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The Story of Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg – A True Enemy to the Sultan

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Early life of Gjergj Kastrioti

Gjergj Kastrioti, the younger son of Gjon Kastrioti, was born, as it is surmised, about the year 1405. Still as a youngster he was handed over as a pawn together with his brothers to the Turks. The humanist from Shkoder, Marin Barletius. in his monumental work in Latin on Scanderbeg, which was published between the years 1508-1510, says that Gjergj was surrendered as pawn to Sultan Murat II when he was nine years old. A series of other documents dating from the 15th century admit likewise that he was given as pawn to Sultan Murat II when he was still a boy. However. Murat II ascended to the throne in the year 1421 and the surrender as pawn, as it is believed, took place in the year 1423 when the Turkish Sultan had completed the subjugation of the Albanian nobles. At that period Gjergj Kastrioti was approximately 18, and not nine years old, as is claimed by Barletius. Sturdy, dexterous, comely and intelligent, as the Turkish chroniclers describe him, he made an impression on the court of Edrene. As the son of a vassal ruler, the Sultan had him sent to the military school of “ich-ogllans”, which was near the palace. According to custom, he was converted to Mohammedanism, and was given the name of Skender. His biographers affirm that he finished military school with brilliant results. In 1426 we find Gjergj once again in Albania, but after that, for many years consecutively, we lose sight of him in the documents. Undoubtedly, he was still kept as pawn in the imperial court of the Sultan. As soldier and as the son of a vassal, Gjergj, with the name of Skender was obliged to take part in the usual expeditions of the Turks. During these campaigns he distinguished himself as a soldier and won the title of “beg” which at that time was a military grade. He was thus called Scanderbeg. By taking part in those expeditions he at the same time won the confidence of the Sultan. In 1438 Murat II appointed Scanderbeg subash of the vilayet of Kruja, one of the most important vilayets of the sandjak of Albania.

Beginnings of a Rebellion

Though he served for many years in the Turkish army, Scanderbeg did not forget his motherland, which was suffering under the Turkish yoke. He preserved his love for the freedom of his country and of his compatriots. As soon as he arrived at Kruja as subash, he began secretly to prepare the organization of the revolt for liberation. But he realized that in order not to meet with failure as in the previous revolts, the present insurrection should have a long and careful preparation. After ascertaining the acquiescence of the popular masses, Scanderbeg sought to insure also international support. By means of his aged father, he entered into a secret understanding with the Republic of Venice as well as with that of Ragusa, and these two pledged him their friendship.In 1440 Scanderbeg left Kruja and it is presumed that he went to the sandjakbey of the sandjak of Dibra. Here he continued his preparations and, always with the same object in view, he came in touch with other states, too, especially with Naples and with Hungary. But despite the readiness of the popular masses and of the instigations on the part of the states with which he had come in touch, Scanderbeg delayed the revolt until the autumn of the year 1443, when favourable conditions were created. On November 3, 1443 the Hungarian armies most courageously crossed the Danube and started their offensive in the direction of the city of Nish, thus creating panic in the rank and file of the Turkish armies. Scanderbeg thought that the appropriate hour had struck. In the midst of the turmoil and confusion of the retreat, together with his nephew Hamza Kastrioti and with 300 horsemen, he abandoned the front, and after some days arrived at Dibra, where he was received with acclamation by the population of the city. At Dibra, Scanderbeg took urgent measures to clear the land of the Turkish garrisons. In the whole system of these garrisons, a key position was held by the Castle of Kruja, with its strong strategic situation that rendered it extremely difficult to be seized by fighting. By means of a false imperial writ of the Sultan, stating that he was re-appointed as subash of Kruja, he took possession of the city and of the castle. During the night he introduced into the city his soldiers who lay hidden in a nearby forest and, together with numerous loyal citizens, assailed and annihilated the Turkish garrison of the castle.

An open rebellion against the Ottoman Sultan

The uprising of Scanderbeg offered the opportunity to other nobles to liberate, their respective feudal domains. During the month of December 1443 the whole of central Albania was cleared of the Turkish forces After the victory of the uprisings in these districts, before Scanderbeg and other leaders lay the task of unification of all the forces in manpower and in materials of the country, not only for the defence of their freedom but also in order to offer resistance to the expeditions which the Sultan would undoubtedly send as soon as he had nullified the pressure of the Hungarian offensive, but also with the object of liberating the other districts of Albania. To achieve this task, a general assembly met at Lezhe on March 2, 1444 on the initiative of Scanderbeg, which was attended by practically all the Albanian nobles, among whom also were those who had led the previous insurrections against the Turks— Gjergj Arianit, Andrea Thopia, Nikolla Dukagjmi, Theodor Muzaki and others. The chieftains of free Albanians also took part in the assembly. Incited by the interest to protect the feudal domains, the nobles, notwithstanding the divergences they had with each other, took the decision to unite in the common war against the Turks. Each noble pledged before the assembly the number of soldiers and the amount of money that he would give to this new Alliance. Through this organization Scanderbeg could raise, in case of necessity, an army of 15,000-18,000 soldiers.

The First victories of Scanderbeg

In spring, as soon as Hunyadi had withdrawn into Hungary, the Sultan decided to crush the successful uprising of the Albanians. In June of the year 1444, a Turkish army composed of 25 thousand soldiers under the command of Ali Pasha entered Albania from the Dibra district. The army under Scanderbeg marched to meet it and took up positions facing them in the plain of Domosdova, Ali Pasha initiated the assault on June 29, 1444. Scanderbeg manoeuvred with dexterity, feigning to accept the battle, and retreated as if he were defeated until he enticed the Turkish army into the narrow Torviolli plain, surrounded by mountains and forests. While the Turks thought they had caught Scanderbeg in a trap, they found that they were encircled by hidden forces of Scanderbeg, who assailed them from all quarters until they annihilated them completely. The Sultan sent against Scanderbeg two other expeditions  one in 1445 and the other in 1446. But these expeditions also were crushed by his tactics and ferocity of his army. In 1447 the Turks did not molest Albania. But that year the Albanians had troubles with the Republic of Venice. In the spring of the year 1448, while the wars with Venice still continued, the conditions of the Albanians suddenly deteriorated. From the east a huge Turkish army with Sultan Murat II in person at its head, arrived in June at the gates of the neighbouring castle of Sfetigrad, which they besieged, and then passed by, continuing their march on Kruja. The arrival of the Turks placed Scanderbeg between two fires. In order to put out the fire on one side, Scanderbeg undertook a series of speedy actions against the Venetians in the region of Shkoder. With the aid of native farmers, who revolted, he beat the Venetian army in the battle of Drin, on July 23, 1448, and won a brilliant victory. In Sfetigrad the Sultan had to face incredible resistance. The besieged garrison defended the castle heroically. In order to assuage the condition of the besieged, Scanderbeg as soon as he had arrived at Sfetigrad, began to storm the Turks from the rear. The resistance of Sfetigrad lasted until the autumn. At the end. the Turks discovered the conduit that furnished the castle with water, and obliged the garrison constrained by thirst, to surrender. Though Sfetigrad had capitulated, the Sultan did not continue his march on Kruja. The news that Hunyadi was getting ready for a new campaign obliged Murat II to return to Edrene to make his preparations against the Hungarians. This news convinced Scanderbeg also of the necessity to bring speedily to an end the war with the Venetians, and to have, in this manner, his hands free in order to take part in the Hungarian campaign, as it had been agreed between him and Hunyadi. But the preliminary parleys dragged on, and the peace treaty was signed on October 4, 1448. only after Scanderbeg had agreed to abandon Dania. In compensation, the Republic promised to pay to Scanderbeg 1,400 golden ducats each year.

Murat II determined to crush the rebellion

In the year 1450 Sultan Murat II resolved to give a decisive blow to the resistance of the Albanians. After gathering all the Turkish armies, about 100 thousand strong, at the beginning of May 1450 he set out at their head, once more toward Albania, tins time with the aim of capturing Kruja. In order to face that formidable army, Scanderbeg gave the alarm for general mobilization. To his call responded all the men of the principality fit for fighting. Within a couple of days an army of nearly 18,000 men was raised. As soon as they penetrated into Albania, the Turkish armies all along the Shkumbin valley met with the ambushes of Albanian peasants, and were obliged to fight with heavy losses and to pursue the mobile bands into the depth of the country, and often they succumbed at their ambuscades. After heavy losses, the Sultan with the bulk of his army, appeared on May 14, 1450, before Kruja. After the endeavours of the Sultan to get hold of the citadel without fighting, through threats and bribes, had failed, the Turks began to bombard with heavy artillery which threw shells of about 400 pounds. The bombardment was followed by a general assault of the Turks. But all the endeavours were frustrated. The garrison defended the citadel heroically. Scanderbeg from outside attacked the Turkish army once from one flank, then from the other, causing them great anxiety and damage. On the other hand, the peasant bands assailed the caravans that furnished the Turkish army with provisions from Macedonia and Venice. During the summer, the Turks tried several other times to capture Kruya by assault, but the war waged by the Albanians on all the fronts frustrated their efforts completely. After an unsuccessful siege of four and a half months, with the approach of winter. Sultan Murat II withdrew his camp on October 26, 1450, and returned to Edrene together with his defeated army. The victory had a resounding echo within as well as outside the boundaries of the country. European courts, through the delegations and messages they sent to Kruya, congratulated Scanderbeg for this brilliant achievement.

Scanderbeg and his fight against the new Sultan Mehmed II el Fatih

In 1462 the situation had again deteriorated. On one side the Republic of Venice, uneasy on account of the reinforcement of the alliance of Scanderbeg with Naples, its rival, began again with the provocations by instigating the separatist nobles against Scanderbeg. On the other side, Sultan Mehmed II, believing that Scanderbeg’s situation was impaired and in order not to allow him to take part in the Crusade, broke the armistice and dispatched, one after the other, three expeditions against Scanderbeg. Scanderbeg, informed in time, quickly returned from Naples to Kruya and again faced the aggravated situation. Within a month he made an end of the three Turkish expeditions.After these expeditions had failed, in the spring of the year 1463 Sultan Fatih proposed to Scanderbeg to sign this time no more an armistice, but a treaty of ten years’ peace. Scanderbeg accepted the proposal and the peace was signed at Skopje, in April of the year 1463. The organizers of the Crusade, with Pope Pius II at its head, were distressed by the peace accord, and applied their pressure on Scanderbeg in order to oblige him to begin once more the wars with the Turks. At the start Scanderbeg refused to comply. But in the following months it appeared that the Crusade was ready to commence. In the summer Venice started a war against Turkey. The Republic, which was anxious to have Scanderbeg fight, renounced its previous hostile attitude and even banded itself with Scanderbag in a treaty of alliance against the Turks. The separatist nobles, among them Lek Dukagjini, approached Scanderbeg and put themselves under his command. In November, Pius II proclaimed the commencement of the Crusade These events persuaded Scanderbeg, and therefore at the end of November 1463 he restarted the war against the Turks. But the Crusaders, on account of their conflicts with each other did not move against the Turks. With the death of Pius II in August 1464, the Crusade ended definitely. With its elimination the Scanderbag found himself once more face to face with the enraged Sultan. The Albanians were obliged to face the fury of Fatih in extremely difficult circumstances. From the 20 years’ war, the country was dilapidated, the national economy was destroyed, the land was denuded of its population, partly through slaughters, partly on account of emigration. The fields were desolate, men fit to bear arms had diminished. The hopes to receive succour from abroad were scarce. The European states in general did not manifest any concern for the Balkans, although their fate was being played there. Ferdinand of Naples was not in a condition to help his ally. The new Pope, Paul II, a great miser, complained that the Vatican coffers were empty, and gave no hope of giving any help to Scanderbeg. The new allies, the Venetians, were not entirely reliable because from one moment to the other they might come to peace terms with the Sultan, besides they too had proved very parsimonious in their military and financial grants. In this state of affairs, in 1465 the Sultan sent against Scanderbeg five expeditions, one after the other, under the command of Ballaban Pasha, However, as each time before, this year too the five expeditions were crushed.

 Mehmed II the Conqueror takes the lead of the Ottoman armies against Scanderbeg

The Turkish expeditions were launched at harvest time. The damages were so immense that the population entered into the winter under the threat of famine, and with the greatest difficulty survived until the spring of the year 1466 Yet in June, at the threshold of the new harvesting, at a time when the grain stores were entirely empty, Sultan Fatih together with Ballaban Pasha, at the head of the entire imperial army of 150,000 men, started their march on Albania. All this immense mass of soldiers pushed onwards burning everything and killing everyone they found on their way. This time too the events of the year 1450 repeated themselves. The peasants withdrew their families from unprotected places and laid ambush all along the road against Fatih’s soldiers. As the chroniclers themselves admit, the Ottoman armies had to fight tooth and nail all along the read and to pursue the Albanian bands far into the highlands in front of unimaginable acts of heroism. At last Fatih with the major part of his army arrived before Kruya and laid siege to the citadel. Scanderbeg this time also had left in the fortress a small garrison under the command of Tanush Thopia, while he himself with the other part of the army remained outside the ramparts. As 15 years before, the besieged Kruya heroically stood fast against the Turkish assaults. After two months’ struggle without success, the Sultan with a portion of his army departed from Kruia and left there Ballaban Pasha to continue the siege with the hope that the garrison would surrender because of hunger. In order to assure the rear of the Turkish army, Fatih built in the valley of Shkumbin near the ruins of the ancient city of Skampa, a strong fortress, to which he gave the name “Ilbasan” (Elbasan), an Arabic word which means “dominating place”. Ballaban Pasha held Kruja besieged, thus aggravating to the extreme point the conditions of the Albanian garrison. Scanderbeg undertook from the outside a series of assaults against the Turkish army, but did not succeed in hewing a breach in the lines of the besiegers. The lack of arms and of provisions became alarming. In spite of all, the rebels with Scanderbeg did not lose heart. After Scanderbeg had returned to Albania from Italy to try and ask from help with the hardships of the siege from the Turks but nothing came of it but still even while returning empty handed he succeeded by winning a brilliant victory. In April they routed the Turkish army which had encircled Kruya, liberating their capital from the prolonged siege. In this encounter was slain Ballaban Pasha also. Yet in July 1467 the whole Turkish army with Sultan Mehmet at its head again assaulted Albania. At Buzurshek near Elbasan a bloody battle was fought out. Through the victory he had achieved, Fatih thought he had brought to an end Scanderbeg . But at Kruya he met  with a new unbelievable resistance. The besieged Kruya for a  second time heaped shame on the Conqueror of Constantinople. After three weeks the Sultan departed and Scanderbeg once again liberated the glorious capital.

Unexpected death of Scanderbeg the hero and leader of the long rebellion against the Ottoman dominance

In order to gather force and new equipment, Scanderbeg decided to appeal once more to the country, particularly to the nobles who had kept themselves aloof. With this aim in view he proposed to restore, as in 1444, the Alliance that had broken down do to separatism, and invited the nobles to assemble in January of the year 1468 in a Convention at Lezhe. At the convention Scanderbeg urged the nobles to give military and financial aid to carry on the war against the common enemy. In the meanwhile another Turkish army was directed in the midst of winter against Scanderbeg from the north of Shkoder. As always Scanderbeg prepared to march at the head of his army against the foe. But seized by fever his exhausted body could not resist the illness. After a few days, while his armies were gaining another brilliant victory in the neighbourhood of Shkoder, Gjergj Kastriot Scanderbeg, covered in everlasting glory, died at Lezhe on January 17, 1468. The unexpected death of Scanderbeg caused a general affliction throughout the country. In him the many peoples throughout the Balkans lost their immortal hero, the gifted organizer of the revolt which brought freedom to the land, the ingenious strategist who for a quarter of a century scored inconceivable victories ever enemies many times superior. His death did not end the rebellion which continued long after his sudden and unexpected end.

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