Personalities of Albania I: Skanderbeg

Outstanding characters helped shape Albania

When diving into the history of Albania, I discovered personalities that helped form the national consciousness of Albania – beginning with the early Illyrian kings (Agron, Teuta or Gent) and ending with leaders of modern Albania after 1990  such as Sali Berisha, Fatos Nano and Edi Rama. I would like to learn more – and here I start with one outstanding character, Skanderbeg or Gjergj Kastrioti who lived from 1405 to 1468.

Skanderbeg’s merit: He withstood the Ottomans for 25 years

In his book “From Ottoman captive to Albanian hero” (2005), Harry Hodgkison’s described that the Ottomans strived to master Albania as a stepping stone to conquer Rome. But in Albania, they were halted by Gjergj Kastrioti nicknamed Skanderbeg:

“His assets were meagre, a fortress that lay like an eagle’s nest on the sheer side of a mountain, never more than twenty thousand armed men… and these were enough to hold the mightiest army of the world at bay for a quarter of a century, saving not only his own country from defeat, but with it the peninsula of Italy… almost three hundred years after his death General Wolfe, the hero of Quebec could speak of him as a commander who excels all the officers, ancient and modern, in the conduct of a small defensive army.”

Their totem, Harry writes, was the eagle from the mountains and they called themselves “Shqiptars” or “Sons of the Eagle”.  Do the Albanians still today think of themselves as the sons of the eagle, as the black eagle on red has become their national flag? (see also Skanderberg in wikipedia).

The background: An Ottoman captive recceives military formation, has a notion of honor and good lobbying skills

Oliver Jens Schmitt  wrote the biography “der neue Alexander auf dem Balkan” (2009), and he tells us that Skanderbeg’s father, Gjon Kastrioti, had to give Gjergj and two more sons to the Ottoman Court in Istanbul. Gjergj converted to the islam. His courage and military skills attracted the attention of the Sultan. Then he also received the nickname Skanderbeg (Alexander). For the Sultan he did service in the Balkan area. But when his father was killed by the Ottomans, Skanderbeg deserted and converted back to the catholic church. Also driven by the need to revenge his father, he started to fight the Ottomans. In Lezhë he united Albanian princes and tribe leaders – despite their quarrels – creating the League of Lezhë under his guidance. He applied guerilla tactics and also collaborated with the Hungarian Johann Hunyadi. The League succeeded to defeat the Ottomans several tmes, though outnumbered by the Turkish army. He was also supported by Italy (Naples and Rome brought money and weapons, but Naples rivaling with Venezia also created problems).

In the end, Skanderbeg hands his notion of honor over to his son

In 1468 Skanderbeg was affected by malaria. According to Renate Ndarurinze (“Albanien”, Trescher Verlag 2013), he embraced his son (then 12 years old) and warned him to beware of the Turks. He says: “Avoid being caught alive by the Turks. I know them well – they try to reeducate every man to fight his own clan and to subjugate his country. Then honor has to give way to shame. When you get into trouble, take your mother and leave the country. When you are grown up, come back and continue fighting. Keep shame away from our clan, because shame is worse than death (rough translation from the German text).”

The long lasting impact of Skanderbeg

Already in the 15th century Skanderbeg counted as a hero. Not only in Western Europe, but also for the Ottomans. When they found his grave, they made amulets of his bones hoping to benefit from his courage.

Skanderbeg’s uniting several tribes under his flag helped shape the national consciousness which eventually ended in the creation of Albania in 1912. Numerous street names, places and statues remind of him. Albanian and international writers have been inspired by him such as Fan Noli, Naim Frashëri, Ismael Kadare, Lord Byron or Voltaire. Vivaldi composed an opera. And with Sowjet-Albanian collaboration the film “The Great Warrior Skanderbeg” was directed by Sergei Yutkevich winning a price in Cannes in 1954 (Великий Воин).

Why have I not heard of Skanderbeg before? I now ordered the biographies written by Ismail Kadare and by Oliver Jens Schmitt.

One thought on “Personalities of Albania I: Skanderbeg

  1. […] Toptani (a pedestrian zone with busy little restaurants and some Illyrian excavations), we reach Skanderbeg square with the statue of this exceptional military leader withstanding the Ottomans for 25 […]

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