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Albania has been a nation long subjected to foreign domination. The mountains still bear the ruined walls of fortresses that once garrisoned Roman legions, Byzantine armies, and Venetian crusaders. Nevertheless the Albanian tribes, isolated by mountains, lakes and swamps, were never fully subdued by their many conquerors. The mountain chieftains retained much authority over their clans.
Once part of the ancient Greek and Roman empires, Albania came under the dominion of the Byzantine Empire in 395 A.D. It was during the period of Roman rule that Christianity was introduced. While nominally under Byzantine rule until 1347, northern Albania was invaded by Slavic tribes in the 600s and the southern area was annexed in the 800s by Bulgaria. Byzantium regained control of the south in 1014. Venice colonized the northern area in the 1000s and Naples soon became politically dominant in the whole region until the 1300s when the area was was taken by the Serbs. Thereafter it became a target of Ottoman Turkish expansion in the early 1400s.
It was during these difficult times with the Turks that Albania finally achieved its national identity and a period of sovereignty as a nation. The warrior hero, Gjergi Kastrioti, better known as Skanderbeg (Lord Alexander), formed a union of Albanian princes and defended the nation against superior Turkish forces to establish an independent Albania which lasted from 1443 until 1478. The Ottoman Empire gained control and ruled Albania from 1478 until 1912. For administrative purposes, the Turks had divided Albania into four provinces [vilayets] of İşkodra (Shkodër), Kosovo, Monastir, and Yanya (Janina). The original province boundaries remained quite constant from the mid-1400s until the mid-1800s at which time the administrative divisions of the Ottoman state underwent several changes.
Ottoman domination lasted longer and influenced Albania more profoundly than that of any other foreign power. Islam became the majority religion. During the centuries of Ottoman rule, two-thirds of the Albanian population accepted or were forcibly converted to Islam. Conversion to Islam was essential to realize position and privilege; this was the usual motive for conversion. Even after accepting Islam, many people privately remained practicing Christians. As late as 1912, in a large number of villages in the Elbasan area most men had two names: a Muslim one for public use and a Christian one for private use.
The Ottoman occupation and forced conversions to Islam caused many Albanian Christians to emigrate to Italy. A large proportion emigrated to southern Italy, mainly to the kingdom of Naples, but some went to Sicily, Greece, Romania, and Egypt. Most of the Albanian refugees belonged to the Greek-Orthodox Church. Some of the émigrés to Italy converted to Roman-Catholicism, and the rest established a Uniate Church. The Albanians of Italy significantly influenced the Albanian national movement in future centuries, and Albanian Franciscan priests, most of whom were descended from émigrés to Italy, played a significant role in the preservation of Roman-Catholicism in Albania's northern regions.
All three of Albania's religions were forcefully introduced by conquerors. In 1914, seventy percent of the population was Muslim, divided between the Sunni and Bektashi sects. Greek-Orthodox Christians constituted twenty percent of the population and Roman-Catholics made up the remaining ten percent. The Roman-Catholics lived primarily in the northern coastal areas bordering Austro-Hungary. The Greek-Orthodox were concentrated in the south near the Greek border. All religions were officially outlawed in 1967.
In 1912 the Albanians took advantage of the first Balkan War to declare their Independence from Turkey. An international control commission traced the borders of Albania in 1913, destroying the dream of a greater Albania by assigning large areas with predominant Albanian populace to Montenegro, Serbia, and Greece. Considering that many Albanians are also found in southern Italy, as many Albanians were left out of the new state as were included in it. Boundary disputes persist to the present because many of these “outer Albanians” want local autonomy, and Albania wants to acquire neighboring territories where Albanians predominate.
The new nation had a difficult beginning. In 1913, during the second Balkan War, Albania was occupied by the Serbs. In 1914 William, prince of Wied, became King but was soon expelled by his premier. Italian, Greek, and Serbo-Montenegrin forces occupied the land in the First World War. Then, in 1916, Austrians and Bulgarians entered the country and Albania remained a battleground until the end of the war. The Albanians eventually expelled all foreign troops and also successfully resisted Yugoslav and Greek encroachments.
In 1920 Albania reasserted its independence. Ahmed Zogu emerged from Albania's internal political struggle to seize power in 1925. At first he proclaimed a republic with himself as president, but in 1928 he established a monarchy and became King Zog I. He ruled as a dictator until the spring of 1939, when Italy invaded and annexed the country. Italy occupied Albania during WWII. Following its surrender in 1943, German troops replaced the Italians. The Nazis withdrew at the end of 1944, leaving Albania to the Communist-led National Liberation Front headed by Enver Hoxha. He set up a Communist state in 1946.
Albania isolated itself from most of the world for a quarter of a century after World War II. With over 750,000 Albanians living in neighboring Yugoslavia, fear of that country has been a constant factor in Albania. When Stalin expelled Yugoslavia from the ComInform in 1948, Albania sided with Moscow. After Stalin's death in 1953, Hoxha continued to follow a hard “Stalinist” line. This provoked growing tensions with the Kremlin and friendship with Communist China. In 1960, in an ideological dispute between Soviet and Chinese Communists, Albania sided with China. The Soviets broke diplomatic relations with Albania in 1961 and then cut off all military and economic aid. Albania allied itself with the more ideological pure Chinese. After the death of China's leader Mao Tse-tung in 1976, relations cooled between Albania and China. Upon the death of Enver Hoxha in 1985, the repressive, isolationist regime was replaced by a somewhat more open government under Ramiz Alia.
Opposition parties were legalized in 1990 and a non-Communist government was elected in 1992. In spite of limited democratic reforms, drastic shortages of consumer goods persist in Albania, the poorest nation in Europe.
Hereditary family surnames developed quite late in Albania. The practice was not well established until the early 1900s. For centuries, the family was the basic unit of Albania’s social structure. Until the end of World War II, Albanian society was organized in terms of kinship and descent.
In the north among the Gegs, the basic unit of society was the extended family, usually composed of a couple, their married sons, the wives and children of the sons, and any unmarried daughters. The extended family formed a single residential and economic unit. Such families often included scores of persons, and, as late as 1944, some encompassed as many as sixty to seventy persons living in a cluster of huts surrounding the father's house. Extended families were grouped into clans whose chiefs preserved patriarchal powers over the entire group. The clan chief arranged marriages, assigned tasks, and settled disputes. Descent was traced from a common ancestor through the male line, and brides usually were chosen from outside the clan. Clans in turn were grouped into tribes.
In the Tosk regions of the south, the extended family was also the most important social unit, although patriarchal authority had diminished because of the feudal conditions imposed by the Muslim lords [bey]. Southern Albania came much more firmly under Ottoman control. This resulted in the breakup of the large, independent, family landholdings. These were replaced by vast estates owned by powerful Muslims, each with his own fortresses and tenant peasants to work his lands. A large Muslim aristocracy developed in the south, while the majority of the Tosk peasants became an oppressed social class. As late as the 1930s, two-thirds of the best land in central and southern Albania belonged to large landowners.
The Albanians are considered to be descendants of Illyrian and Thracian tribes who settled the region in ancient times. The country is ethnically homogeneous with 96 percent of the population being Albanian. There are two major subgroups of Albanians - the Gegs and the Tosks. Historically, the Gegs of northern Albania were herdsmen, mostly Muslim and Roman-Catholic. The Tosks of the south were more generally settled farmers, and their religion was more often Greek-Orthodox but also many Muslims. Today their differences in dialect, religions and social customs are distinguishable but not pronounced. Ninety-five percent of the population are ethnically Albanian. Greeks are the largest minority; they constitute 3 percent of the population and live in the southern portion of the country. The other 2 percent include Vlachs (akin to Romanian), Gypsies, Bulgars, and Serbs.
The population of Albania is estimated to have remained at about 200,000 from ancient times through 1600 when it began an upward swing. The population increased to only 300,000 in 1700, to 400,000 in 1800, and to 500,000 in 1850. At the first census of Albania in 1923, the country had 803,900 inhabitants. In 1950 the population was at 1,250,000. Until 1965 Albania was the most sparsely populated Balkan country; thereafter the population began a rapid upward surge. In 1979 the population reached 2,594,000; in 1983 it was 2,870,000; and in 1989 it was 3,185,000. In 1997 the official estimate of population was 3,300,000 inhabitants. Albania now has the highest growth rate in Europe and is the most densely populated nation in the Balkans. There are also substantial numbers of Albanians living just outside of Albania. In the Kosovo province of Yugoslavia and in FYROM (Macedonia) there are another 2,000,000 ethnic Albanians. There are many Albanians in Italy and in Greece also.
Albania’s people are still mostly rural with only 38% living in cities. Tiranë, the capital and largest city, grew from about 60,000 inhabitants in 1945 to 251,000 in 1991, largely because of the expansion of industry and government bureaucracy. Other major cities with 1991 population figures are: Dürres - 86,900; Shkodër - 83,700; Elbasan - 83,200; Vlorë - 76,000, and Korçe - 67,100.
Before Communism, about 70% of the people of Albania were Muslims, 20% were Greek-Orthodox, and 10% were Roman-Catholic. In 1967 religious institutions were abolished and Albania proclaimed itself the “first atheist state in the world.” Many Albanians maintained their religious beliefs in private. When considered together, Albanians (including those in Yugoslavia, Macedonia, Greece, and Italy) are about equally divided among the Islamic, Roman-Catholic, and Greek-Orthodox faiths.
There are more Albanians outside Albania than within the boundaries of the People's Republic of Albania. This widespread distribution of Albanians has three major causes:
- During the period of Turkish rule there was an outward spreading of the Albanian population in the Balkans. Circumstances of history and international diplomacy have placed many of these Albanians within the territory of neighboring countries. For example, many Albanians are found in Greece (Epirus).
- Albanian colonies have been established abroad for many centuries. For the most part these consisted of Christian emigrants from Albania seeking refuge from Muslim oppression in their Turkish-occupied homeland. Some such colonies were established in southern Greece but by far the greatest number of emigrants settled in Italy and Sicily. Such colonies were established in Italy in the 13th century but the most significant movements to Italy started approximately from the middle of the 15th century with the death of Skanderbeg, when several Albanian groups (approximately 200,000 or about one-fourth of Albania's population) took refuge in Italy, especially in the kingdoms of Naples, in Sicily, and in Calabria. Albanian emigration to Italy continued into the 18th century. Small colonies of Albanians are also found in Turkey, Bulgaria, the Ukraine, and Egypt.
- The 19th and early 20th centuries were a period of economic emigration from or throughout Europe. Many Albanians left their country in search of work in America. To these must be added Italo-Albanians who came to the U.S. at the time of heavy Italian emigration to the U.S. In the later 20th century many Albanian emigrants moved into Western Europe seeking economic opportunity.
- The Family History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Family History Record Profile: Albania,” Word document, private files of the FamilySearch Content Strategy Team, 1991-1998.