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Gjergj Kastrioti (1405–January 17, 1468), better known as Skanderbeg or Skenderbej, was an Albanian who united his people and resisted the expanding Ottoman Empire for 25 years and is today considered a national hero of Albania.
He was born in Krujë, Albania; his father was an Albanian nobleman, Gjon Kastrioti , lord of Middle Albania. The Kastrioti family are originally from the Northern Alps of Albania but later migrated to middle Albania where they became noblemen, lording over Kruja. 
Obliged by the Ottomans to pay tribute to the Empire, and to ensure the fidelity of local rulers, Gjon Kastrioti's sons were taken by the Sultan to his court as hostages. In 1423, Gjergj Kastrioti and his three brothers were taken by the Turks. He attended military school and led many battles for the Ottoman Empire. He was awarded for his military victories with the title Iskander Bey (Albanian transliteration: Skënderbeu, English transliteration: Skanderbeg). In Turkish this title means Lord or Prince Alexander (in honor of Alexander the Great). Skanderbeg soon switched sides and came back to his native land to successfully defended Albania against the Ottoman Empire until his death.
Success in the Ottoman army
He was distinguished as one of the best officers in several Ottoman campaigns both in Asia Minor and in Europe, and the Sultan appointed him General. He even fought against Greeks, Serbs and Hungarians, and some sources claim that he used to maintain secret links with Ragusa, Venice, Ladislaus V of Hungary and Alfonso I of Naples. Sultan Murad II gave him the title Vali that made him the General Governor of some provinces in central Albania. He was respected everywhere but he missed his country. After his father died, Skanderbeg was looking for a way to return to Albania and lead his countrymen against the Ottoman armies. It is because of Skanderbeg's 25 year defiance of the Ottoman Empire that perserved Catholism in Albania to this day. The Turks were successful in converting almost 90% of Albania into Muslims. Those who chose to resist Turkish rule and embrace their Albanian heritage and perserve their culture are today's Albanian Catholics.
Fighting for the freedom of Albania
In 1443, Skanderbeg saw his opportunity during the battle against the Hungarians led by John Hunyadi in Nis (in present-day Serbia). He switched sides along with other Albanians serving in the Ottoman army. He eventually captured Kruje, his father's seat in Middle Albania. Above the castle he rose the Albanian flag, a red flag with a black double-headed eagle, and pronounced the words: "I have not brought you liberty, I found it here, among you." He managed to unite all Albanian princes at the town of Lezhë (see League of Lezhë, 1444) and united them under his command to fight against the Ottomans. He fought a guerilla war against the opposing armies by using the mountainous terrain to his advantage.
During the next 25 years, with forces rarely exceeding 20,000, he fought against the most powerful army of the time. In June 1450 an Ottoman army numbering approximately 150,000 and led by the Sultan Murad II in person, laid siege to Kruja. Leaving a protective garrison of 1,500 men under one of his best lieutenants, Kont Urani, or Vranakonti , Scanderbeg harassed the Ottoman camps around Kruja as well as the caravans coming to supply the Sultan's army. By September the Ottoman camp was in disarray as morale sunk and diseases spread as wild fire. Grudgingly, Sultan Murad finally acknowledged that the castle of Kruja would not have fallen by only strength of arms, so he decided to lift his encampment and make his way to Edirne. Soon thereafter he died and his son Mehmed was crowned Sultan.
For the next five years Albania was allowed some respite as the new Sultan, Mehmed II, set out to conquer the last vestiges of the Byzantine Empire in Europe and Asia Minor. The first test between the Ottoman Sultan and Skanderbeg came in 1455 during the Siege of Berat, where the former defeated the latter by decimating the Albanian army and leaving five-thousand dead in the field of battle, some 40-50% of all Albanian mobile forces. This was the worst military defeat that Skanderbeg had suffered and would ever suffer during his career.
In 1457, an Ottoman army numbering approximately 70,000 men invaded Albania and set out to destroy Albanian resistance once and for all. The army was led by Isa beg Evrenoz , the only commander to have defeated Scanderbeg in battle and Hamza Kastrioti , Scanderbeg’s own nephew. After wreaking much damage to the countryside, destroying crops, plundering and murdering, the Ottoman army set camp at the Ujebardha field (literally WhiteWater), halfway between Lezha and Kruja. There, in September, after having evaded the enemy for months, Skanderbeg attacked and utterly destroyed the Ottomans. His own forces did not exceed fifteen thousand men.
In 1461 Skanderbeg launched a successful campaign against the Angevin noblemen and their allies who sought to destabilize King Ferdinand of Naples. After securing the Neapolitan kingdom, a crucial ally in Skanderbeg’s struggle, he returned home. In 1464 Skanderbeg fought and defeated Ballaban Badera , an Albanian renegade. However, this battle became famous for another reason. Ballaban Pasha did not succeed in defeating Scanderbeg, but was successful in capturing a large number of Albanian army commanders, some of the bravest, including Moisi Arianit Golemi, Scanderbeg’s best cavalry commander; Vladan Giurica , his chief army economist; Muzaka of Angelina , a nephew, and 18 more noblemen and army captains. These men, after they were captured, were dispatched immediately to Istanbul and skinned alive for fifteen days. Scanderbeg’s pleas to have these men back, by either ransoming them or setting free all Ottoman prisoners in Albania, were to no avail.
In 1466 Sultan Mehmed II led the army himself and laid siege to Kruja, who was defended by a 4,400 men strong garrison led by Prince Tanush Thopia . After several months, Mehmed saw that trying to take Kruja was an exercise in futility left and went home. He, however, left a besieging force of forty thousand men under Ballaban Pasha to keep Kruja under siege until it fell. To support this force he built a castle in central Albania and named it El-Basan (which eventually became the modern city of Elbasan). This second siege was successful any more than the first was and soon enough Scanderbeg annihilated it, including its commander Ballaban Pasha, who fell under victim of the new modern firearms.
A few months later, in 1467 Mehmed, frustrated by his inability to subdue little Albania, came again at the head of the largest army of his time. Kruja was besieged a third time, but in a different way. While a contingent kept the city and its forces pinned down, Ottoman armies came pouring from Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia and Greece with the aim of keeping the whole country surrounded, thereby strangling Scanderbeg’s supply routes and limiting his movements. While fight went on Scanderbeg fell ill with malaria in the Venetian held city of Lezhe, and died on January 17, 1468, just as the army under the leadership of Leke Dukagjini defeated a Ottoman force in Shkodra.
The Albanian resistance went on after the death of Scanderbeg for an additional ten years led by Leke Dukagjini. In 1478 the fourth siege of Kruja proved successful for the Ottomans, though through no strength of arms. Bent down by hunger and lack of supplies after a year long siege, the defenders surrendered to Mehmed, who had promised them to leave unharmed as long as they handed over the castle. As the Albanians were walking away with their families, the Ottomans preyed on them killing all the men and enslaving the women and children. A year later the Ottomans captured Shkodra, the last free Albanian castle, albeit under Venetian control, but the Albanian resistance continued sometimes organized and sometimes sporadically until 1500.
Skanderbeg's military successes evoked a good deal of interest and admiration from the Papal States, Venice and Naples, themselves threatened by the growing Ottoman power across the Adriatic Sea. Skanderbeg played his hand with a good deal of political and diplomatic skill in his dealings with the three Italian states. Hoping to strengthen and expand Skanderbeg's state, they provided him with money, supplies and occasionally troops. One of his most powerful and consistent supporters was Alfonso the Magnanimous, the Aragone king of Naples, who decided to take Skanderbeg under his protection as vassal in 1451, shortly after the latter had scored his second victory against Murad II. In addition to financial assistance, the King of Naples undertook to supply the Albanian leader with troops, military equipment as well as with sanctuary for himself and his family if such a need should arise. As an active defender of the Christian cause in the Balkans, Skanderbeg was also closely involved with the politics of four Popes, one of them being Pope Pius II, the Renaissance humanist, writer and diplomat.
Profoundly shaken by the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Pius II tried to organize a new crusade against the Turks; consequently he did his best to come to Skanderbeg's aid, as his predecessors Pope Nicholas V and Pope Calixtus III had done before him. This policy was continued by his successor, Pope Paul II. They gave him the title Athleta Christi.
For a quarter of a century he and his country prevented the Turks from invading the Italian Peninsula.
Gjergj Kastriot's Legacy
After his death from natural causes in 1468 in Lezhë, his soldiers resisted the Turks for the next 12 years. In 1480 Albania was finally conquered by the Ottoman Empire. When the Turks found the grave of Skanderbeg in Saint Nicholas church of Lezhe, they opened it and held his bones like talismans for luck. The same year, they invaded Italy and conquered the city of Otranto.
Skanderbeg's posthumous fame was not confined to his own country. Voltaire thought the Byzantine Empire would have survived had it possessed a leader of his quality. A number of poets and composers have also drawn inspiration from his military career. The French sixteenth-century poet Ronsard wrote a poem about him, as did the nineteenth-century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Antonio Vivaldi composed an opera entitled Scanderbeg.
Skanderbeg today is the National Hero of Albania. Many museums and monuments are raised in his honor around Albania, among them the Skanderbeg Museum next to the castle in Krujë.
- Skenderbeg's Genealogy Page
- Castriota Genealogy Page
- From Illyrium to Skanderberg
- The Arbreshe and Contessa Entellina
- A Brief History of Albania
- Guzzardi Source (Italian)
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