Skan­der­beg’s Chil­dren

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS - Robert Wil­ton

It is Sun­day in the Si­cil­ian hill town. Formidable women, re­in­forced by their own wor­thi­ness, are clos­ing up one of the seven churches after ser­vice. The churches, like the peo­ple, are elu­sive. Bells are heard, a tower is glimpsed, but in the tagli­atelle of streets they van­ish im­prob­a­bly. Then a square opens up un­ex­pect­edly, ac­ci­den­tally, and a fa­cade looms over it, sand-coloured like ev­ery­thing else, its baroque de­tails ap­par­ently start­ing to erode. A few men ap­pear nois­ily in the cafe, but then dis­ap­pear, swal­lowed into the en­tic­ing al­leys that droop with an­cient iron bal­conies and laun­dry. The cu­ra­tor of the lo­cal folk mu­seum is shut­ting up shop. But for some rea­son – his ex­pres­sion sug­gests the sud­den ac­knowl­edge­ment that it’s a long time since he had a vis­i­tor – he de­cides to give a brisk tour of the high­lights.

The cu­ra­tor’s en­thu­si­asm doesn’t rat­tle out in Ital­ian, nor even Si­cil­ian; like the friendly cafe owner who tries to ar­range a ride out of town on a day when there’s no bus and no taxi, like the woman in church, he speaks Ar­bëreshë – me­di­ae­val Al­ba­nian. The in­hab­i­tants of Piana degli Al­banesi are the de­scen­dants of an ex­o­dus five cen­turies old.


It is per­haps typ­i­cal of the Al­ba­ni­ans that their na­tional hero should be a man whose deeds – whose name, even – tran­scended and linked dif­fer­ent cul­tures and realms. Born prob­a­bly in 1405 in what is now north­ern Al­ba­nia, Gjergj Kas­tri­oti was a clas­sic prod­uct of the Ot­toman Em­pire’s de­vşirme sys­tem, which took Chris­tian boys from sub­ject prov­inces to Is­tan­bul, obliged them to con­vert to Is­lam and then gave them a ca­reer in the im­pe­rial sys­tem, prin­ci­pally the mil­i­tary. While his fa­ther fought for the Serbs against Venice and then for Venice against the Ot­tomans, Gjergj Kas­tri­oti en­joyed a twenty-year ca­reer in the Ot­toman army, ris­ing to sig­nif­i­cant mil­i­tary rank and some civil author­ity back in Al­ba­nia. (The

fa­ther had to apol­o­gise to the Vene­tians for the son’s ex­ploits.) In­vok­ing the great leader of an­cient Mace­do­nia, the Ot­tomans ap­par­ently nick­named him Lord Alexan­der: İsk­ender Beğ, and thus even­tu­ally Skan­der­beg.

Around the end of 1443, Skan­der­beg de­serted Ot­toman mil­i­tary ser­vice – in the mid­dle of a bat­tle, by some ac­counts – and re­turned to the Al­ba­nian lands. There he gath­ered fol­low­ers and al­lies among the Al­ba­nian no­bil­ity. For the next twenty-five years he sus­tained a re­sis­tance against the Ot­tomans – as well as in­ter­mit­tent con­flict against Vene­tian forces. He had some suc­cess co-or­di­nat­ing the de­fence of strong­hold cities, though gained dis­tinc­tion for his mo­bile, guer­rilla-style cam­paigns against more cum­ber­some Ot­toman armies fight­ing on un­fa­mil­iar ter­rain. (Wolfe of Que­bec re­port­edly de­clared that ‘Scan­der­beg ex­cels all the of­fi­cers an­cient and mod­ern in the con­duct of a small de­fen­sive army.’) His pro­tracted strug­gle had to ac­com­mo­date not only the ebb and flow of mil­i­tary for­tune against the Ot­tomans, but also the be­wil­der­ing and ever-shift­ing net­work of Eu­ro­pean al­liances and in­flu­ences and con­flicts around the Adri­atic and the wider Mediter­ranean, as well as the fluc­tu­at­ing loy­alty of his Al­ba­nian com­rades. In re­turn for fi­nan­cial and mil­i­tary sup­port he ac­cepted the over­lord­ship of Al­fonso, King of Aragon, Si­cily, Naples and var­i­ous other places (styled Al­fonso the Mag­nan­i­mous, as he could prob­a­bly af­ford to be). For his role on the front line against the Ot­tomans, the Pope gave him neg­li­gi­ble prac­ti­cal sup­port and the ti­tle Ath­leta Christi, Cham­pion of Christ.

Skan­der­beg was not merely client or ben­e­fi­ciary. He sent men to help Al­fonso de­feat a re­bel­lion and later, shortly after one of his great­est vic­to­ries against the Ot­tomans, he was begged by the Pope to come to Italy and help the sub­se­quent King of Naples de­fend his throne. So Skan­der­beg ne­go­ti­ated a truce with the Sul­tan and spent 1461 in south­ern Italy, fight­ing a typ­i­cally mo­bile and ef­fec­tive cam­paign, be­fore re­turn­ing to Al­ba­nia in time to meet a resur­gent Ot­toman on­slaught. His last years saw no let-up in the in­ten­sity and suc­cess of his mil­i­tary cam­paigns, but the great war­rior of the moun­tain peo­ple suc­cumbed to the low­land cli­mate; he died of malaria in 1468, at the age of 62.

The Ot­tomans dom­i­nated Al­ba­nia by the end of the cen­tury. Skan­der­beg’s peo­ple be­came more clearly their sub­jects, and would re­main so un­til just be­fore the First World War. Not all chose to stay. Some were ac­cepted as refugees in the Aragonese ter­ri­to­ries of Si­cily and south­ern main­land Italy, and some were granted lands in grat­i­tude for their heroic ef­forts there. They brought their lan­guage, and their ver­sion of Catholic or Byzan­tine Greek Chris­tian­ity. (Piana degli Al­banesi – the Plain of the Al­ba­ni­ans – was Piana dei Greci for cen­turies, un­til Mus­solini’s im­pe­rial am­bi­tions across the Adri­atic prompted a com­pen­satory ges­ture of re­spect to the town’s eth­nic iden­tity.)

Skan­der­beg de­layed and abraded the Ot­toman ad­vance, but he could never have changed the arith­metic of their power. Per­haps, like other Balkan lead­ers – in­clud­ing his con­tem­po­rary, Vlad Drac­ula – he ab­sorbed enough Ot­toman en­ergy and time to change how far they reached into Europe. Oth­er­wise he was a flour­ish­ing of pride, of spirit, of what is pos­si­ble and what a peo­ple might be. He was also a re­mark­able sym­bol of how very unin­su­lar the Balkan penin­su­lar was, and be­yond it the cur­rents of Eu­ro­pean strat­egy and pol­i­tics and cul­ture.

For the Al­ba­ni­ans, Skan­der­beg is the na­tional icon. As a peo­ple they have been in south-east­ern Europe for a mil­len­nium and a half at the very least, and set great store by a du­bi­ous link go­ing mil­len­nia fur­ther back. But Al­ba­nia as a coun­try has only ex­isted for a cen­tury, de­clared by some prom­i­nent men as a tac­tic of self-de­fence within the crum­bling Ot­toman Em­pire, and val­i­dated by the Great Pow­ers as a tac­tic within their re­spec­tive geopo­lit­i­cal ma­noeu­vres in the re­gion and im­me­di­ately re­pu­di­ated in the chaos of the First World War. A dozen and a half years of at­tempts to es­tab­lish sta­ble gov­ern­ment were swal­lowed by Ital­ian coloni­sa­tion, Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion and then Com­mu­nist dic­ta­tor­ship. The coun­try en­dured a cold turkey tran­si­tion from to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism to ban­dit cap­i­tal­ism, and now wa­vers be­tween the risk of an oli­garchic, al­most feu­dal klep­toc­racy and in­te­gra­tion with the EU. Al­ba­nian na­tional iden­tity is frag­ile and felt strongly, and so

it helps to be able to call on a na­tional hero who ral­lied a kind of na­tional unity six cen­turies ago.

In a coun­try which is pre­dom­i­nantly, if lightly, Mus­lim yet feels an in­stinc­tive Eu­ro­pean iden­tity and a deep de­vo­tion to the United States, it also helps to be able to call on a hero with Chris­tian cre­den­tials.

Skan­der­beg is ev­ery­where, and of ir­refutable worth. As a name for a street or square, he is com­mon­place. The cap­i­tal of each of the three states with ma­jor­ity or sub­stan­tial eth­nic Al­ba­nian pop­u­la­tions – Ti­rana, Pr­ishtina in Kosovo and Skopje in Mace­do­nia – has a grand statue of the war­rior on horse­back. His crag-perched base at Kruja sits around a mu­seum and in­deed a whole tourist in­dus­try de­voted to him. The seals of the Pres­i­dent and the Prime Min­is­ter of Al­ba­nia are each topped by a dif­fer­ent ver­sion of Skan­der­beg’s dis­tinc­tive horned goat-head hel­met. The Or­der of Skan­der­beg is one of Al­ba­nia’s high­est state dec­o­ra­tions. Al­ba­nian of­fi­cer cadets train at the Skan­der­beg Mil­i­tary Uni­ver­sity. In the south­ern town of Korça, the foot­ball club and its sta­dium are named for the hero. (In 1944 the Ger­mans re­cruited eth­nic Al­ba­ni­ans into a new Moun­tain Di­vi­sion of the SS and named it, in­evitably, the Skan­der­beg.)

For politi­cians and busi­ness­men and oth­ers keen to demon­strate the right val­ues and virtues, the lurid re­pro­duc­tion por­trait of Skan­der­beg is de rigeur over the of­fice desk. The choice of iconic mo­ment gives nu­ance: mar­tial Skan­der­beg, fe­ro­cious of glare and ter­ri­fy­ing of eye­brow on his ram­pant horse, or uni­fy­ing Skan­der­beg, ral­ly­ing the Al­ba­nian clans by the great­ness of his dig­nity and his ex­am­ple and his beard, are favoured.

This is a nine­teenth cen­tury Skan­der­beg, born in the Rilindja – Re­birth – move­ment of pol­i­tics and par­tic­u­larly cul­ture, which badly needed uni­fy­ing im­agery in the ab­sence of clear bor­ders, re­li­gious ho­mo­gene­ity or even an agreed ver­sion of the lan­guage. The poet Naim Frashëri put the fif­teen­th­cen­tury hero at the cen­tre of the Al­ba­nian story in what would be­come one of the coun­try’s two na­tional epics, his 1898 Story of Skan­der­beg.

Sing his wis­dom, an­gel, sing All his deeds of virtue bright That brave Skan­der­beg might bring The land of ea­gles light. Like them, let your spirit fly, Let moun­tain honey warm your tongue; No man more brave, no lord more high Than Skan­der­beg was ever sung. ... Like the moun­tain stal­lion’s foals, Like the beaks the ea­gle hatched, These men were Al­ba­nian souls – They lived un­beaten, died un­matched. They pushed the map to un­known lands They drove, they fought, they won, they spread. Europe’s cities, Asia’s sands, Heard their voices, felt their tread. The mind­less march­ing Ro­man men­ace Could not break the moun­tain shields; The slave-rowed greedy fleets of Venice Could not buy Al­ba­nia’s fields.

He has proved widely adapt­able in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury too. Lead­ers as dif­fer­ent as King Zog and Com­mu­nist dic­ta­tor En­ver Hoxha in­voked his ex­am­ple, as uni­fier or re­sister. Per­haps the ar­che­typal ter­ri­ble Skan­der­beg por­trait is the one Hoxha had painted, ac­tu­ally putting him­self in the pic­ture: there the dic­ta­tor stands, in his smart-yet-hard-wear­ing coun­try suit, re­ceiv­ing from the neatly-ar­moured leg­end the sword to de­fend the na­tion against its end­less en­e­mies.

(As Hoxha warned, one must be end­lessly vig­i­lant against the en­emy. In 2008 a Swiss his­to­rian pub­lished a book on Skan­der­beg, a wel­come in­jec­tion of schol­arly rigour to Al­ba­nian his­to­ri­og­ra­phy, of­fer­ing a nu­anced anal­y­sis of those Al­ba­ni­ans who did not sup­port the hero as well as those who did, of the lim­its of his suc­cess, and of the am­bigu­ous ef­fect of his

bloody de­fi­ance of the Sul­tan. His­tory and his­to­rian were duly sav­aged by Al­ba­nian com­men­ta­tors; once they’d been given the op­por­tu­nity of an Al­ba­nian-lan­guage trans­la­tion, whether ex­ploited or not, amongst many other things they com­plained that if only their own dis­tin­guished mono­graphs on the great man had been trans­lated into for­eign lan­guages, per­haps for­eign schol­ars wouldn’t make such grotesque and in­sult­ing mis­takes. A Hun­gar­ian sculp­tor en­dured sim­i­lar at­tacks in 2017 when his Skan­der­beg was judged to have in­suf­fi­ciently Al­ba­nian fea­tures.)

2018 is the 550th an­niver­sary of Skan­der­beg’s death, and the gov­ern­ment of Al­ba­nia has pro­claimed it a year of com­mem­o­ra­tion. Prime Min­is­ter Edi Rama de­clared that Al­ba­ni­ans felt ‘pro­fane, hum­ble, full of re­spect and love’ be­side their na­tional hero, and de­scribed him as ‘a force for eman­ci­pa­tion and Euro­peani­sa­tion’. In other words, in an Al­ba­nia still strug­gling with some as­pects of democ­racy and keen to get into the EU, very much a hero for the twenty-first-cen­tury.

While his legacy among the Al­ba­ni­ans is sim­ple, co­her­ent and strong, within wider Eu­ro­pean cul­ture Skan­der­beg has been a sup­pler fig­ure. The priest-poet-politi­cian Gjergj Fishta, frus­trated that the states­men at the Ver­sailles Con­fer­ence he at­tended in 1919 were not recog­nis­ing Al­ba­nia’s in­ter­ests, heard an an­cient echo:

These men whose God is gold alone – I curse them for their hearts of stone – De­sire to take this wretched land, Won by much Al­ba­nian blood, and Make a jig­saw of its bor­ders. Why? Be­cause Europe so or­ders... Europe, you whore of the ages Thus to stain your glo­ri­ous pages; This your cul­ture: Al­ba­nia starves While faith­less per­jured Europe carves

Her up to feed the whelps of Slavs. Thus you pay them, who sac­ri­ficed Them­selves to save the lands of Christ. Skan­der­beg fought to save your world, While you sat mute with ban­ners furled.

In fact Europe had re­mem­bered Skan­der­beg, but ac­cord­ing to its own per­spec­tive and in­ter­ests. The wiz­ard of mo­bile high­land war­fare, and the prod­uct of a dis­tinctly Balkan re­al­ity in which re­li­gion was se­condary and flex­i­ble, be­came a dis­tinctly Chris­tian and even ro­man­tic fig­ure in Eu­ro­pean lit­er­a­ture. By the six­teenth cen­tury he could be read about in Latin, Ital­ian, French, Por­tuguese, Ger­man and Pol­ish. In the sev­en­teenth cen­tury he was in Span­ish come­dies and an Ital­ian fairy tale; in the eigh­teenth Vi­valdi wrote an opera about him. Spenser wrote a son­net (‘The scourge of Turkes, and plague of in­fi­dels, Thy acts, o Scan­der­beg, this vol­ume tells’), and Longfel­low pro­duced a cu­ri­ous poem in his honour, mak­ing him ruth­less and cyn­i­cal and fo­cus­ing on his aban­don­ment of the Ot­toman cause and his cap­ture of Kruja by a ruse. (Gib­bon in the De­cline and Fall had given sub­stan­tial but not un­crit­i­cal cov­er­age of the myth, sug­gest­ing that ‘we may smile at the art or credulity of the his­to­rian, who sup­poses, that in ev­ery en­counter he spared the Chris­tians, while he fell with a thun­der­ing arm on his Mus­sul­man foes’.) Even Ser­bian lan­guage writ­ers, from the fif­teenth to the nine­teenth-cen­turies, wrote about Skan­der­beg pos­i­tively and pow­er­fully, as a fra­ter­nal Chris­tian hero of the re­gion. And in 1911 Dukas com­posed a bal­let, La Péri, in which a very un­fa­mil­iar Isk­ender is be­witched by a spirit.

In English he was the pro­tag­o­nist of three eigh­teenth cen­tury plays. (En­tic­ingly, The True His­tory of Ge­orge Scan­der­beg, wrongly at­trib­uted to Mar­lowe and now lost, had been staged no later than 1588.) The ap­proaches of Lillo’s The Chris­tian Hero and Havard’s Scan­der­beg, A Tragedy can be gauged from the ti­tles. The same is true of Whin­cop’s posthu­mous­ly­pub­lished Scan­der­beg, Or, Love and Lib­erty, which opens with a rather im­petu­ous Skan­der­beg dis­traught at what might be hap­pen­ing to the lovely Ari­anissa (‘O! she’s all charms! a soft en­chant­ing sweet­ness / Dwells in her

eyes, and glows in ev’ry fea­ture.’) in the clutches of the evil Sul­tan; hav­ing res­cued his much-im­pressed in­amorata (‘O he’s all hero - his ev’ry god­like deed / Shines with dis­tin­guish’d lus­tre – / With what dear anx­ious joys my bo­som glow’d! / What ten­der trans­ports then pos­sess’d my soul, / Un­felt be­fore, that day that first pre­sented / The youth­ful hero [Skan­der­beg was more than twenty years older than his even­tual wife] to my rav­ish’d eyes, / Aw­fully charm­ing!’), he is able to pop out and de­feat his en­emy and ri­val and se­cure a dou­ble vic­tory (‘The sol­dier’s and the lover’s bliss com­pleat, / No more re­venge shall in my bo­som beat... Con­quest and love to bless my reign com­bine, / Al­ba­nia free, and Ari­anissa mine.’). Scan­der­beg, Or, Love and Lib­erty has the ad­di­tional plea­sure of a Pref­ace that rub­bishes the other two plays, with a fe­roc­ity that would ap­peal to Al­ba­nian his­to­ri­ans.

Skan­der­beg’s rel­a­tively most well-known ap­pear­ance in English lit­er­a­ture is ar­guably Dis­raeli’s 1833 The Rise of Iskan­der. One of the fu­ture Prime Min­is­ter’s ear­lier and less re­puted nov­els, it has sim­i­lar­i­ties with Whin­cop’s play: the hero has re­mained se­cretly a Chris­tian dur­ing his ca­reer with the Ot­tomans, bid­ing his time un­til he can de­ci­sively de­feat them; again there is a sub­stan­tial love-in­ter­est – the res­cue of the charm­ing Iduna is added mo­ti­va­tion and com­pli­ca­tion for the pur­suit of the Sul­tan. As oth­ers have ob­served, the young politi­cian’s cel­e­bra­tion of na­tional re­newal and Balkan lib­er­ties was not eas­ily sus­tained when he came to wres­tle with the East­ern Ques­tion him­self a few decades later.

To­day Skan­der­beg seems lit­tle re­mem­bered by non-Al­ba­ni­ans. He still ex­ists in a few stat­ues around the cities of Europe; Lon­don’s, un­veiled to mark the cen­te­nary of in­de­pen­dence, is in Bayswa­ter. Iron­i­cally, the sub­tleties of his iden­tity, which tend to get over­looked in the mythog­ra­phy, make him more rel­e­vant: a man who moved be­tween Chris­tian and Mus­lim worlds and iden­ti­ties; a man who in­voked uni­ties and com­mon in­ter­ests in a frag­mented Balkans.

A mar­ble plaque in the church in Piana degli Al­banesi com­mem­o­rates the 500th an­niver­sary of the death of the ‘Prince and Na­tional Hero of the

Al­ba­ni­ans, De­fender of the Faith and of Chris­tian Civ­i­liza­tion’. A pop-up ban­ner marks the 550th. The Ar­bëreshë are the third el­e­ment of Skan­der­beg’s pos­ter­ity. As one his­to­rian puts it, in the Skan­der­beg con­fer­ence form­ing part of the an­niver­sary year, ‘he rep­re­sents the fig­ure who gives mean­ing to the past, and the foun­da­tion for the fu­ture’.

He is their con­nec­tion to Al­ba­nia, the com­mon ances­tor. There are ap­prox­i­mately 100,000 Ar­bëreshë across Si­cily and the rest of south­ern Italy. They are phys­i­cally in­dis­tin­guish­able from their fel­low-Ital­ians, and en­tirely in­te­grated. Their Ar­bëreshë her­itage is a pri­vate pride, some­thing for the din­ner ta­ble and the café in the square and the icons of lo­cal civic iden­tity, the plaque out­side the pub­lic build­ing and the ban­ner in the church. Ar­bëreshë cul­ture does not seem threat­ened for now. In Piana degli Al­banesi all the of­fi­cial signs are bilin­gual, and else­where there is some lo­cal gov­ern­ment pro­tec­tion for the lan­guage and its teach­ing. Fam­i­lies still speak it at home. The vis­i­tors book in the folk mu­seum sug­gests a lively in­ter­est in the her­itage; per­haps the cu­ra­tor’s en­thu­si­asm was just cour­tesy.

The lan­guage it­self has a rough charm, es­pe­cially in the mouths of those born among Ital­ian ac­cents. Mu­tu­ally com­pre­hen­si­ble with mod­ern Al­ba­nian, it re­ally does sound like its proto-form, with harder stranger for­mu­la­tions that haven’t been swal­lowed or smoothed by time and the Balkan whirlpool, ‘k’s that haven’t be­come ‘ch’s. Piana degli Al­banesi and the other Ar­bëreshë hill set­tle­ments nearby each speak a slightly dif­fer­ent ver­sion of the lan­guage.

The cul­ture is strongly main­tained in only a few cen­tres, but Ar­bëreshë blood has spread through Italy and the wider di­as­pora be­yond; among many oth­ers it has pro­duced a Pope, a cou­ple of Prime Min­is­ters, and cul­tural in­flu­ences from An­to­nio Gram­sci to Jen­nifer Anis­ton. The Ar­bëreshë are a story of sur­vival, of the cu­ri­ous residue of a small refugee her­itage from half a mil­len­nium ago. But they are also the prod­uct of a fluid world, of a war­rior and his peo­ple who moved among and across dif­fer­ent realms and cul­tures, and flour­ished and en­dured.

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