Macedonia: Its Races and Their Future
H. Brailsford

VIII. The Albanians

2. Language and History:
        Scänderbeg, Ali Pasha
 

Of the origin and history of the Albanians it is difficult to write much that has meaning with any certainty. One fact only is fairly well established that they are not newcomers. The Greeks, anxious to identify them with a race akin to the Hellenes, declare with conviction that they are the descendants of the Pelasgi of antiquity. But who were the Pelasgi ? They must have been known to the Romans under the generic name of Illyrians, a race as intractable and as impervious to civilisation as are the modern inhabitants of Albania. Doubtless, too, the Southern Albanians are to some extent the descendants of the Epirotes who followed Pyrrhus. It matters little whether we identify them with the Pelasgi, the Epirotes, the Macedonians, or the Illyrians. They are, at all events, a race which never possessed a civilisation of its own, never completely assimilated the culture of its neighbours, and always led, in spite of Greek schools or Roman roads, the same wild tribal life in the same inaccessible mountains. Ethno-logically it belongs to the Indo-European group, and probably it migrated to its present fastnesses before the Italian


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and the Hellenic branches, which are its nearest kinsmen. The Albanian language, despite marked dialectical variations, is essentially the same wherever it is spoken as far north as the Montenegrin border or as far south as the Gulf of Arta. It is unquestionably an Aryan language, sufficiently distinct both from Slav and from Greek, and superficially at least more nearly akin to Latin than to Greek. But it has borrowed so much from all the tongues with which it has been in contact that it is difficult to tell at a glance how many of these manifestly Aryan words it brought from the Aryan home, and how many it has recovered in recent centuries. An educated Southern Albanian employs as many obviously Greek words as a Hellenised Vlach, while a Northern Albanian exerts his predatory talents upon Italian and Servian.

There are great differences between the Albanian dialects of the south (Tosk) and those of the north (Gheg), and oddly enough the Gheg is said to be the softer and more musical speech. To my ear, I confess, both sound equally harsh and unattractive. These differences are perhaps rather less considerable than one would expect when one remembers that neither dialect has been reduced to writing before the present generation, that each borrows its abstract terms from an alien language unknown to the other, and that in this land of mountains and brigandage there is very little communication between north and south. A patriotic Albanian will always declare that a Gheg and Tosk understand each other without much difficulty. I am a little distrustful of this assurance, but undoubtedly as the language tends to be standardised and cultivated it must also become more universally comprehensible. It is also a very disputable point whether ethnologically the Albanians are really a single stock. Physically there are marked differences among them. The northerners are tall, there are many blondes among them, and they are said to be exceptionally broad-headed. They seem indeed outwardly indistinguishable from the Montenegrins and other Servian highlanders. They are active and muscular, but they are lightly built and narrow-shouldered. The Ghegs wear a


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tight-fitting costume, which gives them an appearance of slenderness. The national costume of the Tosks is the kilt or fustanella of white linen which has been adopted in the Greek army. Both these costumes are characteristic and national the white cloth of the Ghegs with its black embroideries that suggest on the lithe limbs of the men who wear it something of the fearful symmetry and the bold marking of a tiger, no less than the more famous fustanella. It is possible that these diverse costumes point to some quite distinct origin, and the language, odd, capricious, and so distinct from other Aryan tongues, may, after all, be an amalgam formed from the aboriginal tongues of these different stocks. But that is a remote speculation. It is sufficient to note that within historical times the Albanians have undergone a good deal of mixing that can be verified. The Vlachs are nowhere so numerous as in Jannina and along the southern spurs of the Pindus range. They refuse, as a rule, to intermarry with Slavs, but have no scruple about contracting a union with Albanians. Greek influence has nearly always been paramount in Epirus, and Jannina was the seat of a Byzantine principality which became independent after the capture of Constantinople by the Latins during the Fourth Crusade. At this period the population, at all events of the towns, must have submitted to some infusion of Hellenic blood. The coast of Epirus must also have come under a strong Hellenic influence. It is related, for example, of Parga, an interesting and vigorous mercantile town built over the Adriatic on an impregnable rock, which retained its independence under Venetian protection until it was surrendered by England to Ali Pasha at the close of the Napoleonic war, that its inhabitants wore the peculiar costume of the Cretans and the other Greek islanders. But even more powerful than the Greek was the Servian influence. Scutari was for a time the capital of the Servian Empire, and even Jannina was governed for a considerable period before the Turkish conquest by Servian dukes, who were usually of the royal blood. Nor can this occupation have been purely military, for to this day perhaps the


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majority of the place-names of Central and Northern Albania are Slavonic. The Serbs, one suspects, must have left a good deal more behind them than the names of villages.

Scänderbeg

Albanian history may be dismissed in a paragraph. These fierce tribes which rejected the civilisations of Greece, Rome, and Byzantium with an equal impartiality, have achieved political unity only twice. They seem to have succumbed easily to the Turkish conquest. A pasha or two replaced their Greek or Servian governors in the chief towns and virtually nothing was changed outside their walls. But for a brief period under George Castriot, the Scänderbeg (Alexander) of popular legend, [1] they enjoyed a degree of glory and independence unknown before or since. He was the son of a chieftain of Northern Albania whom the Turks took as a boy and brought up as a Janissary. His military talents soon brought promotion, and he learned all that his masters could teach him of the art of war. An act of personal injustice quickened his memory of the Christian faith in which he had first been nurtured. The Turks refused to allow him to succeed to his father's estates, and in his indignation he recovered his patriotism. About the age of forty he escaped from the Turkish camp, renounced Islam, fled to his native mountains, and raised the standard of revolt (1443). He annihilated the first army which was sent against his little mountain fastness of Kroïa, and from that initial success to the day of his death, his ascendancy was gladly recognised at least by the northern branch of the Albanian people. Those who had already accepted Islam returned to Christianity, and for the first time in their history the Albanians were one people under a native king. He lived in perpetual warfare, and defeated every force that was sent against him, including two vast armies led in person by the Sultans Amurath and Mahomed. Nor did he confine himself entirely to guerilla tactics. More than once he gave battle to the Turks on open ground and routed them with

1. Has tradition in giving this name confused him with Alexander of Macedon ?


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fabulous slaughter. His prowess was, no doubt, the foundation of his influence over his warlike clans, but to hold together a race with whom feud and faction was already a settled tradition he must have had high gifts of statesmanship. [2] His gallant and successful struggles won him a name far beyond the Balkans. It was doubtless a proof of policy that on returning to Christianity he embraced not the Orthodox but the Catholic faith. That compliment to the West won him the patronage of the Pope, the friendship of Venice, the cautious aid of Ragusa, and some substantial assistance from Naples.

On his death in 1467 he bequeathed his kingdom to his son, John, a minor, and named the Venetian Republic his protector. But the event proved that Albanian independence rested on no force more lasting than the genius of Skänderbeg. The Venetians performed their duties in a perfunctory spirit, though they lent some assistance to the town of Scutari during a long siege. John Castriot fled in 1477 to Naples with many thousands of his subjects, and thereafter the Venetians were content to maintain a few seaports as trading centres. Within ten years after the death of Skänder, nothing remained of his kingdom but an inspiring legend. The memory of this Catholic renegade is held in equal veneration by Moslem, Orthodox and Catholic Albanians; and among the few traditions and ideals which make this strange race a people, despite its own divisions and the oppression of the Turkish yoke, there is none more potent than the history of this brief struggle for independence.
 

Ali Pasha
It was not until the time of Ali of Tepelen, Pasha of Jannina, that the Albanians again enjoyed an approach to national independence. Ali was one of the most remarkable characters in all the history of the Peninsula. Born about 1740, a poor country bey, left early an orphan, he repaired his fortunes by brigandage, and carved his way to wealth and rank by a combination of violence and treachery.

2. It is interesting to note that two of his most trusted lieutenants did actually revolt against him and accepted commands from the Turks.


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Now forging a title to some vacant Pashalik, again waging open war upon neighbouring Pashas, accusing them to the Porte by forged evidence of treasons which he had himself committed, aggrandising himself and his sons by powerful marriages, invariably followed by the ruin of the family which he honoured, he gradually carved out for himself and his heirs a virtually independent principality, which embraced at its zenith not only the greater part of Epirus and Albania, but Thessaly and the Morea as well. He intrigued alternately with England and Napoleon. He employed now English and now French officers to train his troops. He sometimes defied, but more frequently bribed, Constantinople. He was more than once on the verge of espousing the Greek cause, and openly throwing off the Ottoman yoke. He undoubtedly taught the Albanians to despise the Turks, and partly from policy, partly from instinct, encouraged their sense of nationality. To divide them from the Turks he propagated the Bektashi heresy among the Moslems. He recognised no religious divisions. The only one of his generals whom he really trusted was an Orthodox Christian named Athanasi Vaia, while among his most devoted troops were the Catholic Mirdites. His secretaries were all of them Greeks. His rule was one long welter in blood and treachery, but if he depopulated much of the country, his main object seems to have been to suppress brigandage. He tolerated no tyrant but himself within his jurisdiction, and under him commerce flourished and the roads were safe. His massacres of the so-called "Greeks" of Suli are often ascribed to fanaticism. In reality, he merely suppressed the Suliotes as he suppressed all the other predatory tribes and brigand beys who defied his administration and troubled the public order. Most of his atrocities were in reality only incidents in his consistent effort to build up a strong and orderly government. To regard this illiterate old savage as a patriot would be absurd; but without intending it, he certainly contributed to the solidarity and the national consciousness of the Albanians. His aim was to carve out for himself and his sons a vast estate that should


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survive his death. He cared only for wealth and for power, and while he enjoyed the reality of independence he never dreamed of throwing off the Turkish yoke. In the end he overstepped the tolerance of Constantinople, was proclaimed a rebel, and, after defying the Turks during a two years' siege in Jannina, was murdered with a treachery which was the fittest punishment for the habitual perfidy of his own career (1822). But whatever the historical Ali may have been, he gave the Albanian race a second hero and a legendary leader. His rule must have been rougher and harsher because more efficient than that of the Turks, but it was at least the rule of an Arnaut over Arnauts. [3] To the descendants of the men who groaned beneath it, his cruelty and his courage seem only picturesque. The songs that describe his conquests and his massacres have become a national cyclus. The Christian Gheg Castriot and the Moslem Tosk Ali are more than tribal personalities. They are Albanian heroes, and their exploits are sung in every dialect. Ali may have been a Turkish Pasha, but his end was a great blaze of revolt, and the siege of Jannina has taken rank with Skänder's struggles for liberty. The tradition of Ali's final defiance lived after him, and at least three more or less futile attempts at revolt have been made since his day. The third of these was due to an organisation called the Albanian League, founded in 1880, at first with the connivance of the Turks, who used it against the Montenegrins in order to avoid surrendering the territory assigned to them by the Berlin treaty. But it developed a Nationalist programme, and demanded autonomy. Its head, Prink (princeps ?) Doda, the chief of the Catholic Mirdites, a powerful, semi-independent clan of the North, was driven into exile, and since the collapse of this organisation any Albanian who wishes to talk of autonomy finds it safer to seek his audience in Bucharest or Paris.

3. "Albania" is a word known only to the Western languages, or in the form  to Greek. The Albanians call themselves Arnauts, or Skipetars.
 

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