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E - 149 : Mercenaries, Refugees and Immigrants : Albanians in Southern Italy

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

Arberesh Dance Group in Calabria

Overnight, temperatures dropped sharply in the Ardèche. A beautiful, sunny week finished. Now a cold drizzle set in for the day. No good for working in the forest. Am rather sitting in front of the fireplace writing the blog I planned for this weekend. The issue of Albanians living in Italy intrigued me.

Weather in the Ardèche today - Foggy Non Stop Drizzle

Remember my blog a few weeks ago wondering why the Ottomans never conquered Italy? One of the reasons was the skilled Albanian leader Skanderbeg who kept the Ottomans away from the Adriatic coast. With his successful guerilla tactics, he defeated between 1443 and 1468 several large Turkish armies in his native Albania. Skanderbeg got help from Alfonso V., the King of Aragon and Naples, though and was formally his vassal. Alfonso supplied him with weapons and gun powder. Even guerillas need equipment. Alfonso V had a keen interest in keeping the Ottomans at bay. The temporary occupation of Otranto from 1480 – 1481 showed how vulnerable his kingdom could be.

The Albanian Leader Gjergi Kastrioti, known as Skanderbeg (1405 - 1468)

When Alfonso V. and later his son Ferdinand faced internal rebellions, they called on their ally Skanderbeg to intervene. He sent troops to Naples in 1448 and went to Italy personally in 1460. His help kept the Aragon Kings in power. They rewarded him generously and gave him territories around Catanzaro in Calabria in 1448 and lands to the east of Taranto in 1460. Many of his soldiers decided to stay at the end of the fighting. The nucleus for Albanians living in Italy was planted. Today, around 800’000 Albanians live in Italy – quite a number compared to the 2.9 million living in Albania. About 550’000 are recent immigrants who left after the fall of the despised communist regime of Enver Hoxha. But 250’000 have roots going 500 years back.

Albanian Villages in Southern Italy - the Index Page is at the Bottom of the Blog

After Skanderbeg’s death in 1468, the Albanian resistance collapsed. The Ottomans took over. Many of Skanderbeg’s followers escaped to Italy. Some people say that his daughter who had married the Prince of Bisignano in Calabria invited their countrymen – other sources insist that Skanderbeg had only a son. Be it as it may, the flow of Albanians to Calabria and Puglia continued and more and more Albanian villages were formed. An even bigger wave of refugees arrived between 1500 and 1534 - Albanian refugees from Central Greece who had fought as mercenaries for Venice. Charles V., the German Emperor and Spanish King, was happy to settle them in strategically located villages to boost the defense of Southern Italy. The Albanians were well known for their military prowess. Charles V. did the same with the Knights of St John. These cohesive Albanian settlements survived well into the 20th century and allowed the Albanian culture and language to survive.

Arberesh Cook Book

The Albanians in Italy, or the Arberesh, still talk in the Tosk dialect, which is spoken in the southern part of Albania, kept their own cooking, their folklore dresses, the music and most importantly, their church.

Pope Francis visiting the Italo-Albanian Byzantine Orthodox Church

Albania was in the Orthodox Church’s zone of influence and the Albanians coming to Italy were orthodox Christians. The Italo-Albanian Byzantine Catholic Church is one of the 23 Eastern Churches which make, together with the Roman Latin Church, the Catholic Church. It has a titular archbishop residing in Rome who looks after them. Even though the fully autonomous Italo-Albanian Byzantine Catholic Church still uses the Byzantine Rite and the Koine Greek language, it is fully integrated into the Catholic Church. We thus find in southern Italy, specifically in Calabria and Puglia, the remnants of the church as established by Emperor Justinian, the guy who built the Hagia Sophia and canonized Roman Law. Who would have thought that the past of 1’500 years ago is still alive in some villages in Southern Italy. And who would have thought that Catholic and Orthodox church can live in peace. It was always about power – not faith.

The Churches Archbishop Donato Oliverio

Found an interesting list of Albanian villages in Italy on Wikipedia, my all-time favorite lexica. Am sure we can visit some of these places during the 2nd and 3rd week of our trip. Will be awesome to experience part of the Byzantine culture first hand!

TOSK Dialect spoken in the Arberesh Villages of Southern Italy

The promised Index to the Map above - will serve as guide for our visits

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