Hailed as a national hero in Albania, Gjergj Kastrioti-Skanderbeg (1403-1468) successfully ousted the Ottoman Turks from his native land for over two decades, halting Turkey's efforts to spread Islam through a predominately Roman Catholic western Europe.
Kidnapped by the Ottoman Turks at a young age, Albanian freedom fighter Gjergj Kastrioti-Skanderbeg was raised under Islam and trained as a general within the ranks of the Turkish military before fleeing his captors and reconverting to Christianity in 1443. As commander of Albania's warlords, he sparked a national revolt in 1444 and held off numerous efforts by the Ottomans to take back Albania and bring that country once again under Muslim rule. Following Kastrioti-Skanderbeg's death in 1468 his Albanian forces could no longer repulse the Turks; twelve years later Albania fell once more to Turkish forces and remained part of the Ottoman Empire for many centuries, until its eventual liberation in 1912.
The Spread of the Muslim Empire
The Albanian people, descendants of the Illyrians, occupied the mountainous region of the western Balkans, a remote area extending from what is now Slovenia southward into Greece. Although known for being sociable, the Illyrians were also known for their bravery in war and aggressively maintained their lands against the many other clans throughout the Balkan region. Although influenced culturally as the result of conquest by Greece, Rome, and ultimately the Visigoths, Huns, and Ostrogoths, large numbers of Albanian peasants nonetheless managed to retain their customs, culture, and language by living in small, remote towns in the mountains where, due to the lack of roads, they were able to resist all efforts at assimilation by conquering cultures. Influenced by many years under Roman rule and subsequently made a part of the Byzantine Empire, Albania could boast a flourishing culture, established trade, and a strong economy by the middle ages; this situation would change for the worse after the region was overrun by the Ottoman Turks in 1388.
The Ottoman Empire expanded from Anatolia into the Balkans during the 1300s and by 1400 marauding Muslim armies had pierced the boundaries of the once-mighty Byzantine Empire. The city of Constantinople, built by the Roman Emperor Constantine I in 330 and the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church, was destined to fall to Islam in little more than a half-century. Meanwhile, the Turks, known for their brutal treatment of the conquered, now extended their reach west to Bulgaria and Serbia where, due to the capitulation of a succession of competing tribal leaders, soon had the Balkans firmly under their control. Completely under Ottoman control in 1385, Albania's ruling families were allowed to retain their lands and titles, but due to their disunity they were unable to overthrow the invading armies. For the most part, the Albanian people suffered greatly under the brutal regime of their new overlord, Sultan Murad II.
A Childhood Cut Short
Into this hostile world, Kastrioti-Skanderbeg was born in the city of Krujë in northern Albania, on January 17, 1405. His father, Gjon Kastrioti, was a prince of Emathia, although the family could trace its lineage back to serf roots. To assure the loyalty of Albanian princes such as Kastrioti, Sultan Murad II established a practice of kidnapping the sons of royalty and raising them in the court of Adrianopel (now Edirne, Turkey) to become loyal Turks. As a boy of three years of age, Kastrioti-Skanderbeg and his three older brothers were taken in this manner. Tragically, his older brothers, Stanislao, Constantino, and Reposio, met their fate at the hands of their Turkish captors.
For his part, the young Kastrioti-Skanderbeg was quickly indoctrinated in the Muslim faith and was given a good education in the Turkish court. When he reached the appropriate age, he was trained for battle in the Turkish military, as was the traditional fate of Turkish teens. Given the name S'kander and eventually earning the rank of Bey— from which his second surname "Skanderbeg" was eventually derived—the intelligent and well-spoken Kastrioti-Skanderbeg proved himself on the battlefields of Asia Minor and eastern Europe. Eventually promoted to general, the former Albanian led Turkish armies against the Greeks and then north into Serbia and Hungary. It is claimed that Kastrioti-Skanderbeg was fluent in several languages, among them Arabic, Greek, Italian, Bulgarian, and Serbo-Croatian; it is also claimed that he eventually entered secret communication with highly placed persons in the powerful cities of Venice and Naples. However, believing Kastrioti-Skanderbeg to be loyal to Turkey due to his continued success on the field of battle, Murad II continued to bestow his favors on Kastrioti-Skanderbeg and granted the general the title of governor of lands in central Albania.
In 1443 Kastrioti-Skanderbeg was ordered by the sultan to attack the Hungarian forces commanded by Janos Hunyadi, a revered general known as the White Knight, for the purpose of reclaiming Nis (now Serbia) for the Ottoman Empire. While studying this new enemy, Kastrioti-Skanderbeg reportedly learned of his own Albanian origins, as well as of the tragic fate of his brothers. Now aware that his true people shared an allegiance with Hunyadi, the Turkish general arranged a secret meeting wherein the two generals conspired to thwart the Turks. Along with 300 Albanian princes, in the course of battling the Hungarians Kastrioti-Skanderbeg claimed defeat, then abandoned the Turkish army and headed toward Albania. Disguising his small regiment as acting on orders of Sultan Murad II himself, Kastrioti-Skanderbeg entered the Turkish fortifications at Krujë and that night massacred the Turkish pasha and the Muslim contingent stationed there. The following morning the Kastrioti family's standard—a red flag emblazoned with a black, double-headed eagle that has since been adopted as Albania's national flag—fluttered in the breeze over the city's castle. Here Kastrioti-Skanderbeg reportedly made his historic pronouncement: "I have not brought you liberty, I found it here, among you." In March of 1444, during a meeting of Albanian princes in the city of Lezhë, he was elected commander-in-chief of the Albanian army.
At first stunned that such a favored general would betray him, Sultan Murad II soon became infuriated and immediately amassed an army to send against the Albanians. Despite Kastrioti-Skanderbeg's inferior numbers, the battle that was waged on June 29, 1444, ended with a Turkish defeat due to the Albanian general's use of guerilla tactics. Murad amassed a second army consisting of over 15,000 men. Kastrioti-Skanderbeg once again overcame this force, his small army avoiding a conflict on open ground and instead successfully ambushing the Turkish forces as they attempted to navigate the Prizren Pass on October 10, 1445. Through his continued efforts, Kastrioti-Skanderbeg continued to defeat the Turks in battle 24 times, thereby forcing the Ottomans to remain beyond Albania's borders. His particularly spectacular victory in 1450 against the Turkish army led by Murad himself, in which the vastly outnumbered Kastrioti-Skanderbeg commanded only 20,000 troops, caused him to be hailed as a hero throughout Europe.
Rejoined Faith of His Father
In 1443, at the same time the 41-year-old Kastrioti-Skanderbeg broke his political allegiance to the Ottomans, he renouncing the Turkish faith of Islam and reconverted to the Roman Catholic faith of his father. With his military successes against the Turks now well known, Catholic leaders at the Vatican quickly saw an opportunity to gain a valuable ally. Hoping that the Albanian general could provide some protection for the Catholic faith in Western Europe, Pope Eugenius IV also dreamed of beginning a new crusade against Islam, this time to be led by Kastrioti-Skanderbeg. With some assistance from the Vatican, as well as from the powerful lords of Naples and Venice, Kastrioti-Skanderbeg continued to repulse successive efforts by the Turks to invade Albania over the next 25 years, including at Dibër and at Ochrida in 1462. His major supporter, King Alfonso of Naples (1416-1458), made the Albanian general his vassal in 1451. Alfonso supplied the Albanian army with needed funds, military equipment, and additional troops, and also acted as a protector by extending sanctuary to Kastrioti-Skanderbeg and his family.
After Pope Eugenius's death in February of 1447, this crusade against Islam was inherited by a series of successors, among them Popes Nicholas V, Callistus II, and, most notably Pius II. The crusades were also fueled by news of the fall of Constantinople to militant Sultan Mehmed II in 1453. At Pope Pius's death in August of 1464, Paul II was appointed pope of the Roman Catholic Church; because Pope Paul put art and antiques above any attempts to regain the city of Constantinople, no further help came to Kastrioti-Skanderbeg and his Albanian army from Rome. A battle against the Turks in 1467 left Kastrioti-Skanderbeg victorious but concerned; because of his advancing years he was finding warfare increasingly difficult. Steps to replace the 63-year-old general as commander-in-chief proved in vain; the Albanian commander contracted malaria and died in Lezhë on January 17, 1468.
At his death Kastrioti-Skanderbeg left behind him a son, Giovanni Kastrioti, born of the general's wife, Donica Arianiti. Still a young boy at the time of his father's death, Giovanni Kastrioti fled with his mother to Naples, where they were given the sanctuary once promised by King Alfonso. In 1481 Giovanni attempted to return to Albania to continue his father's work but was unsuccessful. Only a year before, little more than a decade after Kastrioti-Skanderbeg's death, Albania had succumbed once more to Turkish domination, and its new Muslim rulers now exacted a brutal revenge against the late general's military successes. The ruling families who were able to escaped; many of those of good family left behind were executed. While much of Western Europe soon came to flower as a result of the Renaissance, Albania and the east endured a withering "dark age," remaining cut off from advances in technology, science, and the arts while the Turks renewed their efforts to destroy the region's economy and culture.
Despite these dark years of Turkish rule, the memory of Kastrioti-Skanderbeg served to buoy the Albanian spirit and fuel that country's desire for independence. A statue of the Albanian hero was eventually erected in the capital city of Tirana, joining others erected elsewhere in the country. A museum dedicated to his honor was eventually installed in the family castle in Krujë. More recent generations have continued to marvel at Kastrioti-Skanderbeg's accomplishments: 16th-century French poet Pierre Ronsard honored the Albanian national hero in verse, while two centuries later Ronsard's compatriot, noted Enlightenment-era novelist and essayist François Marie Arouet de Voltaire maintained that the Byzantine Empire might have survived the Ottoman onslaught had it such a leader as Kastrioti-Skanderbeg. Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi's opera Scanderbeg also was written to honor the Albanian hero.
While Kastrioti-Skanderbeg's accomplishments inspired many of the artists and writers who came after him, perhaps the most ironic show of respect was that reportedly given him by his Turkish adversary. Upon retaking the city of Krujë in 1478 and locating Kastrioti-Skanderbeg's grave in Saint Nicholas Catholic Church, the Turks disinterred the general and distributed his bones, holding them as talismans that would bring them good luck.
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