Albania:A Brief History

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Although the exact origin of Albania is not entirely known, records exist that trace their evolution from the ancient Illyrians. The Illyrians, who are believed to have evolved directly from the Stone Age, occupied the western area of the Balkans, from modern Slovenia to approximately half of the way through modern Greece. Shkodra, now the most important city of northern Albania, was the capital.(1)

The Illyrians were sociable and hospitable people, much like Albanians today. They were also daring fighters and known for their bravery in war.

Around eight to six century B.C., the neighboring Greeks began to create a string of colonies along the Albanian borders. Closer now to the more advanced Greeks, the Illyrians were greatly influenced and began to evolve politically and economically.

Unfortunately, the evolution was hampered by what would become a continuous string of foreign attacks. Seeing Albania as a valuable entrance to the Adriatic Sea, Rome attacked and defeated the Illyrians in 229 B.C. The Romans ruled for six centuries, a time in which art and culture flourished. The Illyrians, however, resisted assimilation and allowed their language and traditions to survive.(1)

Eventually, the Roman Empire did fall, dividing Albania into halves, and allowing the Byzantine Empire to assume control. Under the rule of the Byzantines, the Illyrians suffered constant devastation by raids from the Visigoths, Huns and Ostrogoths. Once again, however, the Illyrians allowed their language to survive by resisting all attempts by their attackers at assimilation.

Although possessing a common territory, language, and culture, the Illyrians lacked the unity of a name until geographer Ptolemy of the Albanoi tribe prompted the name of his central Albanian tribe to be used across the land. Thus the name Shqiperia(Albania in the native language) was created, meaning the land of eagles.(1)

The newly named Albania reached a high point of development during the middle ages. Commerce and economy flourished, so much to the point that many Albanian merchants had agencies in other countries.

However, as the ruling Byzantine Empire weakened, Albania was attacked by more foreign powers. The Bulgarians, Norman crusaders, Serbs and Venetians all wreaked havoc on the Albanians until the conquest by the Ottoman Turks in 1388.(1)

Although the Turks brought about oppression and violence unseen by the Albanians before, it also brought a change. In 1443, an Albanian military genius, Gjergj Kastrioti(Skanderberg), rallied the Albanians together and drove out the Turks. Although Kastrioti's death meant the eventual return of the Turks in 1468, the 25 years of resilience gained two accomplishments for the Albanians. Recognizing the successful fight against the most powerful empire of the time, Naples, Venice and Ragus granted monetary and military aid to the Albanians. More importantly, though, the success gave the Albanians an everlasting symbol of strength and an inspiration for a quest for independence. A statue of Skanderberg stands at the back of Skanderberg Square in Albania's capital, Tirana, today.

The re-emergence of the Turks during the Renaissance period hampered Albania's growth in spite of their new found inspiration. Under the dominance, Albania was excluded from the exchanges with western Europe during the time. Art, economy and culture were destroyed, forcing many Albanians to leave their native land.(1)

Albanian rebellions were numerous throughout the time. Many Albanians refused to pay taxes, surrender their arms or serve in the army. The Turks, recognizing the disobedience, thought that by converting the Christian population to Muslim, the Albanians would be brought together and spiritually closer to Albania. Two-thirds of the population converted, many fearing violence and exploitation if they did not do so.

The drive for independence was still strong within the Albanians. Throughout the 19th Century, resisting the Turks attempts at assimilation, leaders led their country with the rallying cry,"The religion of Albanians is Albanianism!" The leaders formed the Albanian League in 1878 to unite the country and develop the native language, literature, education and to adopt a new alphabet. In 1908, the Albanians fought again, and by 1912, they succeeded in making the Turks agree to their demands for autonomy.(1)

With their independence, Albania faced new problems with the rise of the communist People's Republic of Albania in 1941. College instructor Enver Hoxha became ruler of the party, and eventually a cunning, ruthless, and oppressive leader.

Hoxha, a friend and follower of Stalin, did not believe in freedom of expression or thought. Instead, Hoxha believed in the independence and isolation of Albania. Bunkers still exist today, scattered throughout the country, constructed during the time to fend off invaders. But as the influence of foreign technology and advancements were kept away from Albania's workers, industry and economy declined. By the time Hoxha died in 1976, Albania had gone back to rely on manual labor and only it's own resources.(1)

Although Hoxha's death meant new hope for the Albanians, it wasn't until the early 1990s that change was prominent. On February 20, 1991, rioters toppled the statue Hoxha had erected of himself in Tirana. With the new election of Democratic Party in December of 1992 Albania saw new hope. Priests who had been jailed for their views were released finally, religion was legalized, the country was free. In 1992, Sali Berisha was elected president, promising reform in the economic and social foundations of the country.(1)

Albania is now facing new problems and challenges, but not from an insurgence of foreign attacks, from it's own people. This time they are not united as before, but divided in their struggle.