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1385-1876 - Albanians under Ottoman Rule

The Ottoman sultan considered himself God's agent on earth, the leader of a religious -- not a national -- state whose purpose was to defend and propagate Islam. Non-Muslims paid extra taxes and held an inferior status, but they could retain their old religion and a large measure of local autonomy. By converting to Islam, individuals among the conquered could elevate themselves to the privileged stratum of society. In the early years of the empire, all Ottoman high officials were the sultan's bondsmen the children of Christian subjects chosen in childhood for their promise, converted to Islam, and educated to serve. Some were selected from prisoners of war, others sent as gifts, and still others obtained through devshirme, the tribute of children levied in the Ottoman Empire's Balkan lands. Many of the best fighters in the sultan's elite guard, the janissaries (see Glossary), were conscripted as young boys from Christian Albanian families, and high-ranking Ottoman officials often had Albanian bodyguards.

In the early seventeenth century, many Albanian converts to Islam migrated elsewhere within the Ottoman Empire and found careers in the Ottoman military and government. Some attained powerful positions in the Ottoman administration. About thirty Albanians rose to the position of grand vizier, chief deputy to the sultan himself. In the second half of the seventeenth century, the Albanian Köprülü family provided four grand viziers, who fought against corruption, temporarily shored up eroding central government control over rapacious local beys, and won several military victories.

The Ottoman Turks divided the Albanian-inhabited lands among a number of districts, or vilayets. The Ottoman authorities did not initially stress conversion to Islam. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, economic pressures and coercion produced the conversion of about two-thirds of the empire's Albanians.

The Ottoman Turks first focused their conversion campaigns on the Roman Catholic Albanians of the north and then on the Orthodox population of the south. For example, the authorities increased taxes, especially poll taxes, to make conversion economically attractive. During and after a Christian counteroffensive against the Ottoman Empire from 1687 to 1690, when Albanian Catholics revolted against their Muslim overlords, the Ottoman pasha of Pec, a town in the south of present-day Yugoslavia, retaliated by forcing entire Albanian villages to accept Islam. Albanian beys then moved from the northern mountains to the fertile lands of Kosovo, which had been abandoned by thousands of Orthodox Serbs fearing reprisals for their collaboration with the Christian forces.

Most of the conversion's to Islam took place in the lowlands of the Shkumbin River valley, where the Ottoman Turks could easily apply pressure because of the area's accessibility. Many Albanians, however, converted in name only and secretly continued to practice Christianity. Often one branch of a family became Muslim while another remained Christian, and many times these families celebrated their respective religious holidays together.

As early as the eighteenth century, a mystic Islamic sect, the Bektashi dervishes, spread into the empire's Albanian-populated lands. Probably founded in the late thirteenth century in Anatolia, Bektashism became the janissaries' official faith in the late sixteenth century. The Bektashi sect contains features of the Turks' pre-Islamic religion and emphasizes man as an individual. Women, unveiled, participate in Bektashi ceremonies on an equal basis, and the celebrants use wine despite the ban on alcohol in the Quran. The Bektashis became the largest religious group in southern Albania after the sultan disbanded the janissaries in 1826. Bektashi leaders played key roles in the Albanian nationalist movement of the late nineteenth century and were to a great degree responsible for the Albanians' traditional tolerance of religious differences.

During the centuries of Ottoman rule, the Albanian lands remained one of Europe's most backward areas. In the mountains north of the Shkumbin River, Geg herders maintained their self-governing society comprised of clans. An association of clans was called a bajrak. Taxes on the northern tribes were difficult if not impossible for the Ottomans to collect because of the rough terrain and fierceness of the Albanian highlanders. Some mountain tribes succeeded in defending their independence through the centuries of Ottoman rule, engaging in intermittent guerrilla warfare with the Ottoman Turks, who never deemed it worthwhile to subjugate them. Until recent times, Geg clan chiefs, or bajraktars, exercised patriarchal powers, arranged marriages, mediated quarrels, and meted out punishments. The tribesmen of the northern Albanian mountains recognized no law but the Code of Lek, a collection of tribal laws transcribed in the fourteenth century by a Roman Catholic priest. The code regulates a variety of subjects, including blood vengeance. Even today, many Albanian highlanders regard the canon as the supreme law of the land.

South of the Shkumbin River, the mostly peasant Tosks lived in compact villages under elected rulers. Some Tosks living in settlements high in the mountains maintained their independence and often escaped payment of taxes. The Tosks of the lowlands, however, were easy for the Ottoman authorities to control. The Albanian tribal system disappeared there, and the Ottomans imposed a system of military fiefs under which the sultan granted soldiers and cavalrymen temporary landholdings, or timars, in exchange for military service. By the eighteenth century, many military fiefs had effectively become the hereditary landholdings of economically and politically powerful families who squeezed wealth from their hard-strapped Christian and Muslim tenant farmers. The beys, like the clan chiefs of the northern mountains, became virtually independent rulers in their own provinces, had their own military contingents, and often waged war against each other to increase their landholdings and power. The Sublime Porte attempted to press a divide-and-rule policy to keep the local beys from uniting and posing a threat to Ottoman rule itself, but with little success.

During the eighteenth century, in the midst of the turbulence of the declining Turkish Empire, the Albanians became again increasingly prominent, and the two notable instances to which allusion has already been made, occurred at the close of this century when the governors of Scutari and Janina, who had been appointed by the Sultan, attempted to free themselves altogether of the control of the Turkish government and establish independent principalities.

The weakening of Ottoman central authority and the timar system brought anarchy to the Albanian-populated lands. In the late eighteenth century, two Albanian centers of power emerged: Shkodër, under the Bushati family; and Janina, under Ali Pasha of Tepelenë. When it suited their goals, both places cooperated with the Sublime Porte, and when it was expedient to defy the central government, each acted independently.

The Bushati family dominated the Shkodër region through a network of alliances with various highland tribes. Kara Mahmud Bushati attempted to establish an autonomous principality and expand the lands under his control by playing off Austria and Russia against the Sublime Porte. In 1785 Kara Mahmud's forces attacked Montenegrin territory, and Austria offered to recognize him as the ruler of all Albania if he would ally himself with Vienna against the Sublime Porte. Seizing an opportunity, Kara Mahmud sent the sultan the heads of an Austrian delegation in 1788, and the Ottomans appointed him governor of Shkodër. When he attempted to wrest land from Montenegro in 1796, however, he was defeated and beheaded. Kara Mahmud's brother, Ibrahim, cooperated with the Sublime Porte until his death in 1810, but his successor, Mustafa Pasha Bushati, proved to be recalcitrant despite participation in Ottoman military campaigns against Greek revolutionaries and rebel pashas. He cooperated with the mountain tribes and brought a large area under his control.

During the eighteenth century, in the midst of the turbulence of the declining Turkish Empire, the Albanians became again increasingly prominent, and two notable instances occurred at the close of this century when the governors of Scutari and Janina, who had been appointed by the Sultan, attempted to free themselves altogether of the control of the Turkish government and establish independent principalities.

During the middle part of the eighteenth century, there lived in the village of Bushatli, in the neighborhood of Scutari, an influential Albanian nobleman, named Mehmed. His reputation proved so shocking to the Sublime Porte that it eventually decided to get rid of him by sending an army against the pretentious subject. But the wily Albanian showed so much ability in fooling the emissary of the Sultan that he was able to obtain, through his agency, the title of Hereditary Pasha of Scutari.

Hardly in the saddle, Mehmed set to work out his program with grim determination. And he began by the systematic undoing of the Turkish scheme of "divide and reign." By hook and crook, he suppressed, one after the other, the numerous petty rulers of Northern Albania. Shortly after he extended his control over the whole of Central Albania, and became practically independent of the Sultan. But the Turks avenged their wrath by bringing about his assassination, because of his refusal to join them against Russia.

He was succeeded by his son, Kara Mahmud (Mahmud the Black), who proved to be more enterprising and audacious than his father. In 1785, Mahmud attacked and defeated the forces of the Prince of Montenegro, whose capital he occupied. Growing in boldness, he invaded at the same time the territories Venice was holding in Albania. The Republic appealed to the Sultan for help. The Sublime Porte set on foot an expedition, but Mahmud encountered the Turks and gave them battle in the Kossova-Plain in which the troops of the Sultan were routed. Mahmud was now able to annex the Kossova district to his possessions. Presently he opened negotiations with Joseph II of Austria with the view of concluding an alliance against the Sultan. The Porte dispatched another formidable army against Mahmud, to which it succeeded in adding the Albanian forces of All Pasha of Janina. The Turkish troops invested Scutari, but Mahmud was so successful in sowing discord in his enemies' camp that the Albanian contingent of Ali Pasha deserted to his side with all the artillery of the Turks. A third Turkish army was destroyed in the province of Mirdita. Joseph II sent his ambassadors to Mahmud for the conclusion of the alliance. But the star of Mahmud was now on the wane, and the Austrian emissaries were captured and murdered by the Turks.

There were two main handicaps to his projects: the Christian Albanian Republic of Suli, which was as loath to part with its independence as Ali was desirous of asserting his own domination, and the powerful native Moslem Beys among whom Southern Albania was divided. He first set to curb the power of the Beys by allying himself with the Christian Albanians of Suli. When that end was reached he turned against his former allies, the Suliots. Twice the Suliots and the Beys allied themselves against the common enemy; but each time Ali Pasha was able to divide them by the use of his inexhaustible Macchiavelian stratagems. Eventually, he succeeded in destroying the power of the Beys, and after three campaigns, which immortalized the incomparable gallantry and brave resistance of the Suliots, the independent communities of the latter were destroyed from their foundations. His cruelty in dealing with the Christian Suliots was as atrocious as the treatment he meted out to the Moslem Beys and their followers. Ali was not a man to be swayed by religious preferences.

Ali Pasha of Janina was native of Tepelen, Southern Albania. He was the contemporary of Mahmud Pasha of Scutari. He had first shown his ability to deal with the unruly subjects of the Sultan in his position of Provost-Marshal of the Highways when he established and maintained public order in the hitherto anarchy-ridden provinces of Thessaly and Southern Albania.

In 1788 he received his investiture as Pasha of Janina, the capital of Southern Albania. His only ambition was now to become entirely independent of the Sultan. Moreover, he conceived the fiery project of building for himself an Albanian Empire which would have included the whole of Greece as well as the Ionian Islands, then in the occupation of France and later a British protectorate. And he set out to do it in the most cold-blooded and matter-ofcourse way, having no scruples whatsoever in his choice of means, provided they served his ambitious purposes.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:50:41 ZULU