Picture this! A young boy born in a noble family is kept hostage in a faraway empire, as political pressure for his father to not rebel against the oppressors. From a young age, this boy grows up away from his motherland, his loved ones, and everything that was once familiar to him, while his life was always in danger. Despite everything, he studies and learns the art of war and politics and soon becomes a valuable asset to the empire. His road to power and wealth looks curtain, as his political and military career is blowing up.
One night, the man leaves everything behind, turns his back to all he had achieved, and returns to the land he was born to start a rebellion against the very empire that he was taught to serve. He is called a traitor, a price is put over his head and his defeat seems like a matter of time, just like any rebellion before him.
But the love and devotion for his people and his country are stronger than any enemy’s army. He does the unimaginable, he stands up against the biggest power of the time. Where many have failed, he is the last man standing to protect the European civilization, against the biggest threat of history.
Gjergj Kastrioti was born on May 6th, 1405, as the youngest son of Gjon Kastrioti, a distinguished Albanian nobleman. The time he was born was very troubled, as the ottomans were invading the region and being a constant threat to the native inhabitants and their rulers.
From time to time, Gjergj’s father, Gjon tried to stand up against the ottomans, by becoming an ally with other Albanian and Balkans rulers. He was even part of the epic Kosovo’s battle, but unfortunately, the united Balkan army, led by the Serbian Prince Lazar failed. The ottomans seemed invincible, as they were invading more and more land, feeding their dream of one day conquering all Europe.
Defeated, Gjon was forced to give his son as a form of political insurance, for the heavy peace treaty he was forced to sign with the sultan. Alongside his brothers, Gjergj was sent to Adrianople (which was the ottoman capital of the time), at the sultan court, when he was only 9 years old.
There is not much information regarding this period of Skanderbeg’s life. What is known from the existing historical sources is that Gjergj attended the inner palace school (İç oğlanıin ottoman), where he received an education. He also learned history and philosophy, the art of politics, became fluent in several languages. Also, Gjergj learned the main principles of how to fight, riding horses, sword scheme, etc., skills that were highly important at the time. Soon, Gjergj draws all of his teachers' attention, due to his many talents and skills. Later on, he was sent to Egypt and minor Azia, to master the art of war.
It wasn’t long that Gjergj Kastrioti proved to be an exceptional leader. His career within the Ottoman Empire started early on while he was still in his twenties, as he brought many victories to the ottomans, in their military campaigns. The ottomans gave him the name Iskander, which is the Turkish version of the name Alexander (referring to Alexander the Great). This was a true honor, as the name was considered to be only for the privileged class.
He soon earned the aristocratic title “bey” (equivalent with lords in the west) and was promoted to important political posts. Skanderbeg's success was to such a great extent, that his father was forced to apologize to Venice, that his son was causing so much damage to the Christian rulers.
However, the position of Skanderbeg was not an easy one, after his father Gjon failed to attempt to rebel again, against the ottoman empire, which cost him all of his land possessions. From a possible ruthless act of revenge from the ottomans, who did not tolerate disloyalty, what protected Skanderbeg was his military success and rising popularity. Regardless, the ottomans did not allow Gjergj to claim any of his natural rights, to his ancestral lands of Kastrioti Princedom and the sultan even removed him from his post as Kruja governor (subaşı in ottoman), to send him as far away from the Albanian lands as possible, as continues uprising against the Ottomans, was taking place.
Return to Kruja
During the Albanians revolt, Skanderbeg was summoned by the Albanian princes Gjergj Araniti and Andrea Topia, to come and fight by his people's side, against the Ottoman occupation. But Skanderbeg remained silent and did not join them, an act that the sultan considered to be his proof of loyalty to the empire.
Turns out, Skanderbeg was only waiting for the right time. In the early November of 1443, Skanderbeg deserted the battle of Nis, when the sultan was fighting against the Hungarian king, Hunyadi. He could not have picked the most perfect time, as he fled as the ottoman army damaged their defense, but also the sultan had to wait for a better time, before trying to stop the Skanderbeg rebellion.
With the sultan and all his major viziers at war, Skanderbeg had enough time to put his plan into action. He returned to Kruje with 300 hundred Albanian men, who had sworn loyalty to him. He took control of the city and on 28th November 1443 he raised the double-headed eagle flag, upon the castle, the same flag Albanians use today.
The league of Lezha. (Beselidhja e Lezhes)
One of the most important and crucial events during the Skanderbeg era is the League of Lezha, in which Skanderbeg summoned all the Albanian princes, asking them to unite against a common enemy.
Until that point, they had fought bravely but each on their own against the ottomans and had failed to keep them off their lands. They all achieved an agreement to create a common army, and a common fund to all contribute to the resistance. Skanderbeg was unanimously declared as the “Chief of the League of the Albanian people" and also the commander in chief of the army, but he was not to interfere in the inside decisions of the feudal lord’s princedoms.
The epic battles
And so it began… Skanderbeg wasted no time building his army and creating a powerful alliance, as he knew that the ottomans, who had doomed him as a traitor, would come to seek revenge and to take back his possessions.
The first battle was the battle of Terviolli, which was a very important success for Skanderbeg. Even though he was significantly smaller than his enemies, Skanderbeg achieved a heroic win, which had a major impact. The Albanian princes became more willing to follow his lead, while the population started seeing him as the hero they had longed for.
The sultan sent army after army, to defeat Skanderbeg, but soon he realized that he had made a terrible mistake, by underestimating him and giving him time to prepare, while he himself was busy in the battle against Hungary (which the ottomans won). The sultan even tried to convince Skanderbeg to return under the ottomans rule, promising that he would not face consequences for his rebellion. Skanderbeg refused.
After Skanderbeg achieved another important win at the battle of Mokra, the ottoman sultan started preparing an enormous army, to end the Albanian resistance once and for all. After defeating the Hungarian king Hunyadi, they assumed that they would continue the military success with Albanians too.
The first siege of Kruja took place in June 1450 and lasted for two months. It was the first big challenge for Skanderbeg and the Albanian League, against the ottomans who had sent around 100.000 soldiers. Even though he was outnumbered, the military strategy of Skanderbeg made him victorious.
The only battle Skanderbeg lost was the battle of Berat (1455) due to his nephew Hamza Kastrioti's treason, after the birth of Skanderbeg's son, who was named after his father, Gjon Kastrioti. However, Skanderbeg was quick to recover the cost of his loss.
The battle of Albulena was the most epic and glorious of Skanderbeg, who defeated the ottomans in an open field, even though their armies were much more equipped and higher in number than the Albanian one. Amongst some other important battles that Skanderbeg won were the battle of Ohrid and the battle of Vajkali.
The second siege of Kruja took place in 1466, and lasted almost one year long, as the sultan was determined to break the myth of an “invincible Skanderbeg”. The battle was long and exhausting, in the end, the sultan was forced to accept the defeat.
Indeed, during his 25 years of epic battles against the ottomans, Skanderbeg remained invincible. He lost only the battle of Berat, due to the inside treason, but in no other circumstances, the ottomans were able to defeat him.
Founding the Albanian state
What was probably the most important achievement of Skanderbeg, was the founding of the Albanian State, also often referred to as the “Skanderbeg state”.
The heads of Lezha’s covenant served as the government, which was led by Gjergj Kastrioti. Despite being in constant war and the brutal attacks of the Ottomans, the state had full legal character, ruled based on Albanian inherited customary law and democratic principles. Skanderbeg was the head of the state, and was considered to be “Primus inter pares”, a concept which means “the first amongst equals”.
Skanderbeg was also the supreme commander in chief of the united Albanian army. His main officers were royal allies, but also common people who proved their skills and loyalty. Apart from creating the military strategy, and leading the army, Skanderbeg himself would fight alongside his soldiers, on the battlefield.
The state of Skanderbeg extended from the Pindus Mountains to Ioannina to Kotor, from the Adriatic Sea to Ohrid, to Diber, Prizren, and Gjakova. (Peja was not part of the Skanderbeg state, as its leaders were allies of the sultan).
Skanderbeg had diplomatic relationships with the most important political power of time. He sent his ambassadors to numerous royal courts, and in the Vatican as well. He made many important allies, to whom not only requested support but also offered his help.
Skanderbeg died on January 17th, 1468, in the city of Lezha, and was buried at the cathedral of “Shën Kolli”. The reason for death is not very clear, but the historical sources indicate that he died of fevers.
His death was perceived as a great tragic loss amongst common Albanians, who lost their ruler and their hero. The mourning ceremony was held according to the Albanian tradition and also integrating the religious rituals.
European leaders also mourned Skanderbeg's death, especially the pope who saw at him the next leader of the crusades.
Even the sultan, when he heard the news of Skanderbeg’s deaths said that “Never again will walk on Earth, such a lion”
The legacy of a hero
Hundreds of years after his death, Skanderbeg's legacy continues. He is considered to be one of the greatest generals of all time. His story is the subject of hundreds and thousands of books and became an inspiration for generations to come.
Skanderbeg is Albanians national hero. His resistance became the land stone to preserve the national identity, during the long Ottoman occupation. He is widely considered to be the “Father of the Nation” and rightly so. He remains a figure of great pride, which till this day unites Albanians under one flag and ancestral legacy.
Prepared by Eldolina Këputa