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C - 30 : Where are the Albanians from?

Two decades ago, when I met for the first time Albanian people in their national costumes, I believed they must be closely related to Greeks - probably as close as Macedonians from where Alexander the Great is from.

Young Albanian Men in their National Costume

Whilst the Albanian language is peppered with borrowed Greek words, it is a distinctive branch of the Euro-Indian language tree and not related to its surrounding neighbours. Actually quite amazing! So where are the Albanians from? Were they always living there, did they migrate with the Dorian Greeks or the Slaves, the Bulgars or even the Hungarians?

The Indo-European Language Tree

The first written records of the Albanian language are young. They date from Dubrovnik from the year 1284. However, there is somer earlier evidence of an Albanian identity. Around 350 AD, the Byzantine Church baptised a people called Bissoi who lived remotely in the mountains of northern Greece straddled across today's Albania and Bulgaria. The Bissoi must have lived in these mountains for centuries but nobody really knows. The Bissoi language was independent from Greek but is said go have resembled Homer's Greek. Due to their isolation and the remoteness of their villages with no urban centres, the Bissoi language was never assimilated by a more powerful culture.

When the Bulgars invaded the Balkans around 900 AD, they recruited the Bissoi for their campaign and left them as guardians on the alluvial plains west of the Albanian mountains. These soldiers settled around the old Roman town of Albanian - hence their new name.

The Bulgarian campaigns in the 13th century

It was around this time that Albanian split into two dialects, the Gheg to the north and the Tusk to the south. Albanians firmly defended their new territory against slavic migrants from the north who found new homes in Dalmatia and Bosnia. The Albanians' Lord changed frequently though for the next 200 years. The Byzantine Empire took the area back from the Bulgars only to be replaced by Norman Knights coming from Puglia. When Constantinople fell in 1204 to the 4th Crusade, Venice took over only to be replaced by Ottoman Turks after 1453. The Albanian nobles however put up a fierce resistance under their leader Skanderbeg

During these years of resistance, the Albanians adopted the double-headed Byzantine Eagle as their flag. The red background represents the blood spilled during the war.

Distribution of Albanian dialects

For reasons unbeknown to me however, most Albanians quickly capitulated after Skanderbeg's death and converted to Islam - something that did not happen in other parts of the Balkans under Ottoman control (except parts of Bosnia). Of course, conversion brought significant benefits and political power. There were many Albanians in leading Ottoman positions - Albania was Turkey's most reliable province. After the first Balkan War in 1912, Albania became an independent Kingdom - more to this in a later blog. As of today, around 60% of Albanians are Muslims. It is the only country in Europe with a Muslim majority

Today, there are several Albanian academics who claim that Albanians are the only survivors the once mighty Illyrian people who were a culture as old and established as the Etruscans. But in the context of the 2nd Punic War, when Hannibal almost defeated Rome, Illyria was conquered by Roman Legions. Rome did not want Illyria to become an ally of Hannibal. Over the next 400 years, Illyria was thoroughly assimilated (as the Etruscans were) and almost nothing of their original culture survived. The same happened also in France where the once mighty Celtic culture only survived in Brittany. There is thus very little evidence to make the claim these academics make. But maybe some parts of the Illyrian culture indeed survived in the remote mountains of Albania. Who knows?

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