Gjergj Kastriot Skanderbeg
Gjergj (Albanian for George) Kastrioti (1405 – January 17, 1468) was born in Krujë, Albania from Gjon Kastrioti, lord of Middle Albania, who was obliged by the Ottomans to pay tribute to the Empire. To assure the fidelity of local rulers the Sultan used to take their sons as hostages and bring them up in his court. In 1423, Gjergj Kastrioti and his three brothers were taken by the Turks. He attended military school in the Ottoman Empire and was named given the title Iskander Bey (Albanian transliteration: Skënderbeu). In Turkish this title means Lord or Prince Alexander (in honor of Alexander the Great) and was given to him after repeated military victories for the Empire.
Success in the Ottoman army
He was distinguished as one of the best officers in several Ottoman campaigns both in Asia Minor and in Europe, and the Sultan appointed him General. He even fought against Greeks, Serbs and Hungarians, and some sources claim that he used to maintain secret links with Ragusa, Venice, Ladislaus V of Hungary and Alfonso I of Naples. Sultan Murad II gave him the title Vali that made him the General Governor of some provinces in central Albania. He was respected everywhere but he missed his country. After his father died and his brothers were poisoned, Skanderbeg was looking for a way to return to Albania and lead his countrymen against the Ottoman armies.
Fighting for the freedom of Albania
In 1443, Skanderbeg saw his opportunity during the battle against the Hungarians led by John Hunyadi in Nis (in present day Serbia). He switched sides along with other Albanians serving in the Ottoman army. He eventually captured Kruje, his father’s seat in Middle Albania. Above the castle he rose the Albanian flag, a red flag with a black double-headed eagle, and pronounced the words: ”I have not brought you liberty, I found it here, among you.” He managed to unite all Albanian princes at the town of Lezhë (see League of Lezha, 1444) and united them under his command to fight against the Ottomans. He fought a guerilla war against the opposing armies by using the mountainous terrain to his advantage.
During the next 25 years, with forces rarely exceeding 20,000, he fought against the most powerful army of the time. In 1450 the Ottoman army was led by the Sultan Murad II in person, who died after his defeat on the way back. On two other occasions, in 1466 and 1467, Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople, led the Ottoman army himself against Skanderbeg and failed to defeat him. The Ottoman Empire attempted to conquer Kruje 24 times and failed each time. In 1461, Mehmed II acknowledged him by a temporary truce as lord of Albania.
Skanderbeg’s military successes evoked a good deal of interest and admiration from the Papal States, Venice and Naples, themselves threatened by the growing Ottoman power across the Adriatic Sea. Skanderbeg played his hand with a good deal of political and diplomatic skill in his dealings with the three Italian states. Hoping to strengthen and expand Skanderbeg’s state, they provided him with money, supplies and occasionally troops. One of his most powerful and consistent supporters was Alfonso the Magnanimous, the Aragone king of Naples, who decided to take Skanderbeg under his protection as vassal in 1451, shortly after the latter had scored his second victory against Murad II. In addition to financial assistance, the King of Naples undertook to supply the Albanian leader with troops, military equipment as well as with sanctuary for himself and his family if such a need should arise. As an active defender of the Christian cause in the Balkans, Skanderbeg was also closely involved with the politics of four Popes, one of them being Pope Pius II, the Renaissance humanist, writer and diplomat.
Profoundly shaken by the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Pius II tried to organize a new crusade against the Turks; consequently he did his best to come to Skanderbeg’s aid, as his predecessors Pope Nicholas V and Pope Calixtus III had done before him. This policy was continued by his successor, Pope Paul II. They gave him the title Athleta Christi.
For a quarter of a century he and his country prevented the Turks from invading the Italian Peninsula.
Gjergj Kastriot’s Legacy
After his death from natural causes in 1468 in Lezhe, his soldiers resisted the Turks for the next 12 years. In 1480 Albania was finally conquered by the Ottoman Empire. When the Turks found the grave of Skanderbeg in Saint Nicholas church of Lezhe, they opened it and held his bones like talismans for luck. The same year, they invaded Italy and conquered the city of Otranto.
Skanderbeg’s posthumous game was not confined to his own country. Voltaire thought the Byzantine Empire would have survived had it possessed a leader of his quality. A number of poets and composers have also drawn inspiration from his military career. The French sixteenth-century poet Ronsard wrote a poem about him, as did the nineteenth-century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Antonio Vivaldi composed an opera entitled Scanderbeg.
Skanderbeg today is the National Hero of Albania. Many museums and monuments are raised in his honor around Albania, among them the Museum of Skanderbeg in his castle in Kruje.