Updated: Aug 3, 2018
Gjergj Kastrioti “Skenderbeg” by Joseph J. DioGuardi
Gjergj Kastrioti “Skenderbeg”
“Matchable to the Greatest of the Great”
–Edmund Spenser (Elizabethan poet)
From 1443, when he returned in triumph to the White Castle in Kruja to his deathbed at Lezha in 1468, Skenderbeg left an unforgettable legacy of great heroism in the defense of freedom. Gjergj Kastrioti lived and died for what he firmly believed were the sacred values of faith, virtue, honor, freedom, courage, and love of country. These universal values are clearly displayed in his correspondence and speeches, along with his deep philosophy of life and his incredible deeds. Who was Gjergj Kastrioti? Why is he an important historical figure? What can Albanians today learn from his life and deeds? Why is he not better known around the world?
Kastrioti was the son of an Albanian prince, Gjon Kastrioti, who ruled the Albanian lands in the Balkan Peninsula at the end of the 14th century and the beginning of the fifteenth century. Gjon had kept the invading Ottoman Turks at bay for more than twenty years when he was forced into a deceptive peace treaty in 1422 with Sultan Murad II to secure the rear of the Turkish army in Southeast Europe and spare the lives of his people from the wrath of the Ottoman Empire. To guarantee the arrangement, the Sultan took Gjon’s youngest son, Gjergj, hostage to Adrianople, the European capital of the Ottoman Empire. Here, Gjergj was sent to the Ottoman military academy where he excelled in all ways and adopted the Moslem alias “Iskender Bey,” or Lord Alexander after Alexander the Great. Skenderbeg’s excellent academic and military record caught the eye of the Sultan, who gave him the rank of general even before reaching twenty years of age. Skenderbeg’s military successes against the enemies of the Ottoman Empire became legendary, as were the decorations and gifts bestowed on him after each incredible triumph.
An important turning point in Skenderbeg’s life came when, in 1443, he received the sad news from Kruja of his father’s death. Gjon had defied and frustrated the Ottomans for more than fifty years and the Sultan grew suspicious of Skenderbeg’s potential to take his father’s place in trying to perpetuate a free Albania even after Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia had been conquered. Skenderbeg sensed the danger to him and to his father’s people and decided to seize the moment in November 1443, when he was sent on a military excursion to defeat the Hungarians led by another great freedom fighter (and thorn in the side of the Sultan), Janos Hunyadi. Rather than do the Sultan’s dirty work at Nish (in Serbia today), he fooled his fellow Ottoman commanders and fled the battlefield to Kruja with three hundred of his loyal Albanian horsemen. Two weeks after triumphantly entering Albania at Dibra, he stormed the White Castle at Kruja on November 28, 1443 and deposed the Ottoman governor there. The next twenty-five years would see some of the greatest military feats against the ever powerful and growing Ottoman Empire. It was only after Skenderbeg’s death in 1468 that the Ottomans were able to get a foothold in Albania. Without their great leader, the struggle against the Ottomans faltered, leading to a complete occupation of Albanian lands in 1488. This lasted 425 years until Ismail Qemali raised Skenderbeg’s double-headed eagle banner at Vlora on November 28, 1912.
It is one thing for Albanians today to praise and honor Gjergj Kastrioti. But let’s now take some time to hear about this saintly knight, his incredible military genius, and our Albanian national hero from those who knew him well. Having now read a great deal about Skenderbeg, it became evident that a Roman Catholic priest from Shkodra, Marin Barletius, wrote the most comprehensive and vivid account of Skenderbeg’s life and deeds. His twelve-volume work included Kastrioti’s letters, speeches, and his philosophy of life, religion, and nation. Since Barletius was a contemporary of Skenderbeg, he had access to firsthand information from the battlefields, the archives in Rome, and many other personal firsthand accounts from witnesses of Kastrioti’s phenomenal accomplishments, character, and charisma. The scholarly work of Barletius, originally written in Latin, was translated widely, including French and English, which allowed many to know about the legendary feats of Skenderbeg.
The nineteenth-century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had been mesmerized reading about the incredible life and deeds of Gjergj Kastrioti. His epic poem “Scanderbeg” gave a vivid account of Kastrioti triumphant in Kruja on November 28, 1443:
…Anon from the castle walls
The crescent banner falls,
And the crowd beholds instead,
Like a portent in the sky,
Iskander’s banner fly,
The Black Eagle with double head.
And shouts ascend on high …”Long live Scanderbeg.
Skenderbeg’s genius has been likened by many military experts to Alexander the Great. Major General James Wolfe, commander of the English army at the siege of Quebec, Canada, wrote to Lord Sydney that “Scanderbeg exceeds all the officers, ancient and modern, in the conduct of a defensive army. I met him in Turkish history but nowhere else.”
Historian Edmond Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire said: “In the list of heroes, John Hunyadi and Scanderbeg are commonly associated and entitled to our notice since their occupation of arms delayed the ruin of the Greek (Byzantine) Empire…. The Albanian prince may justly be praised as a firm and able champion of his national independence. The enthusiasm of chivalry and religion has ranked him with the names of Alexander the Great and Pyrrhus….”
Even the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser held that Scanderbeg was “matchable to the greatest of the great” in his preface to an English translation of Barletius, which concluded by saying:
To one whom later age has brought to light,
Matchable to the greatest of the great:
Great both in name and great in power and might,
And meriting a mere triumphant feat.
The scourge of Turks, and plague of infidels,
Thy acts, O’ Scanderbeg, this volume tells.
Finally, among the many, many accounts of one Albanian hero, we turn to the notable nineteenth-century English literary figure Lord Byron who fell in love with everything he saw in Albania. Like Kastrioti, Byron had a deep love of freedom and national independence. In his poem “Child Harold’s Pilgrimage,” he wrote:
Land of Albania, where Islander rose,
Theme of the young, and beacon of the wise,
And he, his namesake, whose oft-baffled foes
Shrunk from his deeds of chivalrous emprize.
Land of Albania, let me bend my eyes
On thee, though rugged nurse of savage men!
Where is the foe that ever saw their back?….
In short, Gjergj Kastrioti was an exceptional military genius, a man of great faith and courage, a philosopher and one who cherished personal freedom and national independence. He was the subject of many books, poems, and even an opera by Vivaldi! His imposing figure, sword in hand, atop his majestic stallion, graces the capitals of Italy, Austria, and Hungary today. And, on the 600th anniversary of his birth, a Congressional Resolution introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, the most democratic forum in the world, recounts his many deeds and his importance as an historic figure not just for Albanians and the Balkans, but Western Europe, which he saved from Ottoman domination.
What Albanians can learn today from Skenderbeg’s life and deeds is limitless. As a man of great faith, he placed himself at God’s mercy on many occasions where he was facing overwhelming odds. On one such occasion, after defeating the Hungarian army at Varna in 1445, Sultan Murad sent a threatening letter to Skenderbeg, who now stood between the Ottoman Empire and a Europe in disarray. True to his nature as a great leader and man of God with a steadfast vision of freedom for his people and all of Europe, he boldly responded to the Sultan:
Cease your angry threats and tell us not of the Hungarian (mis)fortune. Every man has his own resolution…and so will we with patience endure such fortune as it shall please God to appoint us. Meanwhile, for direction of our affairs, we will not request counsel of our enemies, nor peace from you, but victory by the help of God!
Albanian leaders today, especially in Kosova seeking complete independence from Serbia, would do well to emulate the resolute way in which Skenderbeg pursued his vision of freedom for his people. He made no room for compromise with his enemies and showed fierce determination to prevail even in the face of such a formidable adversary as the Ottoman Empire. He did this relying not only on his skill as a great national leader and military tactician, but on his belief in God’s providence as well. We can all learn from Skenderbeg’s great example in pursuing the Albanian national cause today. Skenderbeg again showed his great faith in God and deep loyalty to friends after his great friend and patron Alphonse, King of Naples and Sicily, died in 1460. Italy was plunged into bloodshed and rebellion, and Ferdinand I, Alphonse’s son and successor, came under attack from the French once again. Feeling a deep moral obligation to repay his steadfast friends and allies on the other side of the Adriatic, Skenderbeg himself led an elite cavalry of two thousand men there in the summer of 1461 and soon turned the tide against the French and their Italian collaborators in the bloody battle of Apulia. In reading the accounts of Skenderbeg’s exhortation to his soldiers before the battle of Apulia, one is reminded of George Washington exhorting his troops at Valley Forge:
This now is our case, my good soldiers…. We are now across the sea far fromour own homes and from our own country…. We are amongst strangers,altogether without hope of ever returning again to our own (home)…if we do notwin a notable victory over our enemies. But have courage, my men:Let us consider that this is God’s will…that we should maintain…the seat of the Church.And never doubt that He will send us even from heaven an easy and speedyvictory…and then shall we return to our own country victors, joyous and triumphant.
One might ask, after hearing of the greatness of Skenderbeg, why he is not as well known today as before. I believe that the history of Gjergj Kastrioti is inextricably tied to that of the Albanian people. The Albanian nation was submerged under the Ottoman Empire for 425 years. When it emerged in 1912, it was unfairly divided so that only half of the seven million Albanians who live in the Balkans today live in the State of Albania, with the other half living on her borders in five other jurisdictions. The State of Yugoslavia was created after World War I on the backs of the Albanian people and on their land. Then Communism again submerged the Albanian people—this time throwing them into a political and economic “black hole,” stretching from Belgrade to Tirana, for almost fifty years after World War II. It is a wonder that the Albanian people kept their language, their history, and their hope alive throughout the last six hundred years of occupation and resistance. It is a wonder that, amid all the national stress and personal sacrifice, that Gjergj Kastrioti has not been forgotten altogether.
But he has not been forgotten, and it is a tribute to this greatness and to the besa* of the Albanian people that, against all odds, Albanians are standing free today, in Albania and Kosova, and that the sons and daughters of Skenderbeg continue to adore him as their national hero and liberator, and are building even more memorials to his past and present glory and significance—even, with a U.S. Congressional Resolution (H.Res. 522), in the capital of the only superpower in the world today, Washington, DC.
The battle of Apulia in the southern part of the Italian Peninsula, near Naples, is of special significance to me and my family. In 1461, after Skenderbeg and his elite cavalry helped save the Kingdom of Naples from French domination, the future security of the Kingdom was assured when Gjergj Kastrioti decided to leave two thousand horsemen there, while he returned to Albania to continue to defend the Albanian people from Ottoman Turkish domination. As an inducement for Skenderbeg to agree to what must have been a difficult decision for him, the King of Naples awarded the Albanian soldiers an area about forty miles east of Naples, including a high mountaintop village called Greci. Greci had been formed by Greek farmers and merchants in 535 AD and had since declined after most Greeks abandoned the area that they had controlled in the first millennium. Albanians changed the name of the village to “Katundi,” which is the name used today by the Albanian residents, even though the Italians still call it Greci. My father, Joseph, Sr. immigrated to America from Katundi in 1929 at the age of fifteen. His family is descended from one of Skenderbeg’s two thousand soldiers, and this is a great reminder that the seeds of Skenderbeg are still spreading across the oceans of the world today.
* Besa is derived from the ancient moral code of the Albanian people.