The Myth of Great Albania
Part I - History

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

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Written: October, 1999

From Illyrium to Skanderberg

There is very little dispute among serious (that is, non-Greek, non-Macedonian and non-Serb) scholars that the Albanians are an ancient people, the descendants of the Illyrians or (as a small minority insists) the Thracians. The Albanian language is a rather newer development (less than 1500 years old) - but it is also traced back either to Thracian or to Illyrian. In a region obsessed with history, real and (especially) invented, these 4000 year old facts are of enormous and practical import.

Ironically, the Illyrians were an ethnic mishmash that inhabited all of the former Yugoslavia and parts of Greece (Epirus). There were also major differences between the Illyrians of the highlands (the current Albania) - isolated and backward - and those of the lowland, the worldly and civilized. But these distinctions pale in comparison to the praise heaped on the Illyrians by their contemporaries. They were considered to be brave warriors and generous hosts. They mined their rich land for iron, copper, gold and silver and, despite being pagan, they buried their dead because they believed in the afterlife and its rewards or punishments. In their liburnae - slim lined, very fast galleys - they sailed and developed marine trade. The Romans adopted the design of their vessels and even kept the name Liburnian.

Durres and Vlore were really established by the Greeks 2500 years ago. The former was called Epidamnus, the latter (actually, a settlement a few kilometres away) Apollonia. It was part of a Greek colonization drive that effected lands as far away as Asia Minor in today's Turkey. As was the usual case, the Greeks traded their superior civilization and culture for the superior administrative and economic skills of the natives. It was no coincidence that Illyrian political organization was concurrent with the Greek presence. It started as defence alliances and ended as kingdoms (the Enkalayes, the Taulantes, the Epirotes, the Ardianes). And the enemy - even then - were the Macedonians under Philip the Second and his son Alexander the Great.

But the Macedonian empire was short lived and was superseded by the far superior and self conscious Romans. In 229, the Illyrians (commanded by a woman, Queen Teuta) were almost wiped out by Roman armies advancing to the Adriatic. It was the beginning of the damaging involvement of the superpowers in the area. Exactly 60 years later, Illyrium was no more. Rome prevailed and ruled the land now known as Illyricum.

Those were a good 600 years. Rome - as opposed to Ottoman empire - was a benign, enlightened, laissez faire type of loose assemblage of tax payers and tax collectors. Art and culture and philosophy and even the Illyrian tongue and Illyrian civilization flourished. It was a rich, materially endowed period in which citizens found sufficient leisure to indulge in all manner of Eastern cults, such as Christianity or the cult of Mithra (the Persian god of light). Christianity competed head on with the Illyrian pagan divinities and by 58 AD it was so strong that it was able to establish its own bishopric in Dyrrhachium (formerly Apollonia). This was followed by a few episcopal seats. It was also followed by intolerance, bigotry, hypocrisy and persecution, as all institutional religions go. The Roman and Greek heritage of live and let live, of art, of the aesthetics of the human body, of nature - in short: Hellenism - was strangled by the ever more obscure and dogmatic brand of Christianity that pervaded Byzantium until the Iconoclastic Controversy of 732. The emperor Leo III actually did the Albanian Church a great favour by detaching it from under the authority of the Roman Pope and placing it under the more humane patriarch of Constantinople. Still, the dividing line between north and south in Albania was as much religious as economic. The south maintained its allegiance to Constantinople while the north looked south, to Rome for spiritual guidance. When the church split in 1054 (to East and West) - these affiliations remained intact.

It is very little known but the Illyrians actually ruled the Roman empire in its last decades. There were a few Illyrian emperors (Gaius Decius, Claudius Gothicus, Aurelian, Probus, Diocletian, even Constantine the Great). And most of the officers of the by now fabled though dilapidated Roman army were Illyrians. In 395, in the cataclysmic split of the dying empire to East (later, Byzantium) and West, Albania became finally and firmly a part of the East. The Illyrians continued to exercise great influence of the amputated East, some of them becoming influential and historically significant emperors (Anastasius I, Justin I, Justinian I). As a result, Illyria was the favourite target of all manner of barbarian tribes: the Visigoths, the Huns, the Ostrogoths. When the Slavs appeared on the heels of these invasions, the Illyrians regarded them as just another barbarian tribe.

The interaction between the Illyrians and the Slavs was a love-hate relationship and has remained so ever since. Some Illyrian groups assimilated, intermarried and assumed the culture of the invaders. In 300 years, between the 6th and the 8th centuries AD, all the Illyrians in today's former Yugoslav republics vanished only to re-appear as Slavs. But the Illyrians of the south (Albania, Western Macedonia) resisted this process of dilution bitterly and preserved their identity and culture fiercely. To distinguish themselves from the "assimilated" - they invented Albania. The name itself is much older. Ptolemy of Alexandria mentioned it 600 years before the Illyrians began to apply it to their dwindling polity. And another 300 years were needed - well into the 11th century AD - before the Illyrians were fully accepted their reinvention as Albanians - the successors to the Albanoi tribe which used to occupy today's central Albania (formerly called Arberi). Five centuries later, the Albanians themselves renamed their territory and began to call it Shqiperia. No one really knows why, not even Albanian scholars, though they like to attribute it (on flimsy etymological grounds) to Shqipe, the Albanian word for Eagle. Thus, Albania was transformed to the Land of the Eagle.

It is an irony of history that the Middle (or Dark) Ages were the best period ever in Albania's history. Powerful cities proliferated, inhabited by a class of burghers who engaged in trading. Albanian merchant houses established outposts and branches all over the Mediterranean, from Venice to Thessalonica. Albanians were the epitome of education and cultivated the arts. They conversed only in Greek and Latin, letting the auld language die. The Byzantine empire was divided to military provinces (themes). One thing led to another and military commanders transformed feudal lords administered serfdom to the population. Feudalism co-existed and then supplanted urbanism and the big estates became so autonomous that they ignored the Byzantine court altogether.

But Albania was never peaceful. It was conquered by Bulgarians, Normans, Italians, Venetians and Serbs in 1347. Many Albanians immigrated when the Serbs took over, led by Stefan Dusan. They went to Greece and the Aegean Islands. It was not until 1388 that Albania was invaded by the Turks. By 1430 it was Turkish. By 1443 it was Albanian. To this incredible turn of events, the Albanian had Skanderberg to thank. A military genius (real name Gjergj Kastrioti), he drove the rising superpower of the Balkans out in a series of humiliating defeats administered by a coalition of Albanian princes. From his mountainous hideout in Kruje, he frustrated the Turkish efforts to regain Albania (they were planning to use it as staging ground for the invasion of Italy and, thereafter, Western Europe). The Italians (even the Pope, then the long arm of various shady Italian principates) supported Skanderberg monetarily and militarily - but he did by far the lion's share of the work.

But it was a personality-dependent achievement. Like all great leaders, Skanderberg's fault is that he refused to admit his own mortality and to nurture the right successor. Following his death, the Turks recaptured Albania in 1506. But Skanderberg's heroic fight had two important consequences. One outcome was a considerable weakening of the Turkish drive towards the heart of Europe and its West. They will never regain the momentum again and the war was lost. The second momentous consequence was that his struggle moulded an Albaninan NATION where there was none before.

Go to Part II

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