Posted: Sun Aug 09, 2009 3:30 am
GEORGE CASTRIOTA SCANDERBEG
Gjergj Kastrioti (1405–January 17, 1468), better known as Skanderbeg, was an Albanian prince who united the Albanian tribes of Epirus , Albania and a Slavic tribe from Montenegro in resisting the expanding Ottoman Empire for 25 years. Today he's considered a national hero of Albania.
Obliged by the Ottomans to pay tribute to the Empire, and to ensure the fidelity of local rulers, Gjon Kastrioti's sons were taken by the Sultan to his court as hostages. In 1423, Gjergj Kastrioti and his three brothers were taken by the Turks. He attended military school and led many battles for the Ottoman Empire. He was awarded for his military victories with the title Iskander Bey (Albanian transliteration: Skënderbeu, English transliteration: Skanderbeg, In Turkish this title means Lord or Prince Alexander, in honor of Alexander the Great). Skanderbeg soon switched sides and came back to his native land to successfully defend Albania against the Ottoman Empire until the time of his death.
Success in the Ottoman army
He earned distinction as an officer in several Ottoman campaigns both in Asia Minor and in Europe, and the Sultan appointed him to the rank of General. He fought against Greeks, Serbs and Hungarians, and some sources claim that he maintained secret links with Ragusa, Venice, Ladislaus V of Hungary, and Alfonso I of Naples. Sultan Murad II gave him the title Vali, making him Governor of some provinces in central Albania. He was respected abroad, but he missed his country. After the death of his father, Skanderbeg sought a way to return to Albania and lead his countrymen against the Ottoman armies. It was Skanderbeg's 25 year defiance of the Ottoman Empire which followed that perserved Christianity in Albania to this day. The Turks were successful in converting almost 90% of Albania to Islam. Those who chose to resist Turkish rule and perserve their Christian culture are today's Albanian Christians.
Fighting for the freedom of Albania
In 1443, Skanderbeg saw his opportunity to rebel during the battle against the Hungarians led by John Hunyadi in Nis. He switched sides along with other Albanians serving in the Ottoman army, leading an Albanian resistance. He eventually captured Kruje, his father's seat in Middle Albania, and he raised the Albanian flag above the castle and reportedly pronounced: "I have not brought you liberty, I found it here, among you."
Following the capture of Kruje, Skanderberg managed to bring together all the Albanian princes in the town of Lezhë (see League of Lezhë, 1444) and unite them under his command against the Ottomans. He fought a guerilla war against the opposing armies, using the mountainous terrain to his advantage.
Skanderberg would continue his resistance against the Ottoman forces, arguably the most powerful army of the time, with a force rarely exceeding 20,000. In June 1450, an Ottoman army numbering approximately 150,000 men led by the Sultan Murad II himself laid siege to Kruje. Leaving a protective garrison of 1,500 men under one of his most trusted lieutenants, Kont Urani (also known as Vranakonti), Skanderbeg harassed the Ottoman camps around Kruje and attacked the supply caravans of the Sultan's army. By September the Ottoman camp was in disarray as morale sank and disease ran rampant. Grudgingly, Sultan Murad acknowledged that the castle of Kruje would not fall by strength of arms, and he decided to lift his siege and make his way to Edirne. Soon thereafter in the winter of 1450-1451, Murad II died in Edirne and was succeeded by his son Mehmed II.
For the next five years Albania was allowed some respite as the new sultan set out to conquer the last vestiges of the Byzantine Empire in Europe and Asia Minor. The first test between the new Ottoman sultan and Skanderbeg came in 1455 during the Siege of Berat, where the former defeated the latter, decimating the Albanian army and leaving five thousand men dead on the battlefield, some 40-50% of the Albanian mobile forces. This was the worst military defeat that Skanderbeg would ever suffer.
In 1457, an Ottoman army numbering approximately 70,000 men invaded Albania with the hope of destroying Albanian resistance once and for all; this army was led by Isa beg Evrenoz, the only commander to have defeated Skanderbeg in battle and Hamza Kastrioti, Skanderbeg’s own nephew. After wreaking much damage to the countryside, the Ottoman army set up camp at the Ujebardha field (literally tranlated as "Whitewater"), halfway between Lezha and Kruje. There, in September, after having evaded the enemy for months, Skanderbeg attacked with a force not exceeding fifteen thousand men, and defeated the Ottomans. In 1461 Skanderbeg launched a successful campaign against the Angevin noblemen and their allies who sought to destabilize King Ferdinand of Naples. After securing the Neapolitan kingdom, a crucial ally in his struggle, he returned home. In 1464 Skanderbeg fought and defeated Ballaban Badera, an Albanian renegade.
Though Ballaban Badera was defeated by Skanderbeg, he was successful in capturing a large number of Albanian army commanders, including Moisi Arianit Golemi, a cavalry commander; Vladan Giurica, the chief army economist; Muzaka of Angelina, a nephew of Skanderberg, and 18 other noblemen and army captains. These men, after they were captured, were sent immediately to Istanbul and tortured for fifteen days. Skanderbeg’s pleas to have these men back, by either ransom or prisoner exchange, failed.
In 1466, Sultan Mehmed II personally led an army into Albania and laid siege to Kruje as his father had also attempted sixteen years earlier. Kruje was defended by a garrison of 4,400 men, led by Prince Tanush Thopia. After several months, Mehmed, like Murad II, saw that seizing Kruja by force of arms would not be easily accomplished, and left the siege to return to Istanbul. However, he left a force of forty thousand men under Ballaban Pasha to maintain the seige, even building a castle in central Albania, which he named El-basan (eventually becoming the modern Elbasan), to support the siege. This second siege was no more successful than the first was eventually broken by Skanderberg, resulting in the death of Ballaban Pasha, who fell victim to the use of firearms.
A few months later, in 1467, Mehmed, frustrated by his inability to subdue Albania, again led an army into Albania, this one the largest of its time. Kruje was besieged for a third time, but on a much grander scale. While a contingent kept the city and its forces pinned down, Ottoman armies came pouring in from Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia, and Greece with the aim of keeping the whole country surrounded, thereby strangling Skanderbeg’s supply routes and limiting his mobility. During this conflict, Skanderbeg fell ill with malaria in the Venetian controlled city of Lezhe, and died on January 17, 1468, just as the army under the leadership of Leke Dukagjini defeated the Ottoman force in Shkodra.
The Albanian resistance went on after the death of Skanderbeg for an additional ten years under the new leadership of Leke Dukagjini. In 1478, the fourth siege of Kruje finally proved successful for the Ottomans; demoralized and severely weakened by hunger and lack of supplies from the year-long siege, the defenders surrendered to Mehmed, who had promised them to leave unharmed in exchange. As the Albanians were walking away with their families, however,the Ottomans reneged on this promise, killing the men and enslaving the women and children. A year later, the Ottoman forces captured Shkodra, the last free Albanian castle (although it was under Venetian control at the time), but the Albanian resistance continued sporadically until around 1500.
Skanderbeg's military successes evoked a good deal of interest and admiration from the Papal States, Venice, and Naples, themselves threatened by the growing Ottoman power across the Adriatic Sea. Skanderbeg managed to arrange for support in the form of money, supplies, and occasionally troops from all three states through his diplomatic skill. One of his most powerful and consistent supporters was Alfonso the Magnanimous, the king of Aragon and Naples, who decided to take Skanderbeg under his protection as a vassal in 1451, shortly after the latter had scored his second victory against Murad II. In addition to financial assistance, the King of Naples supplied the Albanian leader with troops, military equipment, and sanctuary for himself and his family if such a need should arise. As an active defender of the Christian cause in the Balkans, Skanderbeg was also closely involved with the politics of four Popes, one of them being Pope Pius II, the Renaissance humanist, writer, and diplomat.
Profoundly shaken by the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Pius II tried to organize a new crusade against the Turks, and to that end he did his best to come to Skanderbeg's aid, as his predecessors Pope Nicholas V and Pope Calixtus III had done before him. This policy was continued by his successor, Pope Paul II. They gave him the title Athleta Christi, or Champion of Christ. Skanderberg's 25-year resistance against the Ottoman Empire succeeded in helping protect the Italian peninsula from invasion by the Turks.
Gjergj Kastriot's Legacy
After his death from natural causes in 1468 in Lezhë, his soldiers resisted the Turks for the next 12 years. In 1480 Albania was finally conquered by the Ottoman Empire. When the Turks found the grave of Skanderbeg in Saint Nicholas church of Lezhe, they opened it and held his bones like talismans for luck. The same year, they invaded Italy and conquered the city of Otranto.
Skanderbeg's posthumous fame was not confined to his own country. Voltaire thought the Byzantine Empire would have survived had it possessed a leader of his quality. A number of poets and composers have also drawn inspiration from his military career. The French sixteenth-century poet Ronsard wrote a poem about him, as did the nineteenth-century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Antonio Vivaldi composed an opera entitled Scanderbeg.
Skanderbeg today is the National Hero of Albania. Many museums and monuments are raised in his honor around Albania, among them the Skanderbeg Museum next to the castle in Krujë.
Skanderbeg is founder of Castriota Scanderbeg family which is today part of Italian nobility.