Embarking on a fascinating journey through the annals of Albanian history, we unveil story of the first Albanian book, "Meshari" by Gjon Buzuku (1555). Picture this: in the shadows of time, this literary gem remained shrouded, virtually unknown for nearly two centuries after its printing.
Fast forward to 1740, a pivotal moment that saw the unveiling of Meshari at the Propaganda Fides Library near Rome. The discovery? Credited to none other than Bishop Gjon Nikollë Kazazi from Gjakova. Overjoyed, he shared a page with Gjergj Guxeta in Palermo, marking the resurgence of this linguistic marvel. Crafted in Venedik, its Latin alphabet embraced additional Cyrillic symbols for the nuances of Albanian sounds.
But the intrigue doesn't stop there. The initial discovery lingered in obscurity for over a century until 1909, when the Arberesh Pal Skiroi stumbled upon it in the Vatican Library in Rome. Imagine the thrill!
Fast forward to 1932, and the book sees a photocopy resurrection in three copies, one of which now resides in the National Library of Albania in Tirana. In 1968, the eminent Albanian linguist Eqerem Çabej graced the literary world with a scientific study, unraveling the linguistic intricacies and merits of Buzuku's work.
The grand reveal in Albania though happened during the centenary of independence at the National Library in Tirana, marking an unprecedented exposition of the original work.
Today, with 188 pages, it's not without its quirks. Missing its first 16 pages and a few scattered in between, Meshari remains a captivating mystery. Is it misfortune or serendipity? The absence of a cover and initial pages leaves us in suspense, concealing the true title and place of publication. A twist of fate, perhaps? If it had its cover, it might have vanished from history, considering it was likely on the list of forbidden books.
So, with only this incomplete copy surviving, it stands as a hidden relic, avoiding the eyes of the inquisition. The copy we have bears the marks of extensive use, with faded pages and curious notes and names of priests alongside.
When was Meshari written though?
Albanian literary works during the early centuries of Ottoman rule are scarce. The oldest surviving work to this day is Gjon Buzuku's 'Meshari' (1555). He began the work on March 20, 1554, completing it on January 5, 1555, as noted in the afterword of the manuscript. The exact circumstances surrounding its translation or publication during this time remain unclear.
Buzuku's work represents a continuation of Albanian culture even under the challenging conditions of Ottoman rule. In an era where humanists mainly expressed themselves in Latin, the language of the time's culture, we see a cultural legacy enriched later by the works of Pjetër Budi, Frang Bardhi, Pjetër Bogdani, and others in the Albanian language.
What does this book talk about?
The Book, containing 188 pages, lacks the first 16 pages, as well as some others in between. Consequently, with no cover or first page, we remain oblivious to its true title, place of publication, and more.
The book includes the 'Book of Hours' and the 'Mass Book,' which is why it's called 'Meshari.' It is written in the Albanian of that time, representing the dialect of Northern and Western Albania. For certain Albanian sounds such as q, gj, th, dh, z, x, etc., which do not belong to the Latin alphabet, the author used five Cyrillic letters corresponding to those sounds. This alphabet would later be employed by subsequent authors with minor modifications.
The content of the work attests to the use of Albanian in religious services, predominantly consisting of liturgical parts read and recited solely by clerics during church services, translating a Latin book into Albanian written in the Latin alphabet. As an illustration, we provide an excerpt from this work:
"In the year 1554, on the twentieth day of March, I began, and I finished it in the year 1555, on the fifth day of January. And if, by chance, I made an error somewhere, I desire that, wherever the mistake may be, it be corrected by someone more knowledgeable than I. For I am not surprised if I made a mistake, as this was the first difficult work to be undertaken in our language."
During the time of Protestantism in Europe, the main demand of this movement was for church services to be conducted in the native language. Influenced by these ideas, Buzuku aimed to provide Catholic Albanian believers direct access to the Holy Scriptures in their mother tongue. His work served not only to understand the content of certain religious ceremonies but also as a starting point for language writing. With his work, he sought to affirm Albanian individuality. Buzuku's work has not only literary merit but also represents a bold cultural step, part of the struggle of the Albanian people for liberation and progress. He wrote the purpose of his work in the afterword.
To enlighten the minds of people, this was one of the goals for which Buzuku translated and published his work. Furthermore, Buzuku goes even further. In 'Meshari,' we find a unique prayer not found in any other liturgical book worldwide where he prays to God for the wellness of his compatriots.
The work is evidence of a longstanding tradition of writing in the Albanian language for religious purposes, a tradition that the upheavals of difficult times in Albania have carried forward. The language of the work is based on the Northern Albanian dialect.
The discovery of the Meshari, the first known printed book in Albanian, serves as a powerful reminder of the vast and hidden treasures that await us in the corners of the world. If a single book, overlooked for centuries, could shed such light on our history, culture, and heritage, imagine how many more documents and artifacts lie undiscovered, waiting to be unearthed.
These hidden gems could hold the key to unlocking forgotten chapters of our history, enriching our cultural understanding, and strengthening our sense of national identity. They may offer valuable insights into our ancestors' lives, struggles, and triumphs, providing a deeper connection to our past and shaping our future.
The discovery of the Meshari is not just a historical curiosity; it is a call to action. It urges us to continue searching, to leave no stone unturned in our quest to reclaim our heritage. Let us embrace this opportunity to explore the depths of our past and rediscover the treasures that lie hidden in wait.
Together, we can ensure that the voices of our ancestors are not lost to time and that the legacy of our nation continues to thrive for generations to come.