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Tirana - Skanderbeg Square
Tirana - Skanderbeg Square

Albanians trace their origin back to the Illyrians, the oldest people in the Balkan, predating the Hellenic arrivals by several centuries. The history of the most important towns in today's Albania shows the many influences which had shaped this region. Take Shkodra (Scutari), the most important city in the North: it was Roman, Byzantine, Slav, Venetian and Ottoman. As a result, by the end of the 19th century, its population was Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim.

Albanian's national hero is Gjergji Kastrioti (Scanderbeg), first a Muslim and Ottoman general, before returning to Christianity and fighting the Ottoman conquerors of Albania for twenty years. Only when he died in 1468 did Albania succumb to the Otoman conquerors.

Subsequently many Albanians converted to Islam. All career paths were open to Ottoman Albanians within the administration of the Empire. Of the 42 grand viziers in the period of greatest Ottoman power (between 1453 and 1623) eleven were Albanian and only five were Turkish (others were Greek, Bosnian, Circassian or Georgian Muslims).

Being integrated into the elite of this vast multiethnic Empire did not help the development of an Albanian identity. Schools in Albanian were forbidden. As for Orthodox Albanians the (Greek) church threatened anyone who wrote in Albanian with excommunication. There was no consistent Albanian grammar until 1979, and the impulses to develop a native Albanian high culture came from the diaspora in Sicily, Calabria, Istanbul, Romania and Bulgaria. Only at the end of the 19th century was the Bible translated into Albanian.

Naim Frasheri, a leading figure in the 19th century history of Albanian nationalism, noted that Albanians lacked one defining element crucial to the nationalisms of its Balkan neighbours: a common religion. Different Albanian tribes had embraced Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Sunni Islam and Bektashi Islam. Until today religious diversity does not pose any serious problems in Albania.

May 2008

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