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Robert Elsie

Early Albania
A Reader of Historical Texts
11th - 17th Centuries

Balkanologische Veröffentlichungen, 39

ISBN 3-447-04783-6
Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden 2003
ix + 235 pp.


    Geographically, Albania has always been at the crossroads of empires and civilisations even though it has often been isolated from the mainstream of European history. For centuries in ancient times, it formed the political, military and cultural border between East and West, i.e. between the Roman Empire of the western Mediterranean including much of the northern Balkans, and the Greek Empire of the eastern Mediterranean including the southern Balkans. In the Middle Ages, Albania was once again a buffer zone, this time between Catholic Italy and the Byzantine Greek Empire. Later, after its definitive conquest by the Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth century, it formed a bridgehead between Christian Europe and the Islamic Orient.
    As a geographical and cultural entity, and as a nation, Albania has always been somewhat enigmatic and misunderstood. In the eighteenth century, historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) described it as a land within sight of Italy and less known than the interior of America.
    The present volume endeavours to throw light on this corner of Europe, which is often ignored by historians. The book is not a history of early Albania, but rather a collection of important historical documents and texts from the eleventh to the seventeenth centuries, which will add to an understanding of the early history and development of the country and its people. The vast majority of these works has never been published in English before.
    The Albanian people were originally a small herding community in the mountainous terrain of the southwestern Balkans. Much has been written and speculated about their origins, in particular by the Albanians themselves who are passionately interested in tracing their roots and in establishing their autochthony in the Balkans. Despite this, nothing has been proven conclusively. What we can say with reasonable certainty is that there is no evidence indicating that the Albanians immigrated to the southwest Balkans from anywhere else. As such, it may be safely assumed that they are indigenous to the region, as opposed to their Slavic neighbours who invaded the Balkans from the north in the sixth and seventh centuries.
    In view of this autochthony, it can also be taken for granted that the Albanians are, in some form, descendants of the ancient inhabitants of the southern Balkans. To what extent they are the direct heirs of the Illyrians, the Dardanians, the Thracians, the Bessians, some lesser-known people, or a mixture thereof, is a matter which has been much discussed and to which substantial controversy has been attached from the earliest writings on the subject in the eighteenth century right to the present day.
    Unfortunately, we possess no original documents from the first millennium A.D. which could help us trace the Albanians further back into history. They were nomadic tribes in the interior of the country who seem only rarely to have ventured down onto the marshy and mosquito-infected coastline. As such, they long went unnoticed and their early history is thus shrouded in mist.
    A history of the Albanians must best depart from the moment they entered the annals of recorded history. The first references to the Albanians date from the eleventh century, a period in which these tribes were beginning to expand their settlements and consolidate as a people and as a nation. It is only in this age that we may speak with any degree of clarity about an Albanian people as we know them today. Their traditional designation, based on a root *alban- and its rhotacized variants *arban-, *albar-, and *arbar-, first appears from the eleventh century onwards in Byzantine chronicles (Albanoi, Arbanitai, Arbanites), and from the fourteenth century onwards in Latin and other Western documents (Albanenses, Arbanenses).
    The first section of this book focusses therefore on the emergence of the Albanians as a people and provides the reader with the earliest documents which make reference to them.
    The second, and main section of the volume provides a broader view of history and geography and, in particular, of life in Albania from the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries. It relies primarily on the reports of travellers and chroniclers, many of whom offer fascinating, first-hand information on what they saw and experienced during their travels in the country. Such texts are of particular significance in view of the paucity of domestic State, dynastic and ecclesiastical documents. As opposed to their neighbours, the Albanians did not succeed in creating a genuine State of their own during the Middle Ages or during the centuries of the European Renaissance. By the time they were finally in a position to do so, they were overwhelmed and colonized by the Ottoman Turks.
    The most informative texts of this reader, as human accounts, are no doubt the report of Catholic Archbishop Marino Bizzi of 1610 and the record of Ottoman writer Evliya Chelebi from his travels through central Albania in 1670. Some of the reports comprised in this collection were written by Albanians themselves: John Musachi, Pjeter Budi and Frang Bardhi.
    Excluded from the present volume are documents and reports of a purely political or military nature, i.e. concerning the history of Albania during the Ottoman conquest and, in particular, the organized resistance of the Albanians under their leader and now national hero, Scanderbeg (1405-1468). Ideally, a separate volume should be devoted to this subject. Of great interest for an understanding of these events would be a critical edition of the writings of historian Marinus Barletius of Shkodra and of other European historians who chronicled the conquest of Albania and the Balkans by Ottoman forces. Barletius' book "Historia de vita et gestis Scanderbegi, Epirotarum Principis," Rome ca. 1508-1510 (History of the life and deeds of Scanderbeg, prince of Epirus), was among the most widely read and translated works of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This is, nonetheless, beyond the scope of the present volume and must be left to others.
    A short remark must be made, before closing, on place names. In the documents of this book which provide an abundance of toponyms, the original manuscript form has been given for the first instance of usage with the modern form of the place name, if identifiable, in parentheses. Thereafter, the modern form is used.
    It is to be hoped that the present collection will provide food for thought as well as a stimulus for further research into the history and early development of Albania and the southern Balkans. As has often been said, an understanding of the past provides a key to an understanding of the present and the future, and there is certainly nothing in Europe more decisively incomprehensible than the contemporary Balkans.
    It remains for me simply to thank all the people who have helped and encouraged me during the preparation of this volume. I am particularly grateful to Janice Mathie-Heck of Calgary (Alberta) for her assistance with the manuscript.

Robert Elsie
Olzheim/Eifel, Germany
May 2003



The Emergence of the Albanians
Orthodox and Byzantine Sources

  • Anonymous: Fragment on the origins of nations - 1000-1018
  • Michael Attaleiates: The first Byzantine references - 1038, 1042, 1078
  • Anna Comnena: The Norman invasion of Albania - 1081
  • George Acropolites: An Albanian uprising - 1257
  • George Pachymeres: An earthquake in Durrës - 1267
  • John Cantacuzene: Unruly nomads pay homage to the emperor - 1328, 1332, 1336

Reports by Early Travellers and Chroniclers

  • Muhammad al-Idrisi: The Book of Roger - 1154
  • Anonymous: Description of Eastern Europe - 1308
  • Simon Fitzsimons: Itinerary from Ireland to the Holy Land - 1322
  • Anonymous: Initiative for making the passage - 1332
  • Arnold von Harff: Pilgrimage from Cologne - 1497
  • John Musachi: Brief chronicle on the descendants of our Musachi dynasty - 1515
  • Piri Re'is: 'Bahriye', a sailor's handbook - 1521
  • Anonymous: A physical description of Albania and the defence of Ulcinj - 1570
  • Lorenzo Bernardo: Journey of the Venetian ambassador - 1591
  • Marino Bizzi: The Archbishop of Bar taken hostage in Albania - 1610
  • Mariano Bolizza: Report and description of the Sanjak of Shkodra - 1614
  • Pjetër Budi: An Albanian bishop calls for an uprising - 1621
  • Frang Bardhi: A description of Zadrima - 1641
  • Evliya Chelebi: An Ottoman gentleman visits Berat and Elbasan - 1670



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