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Punim Gjergj Kastrioti "Skanderbeg"


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Skanderbeg and warriors, Krujė
Gjergj Kastrioti, also known by his nom de guerre as Skanderbeg ("Lord Alexander", as a successor of Alexander the Great) is the foremost national hero of Albanians, remembered for the unification of the Albanian state on 1443 and the national war of liberation against the Ottoman Empire, whose armies he successfully ousted from Albania until his death from poisoning by the Venetians.

Gjergj Kastrioti was born in Dibėr, Albania, a descendant of the Kastrioti clan, son of Gjon, lord of Middle Albania (Mat, Krujė, Mirditė and Dibėr) and of Vojsavė from Pollog Valley, East Albania (now in FYRO Macedonia). Gjon Kastrioti was among the Albanian lords who opposed the early incursion of Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I, however his resistance was ineffectual. The Sultan obliged him to pay tribute, and to ensure the fidelity of local rulers, his 4 sons, among them Gjergj Kastrioti, were taken to the Ottoman court as hostages.

Gjergj Kastrioti attended military school in Adrianople (Turkish: Edirne) where he became one of the most renown military commanders, securing many victories for the Porte and receiving for his military achievements and national origin, the title "Arnavutlu Iskender Bey" for "Lord Alexander, the Albanian", in honor of Alexander the Great.

He was distinguished as one of the best officers in several Ottoman campaigns both in Asia Minor and in Europe, and the Sultan appointed him General, and later Vali (General Governor). Kastrioti also fought against neighboring armies while maintaining links with Ragusa, Ladislaus V of Hungary, and Alfonso I of Naples.


Return to Albania


Planning for a long time his return to Albania to lead the war of liberation against the same regime he was forced to fight for, in the month of November 1443 Kastrioti organized and carried out his escape from the Ottoman army during a battle in Nish, North Albania (now in Serbia) against the Hungarians, who were led by John Hunyadi as part of the Crusade of Varna. During the battle, Kastrioti having firstly agreed with Hunyadi, switched sides along with 300 Albanian troops serving under him in the Ottoman army, thus causing confusion in Ottoman ranks and eventually their defeat by the Hungarians. After a long trek the Albanian detachment reached the city of Krujė, central Albania, and captured it back by forging a letter in which the Sultan ordered the Governor of Krujė to hand over the territory to Gjergj Kastrioti as the rightful heir.

It was November 28th, 1443 when, after capturing the castle and disarming the Ottoman troops, Skanderbeg raised the double-headed eagle flag - an ancient Illyrian pagan symbol that was also adopted by Rome, and later on Byzantium, when the empires were led by a long series of Illyrian emperors - that became the foremost Albanian national symbol.

November 28th is still celebrated by Albanians worldwide as the Flag Day owing to this very event.


The Albanian League


Kastrioti immediately allied with Prince Gjergj Arianiti (born Gjergj Arianit Komneni) and married his daughter Donika (born Marina Donika Arianiti). During the first year of his return Kastrioti worked towards bringing all Albanian lords and princes together under a centralized command.

On March 2nd, 1444, the Albanian League (League of Lezhė) was summoned with the participation of all princes, thus marking the restoration of the Albanian state, and the defying of the Ottoman occupational regime.

As renown English historian Edward Gibbon reports: "The Albanians, a martial race, were unanimous to live and die with their hereditary prince" where "in the assembly of the states of Epirus (Albania), Skanderbeg was elected general of the Turkish war and each of the allies engaged to furnish his respective proportion of men and money".

With this support the Albanian state now led by Gjergj Kastrioti, built fortresses, organized a mobile defense force that dispersed invading Ottoman troops, leaving the latter vulnerable to the hit-and-run tactics of the Albanian army.

Kastrioti fought a guerrilla war against invading armies of 80,000-100,000 men strong, by using the mountainous terrain to his advantage. He continued his resistance against the Ottoman forces until his death, with a force rarely exceeding 20,000 warriors. He won 13 major battles against the Turks, and only lost 2, both by betrayal.


Battles



Skanderbeg's swords and helmet - Vienna, Austria
The National War against the Ottoman Empire

In the summer of 1444, in the field of Torvioll the united Albanian army under Kastrioti faced the Ottomans under direct command of the Turkish general Ali Pasha, with an army approximately 40,000 men strong. The Albanians numbered 7,000 infantry and 8,000 cavalry under Kastrioti's command. 3,000 cavalry were hidden behind the enemy lines in a nearby forest under the orders of Lord Gjon Muzaka. At the given signal, they came down encircling the Turks and giving the League a much needed victory. The battle was brutal - up to 22,000 Turks were killed and 2,000 captured.

The victory of the Albanians echoed across Europe because this was only the second time an Ottoman army of this scale was defeated in a set place battle on European soil. The success was repeated, as the Albanians defeated the Turks twice more in two major battles, in 1445 in Mokėr (Dibėr), and afterwards in 1447 in Oronik (Dibėr).

Although it is commonly believed that Kastrioti took part in the Second Battle of Kosovo in 1448, where the Christian armies of Poland and Hungary were leading the battle against the Turks, he never arrived because the Albanian troops en route to reinforce John Hunyadi, were intercepted and denied passage by the forces of Dan II of Wallachia and Brankovic of Serbia, the latter having married his daughter to the Turkish Sultan Murad II that was at the time fighting against the Christian coalition.

At this critical point, Mehmed II the sultan's son, launched an invasion into Albania in order to keep Kastrioti back. But as Albanians defeated Mehmed II, Murad II claimed victory over the Christian coalition in the North.

Albanians were thus left to resist alone against a ruthless war of extermination launched by an overconfident Murad II. Except for occasional brief truces and armistices, warfare was incessant for three successive years that were crowned with victories over the Turks.

A year of peace followed in 1447, that enabled the Albanian League in 1448 to respond to an appeal for help for Alfonso I, the King of Naples. The Albanian army passed overseas in Italy, to help the King against the uprisings. Alfonso, however, contributed back with only about 100 soldiers to the Albanian war against the Turks.

The growing military reputation of the Albanian state warmed the Pope and the Kings in the Italian peninsula but it alarmed Venetians. At first they welcomed Albania as a buffer zone between Venetians and Turks but as the League was growing stronger Venice feared the loss of its own strongholds in Albanian territory, thus it eventually allied with the Turks against Albanians.

The League was now facing enemies and enemy regimes from all sides. The Venetians went as far as to put a prize on the head of Albanian lords, especially Gjergj Kastrioti, the head of the state. They offered a life-provision of 100 ducats annually to the man who would kill him.

During this time Venice coordinated its attacks with the Ottoman incursions but suffered a humiliating defeat by the Albanian army in Shkodėr.

In 1448 sultan Murad II led an 80,000 men strong invasion into Albania. For the first time they also brought in Albania two canons that would fire stones and iron weighing over 500 pounds. Sharp engagements punctuated an unsuccessful campaign of 18 months - the Albanians winning each battle.

In 1449 Murad II returned defeated to Adrianople (Edirne).

In May 1450 Murad II returned with an army numbering 150,000 men, to lay siege to Krujė, the Albanian capital. Leaving a protective garrison of 1,500 men under one of his most trusted lieutenants, Vrana Konti, Kastrioti harassed the Ottoman camps around Krujė and attacked the supply caravans of the Sultan's army.

By September the Ottoman camp was in disarray as morale sank and disease ran rampant. Murad II acknowledged the castle of Krujė would not fall by strength of arms and abandoned the siege, leaving 20,000 men dead, and loosing many more to snipers and ambushes throughout the mountain passes making his way to the eastern Albanian frontier.

Soon thereafter, in the winter of 1450–1451, Murad II died in Adrianople (Edirne) and was succeeded by his son Mehmed II.

With Kastrioti’s troops entering triumphant the walls of Krujė protected by Vrana Konti's garrison, people could hardly believe they had repulsed such a large scale invasion led by the very head of the Turkish Empire.

Festivities continued for days as the amazement of the population was equaled by that of other European countries. Ambassadors were sent to the court of Krujė, making many promises for help and support, but as many a time in Albania's history, would not come into reality afterwards.

One of Albania's greatest literary figures, would later point out on this juncture that once more time the Albanian military leadership had saved Europe from Asia: when Alexander the Great conquered the Persians and now Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg the Turks. (Naim Frashėri, ca. 1900.)

For the next five years Albania was allowed some respite as the newly appointed Sultan set out to conquer the last vestiges of the Byzantine Empire. In the meantime the Byzantine Empire was extinguished after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and all Southeastern Europe, except Albania, had now fallen to the Turks.

The armies of the new Sultan, Mehmed II, came in 1455 during the Albanian Siege of Berat, a city in South Albania which was still held by the Ottoman troops. The Ottoman reinforcement coming on the back of the Albanian front line caught the Albanian cavalry by surprise while they were resting in the shores of Osum River. Almost all the 5,000 Albanian cavalry laying siege to Berat were killed. The reason of this defeat was the betrayal by Kastrioti's nephew, Hamza Kastrioti, who was an officer of Albanian cavalry and gave the Ottomans important information about the location and the organization of the Albanian troops.

Two years later, in 1457, the Ottoman army numbering approximately 90,000 men started a new invasion with the hope of destroying Albanian resistance once and for all. The army was led by Isa beg Evrenoz, the only commander to have defeated Kastrioti in battle in the past, and Hamza Kastrioti, Skanderbeg’s nephew. After wreaking much damage to the countryside the Ottoman army set up camp at the Ujėbardha Field (literally translated as "Whitewater"), halfway between Lezhė and Krujė. Gjergj Kastrioti having evaded them for months, frontally attacked and defeated the enemy in September of that year also personally capturing the renegade nephew in battlefield and imprisoning him in Castle Krujė.

In 1461, the Sultan proposed terms of accommodation with the Albanian state and armistice was concluded between them on June 22. In the same year, Gjergj Kastrioti launched a successful campaign in Italy against the Angevin noblemen and their allies who sought to destabilize King Ferdinand I of Naples. For his services he gained the title of Duke of San Pietro in the kingdom of Naples. After securing the Neapolitan kingdom, a crucial ally in his struggle, he returned home.

In 1464 Kastrioti fought and defeated Ballaban Badera, a second Albanian renegade who had captured a large number of Albanian army commanders, including Moisi Arianit Golemi, a cavalry commander; Vladan Gjurica, the chief army quartermaster; Muzaka of Angjelina, a nephew of Kastrioti, and 18 other noblemen and army captains. These men were sent immediately to Constantinople (Turkish: Istanbul) and tortured for fifteen days. Kastrioti's pleas to have the men back, by either ransom or prisoner exchange, failed.

In 1466 Sultan Mehmed II personally led an army into Albania and laid siege to Krujė as his father had attempted sixteen years earlier. The town was defended by a garrison of 4,400 men, led by Prince Tanush Topia. After several months, Mehmed II, like Murad II, saw that seizing Krujė by force of arms was impossible for him to accomplish. Shamed, he left the siege to return to Constantinople (Istanbul).

However, the Turks left a force of 40,000 men under Balaban Pasha to maintain the siege, building a fortress over the ancient Albanian castle in the city of Shkumbin (Turkish: Elbasan), to support the siege.

The coastal city of Durrės was the next target of the Sultan, in order to be used as a strong naval base opposite the Italian coast to start the invasion in Italy. During these preparations the second siege of Krujė was eventually broken by the Albanian army led by Gjergj Kastrioti and Balaban was killed.

A few months later in 1467, Mehmed II, frustrated by his inability to subdue Albania, reorganized his troops into the largest army of the time and started a massive invasion into the country. Krujė was besieged for a third time, on a much larger scale. While a contingent kept the city and its forces pinned down, Ottoman armies came pouring in from Bosnia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece with the aim of keeping the whole state surrounded, thereby strangling the Albanians’ supply routes and limiting their mobility.

During the invasion Gjergj Kastrioti was treacherously poisoned by the Venetians, who justified his death as coming from "malaria", and died in Lezhė on January 17th, 1468, just as the Albanian army under the leadership of Prince Lekė Dukagjini defeated the Turkish troops in Shkodėr in a brutal battle.

The Albanian resistance continued after the death of Gjergj Kastrioti for an additional ten years, under the leadership of Prince Lekė Dukagjini, though with only moderate success and no great victories.

After these 10 years passed, in 1478, the year-long fourth siege of Krujė finally proved successful for the Ottomans. Demoralized and severely weakened by hunger and lack of supplies, with no help whatsoever from any country outside Albania, neither from Western Europe, the defenders surrendered to Mehmed II, who had repeatedly promised them to leave unharmed in exchange. As the defenders were walking away with their families, however, the Ottomans reneged on this promise, killing them all men, women and children.

In 1479 the Ottoman forces captured the Venetian-controlled Shkodėr after a fifteen-month siege. Albanian resistance continued sporadically but fiercely until around 1500, when most of the state, leaving a practically autonomous Highland, was administratively occupied by the Ottoman Empire. The Venetians also evacuated Castle Durrės in 1501.

The administrative occupation of Albania by the Ottoman Empire would last for 4 centuries up to November 28, 1912, when Albanians after a series of major uprisings and a renewed national movement destabilized the whole Turkish regime, deposed the government thereby declaring Independence and also causing its fall as an Empire.


Aftermath


The Turkish Ottoman Empire's expansion was ground to a total halt during the timeframe in which Gjergj Kastrioti and the Albanian state resisted through warfare.

Kastrioti has been credited with being the main reason for delaying and consuming Ottoman expansion into Western Europe, giving especially the Italian city-states time to better prepare for the Ottoman arrival.

The Albanian state during Kastrioti's leadership took an organic form, issued many edicts, i.e. a census of the population, the application of a tax collection system mainly to support the defense and military that was the immediate need of the country to counter invading forces, etc.

After Kastrioti's burial, when the Turks found his grave in Lezhė, they opened it and made amulets of his bones, believing that these would confer bravery on the wearer.


Echo


Kastrioti's military successes evoked at the time great interest and admiration from the Papal States. Profoundly shaken by the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Pius II tried to organize a new crusade against the Ottoman Turks, and to that end he promised to come to Albanians' aid, as his predecessors Pope Nicholas V and Pope Calixtus III had done before him. But after Pius' death, all the Vatican finally managed was to give Gjergj Kastrioti titles, as Captain General of the Holy See, and Athleta Christi ("Champion of Christ"), false hopes, empty words and promises never fulfilled.

Kastrioti on his turn eventually changed religious allegiance back and forth to fit the political objectives of the Albanian state as his father Gjon Kastrioti before him, while upholding and remaining faithful only to the Albanian nation and law.

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Tiranė, W.Albania

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Prishtinė, N.Albania (intl. Kosovo)

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Shkup, E.Albania (intl. FYROM)
Gjergj Kastrioti "Skanderbeg" gathered quite a posthumous reputation in Western Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. With virtually all of the Balkans under Ottoman rule and with the Turks at the gates of Vienna in 1683, nothing could captivate readers in the West more than an action-packed history of the Albanian hero that was deliberately interpreted by foreigners as "Christian resistance to the Moslem hordes", even though the nature of the war was never religious but purely national.

The earliest book coming in Western Europe narrating the heroic deeds of Gjergj Kastrioti was the "Historia de vita et gestis Scanderbegi, Epirotarum Principis (Rome ca. 1508–1510)", published a mere four decades after Kastrioti's death. This "History of the life and deeds of Scanderbeg, Prince of the Epirotes" was written by the Albanian historian Marinus Barletius of Shkodėr, known in Albanian as Marin Barleti (Shkodrani) who after experiencing firsthand the Turkish occupation of his native Shkodėr, settled in Padua, Italy where he became rector of the parish church of St. Stephan. Barleti dedicates his work to Donferrante Kastrioti, Skanderbeg's grandchild, and to posterity. The book was first published in Latin, was widely read in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Europe and was translated and/or adapted into a number of foreign language versions: German by Johann Pincianus (1533), Italian by Pietro Rocca (1554, 1560), Portuguese by Francisco D'Andrade (1567), Polish by Ciprian Bazylik (1569), French by Jaques De Lavardin, also known as Jacques de Lavardin, Seigneur du Plessis-Bourrot (Histoire de Georges Castriot Surnomé Scanderbeg, Roy d'Albanie, 1576), and Spanish by Juan Ochoa de la Salde (1582). The English version, translated from the French of Jaques De Lavardin by one Zachary Jones Gentleman, was published at the end of the 16th century under the title, Historie of George Castriot, surnamed Scanderbeg, King of Albanie.

A number of writers, poets and composers have also drawn inspiration from Gjergj Kastrioti's military career.

Voltaire starts his chapter "The Taking of Constantinople" with the phrase “Had the Greek Emperors acted like Scanderbeg, the empire of the East might still have been preserved.”

The French 16th century poet Ronsard wrote a poem about him, as did the 19th century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Antonio Vivaldi composed an opera entitled "Scanderbeg".

For Gibbon, "John Huniades and Scanderbeg... are both entitled to our notice, since their occupation of the Ottoman arms delayed the ruin of the Greek (Byzantine) empire."

In 1855, Camille Paganel wrote Histoire de Scanderbeg, inspired by the Crimean War.

In the lengthy poetic tale Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812–1819), which Byron had begun writing while in Albania, Scanderbeg and his warrior nation are described in the following terms:

"Land of Albania! where Iskander rose, Theme of the young, and beacon of the wise, And he his namesake, whose oft-baffled foes Shrunk from his deeds of chivalrous emprize: Land of Albania! let me bend mine eyes On thee, thou rugged nurse of savage men!"

James Wolfe, commander of the British forces at Quebec, spoke of Skanderbeg as the commander who "excels all the officers, ancient and modern, in the conduct of a small defensive army".

During the Second World War, a German division of the Waffen-SS was also named after Skanderbeg. The 21st SS Division composed of Albanian soldiers and German commanders saw service on the Eastern Front against the communist Slav occupation of North Albania (Kosovo). In the latter stages of WWII its detachments supported the German army's retreat from the Balkans and fought in the defense of Berlin against the Soviet troops until Germany's fall, when they finally dispersed and surrendered to the Americans.


Today


Gjergj Kastrioti is upheld as the foremost national hero of Albanians, and a source of national pride. Many museums - such as the Skanderbeg Museum next to the castle in Krujė - and monuments have been raised in his honor in Albanian territories in major cities such as Tiranė, Prishtinė, Shkup, Preshevė, etc.

Kastrioti's struggle against the Turkish Empire became highly significant to the national organism, as it stood as a landmark of national identity and a great source of inspiration in the struggle for national unity and independence especially during the 20th century when European powers along with Russia and Turkey actively contributed to the fragmentation of the Albanian state, awarding its territories and population to adjacent regimes, and leading a steady process of assimilation of Albanians in Yugoslavia, Greece and Turkey.
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