Lezhë

Lezhe  /Lissus, Alb. Lesh, italian Alessio/ is a small city in the northwest of Albania on the left bank of the Drim River, some 9 km before its delta to the Adriatic sea, where there meet the fertile fields of Zadrima, Torovica and Mat’s shore. The secrets of Lissus as the Lezha fortified stronghold was known in Antiquity, rise over the ruins of the ancient Acropolis, an area that was gradually transformed into a present city. Multiple civilizations had left their respective traces in the architecture of the stone Lezhe fortress, beginning with the Illyrians in the end of the 3rd century BC. In classical world the present town of Lezha – Lissus was an Illyrian city and crossroad with great importance that has played different roles like political, military, economic and cultural center. The Lissus – Lezha is considered as one of the most ancient inhabited places in the Balkans which included the residence of the Illyrian Queen Teuta and King Gentius. The long history of Lezhe – Lissus – Liesh continued for a long time during the Roman, Byzantine, Serbian, Venetian and Turkish periods of rule and today is one of the most important archaeological parks and historical sites in Albania. Lezhe is important crossroad for Durres, Tirana, Shkoder and Shen Jin /Shëngjin – “Sveti Jovan”, ital. San Giovanni di Medua, in the past only Medova/. The Drim River is navigable for small boats from Lezhe.

Lezhe – Lissus was established in 183 BC by Dionysius the Elder from Syracuse in Sicily. The construction of Lissus’ strong walls is attributed to Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse who conquered the area at the of the4th century BC.  In antiquity it was called Lis (gr. Λισσός, lat. Lissus). King of Macedon Phillip V occupied the city of Lis before 213 BC and Romans conquered it in 168 BC. After partition of the Roman Empire Lezhe became part of the Eastern Roman Empire. First it was part of the Province of Prevalitana (Praevalis), while later it belonged to the Durres thema (thema Dyrracheion). The Byzantines completed their reconstruction works of the Lezha fortress in the distant year of 592. Since 1343 it was within the Serbian Kingdom during reign of Emperor Dushan, and in 1361 it came into hands of the Balsic Dynasty, to become part of the Venetian Republic in 1392. The city is recorded in ancient resources /„niže Širokoga Broda u Lěšu behu 1368 gospoda zetska Stracimir i Đurađ” – below the wide basin of Lezhe there were living Zeta lords of Stracimir and Djuradj/. Between the 13th and the 14th century the ruler of Shkoder Leka Zaharovic planted the largest vineyards in the Balkans in the fertile basin of the Lezhe Lissus – Liesh fortress. At the time of establishment of vineyards here in the area of some 50 km between the Liesh – Lissus fortress and town of Shkoder there were some 50 Christian churches.

It was few centuries later that the Venetians /1440-1451/ gave the Lezhe Castle the shape it still holds to this day. The town of Lissus – Lezhe has great importancefor the Albanian history as here in 1444 Skanderbeg held the   In 1478 the indigenous population of Lezhe and the surrounding areas ruled by the Kastrioti family were expelled by the Turkish invasion and had to cross the Bojana River and settle northward in the territories of the present Montenegro ruled at that time by the Crnojevic Dynasty. This population was first time mentioned as the Ljeshani /people of Liezhe – „от ЛиешнанЬ /in the charter of Djuradj Crnojevic from 1494. In Turkish annals – defters dating from 1521/23 for the sanjak of Shkoder and in 1570 for the Dukadjini sanjak, those areas belong to the Grbavci and Zupa counties. The name of Ljesanska nahija /the county of Liesh/ was adopted at the end of the 17th century, first time under this name in 1692. The Orthodox population founded two princedoms of Drazevica and Gradac, west of the Sitnica River while the eastern part of the Luska zhupa would remain under the Turkish administration, known as the Ljeskopolje /the field of Ljes/. The last restoration dates back to 1521 at the time of the Sultan Suleiman Selim Bayezid Han, after the castle was burned by Lezha’s own citizens as a counterattack against the Ottomans. When Suleiman understood the kind of harm that could be caused by the Venetians and the Albanian rebels, he ordered the rebuilding of new castle walls over the Venetian ones.

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.

The Venetian Republic used the fear from the Turkish conquest to strengthen its influence in Zeta and Albania. The last feudal ruler of the Thopia family, son Karlo Thopia handed over Durres to Venetians in 1392. His estates after he died were inherited by sisters Jelena and Vojislava, but they also came into Turkish possessions. The road to Albania was open after the Kosovo Battle /1389/. At the end of the 14th century the Turkish reign in Lezhe – Lissus was recognized also by the feudal lords of Leka and Pavle Dukadjini, who ruled earlier in the areas of Lissus /Alessio/ and Zadrimlje. At the end of the 14th century Albania experienced mortal danger from invading Turks who occupied and plundered places and towns of their conquest. Disagreement and disunity of feudal lords of the Serbian state led to deeper Turkish invasion and conquest. Lezhe – Lissus had played important role in the Albanian history as here Skanderbeg held the Assembly of the Christian feudal lords for decision to unite and rebell against the invading Ottomans. Djuradj Kastriot – alb. Gjergj Kastrioti, famous and known as Skenderbeg /alb. Skënderbej/Skënderbeu/ was warrior against the Ottoman invaders and islamization.

Skanderbeg revolted in 1443 when he deserted from the Ottoman army which opposed the western Crusaders when they recaptured town of Niš commanded by Janos Hunyadi, a revered general known as the White Knight. Kastrioti-Skanderbeg entered the Turkish fortifications of Krujë and massacred the Turkish pasha and the Muslim contingent stationed there. The following morning the Kastrioti family’s standard – a red flag emblazoned with a black, double-headed eagle that has since been adopted as Albania’s national flag – fluttered in the breeze over the city’s castle. Here Kastrioti-Skanderbeg reportedly made his historic pronouncement: “I have not brought you liberty, I found it here among you.” Skanderbeg obtained possession of Krujë by tricking Hasan beg with a forged instruction from the sultan, and announced his re-conversion to Christianity. Skanderbeg allied himself with the Araniti family by marriage with the daughter of Gjergj Araniti, the medieval ruler of the areas between the Skhumba and the Aos-Vojusha rivers. Skanderbeg called an Assembly in Lissus – Lezhe – Alessio inviting all the local chiefs and was appointed commander of the Albanian armies which defeated the Ottomans in June 1444 and again at Danj in September 1448. Skanderbeg defeated a further Ottoman attack in 1456, although in 1457 a large Ottoman army occupied the plains of Albania up to the borders of Venice’s Alassio. With some assistance from the Vatican, as well as from the powerful lords of Naples and Venice, Kastrioti-Skanderbeg continued to repulse successive efforts by the Turks to invade Albania over the next 25 years, including at Debar /Dibër/ and at Ochrid in 1462. Skanderbey’s major supporter, King Alfonso of Naples /1416-1458/ made the Albanian general his vassal in 1451. King Alfonso supplied the Albanian army with needed funds, military equipment, and additional troops, and also acted as a protector by extending sanctuary to Kastrioti-Skanderbeg and his family. After the Venetians were drawn into the war in 1463, Sultan Mohammed II agreed a peace treaty signed in April 1463, although the armistice soon collapsed. After unsuccessfully besieging Krujë in 1467, the Sultan returned the following year only to be defeated once more by Skanderbeg. Skanderbeg died on 7 January 1468 from natural causes. The legend has it that, on hearing of Skanderbeg’s death, Sultan Mehmed II exclaimed: “At last Europe and Asia belong to me! Poor Christendom /Christianity/. It has lost both its sword and shield!”. Skenderbeg died undefeated in 1468 in Lezhe in northwest Albania and his name became legendary and was respected and often mentioned in the Balkan countries, but also in the Pope’s administration and in Europe. Petar Petrovic Njegos writes at the beginning of the Gorski vijenac /The Mountain Wreath/: „Skеndеrbеg is of the Obilic heart“.

Deeper Turkish breakthrough, plundering of occupied places and massacres of local population convinced the Albanian lords that rely on the Turks was useless, so the Arianite uprising against the Turks started in the areas from Shkodra to Valona in 1433. This uprising was supported by some prominent Albanian families, like Thopia, Musaki and other, but despite, the Turks defeated the rebels in 1436.  However there was another uprising, led by Djuradj the son of Ivan/John Kastriot who came to Kroja in 1443 and liberated it from the Turks. By marriage connection he made relationship with the Arianiti family and made deal against the Turks with some feudal lords. Right after the Uprising, Skenderbeg revolted the Venetians but later he made peace treaty with them.  Skenderbeg fought bravely, but after his death in 1468 the whole Albania came into the Turkish hands. It will remain so until the Balkan wars when in the meeting of the Albanian beys and tribal leaders, with full support of Austria-Hungary and Italy, at the end of 1912 in Valona the independence of Albania was proclaimed.

The city of Lezhe – Lissus was under the Ottoman rule from 1478 till 1912. Since the earliest times the Lezhe was the episcopal seat, but there is testimony of only five churches that remained. The cathedral was founded in 1459 in the reconstructed church of Saint Nicholas in Lezhe where in 1468 Skanderbeg was buried. At present it is memorial dedicated to Skanderbey while there are only remained fragments of the church and part of the altar apse. Modern protection is erected above the remains of the church to prevent its further deterioration.

The ancient city of Lissus facing the Adriatic Sea is located between two heights where the base of this ground makes different designations – the Akrolissus located on the top of Shelbuem Mountain which is 410 meters high and the Lissus, where this castle is centered on the top of the 186 meters hill in front of the Akrolissus. Yet, the Lezha castle retains a magnetic pull and mystery that leaves an impression on all those who tread on its stone grounds. This powerful appearance is described in Ana Komnenna’s words on the ancient city of Lezhë: “A castle in the air, the right eye of Durrës,” confirming the city’s immense beauty along with its dominating and strategic position on the land and in Albania’s history. Lezha castle is situated on the top of the hill of 186 meters high in the eastern part of the city. The origin of the castle is Illyrian. In the year 1440 the castle has been subject of reconstructions by Venetians, and in the 1522, after the Ottoman conquest it was reconstructed also by them. Here you can find vestiges of Illyrians, Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans. The most interested objects to be visited are ottomans constructions rubbles inside the castle, mosque, and the tower in the south-east wall with roman arch and Illyrian tower in the south wall of the castle.  Lezha Castle is the monument of culture of great importance from whose top visitors can admire the beautiful landscape of Lezha fertile county and the Adriatic Sea. Its’ uphill in a form of a pyramid (Shelbuem mountain) and surrounding another smaller hill, up to which is spotted the medieval castle surrounded by kreshta mountain in the north-east, and it is considered one of the most ancient inhabited place. This Illyrian city near the sea, as a crossing point where it interlink the marine road with the terrestrial one located between the plain of wide field prolific and rich with minerals especially copper, its location in this position makes it the most preferred in centuries, a nature perfection and people who defined the location of Lissus during the history. 12 gates of the Lissus fortress are opened for everyone who admires and want to study it, being overwhelmed by its splendor.

The area of Lezhe experienced large density of population along the river valleys and in vast areas along the maritime plains which were suitable for settlements since the time immemorial. Lezhe is situated some 90 minutes of drive from Tirana and around 35 km south of Shkodra which one reaches in 30 minutes of drive, and a ten minutes drive from the shores of Shengjin – Saint John on the Adriatic coast. Today, the city of Lezhe is home to just over 65,000 people who hail from all over the north of Albania. With large populations of people from Zadrima, Mirdita, and Malesia, it has a Catholic majority (70%) and a Muslim minority (30%). The city of Lezha, set under the dominating ancient castle, awaits visitors brought here by their curiosity on its history, the legends of Albanian rebels, the echoes of their union under the rule of Skanderbeg, the famous Albanian national hero, the outstanding local cuisine and nationally-renowned craftsmanship of the locals.

 

 

SHARE IT: