Longform | History

“The Ottoman Empire” volume excludes Skanderbeg’s uprisings

By - 17.09.2020

“Joint History Project”: a five-part critique of (mis)representation of Albanians in alternative history books.

In 1999, the founders of Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeast Europe (CDRSEE), a Thessaloniki-based NGO, considered that long term reconciliation in the Balkans would be possible only if the way how history as a school subject is taught in our region changed. With this purpose in mind, in the same year, they initiated their most significant project, titled “Joint History Project,” to provide history teachers in the Balkans with materials containing many perspectives on the same event.

 The project aimed not only to revise ethnocentric history teaching, but also to enhance critical thinking and debate, promote diversity, and accept both the sufferings and shared achievements of the Balkan peoples. 

CDRSEE engaged historians from all over the region, and the project resulted in six compiled volumes, starting from the medieval history of the Balkans to the present day. The volumes are titled: The Ottoman Empire; Nations and States in Southeast Europe; The Balkan Wars; The Second World War; The Cold War, and Wars, Divisions and Integration.

While compiling these texts, CDRSEE cooperated closely with all Ministries of Education in the region and received support from 25 international donors, including the EU. All six volumes, originally written in English, were translated into ten languages (nine Balkan languages and Japanese) and promoted in many of the regional capitals, including Prishtina in 2018.

This series of writings focuses on how Albanians, in general, were represented in the first three volumes of this project, and how specifically Albanians in Kosovo were represented in the last three volumes. The articles examine how critical historical events of Albanians were represented and which of them were overlooked, discussing how they ought to be represented, based on the scholarship of international authors such as Noel Malcolm, Oliver Schmitt, Peter Bartl, etc. who study developments and events in Kosovo in different historical periods.

A Critique to Volume “The Ottoman Empire”

The Ottoman period is taught to students in the Balkan region countries mainly from an ethnocentric viewpoint with a lot of prejudice and disorganized information, and with an assessment of the empire as a factor of “regress” or “progress.” In the introduction to the volume covering this period, the publishers claim they intend to include both the clashes and the coexistence since the Ottoman rule had known conflicts and cruelty, but also negotiations and collaborations of the subdued with their rulers for collective and individual privileges.

This five-chapter volume opens with the 14th century and ends with the 19th century, a time that in itself does not mark the end of the empire but rather the beginning of national movements that led to the creation of independent Balkan states in the 19th and 20th centuries, topics addressed in the following volume.

The first chapter, “The Ottoman Expansion in South East Europe” talks about the first stages of the Ottoman state, the fall and the conquest of Constantinople (the former capital of the Roman and Byzantine Empires), the Ottoman conquest of the Balkan Peninsula and the population and religion changes. Understandably, the pages dedicated to the first stages of the Ottoman state and the conquest of Constantinople contain nothing about Albanians, but surprisingly the same goes even for the pages about changes of population and religion.

It is quite surprising that the section dedicated to the Ottoman occupation of the Balkan Peninsula says nothing about the Battle of Kosovo, which took place on June 28, 1389 in Fushë Kosova, near Prishtina, where the Ottoman army led by Sultan Murad I clashed with the Balkan coalition commanded by Prince Lazar. It is only presented rather telegraphically within the 12-page initial chronological table covering the period 1300-1800, where we read, “1389 — first battle of Kosovo; the Ottomans defeat a Balkan coalition led by Serbian Prince Lazar; Serbia becomes a tributary of the Ottoman State.” Nowhere in the entire volume is the participation of Albanians in this battle alongside other Balkan peoples mentioned, including the possibility — given the established Ottoman influence in some parts of Albania — that some Albanians, and even some Serbs, had been battling on the side of the Ottomans. 

The volume should go further and present the real motives of the rebellions led by Skanderbeg, which were mainly religious and proprietary in nature.

The Ottoman conquest of the Balkan Peninsula contains only a brief explanation of the Christian owners of the timars in Albania, stating “the Ottomans, tried to secure cooperation of at least a part of the local nobility. Therefore, they integrated higher noblemen as vassals, sometimes demanding that they send their sons as hostages to the Sultan’s court (as was the case of the famous Skanderbeg, known by the name Gjergj Kastrioti, son of Gjon Kastrioti, Lord of Middle Albania).” Throughout the volume, Skanderbeg is mentioned only once more, in the initial chronological table, in a note which reads, “1443 — Hungarian campaign into the Balkans; successful Albanian rebellion led by Skanderbeg (George Kastriota)” without specifying against whom.

A superficial presentation of this sort leaves the reader with the impression that the Albanian noblemen were only vassals of the Ottomans. The impression is especially reinforced since no Albanian rebellions are presented against the Ottoman Empire in the 1443-1468 period, which were by no means the only ones, and which due to the charismatic figure of their leader, Skanderbeg, were the strongest among the Balkan Christians. 

The rebellions although taking place in a small and mostly mountainous territory were extraordinary in size, because they were facing the largest empire of the period and because of Skanderbeg’s vassalage to the Italian states. The volume should go further and even present the real motives of the rebellions led by Skanderbeg, which were mainly religious and proprietary in nature, and following his father’s assassination by the order of the Sultan, even revanchist. 

The volume does not even present the military pact known as the Assembly of Lezha (founded in Lezha on March 2, 1444, in order to oppose the Ottoman Empire) that brought together rulers from other ethnicities (such as the Crnojević family), whereby each of the members maintained their full independence, and Skanderbeg was only the first among the first and not a ruler of some Albanian state. Furthermore, so as to showcase the cooperation between Balkan peoples, it would be good if the volume briefly included data provided by historian Oliver Jens Schmitt, such as the fact that the flag raised by Skanderbeg contained the Byzantine eagle and that Skanderbeg’s father was married to Vojsava, a daughter of the large noble family of Branković.

Devshirme was a systematic method of forcibly recruiting young boys: A child would usually be taken from one in 40 houses, sent to Istanbul, converted, taught Turkish, and trained as a soldier.

It should be added that the first chapter, while portraying the Ottoman conquests of the peninsula provides fragments about destructions in Slovenia, the captivity of Belgrade inhabitants, the Christian captives in Bosnia, but nothing of the sort about the Albanians. In fact, there is an excerpt from the fall of Novo Brdo in Kosovo in 1455, from the memoir “The Turkish History or Chronicle” by the Novo Brdo author, Konstantin Mihailović, but it talks about deportations, murders, rapes and kidnappings of Serbian youngsters, yet contains nothing about Albanians. 

Chapter two “The Institutions of the Ottoman Empire,” contains an excerpt from the Turkish historian Halil Inalcik, titled “Lutfi Pasha recollects his career from the time he was levied through the devshirme system,” containing biographical information about this grand vizier, in which the only the mention of Albanians is that “he was born in Albania.” 

Devshirme was a systematic method of forcibly recruiting young boys, developed during the 15th and 16th centuries: A child would usually be taken from one in 40 houses, sent to Istanbul, converted, taught Turkish, and trained as a soldier. Devshirme was not popular in Christian villages, and thus in 1565 a rebellion broke out against it in Albania, which is not mentioned in this volume. There is also no mention of the fact that there were areas, such as Novo Brdo, relieved of the devshirme duty, with an exemption which was considered a special privilege.

Nowhere does the volume note that Albanians were particularly valued by devshirme collectors for their physical stamina and fighting skills, nor that many Albanians managed to become rulers in the highest state positions, quite disproportionate to their population numbers. Likewise, there is no mention that two 15th century grand viziers, Ahmet Pasha and Daut Pasha, were of Albanian descent, and that the total number of Albanian grand viziers in the history of the Ottoman Empire, including many Kosovo Albanians, was 42, while out of 92 grand viziers that ruled from the 15th to the 17th century, 25 were of Albanian origin, and 19 of Turkish origin.

Chapter three “Religious institutions, communities and practices” contains nothing on Albanians. Here, or even in chapter one, the issue of the spread of Islam among Albanians could be presented, emphasizing the factors that influenced it, such as: the pressure through the land tax that was paid only by Christians; the taking of the Christian boys to Istanbul; the economic interest, since taxes were eased for those who converted; career opportunities; the status, namely the prestige, which resulted in the urge for Islamization in towns; then the lower number of Albanian Catholic priests than during medieval Serbian rule.

Discontinuing the model followed for the other places presented in the volume, there is no presentation of a single building or structure built in the areas inhabited by Albanians during the period of almost five centuries of Ottoman rule, such as: Religious sites (mosques, masjids, tombs, tekkes); educational facilities (madrassas and libraries); and other structures (hamams, stone bridges, public fountains, residential houses, clock towers, inns, bazaars, etc.).

Neglect of the social and cultural representation of the Albanians

Chapter four “Social types and daily life” begins with the subchapter titled “Elites and commoners” in which photographs portray Ottoman social types. Of the 20 photographs and paintings, Albanians are presented with two. 

The first one, a painting by Jean-Baptiste Hilaire (1809) titled “Soldiers in Albania” is accompanied by an explanation about the levends, the paid soldiers of the Ottoman Empire, who, claims the text, sometimes join enemy armies and loot the Ottoman provinces. The second is the painting “A famous Ayan — Ali Pasha of Janina” by Louis Dupré (1819), accompanied by a text that speaks of ayans, the rich people who amassed great wealth through usury and trade, created private armies and gained political control in the provinces. 

So the Albanians here are presented only as paid soldiers who joined the enemy armies to loot the Ottoman provinces, and as people enriched through usury, who created private armies for political control over provinces.

There is no mention of the Janina family that founded the Janina Pashalik, or of the Albanian feudal families like the Bushatis, who founded the Shkodra Pashalik. Furthermore, the feudal families of Begolli in Peja, Kryeziu in Gjakova, Rrotlla in Prizren (which ruled Prizren between 1770 and 1836, during which time they constructed and reconstructed a series of public buildings: Mosques, madrasas, hamams, a post office, and so on), the Gjinolli family in Prishtina and Gjilan (the Gjinollis were so powerful in the early 19th century that their members were called “second rulers” of Kosovo after the Sultan) are not mentioned at all.

One should bear in mind that the Ottoman occupation of Albanian territories cannot be compared with the consequences of the occupation of other Balkan countries, especially of Bulgaria and Serbia. This is because prior to the Ottoman occupation, Albanians had no church organization, state tradition, art or literature that could be called Albanian. Albanian dynasties predating the Ottoman occupation would issue their documents in Greek, Latin and Slavic languages, and not a single one in Albanian. 

The last subchapter offers a short but scandalous fragment about Albanian women, where they are presented as uneducated, speaking no language other than their mother tongue.

The only information in the volume about the Albanian culture is given in the initial chronological table, and reads, “1555 — the first book printed in the Albanian language (in Italy): Meshari [The Missal], by Dom Gjon Buzuku,” yet there is no mention of any of the later writers like Pjetër Budi, Frang Bardhi and Pjetër Bogdani. Also, no writers of Albanian origin who wrote in Oriental languages are presented, such as Suzi from Prizren, Mesih from Prishtina, Jahja Dukagjini, Koçi Beu, and so on.

“Life in the village,” the second subchapter of chapter four, contains an appropriate passage from the book “Travels in Albania and Other Provinces of Turkey in 1809 & 1810” by the author Lord Broughton on food and drink in Albania; a photo portraying the room interior in Arbanassi from the period and some other passages from the “Pictures from the Balkans” by John Fraser; about the roads that were “as nature and the Romans had left them” and the Turks having done nothing to repair them; and about the difficulties of dispatching letters from Albania.

The third subchapter “Life in towns” presents fragments of various authors about life in some of the cities of the region. The presentation of life in the city of Belgrade dominates, according to the descriptions of the author Evliya Çelebi, but there is nothing about life in Albanian cities.

The fourth subchapter “Living on the edge of various borders” gives a short excerpt, written around 1900, titled “Christian influence on Muslim Albanians” that says ‘[h]is Christian neighbors influence the Muslim Albanian. He drinks wine and is particularly fond of beer — I was able to get bottled lager from Munich — and he swears by the Virgin.”

The last subchapter “Glimpses into the lives of women” offers a short but scandalous fragment about Albanian women, extracted from the same book by Broughton, where they are presented as uneducated, speaking no language other than their mother tongue. Moreover, according to the fragment, Albanians not only have no passionate feelings toward women, they also feel contempt and disgust toward them, consider and use them as cattle, force them to work and often punish them with blows. It is surprising that the authors of the volume choose to include such a disparaging fragment only about Albanians and not other Balkan peoples, thus giving the impression that women were treated this way exclusively by Albanians. It is worth bringing the fragment in full:

“I feel no great inclination to speak of the morals of the Albanians. Their women, who are almost all without education and speak no other than their native tongue, are considered as their cattle, and are used as such, (but being the very superior sort), obliged to labour, and often punished with blows. They have, in truth, rather a contempt and even aversion for their females, and there is nothing in any of their occasional inclinations, which can be said to partake of what we call the tender passion. 

Yet all who can get married, as it is a sign of wealth, and as they wish to have a domestic slave. Moreover, as in most parts of the country the females are not nearly so numerous as the other sex, the bride often does not bring wealth to her husband, but the man to his wife, and he is obliged to get together about a thousand gurush [piasters] before he can expect to be married.”

The missing uprisings

The fifth and final chapter “Elements of crisis” contains a total of three subchapters. The first two, “Natural Disasters” and “The political crisis in Istanbul,” have nothing on Albanians. The third subchapter “Wars, rebellions and human turmoil” mentions some of the rebellions of other Balkan peoples, but none of the Albanians, for whom there appears only an irrelevant fragment titled “Insecurity when travelling in Albania.”

Strangely, there is no mention of the clash between Ottoman and Austrian forces in autumn 1689, which had Albanians fighting on both sides. In the Austrian forces, commanded by Enea Piccolomini, the Albanians were led by the Albanian Catholic Archbishop Pjetër Bogdani, while in the Ottoman forces they were led by Mahmut Mahmutbegolli, the Pasha of Peja, numbering about 10 thousand Albanian and Serbian soldiers. At this time, the Ottoman Grand Vizier was Mehmet Köprülü, a member of a powerful Albanian dynasty in the public services of the Ottoman Empire, who is not mentioned anywhere in the volume.

A series of Albanian rebellions broke out, which were not calling for autonomy and national liberation, but were against recruitment, western-style uniforms, new taxes, disarmament of the population, and so on, are not mentioned in this volume.

Indeed, the volume does not entirely ignore the clash between Austrian and Ottoman forces, because it provides a passage titled “Serbians flee fearing Ottoman reprisals (1690) — the testimony of Atanasije Djakon (Deacon) Srbin” that talks about the massacres the Ottoman forces committed against the Serbs in Belgrade and the surrounding area. Explanations are provided underneath this passage by the editorial board on the cooperation of the Serbs with the Austrians in the years 1688-89, the Ottoman reconquest of Belgrade and the escape of the Serbs to the territories controlled by the Austrians. Even the initial chronological table of the volume claims that the Ottoman reconquest in 1690 was followed by a high rate of displacement of Serbs from Serbia and Kosovo. 

In the first half of the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire began to implement a number of reforms in the army (suspension of janissary units, suspension of the outdated timar system, sending officers for training in France, wearing western-style uniforms, and so on), which were accompanied by reforms in education, developing a state school system and proclaiming equal rights for non-Muslims. Due to these reforms, a series of Albanian rebellions broke out, which were not calling for autonomy and national liberation, but were against recruitment, western-style uniforms, new taxes, disarmament of the population, and so on. These rebellions are not mentioned in this volume.

Lastly, in the volume of “The Ottoman Empire” which although intended to include both the clashes and the coexistence of the subjects with the Ottoman rulers due to individual and collective privileges it neither presents the uprisings, nor the collaborations of Albanians with the Ottoman Empire during its five-century-long rule in areas inhabited by Albanians. Moreover, the political intentions of Albanians are not mentioned whatsoever, including their political currents under the Ottoman Empire.

It must be noted that not a single crime committed by Ottoman forces against Albanians is highlighted, and what is even worse, this volume also depicts Albanians negatively: As mercenaries, plunderers, loan-sharks, abusers of women, uneducated and so on. 

Summary of exclusions

Summary of exclusionsThe volume presents no conflicts or clashes of Albanians with the Ottoman Empire. For example, the participation of Albanians in the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 alongside other Balkan peoples is not mentioned, nor the possibility that some Albanians might have fought on the side of the Ottomans.

None of the Albanian rebellions against the Ottoman Empire in the 1443-1468 period, led by Skanderbeg (Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu) — including the Assembly of Lezha or other important events from Albanian history — are mentioned.

Although the systematic method of forcible recruitment of young boys, known as devshirme, is mentioned, nowhere is it said that in 1565 a rebellion against it broke out in Albania. Though some rebellions of some Balkan peoples are portrayed, none of the Albanian ones are presented.

Even the clash between Ottoman and Austrian forces of 1689, in which Albanians fought in both camps is excluded: Under Austrian forces under the leadership of Pjetër Bogdani, and under Ottoman provinces forces under the leadership of Mahmut Mahmutbegolli. There is only one passage presented about the atrocities of the Ottoman forces regarding this clash, yet it is against the Serbs, and it includes info on the emigration of the Serbs from Kosovo, but there is no mention of Ottoman crimes against Albanians.

When dealing with the obligation of devshirme, nowhere is it clarified that Albanians were highly valued by devshirme collectors for their physical endurance and fighting skills, nor that many Albanians managed to become rulers in the highest state positions, quite contrary to their population number: there were 42 Albanian Grand Viziers in the history of the Ottoman Empire.

Furthermore, the spread of Islam among Albanians is not presented at all and, breaking with the practice followed for other countries, there is no presentation of any religious temples built during almost five centuries of Ottoman reign. There is no mention of Albanian feudal families in Albania and Kosovo or of writers of Albanian origin who wrote in Oriental languages.

Worst in this volume is the portrayal of Albanians as only paid soldiers who would join enemy armies to loot Ottoman provinces, as people who would get rich through usury, who created private armies for political control in the provinces, who knew nothing about love, who despised and even hated women, marrying so as to have a slave at home. Albanian women are presented as uneducated, speaking no language other than their own, used as cattle, forced to work, and often punished with blows.

This series of articles were written by the author as part of a project titled “An analysis of alternative textbooks of CDRSEE” by the ADMOVERE organization, with financial support by the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, which operates via the Swiss Embassy in Prishtina, and it does not necessarily reflect the views of the donor.

Feature image: Insert from the book “Teaching Modern Southeast European history”.