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.