The Albanians

The Albanians are believed to be descendants of the Illyrians, mysterious tribe of obscure ethno-racial origins or the Indo-European people that about 1000 BC inhabited the area of the western Balkan Peninsula. For some time the origin of the Albanians has been a matter of dispute among historians as there are no substantial documents and artifacts from the First millennium AD of the cultural legacy that could prove the Illyrian origin of Albanians and help us trace them further back into history. The origin of Albanians has given rise to a good deal of discussion, some bringing them from Asiatic Albania – Caucasian Albania, and the coasts of the Caspian Sea. However, the so-called “Illyrian theory” on origins of the Albanians at the same time confirms and refers to their common origins with the Serbs.

Some believe Albanians to be the descendants of an older indigenous civilization (the Pelasgians), as the new ethnic formation created in the first centuries of the Middle ages on the Protobalkan basis by mixture of various elements of the ancient Paleobalkan substrates – Illyrian, Dako-Mesian /Dardanian/ and Thracian. Others believe Albanians to have settled later to the Balkans /about 6-7 century BC/ – came to Europe under Turkish /Oghuz Turks – Ghuzz Turks/ command and took name of their country from the Scytians who lived there way before the Sqhips. Modern European ethnographic and historical science suggests that the homeland of the Albanian nation is set in what today is the Central Albania. The German Illyrologist-Albanologist, Georg Stadtmüller, stresses that the original Albanian native region includes the Shkumba River Valley, both sides of the Mat River, Kruja, and some neighboring areas. Contemporary scholars describe the number of tribes who at one time occupied much of the Balkan peninsula as far north as the Danube as ‘Illyrian’. But whether Greeks or Illyrians inhabited much of the southern region of present-day Albania, known as Epirus, remains a highly controversial issue. The hypothesis of the descent of Albanians from Illyrians remains controversial, especially with regard to the peoples who inhabit the wider coastal region of Epirus, stretching across northwestern Greece and southern Albania.

The whole issue of ethnicity in the Albanian space thus needs to be re-evaluated, with more professional refinement than before and leaving nationalist prejudices behind.

However the people called Illyrians were a multi-tribe race of peoples who settled in the Balkan Peninsula centuries before succumbing to the Roman conquest in the 3rd century. When the Roman Empire was divided in 395 AD the Illyrians came under the jurisdiction of the Eastern portion – the Byzantine Empire. By the administrative reforms of the Byzantine Empire carried out during the reign of Emperor Diocletian, the Albanian territory was divided into three provinces: Praevalitana, with Shkodra /Shkodër/ as its administrative center, Epirus Nova with Dyrrachium as its capital, and Epirus Vetus, with its central city at Nikopois. Yet Albanian religious affiliation was with the Church of Rome and they continued to distinguish themselves in government, achieving once again the highest seat of power: the Byzantine emperors Anastasius I, who was born in Dyrrhachium and Justin I = born in hamlet close to Naissus /modern Nis in south Serbia/, and finally Justinian I – born in the Latin-speaking peasant family in Tauresium /present day East Serbia/ and believed to have been of Thraco-Roman or Illyro-Roman origins ….

The early archives of the Durrachium Bishopric among which are undouptedly the Slavic names of Glavinica or Acrocerauninia, Cerenica and Gradica testify on the very old Slavic territories in present Albania. Slavs encountered the ramains of the old Roman settlements and fortresses, and had built their own new strongholds.  As the warlike and feudal elements and part of the ruling population, the Albanians spread in two centuries far beyond their original nucleus of Arbanum and became master lords on the territories bearing the Slavic names which were settled by the Slavs in the early Middle ages.

In the 6th century migrating Slavs among who were Bohemians, Slovenes, Croats and Serbs began to settle intensively on Illyrian territory and pushed the Illyrians into what is present-day Albania. Albanians were originally a small herding community engaged in the heep transhumance that lived in the lofty and rugged mountains of the southwestern Balkan Peninsula. It was sometime after these invasions that the Illyrians, influenced by the many cultures of the invaders as well as their allies, underwent a change. The Illyrians, if not completely Greek themselves inherited much religious and cultural influence from sea-borne trade with the Greeks and Romans. Mountains of Southern Albania, called Northern Epirus by the Greeks, contain many monuments of Greek and Roman civilization, such as those at Apollonia and Butrint, but also relics of the ancient Illyrians, claimed by the Albanians to be their ancestors. Numerous Slavic place names, Byzantine churches, and artistic monuments of the Roman and Ottoman period are a tribute to this complicated heritage, as are the inhabitants of the area who still speak Slavic, Greek and Latin dialects as well as Albanian language.

Expansion of branches of the Albanian tribal communities, their inclusion into the military and administrative systems of foreign states, their evident intrusion for governors of the lands inhabited by population of other languages and culture, left consequences for their future existence. In a number of families are present clear traces of Slavization in acceptance of the personal names, that is the sign of langauge oscillations, the old titles and dignitaries, in take-over of the church-Slavonic as the language of administration and literacy, in admittance of the Serbian religious traditions as the role of donor of the Chilandary Monastery by the Katriotic Family or by marriage linkage relationship with the Balkan ruling and noble families… Interference vivid in the last decades prior to the Ottoman conquest not necessarily caused disappearance of the Slavic and imposing of the Arnavut features, as there were the opposite cases, but not decisive for the overal development. For the final outcome were decisive centuries of the Turkish rule when the social situation once changed and when inclusion into the Ottoman timar system and participating in islamized ruling class prevailed the numerosity of population and strength of a single or another language. Likewise the other parts of the Balkan peninsula, here the medieval period significantly influenced the ethnic development, but failed to shape its final form. Sima Ćirković, Tragovi slovenskog stanovništva na tlu Albanije u srednjem veku.

The name “Illyria” gradually gave way to that of “Albania.” In 1054, when the division between the Eastern and Western Church became final, northern Albania reverted to the jurisdiction of Rome, while the southern Albania remained allied to Constantinople-Tsarigrad. The first Albanian feudal state was declared at Krujë – Kroja by the Archon Progon in 1190. Progon’s older son, Gjin Progonović was Lord of Krujë and Elbasan from 1200 to 1208. 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. The independent state of Albania was founded by Progon and lasted until the middle of the 13th century, after which the country relapsed into disunity.

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 realization. On the ruins of the older – Byzantine political and cultural institutions, the Muslims, the steppe peoples and tribal unions set up a new type of polity and socioeconomic system. At the end of the 14th century invading Muslim Ottoman jihad – Seljuk Turks of the mighty Ottoman Empire conquered the Balkans and eventually Albania in 1468, despite the strong resistance by Gjergj Kastrioti Skenderbeu /Iskender Bey – Lord Alexander – The “Dragon of Albania”/, the most outstanding hero of Albania’s fight of the Serb origin against foreign subjugation. In terms 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 characterized by a freedom-loving mind and rebellious spirit, coupled with unyielding belligerence.

Under the rule of the Ottoman Empire Albania was referred to officially as Arnavutluk and its inhabitants as Arnauts which are raised in Macedonia, the Morea and the provinces bordering upon Sclavonia, and are commanded by officers from their respective provinces. Arnaut troops are hardy and vigorous, being inured from their infancy to laborious pursuits. They feel a pride in tracing their descent from the Spartans and endeavor to imitate the martial fierceness and manners of their forefathers.

The Arbëreshë are a linguistic and ethnic Albanian minority community living in southern Italy, especially the regions of Basilicata, Molise, Apulia, Calabria and Sicily. They settled in Southern Italy in the 15th to the 18th centuries in several migrations waves, following the death of the Albanian national hero George Kastrioti Skanderbeg and the gradual conquest of Albania and throughout the Byzantine Empire by the Ottoman Turks. 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 places. Sultan recognized only the vassalage of the large clans in Central and Northern Albania, although the Porte did not have high opinion on the clans banditry and crimes committed at the foot of the Prokletije Mountains. Through a combination of crushing taxes, restrictive laws, tribute in blood and violent oppression, the Ottoman Turks pressured Albanians to convert to Islam, and over the course of about 500 years two thirds of the population converted to Hanafi and Bektashi/Sufi/Dervish forms of Islam. While by and large ethnicity in South-eastern Europe is closely related to specific faiths /Serbs, Bulgarians, Greeks and Romanians are Christian Orthodox, Slovenians, Croats and Hungarians are Roman Catholics, Bosnians, Pomaks and Turks are Muslims/, the case of Albania is different. People in the North of Albania are mostly Catholics, in the South Orthodox and Bektashi and in the Central and Eastern parts are Sunni Muslims.

As early as the 16th century, a new name for the country evolved among Albanian people: “Shquipëria” – the land of eagles. This name probably has its origins in the Kastrioti family crest. This word ALSO probably comes from old Dacian-Moesian language adopted by Bulgarians who settled themselves on the territory of Roman province Moesia Inferior in 680/681. In Bulgarian language the  word “Shqiptars” means the “highlanders”. But more significantly, the image of the double-headed eagle was a common symbol associated with the Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire. In Byzantine heraldry, the heads represent the dual sovereignty of the Emperor /secular and religious/ and/or dominance of the Byzantine Emperors over both East and West. The double-headed eagle appears on the coats of arms and flags of Serbia and numerous Eastern Europe countries and commonly represents an independent culture, reflecting the strength and individuality that is characteristic also of Albanians throughout their history. Despite all attempts by the Turks to suppress all signs of a separate cultural identity, the image would survive and would one day serve as the basis for the Albanian flag.

Arbanitai or Arbanon are first recorded in 1081 by Anna Comnena in an account of the troubles in the Balkan region during the reign of her father – Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus. Although the connection between modern Albanians and the ancient Illyrians has been disputed, it is generally accepted by ethnographers, and Albanians have claimed a link. The territorial nucleus of the Albanian state formed in the Middle Ages, as the Principality of Arbër and the Sicilian dependency known as the Kingdom of Albania. The area was part of the Serbian Empire, passing to the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century. It remained under Ottoman control as part of Rumelia province until 1912, when the first independent Albanian state was declared following a short rule by the Kingdom of Serbia. The formation of an Albanian national consciousness dates to the late 19th century and is part of the larger phenomenon of the rise of nationalism under the Ottoman Empire. At the end of the 19th century the Austro-Hungarian Empire decided to create an autonomous New Albania under the Habsburg control and protectorate, later to be given a full statehood. Along with the brand new state, Austro-Hungarian colonial dictatorship invented a whole new fake history for the small tribal herding nation, tying it to the ancient Illyrians, despite the insurmountable historical gap of eight /8/ centuries between the last mentioning of the Illyirans and the first mention of the Albanians in Europe. A short-lived monarchy /1914–1925/ was succeeded by an even shorter-lived first Albanian Republic /1925–1928/, to be replaced by another monarchy /1928–1939/, which was conquered by Fascist Italy just prior to World War II. During World War II, 35,000 to 40,000 Kosovo Albanians were recruited by Nazi Germany as part of the German occupation forces and security formations in Greater Albania, a state created by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini that included Kosovo-Metohija, western Macedonia, and territory from Serbia and Montenegro… After the collapse of the Axis powers, Albania became a communist state, the Socialist People’s Republic of Albania, which for most of its duration was dominated by Enver Hoxha /died 1985/.

The Albanians speak Shqip one of the most unique languages in Europe which linguists do not trace to any other group. The Albanians are divided into two major groups, the Gheg and the Tosk, according to which Albanian dialect they speak. The Gheg live north of the Shkumbin River, while the Tosk live south of the river. The two Albanian dialects differ slightly in vocabulary and pronunciation. One of the main differences between the dialect are nasalized letters, which are abundant in Gheg but not used in Tosk. In the 1950’s it was decided that the Tosk dialect would be used in all Albanian publications, since it was the one most widely spoken in Albania. Albanians speak Albanian language, which is originally called Shqip. The Albanian language belongs to the large Indo-European language family. Albanian forms its own branch inside this family – with Albanian as the only member of that branch. The language features many loanwords from Latin, Greek, Turkish and Slavic languages. The first document in the Albanian language was recorded in 1462 by the archbishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Durazzo /modern Durres/.

In addition to differences in dialect, the Gheg and the Tosk also have many social differences. The Ghegs are a very stern and courageous people; while the Tosks are known to be friendly, lively, and talkative. Prior to the changes introduced by the Communist regime in the 1940’s, the Albanians were a tribal people who lived in extended family units called fis. The fis had many old traditions, such as the vendettas, or “blood feuds,” which often lasted for several generations. For protection during these feuds, families lived in fortified stone buildings called kulas /towers/. The ground floor of the kula was built with small slits rather than windows, while the upper floor had windows that could be closed. When the Communist regime began in 1944, the traditional lifestyles began to change drastically. Communist political authorities believed that the way to achieve national unity was to abolish differences of tribe, religion, and even dress. Huge community farms were established in Albania and education became mandatory. Large apartment complexes were built and much of the population became urbanized. During the 50 years of rule of Enver Hoxha thousands of bombproof defensive bunkers had been built to accommodate the whole of the population of the country in the event of attack. Bunkers are still found everywhere in Albania as are so indestructible. Today, more than a third of Albania’s population live in cities. The increasing industrial population and the introduction of mandatory education have, in fact, eliminated many regional differences.

The collapse of the Communist regime in 1991 brought on numerous traumatic and rapid changes in Albania, leaving the people with an identity crisis. The people were shocked to discover that they had been reduced to poverty. Hurt, angry, and confused, they are struggling to find their identity in a country that is considered to be Europe’s poorest and least developed. A black Mercedes-Benz happens to be the most common car on Albanian roads…. However, the Albanians are very hospitable and helpful and seem willing to go far out of their way to meet the visitors requests. However, young Albanians are sure – Albania’s future is in Europe !

The institution of blood feud which was once prominent in Scotland and in the U.S. region of Appalachia, as with the famous feud between the Hatfields and McCoys still holds greatest sway today in the mountainous parts of the Balkans, Sicily, Corsica and Caucus region. The Albanian Gegs inhabiting the territories north of the Shkumbin River had lived for long centuries in large clans observing the Kanun Code – Kanun Lekë Dukagjinit – Canon Lex Dux Ivan – a primitive constitution regulating not only their community life, but also their private lives. The Leke Dukajini Code norms were passed on from generation to generation by an oral tradition and were decreed by the council of elders. It is considered that the Kanun Code was rationalised by the Serbian duke and army hero – despot Leke Dukagjini /1410 -1481/, the contemporary of Skanderbey. The Kanun Code made an individual obligated to guard the honor of family, clan, and tribe.

When Albanians want to highlight that something is rifghtful they say that “it remains from Leka”. Thanks to huge similarity, it is considered that when he created the Kanun Code Lekë Dukagjin was under large influence of the Tsar Dusan Code. Leka Dukadjin was described as the significant military leader and the legislator who governed the number of the Serb tribes living in the territory of the present Albania and the north of Montenegro, and managed that the Serbs for centuries were known as the largest oppressors to the Turkish conquest. Leka Dukadjini had two sons – Nikola and Bijeli Pavle, who created several tribes, among which are the Bjelopavlici tribe in present Montenegro.

The Kanun Code is based on the concept of honor /bessa/ and blood to be compiled throughout the centuries chiefly by adding new norms. The Kanun Code included an elaborate legal code trying to regulate blood feud – a system of reciprocal “honor killings”. According to the Leke Dukadjini Kanun Code, if a man is deeply affronted, his family has the right to kill the person who has insulted him. However, by doing this, the family will become a target for revenge on the part of the victim’s family. The victim’s closest male relative is obliged to kill the murderer of his family member. The pattern of reprisal killings thus formed has been passed on for generations of families and has been manifested up to the present day in Albania, Kosovo, and, partly, in Montenegro. The blood feud was the result of perceived violations of this code of “honour.” One of the responsibilities of a man is to defend the family in the case of a blood feud. The Albanian besë – besa is deeply rooted ethnic rule and highly important part of the Kanun Code obeyed by person and family through history. Besa means “to keep the oath” and “the word of honour” and creates a situation of inviolable trust. One who acts according to Besa is someone who keeps his word, someone to whom one can trust one’s life and the lives of one’s family. It is one of the most archaic features of northern Albanian society, honour is cleansed by killing any male member of the family of the original offender, and the spilt blood of that victim then cries out to its own family for purification. Rules of Besa : an Albanian can sacrifice his own son in order to keep his Besa; Besa can not be sold or bought in a bazaar; Albanians would die rather than break besa; Besa is worth more than gold. For all Albanians besa was the highest human and ethical value. Blood feud-filled tragedy and Albania itself is paralysed by a sort of auto-fear, where every individual is either in hiding or unable to do anything for fear of bringing a feud upon himself. It was suppressed during the strict communist rule of Enver Hoxha in the 20th century but the tradition has had a revival since the fall of communism in the very poor, more traditional and remote areas of the country. Their number has since declined and often involves disputes between rival criminal gangs.