Note: This essay was written for RaymondIbrahim.com by André Masséna.
Albania is ranked as one of the least religious countries in the world, with only 30% of the population stating they consider religion to be important, according to Gallup. Yet, roughly 60% of the population state they belong to Sunni Islam, with only a 17% minority Christians. Such statistics seem to create a contrast between Albania today and the historical Albania. Centuries ago, Albania was one of the main battlegrounds between the Christian Europe and the armies of the Ottoman Empire. With a tiny population, rivalling feudal families and poor finances, the Albanians demonstrated some of the fiercest and most enduring resistances against the Eastern Muslim conquerors– especially under the leadership of the iconic figure and one of the founding fathers of Albania, Skanderberg (here spelled Scanderbeg). His remarkable story, outstanding talent and brave resistance would ignite the strong national identity of the Albanians, as well as inspire European soldiers in their long-lasting struggle with the Ottoman Empire.
In the 15th century, Albania was a complex frontier. It was a vital part of the heartland of European Christian culture, but still sharply divided between competing feudal lords and fiefdoms. Lacking unity, the Albanian lords were quickly targeted by the Ottomans, and by 1385, the Ottoman Turks had successfully subjugated the lords of Albania. The Albanian leaders swore allegiance to the Ottoman Sultan – Mehmed II – and the freedom of the Albanian people became limited. The lords were allowed to retain their status and properties, but they had to pay tribute to the Sultan and send a quota of their sons into Ottoman military service. These sons would then be forcefully converted to Islam.
In 1423, the same year as the Ottoman onslaught of Christians in the Balkans, an 18-year old Scanderbeg, together with three of his older brothers, were sent into Ottoman military service by their aristocratic Christian father, Gjon Kastrioti. His older brothers were executed by the Muslims for unknown reasons, whilst Scanderbeg managed to survive. He was quickly indoctrinated into the Muslim faith, and trained in the Muslim military armies.
Scanderbeg was originally born George Kastrioti in 1405. He was called “Iskander Bey” – meaning “Lord Alexander” – by Sultan Mehmed II for his military excellence. Later, “Iskander Bey” was translated into “Scanderbeg” in European languages. Truly, comparing him to the famous Alexander the Great did make sense as Scanderbeg displayed admirable bravery on the battlefield, as well as exceptional military skill. He rapidly rose through the ranks, eventually being promoted a cavalry officer and later, a governor. After almost two decades in Ottoman service, Scanderbeg was set to govern areas in his homeland Albania. His awareness of the sufferings of his people, as well as the Muslim executions of his brothers and subjugation of his family, were some of the reasons which led him into finally plotting against the Sultan. He defected, deserting all the riches he had available in the Ottoman Empire. Together with 300 loyal cavalrymen, he quit the army and travelled to the Fort of Kruje in Albania, massacring the Ottoman garrison stationed there. Scanderbeg officially abjured Islam and proclaimed himself the avenger of his family and his people. After rapidly taking control over surrounding fiefs and fortifications, Scanderbeg united the Albanian lords under the League of Lezhe, motivated by one common cause: to liberate Albania from the Muslim Ottoman rulers. The Christian-Albanian revolt had just begun.
The Ottoman Muslims were no rookies to Christian resistance. Ever since the collapse of the Christian Byzantine Empire – the empire which had fought the Muslim Turks and hindered them in conquering Europe for centuries – the Muslim invasions into Europe were met by fierce resistance. The Bulgers, the Serbians and the Hungarians bitterly defied the Ottomans, but were overrun by the sheer size of their armies. Having the goal of tearing down European culture, the Ottomans destroyed major cities (notably in Bulgaria) and the Christian educated clergy were forced to seek refuge in other countries. Striking at the nerve of the Europeans, aggressive revolts had already spurred across Eastern Europe, from Bulgaria to Croatia – and now also in Albania.
Primarily, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire had his eyes fixed upon Rome – the capital of the powerful Christian Papacy and the hub for Christian theology, culture and art in Europe. Sacking this magnificent Christian metropolis would be a devastating catastrophe for the Europeans. Yet to reach Rome, the Sultan would have to lead his armies through Italy. Due to Scanderbeg’s persistent revolt, his access to Italy was strategically denied. The Ottomans therefore wasted no time to quell the Albanian resistance.
The confident Muslim warriors expected little resistance from the divided, numerically inferior and financially bleak Albanians. On the fields of Torvioll however, their expectations were proven to be wrong. With only 15 000 men, Scanderbeg encircled the entire Ottoman force, consisting of 30 000 men, and decisively defeated it. Scanderbeg lost allegedly only 150 men (modern estimates around 4000 men) and his army killed around 20 000 Ottoman fighters. It was the first time the Ottomans had been defeated on European soil. This stunning victory echoed across Europe and inspired other European Christians living under Ottoman occupation to take up arms. Encouraged by the widespread European resistance, Pope Pius II called for a new crusade against the invading Muslim armies into Europe, as well as declaring Skanderbeg the chief-commander of the potential “crusade against the Ottomans”.
Scanderbeg would continue to impress Europe with decisive victories against all odds. He led his Albanians to surprising victories twice in 1445.In 1448, during the siege of Svetigrad, Scanderbeg led 12 000 guerrilla warriors into inflicting massive Ottoman casualties (some claim 20 000 Ottoman dead) to the vast 80 000 strong Ottoman army. Two years later, during the first siege of Kruje, Scanderbeg successfully defended the fort against the enormous 100 000 men army of the Sultan, having only 12 000 men in total. Subsequently, with a vastly inferior army of 10 000 men, Scanderbeg combatted 80 000 Ottoman fighters around Albulena, culminating in perhaps Scanderbeg’s greatest victory, the Ottoman camp was looted, and around 20 000 Ottomans were slain.
After a short-lived ceasefire, Sultan Mehmed II sent three simultaneous armies into Albania – totalling 50 000 men – only to be later informed that all three had been routed by Scanderbeg during August in 1462. Worse news soon reached Sultan Mehmed, as Scanderbeg turned the tables and looted Ottoman Macedonia with a small guerrilla force – taking highly important treasures to finance his exploits. These battles filled Albania with confidence, national pride and grim determination – and it contributed substantially in delaying the Sultan from his aspirations of sacking Rome and reaching Italy.
The Italians were grateful – at least most Italians. The Pope was so thankful and appreciative for Scanderbeg’s vital resistance that he named him a “Champion of Christ”. The Pope sent him gifts and all the financial aid he had at his disposal. The Kingdom of Naples – a consistent ally of the House of Kastrioti – also supplied Scanderbeg with arms, supplies, soldiers and money. However, the Viennese had other ideas. Upset that Scanderbeg’s Albanian nationalism threatened their hopes of gaining control over forts like Dagnum, they eventually clashed with Scanderbeg – even allying with the Ottomans to quench Scanderbeg’s revolt. This forced Scanderbeg to frequently find himself in a two-front war, stretching his abilities very thin. Surely, the symbolic setback the war between Venice and Skanderbeg, in the midst of the Ottoman invasion, produced, must have been a discouraging affair, since those now opposing him were also fellow Christians.
By 1463, the Christian-Albanian resistance had been going on for almost two decades. The Ottomans launched their fourth invasion of Albania with 40 000 strong, facing Scanderbeg’s 12 000 men. However, the Ottomans suffered very heavy casualties, being routed and having had one of their top commanders – an Albanian turned Ottoman, Jacob Arnauti – slain, along with 24 000 other Ottoman warriors. Angered, Sultan Mehmed II initiated the ultimate invasion against Scanderbeg, numbering perhaps 100 000 men. This resulted in the Second, and later, the third siege of Kruje. With 13 000 men, Scanderbeg miraculously fought the Ottomans in a series of tactical combats which drove them away once more, and killed the pasha (Ottoman general).
However, during these last incursions, the Ottoman Muslim armies had inflicted severe deaths and devastation upon the civilian population of Albania. Several noblemen had also been slain, captured and tortured. Scanderbeg gathered what was left of Albania in the city of Lezhe and discussed how to restructure the country and prepare for further wars with the Muslims. These talks abruptly ended however. Scanderbeg fell ill with fever and died. He was 64 years old, and his two decade long struggle with the Ottoman Muslims had finally ended.
After Scanderbeg’s death, a fourth siege of Kruje began, followed by months of starvation and sickness. The Albanian garrison eventually surrendered to Sultan Mehmed, on the promise that their lives would be spared. However, the Sultan showed little mercy. The civilian population was massacred, and the surviving women and children were sold as slaves. By 1479, the last Albanian fort fell to the Ottomans, and the proud people of Albania succumbed once more to Muslim Ottoman rule. For the following centuries under Ottoman occupation, a long Islamization process began in the country. Thousands of Albanian Christians fled the country, seeking refuge in other Christian lands.
“I did not bring you liberty, I found it here among you,” Scanderbeg is said to have proclaimed in 1443, when he converted to Christianity and symbolically raised the Kastrioti banner at the Fort of Kruje. This event brought more to Albania than just a war with the Ottomans. Indeed, it was the first time all of Albania stood united as one political entity, igniting a nationalistic sentiment in the hearts of the Albanians. It is not a coincidence that the Scanderbeg’ Kastrioti family banner is today the Albanian national flag.
Furthermore, Scanderbeg’s spectacular victories with inferior numbers and limited finance had earned him respect and admiration across Christian Europe. His resistance was one of the main reasons why the Muslim invasions of Italy were delayed, buying the Italians valuable time to prepare for the coming wars. The King of Naples claimed Scanderbeg “was like a father to us,” and sympathized “we regret this [Scanderbeg’s] death not less than the death of King Alfonso [the former King of Naples].”
For the Albanians, Scanderbeg seems to be of vital importance. During the dark sieges of Kruje, when morale was at its lowest, it was Scanderbeg’s speeches that empowered the soldiers and uplifted their spirits. As the Albanians would subsequently undergo centuries under Ottoman occupation, being cut off from European enlightenment, the local whispers and memories of the former patriotic glory of Scanderbeg kept the dreams of independence alive in the hearts of the Albanians. He became a grand symbol of Albanian national unity, freedom, faith, solidarity and identity.
Scanderbeg’s significance may be summed up in the resolution issued by the United States Congress in 2005, which was: “honouring the 600th anniversary of the birth of Gjergj Kastrioti (Scanderbeg), statesman, diplomat, and military genius, for his role in saving Western Europe from Ottoman occupation.”
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