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Introduction: Who Are the Albanians?

From  The Albanians: An Ethnic History from Prehistoric Times to the Present © 1995 Edwin E Jacques by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640.     

When communism crumbled throughout Eastern Europe, Albania remained its last bastion of Stalinism.  At the time a spokesman for the United Nations' Commission on Human Rights identified Albania as "the only country in the world which has entirely crushed religious liberty" (Dielli 25 April 1988, 8). Who are the Albanians?

Holders of American passports some years ago may remember that Albania was one of the five countries they were forbidden to visit; and when the United States lifted its travel restriction in 1967, the Albanian government promptly applied its own.  Some people may have recognized the name of Albania's capital city when former President Carter announced that the man responsible for his inaugural arrangements would head his department of civil defense, one Bardhyl Tirana.  Few, probably, would have made a connection between the Albanian community of Detroit and the senior trial attorney with the United States Department of Justice, John T. Kotelly, who in 1979 received the coveted John Marshall Award for his successful prosecution of major cases of public corruption.  Nor could they be expected to discern behind the exotic or Americanized surnames of ethnic neighbors the numerous sons and daughters of humble Albanian immigrants who resolutely climbed the ladder of success, first in the trades, then in the professions.  One of these is Anthony Athanas, a former immigrant dishwasher and waiter, who developed one of his five restaurants, Boston's Pier Four, into what the Wall Street Journal once called the biggest restaurant in the world, and who now heads a $1 billion Boston waterfront development project.

Other distinguished Albanians include the late John Belushi, the Hollywood comedian who made all America laugh, but whose tragic search for personal happiness led in 1982 to his fatal drug overdose, and his brother, the currently active entertainer James Belushi.  Yet another is the nationally syndicated columnist Donald Lambro, named by Reader's Digest (July 1986, 60) "journalism's top expert" on wasteful government programs. And yet another is William Gregory, the air force captain and test pilot with a master's degree from Columbia University who was selected by NASA in 1990 for astronaut training as a space shuttle pilot.

News watchers could hardly have overlooked more overt mention of the Albanians.  When Pope Paul VI broke all precedents by addressing the United Nations General Assembly in 1965, the only delegation to protest and boycott the address was from Albania.  When the World Court at the Hague announced its directive on the American hostages in Iran and the world wondered whether Teheran would honor it, newsmen noted that since the court was established in 1945 its decision had been defied only once, and that by Albania.  When the People's Republic of China was something of an international pariah, it was successfully nominated for membership in the United Nations Organization by its tiny but strident client, Albania.  When a United Nations draft resolution in 1980 condemned Soviet armed aggression in Afghanistan and demanded immediate withdrawal of foreign troops, Albania was one of only four Communist states voting against Moscow.

Once unique as the only predominantly Muslim country in Europe, Albania has recently prided herself on being the first and only thoroughly atheistic country in the history of the world, unsurpassed during the years of Communism for its brutal attempt to exterminate all traces of every religion in the country.  A 1989 human rights study by the Puebla Institute of Washington identified Albania as "the worst abuser of religious liberty in the world today" (Dielli 10 Sept. 1989, 8).   And yet, who has not heard of Mother Teresa, the saintly Nobel Prize winner, the guardian angel of abandoned slum dwellers in Calcutta and 60 other countries, who was born in Uskup, now Yugoslavia, of an Albanian grocer family named Bojaxhiu?

Who are the Albanians?  In the following pages we shall see that they claim descent from the great warrior Achilles and from other heroes at the siege of ancient Troy.  They claim Alexander the Great, who saved Western civilization from the invading hordes of Persia.  Pyrrhus was another Albanian.  The Albanians predominated in Rome's ťlite Praetorian Guard and the remarkable succession of soldier-emperors, including the celebrated Diocletian and Constantine the Great.  Probably the outstanding emperor to occupy the throne at Constantinople was Justinian the Great, originating in Ochrida, Albania.  Then there was the incomparable Skanderbeg who almost alone shielded Europe from the Turks for a quarter century.

Albanian courage and loyalty led Turkish sultans to prefer them as Janissaries in the royal bodyguard, and like the Praetorian Guard before them, they could and frequently did make or break the emperors.  They were Albanian refugees from Turkish oppression who led in the liberation of Greece.  In fact it was the Albanians who originated the costume still used as uniform by the Greek evzones or royal guardsmen: the "fustanella" or pleated white felt kilt, the hide shoes with turned-up points and colorful pom-poms, the crimson sash or belt stuffed with weapons, a black-winged jacket and a white fez.  Garibaldi and other descendants of Albanian refugees in Italy played a primary role in the struggle for the unification of Italy in 1860.  It is understandable then that Enver Hoxha, the freedom fighter and founder of the New Albania, should declare, "Our history was written not with pen and ink, but with the sword and blood."

Yet Albanians have excelled in other than military exploits.  Serious scholars claim Albanian ethnicity for the poet Homer, the philosopher Aristotle, and Hippocrates, the "Father of Medicine," Jerome, who translated the Latin Vulgate Bible, was of Illyrian, or Albanian, descent, as was Pope Clement XI.  So was the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I, who in 1964 met with Pope Paul VI to release one another from the anathemas of 1054, which split the Eastern Catholic Church from the West.  An astonishing number of Albanians were promoted to the highest governmental offices of the Ottoman empire.  The Italian statesman Francesco Crispi declared himself of Albanian blood.  So was Mohammed Ali Pasha, who in 1805 established the beneficent century-long regime in Egypt.  And so was Mustapha Kemal, founder of modern Turkey, and called "Ata-Turk" (Father of the Turks).

But there are also many nameless ones.  The absence of early Albanian documents has left us only dim traces of their beginnings.  It is possible that over 200 generations of unnamed Albanians have lived and labored, loved and hated, married and begotten, struggling continually for survival.  They with their children and their communities enjoyed occasional plenty and suffered frequent desperate want.  They sought to improve their condition, they perpetuated their language and their culture, and they usually died with little to show for the struggle.  These magnificent Albanians have continued their dramatic struggle for 70 centuries but have recorded for posterity only the last three of these. The many preceding silent centuries allow us only occasional and fleeting glimpses of the heroic past of these largely unknown people.

The Albanians have lived in a land of jagged skylines, towering peaks, precipitous cliffs, windswept plateaus and snow-filled ravines.  They called it not Albania, but ShqipŽria, the Land of the Eagle. They called themselves not Albanians, but ShqiptarŽ, or Sons of the Eagle.  Thus they identified with that noblest of birds that soars the highest, mates for life, and nests among one-and-a-half-mile-high peaks.

That picturesque land has won considerable literary mention.  Although William Shakespeare never visited the land, he based his comedy Twelfth Night in Illyria, or Albania.  Lord Byron's visits to Albania left him so enthusiastic for the land and the people that his poet friend Shelley nicknamed him "Alby."  In his Childe Harold (1.2.46) Byron voiced his admiration of "Illyria's vales," her "many a mount sublime," those "lands scarce noticed in historic tales," and declared "such lovely dales are rarely seen."  He waxed poetic too over the people, calling Albania a "rugged nurse of savage men" (1.2.38).  He pictured "The wild Albanian kirtled to his knee / with shawl-girt head and ornamented gun, / and gold-embroidered garments fair to see" (1.2.58).  He also declared (ibid.), "The Arnaouts, or Albanese, struck me forcibly by their resemblance to the Highlanders of Scotland, their very mountains, the kilt though white, the spare active form, their dialect Celtic in sound, and their hardy habits, all carried me back...."  So would their fierce interfamily blood feuds, and their goatskin or pigskin bagpipes softened with warm water and oil, whose gay, flutelike melody was accompanied by a low drone quite like that of the Scottish highland bagpipe music.

Across the Atlantic the tale of Albania's hero Skanderbeg was told by the Spanish Jew in Longfellow's "Tales of a Wayside Inn."  And yet farther westward across the Pacific the only epic poem in the Tagalog language of the Philippines is "Florante at Laura," a classic love story based in the kingdom of Albania (Leonard Tuggy, letter to author, 27 March 1989).

The present-day shrunken Albania is sandwiched between the former Yugoslavia and Greece on the western shore of the Balkan peninsula, only 40 miles across the Adriatic Sea from the heel of the Italian boot.  Yet it certainly is the least known country of Europe.  As the last Turkish province in Europe it was tightly closed to foreigners over the centuries, and until recently it has been closed even more tightly by her postwar Communist regime.  One can readily visit Nepal, Saudi Arabia or China, but not this tiny enigmatic hermit nation.  Journalists characterize Albania as isolated, introverted, mysterious, xenophobic, a Tibet-in-Europe.  Even more appropriately applied to Albania than to the Soviet Union is Winston Churchill's characterization as "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."

People ask more specifically, "Where did the Albanians originate? Are they modern descendants of the Greeks or the Romans, the Balkan Slays or even the Turks?" So first we shall examine archaeological findings, then the highly sophisticated detective work of linguistic experts, and finally the popular traditions preserved in the earliest chronicles of ancient scholars. Here we discover traces of Albania's otherwise incomprehensible prehistoric culture. This ancient Pelasgian people antedated the developing civilizations of Greece and Rome. Their determination to preserve their ethnic identity, their passion for their own land, language and liberty, were threatened by both the Eastern and Western empires of Christendom, and later by the Ottoman Turks. During a dozen consecutive periods of foreign domination the Albanians gradually abandoned their primitive nature worship and were first Christianized, then Islamized, and later made Communist.

Many questions arise.  Why would historically Christian Albanians turn predominantly Muslim?  Other European peoples were exposed to Turkish Islam just as long as the Albanians were, and under similar circumstances.  Yet Albanians were the only Europeans to submit to Islam in significant numbers.  Why was this?  So we shall examine the 500-year oppressive occupation of Albania by the Turkish overlords and her abandonment by Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox neighbors.  We shall examine in depth two sets of factors, one objective and one subjective, which contributed directly to her remarkable Islamization.  The first of these is the pattern of Turkish policies toward religious minorities, the other, certain characteristics peculiar to the Albanian people which predisposed them toward conversion to Islam.

Postwar Albania earned the dubious distinction of being the only country to vote itself Communist with little or no outside compulsion.  Interested observers ask, Why would Communist Albania sever postwar ties with Yugoslavia to ally herself with the Soviet Union in 1948, then repudiate the Soviet Union for Maoist China in 1961, then repudiate all ties with China in 1978 and determine to "go it alone"?  Why would Albania continue as the only state on Earth to officially recognize Joseph Stalin as its hero and role model?  And there is a yet more immediate mystery, for Albania owes her very existence to American educational, financial, medical, technical, humanitarian and diplomatic aid.  In the United States also is the large, closely knit community of enthusiastically loyal Albanian expatriates who again and again have come to the aid of the motherland.  So people ask, Why would the recent Albanian regime establish diplomatic, commercial and cultural ties with more than one hundred nations all over the world, yet spurn such with the United States, even, like Iran, calling this the "Great lmperialist Satan"?

Again people ask, Why would predominantly Muslim Albanians believing in Allah, and Orthodox or Roman Catholic minorities believing in God and in Jesus Christ, outlaw all religious expression and pride themselves on becoming the world's first and only thoroughly atheistic state?  And yet again, Why in the world would the Albanian Communist regime take satisfaction in being designated by international monitoring agencies as the world's worst abuser of human rights and religious liberty? More recently we would ask, When democratic reforms swept so many Communist lands of Eastern Europe, why did the Communist leaders of tiny isolated Albania disdain "those revisionists" as traitors and pride themselves on standing alone as the last bastion of hard-line Stalinism?  And finally, Why would those Stalinist bureaucrats imagine that they alone could survive the total collapse suffered by every other Communist regime in Europe, including even the Soviet Union?

Casual observers might mistakenly infer from the above that Albanians are fickle or capricious.  Accordingly we shall trace the faltering development of a quasi-independent Albania through a succession of foreign alliances dictated by economic dependence, culminating in her radical communization and her repudiation of all compromising entanglements, the abolition of all religion, and her social and economic development.  Probably this was the only country in the world which asked foreign aid from nobody, and which had no national debt!  Were those constantly changing foreign alliances dictated by a determination to achieve some clearly defined goal that had inspired but eluded Albanian patriots down through the centuries?  Admittedly we can know only in part, for Albania has been shielded by a curtain more impenetrable than those which hid the Soviet bloc and China from the world's view. But there are certain indicators that emerge from Albania's long, turbulent, tragic, bloody history.  The record, though scanty, is clear.  Our world should recognize it.

The present work, an historical inquiry into Albania and the Albanians, is no exercise in scholarly futility.  lt is urgently relevant to several categories of readers.  First are the freedom-loving Albanians.  That country is unusual in that the number of ethnic Albanians living beyond her borders is greater than the 3 million living within the country. Yugoslavia alone has nearly 3 million. Turkey has 1.5 million, Greece about 300,000, Italy over 400,000, and the United States 400,000, and there are thousands more living in Australia, Argentina, Canada, and throughout Europe. English is the primary language of many of these and the second language of virtually all the rest, both within and outside Albania itself.  Many of these have expressed dismay at the few pages that attempt to cover events in their history prior to this century.

Many non-Albanian friends of Albania share their frustration.  The editor of an Albanian newspaper in Boston deplored the fact that there are very few English-language books on Albanian history.  He pointed out that university libraries as well as other American schools and readers are seeking English-language material on Albania, but very little is available. A subscriber responded that many members of his Albanian-American community do not read Albanian, but are "hungry for facts on our history and heritage," and he expressed the hope that they would get more of such material in the future. Another subscriber wrote of his futile search for an English-language history of Albania in the central library of his metropolitan city in the Midwest, only to be told by the librarian that nothing was available.

It is understandable then, if regrettable, that Western diplomatic personnel would know little about Albanian affairs. And this lack of awareness does have serious implications for the rest of the world. We shall see how the bungling intervention in Albanian affairs by well-meaning European diplomats precipitated the Balkan War, awarded to neighboring nations one-half of Albania's territory and population, and set the stage for World War I. A well-informed American president, Woodrow Wilson, is still venerated by Albanians for his stubborn insistence at Versailles on the right of small nations such as Albania to enjoy democratic self-government and independence. On the other hand certain Albanian patriots blame British and American military strategists during World War lI for enabling a hard-line Communist clique to seize control of their country and eliminate Western-style democracy. Obviously, for weal or woe, the great and small peoples coexisting on Earth are bound together in the bundle of life. What happens in Albania really does have implications for the rest of us. With the resumption in 1991 of diplomatic relations between the United States and Albania, the postwar informational vacuum is no basis for intelligent cooperation between the two.

There are other contemporary implications.  Global energy problems in recent years have led certain oil-rich Islamic nations to dream of expansion on a far greater scale than anything envisioned by the savage Ottoman horsemen of Amurat or Mohammed II.  Certain fundamentalist Muslim nations dream of turning the clock back a thousand years to a strict enforcement of Islamic law. The implications for Christian minorities living in predominantly Islamic lands are vividly illustrated by the historical realities of Turkish-occupied Albania.  It was George Santayana of Harvard University who reminded us all that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Albania now catches the attention of many.  A New Hampshire legislator, David Young, left for Tirana in May 1992 to serve as chief of staff for two ministries there.  Other consultants will go with the United Nations Development Program, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Red Cross or the European Community (EC), each of which has promised millions of dollars for emergency aid. Consultants also represent the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, US/AID and several trade groups and oil companies such as Occidental, Amoco and Chevron.   The Peace Corps will send 25 volunteers, and four Ph.D.s went in May 1992 to consult with the Ministry of Education on revising the educational system.

Trucks with emergency food, clothing and medicines have entered Albania from Norway, Sweden, Netherlands, Britain, Germany and Ireland, as have ships from Italy and cargo planes from the United States. The Medical Assistance Programs (MAP) of Canada has enlisted four other mission agencies in significant joint health care projects. About 140 evangelical missionaries already serve in Albania. They come from the United States, Britain, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Netherlands, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Greece, Italy, parts of the former Yugoslavia, Brazil, Mexico and Australia. Two agencies specializing in short-term work had hundreds of workers distributing Christian literature during the summer of 1992. Every one of these many individuals has his own network of family and friends, each with a great interest in Albania.

Sources of Knowledge

about Early Albania

Ancient Greek and Roman scholars wrote of contemporary happenings which they could verify and preserve for posterity.  Unfortunately the early preliterate Albanians left absolutely nothing in writing: no literature, not a single document, not even an inscription. The archaeologists came to our rescue. Their research has unearthed stone structures of every kind: fortifications, dwellings, monuments, altars and tombs, also mosaics and especially ceramic pottery. Then they have recovered artifacts of stone, bone, horn, copper, bronze, iron, and precious stones, gold and silver. There are weapons, armor, household utensils, agricultural implements, tools, ornaments, buttons and coins, all of which help us reconstruct their prehistoric culture.

Linguists have given us additional insights. For linguistic analysis can trace a written language back to its earlier stages, can discover its relation to other languages and to some common parent stock.  The inherited names of mountains and rivers, legendary heroes and divinities, figures and inscriptions on coins, and any early vocabulary can yield clues as to the primitive culture.

Yet further, the chronicles of ancient Greek and Roman scholars incorporated snatches of the wisdom of prehistoric neighbor peoples: their myths and legends, taboos and customs relating to the family, the clan, marriage, birth and death, government and war, planting and harvest, songs and games, medicine and religion.  This rich treasury of secondhand Albanian folklore had no known author or source.  It was an unwritten body of traditional knowledge passed along by word of mouth from generation to generation.  Somewhere, somehow, these cultural traces caught the attention of Greek and Roman scholars who recorded them for posterity.

These three sources then, archaeology, linguistics and certain early chronicles, can throw considerable light on what would otherwise be a quite incomprehensible prehistoric Albanian past.

At this stage early historical and literary documents help fill the information vacuum.  Fortunately for us, Albania was situated between the two classic civilizations of Greece and Rome and repeatedly came into collision with both.  Many Greek, Latin and Italian historical accounts mention quite incidentally some military, diplomatic, commercial or ecclesiastical contact with Albanians.  Later European travelers, scholars, merchants, consular personnel or adventurers explored this mountainous wilderness and recorded observations in their journals.  Such unrelated vignettes can hardly enable the continuous historical record which we would prefer.  Yet their very authenticity encourages us in reconstructing as faithfully as possible the long, tragic, heroic story of the Albanians, the ShqiptarŽ. For as J. D. Bourchier declared, "The determination with which this remarkable race has maintained its mountain strongholds through a long series of ages has hitherto met with scant appreciation in the outside world" (Liria 14 August 1981, 3).

Let us instead, like the shipwrecked heroine of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, ask, "What country, friends, is this?" Shakespeare's sea captain replied, "This is Illyria, lady" (1.2.1-2).  When she asked, "Knowest thou this country?" he replied, "Ay, madam, well" (1.2.23-24).  These pages, then, will help the reader know this country Illyria, and know it well.

Reformation Christian Ministries - Reformed International College - Reformed Theological Seminary.