Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu: The Dragon of Albania

Skënderbeu is considered to be the most prominent historical figure in all Albanian history.

Gjergj Kastrioti (1405?-1468) was born to a noble Albanian family at Krujë or in a neighboring village. His father, Gjon, lord of north-central Albania, resisted the Ottoman invasion but eventually had to submit to Sultan Bayezid. As part of the Devşirme [blood tax], he had to send his sons as hostages to the Sultans court. The young Gjergj Kastrioti was converted to Islam and trained in the Ottoman military school. Later, in the service of the sultan, he distinguished himself in many battles against the Greeks, Serbs and Hungarians. He gained the title Iskender Bey, meaning ‘Lord Alexander’ or ‘Leader Alexander’ (which has been translated as Skënderbeu in Albanian or Skanderbeg in English). It is believed that the name was given no less than as a comparison of Skanderbeg’s military skills to that of Alexander the Great.

Though 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 went home. He took control of Krujë by deceiving its subaşi [governor] with a forged letter from the sultan. He made the castle into his headquarters, raised the Albanian flag with the double-headed eagle above the castle, and declared to be in revolt against the Ottomans Empire.

In 1444, he united many of the Albanian princedoms that had been divided for six centuries into a military alliance against the Ottoman Empire known in historiography as the League of Lezhë. The small army of the league was amounting to no more than 20,000 men and only about 4000 under his direct command. To overcome the disadvantage in numbers, he organized a mobile defense army, which used a hit-and-run tactic that forced the Ottomans to disperse their troops. Skënderbeu fought a guerrilla war by using the familiar mountainous terrain and local support to his advantage. He gained his first victory against the Ottoman Army lead by Ali Pashë Tepelena at Torvioli in 1444. This victory echoed across Europe because this 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 beginning of the Albanian rebellion, the Republic of Venice was supportive of Skënderbeu, considering his forces to be a buffer between them and the Ottoman Empire. However, his rise as a strong force on their borders was seen as a threat to the interests of the Republic and triggered the Albanian-Venetian War of 1447-48. However, not even fighting on two fronts was able to brake Skënderbeu’s spirit and eventually a peace treaty was signed between him and Venice. One of the reasons Skënderbeu agreed to sign the peace treaty was the invitation from János Hunyadi to join him in the fight against the sultan in Kosovo.

Some of the main sieges: In 1450, the Ottomans laid siege on Krujë Castle. It soon became apparent that they are not able to break the castle’s defenses and with disarray and disease rapidly spreading through the Ottoman camp, they were forced to abandon the siege. In 1455, Skënderbeu faced the Ottomans at the siege of Berat Castle. This time the roles were reversed and he was the besieger. Eventually, the Ottoman officer in charge of the castle promised to surrender. Skënderbeu made a costly error afterwards – he left 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 worse defeats Skënderbeu was to suffer during his long and otherwise successful carrier. In 1467, the Ottoman Empire laid its third siege on Krujë Castle. This time they were attacking from all sides, reducing Skënderbeu’s mobility and cutting his supply lines. Yet again, the Ottomans were defeated. Skënderbeu never saw this victory as he died of malaria in 1468. He was supposedly buried in the Cathedral of Lezhë.

For 25 years, Skënderbeu fended off the mighty Ottoman forces, who conquered Constantinople (now Istanbul) and large areas of the Balkans. He commanded 25 main battles against them of which he was victorious in 24. More generally, his military skills presented a major obstacle to the Ottoman expansion into Western Europe – he is heralded as a Christian hero against the Muslim hordes. According to legend, his sword was so heavy that only his hand could wield it and so sharp that it could slice a man vertically from head to waist. Similarly, the neighing of his horse caused terror among his enemies. Hence, when the Ottomans found his grave, they opened it and made amulets of his bones in belief that this will make the wearer invincible.

Skënderbeu gathered quite a posthumous reputation in Western art and science. For example, the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire held the Albanian military leader in high respect in his works. Ludvig Holberg, a Danish writer and philosopher, considered him one of the greatest generals in history. The Italian Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi composed an opera entitled ‘Scanderbeg’. The English poet Lord Byron, in his epic poem ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’, wrote with admiration about him and his warrior nation. 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’. Whereas, the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, in his historic novel ‘The Siege’, describes an Ottoman siege of an Albanian castle during the time of Skënderbeu.

““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)

Gibbon, Edward (1789) The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume 6

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