The western part of the Balkan peninsula is known to the ancient Greeks as Illyria. The Illyrians, a group of Indo-European tribes, have been in the area since at least 1000 BC. Their region becomes prosperous during the Roman empire and is devastated by the subsequent passage of Visigoths and Huns on their way into Europe. But these waves of people, however destructive, merely pass through.
The next to arrive in the Balkans, in the 6th century AD, are the Slavs – and they come to stay. Gradually they predominate in the entire region of Illyria except for mountainous Albania. The Albanians become the only identifable group descending directly from the Illyrians.
In its strategic but exposed position, Albania is a pawn in the shifting patterns of power through the centuries. It is in the Byzantine empire, it is prey to Norman adventurers from southern Italy, it is in the Latin empire of Constantinople, its ports are occupied by Venice and finally it is absorbed within the Ottoman empire.
Early rule by the Turks is repeatedly frustrated by the achievements of Albania’s national hero, Skanderbeg. Son of an Albanian princely family, he is taken as a hostage to Istanbul and is brought up to be a Muslim warrior. But when sent into service in the Balkans, he changes sides, proclaims himself a Christian and leads a movement to liberate his people.
From 1443 to 1467 Skanderbeg frustrates a succession of Turkish armies sent to subdue him, on occasion even armies led in person by the sultans Murad and Mehmed II. But after his death, in 1468, Albania sinks into an uninterrupted four centuries of subjection to Turkish rule.
Sealed off from the constant struggles between Christian nations and the Turks elswhere in the Balkans, Albania becomes fully absorbed into the Ottoman empire. Education is only in Turkish; the only chance of advancement is in the Turkish administration or army. Eventually more than two thirds of the Albanian population are Muslim, with the rest being divided between Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox.
As a result a nationalist movement develops later in Albania than elsewhere in the region. But in the late 19th century there are attempts to print some works of literature in Albanian – an activity forbidden by the Turks and made more difficult by the lack of an agreed alphabet.
The defining moment of Albanian nationalism is a congress held at Bitolj in 1909, which adopts a standard way of writing and spelling the Albanian language in Roman letters. The same congress appoints a committee of national union, aiming at this stage only for autonomy within the Ottoman empire. But events move faster than the committee could possibly envisage. Three years later, turmoil in the region leads almost instantly to Albanian independence.
The first Balkan War: AD 1912-1913
The Balkan upheavals of 1912 begin in Albania. A national uprising against the Turks is so successful that an Albanian army presses far enough east to occupy the Macedonian city of Skopje. This success stirs the Balkan states to action, for an independent Albania is not part of their plans. In October 1912 Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria go to war against Turkey.
The allies rapidly make inroads into Macedonia and Albania. In the east the Bulgarians push the Turks back to their defensive lines at Catalca, only sixty miles from Istanbul. In the west the Greeks move into southern Albania and the Serbians reach the Adriatic, capturing the port of Durrës on November 28.
On the same day at Vlorë, another port fifty miles to the south, the Albanians declare their independence and set up their first national government. But the issue is now taken into international hands.
Austria-Hungary, in particular, is determined not to have a strengthened Serbia on her southern border. A conference of ambassadors of the relevant powers (Italy, Austria-Hungary, Russia, the Ottoman empire) convenes in London in December to discuss the issue. It is agreed that the independence of Albania should be recognized, but there is much dispute as to the exact boundaries. Russian pressure on behalf of the Serbs results eventually in one glaring anomaly. The province of Kosovo, containing some 800,000 Albanian inhabitants, is severed from Albania and allotted to Serbia.