Gjergj Kastrioti (1405?-1468) came from a noble Albanian family based in Krujë or a nearby village. His father, Gjon, ruled over north-central Albania and fought against the Ottoman invasion, but eventually had to submit to Sultan Bayezid. As part of the Devşirme [blood tax], a system that required Christian families to send their sons as tribute to the Ottoman court, the young Gjergj was taken as a hostage and trained in the Ottoman military school. He was converted to Islam during this time. After his education, Gjergj served in the Ottoman army and proved himself in many battles against the Greeks, Serbs, and Hungarians. He earned the title of Iskender Bey, which means ‘Lord Alexander’ or ‘Leader Alexander’ and has been translated as Skënderbeu in Albanian or Skanderbeg in English. It is believed that this name was given to him because of his military skills, which were compared to those of Alexander the Great.
Although raised in Turkey, Skënderbeu remained loyal to Albania. In 1443, during a campaign against the crusaders of the Hungarian János Hunyadi, he deserted the Ottoman Army along with 300 Albanians under his command and returned home. He took control of Krujë by deceiving its subaşi [governor] with a forged letter from the sultan, and made the castle his headquarters. Skënderbeu than raised the Albanian flag with the double-headed eagle above the castle, and declared a revolt against the Ottomans Empire.
In 1444, Skënderbeu united many of the Albanian princedoms that had been divided for six centuries into a military alliance against the Ottoman Empire. This alliance, known in historiography as the ‘League of Lezhë’, consisted of a small army of no more than 20,000 men, with only about 4,000 under his direct command. To overcome the numerical disadvantage, he organized a mobile defense army that used a hit-and-run tactic, forcing the Ottomans to disperse their troops. Skënderbeu fought a guerilla war, using the familiar mountainous terrain and local support to his advantage. He won his first victory against the Ottoman Army lead by Ali Pashë Tepelena at Torvioli in 1444. This victory echoed across Europe because it was one of the rare occasions when the Ottoman Army was defeated by a European one. This first victory was followed by two more at Mokra in 1445 and at Otonetë in 1446.
At the start of the Albanian rebellion, the Republic of Venice supported Skënderbeu, viewing his forces as a buffer between them and the Ottoman Empire. However, as he became a strong force on their borders, the Republic saw him as a threat to their interests, leading to the Albanian-Venetian War of 1447-48. Despite fighting on two fronts, Skënderbeu remained determined, and eventually, a peace treaty was signed between him and Venice. He agreed to the peace treaty, in part because of an invitation from János Hunyadi to join him in the fight against the sultan in Kosovo.
Skënderbeu faced several sieges during his campaign against the Ottomans. In 1450, the Ottomans besieged Krujë Castle but were unable to break its defenses. Eventually, they abandoned the siege due to the rapid spread of disease and disarray in their camp. In 1455, the roles were reversed and Skënderbeu laid siege to Berat Castle. Eventually, the Ottoman officer in charge of the castle promised to surrender. However, Skënderbeu made a costly mistake by living one of his generals to finalize the surrender. The Ottomans saw this as an opportunity to fight back, surprised the remaining besiegers, and inflicted one of the worst defeats on Skënderbeu during his otherwise successful campaign. In 1467, the Ottomans launched their third siege on Krujë Castle, attacking from all sides, and thus reducing Skënderbeu’s mobility and cutting his supply lines. Despite this, the Ottomans were once again defeated. Unfortunately, Skënderbeu died of malaria in 1468 before he could witness this victory. He was supposedly buried in the Cathedral of Lezhë.
For 25 years, Skënderbeu successfully defended against the mighty Ottoman forces, who had already conquered Constantinople (now Istanbul) and large parts of the Balkans. He led his troops in 25 major battles, winning 24 of them. In general, his military abilities posed a significant obstacle to Ottoman expansion into Western Europe, and he is revered as a Christian hero who fought against the Muslim invaders. Legend has it, that his sword was so heavy that only he could wield it, and it was so sharp that it could cut a man vertically from head to waist. Similarly, the sound of his horse’s neigh was enough to instill terror in his enemies. Hence, when the Ottomans discovered his grave, they opened it and made amulets from his bones, believing that these would make the wearer invincible.
Skënderbeu has gained a significant posthumous reputation in Western art and science. The French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire highly respected the Albanian military leader in his works. Ludvig Holberg, a Danish writer and philosopher, regarded him as one of the greatest generals in history. The Italian Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi even composed an opera titled ‘Scanderbeg’ in his honor. The English poet Lord Byron wrote admirably about him and his warrior nation in his epic poem ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’. He is also mentioned by the Montenegrin poet and philosopher, Petar II Petrović-Njegoš, in his epic poems ‘The Mountain Wreath’ and ‘The False Tsar Stephen the Little’. Additionally, the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare portrays an Ottoman siege of an Albanian castle during Skënderbeu’s time in his historic novel ‘The Siege’.
““Once, if I am not mistaken, I told you about Skanderbeg,” the Quartermaster went on. “He’s much talked about. He’s said to be the greatest warrior of our era, and he’s been called at one and the same time a lion, a renegade, a traitor to Islam, a champion of Christ, and who knows what else. As far as I can see all these epithets do apply to him, but I would prefer to describe him differently. To my mind he’s a man ahead of his time. We are striking at his visible part, but there is another part we can do nothing about, absolutely nothing, because it has escaped us already. For the moment he is dragging Albania into the abyss, believing that he is making his nation unattainable, in his own image, by making it also pass out of its own time into another dimension. He may well be right. It would be pointless for us to try to separate Skanderbeg from Albania. Even if we wanted to we would not be able to do it… “What he’s working towards,” the Quartermaster continued, “is to give Albania a cloak of invulnerability, to give it a form which casts it up and beyond the vicissitudes of the present — a metaform, if I may say, which makes it able to resuscitate, or to put it another way, he is trying to prepare his nation for another world. I don’t know if you follow my drift … He is trying to crucify Albania, as their God was crucified, so that like Christ, Albania will be resurrected. He doesn’t care whether it is on the third day, the third century or the third millennium after his death that Albania rises! What matters is his vision of the future …””
Ismail Kadare: Siege (1970)
Today, there are several memorials and sites associated with Skënderbeu’s legacy in Albania. Muzeu Historik Kombëtar Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu [National History Museum Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu], showcasing his life, military campaigns, and cultural impact, is housed in Kalaja e Krujës [Krujë Castle], his stronghold during his fight against the Ottoman Empire. Unfortunately, only four artifacts belonging to Skënderbeu have survived to this day: his famous helmet, two swords, and a prayer book. The helmet and swords are displayed at the Collection of Arms and Armour in Vienna’s Neue Burg [New Castle], affiliated with the Kunsthistorisches Museum [Museum of Fine Arts]. While, the prayer book is archived at the Shelley Publishing House in Chelsea, London. Skënderbeu has many statues in Albania and around the world, with his equestrian statues in Krujë and Tiranë being particularly striking. His memorial tomb, the Vendvarrimi i Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu [Tomb of Gjergj Kastriot Skënderbeu] can be found in Lezhë.
Gibbon, Edward (1789) The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume 6