by Antonina Zhelyazkova

George Kastrioti-Skanderbeg's resistance to the Ottomans. Heroicity as part of the Albanian individuality.

In 1924, a brilliant Bulgarian observer and connoisseur of Albania, gave the following description of the Albanians: "…isn't the Albanian, who, being a slave, did not allow enslavement, freedom-loving? This is a question that could hardly be understood by anyone who has not lived in Albania. The most liberty-loving people in the Balkans is the Albanian people. The Albanian, taken alone, as an individual, is an anarchist by nature. He would brook no bondage let alone on his people, he would not let anything, seen as possibly humiliating, befall his house. The Albanian house stands alone and apart from the rest… The Albanian, being very touchy and left with no law enforcement, during long ages had been forced to defend his freedom and family honour with arms and so bear today the stigma of being a killer."15

The political situation in Albania prior to the Ottoman invasion had been very complicated because of the high level of feudal partitioning of the country. There were several independent principalities ruled by the most powerful Albanian feudal lords: of Durrës in Central Albania, ruled by Carlo Thopia; of despot Spat in Epirus; of the Balsha family in Northern Albania; of Theodore Muzaka of Berat, comprising the lands around Berat. 

In the 1430s the ruling circles in Constantinople, represented by Andronicus III and John Cantacuzenus were reconciled with the loss of Asia Minor to the numberless Turkic tribes and beyliks. The territory of the entire peninsula of Asia Minor was Turkicised and Islamised. It was there, on the ruins of the older political and cultural institutions, that the Muslims, the steppe peoples and tribal unions set up a new type of polity and socioeconomic system.16 The policy of the Byzantine rulers was directed to the strengthening of the Balkan positions of the empire, and the Muslim beyliks in Asia Minor were expected to contribute to its realisation.17  With the help of mercenaries from Ayd?n, Andronicus III and John Cantacuzenus managed to conquer Epirus, Thessaly, and Southern Albania. From the Byzantine point of view, the activation of the Balkan politics was the only move the empire could make in the 1330s. In the Balkans perspective, however, such action involved the risk of aggravating the inter-Balkan relations, something particularly dangerous in the face of a strong Asian enemy. 18

By the beginning of 1386 the lord of Yanina, the Florentine Esau Buondelmonti declared his vassalage to the Ottomans and confirmed it appearing in person in the town of Edirne. In the same period, his southern neighbour and rival Albanian despot Gjin Bua Spata, had to do the same. Until his death in 1400 despot Gjin Bua Spata more than once resorted to Ottomans help in the wars he waged against the Rhodes Knights Hospitallers, who at that time made efforts to gain a firm foothold in Lepanto and Corinth. Individual members of the Albanian clan of Muzaka also became Ottoman vassals.

During the siege of Saloniki in the summer of 1385, the Ottoman ak?nc? troops made their way through Berat and the Devoll River into the central parts of the Albanian littoral. And they met with no organised resistance there, although they were confronted with a seemingly strong state - Zeta, dominated by the three Balsha brothers who had succeeded after 1371 to spread their domination as far as Valona. The consolidation of power of the Balsha family in Albania was hindered by their continuous conflicts with local Albanian feudal lords and the obvious territorial particularism of their possessions. The only Christian ruler who attempted to stop Hayreddin Pasha was Balsha II Balsha. He had to face a 40,000-strong army, commanded by Evrenos-beg, called in, as a matter of fact, by the rival clan of the Thopias. According to the historian Orbini of Dubrovnik, the army of the Balsha, numbering a thousand soldiers, was routed and Balsha II died on the battlefield.19  Balsha's death in the battle of Savra made it possible for the Kastrioti family to restore their possessions and even multiply them at the expense of the Ballsas, expanding to the south as far as the lands along the Black Drin River, as well as westwards and northwestwards.