The Roots of Albanian Nation and Statehood
The state-building aptitudes of nations represents the making real of an idea of a state as a governing body where social substance already exists. The concept of the state, its birth and its development in history has produced endless theories. In this short essay, every statement is a point for restarting and re-examination. I do not want to limit the issue of the subject only to a certain age. Even now, studies related to the equation “State” and the “Albanian Nation” are fragmented, far from complete. Since the Albanian nation and state is a living reality this means that we can conceptualise a history and a point of creation for this nation with an exploration of its early development and surviving archaeological record. From this point of view, archaeology reopens the seemingly “closed doors” for the study of the state phenomenon in the land of the Albanians.
The sensational and significant pre-historic archaeological discoveries from Albania, since the mid-20th century, have proven an uninterrupted sequence of cultural layers without any hiatus, or imaginary shift. In the Bronze Age we have the formation of the Illyrian culture, namely a community of Illyrian tribes, therefore diversity that nevertheless forms a unity.
I do not intend here to discuss a detailed history of Illyrian state formations that are well documented very early on. A complete work on this point is that of the French archaeologist Pierre Cabanes Les Illyriens de Bardylis a Genthios (Armand Colin / SEDES, 1988). In particular, the merit goes to Selim Islami, who worked all his life to formalise a concrete history of the Illyrian state in an urban and monetary context, with the consolidated concept of the Illyrian city as its basic structure.
The earliest evidence reveals the existence of Illyrian kings as early as the eighth century BC. A fragment from Polyaenus, a second-century Macedonian author, speaks of the Illyrian king of the Taulant tribe in the seventh century BC. In a consular decree, to be precise in an inscription at Athens there is documented another Illyrian king, Grado. This inscription is also associated with two inscriptions: one found in Olymth and the other in the Acropolis of Athens where there is mentioned another Grado, most likely the first’s grandfather. More widely, chronicles speak of powerful Illyrian kings such as Bardhyli and his descendants, hence representing a dynasty. They hold the title “King of the Illyrians” used in both Latin and Greek, as seen in Theopompi, Polybius, Diodorus, Plutarch and Livy. At least eight kings have this title according to the recordings made by Cartier: Bardhyli I, Grabo II, Pleurja-Pleurati, Glauk, Bardhyli II, Agroni, Pleurati III and Genti.
There are two theories about the Illyrian state: that of an autonomous formation of Illyrian kingdoms as dictated by Zipelit, and the unitary theory of Papazoglou who acknowledges the alternating names of kings, yet within the same state structure during different centuries. The Albanian scholar Islami is a proponent of the latter, the unitary theory. It is a major fact of ancient Mediterranean history that the Illyrian State during the 4th to 2nd-century BC represented the largest Hellenistic type state, especially after the death of Alexander the Great, in the Illyrian (Balkan) Peninsula.
The main centre of the Illyrian state is considered to have been Shkodra, but also the city of Rizon. The Illyrian state was an important international actor in the history of the Mediterranean region. Through piracy, it owned the Adriatic Sea, but it was also powerful in the Joanian Sea and even in Etoile. It was a strong state with a large army and a dominate naval fleet. In its coins we find emblematised the figure of lembes (Illyrian ship) and the Illyrian helmet.
It is a known fact that for the Roman Republic, at the time it was on its way to becoming a superpower, with the Punic wars (against Carthage) and the three wars against Illyria were important (especially during the period when the Queen Teuta of Illyria was in power). The Illyrian state was an intermediary power, the third one, between the Roman and the Macedonian states. The last Illyrian King, Genti, experienced the destruction of his dynasty in 168 BC. It is an interesting fact that, the Roman Senate sent Luc Anicin in Shkodra to gather an assembly (comventus) with the participation of all principes (Illyrian’s influential men), and announces the following decisions: the Illyrians are free, all Roman garrisons have been withdrawn, the residents of Shkodra must pay Rome a tribute (almost half of that required by King Genti), and Illyria is divided into three provinces. This is all drawn from the work of Polybius and gives the impression of a formal autonomy – the status of a Roman protectorate.
Unfortunately, the written Illyrian chronicles have been lost. Yet the numismatic findings (relating to or consisting of coins or medals) reveal that an Illyrian State, with its capital Rizon and King Balaos, used coins with non-Roman symbols, which can lead us to conclude a peculiar development of the Illyrian state after the Roman conquest. Of course Rome became a great world empire, and its relationship with Illyrians remains a rich area of study. It seems that the history between the Illyrians and the concept of the state goes silent in from after this period.
Having said that, in a map by Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria from the second century BC, a great city named Albanopoli is outlined, together with the mountains of the Albaneve. It would be very modern to talk about a post-Roman Illyrian Kingdom with Albanopoli as its capital. But this concept cannot be dismissed and rightly the German scholar Jakob Philipp Fallmerayer – with a strong analytical nerve – touches on this topic in his epochal work Das Albanesische element in Griechelant from 1857 that focused on Albanopoli in a polemic with the negativist Greek scholar Nikokles. Fallmerayer considers the testimony of Albanopoli as the public history of the Albaneve, the certain ancestors of the Albanians. Again the gap of chronicles for this period is severe. What we know is that early Christianity spread in the Albanian territory as a liberating ideological ferment during a process that occurred in Late Antiquity with the creation of the “young” nations emerging from their older predecessors. Sadly, the archaeological material of what conveniently is called “the Arbërore Culture of Komanit” that institutionalised the concept of early ethnic Albanians, is a foundation on which the walls that were created seem to have fallen and are now lost.
Roman rule was followed by Byzantine rule. Here begins one of the most complicated stages but also one of the most fertile for Albanians. The Middle Ages had a special importance in the formation of the Albanian nation.
The great scholar of the middle ages, Milan Šufflay has written that, “the medieval history of Albania has an important primary material, even from the standpoint of the history of mankind. The momentum of a great antiquity is stored in data sources as in the areas of the Wild West, passing, filtered through high wheel of cultures. The Adriatic historically is seen as a miniature, or a cultural centre of the Mediterranean between two old worlds: East and West. In this structure prevails in Antiquity and the Middle Ages the ancient city of Durrës, a city of the first class that can be called the “Garden of the Adriatic”, where the Illyrian and Latin element were in equilibrium with the Byzantine base with its Hellenic language, where the Dalmatian city type of Yugo-Italian was reflected in a Greco-Byzantine face. Durres is the optic where there are stored three major centres of written language in Europe in the middle ages: Latin, Greek and Slavic. More precisely it can be said that Durres formed the second centre of the ellipse of the Mediterranean, as Palermo in Sicily, where the Latin and Greek language joined southward with Arabic. Durres can be called a magical city, as the boundary of the tale, where winds blow all at once.”
For the study of the medieval period in Albania today, there is a master of analysis in the work of Pellumb Xhufi. Two of his works “Dilemmas of Arbër” and “From Paleologus to Muzakajt” have created a clearer view of history and especially in what is called historical etatism, centrifugal powers of provinces with Byzantium and other Mediterranean powers. More complete data flowing in the 12th century proves the definition of Jacques Le Goff that this period brought about a renaissance and major changes for all of Europe. A bit later, in the 13th century the state of Arbër is documented, which meets the attributes of what is called a state. In a Latin inscription found in Gziq, in the city of Mirdita, and that is today preserved in the Albanian National Historical Museum, is something that has not been given the necessary attention from scholars. The transcribed inscription transliterated from Ingazio Zamputti and Koço Zhegu has a verse, which in Latin is “Laeto animo dignae Nationi abtuliti”, translated as “With all my soul I bestow this worthy Nation.” This is a surprising affirmative formula for the ascent of national awareness, precisely because this worthy nation is the Albanians. I do not intend to modernise the meaning of this expression but to merely underline it.
In the 13th century we also have the formation from Karl Anjou in 1272 of Regnum Albaniae (The Kingdom of Albania) with Durrës as its capital. The formation of a state with such a distinguishable name (in fact an ethnic name) according to documents from Karl Anjou it was done to recognising the privileges of the Albanian nobility. Unfortunately, studies on the existence and role of this Regnum Albaniae have not been seen with wider and multi-disciplinary optics. Having said that, this is a fact that breeds many ideas.
By the 14th century, the state-building aptitude or capability of Albanians is articulated more prominently. It is the romantic century of the large Albanian principalities, dominated by the states of Topia and that of Balsh. This is the pre-Skanderbeg period.
In the 15th century shines the State of George Kastriot Skanderbeg, based on a unitary formulation, such as the League of Lezha in 1444 – a de jure event both on the regional and the European level. The Assembly of Lezha materialised the Albanian state, where George Katriot according to the formula “primus inter pares” was Dominus Albaniae. The age of Kastriot had a connotation throughout Western Europe. It is a genuine state of the late Middle Ages and European Renaissance, for which there are numerous studies, although none are conclusive.
With Skanderbeg the diplomatic element of foreign policy had a concentrated institutionalisation and a great modernity for the time. After the death of Skanderbeg Albania became part of the Ottoman Empire for many centuries and descended into what is called metaphorically in the Bible as the “Egyptian darkness.”
During the “Egyptian darkness” the Albanians manifested a first class cultural anthropology for their idea of independence and freedom. In 1555, John Buzuku, in the first book written in Albanian, inscribed the phrase Ën së dashunit të botës sanë (mother of our beloved world). His biblical expression is an Albanisation, therefore proof of a distinct ethnic culture.
The 16th century raises the trinity of the names Buzuku, Barleti and Onufër. This century can be called the Golden Age of Albanian culture and art. Marlin Barleti (Marinus Barletius) first sketched a theory of the state, in his book about Skanderbeg (written circa 1508-1510). He quotes Plato, and while referring to the role of Skanderbeg, Barleti proposes the idea of the unity of the executive by using a medieval parable about two beasts, one with two heads and the other with one head. The moral of the parable is that the beast with one head responds quicker to adversity – it is decisive, unlike to multi-headed beast. This Barletian parable expresses the theory of the centralised state that comes out of the middles ages, and has Aristotelian characteristics rather than Platonic.
In 1513 Machiavelli establishes the first civil theory largely based on the state and separates ethics from politics. Only centuries later the concept of nation-state would be defined. Jean Jacques Rousseau and Montesquieu would argue that the natural law leads to public law. Whereas in the 20th century Hannah Arendt would think in a new way, that politics is the sphere of freedom, without which freedom is not the true reality, but it is merely a concept.
In the 17th century the three great B‘s: Budi, Bogdani and Bardhi (Pjetër Budi, Pjetër Bogdani and Frang Bardhi) elevated the Albanian culture with European substance, making projects for the liberation of Albania, reviving the cult of George Kastriot Skanderbeg and self-determination against Ottoman rule.
But the biggest century and the most crucial is the 19th century where under the influence of the French Revolution there is the creation of their own state organisations, despite the framework of the Ottoman Empire, with unusual Albanians figures such as Ali Pasha of Janina and Mehmet Pasha Bushatlli. Their quasi-independent governing structures formed diplomatic ties and signed treaties with the British, French and Austro-Hungarian empires, etc.
The 19th century showed the great conceptual backwardness of the idea of nation-state in many European nations. The mosaic of Italian states, and the Germanic states showed clearly that the idea of nation-state was even for them overdue. Only with Garibaldi did Italy became a unitary national state and also only with Bismarck in Germany could a united independent state be realised. These historical facts are undeniable. For the major European chancelleries the process of recognising what represents the Albanian nation came too late in genuine scientific terms.
The science of Albanology started in the 19th century with Georg Han, who provided a scientific understanding of the origin and the ethnic being of Albanians. As well, the genius linguist of comparative linguistics Franc Bobi settled the fact that the Albanian language is an Indo-European one. The 19th is the century of George Byron and of great painters such as Leon Jérôme, who presented to the European chancelleries noble views, proud and dignified Albanians. And undoubtedly, Albanian romanticism with Jeronim De Rada and Naimi Frashërin was a representation of independence in literature that preceded the legal de jure act of political independence.
But most importantly and more substantial is the Albanian League of Prizren, which was inaugurated on June 10th 1878 two days before the opening of the Congress of Berlin. Not without coincidence, the Albanian League of Prizren took obvious attributes of a sovereign nation-state, whether in the military, judicial decision-making power and diplomatic areas.
Were it not for the circumstances in extremis, the League of Prizren would have had inaugurated the Independence of Albania. The Congress of Berlin was one of the greatest inter-governmental bodies at the time, but the member-states that constituted the ”Concert of Europe” decided against Albania, hence refusing to recognised the self-determination claim of a historically important and sizeable nation in the Balkans.
However complexthe reasons behind this decision have their own logic, but the nation-building logic of the Albanians cannot be denied either. It is in this century that Albanians demonstrated their most visionary projects, with Naum Veqilharxhi, Pashko Vasa, and especially Sami Frasheri, who wrote his famous political manifesto that surprisingly remains relevant even today for the future of a free and independent Albanian state. It included a modern concept of a republic with two chambers, hence moving away from the prevailing archetypes of the time that were monarchies.
The beginning of the 20th century was even more complicated for Albanians. The major uprisings against the Ottoman Empire, the development of national education (without the existence of a formal state), and the Albanian press all created that mental chemistry that made possible the Final Act.
The visionary mind for a politician of European for this time, Ismail Qemali, established and embedded the idea of the de jure reality of independence also in conditions in extremis. It can be said that if independence would have not been declared in the Albanian city of Vlora on November 28th 1912 while the First Balkan War was accelerating and was changing the political map of the Balkans, there would have not been a de jure recognition from the Great Powers. The Conference of Ambassadors in London could have partitioned even further the Albanian lands, a historical alternative, which would have resulted in a much larger delay chronologically for the state development of the Albanian nation, vis-a-vis other nations in Europe.
The Act of Independence is the greatest legal act for Albanians. It had an exclusive and totally unique character. This legal act proves that the state-building aptitude of Albanians has never been a myth. The dissolution of prejudice is a form of recognition. The modern Albanian state was born, and was not only an Albanian factor, but also a regional and international player.
Fatally, however, prejudices have often been translated into aggressive policy. In 1913, former Serbian Prime Minister, Vladan Gjeorgjeviç, wrote his book The Albanians and the Great Powers, namely an example of the most extreme and monstrous chauvinism. He calls Albanians unworthy of history and a state, a people without identity, a hybrid mix and even more extreme with racist myth as the “gypsies of Europe.”
Even years after another Prime Minister in Belgrade, Nikola Pašić, with even more wild hatred wrote that an independent Albanian state is neither in the interest of the Albanians nor in the interest of Europe, because Albanians were unworthy of politics. So for Pašić, Albania is a nation that should be excluded from modern history, a dream and hallucinatory concoction.
But what happened on November 28th 1912 – the Albanian declaration of independence – can never be undone. Another sharp and articulate testimony of the vitality of the state-building capabilities of Albanians is the liberation of Kosovo in 1999 and the subsequent de jure declaration of Independence in 2007, recognised by 100 UN member-states.
It is clear that the equation “state” and “Albanians” is not fatally broken. So, these two notions are unlike the planets that go around in circles, connectionless, as according to the astronomical scheme of Ptolemy from Alexandria. Because the Albanian nation is fragile it has often been on the edge of disaster. But it shows a surprising vitality.
In today’s time the issue of the form of the state and its substance may not yet have consistent conceptual framework, nor an adequate policy and political culture in Albania and Kosovo. But this does not hinder the trend for progressive development in the future. The state according to Immanuel Kant is Ding an sich (The thing in itself). It is Kant who indicates that the state-building aptitudes of different nations are very similar and have an undeniable tendency to be unique.
Translated by Epidamn Zeqo
Moikom Zeqo is an Albanian poet and former politician. He is one of the founders of the Socialist Party of Albania, and served as MP and Minister of Culture in the early 90s. For a decade he was the Director of the National History Museum in the capital of Albania, Tirana.
 This book makes use of the best achievements of modern historiography, with prominent names such as G. Zippel, Curt Schhut, Holleaut M., A. Denac, M. Garasanin, R. Katicic, F. Papazoglou, as well as studies from indigenous Albanian scholars like Hasan Ceka, I. Selim, etc.