Albania is located in the European continent, precisely in the west of the Balkan’s Peninsula. It has a total area of 28,748 km2, and it’s border is 1094 km long, of which 657 km are land border, 316 km are maritime border, 48 km are river border, and 73 km are lake border.
The longest distance between the farthest northern area of Vermosh and the farthest southern area of Konispol is 335 km; while the distance between the farthest eastern area in the village of Vernik and the farthest western area in Sazan is 150 km.
Albania is bounded by Montenegro to the northwest, Kosovo to the northeast, North Macedonia to the east, Greece to the southeast and south, and the Adriatic and Ionian seas to the west and southwest, respectively. Albania’s immediate western neighbour, Italy, lies some 80 km across the Adriatic Sea. Albania has a length of about 340 km and a width of about 150 km.
Geographically, Albania’s locaction is situated in the crossroads of the shortest routes from the Western Mediterranean to the Balkans and Anatolia, along the Strait of Otranto. In centuries the fluvial areas (of Drin, Mat, Shkumbin, and Vjosa) have facilitated communication of the Balkans with the Adriatic Sea, and Anatolia with the Western Mediterranean.
Albania has a mountainous geography. About three-fourths of its territory consists of mountains and hills with elevations of more than 200 metres above sea level; the remainder consists of coastal and alluvial lowlands. The North Albanian Alps, an extension of the Dinaric Alps, cover the northern part of the country. With elevations approaching 2,700 metres, this is the most rugged part of the country. It is heavily forested and sparsely populated.
In contrast to the Alps, the central mountain region, which extends north-south from the Drin River to the central Devoll and lower Osum rivers, is more densely populated and has a generally less rugged terrain. In the region’s easternmost portion, the imposing gypsum block of Albania’s highest peak, Mount Korab, rises to 9,030 feet (2,752 metres).
South of the central mountain region is a series of northwest-southeast-trending mountain ranges with elevations up to 8,200 feet (2,500 metres). Composed of limestone rock, the ranges are separated by wide valleys. Unlike the Alps and the central region, which are covered with dense forests, the mountains of the southern region are either bare or have a thin covering of Mediterranean shrubs, oaks, and pines. They serve essentially as pasture for livestock.
Stretching along the Adriatic coast over a distance of nearly 125 miles (200 km) and penetrating some 30 miles (50 km) into the interior are the low, fertile plains of western Albania. This is the most important agricultural and industrial region of the country—and the most densely populated.
The longest river in Albania is the Drin, about 280 km, which originates in Kosovo. Other main rivers are the Seman, Shkumbin, and Vjosë, all of which drain the central part of the western plains. Albania also has many lakes, the most important of which are Lake Scutari (known in Albania as Lake Shkodër) in the northwest and Lakes Ohrid and Prespa along the eastern border.
Climate of Albania
Like other Mediterranean countries, Albania has characteristically warm, dry summers and mild, wet winters. Local climatic variation can occur, however, from one region to another. The western part of the country, which is under the influence of warm maritime air from the Adriatic and Ionian seas, has more-moderate temperatures than the rest of Albania. For example, Sarandë, on the southern coast, has average daily temperatures about 24 °C in July and in the upper about 9 °C in January. The eastern part of the country, on the other hand, is mainly under the influence of continental air and is characterized by mild summers (owing to the high elevations) and cold winters. Peshkopi, in the eastern mountains, has temperatures that average about 24 °C in July and about −1 °C in January.
Rainfall in Albania is abundant, but it occurs unevenly across the country and throughout the year. Average annual precipitation varies from more than 2,500 mm in the North Albanian Alps to less than 760 mm along much of the eastern border. Some 40 % of the annual precipitation falls in the winter. The southwestern part of the country suffers from summer droughts.
Plant and animal life
Only a small part of Albania is completely without vegetation. Forests cover about one-third of the total area. The coastal lowlands are characterized by Mediterranean shrubs such as laurel and myrtle. Above the lowlands, oak forests predominate. Above the oak belt, beginning at about 900 meters, is a stretch of beeches and pines, and Alpine pastures lie above the timberline.
Unrestricted hunting has taken a heavy toll of Albanian wildlife, but hunting laws were introduced and nature preserves were established in the 1990s to protect the remaining jackals, wolves, and foxes and the even rarer wild boars, bears, and chamois. The mild coastal climate attracts great numbers of migratory birds, such as swallows, storks, ducks, geese, and pelicans. Sardines and mullet are among the fishes found in Albanian coastal waters, and trout are found in the streams and lakes of the mountains.
As a legacy of nearly five centuries of Ottoman rule, Albania is a predominantly Muslim country. However, as a result of the rigid enforcement of atheism during the communist regime, today most Albanians are adherents of religious groups in name only and practice largely secular lifestyles. In 1967 the communist party officially proclaimed Albania an atheistic country and commenced to close all places of worship (churches, mosques, and zāwiyahs), confiscate their property, and ban religious observances. For the whole of its 45 years of absolute rule, the party engaged in large-scale persecution of believers. Only in 1990, when freedom of worship was restored, did churches and mosques begin reopening.
In the early 21st century about seven-tenths of the Albanian population was nominally Muslim, more than half of them Sunni Muslims and the next largest group being the Bektashi sect. Those who identified with Eastern Orthodoxy constituted about one-fifth of the population, and those associated with Roman Catholicism constituted about one-tenth. Muslims are spread throughout the country, although they particularly dominate the centre. Roman Catholics have settled primarily in the northern part of the country, mainly in the city of Shkodër, while Orthodox Christians are prominent in the southern districts of Gjirokastër, Korçë, Berat, and Vlorë. Mother Teresa, a Skopje-born ethnic Albanian who served as a Roman Catholic missionary to India in the 20th century, is a folk hero in Albania.
Albania’s mountain regions, being suitable mainly for pasture, traditionally saw sparse settlement, with small, often almost inaccessible villages of only a few dozen families each. Houses were built of stone and consisted of one or two rooms around a hearth. In the mountain valleys or basins, towns such as Elbasan, Korçë, and Berat developed as centres of local farming and trading.
Western Albania is much more densely populated, but, as a legacy of Ottoman rule, even such centres of the coastal plain as Tirana, Durrës, and Vlorë long remained small towns with virtually no industry. Following World War II, however, mass migration from the countryside doubled Albania’s urban population. During the communist period, planned communities were built in some parts of the countryside to house the workers of huge collective farms, many of which were built around formerly private estates. Following the collapse of communism, these farmers became independent smallholders. Even though rural-to-urban migration accelerated in the 1990s, in the early 21st century more than two-fifths of the country’s population still lived in rural areas. The urban population is generally evenly distributed among the country’s major cities, the largest of which is Tirana. Large apartment blocks, often with several units sharing kitchens and toilets, were built under communist rule, but, because the construction of new residences has been unable to keep pace with the movement from the countryside and with Albania’s high birth rate, cities are overcrowded, and there has been a proliferation of shanty dwellings.
Agriculture, forestry, and fishing
The former communist government allocated substantial resources to the development of agriculture. Large-scale programs of land reclamation, soil improvement, and irrigation, as well as increased use of fertilizers, all contributed to a significant expansion of agricultural production. Despite these advances, agricultural production continued to be hindered by the persistence of traditional farming methods and low mechanization, which required a relatively high number of farmworkers. Measures intended to encourage the growth of food processing and agriculture were hampered by chronic shortages of basic foods, a failing infrastructure, a lack of raw materials, a shortage of skilled workers and managers, low productivity, and poor labour discipline. However, agriculture has registered annual growth during the postcommunist period.
About half of the economically active population is employed in agriculture, which contributes about one-fifth of Albania’s GDP. Only one-fourth of the total land area is arable, yet the country meets nearly all its food needs from domestic production. The main crops are wheat, corn (maize), sugar beets, and watermelons. Apples, plums, grapes, walnuts, and chestnuts are also grown. Citrus fruits are cultivated on the southern coast, as are figs and olives wherever there is sufficient irrigation. Major livestock are sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs.
Forests cover about one-third of Albania. The country has lost much of its forest area, however, due to clearance for agriculture, pasture, and fuel wood, which occurred mainly in the early 1990s. In the mid-1990s the Albanian government joined with Italy and the World Bank to implement a forestry project, which included the strengthening of Albania’s environmental institutions and the introduction of sustainable forestry methods.
With access to both the Adriatic and Ionian seas, the Albanian fishing industry has great potential; however, due to a lack of professional fishermen and the use of antiquated equipment, it has not been fully developed. The catch in the Ionian Sea includes carp, trout, sea bream, mussels, and crustaceans. The country’s main fishing ports are at Sarandë, Vlorë, Shëngjin, and Durrës, the last of which is the country’s largest and most important. Port facilities have also been developed on inland lakes. The government has attempted to ban fishing of the letnica trout (known as koran in Albania), an endangered pink-meat fish found in Lake Ohrid. Family-run trout farms have increased in importance, as have shrimp farms and hatcheries. Anchovies imported from other Mediterranean countries are canned for export.
Resources and power
For a small country, Albania is endowed with considerable resources. The southwestern part of the country is rich in petroleum and natural gas. The northeastern and central mountain regions have substantial reserves of metallic mineral deposits, including chromium, copper, and iron-nickel. Deposits of lignite (soft coal) are found near Tirana, and natural asphalt is mined near Selenicë, by the southwest coast. In the 1980s Albania was a world leader in chromium production, but output fell precipitously in the early 1990s during the political transition from communism. Despite increased output by the mid-1990s, mining in all sectors fell again by the century’s end because of the poor recovery methods, obsolete machinery and equipment, lack of technical expertise, and poor organization that have characterized Albania’s efforts to exploit its resources.
The country is also rich with rivers and streams that have significant hydroelectric potential. These were exploited quite effectively at the end of the communist era, making the country an energy exporter. A number of huge hydroelectric power plants were built, mainly on the Drin River, and more than half of the country’s arable land was irrigated, largely from the artificial reservoirs created upstream of the dams. In the postcommunist period, though, energy exports fell, and internally Albania suffered from inadequate electrical service to large areas of the country. Chronic energy shortages continued into the 21st century.
Transportation and telecommunications
Albania built its first railroad in 1947, and during the next four decades Tirana was linked by rail to other major industrial centres in the country. The road network has been extended even to remote mountain villages, but surface quality can be poor. The leading port is Durrës, on the Adriatic Sea. The main air hub is in Tirana.
Most of the telecommunications sector in Albania was privatized in the early 21st century, and from the early 1990s to the early 2000s the number of mobile telephone users increased significantly. However, the country still has one of the lowest user-penetration rates for fixed-line telephones and Internet usage in all of Europe. Computer usage and Internet service are still virtually nonexistent in rural areas.
Cultural development in Albania was handicapped by more than four decades of communist rule. The government imposed strict censorship on the press, publications, and the performing arts. The succeeding governments have made a conscious effort to encourage and preserve the country’s rich folklife. Albania is known for its traditions of hospitality, which are based on the kanun (“code”), a set of unwritten laws devised in the 15th century by Prince Lekë Dukagjin, an Albanian feudal lord. The kanun governs all social relations, including those involving marriage, death, family, and religion. Some Albanians still follow its customary laws, including the right to avenge a killing; gjakmarrje (“blood feuds”) were known to occur in parts of northern Albania into the 21st century.
Daily life and social customs
In addition to traditional religious holidays, pagan holidays and folklore play a role in Albanian life. Agricultural fairs and religious festivals occur throughout the year and often include competitions that highlight highly skilled sports, which are occasionally contested in the national stadium in Tirana. Dita e Verës (Spring Day) is celebrated in mid-March in Elbasan. Folkloric festivals take place in towns across the country; one of the largest is the National Festival of Folklore held in Gjirokastër, a historic town that was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2005. Albania’s independence is celebrated throughout the country on November 28.
Much of Albania’s cuisine consists of meat and seafood. Among the most popular dishes are roasts, biftek (beef loin), qebaps (kabobs), and qoftë (meatballs). Fergësë Tirana, a hot dish of meat, peppers, eggs, and tomatoes, is a specialty of Tirana. In southern Albania, kukurec (sheep intestines broiled on a spit) is a common entree. Carp and the revered but rare koran (trout) are the preferred food fish throughout the country. Oshaf, a pudding made from figs and sheep’s milk, is a common dessert. The traditional Albanian drink is raki, a local brandy distilled from grapes that is often imbibed before a meal.
Albania’s traditional arts are rich and varied. They include fine embroidery and lace making, woodworking, and furniture making. Albanians enjoy music and storytelling, especially savouring the epics recounted by traditional singers. These singers often memorize verses hundreds and even thousands of lines long that celebrate the deeds of ancient heroes. Their tradition, however, seems to be in danger of extinction, for few young Albanians have elected to take up this ancient Balkan art form.
Albanian folk music is national in character but has Turkish and Persian influences. Albanian iso-polyphony, derived from Byzantine church music, is a form of group singing that is performed primarily by men. Albanian iso-polyphony was listed by UNESCO in 2005 as an outstanding example of the world’s intangible cultural heritage. Revived in the early 21st century, this folk tradition is still practiced at weddings, festivals, and other social events. Common folk instruments used in Albania include the çifteli (a long-necked two-stringed mandolin) and the gërnetë (a type of clarinet).
Albania boasts a long literary tradition. The country’s best-known contemporary writer is novelist and poet Ismail Kadare, whose work has been translated into some 30 languages. Notable early 20th-century poets include Gjergj Fishta (1871–1940), Ndre Mjeda (1866–1937), and Asdren (Alexander Stavre Drenova; 1872–1947), the last of whom wrote the lyrics for Albania’s national anthem. Fan S. Noli (1882–1965), an Orthodox bishop who served briefly as prime minister, is remembered for his artful turn-of-the-20th-century translations of some of the world’s classic works of drama and poetry.
The origins of the Albanian people are drawn from history and from archaeological and anthropological studies have led some researchers to consider the Albanians to be the direct descendants of the ancient Illyrians. The Albanian language is certainly a distinct branch of the Indo-European family, but, largely because of a dearth of information on the language of the ancient Illyrians, it is difficult to convincingly demonstrate a connection between the two languages.
Illyrian culture is believed to have evolved from the Stone Age and to have manifested itself in the territory of Albania toward the beginning of the Bronze Age, about 2000 bce). The Illyrians were not a uniform body of people but a conglomeration of many tribes that inhabited the western part of the Balkans, from what is now Slovenia in the northwest to (and including) the region of Epirus, which extends about halfway down the mainland of modern Greece. In general, Illyrians in the highlands of Albania were more isolated than those in the lowlands, and their culture evolved more slowly—a distinction that persisted throughout Albania’s history.
Authors of antiquity relate that the Illyrians were a sociable and hospitable people, renowned for their daring and bravery at war. Illyrian women were fairly equal in status to the men, even to the point of becoming heads of tribal federations. In matters of religion, Illyrians were pagans who believed in an afterlife and buried their dead along with arms and various articles intended for personal use.
The land of Illyria was rich in minerals—iron, copper, gold, silver—and Illyrians became skillful in the mining and processing of metals. They were highly skilled boatbuilders and sailors as well; indeed, their light swift galleys known as liburnae were of such superior design that the Romans incorporated them into their own fleet as a type of warship called the liburnian.
From the 8th to the 6th century bce, the Greeks founded a string of colonies on Illyrian soil, two of the most prominent of which were Epidamnus (modern Durrës) and Apollonia (near modern Vlorë). The presence of Greek colonies on their soil brought the Illyrians into contact with a more advanced civilization, which helped them to develop their own culture while they in turn influenced the economic and political life of the colonies. In the 3rd century bce the colonies began to decline and eventually perished.
Roughly parallel with the rise of Greek colonies, Illyrian tribes began to evolve politically from relatively small and simple entities into larger and more complex ones. At first they formed temporary alliances with one another for defensive or offensive purposes, then federations and, still later, kingdoms. The most important of these kingdoms, which flourished from the 5th to the 2nd century bce, were those of the Enkalayes, the Taulantes, the Epirotes, and the Ardianes.
After warring for the better part of the 4th century bce against the expansionist Macedonian state of Philip II and Alexander the Great, the Illyrians faced a greater threat from the growing power of the Romans. Seeing Illyrian territory as a bridgehead for conquests east of the Adriatic, Rome in 229 bce attacked and defeated the Illyrians, led by Queen Teuta, and by 168 bce had established effective control over Illyria.
The Roman Empire
The Romans ruled Illyria—which now became the province of Illyricum—for about six centuries. Under Roman rule Illyrian society underwent great change, especially in its outward, material aspect. Art and culture flourished, particularly in Apollonia, whose school of philosophy became celebrated in antiquity. To a great extent, though, the Illyrians resisted assimilation into Roman culture. Illyrian culture survived, along with the Illyrian tongue, though many Latin words entered the language and later became a part of the Albanian language.
Christianity manifested itself in Illyria during Roman rule, about the middle of the 1st century ce. At first the new religion had to compete with Middle Eastern religions—among them that of Mithra, Persian god of light—which had entered the land in the wake of Illyria’s growing interaction with eastern regions of the empire. For a long time it also had to compete with gods worshipped by Illyrian pagans. The steady growth of the Christian community in Dyrrhachium (the Roman name for Epidamnus) led to the creation there of a bishopric in 58 ce. Later, episcopal seats were established in Apollonia, Buthrotum (modern Butrint), and Scodra (modern Shkodër).
By the time the empire began to decline, the Illyrians, profiting from a long tradition of martial habits and skills, had acquired great influence in the Roman military hierarchy. Indeed, several of them went on from there to become emperors. From the mid-3rd to the mid-4th century ce, the reins of the empire were almost continuously in the hands of emperors of Illyrian origin: Gaius Decius, Claudius Gothicus, Aurelian, Probus, Diocletian, and Constantine the Great.
The Byzantine Empire
From Illyria to Albania
When the Roman Empire divided into East and West in 395, the territories of modern Albania became part of the Byzantine Empire. As in the Roman Empire, some Illyrians rose to positions of eminence in the new empire. Three of the emperors who shaped the early history of Byzantium (reigning from 491 to 565) were of Illyrian origin: Anastasius I, Justin I, and—the most celebrated of Byzantine emperors—Justinian I.
In the first decades under Byzantine rule (until 461), Illyria suffered the devastation of raids by Visigoths, Huns, and Ostrogoths. Not long after these barbarian invaders swept through the Balkans, the Slavs appeared. Between the 6th and 8th centuries they settled in Illyrian territories and proceeded to assimilate Illyrian tribes in much of what is now Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia. The tribes of southern Illyria, however—including modern Albania—averted assimilation and preserved their native tongue.
In the course of several centuries, under the impact of Roman, Byzantine, and Slavic cultures, the tribes of southern Illyria underwent a transformation, and a transition occurred from the old Illyrian population to a new Albanian one. As a consequence, from the 8th to the 11th century, the name Illyria gradually gave way to the name, first mentioned in the 2nd century ce by the geographer Ptolemy of Alexandria, of the Albanoi tribe, which inhabited what is now central Albania. From a single tribe the name spread to include the rest of the country as Arbëri and, finally, Albania. The genesis of Albanian nationality apparently occurred at this time as the Albanian people became aware that they shared a common territory, name, language, and cultural heritage. (The Albanians’ own name for their land, Shqipëria, is believed to have supplanted the name Albania during the 16th and 17th centuries. While Shqipëria is popularly believed to be connected to the word for “eagle,” shqipe, it is better taken to be derived from the language name shqip, which itself is most likely related to an adverb meaning “[speaking] clearly,” making shqip “[the] clearly [spoken language].”)
Long before that event, Christianity had become the established religion in Albania, supplanting pagan polytheism and eclipsing for the most part the humanistic world outlook and institutions inherited from the Greek and Roman civilizations. But, though the country was in the fold of Byzantium, Albanian Christians remained under the jurisdiction of the Roman pope until 732. In that year the iconoclast Byzantine emperor Leo III, angered by Albanian archbishops because they had supported Rome in the Iconoclastic Controversy, detached the Albanian church from the Roman pope and placed it under the patriarch of Constantinople. When the Christian church split in 1054 between the East and Rome, southern Albania retained its tie to Constantinople while northern Albania reverted to the jurisdiction of Rome. This split in the Albanian church marked the first significant religious fragmentation of the country.
In the latter part of the Middle Ages, Albanian urban society reached a high point of development. Foreign commerce flourished to such an extent that leading Albanian merchants had their own agencies in Venice, Ragusa (modern Dubrovnik, Croatia), and Thessalonica (now Thessaloníki, Greece). The prosperity of the cities stimulated the development of education and the arts. Albanian, however, was not the language used in schools, churches, and official government transactions. Instead, Greek and Latin, which had the powerful support of the state and the church, were the official languages of culture and literature.
The new administrative system of the themes, or military provinces created by the Byzantine Empire, contributed to the eventual rise of feudalism in Albania, as peasant soldiers who served military lords became serfs on their landed estates. Among the leading families of the Albanian feudal nobility were the Thopias, Balshas, Shpatas, Muzakas, Aranitis, Dukagjins, and Kastriotis. The first three of these rose to become rulers of principalities that were practically independent of Byzantium.
The decline of Byzantium
Beginning in the 9th century, partly because of the weakness of the Byzantine Empire, Albania came under the domination, in whole or in part, of a succession of foreign powers: Bulgarians, Norman Crusaders, the Angevins of southern Italy, Serbs, and Venetians. The final occupation of the country in 1347 by the Serbs, led by Stefan Dušan, caused massive migrations of Albanians abroad, especially to Greece and the Aegean islands. By the mid-14th century, Byzantine rule had come to an end in Albania, after nearly 1,000 years.
A few decades later the country was confronted with a new threat, that of the Turks, who at this juncture were expanding their power in the Balkans. The Ottoman Turks invaded Albania in 1388 and completed the occupation of the country about four decades later (1430). But after 1443 an Albanian of military genius—Gjergj Kastrioti (1405–68), known as Skanderbeg—rallied the Albanian princes and succeeded in driving the occupiers out. For the next 25 years, operating out of his stronghold in the mountain town of Krujë, Skanderbeg frustrated every attempt by the Turks to regain Albania, which they envisioned as a springboard for the invasion of Italy and western Europe. His unequal fight against the mightiest power of the time won the esteem of Europe as well as some support in the form of money and military aid from Naples, the papacy, Venice, and Ragusa. After he died, Albanian resistance gradually collapsed, enabling the Turks to reoccupy the country by 1506.
Skanderbeg’s long struggle to keep Albania free became highly significant to the Albanian people, as it strengthened their solidarity, made them more conscious of their national identity, and served later as a great source of inspiration in their struggle for national unity, freedom, and independence.
The Ottoman Empire
The nature of Turkish rule
The Turks established their dominion over Albania just as the Renaissance began to unfold in Europe. Cut off from contact and exchanges with western Europe, Albania had no chance to participate in or benefit from the humanistic achievements of that era. Conquest also caused great suffering and vast destruction of the country’s economy, commerce, art, and culture. Moreover, to escape persecution by their conquerors, about one-fourth of the country’s population fled abroad to southern Italy, Sicily, and the Dalmatian coast.
Although the Turks ruled Albania for more than four centuries, they were unable to extend their authority throughout the country. In the highland regions, Turkish authorities exercised only a formal sovereignty, as the highlanders refused to pay taxes, serve in the army, or surrender their arms—although they did pay an annual tribute to Constantinople.
Time and again Albanians rose in rebellion against Ottoman occupation. In order to check the ravages of Albanian resistance—which was partly motivated by religious feelings, namely defense of the Christian faith—as well as to bring Albania spiritually closer to the empire, the Ottomans initiated a systematic drive toward the end of the 16th century to Islamize the population. That drive continued through the following century, by the end of which two-thirds of the people had converted to Islam. A major reason Albanians became Muslims was to escape Turkish violence and exploitation, an instance of which was a crushing tax that Christians would have to pay if they refused to convert.
Islamization aggravated the religious fragmentation of Albanian society, which had first appeared in the Middle Ages and which was later used by Constantinople and Albania’s neighbours in attempts to divide and denationalize the Albanian people. Hence, leaders of the Albanian national movement in the 19th century used the rallying cry “The religion of Albanians is Albanianism” in order to overcome religious divisions and foster national unity.
The basis of Ottoman rule in Albania was a feudal military system of landed estates, called timars, which were awarded to military lords for loyalty and service to the empire. As Ottoman power began to decline in the 18th century, the central authority of the empire in Albania gave way to the local authority of autonomy-minded lords. The most successful of those lords were three generations of pashas of the Bushati family, who dominated most of northern Albania from 1757 to 1831, and Ali Paşa Tepelenë of Janina (now Ioánnina, Greece), a brigand-turned-despot who ruled over southern Albania and northern Greece from 1788 to 1822. Those pashas created separate states within the Ottoman state until they were overthrown by the sultan.
After the fall of the pashas, in 1831 Turkey officially abolished the timar system. In the wake of its collapse, economic and social power passed from the feudal lords to private landowning beys and, in the northern highlands, to tribal chieftains called bajraktars, who presided over given territories with rigid patriarchal societies that were often torn by blood feuds. Peasants who were formerly serfs now worked on the estates of the beys as tenant farmers.
Ottoman rule in Albania remained backward and oppressive to the end. In those circumstances, many Albanians went abroad in search of careers and advancement within the empire, and an unusually large number of them (in proportion to Albania’s population) rose to positions of prominence as government and military leaders. More than two dozen grand viziers (similar to prime ministers) of Turkey were of Albanian origin.
By the mid-19th century Turkey was in the throes of the “Eastern Question,” as the peoples of the Balkans, including Albanians, sought to realize their national aspirations. To defend and promote their national interests, Albanians met in Prizren, a town in Kosovo, in 1878 and founded the Albanian League. The league had two main goals, one political and the other cultural. First, it strove (unsuccessfully) to unify all Albanian territories—at the time divided among the four vilayets, or provinces, of Kosovo, Shkodër, Monastir, and Janina—into one autonomous state within the framework of the Ottoman Empire. Second, it spearheaded a movement to develop Albanian language, literature, education, and culture. In 1908, in line with the second program, Albanian leaders met in the town of Monastir (now Bitola, North Macedonia) and adopted a national alphabet. Based mostly on the Latin script, this supplanted several other alphabets, including Arabic and Greek, that were in use until then.
The Albanian League was suppressed by the Turks in 1881, in part because they were alarmed by its strong nationalistic orientation. By then, however, the league had become a powerful symbol of Albania’s national awakening, and its ideas and objectives fueled the drive that culminated later in national independence.
When the Young Turks, who seized power in Istanbul in 1908, ignored their commitments to Albanians to institute democratic reforms and to grant autonomy, Albanians embarked on an armed struggle, which at the end of three years (1910–12) forced the Turks to agree, in effect, to grant their demands. Alarmed at the prospect of Albanian autonomy, Albania’s Balkan neighbours, who had already made plans to partition the region, declared war on Turkey in October 1912, and Greek, Serbian, and Montenegrin armies advanced into Albanian territories. To prevent the annihilation of the country, Albanian national delegates met at a congress in Vlorë. They were led by Ismail Qemal, an Albanian who had held several high positions in the Ottoman government. On November 28, 1912, the congress issued the Vlorë proclamation, which declared Albania’s independence.
Creating the new state
Shortly after the defeat of Turkey by the Balkan allies, a conference of ambassadors of the great powers (Britain, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, France, and Italy) convened in London in December 1912 to settle the outstanding issues raised by the conflict. With support given to the Albanians by Austria-Hungary and Italy, the conference agreed to create an independent state of Albania. But, in drawing the borders of the new state, under strong pressure from Albania’s neighbours, the great powers largely ignored demographic realities and ceded the vast region of Kosovo to Serbia, while in the south Greece was given the greater part of Çamëria, a part of the old region of Epirus centred on the Thíamis River. Many observers doubted whether the new state would be viable with about one-half of Albanian lands and population left outside its borders, especially since those lands were the most productive in food grains and livestock. On the other hand, a small community of about 35,000 ethnic Greeks was included within Albania’s borders. (However, Greece, which counted all Albanians of the Orthodox faith—20 percent of the population—as Greeks, claimed that the number of ethnic Greeks was considerably larger.) Thereafter, Kosovo and the Greek minority remained troublesome issues in Albanian-Greek and Albanian-Yugoslav relations.
The great powers also appointed a German prince, Wilhelm zu Wied, as ruler of Albania. Wilhelm arrived in Albania in March 1914, but his unfamiliarity with Albania and its problems, compounded by complications arising from the outbreak of World War I, led him to depart from Albania six months later. The war plunged the country into a new crisis, as the armies of Austria-Hungary, France, Italy, Greece, Montenegro, and Serbia invaded and occupied it. Left without any political leadership or authority, the country was in chaos, and its very fate hung in the balance. At the Paris Peace Conference after the war, the extinction of Albania was averted largely through the efforts of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who vetoed a plan by Britain, France, and Italy to partition Albania among its neighbours.
A national congress, held in Lushnje in January 1920, laid the foundations of a new government. In December of that year Albania, this time with the help of Britain, gained admission to the League of Nations, thereby winning for the first time international recognition as a sovereign nation and state.
Bishop Noli and King Zog
At the start of the 1920s, Albanian society was divided by two apparently irreconcilable forces. One, made up mainly of deeply conservative landowning beys and tribal bajraktars who were tied to the Ottoman and feudal past, was led by Ahmed Bey Zogu, a chieftain from the Mat region of north-central Albania. The other, made up of liberal intellectuals, democratic politicians, and progressive merchants who looked to the West and wanted to modernize and Westernize Albania, was led by Fan S. Noli, an American-educated bishop of the Orthodox church. In the event, the East-West polarization of Albanian society was of such magnitude and complexity that neither leader could master and overcome it.
In the unusually open and free political, social, and cultural climate that prevailed in Albania between 1920 and 1924, the liberal forces gathered strength, and by mid-1924 a popular revolt forced Zogu to flee to Yugoslavia. Installed as prime minister of the new government in June 1924, Noli set out to build a Western-style democracy in Albania, and toward that end he announced a radical program of land reform and modernization. But his vacillation in carrying out the program, coupled with a depleted state treasury and a failure to obtain international recognition for his revolutionary, left-of-centre government, quickly alienated most of Noli’s supporters, and six months later he was overthrown by an armed assault led by Zogu and aided by Yugoslavia.
Zogu began his 14-year reign in Albania—first as president (1925–28), then as King Zog I (1928–39)—in a country rife with political and social instability. Greatly in need of foreign aid and credit in order to stabilize the country, Zog signed a number of accords with Italy. These provided transitory financial relief to Albania, but they effected no basic change in its economy, especially under the conditions of the worldwide Great Depression of the 1930s.
The social base of Zog’s power was a coalition of southern beys and northern bajraktars. With the support of this coalition—plus a vast Ottoman-style bureaucracy, an efficient police force, and Italian money—King Zog brought a large measure of stability to Albania. He extended the authority of the government to the highlands, reduced the brigandage that had formerly plagued the country, laid the foundations of a modern educational system, and took a few steps to Westernize Albanian social life.
On balance, however, his achievements were outweighed by his failures. Although formally a constitutional monarch, in reality Zog was a dictator, and Albania under him experienced the fragile stability of a dictatorship. Zog failed to resolve Albania’s fundamental problem, that of land reform, leaving the peasantry as impoverished as before. In order to stave off famine, the government had to import food grains annually, but, even so, thousands of people migrated abroad in search of a better life. Moreover, Zog denied democratic freedoms to Albanians and created conditions that spawned periodic revolts against his regime, alienated most of the educated class, fomented labour unrest, and led to the formation of the first communist groups in the country. Italy, on the other hand, viewed Albania primarily as a bridgehead for military expansion into the Balkans. On April 7, 1939, Italy invaded and shortly after occupied the country. King Zog fled to Greece.
World War II
In October 1940 Italian forces used Albania as a military base to invade Greece, but they were quickly thrown back into Albania. After Nazi Germany defeated Greece and Yugoslavia in 1941, the regions of Kosovo and Çamëria were joined to Albania, thus creating an ethnically united Albanian state. The new state lasted until November 1944, when the Germans—who had replaced the Italian occupation forces following Italy’s surrender in 1943—withdrew from Albania. Kosovo was then reincorporated into the Serbian portion of Yugoslavia, and Çamëria into Greece.
Meanwhile, the various communist groups that had germinated in Zog’s Albania merged in November 1941 to form the Albanian Communist Party and began to fight the occupiers as a unified resistance force. After a successful struggle against the fascists and two other resistance groups that contended with them for power—the National Front (Balli Kombëtar) and the pro-Zog Legality Party (Legaliteti)—the communists seized control of the country on November 29, 1944. Enver Hoxha, a college instructor who had led the resistance struggle of communist forces, became the leader of Albania by virtue of his post as secretary-general of the party. Albania, which before the war had been under the personal dictatorship of King Zog, now fell under the collective dictatorship of the Albanian Communist Party. In 1946 the country officially became the People’s Republic of Albania and in 1976 the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania.
The Stalinist state
The new rulers inherited an Albania plagued by a host of ills: pervasive poverty, overwhelming illiteracy, gjakmarrje (“blood feuds”), epidemics of disease, and gross subjugation of women. In an attempt to eradicate these ills, the communists drafted a radical modernization program intended to bring social and economic liberation to Albania, thus completing the political liberation won in 1912. The government’s first major act to “build socialism” was swift, uncompromising agrarian reform, which broke up the large landed estates of the southern beys and distributed the parcels to landless and other peasants. This destroyed the powerful class of the beys. The government also moved to nationalize industry, banks, and all commercial and foreign properties. Shortly after the agrarian reform, the Albanian government started to collectivize agriculture, completing the job in 1967. As a result, peasants lost title to their land. In addition, the Hoxha leadership extended the new socialist order to the more rugged and isolated northern highlands, in turn bringing down the age-old institution of the blood feud and the patriarchal structure of the family and clans and thus destroying the semifeudal class of bajraktars. The traditional role of women—namely, confinement to the home and farm—changed radically as they gained legal equality with men and became active participants in all areas of society.
In order to obtain the economic aid needed for modernization, as well as the political and military support to enhance its security, Albania turned to the communist world: Yugoslavia (1944–48), the Soviet Union (1948–61), and China (1961–78). Economically, Albania benefited greatly from these alliances: with hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and credits and with the assistance of a large number of technicians and specialists sent by its allies, Albania was able to build the foundations of a modern industry and to introduce mechanization into agriculture. As a result, for the first time in modern history, the Albanian populace began to emerge from age-old backwardness and, for a while, enjoyed a higher standard of living.
Politically, Hoxha was disillusioned with his communist allies and patrons and broke with each one, charging that they had abandoned Marxism-Leninism and the cause of the proletariat for the sake of rapprochement with the capitalist West. Alienated from both East and West, Albania adopted a “go-it-alone” policy and became notorious as an isolated bastion of Stalinism.
Hoxha’s program for modernization aimed at transforming Albania from a backward agrarian country into a modern industrial society, and, indeed, within four decades Albania had made respectable—in some cases historic—strides in the development of industry, agriculture, education, the arts, and culture. A notable achievement was the drainage of coastal swamplands—previously breeding grounds for malarial mosquitoes—and the reclamation of land for agricultural and industrial uses. Also symbolic of the change was a historic language reform that fused elements of the Gheg (Geg) and Tosk dialects into a unified literary language.
Political oppression, however, offset gains made on the material and cultural planes. Contrary to provisions in the constitution, during Hoxha’s reign Albania was in effect ruled by the Directorate of State Security, known as the Sigurimi. To eliminate dissent, the government periodically resorted to purges, in which opponents were subjected to public criticism, dismissed from their jobs, imprisoned in forced-labour camps, or executed. Travel abroad was forbidden to all but those on official business. In 1967 the religious establishment, which party leaders and other atheistic Albanians viewed as a backward medieval institution that hampered national unity and progress, was officially banned, and all Christian and Muslim houses of worship were closed.
Collapse of communism
After Hoxha’s death in 1985, his handpicked successor, Ramiz Alia, sought to preserve the communist system while introducing gradual reforms in order to revive the economy, which had been declining steadily since the cessation of aid from former communist allies. To this end he legalized some investment in Albania by foreign firms and expanded diplomatic relations with the West. But, with the fall of communism in eastern Europe in 1989, various segments of Albanian society became politically active and began to agitate against the government. The most alienated groups were the intellectuals and the working class—traditionally the vanguard of a communist movement or organization—as well as Albania’s youth, which had been frustrated by years of confinement and restrictions. In response to these pressures, Alia granted Albanian citizens the right to travel abroad, curtailed the powers of the Sigurimi, restored religious freedom, and adopted some free-market measures for the economy. In December 1990 Alia endorsed the creation of independent political parties, thus signaling an end to the communists’ official monopoly of power.
With each concession to the opposition, the state’s absolute control over Albanian society weakened. Continuing economic, social, and political instability led to the fall of several governments, and in March 1992 a decisive electoral victory was won by the anticommunist opposition.