Scanderbeg of the Albanians

Altin Zaloshnja

The following text is an abstract from the prepared remarks of Altin Zaloshnja, a scholar and community leader, during the January 2018 symposium, in Michigan, commemorating the 550th anniversary of Scanderbeg’s death.

 

Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The reason for being gathered here today goes beyond the obvious. It surpasses the concept of remembering a hero – brave as he was – fighting against the dreaded superpower of the time. To us, Albanians, the silhouette of this man mounted on his horse with the sword drawn, his distinguished and sharp-cut facial features, the long beard meandering down on his armor, that whole image memorized since our early childhood years; symbolizes one of the most recognizable features of our national identity.

Scanderbeg was the product of his century, but he outran the fourteen hundreds. By that perspective, he cannot be confined merely within the timeframe of the late medieval era. His legacy has lived on, as well as the ideals he valiantly fought for. In Scanderbeg more distinctly than almost everyone else we find both an archetype and a forerunner of the Western civilization, someone who through his life story laid a foundation for things to come. And Europe substantially owes this primordial vision to men such as Scanderbeg.

George Castrioti brilliantly fought against the most fearsome antagonist, the house of Osman, at the peak of its power. This gun-powder empire starting from the beginning of the 14th century was methodically taking over the old dominions of the Byzantine Empire, and making headways into Europe. Scanderbeg had to face the 6th and the 7th sultan, respectively Murad the 2nd and Mehmed the 2nd, both known for their military prowess.

Specifically the later, Mehmed Fatih, “the Conqueror”, who took Constantinople and ultimately ended the Roman Empire of the East, for all his bloodthirsty character and deprived morality, was in fact a very capable and formidable opponent. The list of rulers defeated with their territories routed by Mehmed is expansive and includes Durad Brankovic of Serbia, the despot Palaiologos brothers of Morea, Euboea, Genovese Crimea, emperor David Comnenus of Trebizond, Vlad the III-rd of Wallachia (the future Count Dracula of literature), Stepjan Tomasevic of Bosnia, bey Pir Ahmet of Karaman, khan Uzun Hasan of Ak Koyunlu, Stephen the Great of Moldovia (a mixed result) to name a few.

Considering this appetite for conquest and its usual atrocious outcome, it is easy to fathom how Mehmed’s frightful reputation would precede him and mentally weaken the opposition during his campaigns. To be perfectly clear, Fatih is not the only savage of this era and could possibly be considered an understudy in the department of cruelty, when compared with Vlad the Impaler-Dracula, for instance. But by all means, the adversary Scanderbeg was facing was sinister, cunning, and possessed with a complete sense of ruthlessness. To even entertain the idea of resisting the onslaught of unforgiving Army of the Ottoman was bravery in itself. Let alone standing against it on the battlefield, and extracting victories, while outnumbered tenfold.

Faced with such a stark reality, Scanderbeg manifested what we can really call today “a profile in courage”. The man-Scanderbeg was determined to protect his land and his countrymen and showed his military brilliance by choosing the type of resistance visibly displayed when the enemy surrounded Croia (Kruje). It is a textbook guerrilla warfare that was most effective under the circumstances. During those trying times in Scanderbeg we see a leader who is not fighting for grandstanding, but one who manifests a keen understanding of his own means and capabilities.

The experience gained during the years fighting for the Sultan and his wars served George Castrioti immensely. He was well-versed in the ways the Ottoman army conducted battle and had come to the conclusion, that under the circumstances it would be next to impossible to upstage a frontal resistance. The decision to leave inside the castle walls a brave garrison of fighters, while attacking behind the enemy lines with the rest of his soldiers, proved to be masterful. He basically used the same warfare tactic in both initial sieges of Croia, while in the third he faced the enemy to protect the population from getting massacred and then speedily retreated toward the coast, while the enemy surrendered Croia for the third time. Ultimately, he came through victorious in all three sieges.

Certainly, Scanderbeg was more than just a military leader. He was a statesman, a diplomat, and we might say a politician when he needed to be. The very idea of calling the League of Lezha, in itself, comprises the initial attempt in forging a national coherence that goes above and beyond tribal lines. It’s a watershed moment because from this time on, and regardless how successful the League proved to be, it gave the Albanians the sense they could call and potentially (potentially) count on each-other, in spite of their broad differences. Unfortunately, 500 years and many decades later, we still need to figure how that works out. Scanderbeg understood the importance of this coming-together, and you cannot blame him for trying to use it, in his principality’s benefit. After all, he was the clear leader of the anti-Ottoman movement in the Albanian inhabited lands and needed help the most in view of the certain, upcoming revenge.

In the foreign affairs’ dealings, one can see Scanderbeg exhibit not only the acute skills of a diplomat for maneuvering, but also the quality of a man who follows and respects the tenets of a treaty. The case with the kingdom of Naples shows Castrioti being a keeper of promises across the generational line (from Alfonso V to Ferdinand I/from father to son), even when the circumstances were difficult for both sides. On the contrary, when he experienced betrayal in the past or sensed the other party was not dealing in good faith as we see in the case of the despot of Serbia who prevented Janos Hunyadi forces to join with those of Scanderbeg, or his complicated relationship with the Republic of Venice, he would act accordingly. However, a conclusion could be drawn that his style of interaction in the international affairs was built around a foundation of trust and merits. To the parties who had proved themselves trustworthy, trust was paid back. For others who were shady in their conduct, the strict attitude of reciprocity was applied in turn.

Scanderbeg passed away in Lezha, on January 1468. After his death (and expressing accolades) Fatih was able to finally realize his all-consuming dream of capturing Croia, on his fourth attempt (June 1478), 10 years after Scanderbeg’s passing. Yet, the memory of his armies forfeited by the Albanian warrior should have been a source of constant mental annoyance for Mehmed, since he barbarically killed the surrendered defenders, inspite of promising free passage beforehand. Once the Croia’s fate was sealed, the sultan ventured on towards the citadel of Shkodra (July 1478), one the last fortresses he personally laid siege upon. At the end, the city of Rozafa was given to him on a golden plate by the Venetians, in the treaty of Constantinople (January 1479), which effectively placed one of the last bastions of the Albanian resistance, under the Ottoman’s control.

The timeframe from Scanderbeg’s return to Croia from the battle of Nish (November 1443), until January of 1968, approximately a century’s quarter in total (24 years and 2 months to be precise), is a crucial time in Albanian history. These are years that initiated the conceiving of a national coherence, and were venerably remembered by the later generations, regardless of the fact that by that time the Ottomans had been successful in their attempt to bring the country under their rule. And even that the memory of the hero fighting against the invader, would be heavily suppressed by the upcoming invaders, it actually waited for its ripe moment to be displayed again strongly among Albanians.

It is obvious; Scanderbeg and his lifework will undoubtedly be assaulted by all kinds of naysayers. Recently, quite a few number of pseudo theories have spread and circulated around by individuals yearning for a name in a world attracted to conspiracy and confusion. Prone to imported and misused ideas, for them this has become a pastime exercise and a way to keep relevant, so to speak.

The aforementioned diminish Scanderbeg’s formative importance on our national identity, dispute his origins, rebuke the wars he fought against the Ottoman Empire, and outright reject his legacy. The common denominator of all these attacks is the intention to discredit Scanderbeg’s fundamental position in the Albanian history, by portraying him as a vague, non-consequential, and peripheral figure in it.

As with any challenge that calls into question established conclusions the best way to deal with it, is comparing with the facts. Those clearly show that Scanderbeg enjoys the status of a prominent figure in the history of the European continent and should in Albania as well, by default. The logical deduction is an individual cannot be a major figure in the history of a continent, by being a minor figure in the history of the nation -part of that very continent- he spends his life protecting. That would violate the physical/geographical/astronomical notions of spatial inclusion. To use an eighties song as an analogy, if you are big in Japan, you’ll certainly be big in Tokyo as well.

Moreover, there is a massive body of works (in the high hundreds, by a conservative count) written about Scanderbeg or referring to him in more than 20 languages of the world. Many of the world’s noted historians, poets, philosophers, writers, composers, painters etc. who lived on or after Castrioti’s earthly years, dedicated works and recognized him as a personality of substantial historical consequence. These works include biographies by Moore, Duponcet, and Paganel operas by Vivaldi and Francoeur, tragedies by Havard, Lillo, and Whincop, poems by Ronsard, Sarrochi, and Longfellow, dramas by Marlowe and De la Vega, opinions by Voltaire, Holberg, and W. Temple, paintings by Bellini, Vitalibus, and Caussin and the list goes on. All those offer ample evidence that Scanderbeg, at the very least, was a noteworthy figure for advanced European and Western thinkers. To reach such wide-spread recognition you might be anything, but peripheral and non-consequential you are not.

Another disclaimer heard about Scanderbeg is his position within the Albanian history and that his myth was mostly invented by the ideologues of the Albanian National Renaissance. This argument further goes to say that in the Albanian national memory prior to its Renaissance, Scanderbeg was neither important nor a significant figure. This whole misconception is construed by purposely forgetting the reality of the times in question. During their four and half centuries rule of the Albanian territories, the High Porte did its outmost to eradicate any connection between Albanians and their pre-occupation past. Ironically enough, the biggest form of warfare the Ottomans ever committed against the Albanians was not militaristic but cultural.

The Ottoman’s strategy as the occupying power in Albania heavily consisted in suffocating and/or preventing the most important factor of the Albanians’ identity, their language, from being freely used and having the chance to develop further. Their end purpose once the occupation completed, was the turfikication (with all it entailed) of the population and as consequence of it, the pacification of the Albanian inhabited lands would follow. The very existence of the Albanian language posed a considerable threat in achieving those goals and as a result, it had to be banned. In this concerted effort as times go by, we witness the formation of the unholy alliance (under and over the ground) of the Ottoman state apparatus with men of robe under the tutelage of the Greek Patriarchate. It’s a well-developed scheme of a cultural genocide in action.

Albanians themselves are not faultless in all this and need to look deep inside and announce their mea culpa, since by the time they met the Ottomans on the battlefields, they had not developed a clear standard and a unifying alphabet for their language as the other nations around them had. This unpreparedness cost them immensely, but it’s should not have served as a carte blanche for the Ottomans, to justify the harm they inflicted upon Albanians and their culture.

This brings us to the next logical point, which is what could be the probability of Scanderbeg’s story being culturally promoted under the Ottoman mastership when that empire was profoundly interested in eradicating any memory of him? Way, way less than Villefort’s letting Edmond Dantes go free after learning he was carrying a letter for his father that could bury the prosecutor, an avid reader of French literature might say. For the Truth that shakes certain unworthy human’s equilibrium (read empire) it always risks ending up inside the walls of the Chateau D’If. It was in the existential interest of the Ottomans in regards to the Albanian lands, to hear less and not more of Scanderbeg because his remembrance could inherently serve as a call to arms for the populace to overthrow their occupation. Therefore, they were less interested in any way, shape or form to promote him, freely.

The fallacy of those declaring Scanderbeg’s figure was created by the Albanian National Awakening becomes clear, when compared with the evidence showing his memory strongly existed in the Albanian folklore before the beginning of the National Renaissance (prior to 1830-s). His persona was mightily featured and present in songs, recitals, anecdotes, narratives, legends, pretty much in everything that could be transmitted by the word of mouth, from one generation to another. There was also a Scanderbeg’s canon law in existence, somewhat contemporaneous with that of Leke Dukagjini. It predates the Albanian Renaissance by far. And as much as the limited form of transmitting culture from one generation to another without the luxury of a codified written language and alphabet allowed, Scanderbeg was always a main topic in it. No one applying some form of intellectual honesty can eventually deny that.

Continuing further, Scanderbeg and his aura was very vivid in the Albanian areas where Ottomans where not able to rule, such as Himara or Malesia. It’s evidently clear that in the territories Ottomans had control they would suppress the memory of his name and deeds, while in places free from their rule, they were not able to do so.

Finally, the Arberesh population provides us with the noblest example of Albanians who were not living under the terms of the Ottoman invading system and were free to express their national feelings. For them Scanderbeg became a cornerstone of their cultural identity. After 550 years George Castrioti still remains, in earthly terms, the most important historical figure of their community. And the last time I checked, the Arberesh living in Italy, were doing so centuries before the Albanian Renaissance.

All these aspects of the matter are conducive and self-explanatory. In conclusion, the theory that the Albanian national hero was a creation of the Albanian National Awakening is patently false. Furthermore, Scanderbeg is not a product of the beautiful verse of Naim bey Frasheri but on contrary an inspiration to the poet himself.

Another topic artificially inflated lately is Scanderbeg’s maternal ancestry. The two most obvious, near-in-time historians who have kind of discussed Voisava’s origin are Marin Barleti and Gjon Muzaka. Both offer some discrepancies when the matter is attested. Barleti describes her father as a noble from “Triballda”, Muzaka seems to confirm, but using different letters “Tripalda”. Barleti, in a later chapter of his book, is not clear about the inhabitants of the Upper Diber who were protecting Sfetigrad, stating they are “Bulgarians or Triballdi”. Muzaka also makes another allegation about a “Marquis of Tripalda” who was related to him on his mother’s side (Muzaka was Albanian).

To say the entire matter has the potential to confuse is a huge understatement. Yet, there is nothing to fear when it comes to Scanderbeg’s mother origin. The custom for families of royal or nobility stock was to marry on par. For all the applicable reasons this was a way to form alliances and extremely common, hence the so-called-problem of Scanderbeg’s belonging is non-existent and there is nothing out of ordinary on this matter.

What really makes it disingenuous is the attempt by some to use it as a weapon of division, by casting a shadow over Scanderbeg’s persona, indicating he was not fully or Albanian at all, as their “erudition” might suggest. It’s futile and laughable, but for the sake of the argument let’s bring an example similar to the topic. Almost every single sultan who has ever reigned had a non-Turkish mother (Valide Sultan) and the Turkishness of the sultan would get diluted from one to another, going from 50%, to 25%, to 12.5%, to 6.25%, to 3.125%, to 1.5625%, and so on continuing in the downtrend. At the end of the counting, 623 years and 36 sultans later, we would have somebody that was way less than 0.00000001% Turkish, sitting on the Ottoman throne.

To a similar or lesser extent this can ring true for many dynasties. I don’t personally believe in framing the story upon this pattern, but brought it as a reminder for those who are willing to create a storm in a teapot for all the wrongs reasons. To them in the words of the Man that surpassed the ages we can simply say: “Don’t look at the speck in the other’s eye but fail to notice the log in your own”.

Ultimately, the most important thing on this matter is what Scanderbeg said and felt he was. Sadly, in the ancient peninsula where Albanians live under the sun, from the very beginning exists this tendency of willingly misappropriating distinguished men and women of one ethnicity, to another group who claims them, whether their name is Alexander (the Great), Pyrrhus, or Gonxhe. In the case of Mother Teresa for instance, who has specifically lived later than the rest and has declared verbatim that “by blood, I am Albanian”, we still see other nationalities trying to paternalize her, as a figure of their own. If this happens with someone who was living almost 20 years ago, what could happen to someone who was born six centuries ago? And, what about another one, who died 24 centuries ago?

Coming back to Scanderbeg, the majority of the correspondence conducted by him was signed with the description Dominus Albaniae (lord of Albania). Since this correspondence was conducted in a known language of the era (in a lingua franca) one could think, it could be beneficial for him, to go global and add something else (other titles he possessed), spicing it up as a trendy prince, once in a while. But Scanderbeg kept and continued signing in the same way, almost all the time. This alone would provide an irrefutable proof to the extent of what he thought of himself. Alas, if we want to dig further, we’ll find that Gjon Castrioti (father) was lord of Mati, while Pal Castrioti (grandfather) was signor of Sinja (in Diber). In short, we have three generations of Albanians in a row and that’s more than enough to substantiate Scanderbeg’s lineage. And he’s still today, for all possible purposes, Scanderbeg of the Albanians.

 

Epilogue

Scanderbeg is one of the most impressive figures of the late medieval times. What is special and striking about him transpires from his willingness to fight for what he believed was right. Scanderbeg could have led a somewhat comfortable life, suitable for his rank, had he decided to continue serving the sultan. Yet, he chose the hard path and the road less traveled. By all descriptions, Scanderbeg was a real and unpretentious man. When he visited Rome in 1466, to an eye witness, the ambassador of Mantua to the Holy See, he gave the impression of “a poor man, coming in with a few horses”.

But more than any titles, domains, or possessions he left behind himself a bright legacy. He left to a nation, in its cradling stages, his symbols to use. The most recognizable one, the double-headed black eagle flag, personifies very strongly the Albanian unum. Second only to the Albanian language, in the importance row, that banner is a focal point and a rallying force for Albanians all around the globe.

For a man who fought to protect and not to occupy, for a human who was a warrior and not a saint, George Castrioti is as good of a national hero, as they can ever come. By his example he offers to his compatriots, a blueprint for unifying around something meaningful and bigger than themselves. In a greater sense Scanderbeg has the capacity of being an Abrahamic figure to all Albanians willing to embrace him, from every walk of life and confessional background. And I hope someday, his descendants will be open-minded enough to leave behind their childish bickerings and recognize the vision he laid out for them, in the land he so valiantly fought to preserve. Want to close here with a stanza from a poem, I wrote a few years ago. I modified it to speak directly to Scanderbeg’s legacy, so we can remind ourselves what he can still teach us, in this day and age. It’s in Albanian and goes like this:

Dhe kur rruga e shqiptareve, prape ne udhekryq te kete mberritur
E nga Lart kerkojne nje shenje: vizionare, qarte-skalitur,
Kur Asqeret e gjithe sulltaneve, nxijne ne cep te horizontit
Drejtim jep –permes epokash- testament’i Kastriotit.

I thank you.

Copyright © Altin A. Zaloshnja
Southfield, Michigan
January 2018

Scanderbeg’s Memorial, in Lezha, Albania

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