In Albania, hearts swell with national pride at the mere mention of his name. Born George Castriot into a noble family, the man who would famously go down in history as Skanderbeg led an anti-Ottoman rebellion that planted the seeds of cultural identity for Albania and Macedonia. Fending off the Sultan’s huge armies was, of course, a heroic feat by itself. But locals particularly hold Skanderberg on a pedestal because he once fought within the Ottoman army that he so skillfully defeated.
By Skanderbeg’s time (1405-1468), the Ottomans had already gained a foothold in the Balkans and ruled region with little regard for personal freedoms. At a young age, Skanderbeg was sent away to serve Sultan Murad II and, gaining the confidence of His Highness, found himself in the prestigious position of sanjakbey in the small region of Debar. (In Ottoman days, a “bey” was a chieftain and a “sanjak” was a district.) But it was with great reluctance that he oversaw Debar on behalf of the Ottoman Empire. Soon, the Crusades swept in from the west and claimed victories over the armies of the Sultan, inspiring many officials to revolt. In 1443, during the Battle of Niš, Skanderbeg abandoned his Ottoman army and fled with 300 other Albanians serving the Sultan.
The fledgling army arrived in Krujë and, presenting a forged letter from the Sultan, proclaimed himself governor and lord of the city. After gaining control of vast reaches of land, he raised a flag that—with its black double-headed eagle on a red field—was a precursor of today’s Albanian flag.
As his rebellion continued, early efforts met great success. His followers grew in number and captured large swaths of land. Skanderbeg’s uprising stands out in European history because there was no “foreign” invader to fend off; simply put, the Sultan was already well established in this multi-ethnic region. Albanians, Slavs, Greeks and Turks were either loyal to Skanderbeg or to the Sultan. In this way, the uprising resembled a civil war more than a cross-border war.
Skanderbeg’s rebellion, in effect, lasted until 1479. He worked to unite Albanian princes and their charges and established a central authority, thus becoming the “Lord of Albania.” Throughout this period, the Ottomans continually tried to establish his country as a gateway to Italy and the rest of Europe. As Skanderbeg’s modest army resisted the formidable forces of the Sultan, he earned praise from all over Europe. The Kingdoms of Naples, Venice and Ragusa even offered financial and military aid to express their admiration.
The Ottomans proved too strong in the end. They ruled over much of the Mediterranean from the 14th to the 20th centuries. But the legacy of Skanderbeg—the first leader to unite Albania under one Albanian leader—endures in the nation’s rich national identity.
You can learn more about this legendary historical figure during our new Majestic Balkans itinerary!