"Featuring the penetrating eyes of one of the most famous Albanians from the days of Independence, this photo from the Marubi collection on display in Shkodër jumped out at me. 

Luigj Gurakuqi, Isa Boletini, Ismail Qemali and other founding fathers of the Albanian state


Those eyes belong to the indomitable northern chieftain Isa Boletini, whose appearance in the boat overshadows even Ismail Qemal, the man sitting beside him who was Albania’s first Prime Minister and raised the Flag for the first time in 1912.

Isa was a complex character from Kosova who first fought against the Ottomans as a young man in the heady days of the League of Prizren in the 1870s. The League was defeated after 3 years of fighting, and its leaders sent into exile, while Boletini and the other young fighters retained their guns and slipped away to their homes, unrepentant. Hopes for an independent Albania had been dashed but not extinguished. 

Isa, of the Shala tribe from deep within the Accursed Mountains (near Theth), had been born in a village outside Mitrovicë in north central Kosova, and there he returned to the family compound with its kullë, similar to the famous lock-house preserved in Theth today. Ottoman cannon fire destroyed their stone tower many times, but Isa and his numerous sons continued to live as chiefs in the frugal mountains, observing the Kanun of Lekë much as their ancestors had done for untold centuries. Boletini bided his time & gathered his strength...

No Albanian reminds me more of a swaggering American cowboy than Isa Boletini. Maybe it’s the erect stance, hand rolled cigarette dangling from his lip, or his pistols always at hand. Perhaps it’s the shared era, as both had their heyday in the late 19th and start of the 20th Century. It definitely has something to do with fighting against the odds, narrow escapes, and strolling into a bar room full of enemies. 

Isa Boletini's statue


After battling Ottomans with the League of Prizren, the Sultan determined the best way to handle this wild mountaineer was to hire him. Isa was made captain of the palace guards, entrusted with protecting the Sultan! The sultan even once offered to make him a Pasha, but Isa declined.

Isa didn’t speak Turkish & the sultan didn’t speak Albanian, but thru an interpreter he explained that Albanians belonged to 3 faiths and didn't fight against faith but against nationality. He hated Slavic Russia having a consul in the heart of Kosova and vowed to remove Cossacks brought into Mitrovica: "the Albanians will... protect their rights". The Sultan begged him to leave the Russians alone for matters of Ottoman diplomacy; Boletini agreed as long as no Cossacks were allowed to protect the consulate & Albanians were given the duty.

He led the palace guards from 1902-6, leaving Istanbul with a land grant and command of the Kosova militia. The Young Turks who eventually overthrew the Sultan and ended the Empire from within put a price on Isa’s head: 300 Turkish Lire. In 1912 the Ottomans gave Isa’s forces 65,000 rifles to help them hold Albanian territory during the 1st Balkan Wars; these guns not only fought the Serbs and Montenegrins, they were turned on the Turks and helped establish Albanian independence that November!

As a Muslim Kosovar, the tribal chieftain Isa Boletini had a complex relationship with Serbs and Montenegrins as well as the Ottomans, but in the end his loyalty always belonged to Albania first. 

Many times his enemies had him in their grasp, but Isa would slip away like magic to rise up and fight another day. Famous for saying in 1913 "We will manure the plains of Kosovo with the bones of Serbs, for we Albanians have suffered too much to forget".

Isa and his brother Ahmed were paid protection money by the Serbian Orthodox community of Sokolica Monastery near Mitrovicë in 1898-9 to defend them from the surrounding Albanian villagers (also to persuade the dangerous brothers from shooting them from their kullas.) This earned the Boletinis weapons and a medal from the King of Serbia while deruhdecilik (protection racket, not unlike Italian-American mobsters) became big business.

 In 1910 the King of Montenegro supplied weapons to Isa and the highland tribes revolting against the Ottomans, and in 1912 the Black Hand—a secret military organization of Serbian Army officers (who would start World War 1 two years later with the assassination of the Archduke of Austria) —met with Isa to get his help fighting the Ottomans. But when he learned they were disguising themselves as Albanians and committing murders to turn the tribes against themselves, Isa turned and made war on Serbs.

He and Bajram Curri then led large formations against both Serbia and Montenegro in World War One. Isa was able to liberate Dibër, Ohrid, Gostivar and
Strugë (but all of these Albanian towns would end up outside the borders at the end of the war). In an odd twist his grandson was stabbed by 2 Albanian criminals while defending 3 Serbian friends in Mitrovica in 1936.

As the Ottoman Empire was imploding after nearly 5 centuries of dominating The Land of the Eagles and 700 years of absolute authority over Turks, all of Albania’s neighbors prepared to pounce and divvy up her territory amongst themselves. Standing in the way was Isa Boletini. 

In 1912 he and other northern chieftains pledged a besa to fight the Young Turk government which had organized to end the power of the Sultan, restore Turkish nationalism over Ottoman federalism (where Albanian beys had a significant amount of power in the Empire) and end the religiosity that reigned in The Sublime Porte. The Turks gave way and promised autonomy for the vilayets of Kosova, Scutari, Janinë and Monastir, establishing an autonomous Albanian region.

Now the Greeks, Serbs, Bulgarians and Montenegrins all invaded, attempting to break the crumbling Ottomans and swallow up as much territory as possible. It is true that everyone was intermingled throughout the region, with enclaves of Albanians living by Bulgarians in the east, Slavs throughout the north and Greeks in the south. Where one ended and another began was difficult to say.

Isa went with Ismail Qemali to London as a body guard in 1913 with the goal of securing Kosova within the borders of the newly founded state of Albania but the Great Powers ceded the region to Serbia, so he and Bajram Curri fought the Serbian and Montenegrin armies.

Isa was made Minister for War in the Provisional Government and in September 1913 he led 6,000 Albanians into what is now North Macedonia to fight the Serbs controlling the Albanian villages. Then Isa returned to central Albania in 1914 to check a pro-Ottoman Muslim peasant uprising which broke out in mid-May to unseat the German Prince Wilhelm zu Wied who had been placed on the Throne of Albania by the Great Powers. What a disaster! Within a few months these sane powers would unleash World War One—instigated by Serbian nationalists—the Prince would return to Germany to serve in their Imperial Army as the Count of Kruja and the Ottoman Empire would teeter and finally fall. But Kosova, Monastir and Janinë would all remain outside Albanian borders, even till today.


The pistol of Isa Boletini

This ornate pistol—on display in the National Historical Museum in Tirana—belonged to one of the most feared and respected highland chieftains of the Independence era in Albania, ISA BOLETINI .

In every photo I’ve seen, he’s got it—and an assortment of other weapons—tucked into his traditional sash wrapped around his waist. He was never been disarmed because his life was constantly threatened by enemies: The Black Hand in Serbia wanted him dead; the Young Turks had a price on his head; the Montenegrins hated him; the Tosk beys of southern Albania were jealous and distrustful of his influence; he and his tribe were frequently “in blood” with the other northern Ghegs. Yet he was the most dangerous and unpredictable of them all.

Even when beaten, Isa found a way to escape time and again to come back even stronger from an unexpected direction. When Ismail Qemali traveled to London in 1913, he brought Isa along as a representative of the north, but also to protect his own life. Unlike the other delegates, Isa wore his traditional Malësor outfit, with his sash and guns.

When meeting the British Foreign Secretary Viscount Grey for this first time, Isa was asked to empty this gun of its bullets, which he did before entering. "General, the newspapers might record tomorrow that Isa Boletini, whom even Mahmut Shefqet Pasha could not disarm, was just disarmed in London." At that, the Albanian pulled a hidden revolver from his pocket. "Jo, Jo! Not in London either."


Isa Boletini statue in the National Museum of Albania

This heroic statue, found in Tirana at the National Historical Museum on Skanderbeg Square, depicts Isa (pronounced E-Sah which translates as Jesus) as he probably looked on the day of his death in 1916 at the age of 52: fearless. 

The death of a gunslinger is usually violent and as a warrior and northern chieftain there is no doubt Isa did not shy away from death. Like his life, his death is wrapped in legend and no one knows for sure the details; even the date is debated. In fact there are multiple versions of how he was gunned down in a hail of bullets in Montenegro.

What is known is that he had surrendered to the Montenegrins when Shkodër fell in 1915 & taken to Cetinje, Montenegro. Some say Isa, his son and 6 blood brothers shot up a courthouse in Podgorica after the citizens of the capital of Montenegro were ordered to turn over their weapons. In this version, a writer and 2 police officers were killed and a manhunt tracked down Isa and shot him dead.

Another story has him trying to enter the French Consulate in Cetinje to seek asylum, but he was captured and taken to the capital. When the Austrian army defeated Montenegro, he tried to link up with them but was gunned down on a bridge along with 2 sons, 2 grandsons, his son-in-law, nephew and 2 friends by Montenegrins gendarmes under the infamous commander Batara Lazarević.

Yet another version has Isa killing 8 men when chaos broke out in Podgorica. He was buried in that city until ethnic war broke out again in the 1990s. In ‘98 his remains were moved to a mosque in Mitrovica, Kosova. Plans to bring the body to Vlorë were scrapped and he now rests in the village of his birth in Kosovo. The fog of war and passage of time means we will never know how Boletini died, but there is no doubt how he lived: guns ablaze, indomitable, legendary."

Written by Mike Joseph 

Mike Joseph has spent nearly two years living in Tirana, exploring the history and culture of The Land of the Eagles from north to south, coast to highlands. His research is thorough, fact based and his articles are quite compressed.

This particular article took him 9 months to prepare. Pictures are also taken by Mike in museums and exhibitions in different Albanian cities. 

You can follow along on his journey on Instagram @An_American_In_Albania

Alban Selami