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  • Simon Vincent

Skanderbeg - the Albanian Strategic Genius

Updated: Nov 28, 2022


Painting of Scanderbeg, unknown artist.

Centuries ago, Albania was one of the main battlegrounds between Europe and the armies of the Ottoman Empire. Despite a tiny population, fractioned disunity and poor finances, the Albanians demonstrated some of the most enduring resistances against the Ottoman imperialists – especially under the leadership of their iconic figure, Scanderbeg (also spelled Skanderbeg, Iskander Bey). His remarkable story, outstanding talent, and brave resistance would ignite the strong national identity of the Albanians, as well as inspire European soldiers in their long-lasting struggle with the Ottoman Empire.


Medieval Albania


In the 15th century, Albania was sharply divided between disunited feudal lords. This made the region an easy target for the powerful Ottoman Empire. By 1385, they had swiftly bribed or killed the lords, submitting the entire region to their rule. As thanks for surrendering, the Albanian lords were allowed to retain their ranks and properties but had to pay annual tribute to the Sultan and send a quota of their sons into Ottoman military service and coerced conversion to Islam ("child tax" or devshirme).

The Ottoman Empire at circa 1450.

One of those sons was George Kastrioti. In 1423, at the age of 18, George and three of his brothers were forced into Ottoman military service by their father, Gjon Kastrioti. The three brothers were executed by the Turks for unknown reasons, whilst George managed to survive. He entered Ottoman military school and indoctrination.


This young man soon showed remarkable talent for diplomacy and strategy. He was promoted to a cavalry officer and, later, governor. in Macedonia Sultan Murad II noted his military prowess and gave him a new name: Iskander Bey - meaning "Lord Alexander", after Alexander the Great. In European languages, Iskander Bey would be read simply as Scanderbeg. Nevertheless, in secret, he patiently awaited an opportunity to break free.


After 20 years of Ottoman service, Scanderbeg's moment finally came. Ordered to fight fellow Christians at the Battle of Nis in 1443, but he refused and deserted. With 300 cavalrymen, he kidnapped a Turkish noble and forced him to sign a document to make Scanderbeg the governor of the strategic Albanian fortress of Kruje. Once inside, he and his men slaughtered the Ottoman garrison while they were asleep, and raised the Kastrioti banner over the city. He renounced Islam and proclaimed himself the avenger of his family and people. The Albanian rebellion had begun.


Ottoman court, painting by Jean Baptiste Vanmour.


The Albanian Resistance


After rapidly seizing control of scores of villages and fortifications, he rallied the Albanian lords and united them under the League of Lezhe. This League had one vision: to free Albania from the Ottomans.


For the Europeans, this revolt could not have arrived at a better time. Fierce wars raged in the Balkans as European kingdoms desperately tried to stop the Ottoman war machine. It was not only a war between realms but a clash of civilizations. The new Sultan, Mehmed II, wanted to conquer both Constantinople and Rome. It would be the final blow to Christendom. Yet to reach Rome, the Sultan would have to lead his armies through Italy. Due to Scanderbeg’s persistent revolt, his access to Italy was strategically denied. So he hurried to crush the Albanians.


The confident Ottoman warriors expected little resistance from the divided, numerically inferior, and financially bleak Albanians. On the fields of Torvioll however, their overconfidence cost them dearly. With just 15 000 men against 30 000 Ottomans, Scanderbeg allowed the overconfident Ottomans to attack first. After pegging their army down, he used hidden cavalry to attack from behind, trapping the entire Ottoman army. The entire enemy army was slaughtered, with anywhere from 10 000 to 20 000 Ottomans killed.


The Battle of Torvioll was the first time the Ottomans had been humiliated on European soil. This stunning victory echoed across region and inspired other revolts. Meanwhile, Serbs and Hungarians fought stubbornly to the North, making the whole Balkan region act in concert to stop Ottoman advances.

Skanderbeg fights the Ottomans. Detail from the Memorial Wall of the National Skanderbeg Museum in Kruje.

In 1448 - after years of winning smaller skirmishes - Scanderbeg held the fortress of Svetigrad with just 12 000 men against 80 000 Ottomans. Two years later, Scanderbeg repeated his defensive success at the first siege of Kruje. He had 20 000 troops against Sultan Mehmed II's army of 80-100 000, but out-lasted his foe by stationing cavalry outside the fortifications to ravage the Ottoman army every time they neared a breakthrough. Frustrated and with no victory in sight, the Sultan was forced to forfeit. Scanderbeg pursued and beat them again twice at the fields of Modric and Mecad.


Triumph against all odds


In 1453, Mehmed II finally managed to conquer Constantinople - the heart of Christendom for a millenia. Then, in 1456, both the Serbs and Hungarians were defeated and the Ottomans could finally concentrate all their resources on the Albanian front. At the siege of Burat, Scanderbeg blundered by letting less competent commanders take charge while he left for diplomacy, leading to defeat. Albanian lords feared that defeat was imminent, and many betrayed Scanderbeg and defected to the Ottomans in hopes of preserving their nobility. Even the Venetians began working against him, as they regarded him as a rival for control in the Adriatic Sea.


An 80,000-strong army was sent by Mehmed to do the knock-out blow - but, it seems, Scanderbeg was yet again underestimated. At the fields of Albulena, Scanderbeg's experienced fighters fought viciously and tactfully. They stormed through the unnerved Ottoman ranks, routing the army and pillaging their camp. Scanderbeg did all this with just 10 000 men, inflicting 15,000-30,000 casualties, making it his greatest ever victory.

Scanderbeg and his men, painting from the National Museum of History on Skanderbeg Square, Tirana.

In 1462, at the Battle of Mokra, Scanderbeg won another stunning victory. Over the course of august 1462, he routed three Ottoman armies in quick succession. The Sultan had seen enough. He sued for peace in 1463.


Meanwhile, Pope Pius II was jubilant over Scanderbeg's remarkable successes. He boldly called for a Crusade and granted Scanderbeg the chief command. Anticipating a mounted Western advance, Scanderbeg broke the Ottoman peace and invaded Macedonia. He brilliantly captured the fortress of Orhid with an inferior army by luring half the Ottoman garrison out of their gates and into the woods for an ambush, and then assaulting the fortress with superior numbers.


But he had acted too early. Shortly after, Pope Pius II died, and the Crusade evaporated. Scanderbeg now stood alone to face the Ottoman armada once more.

Return of Scanderbeg, unknown artist.

In late 1463, the Ottomans launched their fourth invasion of Albania with 40 000 men - but were soundly defeated, again. The Albanian resistance had been going on for almost two decades, and Sultan Mehmed II had enough. He mustered 70,000 - 100,000 men and besieged the Albanian de-facto capital city of Kruje (Scanderbeg had 20,000 men). After months of grueling combat, cannon fire, and sickness, however, Mehmed failed to find a way to win, and withdrew. Angered, he harshly plundered Albania, devastating many villages. Scores of Albanian nobles were captured, killed, and tortured. With lacking support from Naples and Venice, it became increasingly questionable how long the Albanian resistance could continue.


In 1468, Scanderbeg re-assembled the League of Lezhe to discuss the plan forward. Alas, he fell sick with a fatal fever. At the age of 64 years, Scanderbeg died of illness.


As soon as the Sultan heard these news, he struck again, besieging Kruje by starvation. After months of hunger, the garrison surrendered under the promise that they would be spared. But they were fooled. The civilians were massacred and the survivors sold as slaves. By 1479, the last free Albanian fortress fell to the Ottomans.


Legacy


“I did not bring you liberty, I found it here among you,” Scanderbeg is said to have proclaimed in 1443, when he reverted to Christianity and symbolically raised the Kastrioti banner at Kruje.

Scanderbeg by Cristofano dell'Altissimo (1525–1605

Scanderbeg's 20-year-long resistance was a key reason why the Ottoman advance into Europe stopped. Their incursions into Italy were delayed until they had lost their momentum. This, along with the bold campaigns of the Serbs and Hungarians, saved the Papacy.


He was a military genius who also mastered the delicacy of politics and diplomacy. He kept a loose League of self-serving nobles together under extraordinary pressure, leading them firmly to victory after victory. Further, his perfect knowledge of Ottoman military warfare and their cultural mentality meant that he knew his enemy - all their tricks, weaknesses and triggers. He mastered psychology to fool his foes, jogging them out of confidence and rhythm. This is why he won strings of successes always with inferior numbers.


Even in his own time, Scanderbeg became a legend. His stunning triumphs against all odds proved that, with resilience and sound strategy, victory over the Turks was very possible. He was also deeply charismatic. His speeches were said to have electrified his soldiers even in the darkest of hours. The "hero" lived on in Albanian memory for centuries. He brought more to Albania than just a war with the Ottomans. Indeed, it was under his leadership that all of Albania, for the first time, stood united as one political entity. Their nationhood stems directly from him. Naturally then, in their Declaration of Independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912, the Albanians chose to adopt his banner - the Kastrioti Family Coat of Arms - as their nation's national flag.


Scanderbeg’s significance may be summed up in the resolution issued by the United States Congress in 2005, which was: honoring the 600th anniversary of the birth of Gjergj Kastrioti (Scanderbeg), statesman, diplomat, and military genius, for his role in saving Western Europe from Ottoman occupation.”


Photo of Skanderbeg statue at Tirana, Albania, by Neil Ward.

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