The origins of the Albanian people are not definitely known, but data drawn from history and from linguistic, archaeological, and anthropological studies have led to the conclusion that Albanians are the direct descendants of the ancient Illyrians and that the latter were natives of the lands they inhabited.
Illyrian culture is believed to have evolved from the Stone Age and to have manifested itself in the territory of Albania toward the beginning of the Bronze Age, about 2000 BC.
Authors of antiquity relate that the Illyrians were a sociable and hospitable people, renowned for their daring and bravery at war. Illyrian women were fairly equal in status to the men, even to the point of becoming heads of tribal federations. In matters of religion, Illyrians were pagans who believed in an afterlife and buried their dead along with arms and various articles intended for personal use.
The land of Illyria was rich in minerals—iron, copper, gold, silver—and Illyrians became skillful in the mining and processing of metals. They were highly skilled boat builders and sailors as well; indeed, their light, swift galleys known as liburnae were of such superior design that the Romans incorporated them into their own fleet as a type of warship called the Liburnian.
From the 8th to the 6th century BC the Greeks founded a string of colonies on Illyrian soil, two of the most prominent of which were Epidamnus (modern Durres) and Apollonia (near modern Vlora). In the 3rd century BC the colonies began to decline and eventually perished.
Roughly parallel with the rise of Greek colonies, Illyrian tribes began to evolve politically from relatively small and simple entities into larger and more complex ones. At first they formed temporary alliances with one another for defensive or offensive purposes, then federations and, still later, kingdoms.
After warring for the better part of the 4th century BC against the expansionist Macedonian state of Philip II and Alexander the Great, the Illyrians faced a greater threat from the growing power of the Romans. Seeing Illyrian territory as a bridgehead for conquests east of the Adriatic, Rome in 229 BC Rome attacked and defeated the Illyrians, led by Queen Teuta, and by 168 BC established effective control over Illyria.
The Roman Empire
The Romans ruled Illyria—which now became the province of Illyricum—for about six centuries. Under Roman rule Illyrian society underwent great change, especially in its outward, material aspect.
Christianity manifested itself in Illyria during Roman rule, about the middle of the 1st century AD. At first the new religion had to compete with Oriental cults—among them that of Mithra, Persian god of light—which had entered the land in the wake of Illyria's growing interaction with eastern regions of the empire. By the time the empire began to decline, the Illyrians, profiting from a long tradition of martial habits and skills, had acquired great influence in the Roman military hierarchy. Indeed, several of them went on from there to become emperors.
From the mid-3rd to the mid-4th century AD the reins of the empire were almost continuously in the hands of emperors of Illyrian origin: Gaius Decius, Claudius Gothicus, Aurelian, Probus, Diocletian, and Constantine the Great.
The Byzantine Empire
From Illyria to Albania
When the Roman Empire divided into east and west in 395, the territories of modern Albania became part of the Byzantine Empire. As in the Roman Empire, some Illyrians rose to positions of eminence in the new empire. Three of the emperors who shaped the early history of Byzantium (reigning from 491 to 565) were of Illyrian origin: Anastasius I, Justin I, and—the most celebrated of Byzantine emperors—Justinian I.
In the first decades under the Byzantine rule (until 461), Illyria suffered the devastation of raids by Visigoths, Huns, and Ostrogoths. Not long after these barbarian invaders swept through the Balkans, the Slavs appeared. Between the 6th and 8th centuries they settled in Illyrian territories and proceeded to assimilate Illyrian tribes in much of what is now Slovenia, Croatia, Herzegovina and Serbia, and Serbia. The tribes of southern Illyria, however—including modern Albania—averted assimilation and preserved their native tongue.
In the course of several centuries, under the impact of Roman, Byzantine, and Slavic cultures, the tribes of southern Illyria underwent a transformation, and a transition occurred from the old Illyrian population to a new Albanian one.
In the latter part of the Middle Ages, Albanian urban society reached a high point of development. Foreign commerce flourished considerably.
Albanian, however, was not the language used in schools, churches, and official government transactions. Instead, Greek and Latin, which had the powerful support of the state and the church, were the official languages of culture and literature.
The new administrative system of the theme
s, or military provinces created by the Byzantine Empire, contributed to the eventual rise of feudalism in Albania, as peasant soldiers who served military lords became serfs on their landed estates. Among the leading families of the Albanian feudal nobility were the Thopias, Balshas, Shpatas, Muzakas, Aranitis, Dukagjinis, and Kastriotis.
The decline of Byzantium and the Ottoman Empire
By the mid-14th century, Byzantine rule had come to an end in Albania, after nearly 1,000 years. A few decades later the country was confronted with a new threat, that of the Turks, who at this juncture were expanding their power in the Balkans.
The Ottoman Turks invaded Albania in 1388 and completed the occupation of the country about four decades later (1430). But after 1443 an Albanian of military genius—Gjergj Kastrioti (1405–68), known as Skanderbeg—rallied the Albanian princes and succeeded in driving the occupiers out. 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.
By the mid-19th century Turkey was in the throes of the “Eastern Question,” as the peoples of the Balkans, including Albanians, sought to realize their national aspirations. To defend and promote their national interests, Albanians met in Prizren, a town in Kosovo, in 1878 and founded the Albanian League
. The Albanian League was suppressed by the Turks in 1881, in part because they were alarmed by its strong nationalistic orientation. By then, however, the league had become a powerful symbol of Albania's national awakening, and its ideas and objectives fueled the drive that culminated later in national independence. Independent Albania
Shortly after the defeat of Turkey by the Balkan allies, a conference of ambassadors of the Great Powers
(Britain, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, France, and Italy) convened in London in December 1912 to settle the outstanding issues raised by the conflict. With support given to the Albanians by Austria-Hungary and Italy, the conference agreed to create an independent state of Albania.
The Great Powers also appointed a German prince, Wilhelm zu Wied, as ruler of Albania. Wilhelm arrived in Albania in March 1914, but his unfamiliarity with Albania and its problems, compounded by complications arising from the outbreak of World War I, led him to depart from Albania six months later. A national congress, held in Lushnje in January 1920, laid the foundations of a new government. In December of that year Albania, this time with the help of Britain, gained admission to the League of Nations, thereby winning for the first time international recognition as a sovereign nation and state.
Bishop Noli and King Zog
At the start of the 1920s, Albanian society was divided by two apparently irreconcilable forces. One, made up mainly of deeply conservative landowning beys and tribal bajraktar
s who were tied to the Ottoman and feudal past, was led by Ahmed Bey Zogu, a chieftain from the Mat region of north-central Albania. The other, made up of liberal intellectuals, democratic politicians, and progressive merchants who looked to the West and wanted to modernize and Westernize Albania, was led by Fan S. Noli, an American-educated bishop of the Orthodox church. In the event, this East-West polarization of Albanian society was of such magnitude and complexity that neither leader could master and overcome it. World War II
In October 1940 Italian forces used Albania as a military base to invade Greece, but they were quickly thrown back into Albania. After Nazi Germany defeated Greece and Yugoslavia in 1941, the regions of Kosovo and Çamëria were joined to Albania, thus creating an ethnically united Albanian state. Meanwhile, the various communist groups that had germinated in Zog's Albania merged in November 1941 to form the Albanian Communist Party and began to fight the occupiers as a unified resistance force.
After a successful struggle against the fascists and two other resistance groups—the National Front (Balli Kombëtar) and the pro-Zog Legality Party (Legaliteti)—which contended for power with them, the communists seized control of the country on Nov. 29, 1944. Enver Hoxha, a college instructor who had led the resistance struggle of communist forces, became the leader of Albania by virtue of his post as secretary-general of the party. Albania, which before the war had been under the personal dictatorship of King Zog, now fell under the collective dictatorship of the Albanian Communist Party.
Socialist Albania The Stalinist State
The new rulers inherited an Albania plagued by a host of ills: pervasive poverty, overwhelming illiteracy, blood feuds, epidemics of disease, and gross subjugation of women. In order to obtain the economic aid needed for modernization, as well as the political and military support to enhance its security, Albania turned to the communist world: Yugoslavia (1944–48), the Soviet Union (1948–61), and China (1961–78).
Economically, Albania benefited greatly from these alliances: with hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and credits, and with the assistance of a large number of technicians and specialists sent by its allies, Albania was able to build the foundations of a modern industry and to introduce mechanization into agriculture.
Political oppression, however, offset gains made on the material and cultural planes. Contrary to provisions in the constitution, during Hoxha's reign Albania was ruled, in effect, by the Directorate of State Security, known as the Sigurimi. To eliminate dissent, the government resorted periodically to purges, in which opponents were subjected to public criticism, dismissed from their jobs, imprisoned in forced-labour camps, or executed.
Collapse of Communism
After Hoxha's death in 1985, his handpicked successor, Ramiz Alia, sought to preserve the communist system while introducing gradual reforms in order to revive the economy, which had been declining steadily since the cessation of aid from former communist allies. To this end he legalized some investment in Albania by foreign firms and expanded diplomatic relations with the West. But, with the fall of communism in eastern Europe in 1989, various segments of Albanian society became politically active and began to agitate against the government.
The most alienated groups were the intellectuals and the working class—traditionally the vanguards of a communist movement or organization—as well as Albania's youth, which had been frustrated by years of confinement and restrictions. In response to these pressures, Alia granted Albanian citizens the right to travel abroad, curtailed the powers of the Sigurimi, restored religious freedom, and adopted some free-market measures for the economy. In December 1990 Alia endorsed the creation of independent political parties, thus signaling an end to the communists' official monopoly of power.
Attempts at Democracy
In the elections of March, 1991, the Communists defeated the Democrats, but popular discontent over poor living conditions and an exodus of Albanian refugees to Greece and Italy forced the cabinet to resign shortly thereafter. In new elections (1992) the Socialists (Communists) lost to the Democrats, Alia resigned, and Democratic leader Sali Berisha became Albania's first democratically elected president.
With unemployment and inflation accelerating, the new government took steps toward a free-market economy. Although the economic picture showed some signs of improvement during the 1990s, poverty and unemployment remained widespread. The Berisha government prosecuted former Communist leaders, including Ramiz Alia, who was convicted of abuses of power and jailed. In 1994, Albania joined the NATO Partnership for Peace plan, and in 1995, it was admitted to the Council of Europe.
Berisha's party claimed a landslide victory in the 1996 general elections, which were marked by irregularities. In Mar., 1997, following weeks of rioting over collapsed pyramid investment schemes, Prime Minister Aleksander Meksi, a Democrat, resigned. Berisha, however, was elected to a new five-year term and named Bashkim Fino, a Socialist, to head a new coalition government. Parliament declared a state of emergency as rebels gained control of large sections of southern Albania and threatened the capital. Thousands of Albanians fled to Italy, and an international force from eight European nations arrived in Apr., 1997, to help restore order.
The Socialists won parliamentary elections held in July, and Berisha resigned, succeeded by Socialist Rexhep Kemal Meidani. Fatos Nano became prime minister in 1997 but resigned in 1998 and was succeeded by fellow Socialist Pandeli Majko. Majko resigned in Oct., 1999, after he lost a Socialist party leadership election and was succeeded by Socialist Ilir Meta. Albanians approved their first post-Communist constitution in 1998.
The country was flooded with refugees from neighboring Kosovo in 1998 and 1999. In the June, 2001, parliamentary elections the Socialists were returned to power. After Meta resigned in January, 2002, Majko became prime minister again; following Majko's resignation in July, Nano succeeded him. In June, 2002, a compromise candidate, Alfred Moisiu, a former general and defense minister, was elected to succeed President Meidani. Parliamentary elections in July, 2005, resulted in a victory for Berisha's Democrats, but Socialist challenges to some of the results delayed certification of the vote. In September, however, Nano resigned, and Berisha became prime minister.