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Ottoman colonisation of Albania

in History

Nearly a century – from the first clashes with Avlona in 1383 up to Skanderbeg’s death in January 1468, and even as late as 1478, when his rebels submitted the stronghold of Kruja, the Ottoman conquerors were forced to overcome the resistance of the Albanian squads. The slow and difficult establishment of their power over the Albanian territories, along with the prevailing difficult terrain there, were the prerequisites for the strikingly specific ways of withholding the Albanian identity, particularly the singularities of colonisation and the ethnic and religious transformations in these quarters.

Sultan Murad II (1421-1444 and 1446-1451) concluded Mehmed I’s campaigns strengthening the feudal order in part of the Albanian lands. The territories of Central and Southern Albania, stretching between the Mat River to the north and Çameria [modern Tsameria, Greece] to the south, were included in a single sancak known from the records and historical works as Arvanid. In 1431 the central authorities decreed that rural and urban households and their property be registered, as well as an inventory of the land holdings in all ten districts of the sancak of Arvanid be completed.

The feudal cadastre of the sancak of Arvanid, which was completed in 1432, contains data on the Ottoman migrants from Anatolia to Albania. In short, those are the earliest records of the colonisation and the penetration of a new ethnic component into this part of the Balkans. It consisted of only a limited number of people from the provinces of Saruhan, Konya, and Canik, whose task was to assume the management of some of the timars. The situation in the Albanian territories was complicated and dangerous, the authority – still shaky, and, therefore, among the belligerent Arbëreshes to be granted a feud was in fact an exile rather than a reward for wartime deserts and loyalty to the sultan. Timars in the Albanian lands were allocated predominantly to rebellious Anatolians with the purpose of sending them away from the central parts of the Empire,

and, on the other hand, of forming in the turbulent regions the first Muslim nuclei intended to represent the sultan’s power and, subsequently, defend the imperial interests.
As evidenced by the records in the Arvanid register, a great number of the feuds were left as hereditary estates of the local families, others were distributed to members of the Albanian military who had joined the new administration.35 Some of the native people, striving to keep their feudal estates or to be quickly promoted in the Ottoman military hierarchy, adopted Islam outright. Others stuck to their Christian faith, but not for long, for they were integrated into the Ottoman military-feudal class and with time if not they themselves then their sons converted to the dominant religion. At this early stage, all village and town dwellers listed in the cadastre were still Christian.

From the second half of the 15th century dates an important fact bearing on colonisation. That is the building of the city of Elbasan: “Then the Master built in the middle of the vilâyet of Arnavud a fortress and called it Ilbasan. He filled it with gazis to fight for the faith with the infidels around.”

It is a long-standing claim of the Turkish historiography that the population in the new towns founded by the Ottoman sultans in the Balkan provinces of the Empire was exclusively Muslim. The settlement of colonists from Anatolia, as well as the Islamisation of the local inhabitants is assumed to have begun with the placement of garrisons and administrative officers there.37 In this way, owing to the new architectural appearance and the Muslim population, these towns became strongholds of the Ottoman power and Islam.

Debatable, though, is whether Elbasan was a town founded by the conquerors. As its Slavonic name of Koniuh suggests, this must have been an older settlement turned by the Ottomans into a fortification and a garrison town. In any case, there is evidence showing that, in order to support the rear of his army, Mehmed II built up in the valley of the Shkumbin River a huge fortress calling it Elbasan, that is to say stamping, trampling on the country. According to I. Duichev, there exist some marginal notes describing the foundation of the town of Elbasan. Thus, a marginal note of 1466 tells about the deportation of citizens of Ohrid to the newly founded Ottoman town, and there is a record from the same year noting down the deportation of denizens of Skopje in order to settle in the new town. In reference to these events of founding and populating the town of Elbasan (Koniuh), there is also an extensive and valuably informative marginal note written by diak Dimiter of Kratovo, who copied a code at the demand of archbishop Dorotheos of Ohrid.  It is an undeniable fact that in the time of Sultan Mehmed II, when the town of Skopje was already losing its importance as a major strategic site in the Balkans, Elbasan, in the surroundings of which battles were still being fought, acquired a leading part in the imperial military plans and became a key site of Mohammedanism. Military garrisons and route detachments were stationed there, certain distinguished members of the local administration were established with their families as well. In fact, this was the Ottoman colonisation of Elbasan, because data about migration of ordinary households from Anatolia are lacking.

There is some evidence that in 1467 Sultan Mehmed II deported from Skopje to Elbasan over fifteen Bulgarian households, probably for doubts as to their trustworthiness, or aspiring to intimidate the unruly Bulgarians in town. These must have been Christian müsellems, who had been brought to take part in the construction of Elbasan as masons, stoneworkers, or any other building workers.  In a similar way, the previous year the sultan also exiled some eminent Ohrid families. This was a result of the deterioration of the relations between the Ottoman administration and the Archbishopric of Ohrid. The Ohrid clergy and the city notables were keenly concerned with the struggle of the Albanians against the Ottoman occupation and were trying to find ways to support it. The archbishops Nicholas and Zachary took advantage of the opportunity of having to go to preach against the Florentine Union and departed for the Albanian lands, where they stayed for a long time with Skanderbeg in the fortress of Kruja. The persecution of the citizens of Ohrid and the expulsion of the ecclesiastics, with the archbishop in the lead, evidenced that the sultan suspected both of some kind of anti-state activity.  Undoubtedly, the policy of interning, banishment, and resettlement was a common practice for the Sublime Porte and traditionally a well-known procedure in the Balkans.
Regardless of the Muslim character of the new town of Elbasan, it is unlikely for its population to have been homogenous in composition. In the 17th century the population of the city increased to the size of 2,000 households. This large number was due above all to native Albanians who had adopted Islam. One should not ignore evidence that it was precisely in Elbasan and its neighbourhood where the Crypto-Christians, Islamised Albanians professing in secret their old religion, were concentrated.

At first the aggressive aspirations of the Ottomans were directed towards the large ports along the Adriatic coast which were actively engaged in the Mediterranean trade. One of the first to fall under Ottoman power, as early as 1417, was the city of Avlona situated on the southeastern shore. It was a busy trade centre, exporter of cereals, wood material, salt and other products from the interior to Dubrovnik and the Italian republics. A new administration was immediately established in Avlona and its officials hurried to impose their control over the trade activity of the citizens of Dubrovnik and the local merchants – Christians and Jews. Being interested in the considerable revenues obtained from trading, the Ottomans took measures that business would not stop with their settlement in this town. Even the new governor of Avlona himself contributed to the further intensive growth of trade following the 1420s, 1430s, and 1440s. The result of this stimulative policy was a special ferman issued in 1430 by Sultan Murad II under which the merchants from Dubrovnik were granted freedom to trade “all over my kingdom’s territory and do business wherever they want to across the western and the eastern parts, both by land and by sea, in the Serbian and Albanian lands, in Bosnia, and in all lands and towns… and to pay custom duty under the law and let nobody stand in their way”.

Generally speaking, the seaside centres of trade were on the decline after their occupation by the Ottomans. On the one hand, because during the conquest the population was fleeing from the coastal areas and this, in turn, disrupted production and commercial activity. On the other hand, the introduction of the military-feudal system in the coastal areas, like anywhere else in the vast Ottoman Empire, was an impeding factor for commodity production and the growth of trade because of its restrictive character, although it did not stop them completely and deliberately. According to the sources, however, Avlona reached its zenith as a commercial centre in the 15th century, when it had already been conquered by the Ottomans, unlike Durrës, for example, whose activity by that period began to decline. Yet, an important factor here was probably the more flexible and independent policy of the local administration, which derived benefits from Avlona’s prosperity. An essential fact is that despite the town’s foreign government, commercial activity was left in the hands of the local and the Dubrovnik business circles. Avlona preserved its Christian character during that period.

If we go back to the records of the Arvanid register of 1432 containing data about the interior of Southern Albania, we would find out that the size of colonisation was insignificant. Even if there had been any initial designs to transfer colonists to the Albanian lands, the Ottoman sultans failed to implement them – because of shortage of men, because of the complicated political situation and the inaccessible terrain. There is some evidence of the movement of only a certain number of mustahfzes (soldiers in the fort garrisons) from Asia Minor. In exchange for their service they were given timars and so they joined the class of the Ottoman feud holders in the sancak of Arvanid. Most of the mustahfzes of the fortress of Skrapar led by dizdar Karaca were migrants from the Saruhan area of Asia Minor. They were remunerated with not very large feuds comprising lands inhabited by an entirely Christian population. Beside the garrison soldiers, migrants from Anatolia, there were also Albanians serving at the fortification: Gjin, son of Todor, Nikor, Peter, Niko, etc.

In the 15th century, although Albania was under Ottoman rule, the population in Argyrocastro (Gjirokastër) and the neighbouring villages, in the vilâyet of Kartalos, etc., remained Christian Orthodox and the colonisation was only minimal. The overall ethnic and religious configuration,

assembled on the basis of sources, indicates that Southern Albania preserved its pre-Ottoman characteristics, including distinctions in the field of toponymy and onomastics.
In the northern Albanian lands, included in the sancak of Iskenderiyye (modern Shkodër), the Ottoman colonisation did leave some traces. Administratively, the sancak of Shkodra was divided into two vilâyets – Shkodra, with six kazas pertaining to it, and Durrës, with four kazas. The registration of the population and the land in this region involved great difficulties, since the people living here were the independent highlanders – the Catholic Albanians, who did not allow the sultan’s officers into their free territories. Besides, many of the north Albanian clans presented themselves to the central authority as true Muslims, while in reality they observed the Catholic rites, that is they were a typical example of Crypto-Christians. This circumstance further complicated their relations with the Ottoman administration, and in fact it was impossible for the cadastre to describe accurately their religious affiliation.

Irrespective of the long-standing aspirations of the Empire to fully subjugate the Shkodra region as a strategic area near the Adriatic coast, it may be assumed that in the highlands the Ottoman administration was either not functioning at all, or only formally established. The sancak of Shkodra was administratively formed and officially annexed to the Balkan provinces of the Empire after the fall of the fortress of Rozafat in 1479, and the first detailed register of its lands, was compiled in 1485. In practice, this area was conquered by the Ottomans long before the seizure of the town of Shkodra itself.

The ratio of nearly five thousand Christian households to only sixty-nine Muslim undoubtedly speaks of a very insignificant presence of migrants from Anatolia in this region. It should be noted here, however, that the Ottoman settlers were seeking to get established in compact groups and, whenever possible, to found separate settlements. People’s natural desire to feel the safety of their own environment in these alien, conquered by force, territories made it easier for the Ottoman administration, because in case of need it was possible to quickly and easily call the Anatolian Turks to the colours of the sancakbey. Therefore, the dispersion of Muslim households – one, two or three in a village, according to the Ottoman registers, is sooner an evidence of single cases of local people having adopted Islam. Sometimes those Muslims were the representatives appointed by the community or the clans to maintain official contacts with the Ottoman administration, who made an appearance of obedience and loyalty and in fact guaranteed the parallel self-government of the community.

With regard to the subject discussed, the presence of the following notes found in the Ottoman cadastre of 1485 might be of interest. Entered in the records are ten timars (land holdings) held by Christians who had the title of kaznes before their names.43 It was used both in written documents and in the spoken Albanian language as early as the 14th century with the meaning of elder, voyvoda in the highlands. These Christians were chiefs of katuns (settlements of a tribal community or of cattle-breeding tribes in the mountainous parts of Northern Albania), and the villages they lived in, which were under their charge, were registered, no doubt on paper alone, as their timars. This was dictated by the wish of the central power to have at least minimum control over and contact with the population of the independent mountain communities by incorporating in some measure the community chiefs into its micro-administrative-governmental system. I focus my attention on this particular structure of power relations with the central authority, because they have been transferred to the modern times, especially in the province of Kosovo. The chief, entered in the register as timar-holder – de jure an Ottoman spahi under direct command, in fact defended the interests of these closed village communities which tolerated no alien presence and interference, and at the same time maintained contacts with the official power, seeing to the prompt collection and payment of taxes and the regular recruitment of soldiers for the Ottoman army. There is no evidence as to how strictly the chiefs fulfilled their duties, but certainly the central administration was unable to hold them responsible in any serious way. . Although this type of feudal estate was legalised as a timar and everywhere in the registers it is specified that the holders are spahis (that is subject to military service to the Empire), this is undoubtedly a specific form of execution of the Ottoman power taking into account the norms of the local customary law, the social and territorial system of the Albanians.
Sometimes the central authority placed greater trust in some Albanian chiefs putting on record ten or more villages under their charge, and in these cases the local traditional laws were not violated. Primary power in the villages was executed according to the local custom by the elders of the villages (for example kaznes Petri, son of Nike in the village of Drezka, kaznes Radic, son of Rashko in the village of Merka, etc), who, in turn, were under the authority of the governor of the respective villages (in the mentioned case – spahi Bozhidar, son of Vukote).

It is clear that the Albanians imposed their own model of seeming submission and actual self- government. In the territories of the sancak of Shkodra, for example, the settlement of migrants from Anatolia, as well as the establishment of Ottoman administrative officers and military garrisons were unthinkable. The highland territories were governed by local, parallel, institutions, and only externally and fictitiously – by the central and local Ottoman authorities and judicial institutions

The inventories of the population in the katuns belonging to the sancak of Shkodra, provide evidence about the absolute lack of Ottoman population groups in this region and about the ethnic and religious homogeneity of the local people in the late 15th century. Of course, when referring here and further in the text, to homogeneity of the population, we de not differentiate between or analyse the proportions of the Albanian and Slav population in this region because of the notably motley picture clearly reflected in the Ottoman tax registers.

Based again on the Ottoman registers, one could trace the tendency of conversion to Islam of the local population. For example, the garrison guarding the fortress of Dergoz (Drishti) consisted of eighteen men including the kethüda of the stronghold. All of them were Muslims, but the characteristics of their patronyms show that most of them were Islamised Albanians or Slavs (Hamza Debri, Süleyman Matje, Ahmed Radomiri, Karagöz Mure, Ilyas Kline, etc.). Obviously, the impossibility of colonisation of the Albanian lands by Ottomans from Anatolia forced the authority to rely on the service and loyalty of the Islamised indigenous population.

Another portion of the north Albanian lands was included in the sancak of Debar, namely Kruja, Debar and the areas lying between the rivers of Mat and Black Drin. The bulky register of this sancak is another confirmation of the limited scope of the Ottoman colonisation in Northern Albania. The lack of Ottoman administrative officials in the sancak of Debar, as well as the low density of the Christian population in the villages during the second half of the 15th century resulted from the long-lasting resistance of the native people, taking into consideration that this province was the centre of the insurrectionary campaigns of the Albanian and Slav population against the conquerors. The great number of villages in the neighbourhood of Kruja, entered as Akçahisar in the Ottoman defters, which were registered in the inventories as deserted – over 27 altogether, evidenced that the price of the stubborn Albanian resistance against the Ottoman expansion was high. From a demographic point of view, the negative consequences were a great number of deaths, flights from the devastated areas, hundreds of abducted into slavery, thousands of migrants to the Italian coast and adoption of Islam by most of the princes, former companions in arms of Skanderbeg.

In the first half of the 16th century the Albanian lands still maintained their Christian character – Orthodox and Catholic. The Muslim population increased insignificantly and that mainly through the Islamisation of the indigenous population. In some of the Albanian towns or districts the Muslims were reinforced by Yürüks sent in there to serve as labourers, but this was actually a nomadic, temporarily resident population. Thus, for example, Yürüks were being sent to the ports around Delvina (Southern Albania), where they were employed to repair the sailing boats and load the merchandise on board. In 1547 the Yürüks from Ovce Polje worked in the mines at Dukagjin, Kamenovo, etc. According to data published by Ö. Barkan, concerning the period of 1520-1535, the Christian population in the sancak of Elbasan ran up to 94.5 per cent. In the sancak of Shkodra, during the same period the Christians accounted for 95.5 per cent of the total population. In the sancak of Dukagjin, which embraced parts of Northern Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo and Metohija, there were no followers of Islam registered at all.48
From 1593 to 1606 a war was waged by the Holy League against the Ottoman Empire. In 1594 the Pope in Rome insisted that the highland Albanian Catholics should rise up in arms. In the month of June in the Mat monastery an assembly of the leaders of a number of provinces and towns in Albania were called together to work out a plan for an armed uprising. Relying on support from the Pope and from Spain, some ten thousand people, armed with bows and swords, attacked the Turkish troops in Albania. Once again the Albanians did not receive the expected help, failed to withstand the well-armed Ottoman detachments, and in 1596 their uprising was crushed. Naturally, this led to repression on the part of the Ottomans and activated the spread of Islam among the local population.

From the late 16th and the early 17th century the military feudal system could no longer provide the conditions the Ottoman Empire needed to carry through its plans for expansion and withstand the ever strengthening European states. On the other hand, the interests of the big feudal lords in the Empire were increasingly directed to the unconditional forms of private land ownership and, naturally, they tried to find any ways to counteract the traditional centralised monopoly over the land. This all led to the decay of the military feudal system and to substantial changes in the agrarian regime of the Ottoman state. When in some places the spahi feuds began to be transformed into other types of landed property, the timar records were no longer kept so strictly. Smaller became the number, as well as the importance of the inventories. The few and incomplete defters of that period did not include most of the productive population of the Empire and are therefore less reliable as a source of information on the ethnic and religious changes in the Albanian lands.

In fact, during the 17th and 18th centuries there was no longer colonisation in the concrete sense of this term. The migration of Ottomans from Anatolia had long ceased, or came down to economic migration of separate families. In the 17th century, mostly as a result of the spread of Islam, the Muslim population in Albania constituted already 30 per cent of the total native population.

In the period of the conquest the central Ottoman administration applied the customary forms of colonisation – establishment of garrisons, settlement of representatives of the military and administrative power, and of religious functionaries. . It failed, however, to follow a purposeful colonisation policy with respect to Albania. The negligible size of colonisation in the Albanian territories allowed the Albanians to avoid any measure of assimilation or Turkisation and to preserve the pre-Ottoman aspect of their lands until as late as the 17th century. In the subsequent centuries the political aspirations of the Ottoman power, along with the native peculiarities of folk psychology, mentality and complex identity, determined a rather dynamic process of Islamisation.

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