A Brief History
On an unknown date in 1405, an Albanian of renown was born, a man known to us as Skanderbeg, a feudal lord and military commander par excellence, fittingly named after Alexander the Great. Note: Thank you for recommending an article on this interesting historical figure from one of our readers. All readers are welcome to suggest people and topics for articles!
Born Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu, we are also not sure exactly where he was born, though various small villages are usually speculated as his place of birth. Possibly a village owned by his grandfather, Pal Kastrioti, who was a feudal lord himself. The father of Skanderbeg, Gjon Kastrioti, also owned some villages in a territory between Lezhë and Prizren. Skanderbeg’s mother, Voisava, is said to possibly have been a princess from the Polog region, and have been of Slavic origin, perhaps Serbian though possibly Bulgarian. In any case, Skanderbeg came from some level of the aristocracy or minor nobility class of land owners (who owned the peasants in the villages for all practical purposes). Sknaderbeg’s father is alleged to have changed alliances and religions as a matter of political expediency depending on the prevailing group in power, be they Venetian Catholics or Serbian Orthodox Christians, and still later giving his allegiance to the Ottoman Sultan. The sons of “John” Kastrioti were sent or taken to the Ottoman Sultan for training and as hostages, converted to Islam and given military training with an eye toward serving the Sultan militarily.
Skanderbeg, aka “George,” is said to have been at the Sultan’s court in 1425, and in 1426 through 1431 is believed to have acquired control over monastic territories for the right to take taxes, apparently in modern Macedonia. Granted land to rule by the Sultan near his father’s own holdings, George engaged in warfare against Christians, which got his father in trouble with his Venetian overlords. (John had gone back to serving the Venetians.) During the Albanian revolt of 1432–1436 against the Ottomans, George remained loyal to the Sultan. On the death of his father Skanderbeg/George reestablished relations with both Venice and Ragusa (Dalmatian Christians) and maintained good relations with other Albanian nobles.
Making a marked departure from his previous loyalty to the Sultan, Skanderbeg turned on the Ottomans by leading a revolt of the Albanians against their Islamic overlords, a war known as Skanderbeg’s Rebellion, fought from 1443 to 1468. Fighting during the Rebellion occurred not just between Albanians and Ottomans, but also among Albanian noble factions and with interference from Venice and other European powers, including Naples, in the typical convoluted European manner! The King of Aragon convinced Skanderbeg to rebel against Venice in 1447, During the long period of war, Skanderbeg fought and mostly won many battles, achieving a reputation for military prowess, fighting in many theaters, including Italy where he took over Naples. Also during the long war, Skanderbeg and the Albanians at times were once again allied with the Ottomans. Shifting enemies and alliances were apparently a common factor in warfare in the 15th Century.
As part of his rebellion against the Islamic Ottomans, Skanderbeg converted back to Christianity, and even forced the conversion to Christianity of captured Ottoman officials, executing by impaling those that refused. Lest the reader be horrified by the un-Christian treatment of prisoners by Skanderbeg’s forces, know that the Ottomans had captured Albanians skinned alive slowly over the course of many days as part of their executions, before cutting up the prisoners and feeding them to dogs!
Skanderbeg died of natural causes in the territory of Venice in 1468, succumbing to Malaria, a common cause of death in Italy in those days. Skanderbeg was given credit for stopping Ottoman expansion into Christian Europe and was largely revered and/or respected by Albanians and other Europeans alike. His bones were later disinterred in order to make amulets to be awarded for bravery to distinguished soldiers, and legends of his military prowess grew. He is said to have personally slain at least 3000 Ottoman (Turkish) soldiers and to be so mighty he could cut 2 enemy soldiers in half with a single stroke of his sword. Skanderbeg has been spoken of in reverence by military men ever since, and the US Congress recognized him in 2005, the 600th anniversary of his birth. During World War II, the Germans recruited the 21st Waffen Mountain Division of SS Skanderbeg (1st Albanian) from Albanians and Kosovans. The legacy of Skanderbeg has also been spread wide across Europe and North America in the form of literature and drama as well as other cultural allusions such as museums and place names. Statues of the great man stand in London, Belgium and Italy among other locations, and the Albanian capital of Tirana is home to the Skanderbeg Military University.
The fact that this author, a former US Marine Corps infantry and intelligence officer, was unfamiliar with the life and exploits of Skanderbeg prior to writing this article is testament to the neglect shown this person of considerable historical importance by the American/Western educational system. Hopefully, we will continue to uncover and explore the stories of great historical figures often ignored in American schools, and our readers are welcome to suggest subjects for articles.
Question for students (and subscribers): Were you previously familiar with Skanderbeg? If so, how did you learn about him? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Brackob, AK. Scanderbeg: A History of George Castriota and the Albanian Resistance to Islamic Expansion in Fifteenth Century Europe. Center for Romanian Studies, 2017.
Giaffo, Lou. SKANDERBEG Captain General & The JANISSARIES Fighting. Xlibris, 2003.
The featured image in this article, a miniature illustration of Skanderbeg, is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1926, and if not then due to lack of notice or renewal. See this page for further explanation.