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Albania

Albanians under Ottoman Rule

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

In the early seventeenth 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 seventeenth 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.

The Ottoman Turks divided the Albanian-inhabited lands among a number of districts, or vilayets. The Ottoman authorities did not initially stress conversion to Islam. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, economic pressures and coercion produced the conversion of about two-thirds of the empire's Albanians.

The Ottoman Turks first focused their conversion campaigns on the Roman Catholic Albanians of the north and then on the Orthodox population of the south. For example, the authorities increased taxes, especially poll taxes, to make conversion economically attractive. During and after a Christian counteroffensive against the Ottoman Empire from 1687 to 1690, when Albanian Catholics revolted against their Muslim overlords, the Ottoman pasha of Pec, a town in the south of present-day Yugoslavia, retaliated by forcing entire Albanian villages to accept Islam. Albanian beys then moved from the northern mountains to the fertile lands of Kosovo, which had been abandoned by thousands of Orthodox Serbs fearing reprisals for their collaboration with the Christian forces.

Most of the conversion's to Islam took place in the lowlands of the Shkumbin River valley, where the Ottoman Turks could easily apply pressure because of the area's accessibility. Many Albanians, however, converted in name only and secretly continued to practice Christianity. Often one branch of a family became Muslim while another remained Christian, and many times these families celebrated their respective religious holidays together

As early as the eighteenth century, a mystic Islamic sect, the Bektashi dervishes, spread into the empire's Albanian-populated lands. Probably founded in the late thirteenth century in Anatolia, Bektashism became the janissaries' official faith in the late sixteenth century. The Bektashi sect contains features of the Turks' pre-Islamic religion and emphasizes man as an individual. Women, unveiled, participate in Bektashi ceremonies on an equal basis, and the celebrants use wine despite the ban on alcohol in the Quran. 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 nineteenth century and were to a great degree responsible for the Albanians' traditional tolerance of religious differences.

During the centuries of Ottoman rule, the Albanian lands remained one of Europe's most backward areas. In the mountains north of the Shkumbin River, Geg herders maintained their self-governing society comprised of clans. An association of clans was called a bajrak, (see Glossary). 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 Ottoman Turks, 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 Lek, a collection of tribal laws transcribed in the fourteenth 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.

South of the Shkumbin 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 eighteenth 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 (see Glossary) 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.

Data as of April 1992


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