From the Great Ottoman commander to the defender of Christians: the story of Skanderbeg

The powerful Ottoman Empire played a tragic role in the fate of many nations living both on the peninsula of Asia Minor and in the neighborhood. In addition to the Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians, and Arabs, the nations living on the Balkan Peninsula had to endure much because of the Seljuk Turks.

Today we will talk about one of these nations – the Albanians – and about their heroic commander Gjergj Kastrioti, who is on a par with such great leaders as Alexander the Great in his homeland.

The Ottomans gave him that name – Iskender Bey (a variation of the name Alexander in Turkish manner), which in Albanian transcription sounds like Skanderbeg.

We can say that the persona of Skanderbeg is underestimated since his fame is regional rather than global. But he was a legendary commander, whose fame spread to the Balkans, his statues are also found in European countries. He was a talented military man who had not lost a single battle, even under difficult conditions, such as the numerical superiority of the enemy and the absence of allies.

As you know, geniuses are born in difficult historical periods, and our hero Gjergj Kastrioti was born at the historical moment when Albania, due to its feudal fragmentation, easily turned out to become another “prey” to the Ottomans, who established their power there in the 14-15th centuries, and the Albanian princes became the vassals and prisoners of the Ottoman Sultan Murad II.

The father of our future hero – Gjon Kastrioti – turned out to be one of these princes, one of those Albanian feudal lords who did not accept their situation, but could not show effective resistance. Gjon Kastrioni rebelled against the Turks but was defeated and lost part of his possessions. He was forced to accept his status as a vassal of the Sultan and was obliged to pay taxes. His sons, including the future Skanderbeg, were sent to the Sultan’s court as hostages.

In the Ottoman Empire, such a kind of “blood tax” as devshirme was practiced. According to it, children were forcibly taken away from the non-Muslim population and later were raised as future officials and military for the Ottoman Empire. For example, one of these “prisoners” at the Sultan’s court wrote: “There are only a few people in the palace who speak Turkic from birth because the Sultan believes that converted Christians who have no shelter, no home, no friends or parents serve him more faithfully. “

Indeed, the separation from home and deprivation of their roots often led to the fact that young men became ardent defenders of the Sultan, as their only father, and the Islamic faith that was new to the.

However, not everyone forgot about their roots.

Gjergj Kastrioti entered the Sultan’s court as a small boy, was raised as a Muslim, and after years of training at a military school in Edirne, he became one of the most revered Ottoman military leaders. He participated in numerous military campaigns of the Ottoman Empire, including in the campaigns of the Sultan against the Greeks, Serbs, and Hungarians.

He earned the trust of the ruler so much that when his real father passed away, Sultan Murad II allowed Skanderbeg to govern his father’s possessions and gave him the title of “vali” for his loyalty (as the governors of the wilāyas (provinces) were called).

Here is where the most interesting part of the story begins. Despite the ingenious and very effective plan for assimilation of the population, invented by the Ottoman aristocracy, it must be admitted that they underestimated the power of the homeland of the captivated, which can become more valuable than all military achievements and honors.

The acquisition of only a small part of the possessions belonging to his family revived Skanderbeg’s loyalty to Albania, even though he was raised as a warrior of the empire for twenty years. A strategist by nature, he began to wait for the right moment to organize a large-scale Albanian revolt for independence.

During this period (15th century), one of the major movements of the Crusades to Varna, initiated by the Pope, was activated, which tried to stop the onslaught of the Ottoman Turks directed to Central Europe. One of the theaters of military operations was the city of Niš, where the famous battle took place on November 28, 1443, which ended in a convincing victory for the crusaders. According to one version, this was facilitated by Skanderbeg himself, whom the Ottoman Sultan Murad II sent to the battle, but who secretly contacted the crusaders and gave them the necessary information.

The Battle of Niš was a convenient moment for Skanderbeg. Together with his Albanian detachment of 300 people, he deserted the Ottoman army and fled to his ancestral home, to the center of his possessions – the strategically important city and fortress of Krujë. Having presented himself to the governor of Krujë with a fake letter from Sultan Murad, Skanderbeg captured the city and declared himself the head of the Principality of Kastrioti.

From that moment on, Krujë became the center of the Albanian uprising, which lasted nothing less than 20 years, and also played an important role in the formation of the Albanian national identity. It is important to note that the Albanian commander, who had been raised in Islam for many years, renounced this religion and reverted to Christianity, prompting other Islamized Christians in the Balkans to follow his example.

In 1444 – 1451, Skanderbeg began an important process of consolidating the scattered Albanian principalities. On his initiative, a military-political union of Albanian princes was created to fight against the Turkish-Ottoman conquerors.

On Skanderbeg’s initiative, a military alliance was organized, for which men were conscripted from every Albanian house. Thus, he gathered a powerful army of 18 thousand soldiers, among whom were skilled horsemen needed to execute military operations in the highlands.

For 25 years, from 1443 to 1468, Skanderbeg was the head of an Albanian army of many thousands and achieved several major victories over the Ottoman Turks. He received financial assistance from the rulers of Hungary, Naples, and Venice, who were at war with the Ottoman Empire as well.

For 25 years the Turks tried to conquer the Principality of Kastrioti and its center – the fortress Krujë! Despite the change in the political configuration, the comings and goings of the allies, the numerical superiority of the enemy, and so on – not a single offensive was successful for the Turks, and the talent of a military strategist did not let the Albanian commander down.

Betrayal or the beginning of the end

Unfortunately, as is usually the case, the glory and rise of Skanderbeg as the leader conveyed a sense of competition in other Albanian princes and fear of the loss of their fiefdoms. In addition, in 1456, a son was born to Skanderbeg, which did not cause much joy to his nephew Hamza, who lost his hope of succession.

Hamza thought that his only way out was to defect to the Ottomans and offer them to overthrow his uncle. Naturally, this was a matter of honor for the Ottoman Sultan, so in 1457 he supplied Hamza with a powerful new army of 80,000 men and sent them against Skanderbeg.

But if you remember, we have already said that Skanderbeg did not lose a single battle. Therefore, the Ottoman army, led by his nephew, was destroyed in a specially prepared ambush except for Hamza himself, who was taken as a prisoner and then sent to Naples, where he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

The successful struggle of the Albanians against the Ottoman hordes was impeded by the betrayal of some Albanian feudal lords, and the selfish policy of foreign powers – Venice, the papacy, and the Kingdom of Naples. The invincible Skanderbeg could only be defeated by an incurable disease. In 1468, George Kastrioti died of malaria.

After his death, the situation for the Albanians became even worse. Ten years later, in 1478, the defenders of his capital, the city of Krujë, surrendered after a two-year siege. From that time on, all Albanian territories gradually came under Ottoman rule. So the death of Skanderbeg was followed by the death of Albanian sovereignty.

Gjergj Skanderbeg Kastrioti has become an eternal symbol of the national ideology. The flag of the Kastrioti clan formed the basis of the Albanian flag, and the Krujë fortress, the walls of which remember the old bloody events, became the country’s main memorial.

by Eleonora Sargsyan

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