianits, Dukagjin, Crnojevic, Balshas, Thopias, Muzakas, as well as the leaders of the free Albanian tribes from the high mountains. In spite of the discord among the princes, they founded a union, which went down in history by the name of the Albanian League of Lezhë. George Kastrioti – Skanderbeg was elected its leader, and commander in chief of its armed forces numbering 8,000 warriors.
In the light of the modern geopolitical science, the League of Lezhë represented an attempt to form a state union. In fact, this was a federation of independent rulers who undertook the duty to follow a common foreign policy, to defend jointly their independence and recruiting their allied armed forces. Naturally, it all required a collective budget for covering the military expenditures and each family contributed their mite to the common funds of the League. As a matter of fact, in our days the KLA was being recruited on the same principle, by collecting a tax from each family..
At the same time, each clan kept its possessions, its autonomy in solving the internal problems of its own estate. The formation and functioning of the League, of which George Kastrioti was the supreme feudal lord or suzerain, was the most significant attempt to build up an all-Albanian resistance against the Ottoman occupation and, simultaneously, an effort to create, for the span of its short-lived functioning, of some sort of a unified Albanian state. It is no chance at all that to this day Skanderbeg is a national hero of the Albanians, and the period of the Albanian League has been perceived by the Albanians as a peak in their history, especially if compared with the subsequent failed attempts, until the beginning of the 20th century, to constitute an independent statehood.
We shall not dwell upon the detailed chronology of the intricate military strategies and battles that maintained the independence of the League over several decades in this study. It is of key importance that the successful military operations conducted by Skanderbeg against the Ottoman Empire, allowed him, as a person, and the Albanians, as an ethnos, become an important political agent in the region, particularly in the eyes of the European Christian nations, which were well- aware of the fact that it was the Albanians’ stubborn resistance that checked the victorious march of Islam on the West. Skanderbeg maintained permanent foreign relations with Hungary, the Republic of Ragusa, the Holy See, the Kingdom of Naples. Together with his establishment as an international factor, Skanderbeg tried to strengthen the centralist principle in the Albanian League, to consolidate further its human and material resources. It was of particular importance for him to reduce to a minimum the destructive force of clan particularism. The marriage contracted with Andronika, the daughter of Arianit-Comnenos, contributed to a stronger union between these two distinguished aristocratic dynasties. Skanderbeg punished the hesitant princes, deprived them of their possessions, and granted feuds to officers and soldiers, who had distinguished themselves,
thus forming a new military aristocracy. All these steps were aimed at the foundation of a single centralised Albanian state.
The efforts to develop statehood met with the princes’ opposition, for they placed their family interests above anything else. The League’s unity began to crack, some of the princes, who feared for their personal authority and possessions, openly took the side of the Ottomans, or declared they were leaving the Albanian League. The treachery of the Albanian aristocrats reached its culmination in 1455-1457, when the League was abandoned by the clans of Arianit, Dukagjin, Balsha, even Skanderbeg’s closest companions – Moïse Golem and Hamza Kastrioti.
Sultan Mohammed II took advantage of the break-up of the League and in 1457 sent against Skanderbeg an army of 80’000 soldiers, under the command of Ishak Bey Evrenoso?lu, joined also by troops led by defector Hamza Kastrioti. The Ottoman forces raided in, burning down and devastating Skanderbeg’s estates and advancing on Lezhë. Most of the Albanian lands fell in Ottoman hands. The majority of Skanderbeg’s companions attached themselves to the invaders. On 7 September Skanderbeg attacked by surprise and, employing his unsurpassed art of war, inflicted heavy casualties on the Ottoman troops, who had been too confident in their own victory and safety. Many of the Ottoman warriors were killed or taken hostage. Captured was also Hamza Kastrioti.
The brilliant victory over an enemy of highly superior numbers went down in history as the battle of Albulena and had a very big military and political significance. It preserved the independence of the Albanian territories, and, in 1460, Mehmed II even proposed a three-year armistice to Skanderbeg, which the latter accepted. At the same time, it put an end to the princes’ hesitations, eliminated their separatist leanings, consolidated once again the League and Skanderbeg’s authority.
The international prestige of the Albanian League was on the rise. In the 1460s, unmolested by the Ottomans, Skanderbeg engaged in the rivalries between the dynasties of Aragon and Anjou. Ridiculed by the Prince of Tarenta saying that his troops would be of little help to Ferdinand I of Aragon, Skanderbeg responded by the notable phrase, which became symbolic of the representation of the Albanian heroicity: “Remember that we are the same Epirotes who have fought in different times with the Romans on this very soil on which you now tread, and always in honour and glory, and not in disgrace”. Skanderbeg crossed into Italy in August 1461 with 1,000 cavalry and 2,000 infantry, dispersed Ferdinand’s enemies and stabilised his throne, after which he returned to Albania, having done with credit his duty to Ferdinand’s father – Philip of Aragon.28 The years until 1468, when Skanderbeg died, were laden with tension, abounding in delegations and negotiations abroad, and filled with incessant battles. In 1463, misled by the Papacy, Venice and the other states in Italy and Central Europe as to their intentions to organise a crusade against the Ottoman Empire, especially as the campaign was officially proclaimed by Pope Pius II, Skanderbeg broke the peace treaty with Mehmed II. The promised crusade did not take place and the Albanian lands were subjected to a systematic devastation.
Skanderbeg’s death on 7 January 1468 made the Albanians abandon all hopes. Many of the feudal lords moved to Italy, vast numbers of peasants (tens of thousands) also emigrated to Italy, forming large colonies in Sicily and Southern Italy, which have persisted down to the present day. Major strongholds like Kruja, Shkodra and some others maintained their resistance for a long time after. In 1467 a huge Ottoman army besieged Kruja, but the garrison stood up for two years. As late as June 1478 the exhausted defenders yielded the fortress. The Ottomans lost so many lives, material resources and efforts that even in the 19th century the Christian Albanians were not allowed to be overtaken by and spend the night in the fortress for fear that it might fall in their hands again. Not many are the leaders of the liberation struggle who have enjoyed so wide recognition of their deeds in the course of five centuries as Skanderbeg has. The legend says that, on hearing of Scanderbeg’s death, Sultan Mehmed II exclaimed: “At last Europe and Asia belong to me! Poor Christendom. It has lost both its sword and shield!”
A bibliography published in 1881, contains 185 historical, philosophical and fiction works on Skanderbeg. The new bibliography issued in Tirana on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of George Kastrioti’s death comprises over a thousand titles in twenty-one languages, among which writings in Esperanto. There appeared in various periods scholarly literature and ideological- aesthetical schools, which argued about approaches and views in the study of the Skanderbeg phenomenon. Although in different historical times and in terms of entirely different outlooks and cultures, both Idris Bitlisi in the early 16th century and F. Voltaire in his treatise Essai sur les Moeurs et l’ Esprit des Nations of 1756, analyse in a resembling way the astonishing quarter-of-a- century-long resistance of the Albanians. Idris Bitlisi: “It is perhaps because the greater part of the Albanians live in mountainous areas that they have the tough and austere character which does not let them yield to anybody, whatever the circumstances” and Voltaire who argues that the factors underlying Skanderbeg’s victories are two – the first, that Albanians are a people of warriors and, the second, that Albania is a highland country.
In the philosophical and historical works from the 18th and 19th centuries, Skanderbeg was elevated to the rank of a representative of enlightened absolutism. He was rather a king- philosopher, who rose above the classes and was more of a teacher than a traditional ruler. If we are to trust the texts published by Stefan Zanovi? in 1779, under the title of The Heritage of Skanderbeg, we are to find in them, among other things, the philosophy of that religious reservation, even indifference as to the fundamental significance and authority of religious faith which are so typical of the Albanians. Skanderbeg was believed to be the author of an extensive instruction addressed to his son Ivan Kastrioti, in which the subject of religion and clergy was given considerable place: “If the Pope tries to increase the number of priests and monks or if he urges you to take the field in defence of the Holy cause, may sooner a thunder fall from the skies on you and your brood, than you agree to it…