by Antonina Zhelyazkova

The Albanian identity and the geographical environment. 

It is important to get an idea of the natural environment and the way of living of the Albanian feudal lords and the indigenous population during the 14th century, for it was then that the real historical and cultural background of the Albanians was formed, and its traces are distinguishable to date. 

The great Albanian princes lived in fortresses: the Thopias - in Kruja (Krujë), and the family coat of arms on their standard was a crowned lion; the Muzaka - in Berat, their coat of arms a two-headed eagle with a star in the middle; the Dukagjin - in Lezhë (Lesh) - one-headed white eagle on their banner. The arms of the Kastrioti family, a double-headed black eagle against a red background, is the familiar Albanian national flag of today.

The rough natural setting of the Albanian topography, perhaps most notably of all other places in the Balkans, exemplifies F. Braudel's thesis of the intricate relationship between mountains, civilisations and religion. "The mountains, says Braudel, are as a rule a world apart from civilisations, which are an urban and lowland achievement. Their history is to have none, to remain almost on the fringe of the great waves of civilisation, even the longest and most persistent, which may spread over great distances in the horizontal plane but are powerless to move vertically when faced with an obstacle of a few hundred metres".6 

In the mountainous areas of Albania the majority of the inhabitants were free peasants, petty owners, engaged predominantly in stock-breeding. The contacts between the highlanders and the feudal lords were reduced to a minimum, to the payment of taxes agreed in advance, most commonly travnina, a rent for tenancy of pastures. There were also mountain-dwellers who never paid duties and maintained no contacts with the authorities or the princes. Entirely free, they occupied infertile, and small, patches of land up in the hills. Therefore, they lived in utmost poverty and were sometimes forced to interrupt their isolation seeking to make a living. Frequently, their coming down to lower and more productive areas and their migration were of the nature of raids on the villages, towns and feudal estates. Irrespective of the cruel punishments imposed by the Byzantine army, the incursions and the movement of the highlander Albanians did not cease. Together with their livestock, large masses of Albanians migrated to the north nearly as far as Ragusa and the Danube, and to Epirus and Thessaly to the south. In this way, the Albanians settled in lands abandoned by the Greek and French feudal lords in Peloponnesus, Attica and some of the Aegean islands. The tradition of a steadfast migration of the Albanians seeking to overcome indigence has lasted throughout the ages of Ottoman rule up to the modern times. The ethnic Albanians, who settled in Kosovo and Macedonia during the 17th century, were part of precisely these North Albanian highlanders.

Actually, the tradition of an aggressive settlement of the highland fises in new places of residence was prompted not only by poverty, by the scarcity of land and pastures, and hence, of cattle. There was one more very important reason - blood feud. It forced not only the residents of poor communities to leave their native places, but even some who were better off. Sometimes single families would head for new habitations - for example, one family from the vllaznija (brotherhood - a kinship unit smaller than the fis or the clan) of Kaçorraj left for Lura, another - for Milot. They were fleeing from their own vllaznija, and nobody knows anything about them in Kaçorraj. Similarly, the northernmost territories were colonised by large groups of families of the clans of Kelmendi, Berisha, Shala, and others, who left the principal clan territories situated mainly in the central part of the northern region.7