Scanderbeg or Skanderbeg (Alb. Skënderbeu) was an Albanian prince (1405-1468) and is now considered the national hero of the Albanians. His real name was George Castrioti (Alb. Gjergj Kastrioti). Sent by his father as a hostage to Sultan Murad II (r. 1421-1451), he was converted to Islam, and after education in Edirne was given the name Iskander (Alexander) and the rank of bey, hence Scanderbeg. In 1443, after the Turkish defeat at Nish at the hands of John Corvinus Hunyadi (1385-1456), Scanderbeg abandoned the Ottoman army, returned to Albania and embraced Christianity. He took over the fortress of Kruja by a ruse and was proclaimed commander in chief of an independent Albanian army. In the following years, he successfully repulsed thirteen Ottoman invasions and was widely admired in the Christian world for his resistance to the Turks, being given the title ‘Atleta Christi’ by Pope Calixtus III (r. 1455-1458). Scanderbeg died on January 17, 1468 at Lezha (Alessio) and was buried there at the Church of Saint Nicholas, but his bones were later exhumed and stolen by Turkish soldiers as talismans. Although Albanian resistance held out for a decade thereafter, the fortress of Kruja was taken by the Turks in 1478 and Albania was to return to over four centuries of Ottoman rule. For the Albanians, Scanderbeg is the symbol and quintessence of resistance to foreign domination and a source of much inspiration in both oral and written literature. Here is a prose rendition of the tale.
Albania was faced with a mighty Turkish invasion, but managed to defend itself. A second, even greater invasion then took place and was again repulsed. A third, fourth and fifth invasion followed. Under the leadership of Gjergj Kastrioti Scanderbeg, however, the Albanians were able to counter each of these invasions for they fought with courage for their country, their honour, their lives and their children. Over long years and in the course of the many battles, the little province of Albania had become a graveyard for the armies of the Ottoman Empire. Armies attacked and never returned home, as if they had vanished from the very face of the earth.
Finally Sultan Murad himself came, with soldiers as numerous as the sands of the seashore, and he, too, was defeated. He returned home and this time took with him another army even greater and headed by his Janissaries, and yet it, too, was vanquished. On his deathbed, the mighty Sultan Murad lamented: “What shame! I have lived in vain! I have conquered the whole world, I forced Bulgaria and Serbia into submission, I claimed victory over Greece and reached the very Danube, conquering the wide plains of Romania and Hungary beyond that river, but I was never able to defeat little Albania. I almost had it in the palm of my hand when Scanderbeg drove me out.”
The son of Sultan Murad, Mehmed the Great, followed in his father’s footsteps, except that he was much crueler. He besieged and waged war against Constantinople the magnificent surrounded by its three walls. When Mehmed defeated the city, the most beautiful and wealthiest on earth, he set up his golden throne there and called himself the Victorious. Following this great deed, which caused all of Europe to tremble, Mehmed resolved to force Albania into submission as his dying father had begged him to do. Thus Sultan Mehmed assembled a huge army with both infantry and cavalry, and headed it himself to march against Albania. The very earth quaked as the iron girded army marched by. The rivers were left without water after it had passed, for its horses and soldiers had drunk them dry. No grass grew where it had marched.
Accompanying the Turkish Sultan was Ballaban Badheri, an Albanian who had betrayed his country and was now leading the Turks. Ballaban had been a great hero, but he betrayed both his lineage and his people, and fought for the Turks to gain high office, fame and fortune. He had taken part in many wars and had been first to plant the crescent flag on the walls of Constantinople. Sultan Mehmed had therefore made Ballaban a pasha and conferred upon him gifts and honours. But honour for the Turks had a bitter aftertaste to the Albanians, for Ballaban had no compassion with their sufferings, neither with the land he trampled upon, nor with the homes he razed to the ground, nor with Albanian blood he spilled. Sultan Mehmed set out with this great army to force Albania into submission, but Albania had Scanderbeg!
When Scanderbeg received word that the Turks were again to invade Albania, he assembled his troops and set forth to do battle with them. But how few they were, compared to the Turkish hordes! The Albanians made their camp on the bank of a sparkling river, setting up their tents in the shade. They ate, drank and made merry as if celebrating a wedding instead of going to war.
After some time, they caught sight of a Turk riding towards them, carrying a white flag in his hand. They rode out to meet him and block his path. “Who are you and what do you want here?” “I am a messenger of the mighty Sultan of the Turks and wish to speak to your lord, Scanderbeg.” “Get off your horse then and come with us.” And so, they took him to Scanderbeg. The messenger greeted Scanderbeg politely, saying, “Lord of the Albanians, the mighty Turkish Sultan has sent me to ask you where you wish to do battle with him.” Scanderbeg answered curtly, “Go and tell your lord to come and see for himself.” When the messenger returned, Sultan Mehmed asked him, “Did you see Scanderbeg?” “Yes, Sultan, I saw him.” “Did you also see his warriors?” “Yes, I did.” “Does Scanderbeg have a large army?” “He has but a small army though his soldiers all have shining, courageous eyes. They were singing and dancing a sword dance and waiting impatiently for the order to attack.” “What is this sword dance, messenger?” asked the Sultan. “It is an Albanian dance, oh ruler over land and sea. It would send a shiver down your spine to see how those men, as huge as oak trees, were leaping and dancing with their naked swords and crossing their blades as if in battle. They forced me to stand in their midst and crossed swords over my head, but without touching me at all.” “What happened then?” “The Albanians are not afraid of death, mighty Sultan, especially death in battle. They say that death in battle by the sword is sweeter than honey.”
The mighty Sultan Mehmed sighed and said to himself, “If only I had these people under my sway, if only they would do battle for me!” He turned to the messenger again and asked, “Why is it they say that death in battle is sweeter than honey?” “Because they say they are fighting for their freedom, for their country. They also swear by the sword, mighty Sultan.” “Only by the sword?” “No, by the earth, by water and stones, too. And by bread and salt. They say that honour is paradise and disgrace is hell.” “And this Scanderbeg, what was he like? Was he afraid?” “No, mighty Sultan, he showed no fear. When I arrived, he was eating with his warriors. He rose and received me standing, with both hands resting on the hilt of his sword, like a god of war. He said only, ‘Go and tell your lord to come and see for himself.'” Mighty Sultan Mehmed was infuriated and exclaimed, “I’ll show these Albanians what death is. I’ll dispatch my army and mow them down like grass. Then we will see if they still rise and dance their sword dance”! “As you wish, mighty Sultan!”
Sultan Mehmed jumped to his feet and gave orders for the drums to be sounded. Immediately the drums began to beat. The noise filled the whole valley and echoed through the canyons. “Send me my shield bearers!” proclaimed the Sultan. The shield bearers appeared at once chanting in unison, “Long live the mighty Sultan! Our lives belong to you! We await your command!” Sultan Mehmed, son of Murad the Great, said to them, “Tell me, shield bearers, which one of you is brave enough to bring me Scanderbeg, dead or alive?” They all heard his words, yet none of them replied. They trembled at the very name of the Albanian hero.
In the ensuing silence, Ballaban Badheri, who had betrayed his own people to fight under the Ottoman flag, stepped forth, “What will you give me, mighty Sultan, if I bring you Scanderbeg?” “I will give you nine hundred thousand ducats of gold and all Albanian lands that you may reign as Pasha as long as you live. You shall be free to execute whomever you please and as many as you please.” “You will have him this evening, either dead or in chains,” Ballaban promised.
The Sultan was overjoyed for he knew that one could only fight fire with fire and that it would take an Albanian to beat an Albanian. He raised his arm and gave the signal for battle. Nine trumpeters of the Janissaries blew their horns, followed by ninety nine trumpeters of the other troops. The drums pounded. The Turks drew their sabres, let out a savage war cry and, under the eyes of the Sultan, victor of Constantinople, rushed heroically into battle. The Sultan sat and observed the battle from in front of his silken tent on a hilltop overlooking the river. He could hardly wait for Ballaban Badheri to bring him Scanderbeg, either dead or in chains.
The Tatar archers strung their bows with three arrows each and all fired at the same time, causing the very sky to go black. The Turkish army resembled a swelling sea about to engulf Scanderbeg’s small band of warriors. And the battle began. The sparkling river at which the Albanians had camped turned crimson with blood. The Turks attempted to cross the river, but were unable to do so for the Albanians held it firmly. As the battle raged, Scanderbeg waited for his warriors from the mountains who were still to arrive.
Meanwhile, Ballaban had found a spot at which to cross the river with his men. Scanderbeg rushed to block his path and shouted in Albanian, “Come on, come on, Ballaban Badheri! You betrayed your people for a spoonful of Turkish soup! Bravo, what a hero!” Ballaban trembled and turned pale, but stood his ground. Scanderbeg called to him a second time, “You’d love to make a hundred thousand ducats of gold and have Albania as your pashalic, wouldn’t you? You shall feel the blade of my sword. Come nearer.” Ballaban froze. Scanderbeg called to him a third time, “Attack, traitor, or I will attack first!” Treacherous Ballaban, advancing with his warriors, hurled his lance. Scanderbeg tried to back off but lost control of the reins of his steed and was wounded in the shoulder. The steed too was struck. Scanderbeg fell from the animal and dropped to his knees, but managed to rise to his feet in no time. The Turks cheered and encircled him without delay. Ballaban was now confident of his nine hundred thousand ducats of gold. Scanderbeg supported himself against a mighty oak tree and drew his sword. All those who approached too closely were cut to pieces. The others backed off, but then lunged with Ballaban for the final attack.
As Scanderbeg, completely encircled by the enemy, fought on by himself, two thousand warriors, led by Dukagjin and Livet, rode down from the mountains to his assistance. Clasping their naked swords, they swooped down like a snowy avalanche sweeping away everything in their path. When Scanderbeg saw the warriors coming, he laughed and rejoiced, shouting “Welcome, Dukagjin! Over here, come and help me for I am doing battle with the traitor, holding a sword in one hand and our glorious flag in the other.” He then set upon the enemy again like a fire raging in the brush. Headless bodies and severed heads filled the ditches. The Turks either fell or retreated. Only one of them resisted: Ballaban Badheri. They fought on man to man. Scanderbeg did not want to slay Ballaban, but to take him prisoner. At last, he shattered Ballaban’s sabre and left him standing unarmed with his head bowed. Scanderbeg wounded him slightly in his right ear, saying, “Now return to your master, dog!”
The Turkish army fled. The Albanians pursued it through the canyons and over streams until it was crushed. The drums were smashed and rolled aimlessly along the ground, the crescent flags were caught up in the bushes. Ballaban, covered in blood and with his head bowed, returned to his master’s tent. The Turkish Sultan asked him, “My, my, Ballaban, you are wounded in the head. What of your bragging now? I thought you wanted to bring me Scanderbeg’s head this evening?” Ballaban fell to his knees to beg forgiveness of the Sultan, answering, “Mighty Sultan, ruler over land and sea! Hear my words! I was not able to bring you Scanderbeg dead or alive because not only his own strength helped him, but the entire country was behind him. I fought in many battles under your father, I have challenged many a warrior and returned victorious, but I have never met anything like Scanderbeg.” The Sultan replied in fury, “Ballaban, cover your head, sign of your infidelity, for I am going to have it removed to appease my wrath at the annihilation of my army. You gave me your word that I would bring the Albanians under my sway this time and you have broken it.” The Sultan then gave his Janissaries a sign. They seized the traitor Ballaban, tied him to a tree and beheaded him.
The avalanche of sabre bearing Albanians was still approaching. When Sultan Mehmed saw them coming, he mounted his steed and fled in haste, leaving his silken tent and his dead warriors behind. The Albanians pursued him but he continued to flee in panic. Once again, Scanderbeg had overcome the superior strength of the Turks.
©️ VOTRA Magazine / Korrik 2021