I’ve just returned from a trip to the Balkans – a historic and sadly often war-torn region of south-eastern Europe. In the countries of Albania and Kosovo – one medieval hero looms large. A warrior once known throughout Europe. A man who was a Christian crusader but today is also a hero for many Muslim people in the region. He is most commonly known as Skanderbeg – though his real name was Gjergj Kastrioti (1405-1468).
Great legends sprang up about his achievements and powers. His sword was so heavy, it took thirty men to lift it. His horse was so powerful that it could leap over a mountain. To Albanians, he was the champion of their nation’s independence. To Kosovans – most of whom are ethnic Albanians – he is also a hero. Though there is a view that his historic role has been inflated resulting in this curious situation where two Muslim countries revere a Catholic crusader – who fought the armies of Islam.
Yes – it’s confusing. Albania and Kosovo are Muslim majority states. The national hero in both is a Roman Catholic crusader adored by the Popes in the 15th century. How could this be? Well, as with everything in the Balkans, the history is very, very complicated. Nothing is quite as it seems.
DISCOVER: The Knights Templar in the Ukraine
Skanderbeg grows up in a dangerous environment
The starting point is the realisation that the Balkans has always been a flashpoint where different empires clashed and fought great wars. In the 15th century, it was gradually being invaded by the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans were Muslim Turks who had already overrun the Byzantine Empire taking the capital Constantinople and renaming it Istanbul. The Ottomans seemed unstoppable. Until they ran up against an Albanian feudal lord called Skanderbeg.
He was born in modern Albania a hundred years after the Knights Templar were crushed. At a time when Christian kingdoms were once more confronted by an expansionist Muslim empire – the Ottomans. Not since the caliphate’s surge into Iberia, Italy, and the eastern Roman empire had such a threat been faced. It led the papacy to call for a new crusade and it threw up crusader warriors like Skanderbeg.
But…how did he come to be revered by all three religions in the Balkans today: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Islam? And even to be hailed as a hero by the post-war Communist ruler of Albania? The answer comes through looking back at his life story.
Skanderbeg’s family were Albanian feudal lords changing allegiances and even religion with surprising ease. So his father allied at one point to the Republic of Venice declaring his Catholic faith openly. But then, in a speedy volte face, he sided with Serbia, becoming an Orthodox Christian.
And finally, he declared his loyalty to the Ottoman Sultan and sent the young Skanderbeg to be educated in the Ottoman-controlled city of Adrianople. This was a practice going back to the Romans and before. The children of nobles whose lands were being invaded would be sent as hostages to the court of the conqueror. They would effectively be indoctrinated to accept their future within the Ottoman Empire and to become Muslim.
But something went badly wrong with Skanderbeg.
Skanderbeg – from Muslim hero to Christian crusader
For two decades he was a loyal servant of the sultan. His military and political education was completed at a school from where the leading warriors of the Ottoman Empire graduated. Skanderbeg would have rubbed shoulders there with the so-called Janissaries. These were children from Balkan countries taken by the Ottomans to Istanbul – circumcised, converted to Islam, and trained to be the Sultan’s elite troops. In short, Skanderbeg had arrived a Christian boy and left a Muslim fighting man.
The sultan trusted this tall and formidably built Albanian so much that he was sent as an Ottoman governor to his homeland. This worked out well at the beginning. He fought with incredible valour against enemies of the Ottomans like the Hungarian warlord and crusader, Janos Hunyadi. Everything seemed to be going well until Skanderbeg decided to shift from being a Muslim hero to a very hostile Christian crusader.
So, what happened to make him betray the Ottoman Empire?
Skanderbeg the traitor – or hero if you prefer!
At the Battle of Niš in November, 1443, the aforementioned Hunyadi led several Christian kingdoms including Hungary, Croatia, and Wallachia in a fierce engagement with the seemingly invincible Ottoman army. Incredibly – they won. And during the battle, Skanderbeg swapped sides along with his nephew, Hamza Kastrioti.
Several hundred Albanian-born soldiers joined him as he reverted to Christianity. Though whereas he had previously been Orthodox, he now became a Roman Catholic. And Skanderbeg adopted the red flag with a double-headed black eagle still used by Albania today. He then raised the standard of revolt against Ottoman rule in his homeland. The horrified Ottomans referred to him from then on as “hain Iskender” (treacherous Skanderbeg).
Why did he betray the sultan? From the Ottoman perspective, this seemed like total ingratitude for the investment made in training and educating this warrior and showering him with military and political titles. A cynic might suspect he stuck his finger in the wind and decided it was blowing against the Ottomans although that seems unlikely. The Ottomans were overwhelmingly powerful at this point.
Something seems to have snapped inside him. The analogy that came to my mind writing this blog post was Arminius, the Germanic tribal leader 1400 years earlier who served with the Roman army, was given the rank of Equite, but still led a devastating rebellion of his own people against the Romans – wiping out three legions.
What Skanderbeg ultimately decided to lead and channel was the simmering anger of his own people. The encroachment of the Ottomans was bitterly resented. And this brilliant battlefield strategist managed to defeat Ottoman armies that were far larger by luring them into traps. He also fought the Republic of Venice to carve out an independent Albanian territory free from the control of any of its neighbours.
Christian crusader, Muslim hero, and Albanian nationalist
Skanderbeg forged close ties with Christian rulers around Europe, even though relations with the Venetians blew hot and cold. The papacy saw in him an ideal opportunity to revive the idea of a crusade against the Muslim Ottoman Empire. And so he became a poster boy for the popes in Rome. Here was a soldier giving his all in the fight for Christ. Sadly for Albania, Skanderbeg died of malaria in 1468, aged 62, while planning a new offensive against the sultan.
His stunning victories were gradually wiped out by the advancing Ottomans who exacted a bloody revenge against those who had held out against them. One curious story is that of a group of Albanian women who, seeing the Ottoman forces surrounding their castle, linked hands, performing a dance on top of the battlements and then plunged to their death together.
So why does Skanderbeg resonate today?
Mainly as the personification of more modern Albanian hopes for independent nationhood. It’s for this reason that Skanderbeg’s name was revived in the 19th and 20th centuries as nationalist movements in the Balkans sought to end centuries of Turkish rule. And also to push back against the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires that intervened in the region up until the First World War.
His religious faith – dying a Roman Catholic – is strangely skirted around in Albania and Kosovo today, which are both Muslim majority countries. His statute dominates the main square in the Albanian capital, Tirana, and stands outside the parliament building in the Kosovan capital, Pristina.
Even the previous Communist regime in Albania that ruled from 1946 to 1991 embraced the memory of Skanderbeg while seeking to suppress all religions in the country. The daughter of the communist dictator Enver Hoxha took personal charge of restoring one of Skanderbeg’s castles and the equestrian statue in Tirana’s main square was unveiled in 1968.
The modern Skanderbegs!
Claiming to be descended from Gjergj Kastrioti aka Skanderbeg has become a way of declaring your right to be King of Albania and Epirus (ancient name for the country). In May 1864, a certain “George Kastriota Skanderbeg” turned up in London, having been imprisoned then thrown out of Turin and Paris, claiming to be the rightful monarch of his people. He was derided as a fraudster.
In 1912, Albania finally became independent of the Ottoman Empire. Present at the independence ceremony was Ahmed Muhtar bey Zogolli who would become Prime Minister ten years later, then President, and finally proclaim himself King Zog I in 1928, ruling for a decade. His mother’s family claimed to be descended from Skanderbeg. Zog was overthrown when Mussolini’s Italy invaded in 1939.
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