Puneet Varma (Editor)

Albania under the Ottoman Empire

Updated on
Share on FacebookTweet on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Reddit
Albania under the Ottoman Empire httpsuploadwikimediaorgwikipediacommonsthu

Ottoman Albania comprised Albania during the period it was part of the Ottoman Empire, from 1385 to 1912. Ottoman rule in Albania began after the Battle of Savra in 1385 when most of the local chieftains became Ottoman vassals. The Ottomans erected their garrisons throughout southern Albania by 1415 and established formal jurisdiction over most of Albania by 1431. Independence for some Albanian regions was gained during 1443-1479, with the uprising under the lead of George Kastrioti Skanderbeg. The last towns captured by the Ottomans were Shkodër in 1479 and Durrës in 1501. The territory which today belongs to the Republic of Albania remained part of the Ottoman Empire until declaring independence in 1912 during the Balkan Wars.


Ottoman rule

The Ottomans expanded their empire from Anatolia to the Balkans in the 14th century. They crossed the Bosporus in 1352, and they crushed a Serbian army in the Battle of Maritsa in 1371 and Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Europe gained a brief respite from Ottoman pressure in 1402 when the Mongol leader, Tamerlane, attacked Anatolia from the east, killed the Turks' absolute ruler, the Sultan, and sparked a civil war. When order was restored, the Ottomans renewed their westward progress. In 1453, Sultan Mehmed II's forces overran Constantinople and killed the last Byzantine emperor.

The division of the Albanian-populated lands into small, quarreling fiefdoms ruled by independent feudal lords and tribal chiefs made them easy prey for the Ottoman armies. In 1385, the Albanian ruler of Durrës, Karl Thopia, appealed to the sultan for support against his rivals, the Balšić noble family. An Ottoman force quickly marched into Albania along the Via Egnatia and routed Balsha II in the Battle of Savra. The principal Albanian clans soon swore fealty to the Ottoman Empire. Gjirokastra became the county town of the Sanjak of Albania in 1419. Sultan Murad II launched the major Ottoman onslaught in the Balkans in 1423, and the Turks took Ioannina in 1431 and Arta, on the Ionian coast, in 1449. The Turks allowed conquered Albanian clan chiefs to maintain their positions and property, but they had to pay tribute, send their sons to the Turkish court as hostages, and provide the Ottoman army with auxiliary troops.

The Albanians' resistance to the Turks in the mid-15th century won them acclaim all over Europe. Gjon Kastrioti of Krujë was one of the Albanian clan leaders who submitted to Turkish suzerainty. He was compelled to send his four sons to the Ottoman capital to be trained for military service. The youngest, George Kastrioti (1403–68), who would become the Albanians' national hero, captured the sultan's attention. Renamed Iskander when he converted to Islam, the young man participated in military expeditions to Asia Minor and Europe. When appointed to administer a Balkan district, Iskander became known as Skanderbeg. After Ottoman forces under Skanderbeg's command suffered defeat in a battle near Niš in present-day Serbia in 1443, Skanderbeg rushed to Krujë and tricked a Turkish pasha into surrendering the Albanian fortress. Skanderbeg then embraced Roman Catholicism and declared a holy war against the Turks.

On 1 March 1444, Albanian chieftains gathered in the cathedral of Lezhë with the prince of Montenegro and delegates from Venice and proclaimed Skanderbeg commander of the Albanian resistance. All of Albania, accepted his leadership against the Ottomans, but local leaders kept control of their own districts. Under a red flag bearing Skanderbeg's heraldic emblem, an Albanian force of about 10,000-15.000 men held off Ottoman campaigns against their lands for twenty-four years. Three times the Albanians overcame sieges of Krujë. In 1450, the Albanians routed Sultan Murad II himself. Later, they repulsed attacks led by Sultan Mehmed II in 1466 and 1467. In 1461, Skanderbeg went to the aid of his suzerain, King Alfonso I of Naples, against the kings of Sicily. The government under Skanderbeg was unstable, however, and at times local Albanian rulers cooperated with the Ottomans against him.

With political and minor material support from the Kingdom of Naples and the Vatican, resistance to the Ottoman Empire continued for 35 years. Krujë fell to the Ottomans only in 1478, ten years after the death of Skanderbeg; Shkodër succumbed in 1479 after a failed siege in 1474 and a stronger siege in 1478 that ended with Venice ceding Shkodra to the Ottomans. The Venetians then evacuated Durrës, in 1501. The conquests triggered a great Albanian exodus to Venice and Italy, especially to the kingdom of Naples, as well as to Sicily, Romania and Egypt. Most of the Albanian refugees belonged to the Orthodox 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 Catholicism in Albania's northern regions.

Skanderbeg’s long struggle to keep Albania free became highly significant to the Albanian people, as it strengthened their solidarity, made them more conscious of their national identity, and served later as a great source of inspiration in their struggle for national unity, freedom, and independence. The memory of the mid-15th century resistance under Skanderbeg continues to be important to Albanians, and his family's banner, bearing a black two-headed eagle on a red field, became the flag under which the Albanian national movement rallied centuries later.

After the death of Skenderbeg and the fall of Krujë, the Ottoman Empire gained control of the vast ethnic Albanian territories and many new changes began to take place.

Among the biggest transformation was that the Albanian population gradually began to convert to Islam through the teachings of Bektashism, in order to gain considerable advantages in the Ottoman trade networks, bureaucracy and army. Many Albanians were recruited into the Ottoman Janissary and Devşirme and 42 Grand Viziers of the Ottoman Empire were of Albanian origin. The most prominent Albanians during Ottoman rule were: George Kastrioti Skanderbeg, Ballaban Badera, Koca Davud Pasha, Hamza Kastrioti, Iljaz Hoxha, Mimar Sinan, Nezim Frakulla, Köprülü Mehmed Pasha, Ali Pasha, Edhem Pasha, Omer Vrioni, Patrona Halil, Haxhi Shehreti, Ali Pasha of Gucia, Ibrahim Pasha of Berat, Köprülü Fazıl Ahmed, Muhammad Ali of Egypt, Kara Mahmud Bushati, Kara Murad Pasha, Ahmet Kurt Pasha, Mustafa Bushati, Ibrahim Bushati, Sedefkar Mehmed Agha.

Albanians also played a crucial role during the Ottoman–Venetian War (1499–1503), Ottoman–Hungarian Wars and Ottoman–Habsburg wars before gaining Independence.

18th century

The weakening of Ottoman central authority and the timar system brought anarchy to the Albanian-populated lands. In the late 18th century, two Albanian centers of power emerged: Shkodër, under the Bushati family; and Ioannina, 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 Bushati, 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.

South of the Shkumbini 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 18th 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.

19th century

Ottoman-Albanian relations worsened in the year 1826 during the reign of Mahmud II, he had instigated the notorious Auspicious Incident and the turmoil that followed caused the violent dissolution of the Janissary, Devşirme and the entire Balkan Muslim leadership in Rumelia causing a new wave of revolts and instability in the gradually weakening Ottoman Empire.

After crushing the Bushatis and Ali Pasha, the Sublime Porte introduced a series of reforms, known as the tanzimat, which were aimed at strengthening the empire by reining in fractious pashas. The timars officially became large individual landholdings, especially in the lowlands. In 1835, the Sublime Porte divided the Albanian-populated lands into the vilayets of Janina and Rumelia and dispatched officials from Constantinople to administer them. This provoked a series of revolts in 1843–1844, but they were suppressed by the Ottoman army.

After 1865, the central authorities redivided the Albanian lands between the vilayets of Scutari, Janina, and Monastir. The reforms angered the highland Albanian chieftains, who found their privileges reduced with no apparent compensation, and the authorities eventually abandoned efforts to control them. Ottoman troops crushed local rebellions in the lowlands, however, and conditions there remained bleak. The religious division of the northern Albanian tribes brought them into opposition. The Muslim northern Albanian tribes participated in the Ottoman campaigns against Christian Albanian tribes, such as in 1876 when they devastated the territory populated by the Mirditë Catholics. Large numbers of Tosks emigrated to join sizable Albanian émigré communities in Romania, Egypt, Bulgaria, Constantinople, southern Italy, and later the United States.

Against the Young Turks

In 1906 opposition groups in the Ottoman Empire emerged, one of which evolved into the Committee of Union and Progress, more commonly known as the Young Turks, which proposed restoring constitutional government in Constantinople, by revolution if necessary. In July 1908, a month after a Young Turk rebellion in Macedonia supported by an Albanian uprising in Kosovo and Vardar Macedonia escalated into widespread insurrection and mutiny within the imperial army, Sultan Abdül Hamid II agreed to demands by the Young Turks to restore constitutional rule. Many Albanians participated in the Young Turks uprising, hoping that it would gain their people autonomy within the empire. The Young Turks lifted the Ottoman ban on Albanian-language schools and on writing the Albanian language. As a consequence, Albanian intellectuals meeting in Manastir (present day town of Bitola) in 1908 chose the Latin alphabet as a standard script. The Young Turks, however, were set on maintaining the empire and not interested in making concessions to the myriad nationalist groups within its borders. After securing the abdication of Abdül Hamid II in April 1909, the new authorities levied taxes, outlawed guerrilla groups and nationalist societies, and attempted to extend Constantinople's control over the northern Albanian mountain men. In addition, the Young Turks legalized the bastinado, or beating with a stick, even for misdemeanors, banned carrying rifles, and denied the existence of an Albanian nationality. The new government also appealed for Islamic solidarity to break the Albanians' unity and used the Muslim clergy to try to impose the Arabic alphabet.

The Albanians refused to submit to the Young Turks' campaign to "Ottomanize" them by force. New Albanian uprisings began in Kosovo and the northern mountains in early April 1910. Ottoman forces quashed these rebellions after three months, outlawed Albanian organizations, disarmed entire regions, and closed down schools and publications. Montenegro, preparing to grab Albanian-populated lands for itself, supported a 1911 uprising by the mountain tribes against the Young Turks regime that grew into a widespread revolt. Unable to control the Albanians by force, the Ottoman government granted concessions on schools, military recruitment, and taxation and sanctioned the use of the Latin script for the Albanian language. The government refused, however, to unite the four Albanian-inhabited vilayets into one, Albanian vilayet.

Governing structure

Administratively, the Ottomans divided the Albanian-inhabited lands among a number of districts, or vilayets. The Ottoman authorities did not initially stress conversion to Islam.

By 1479, the entire country, except for Durrës, Ulcinj and Bar, was under Ottoman suzerainty. Prominent viziers and pashas hailed from Albania, and were appointed to their posts long before the majority of Albanians professed Islam.


For details of : State Organization

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, were conscripted as young boys from Christian Albanian families, and high-ranking Ottoman officials often had Albanian bodyguards.


According to historian Zija Shkodra, Albania was developed as much as the rest of the Balkans. In the mountains north of the Shkumbini River, Geg herders maintained their self-governing society base on 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 Ottomans, 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 Lekë Dukagjini (Kanuni i Lekë Dukagjinit), a collection of tribal laws transcribed in the 14th 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.


Five centuries of Ottoman rule grouped the Albanian people along religious, regional, and tribal lines. In the early 17th century, however, Albanians converted to Islam in large numbers. Within a century, the Muslim Albanian community was the largest religious community in the country. Albanians in this time were divided into two distinct tribal and dialectal groupings: the Gegs and Tosks (see Albanian language). In the rugged northern mountains, Geg shepherds lived in a tribal society often completely independent of Ottoman rule. In the south, peasant Muslim and Orthodox Tosks worked the land for Muslim beys, provincial rulers who frequently revolted against the sultan's authority.

In the early 17th 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 17th 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.

As early as the 18th century, a mystic Islamic sect, the Bektashi dervishes, spread into the empire's Albanian-populated lands. Probably founded in the late 13th century in Anatolia, Bektashism became the janissaries' official faith in the late 16th century. The Bektashi sect contains features quite distinct from normative Islam and emphasizes man as a reflection of the Divine. Women, unveiled, participate in Bektashi ceremonies on an equal basis, and the celebrants use wine despite the ban on alcohol in the Sharia. 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 19th century and were to a great degree responsible for the Albanians' traditional tolerance of religious differences.

In the 19th century, the Ottoman sultans tried in vain to shore up their collapsing empire by introducing a series of reforms aimed at reining in recalcitrant local officials and dousing the fires of nationalism among its myriad peoples. The power of nationalism, however, proved too strong to counteract.

Albanian nationalism

As a result of contacts maintained between the Tosks and their relatives living or returning from abroad, foreign ideas began to seep into Albania.


  • Elsie, Robert (2010). Historical Dictionary of Albania. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press (The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group Incorporated). ISBN 0-8108-6188-7. 
  • References

    Albania under the Ottoman Empire Wikipedia