The 7 August 2016 writer Pierfranco Bruni has published a very interesting article on the mythical figure of Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg, national hero of the Albanians. In his article the scholar interprets the importance of the messages that the work of the Albanian prince conveys to the current European reality. The article is more than a reflection. Scanderbeg's work is considered from the point of view of his most important cultural heritage. «But history alone is not enough to reread a character and a context of civilization. A real interpretation of historical processes is necessary » (Bruni, 2016). The interpretation, in fact, of the historical fact cannot elude the cultural reality, since, again quoting Bruni:
«Scanderbeg is a complex character. Certainly his struggle was, as has already been said, a struggle for the independence of a people, but it was not only this. It was above all a struggle for the defense of those ancient roots that the Albanian people still claim, but it was not even just that. It was particularly a struggle of one world against another and therefore it was the clash between two cultures, two civilizations, two religions "
Perhaps for the first time in European history a political and military leader had the idea of bringing together all the Christian nations to face a danger that came from far away, from a culturally very different world. For the first time the reason for the joint action was the awareness of having to defend its own cultural basin threatened by the violent expansion of another culture. This vision of the Albanian hero anticipates the Western thought of a European cultural identity of which Christianity is one of the fundamental aspects.
Without adding anything to Bruni's lucid thought, I would like to contextualize Scanderbeg's work and its meaning in the cultural reality of his nation to better understand the parable. The myth of this extraordinary hero is not a bolt from the blue, but an expression of the history and philosophical cultural universe of his nation. Scanderbeg and his struggles on the one hand and the tragic fate of the Albanians before and after him on the other.
A people of ancient traditions
Christianity in Albania is as old as the first announcement of the Apostles. It was Saint Paul himself who announced the Gospel during the stops of his travels in the various regions of the country: "Thus from Jerusalem and its surroundings to Illyria, I have completed the preaching of the gospel of Christ" (Letters to the Romans: 15, 19). Already 58 years after the birth of Christ the city of Durres had its community of Christians and a bishop, Saint Caesar, a native of the same city. After San Cesare, another fellow citizen, Astio, became bishop of Durazzo and saint after death. Astio was arrested and crucified by order of the Roman prefect of Illyricum, Agricolao. In the fourth century, almost all of the country was evangelized, with 50 bishoprics scattered throughout the territory.
Giorgio Otranto, historian of ancient Christianity, writes:
"The Illyrians contributed greatly to the imperial structure during the grave political and institutional crisis of the 3rd century: some illustrious Illyrian generals became emperors, from Claudius called the Gothic (268-270) to Aureliano, called restitutor orbis, to Probo ( 276-282), to Caro, Carino, Numeriano (282-285), to Diocletian (285-304), the great reformer who divided the Illyrian territory into two provinces. In the following centuries Christianity experienced a particular flowering in Illyria, where numerous dioceses were established and a lively theological debate took place, which contributed greatly to the development of Christianity "(Otranto, 1992: 38)
Indro Montanelli, in his book "History of Rome", fascinated by the figure of Teuta of Scutari, describes her as the greatest queen of ancient history. (Montanelli, 1958: 47)
Johann von Hahn (1811-1869), great philologist and specialist in the history of Albania, of his language and culture, after extensive studies he writes:
«The Albanians are the direct descendants of the Pelasgians, ancestors of the Greeks and Romans. Their language, which has been preserved almost intact, is today's Albanian language "(from the work of Jacque E., 1995: 35-36)
Hahn's results have been widely shared by the Anglo-Saxon, German, Austrian, Swedish and other schools. The German Theodore Mommsen (1817-1903), for example, a great historian and philologist, Nobel prize winner for literature, arrives at the same conclusions as Hahn. I believe that studies on the history and culture of a nation are much more credible when they come from specialists in non-neighboring countries.
After a long stay in Albania (1938-March 1939) Montanelli writes: "The Albanians are special brothers, they are people of few words, generous, honest, of speech and very hospitable" (Albania, one and a thousand, Turin, Paravia, 1939).
The emperors of Illyrian descent and coming from the regions of Illyria were condottieri and reformers of great personality. One of them was Constantine the Great, a native of Dardanìa (Illyria). With the'Edict of Milan (313 AD) Constantine recognized the freedom of worship to Christianity and paganism became tolerated. Since then Christianity began to establish itself as a state religion. With the Diocletian reform, Illyria became a border land between the Byzantine and Roman empires. There was no trace of Slavs in the Balkans until the seventh century. Northern Illyria referred to the Church of Rome, while the southern regions referred to the Byzantine Church. The 1054 schism found Albanians all Christians, then Catholics or Orthodox. Language was the factor that kept alive the awareness of a nation with cultural traditions that characterized the identity of a single ancient people.
Illyria and subsequently the regions of Albania have marked the frontier between the West and the East, between Catholicism and the Byzantine Church. The beginning of the Turkish invasion found a population of Catholics and Orthodox in Albania without conflict of religion. In other Balkan countries religion was identified with the nation and this was the cause of conflicts with minorities. The Albanians had always seen in language the reason for being together, as a single nation, regardless of religious belief. This circumstance determined the need for religious tolerance, as an essential condition for the existence of the nation. The language and not the religions, as a discriminating factor among the various nations, makes the spirit and the thought of the citizen more emancipated. Maria Venturi said, an Italian woman who remained in Albania for decades after the Second World War and then returned and died in her native country: "In Albania I realized that if men truly believe in God, they do not look if you are Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish or Muslim. Everyone prays in his own way and everyone respects each other ».
The Scutari Catholics during the month of Ramadan, in the presence of their fellow Muslim citizens, neither drank nor ate, respecting their fast, that is, the total ban on food and water during the day. Mutual tolerance, consolidated over the centuries, has made diversity a wealth and has saved the nation's existence. They live the differences of religion without prejudice or fanaticism. Only in the course of the 20th century, the Vatican proclaimed more than 40 Albanians martyrs of faith and freedom.
The Italian missionary Father Severino Consolaro, writes in 2005 after years of stay in Albania:
"In today's Albania true poverty is not hunger; I see a peaceful nation, not rich nor particularly poor, but with so much dignity. Sometimes one gets the impression that they have lost the historical memory of the remarkable human potentials they have, even though over the centuries this land has been an example of courage, heroism and saints. There are no differences in this wonderful country. Saint Anthony has united in a single community: Catholics, Orthodox, Muslims and Bektascis, all together "
(Consolaro, 2005: 4)
His testimony is extraordinary!
Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg
Scanderbeg was one of the sons of Prince Gion Castriota of Emathia, an important region for its strategic position, for the culture and history of Albania. Gion was defeated by the Turks and his sons taken away in military schools in Turkey and converted to Islam. With an extraordinary career Giorgio was promoted to general and nicknamed Scanderbeg. Despite his brilliant and victorious battles, he was never at ease. A religion imposed by those who had defeated his father and put the country on fire and a culturally depressing environment made nostalgia prevail for its identity of origin. During the battle against the Hungarian King Huniadi (1443), he deserted, supported by 300 Albanian soldiers of his army. This was the return of Giorgio Castriota to his native country, where he embraced Christianity, the religion of his adolescence and ancestors. Islam was not his religion, but a consequence of the forced presence in the sultan's court.
Scanderbeg, back in his country, found a nation partly Catholic and partly Orthodox that he already knew and without ever conflicts between them. The Albanian hero seriously undertook to reject the offensive of the expanding Ottoman Empire that threatened all Christian Europe. He identified in Christianity the pillar of the common identity for his nation and for the whole of Europe which, united, had to oppose the Turkish offensive. From the 1443 to the 1468 Scanderbeg inflicted untold defeats and losses on the Ottoman armies without the slightest support from European states.
Pope Callistus III baptized him Athlete of Christ and Defender of the Faith. Still alive Scanderbeg was glorified as a myth by the entire Christian Europe who considered him "a heroic figure larger than life". Six centuries after birth, the evaluation of Scanderbeg's work is not possible regardless of the philosophical and cultural context of his nation and era. Giorgio Otranto writes:
"Europe in that tragic occasion, did not know how to live up to its best traditions and, despite the aid promised above all by Alfonso of Aragon and Pius II, he left Giorgio Castriota Scanderbeg to fight alone against the power of the Ottoman armies. The twofold task of unifying the country politically and linking it in a stable way to the Western states system was a lucid and modern design, I would say dramatically modern, a sort of bold intuition, of which Europe is still indebted to Scanderbeg and to the Albania »(Otranto, 1992: 44).
In all languages there have been works dedicated to the Albanian hero: poems from Europe to the United States of America, history books, paintings that have immortalized his battles and about 300 portrayed in various castles from the Mediterranean to northern Europe. We find the reason for his glory in the thought of D. Bargini, who the contemporaries of Scanderbeg had well understood:
"If Scanderbeg had not arrested the impetuous and barbaric Asian hordes spurred on by grim conquerors with the heroic Albanian hosts, Europe would have fallen prey to the Tartars, the Spain of the Mauri, the center of Europe of the Huns and the Visigots" (Bargini, 1913: 20).
The glossy and modern design of which G. Otranto speaks, that sort of bold intuition of the hero must be included in their complexity. It was an idea matured from a long experience of wars between two cultures, between two different ways of conceiving the freedom of nations and between culturally very distant religious feelings. The idea that the identities of these peoples can have fundamental aspects in common is very original. Scanderbeg succeeded in unifying the Albanian, Catholic and Orthodox principalities, in their resistance against those who wanted to impose by force of arms another religion and another culture far removed from those of Europe. In essence, his intuition, his design starts from the experience of his nation: Catholics and Orthodox together in a cultural universe that gathered everyone in a family.
Karl Popper in the twentieth century considered a European cultural identity to be logical and real, while recognizing the particular identities of nations. He laid four pillars at the basis of European cultural identity: Greek rationalism, the Christian religion, the critical spirit and the coexistence of the most diverse ideas (Pera, 2002: 100-104).
It would be interesting to ask how the coexistence of Greek rationalism and theology is possible. I think this miracle was able to honor European history thanks to the critical spirit and the coexistence of the most diverse ideas. Greek rationalism was a spearhead in the nature of the Mediterranean peoples. It was probably this characteristic that created a true open-mindedness in us Europeans. Obviously in the history of Christianity it was not easy to make peace between Greek rationalism and theology. The problem of knowledge between theology and science has also experienced a conflictual evolution, but fortunately the relationship between the two points of view has gradually found a relative balance.
Scanderbeg's idea of believing in a common action of the European peoples in defense of their cultural identity, of which Christianity was the soul and the flag, was more than compatible with the cultural reality of Albania and it was realized , as history has already confirmed over the centuries.
Albanian medieval codes and humanism
In the period that goes from sec. XV to the sec. XVII Albania experienced an intense cultural movement of humanists close to its Catholic world. Among the humanists I could mention Marin Barleti (1450-1512), Gion Buzuku (1499-1577) and Pjeter Budi (1566-1622), Frang Bardhi (1606-1643) and Pjeter Bogdani (1625-1689), the so-called Plèiade of 5 B (Plèiade 5B). Barleti's work on the history of Giorgio Castriota, he experienced numerous publications in all the main languages starting from the first Venetian edition of 1512.
The greatest work of the humanists was the liturgy in the mother tongue. In Europe we started timidly with the translations of the Bible. In Italy the first were Malerni (Venice, 1471) and Antonio Martini (1780), condemned by Pope Pius VII in the 1820.
The main problem was the conversion of the liturgy into the mother tongue. The first printed edition of the Roman missal was in 1474, but in Latin. Only the 1965 reform led to the use of national languages in the liturgy. The first Italian Missal entered into force in the 1970, while the last Latin Missal was published in 1962 by John XXIII. In 2007 Benedict XVI with his Motu proprio Summorum Pontificum he allowed the priests to freely use the Latin Missal of the 1962 without the authorization of the diocesan ordinary. So also in other European countries. In France in the 1951 Anne-Marie Malingrey published the manual: Initiation au latin de la messe, in whose introduction he wrote: "for the use of those who do not know Latin but are eager to understand the prayer of the Church to associate with it intelligently" (Malingrey, 1951: 7). Obviously these countries of ancient and very rich cultural traditions had their good reasons for not introducing the mother tongue in the liturgy.
In the fifteenth century Albania with the Turkish invasions and the beginning of forced conversions by the Ottomans, the humanists succeeded in completing the conversion of the liturgy into the Albanian language. A document by the Albanian bishop Pal Engelli (1417-1470), a close collaborator of Scanderbeg and a highly scholarly humanist, contains the formula of baptism in Albanian. The document, dated 8 November 1462, has 37 pages and is preserved in the Medici Library of Florence. The work of converting the liturgy into the mother tongue probably began long before that date. It is believed in the Albanian terminology of the liturgy and later also of the Bible, which is impressive for its originality and richness. I would like to mention that St. Jerome (IV century), born in Stridon in Illyria, made the first translation of the Bible into Latin. But this would be another very interesting aspect.
Martin Luther in 1537 published in German the Bible (1537), a book that only very few were able to read. The Catholic bishop Gion Buzuku (1499-1577) of Scutari, on the other hand, translated into Albanian the Missal. The year was 1555 and the Council of Trent (1545-1563) was in progress. In the early seventeenth century, the bishop of Sapa, Budi, ordered the parish priests of his diocese to pray in Albanian. "God, he said, wants to converse with the faithful only in his mother tongue"
Praying in the mother tongue makes the believer aware of the relationship with God. The idea of understanding our actions, their meaning belongs to the Enlightenment vision of our life. Budi and Bogdani in their writings held ignorance to be the main cause of Man's unhappiness and poverty.
The humanists of the Albanian world expressed truth and sensitivity that we find in the medieval codes of their principalities. There are very interesting principles of behavior in their codes. To give some examples, we report these codes:
- When the man with the pen in his hand meets the man with the gun, the latter is a dead man.
- Don't love your opponent, but take care of his honor.
- The Albanian house is of God and of the host.
In the first code I see their belief in the power of knowledge. In fact, the primacy of Man finds its reason in knowledge and not in physical strength. In the second code it is clear the idea of having to respect the thought of the other, while not sharing it. And this brings to mind Voltaire, who said: "I disagree with you, but I would also give my life so you can express your idea." The work of the humanists to convert the liturgy into the mother tongue was a miracle and a monument of culture. The Catholic Church has become a school of the mother tongue. Prayer in church, family and personal meditation saved the language of the nation from the impoverishment and unwanted infiltration of the invader's language.
The invader's revenge
I will try to explain why Albania has become the land of the many religions since the dawn of monotheistic religions. Why did a large portion of the population convert to Islam precisely in Albania?
In the other Balkan countries the Ottoman invasion was almost immediate and without lasting resistance as in the case of Albania. After the death of Scanderbeg the invasion war by the Turks continued for almost a century. The rebellion against the invader has been present in every period of Turkish rule. There were no signs of armed resistance against the Turkish domino from any other Balkan nation. The Turkish armies remained stuck in the regions of Albania for a long time and saw the sultans' dream of conquering the West fail, because Albania has always been a land of bridges between East and West. All the Christian crusades started from the port of Durres. The Turks had to conquer the country of Scanderbeg to advance towards Western Europe, something they could not do for 25 years. Substantially the total subjugation of Albania was a long, complex and bloody process that lasted for more than a century.
After the hero's death in the 1468 the Turks unleashed a genocide against the Albanians that aimed to exterminate the nation, guilty of their defeat. There was a genocide of incredible proportions.
The Byzantine chronicler Critoboulos of Imbro (1410-1470), witness to the revenge of the Turks under the command of the caliph Mehmet Fatih, writes:
"They preferred death so as not to become slaves of the invaders. A group of Illyrians, not having found paths of retreat, have thrown themselves into the precipices of the rocks looking for death. The caliph Fatih, defeated at the gates of the castle of Kruja, continued towards the region of Dibra and stopped in front of the town of Kidhna on the Drin river. Within the city walls twenty thousand elders, women and children, arrived from the countryside, trying to escape the persecution of the Turks. The caliph ordered the massacre of all those present and 20 thousand innocent souls lost their lives under the shouts "Allah akbar" of the Turks "(Graciani, 2012: 2-7).
In the 1690, due to the interminable revolts of the Albanian Kosovars, the Sultan decreed the total extermination of the population of Kossova bringing from Crimea an army of Tartars alongside the Turkish army. Everywhere, with the shouts "To the death of the Albanians and Allah akbar", they razed to the ground and massacred the population in all the regions of Kossova. The Turks resurrected the remains of Pjeter Bogdani, recently buried, and threw them to the dogs in the square of Pristina. Bogdani was a bishop and one of the fathers of Albanian prose (Graciani, 2012: 2-7).
The British historian of the University of Oxford, Noel Malcolm, in his story of Kossova cites the representative of the British government of the time in Edirnè: «The extermination of the Kosovars by the Turks and the Tartars, with massacres and horrendous crimes decimated the population of Kossova »(Malcolm, 1998: 37)
For the conversion to Islam and against the mother tongue, the Turks followed a policy of unprecedented violence, never inflicted on other countries of the empire. Their policy is summed up in two of the many decrees that only concern Albania and not other Balkan countries:
Anyone who opposes the conversion to Islam loses all his possessions. Anyone who spreads the Albanian language, publishes books in Albanian will be sentenced to death.
The chronicles of the humanist Marin Barleti report the existence of annals written in Albanian as early as the 13th century, which however did not reach us, perhaps because they were destroyed during the Ottoman domination. The archbishop of Antivari, the French Brocard, in a report of the 1332 writes in Latin: "The Albanian language is completely different from the Latin, but in their books they use the Latin alphabet".
The Ottoman attempt to eradicate the Albanian cultural identity is unparalleled in the history of that empire. Perhaps the Albanian people is the only one to have suffered extermination not only of a physical nature, but also and above all cultural by the Ottomans. They invented theblood tax, the most horrendous that history has ever known. The blood tax gave the Sultan the right to take away the children of Albanian Christians and transfer them to Turkey, convert them and teach them in the military schools of the empire. Among these young people, the Ottoman Empire saw its best generals, ministers and heads of government grow. The Cyprillì family of Albanian origin ruled the empire for more than a century. The Albanian mathematician and philosopher H. Tahsin after extensive studies in France became the founder of the first university in Turkey.
A tragic figure in the drama of his people
Pierfranco Bruni, referring to the Albanian writer I. Kadarè, several times candidate for the Nobel Prize, talks about the culture of a people crossed by the danger of escape. History confirms this danger, but it has not been able to give a motivation and understand its true meanings. The escape of the Albanians was an individual and collective behavior due to a reality that other peoples have never known. I would speak of persecuted Christians up to the physical and cultural extermination, disappointed by a Europe that had betrayed convictions and biblical sacrifices in defense of their identity and their European dignity. I must underline an extraordinary fact of history that the Albanians have in common with the Jews: the arbëreshë, exiles from Albania after the tragic end of the country, after five centuries of presence in Italy they continue to keep the Albanian language alive in the family and to respect the original rite of their Church, the one before the exodus. On the occasion of traditional festivals they dance the dances of the country of origin, for centuries now far away. Impressive the strength of their traditions!
However they were not poor exiles and needy of help, but families of well-off and well-educated Catholics in Western countries. It would be interesting to report a fact little cited by the literature and chronicles of the twentieth century postwar: the Germans during the Second World War were unable to capture even a Jew because during the years of extermination these lived with the Albanian families of the remote areas of the country . This miracle was possible thanks to the hospitality of the citizens and to the work and courage of the Albanian prime minister of the time, Mithat Frasheri who, still young, had been appointed governor of Palestine and Extraordinary Administrator of Jerusalem.
Even the recent Albanian emigration must be understood in its historical reasons and in the most important meanings: a people that did not want the Second World War, but suffered it and suddenly found itself in a state wrecked by the communist hegemony. The post-war regime in the twinkling of an eye invented the most diabolical instruments of repression. Many of them, after half a century of totalitarianism that they never chose or loved, had developed the right to turn their backs on the nightmare that still haunts the soul and mind of those who have been its victims.
Migratory flows are rooted in the unjustified differences between the various regions of the world. Wars, poverty and terrorism. Information and forms of communication are not those of a century ago. The migration that has objective causes can hardly be stopped. Today and in the near future it is Europe that must face the great differences between different nations and religions with realism and tolerance.
In Albania, religious diversity in the presence of the same cultural background has ensured peaceful coexistence and substantially the harmony of the various religions. Today the European reality faces the same problem: the drums of the media do not stop stressing the differences without ever looking for the reasons that make it possible to be together and peaceful coexistence. The newspapers, for example, use expressions that are sometimes provocative and objectively incorrect as, "their God" and more. Instead, what unites and not what divides should be deepened. I'll explain. Islam and Christianity are monotheistic religions and believers are aware of it. There is not one of their Gods and next to him another, ours. We are all children of the same single God. The difference lies in the different cultural and philosophical basins in which theology was formed over the centuries, for Christians as well as for others. Christianity found the fundamental idea in the Jewish world (history, Old Testament and prophets) and formed its own theology in the basin of Greek rationalism. Even Islam was born as a monotheistic religion, but its theology was born in a cultural basin different from Greek rationalism. This difference entails another important fact: Greek rationalism breathes along with two other fundamental characteristics, which according to Karl Popper, constitute the heart of European cultural identity. These two characteristics are the critical spirit and the coexistence of the most diverse ideas. Probably in the three pillars considered by Popper, rationalism, respect for the ideas of others and a critical spirit, we must look for the circumstance that has made the peoples of Europe and Christianity as a religion more emancipated.
This absolute truth for the Albanians means: «We are children of the same God». For them there could only be tolerance and coexistence as cardinal principles of existence. The two religions even recognize the same prophets, Abraham for Jews and Christians, Ibrahim for Muslims. Moses for us and Mussà for them. So evident this reason of coexistence to be considered in bad taste does not realize it in theory (knowledge) and in facts (propaganda).
So what to say about Scanderbeg? He could not share the rigidity and Islamic fundamentalism that hurt his longing for affections and the peace of his own childhood world. He, born and became a teenager in the family, had the full knowledge of his world and the danger that threatened his people. Giorgio Castriota Scanderbeg is a figure that now belongs to the legend. The impossible victories against one of the most dangerous military forces of all time and the defense of the physical and cultural integrity of his country and of Christian Europe made him a living myth, one of the most glorious figures in Western history. His bold insights, as G. Otranto and P. Bruni write, remind us of the re-evaluation of his entire work from the point of view of modern Europe and of the many questions that await an answer from our civilization.
Scanderbeg is a deeply tragic figure and, with him, also his people. The drama of his parable consists in the choices, convictions and sacrifices. He carried on the struggle against the Ottoman armies supported by the fidelity of his Catholic principles, but solitary and wounded by the silence of Europe. Perhaps he was the first to foresee and to understand the dimension and the gravity of the extreme sufferings that his people still had to face: the tragic Ottoman revenge with a physical and cultural extermination, never seen before.
- Bargini D., "Albania. Historical, ethnographic, topographical notes ", Ulpiano typography, Rome, 1913
- Bruni Pierfranco, "Scanderbeg: Mohammed is the false faith. True faith is Christ ", online newspaper www.grottaglieinrete.it, August 2016
- Consolaro Padre Severino, "Albania, story of courage, heroism and saints", http // www.missionebovalino.it, 2005
- Edwin Jacques , Albanians: An Ethnic History from Prehistoric Times to the Present, McFarlands & Company, Inc. Publishers, North Carolina, USA, 1995
- Graciani Deo, "Gjenocidi turko islamik ndaj shqiptarëve pas vdekjes se Gjergj Kastriotit", http // www.zemrashqiptare.net, 2012
- Noel Malcolm, Kosovo: A Short History, New York University Press, 1998
- Malingrey AM, "Initiation au latin de la messe", Edition of L'Ècole, Paris 1951
- Montanelli Indro, History of Rome, Longanesi, Milan, 1958
- Alberto Frasher, "The Magic of National Renaissance", TLAC publisher, Toronto 2016
- Lutfi Alia, "Kodi i të drejtës zakonore shqiptare", portals Zemra Shqiptare, 2012
- Alberto Frasher, Values and problems of the Albanian culture in the reflections on the school, IRRSAE of Puglia, Quaderno n.18, Bari, 1992
- Otranto Giorgio, "From Illyrians to Albanians, known for the historical reconstruction of the modern state of Albania", IRRSAE di Puglia, Quaderno n. 18, Bari 1992.
- Pera Marcello, La Martinella, Rubbettino publisher, Cosenza, 2002