Skanderbeg: National Hero of Albania
In the mid-fifteenth century, writes Anthony Bryer, George Kastriota, surnamed Skanderbeg, was acclaimed as a powerful champion of Christianity on the eastern shores of the Adriatic.
The Albanians call their country Shqipenia, which means “Eagle’s Land.” The Turkish chronicler, Urudj, explains that their mountains are inaccessible, even to crows; only eagles and demoniac Albanians can live among them.
Their land is not much larger than Wales, and Albanians have lived there since long before the Slavonic invasions of the Balkans: Ptolemy mentions them in the second century A.D.
They are a chaotic race, divided into some fifty clans, to which they owe greater loyalty than to a religion or to the whole nation, the clans being broadly divided into the Ghegs in the north and the Tosks in the south.
In the fifteenth century, the Ghegs were largely Catholic and the Tosks Orthodox; today, most Albanians are Muslim, but Gheg and Tosk remain two distinct and almost impenetrable languages.
Albanians are most effectively united in hatred of their neighbours—who seem equally agreed in their feelings about them. In a footnote to Childe Harold, Byron writes: “No nation are so detested and dreaded by their neighbours as the Albanese.
The Greeks hardly regard them as Christians or the Turks as Muslims, and in fact they are a mixture of both and sometimes neither. Their habits are predatory: all are armed and the red shawled Arnauts, the Montenegrins, Chima-riots, and Gedges are treacherous.”
They reminded him forcibly of the Scots; since they lived by grazing sheep on the more accessible mountain sides, and by banditry. But it has always been difficult to come to terms with an Albanian, whether in peace or war. Gibbon remarked that Albania, which is “within sight of Italy, is less known than the interior of America.”