5. The era of Gjergj Kastriot-Skanderbeg

Skanderbeg is acknowledged as having succeeded in resisting Ottoman attack and some of its expansion for 25 years between 1443 and 1468 when he died. He had been raised under the Sultan’s control after being forcefully abducted from his family as a nine-year old child. He managed to escape his Ottoman masters at the beginning of the 1440s and started to organise a military force to fight them. His opposition to Ottoman expansion was based mainly on the defence of Christianity although over time his victories have come increasingly to be used to build a national Albanian identity. Skanderbeg’s campaigns were fought with armies manned with fighters of various ethnic heritages and not just Albanian.

The Ottoman practice of the forced recruitment of Christian children from European countries was the toughest repression. These children were sent to the court of the Sultan where they were educated and converted to the Muslim faith and, once they had become the Sultan’s most loyal subjects, they rose to some of the highest state positions. This form of recruitment included all conquered territories and most of all Arbëria, whose resistance to Ottoman rule never wavered. The Kastriots’ Principality was led by the noble family of the Kastriots who came from Has. Gjon Kastriot was married to Vojsava, who came from a noble family of Tetovo. Their youngest son, Gjergj, was taken prisoner by the Ottomans at the age of 9 and attended the Sultan’s military school. Because of the talent he showed, he took on the name Skënder and the title Bey, from which he was called Skënderbeu (anglicised to Skanderbeg). Since he was a distinguished soldier, the Sultan named Skanderbeg the ruler of Kruja, which enabled him to know the situation in the land of his birth and secretly to plan his return to his homeland. Skanderbeg awaited the appropriate moment to return to his homeland and thus it was that on 3 November 1443 in the battle of the Ottomans against the Hungarians (who were led by Janos Hunyadi) he found the opportunity to withdraw. This meant that the Ottomans suffered a defeat. On 28 November 1443 Skanderbeg raised his flag with the two-headed eagle in Kruja. On 2 March 1444 the Albanian League was founded in Lezha, with Skanderbeg at its head. All the Albanian princes came together, an Albanian army was created and Albanian cities were liberated, and the foundations were laid for the Albanian state of the time. Skanderbeg fought many battles, especially against the Ottoman Empire, but also against Venice; the most important were the first siege of Kruja in July to October 1450, the Albanian-Ottoman battles of 1452-1465, the second siege of Kruja in May-July 1466 and the third siege of Kruja in May-October 1467. In the autumn of 1448 the Hungarians attacked the Ottomans but they suffered severe misfortunes in Fushë Kosovë because Skanderbeg did not manage to come to the aid of the Hungarians as he was captured by the Serb despot Đurađ Branković. In 1455 Skanderbeg tried to conquer Berat but he failed and this was his only loss in 25 years – some Arberian leaders such as Moisi Golemi and Hamza Kastrioti went over to the Ottoman side, but Skanderbeg showed himself to be merciful and humane even with those who betrayed him and they later regretted what they had done. Skanderbeg and the Arberians were seen as the defenders of Christianity in the Balkans so the Papacy in Rome gave them moral and material support. Skanderbeg had good relationships with the Pope, Naples, Venice, Dubrovnik, Zeta, and Hungary. Skanderbeg’s work gained him respect across the Balkans and Europe. Skanderbeg’s efforts prevented the Ottomans from conquering Europe. Skanderbeg is a major national and European figure. The Ottomans exploited the death of Skanderbeg to rule Albanian lands once again, and as a sign of revenge they killed many Albanians and forced many others to move from their homeland.

[Dërguti, Menduh, Sonila Boçi and Ledia Dushku. Historia 9. Tirana: Botime Shkollore Albas, 2013, pages 29-43; Dërguti, Menduh, Ferit Duka, Ledia Dushku and Sonila Boçi. Historia e shqiptarëve 12. Tirana: Botime Shkollore Albas, 2013, pages 73-84.]

After the break-up of the Serbian kingdom, great Albanian families such as the Shpataj, Matrënga and Topiaj, and later the Muzaka, Kastriot, Dukagjin and Arianit emerged on the political scene, creating regions under their control. The Ottoman threat, which hung over all the Balkans, included the Albanian areas. Wars between the great Albanian families, characteristic of all Balkan lands, facilitated the Ottomans’ influence, especially during the time of Sultan Bajazit I. Most Albanian dynasties became vassals of the Ottomans. In the first decade of the fifteenth century a new Ottoman conquest of Albanian territory took place. At this time the Albanian sanjak was formed as an integral part of the Ottoman Empire. This regionalism included the Kastriot family circle. Gjergj Kastriot, the son of Gjon Kastriot, called Skanderbeg by the Turks, evaded Ottoman conquest during the 1440s, conquered the city of Kruja and began a war for the liberation of the territory. Other Albanian dynasties gathered around him and until his death (1468) he succeeded in resisting Ottoman attacks. Skanderbeg became a byword for Albanian resistance to Ottoman rule, a central character in popular tradition and later also an important part of the formation of national identity. After his death the Ottomans oppressed other great tribes and continued their conquest further.

[Smilja Marjanović-Dušanić and Marko Šuica. Istorija za II razred gimnazije. Belgrade: Zavod za udžbenike, 2009, page 217; Radoš Ljušić. Istorija za I razred gimnazije. Belgrade: Zavod za udžbenike, 2008, pages 75, 88-89.]

The Albanian uprisings against the Ottoman Empire between 1443 and 1468, led by Gjergj Kastrioti – Skanderbeg, brought the Albanians to Western awareness for the first time. These were not the only uprisings but due to Skanderbeg’s charismatic persona they were the strongest Christian uprisings in the Balkans. Skanderbeg escaped from the Sultan and returned to Kruja, benefiting from the difficulties of the Ottomans at the time of the 1443-44 war.During the battle against the Hungarians in Nis, managed to obtained from Sultan’s secretary a document sealed by the Sultan himself which appointed him as the ruler of Kruja.
Although Skanderbeg’s uprisings occurred in a small territory mainly comprised of mountains and not cities, they were extraordinary in their dimensions as they faced the greatest empire of the period. One of the reasons why the uprisings were made possible was because of Skanderbeg’s vassalage to Italian states, which in Kosovo textbooks is presented as an alliance. Further, the textbooks of Kosovo, represent Skanderbeg’s wars mainly as a string of successive victories, not as wars with victories and defeats, as they indeed were. Even when presenting a defeat of Skanderbeg, they attribute it exclusively to ‘traitors’ such as Hamza Kastrioti and Moisi Golemi.
The motives behind the uprisings led by Skanderbeg, especially in Kosovo textbooks are presented as nationalistic (aiming to lead the Albanian people towards freedom) yet their motives were mainly religious, proprietary, and even vendettas for his father‘s death at the Sultan’s order. Thus for example the Assembly of Lezha is presented as a national union or a league and there is no mention anywhere that rulers of families from other ethnicities, such as the Crnojević family, had also joined the Assembly. The union was not a national league but a military one and each member of the league maintained their full independence, while Skanderbeg was only the first among leaders, and not, as stated in these textbooks, the ruler of an Albanian state.
When describing Skanderbeg raising the double-headed eagle flag in Kruja, none of the textbooks specify that the flag was that with the Byzantine eagle. None of these textbooks mention that Skanderbeg’s father came from Dibra, a mixed territory (Albanian, Serbian, Bulgarian and Vlach), or that he was married to Vojsava Branković, a noble Serbian woman, or that their children were given Byzantine Orthodox (Konstantin, Gjergj) and Slavic names (Reposh, Stanisa, Mamica, Vlaica, Jela).

[Malcolm, Noel. Kosovo – A Short History. London: Pan Macmillan, 2002, pp. 181-201 and 116-180; Schmitt, Oliver. Kosova: histori e shkurtër e një treve qendrore ballkanike. Prishtina: Koha, 2012, pp. 87-127; Schmitt, Oliver. Shqiptarët – një histori midis Lindjes dhe Perëndimit. Tirana: K&B, 2012, pp. 56-81 and 120-135; Bartl, Peter. Shqipëria – nga mesjeta deri sot. Prizren: Drita, 1999, pp. 44-78; Gawrych, George. Gjysmëhëna dhe shqiponja – sundimi otoman, islamizimi dhe shqiptarët 1874-1913. ]