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As a region and as a political state, Albania has a rich and long history, beginning in
prehistory. In the several thousand years that have followed the earliest settlers in the region,
Albania has seen the arrival and departure of empires and civilizations. During that time,
wars and conquests have recurred with relatively high frequency-producing a state in the
late 20th century of tense divisions between individuals of different ethnic backgrounds and
Although the actual area of Albania in modern terms is comparatively small in terms of geographic size, the country has an extensive past that it must overcome if it will find lasting peace both within and outside of its borders.
The purpose of this essay is to give an historical reference point for the modern state of affairs in Albania, primarily by examining the long-gone conflicts that fuel current attitudes, prejudices, and biases among the people in the region. This essay will provide context for how and why these conflicts developed, which should provide at least the start of answer for how the people of the region go about healing them.
Albania’s history begins in prehistory, when Indo-European people (predating Greek
civilization) developed a primitive civilization. During the Iron Age, the occupants of the
Albanian region grew quite advanced with the development of bronze swords and the
domestication of horses. At this time, Illyrians (a group of tribes inhabiting the Western
Balkans in antiquity) lived in the area of the Danube, Sava, and Morava rivers as they
connected to the Adriatic Sea and Shar Mountains.
During this time, Illyrians occupied much
of the land north of Ancient Greece.
In the Fourth Century BC, several tribes of the Illyrians were united under a single king, who attempted to conquer parts of Macedon, but failed. In a series of defeats at the hands of Macedon, including by Alexander the Great, the Illyrians eventually fell to the Romans in 168 BC. These series of defeats, each of which lasted two years or less, are documented as part of the Illyrian Wars.
After falling to the Romans, Illyricum was incorporated into the Roman Empire as a
province on the north side of the river Drin. The region of Illyria would remain a central part
of the Illyricum province of the Roman Empire. Eventually, however, the region became
divided, with the south part becoming part of the Macedonia province.
Modern Albania more closely resembles this region that was folded into Macedonia by the Late Roman Empire. With the rise of Byzantium, Illyria was Christianized in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, but although Illyria fell within the Byzantine Empire, the region would remain under the control of the Roman pope until much later in the gth century AD.
When the Church split between Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism in the 11th century AD, the southern part of Illyria maintained its connection with Constantinople’s Orthodox Christianity while the northern part adopted the jurisdiction of Roman Catholicism-representing the first, but not the last, religion division of the Albanian region and its people.
In the Middle Ages, the Albanian region became known as the Principality of Arber
(or Arberia) with its capital in Kruja, a city in north central Albania. Arberia was founded in
the 12th century by Progon, who ruled over the principality with several other leaders until its
dissolution in the mid-13th century. When this dissolution occurred, combined with the
downfall of the Byzantine and Bulgarian Empires, much of the territory within modern
Albania (including the Principality of Arber) came under the rule of the Serbian Empire.
When the Serbian Empire weakened enough, the Ottoman Empire conquered areas in south
and central Albania for their own control in the 14th century. Their control of the region began
in about 1385 with the Battle of Sara. They would expand their empire from Anatolia to the
Balkans; by the start of the 15th century, the Ottomans would control most of the Balkan
Peninsula, anticipating an advance into Albanian lands.
However, that advance into Albania was interrupted by George Kastrioti Skanderbeg,
a national hero serving as a symbol for Albanian nationalism. At the time, Skanderbeg was seen as a major point of Christian resistance to the Islamic Ottoman Empire; he would later
be a key figure in Albania’s National Awakening. Along with the rest of the Albanian chiefs
in the League of Lezhë, Skanderbeg fought off Ottoman rule successfully until 1468.
By a decade later, however, the Ottoman Empire had almost fully conquered Albania. During the Ottoman rule over the Balkans, Albanians in the regions of Albania and Macedonia largely adopted the Islamic religious order of the state, which entitled them to occupy primarily Albanian lands during the height of the Ottoman Empire.
Ultimately, the trade routes opened up by Ottoman rule allowed many Albanians to take on
prominent positions in the Ottoman government, leading to prosperity and social welfare.
While Skanderbeg’s public resistance to Ottoman rule was clear and decisive, the benefits of
an outside government, which left semi-autonomous Albanian ruled Pashaliks, were
By the late 19th century, however, Albanian nationalism was becoming clear. The
Albanian National Awakening began searching for Albanian independence, which would
come in a 1912 Declaration of Independence. Resistant to the “Turkish yoke”, nationalist
mythologies had taken hold for the empire’s Balkan people. Albanians leveraged ethnic
differences (particularly the fear that they would lose Albanian-populated lands to new
Balkan states) to rise up in 1908 and 1910 with the aim of removing the Ottoman Empire
By 1913, Albania had achieved independence, but political organization was put
on hold by World War I. After years of struggle and political upheaval, followed by World
War II, a Socialist Albania emerged in 1944, which brought rapid economic growth and
prosperity. The country went as far as to ban religion in 1967,
claiming religion was holding the country back.
Indeed, religion and the connected issue of ethnic identity is the cause of much conflict between Albanians and neighboring groups. Because of the power structure put in place by the Ottoman Empire, giving authority to largely Muslim Albanian populations over the Christian Slav masses, with the Christian group being in the subordinate position, one can see the origins of an inter-ethnic relationship.
Slav memories of Albanian rule is definitely a point of resentment, especially when paired with poor living conditions of Christian peasants. Of course, with the arrival of Slavs in the Balkans in the 7th century, the relationship between Albanians and Slavs was not new to the late Middle Ages.
However, Albanian minorities have been the victims of xenophobia and nationalist prejudices
throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. The Kosovo War, which is the most recent example of
ethnic conflict involving the victimization of Albanian people in the region, started with the
attempted relocation of Albanians in Yugoslavia. Based on Yugoslav’s alleged right over
Kosovo as a province, Kosovo was treated as a republic of Yugoslavia in 1974.
Similar to Kosovo, the region of Chameria was cut off from Albania. In 1913, as part
of the London Peace Conference following the Balkan Wars, Chameria was divided between
the Kingdom of Greece, with a small piece of land integrated into the new Albania. The
portion absorbed into Greece included Muslim Albanians, who were pressured into
assimilation from a language and culture standpoint. Although ethnically Albanian, the lands
were allocated to Greece, which is reflective of the overall status of the historically Albanian
region, which is an irredentist concept of lands belonging to the homeland of most Albanians.
Generally, following the history of Illyria to Arberia to modern-day Albania, we see a trend
towards a smaller state and more tension between ethnicities in the Balkan region, which is
true for Chameria, Kosovo, the Presevo Valley of Serbia, southern Montenegro, and pieces of
Following this history, we see greater examples of Albanophobia, which are rooted inthese historical conflicts but especially clear in modern times. Albanophobia is prejudice
towards ethnic Albanians, particularly in countries with large minority populations, such as Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia.
Albanophobia generally qualifies as xenophobic, referring to racism against Albanian immigrants in countries like Greece, Turkey, and Italy, or nationalistic, referring to racism against Albanians in countries with on-going disputes with members of the Albanian ethnic group, especially in Yugoslav countries. Problems of prejudice in Greece are worrisome in light of the Greek media’s role in the construction of negative stereotypes of Albanians in the culture.
Likewise, negative views of immigrants in Italy and Macedonia fuel ethnic tensions, especially in light of the latter’s armed conflict with the National Liberation Army in the early 21st century.
Finally, in Serbia, anti-Albanian propaganda is nationalistic to the degree that Serbians
promoted xenophobia toward other ethnicities in Yugoslavia, commonly characterizing
Albanians as a threat to the Serbian way of life.
As we see from this survey of Albanian history, these inter-ethnic conflicts are rooted
in many centuries of different groups occupying a very limited amount of space in the
Balkans. With religious divisions and assimilation, the problems have only grown worse with
time up to now, when although armed conflicts are no longer an everyday reality for
Albanians and other groups, racism and prejudice are very real problems in these new Balkan
states, espousing nationalism and xenophobia as a way of holding on to existing power
Many of the lands that are considered ethnically Albanian belong to other countries besides modern-day Albania, which is an unfortunate result of history not cleanly dividing lands to those groups to whom they rightfully belong. Instead, the Balkan states continue to clash over which lands belong to whom, when in reality, they belong to the Albanian people.
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