National myths are an important part of any country’s nationalism, but they have been particularly potent in Balkan countries. Legends of klepths and Kosovo Polje, among many others, have permeated the national histories of Balkan peoples. In Albania, there is one man who rises above all the rest: Gjergj Kastrioti, better known as Skanderbeg.
Skanderbeg (1405-1468) was born into the Albanian noble family of the Kastrioti. His father was a vassal of the Ottomans, and as such, he sent Skanderbeg as a hostage to the Ottoman sultan’s court on at least two occasions. While there he became a Muslim and received the name of Iskander along with the Ottoman rank of bey, from where he got the name Skanderbeg. Skanderbeg received military training at the sultan’s court at the Enderun School and fought in his armies. Meanwhile, Skanderbeg’s father’s territories in Albania were increasingly reduced by the Ottomans. He held various Ottoman posts, ranging from a military commander to governor.
At the Battle of Nis, Skanderbeg deserted the sultan’s army and returned to Albania, at that time almost completely under Ottoman rule, to re-embrace Christianity and lead the Albanian people. During the remaining 25 years of his life, Skanderbeg resisted numerous Ottoman invasions, often with just his own troops, but he also fostered ties with other Christian powers such as Venice and Aragon to better resist the Ottoman Empire.
Under the national lens of Albania, Skanderbeg’s deeds were transformed into near epic proportion. Against all odds, Skanderbeg led Albanians to resist the fearsome armies of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans had brushed aside Bulgaria, Serbia, the Byzantine Empire, and even large crusading armies from Western Europe. But Skanderbeg could and did hold them back. Albania became the bane of the Ottoman Empire and thousands of Ottoman soldiers were bogged down and died there. Skanderbeg became a symbol of resistance against the Ottomans (and foreign domination more generally). Although Kruja, Skanderbeg’s headquarters where he held out for over two decades, fell only ten years after his death, his memory as a resistance hero lived on in Europe.
But it gradually faded in Albania. Many Albanians converted to Islam and didn’t have a reason to glorify a leader that had resisted the Muslim empire of the Ottoman Turks. But with the rise of nationalism in the 19th century, the Albanian intelligentsia began to fish around for an Albanian hero to center their nationalism around. Other Balkan peoples didn’t have the same struggle: Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece could all look readily to their “golden ages” under their respective medieval empires. Albania didn’t have the same historical kingdoms as these Balkan peoples. But in Skanderbeg, the Albanians found a hero. His struggle against foreign oppression was emphasized, but his the Christian-Muslim element was left out, since Albania boasted large numbers of both Christians and Muslims and such a focus could be divisive.
Modern Albanian rulers have drawn attention to their own connections with Skanderbeg. William of Wied (r. 1914), the first Prince of Albania, styled himself Skanderbeg II. The later King Zog (r. 1928-1939) claimed descendent from Skanderbeg’s sister, briefly styling himself Skanderbeg III. Even the communist leader Enver Hoxha, who ruled Albania from the 1940s through the 1980s, projected an image of himself as the heir to Skanderbeg, using Skanderbeg’s rule as precedent for his own dictatorial regime. In 1965, Skanderbeg was declared the National Hero, the country’s highest honor.
Even now, Skanderbeg remains a powerful figure in Albanian national memory. His role as a European fighting against the Asiatic hordes of the Ottomans has been used to stress Albania’s position as a European nation. Additionally, since Skanderbeg was Albanian and not the ruler of a set territory like the medieval empires of Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece (in the guise of Byzantium), the focus on him as the root of Albanian national consciousness creates a different kind of claim for irredentism. Albania doesn’t specifically look to territories for its interest in expanding its borders, but rather absorbing Albanian populations. In this, it looks towards the ethnographic map rather than a geopolitical one. In having one man, Skanderbeg, as a source of national myth, Albania is unique even in the Balkans.