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Robert Elsie



Ekrem Bey Vlora in the 1930s.

Ekrem Bey Vlora
in the 1930s.
Webdesign J. Groß

Ekrem Bey Vlora:
The Ruling Families of Albania in the pre-Ottoman Period

Eqrem or Ekrem bey Vlora (1885-1964) was born in Vlora, the son of one of the wealthiest landowning families of the south. He was educated at the Theresianum in Vienna, 1899-1903, and studied law and religion in Istanbul, 1904. After working for the Ottoman administration for a time, including a three-month tour of duty at the Ottoman embassy in St. Petersburg in 1907, and years of travel in Europe, Albania and the Orient, he joined his uncle Ismail Qemal bey Vlora in the movement for Albanian independence. In 1912, he was made deputy president of the senate. He was kept under arrest in Italy during World War I but subsequently became a promoter of close relations between Italy and Albania. Vlora was elected to parliament in 1924, representing a conservative wing and, in 1925, became a senator for a short period of time. His relations with Ahmet Zogu were tenuous, though he served the latter on various diplomatic missions abroad. He was a close friend of the Bavarian baroness Marie Amelie, Freiin von Godin, with whom he translated the Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini into German. Vlora welcomed the Italian invasion of April 1939 and had close links to the Italian fascists. In 1942, Mustaja Kruja appointed him minister for Kosova, which had been reunited with Albania. His anti-Slavic policies, however, gave rise to widespread resistance among the Serbs and Montenegrins. In the summer of 1944, he was made foreign minister and minister of justice before going into Italian exile during the communist takeover. He died in Vienna and lies buried at the Neustift am Walde Cemetery.

As a writer, Eqrem bey Vlora is remembered for his monograph "Aus Berat und vom Tomor: Tagebuchblätter" (From Berat and Tomorr: Pages of a Diary), Sarajevo 1911, and, in particular, for his two-volume German-language memoirs, published posthumously as "Lebens­erinnerungen" (Memoirs), Munich 1968, 1973, which give fascinating insight into the world of an early twentieth-century Albanian nobleman. They have recently been translated into Albanian as "Kujtime" (Memoirs), Tirana 2002, and Turkish as "Osmanli Arnavutluk'undan anilar, 1885-1912" (Notes from Ottoman Albania, 1885-1912), Istanbul 2006. Unpublished remains his monumental 1200-page typescript "Beiträge zur Geschichte der Türkenherrschaft in Albanien: eine historische Skizze" (Contributions to the History of Turkish Rule in Albania: an Historical Sketch), from which this account of the noble families of mediaeval Albania is taken.


The Ruling Families of Albania in the pre-Ottoman Period

An overview is required of the political divisions within Albania in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in order to understand and properly evaluate the course of events during and after the Turkish conquest of the country.

At the death of Stephan Dushan in 1355, the empire he created, the regnum serborum et romanorum, disintegrated into virtually independent realms because the centralizing force of his personality was now missing. His insignificant successors lacked not only his resolve and energy, but also the prestige inherent in this most important son of the Nemanid dynasty.

It would, however, be erroneous to believe that the realms which arose from the ruins of the Byzantine and Nemanid empires were, from the start, real principalities which had organized their territory with a genuine government and administration. It was rather the case that new rulers took over the various towns, expanded their spheres of influence in the surrounding area and, with time, brought the region under control. They never created fully independent kingdoms. Only the Byzantine Empire and the Empire of Stephan Dushan can be regarded as such.

Since the fall of Byzantium into the hands of the Latin Crusaders in 1204, the eastern Roman emperors were no longer in a position to ensure their hold on the country. For Albania, this meant the start of a period of division into various realms, and the Serb Nemanids held the greatest part of the country.

Before Serb rule and after its end, there were, however, two centres of power in Albania that endeavoured to unite the country, each on its own and at a different time, and they achieved this goal to a certain extent. The first was the Despotate of Janina under Byzantine suzerainty. Then, under Neapolitan-Italian influence and as a successor to the regnum Albaniae of Anjou, it was the turn of the Thopia family in Durrës. The rise of such realms is not particular to this period of Albanian history. Such things had been going on for the last two thousand years. Whenever the unifying reign of a major power disintegrated and its prestige dissipated in the Balkans, Italy would look towards Albanian territory to spread its influence.

When the Macedonian Empire fell, the Romans invaded Albania. When the power of Byzantium was sapped by the Crusaders, the Angevin Kingdom of Naples, and Venice, expanded their realms on Albanian soil. Every time the power of Constantinople or Italy declined, northern peoples flooded into the undefended territories of Albania: the Germans, the Huns, the Slavs, the Bulgars, again and again, throughout the centuries and up to the present day.

The Despotate of Janina and the rule of the house of Thopia had one particular feature in common. They were both created by foreign influence and power and infused the country with foreign culture, but they also endeavoured to unite Albania and its people. This process of unification, which has led to the rise of the present-day Albanian people and its language, began around the year 800 and was almost completed by 1200.


1. The Despotate of Janina

The Despotate of Janina existed under Byzantine rule from 1015 on. Around 1204, it attained a certain autonomy under Michaelangelos Comnenos (a scion of the imperial family of the same name) and was henceforth known as the Despotate of Epirus. The Despotate was ruled for over one hundred years, with varying success, by the descendants of this Byzantine dynasty until in 1318-1430 it came under the sway of various Italian dynasties. Central Albania, for its part, was under the rule of the kings of Sicily and Naples from 1271 to 1368.

If one considers that Greek was the official language of the Despotate of Janina and that Latin and Italian were the official tongues of the Angevin regnum Albaniae and later of the realm of the Thopias in Durrës, it seems quite inconceivable that these two realms would contribute to an awakening of Albanian nationalism and not do damage to the Albanian language and the Albanian way of life. On rare occasions, these realms indeed promoted the latter. (1)

The situation was different in the small kingdoms which arose after the fall of the Serb empire or which stemmed from earlier days. They were only interested in their own profit and strengthening their local influence. They did much to promote internal division within the country and its disintegration. This serves to explain why there was no general and common resistance at the start of the Ottoman invasion of Albania.

The power of the Despotate of Janina, founded at the start of the twelfth century, had long passed its zenith when the Turks invaded. It was divided up into various realms and therefore played no significant role in the country's defence. Its pitiful remains had all the attributes of a Greek State that had lost all contact with its Albanian subjects, for instance in Chameria and in Acarnania.

At its zenith, the Despotate of Janina stretched southward to Lepanto, and in the northeast from Kastoria and Monastir to Prilep and the Adriatic Sea, and from 1204 to 1300 it ruled over an almost exclusively Albanian-speaking population.

The power of the Despotate was severely shaken by disputes over succession, by enemy attacks, of which the temporarily restored Byzantine Empire was no doubt a significant part, in particular the hostility of Emperor Constantine Palaeologus (1264), by the advance of the Serbs and by the insubordinate behaviour of some rising Albanian, Byzantine and Serb families. The final blow came, however, with the advance of the Albanian mountain tribes southwards. From 1356 on, the despots of Janina were no longer descendants of the imperial family of Byzantium. Marital and military alliances had brought other families to the fore in what remained of the Despotate.

The sphere of influence of these Italian and Byzantine families who had settled in Janina stretched over the region in a triangle made up of Janina, Preveza and Arta. On the eastern side, it was subject to attacks from the Serbs and on the northern side to attacks by Albanian mountain tribes. These tribes had begun migrating in the thirteenth century. In 1220 they appeared for the first time in Thessaly, in 1265 on the plain of Monastir (Bitola), in 1315 in the area south of Gjirokastra (Zitza, Dhuljana), and by 1360 they had reached the region of Janina. They had no set goal and were in search of new pastureland and a friendlier environment than the harsh mountain terrain they stemmed from. Of course they depended on theft to ensure their survival. The individual groups were no more than one hundred man strong, but whenever important action was to be taken, they would gather under a courageous leader of their choice. One such leader was Gjin Bua Shpata (2), who seized the town of Gjirokastra from the Despote of Janina in 1356 and who, in a document in 1375, is referred to as the Lord of Arta and Lepanto. With his descendants, he set up a reign at the expense of the Despot of Janina which lasted until the Turkish conquest.

When the Serbs attacked from Thessaly, and Janina was under threat, Shpata's Albanians joined Leonardo Tocco, the Count of Cephalonia and Duke of Leucada (1357), and were able, thanks to Italian support, to maintain themselves in this region and indeed extend their rule down to Lepanto in Acarnania. In 1370, the Serbs conquered Janina but were repelled five years later by the Albanians and the Italians who had once again come to their assistance. Gjin Bua Shpata then gave his niece in marriage to Esau di Buondelmonte of Florence, a relative of the Tocco and Acciauli families and thus reinforced his position internationally. Gjin's successor, Mauritius Bua Shpata (Sguros) took Janina in 1403 but was unable to hold it. He died in 1418 in his capital Arta.

After Mauritius Bua Shpata's death, the rulers of Cephalonia took control of the Despotate and of Janina, although Gjirokastra had already been taken away from the Albanians by Charles Tocco in 1405. In 1407, the Venetians took the town of Lepanto from the Shpatas, thus breaking the power of the successors of Gjin Shpata. The lands of Mauritius Bua Shpata were almost all now in the hands of the Counts of Cephalonia, who thus took over the role of Despots of Janina.

With the Turkish conquest, these realms disappeared. The Buondelmonte, Tocco and Shpata dynasties thus vanished from Albanian history. According to local tradition, one descendant of the Shpata family, Peter Bua, was founder of the Albanian settlement of Piana degli Albanesi in Sicily, and in the sixteenth century, another one, Mauritius Bua (Shpata), made a name for himself as a military leader in the service of François I of France.

Ijasolos, on the other hand, an unworthy scion of the house of Buondelmonte (Counts of Cephalonia) ended his career in an inglorious manner by being the first Albanian to conclude a pact with the Turks and deliver Janina and the Despotate to the Sultan.

After these remarks on the rule of the Shpatas in southern Albania, a word or two must be devoted to a typical Albanian leader Peter Llosha, who held power in Arta and the surrounding area just before the Shpatas did. Llosha probably stemmed from one of the leading Albanian families that led some 10,000 Albanians to the plains of Thessaly between 1220 and 1235. Despite the assertion of Professor Jorga that Llosha was an Vlach (Aromanian), we believe it much more likely that he was an Albanian. (3) Professor Jorga offers no evidence for his assertion. Perhaps he was misled by the fact that the region from which the Albanian tribes first made their way into Greece, i.e. the area (4) of the upper course of the Vjosa river and the Metsovo Pass, was inhabited at the time by Aromanians, and still is. But, since ancient times, the Vjosa valley and the Metsovo Pass were used by the Albanians on their way to Thessaly. Llosha seems to have been an impressive warrior. For years, he fought against the Greeks and Serbs, eventually settling in the best and most prosperous area of the Despotate of Janina, and established a short-lived realm in Arta/Rogos (5) (1356-1375), which then fell to the Shpatas. It would be inexpedient to speak of a proper government and a normal State with border when referring to the realms of the ruling families that settled in the ruins of the Despotate of Janina before and during the Turkish invasion. In the ensuing chaos, realms arose virtually overnight, and vanished just as quickly as soon as other adventuresome individuals or families settled in the towns and regions in question.

The struggles among the smaller and larger tyrants never ceased. Whenever a foreign power (be it Serb, Bulgarian or Italian) showed itself willing to support the local claims of one family, the latter would not hesitate to enter into an alliance with it against the foes of the family, even though these domestic foes were close relations.

There are few historical sources to provide detailed evidence of the to and fro of such power struggles. The cloud lifts only when the domestic conflicts affected the history of the country's neighbours.

It is interesting to note that southern Albanian sagas and legends call this period the koha e zallamatahijes, the age of superfluous strife, or period of chaos. It is characteristic of the Albanians when they speak of the nebulous memories they have kept of these periods of their history, that they talk about the koha e romakvet (Roman period) when they are referring to ancient ruins, the koha e kaurit (Byantine period), i.e. the period of the infidels, and then the aforementioned koha e zallamatahijes (period of chaos). The reigns of the Angevin, Venetian and other Italian dynasties are referred to altogether as the koha e Vendikut (Venetian period), whereas Turkish rule is known as the koha e turkut (Turkish period). One can safely assume that the historical memory of the people is not mistaken and that the decades before the Turkish conquest were indeed ones of senseless skirmishes and battles.

One of the dynasties that arose in the ruins of the Despotate of Janina was the house of Zenebishi.


2. The Zenebishis

Turkish historians and chroniclers maintain that this family was from the Zagoria region near Gjirokastra and Përmet. It was so influential in the fourteenth century that it was able to establish itself permanently in Gjirokastra. Subordinate to it were the tribes of Kurvelesh, Lunxhëria and Zagoria.

In 1400, a certain Gjin Zenebishi was appointed Sebastocrator or prefect of Vagenetia near Delvina. He was also ruler of Pyrgo and Sayada. He submitted to the Turks after the initial invasion and gave them his son as a hostage to be sent to Adrianople (Edirne) to the court of the sultan (1410). In Turkish historiography, this son became known as Hamza Bey, a military leader. Shortly after his submission, Gjin revolted and seized the fortress of Gjirokastra, encouraged no doubt by the attack on Janina by the Albanians of Acarnania. Soon defeated by the Turks, he fled to the Venetian island of Corfu, but was called back two years later (1416) by an uprising of the mountain tribes. With the support of Venice, he again set his sights on Gjirokastra, but was chased away once more by the Turks and died in Corfu in 1418.

In the meanwhile, the Venetians occupied Sayada. Gjin Zenebishi's descendants continued to live undisturbed in the mountains of Zagoria and eventually faded into history. In 1455, a certain Simon Zenebishi, who was ruler of Kastrovillari (Castro i Vivarit near Butrint) was active at the court of the king of Naples and Aragon on behalf of Scanderbeg in order to gain back Neapolitan support for his land in Albania. In 1455, Venice, the only power to support his claim, reminded him of his pledge of allegiance to the Republic but was not able to change his political orientation, i.e. his ties with Naples. A son of this Zenebishi was also a hostage at the court of the sultan, this time of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, but fled to Naples where King Alphonso had him baptized and made him his vassal. The fate of this Alphonso Zenebishi was to be closely linked to that of Scanderbeg.


3. The Realm of Vlora

The realm of Vlora and Kanina, town area and fortress, were part of the Byzantine Empire. It was ruled by a Sebastocrator who probably resided in the castle of Ploça Sevaster near Kudhës. In 1205, region fell for a time to the newly created Despotate of Janina. Vlora is mentioned often in the two wars conducted by the Emperor Alexius I Comnenus (1081-1118) against Robert Guiscard and Beomund when the town was occupied by the Normands after almost seven hundred years of Byzantine rule. Norman rule only lasted four years, after which the town fell again to the Despotate of Janina. Reconquered by the Byzantines in 1315-1320, it was ruled by the Sebastocrator Demetrius Ganzas, followed by his son Nicola. This Nicola expanded the influence of Byzantium in the surrounding region by battles which took him down to Janina, where the weakened Despotate was struggling to survive. But just as Bulgarian, Serb and Neapolitan rule had been short-lived in Vlora, so did the reign of Byzantium not prove enduring in this unstable region. Re-established by the Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus (1259-1282) and having forced a wedge between the Serbs and Neapolitans from 1274 to 1281, Byzantium began to falter once again in 1341 and was forced to give way to the Serbs in 1345.

John Asen Comnenus, the brother of King Alexander of Bulgaria, also set his sights on Vlora but was unable to hold it. He was chased out in 1372 by the Balshas and the Muzhakas.

After the death of Balsha II, the region was taken over by his brother's widow, Comita Muzhaka-Comnena, daughter of the Despot of Berat and Vlora. She twice offered the Venetians the region of Vlora and the fortress of Kanina for a pension of 9,000 ducats, but in vain. Comita endeavoured to maintain her rule not only against foreign foes, but also against the claims of her brother-in-law and his relatives who had forced her to settle in Berat and let them deal with the defence of Vlora.

On Comita's death in 1396, Vlora fell to her daughter Rugina who in 1391 had married a Serb nobleman from Zeta called Mrksha Charkovich. The couple resided in the fortress of Kanina (u kuli kaninskoj) where some of Charkovich's letters were written. His name occurs in the registries of Dubrovnik for the last time in 1412. He probably died in 1414. Even today there are legends and memories linked to the name of the last mistress of Vlora.

After the death of her husband, her relatives from the Balsha and Muzhaka families invaded Vlora, but Rugina did not surrender. She fled overnight to the fortress of Kanina and, crossing the Shushica mountains, she reached the Archondia of Erikùa, the present-day region of Dukat. The ruins of her settlement and fortress can still be seen today below the village of Tragjas, which was founded later. This archondia included seven settlements: Dukat, Gjomoçar (Tragjas), Radhima, Ravena, Shëngjergj, Erikùa and Kongjorufa. (6)

Rugina allegedly inherited these villages and Himara from her great aunt Helen, the daughter of the Despot Michael II of Janina. The great aunt, for her part, had received them as a dowry and they were thus her property. (7) The people of the area were devoted and faithful to Rugina. They fought for over a year with exemplary courage against all of their mistress's foes.

Fear of the approaching Turks was finally what moved Rugina to flee. One year before the definitive fall of Vlora in July 1417, she set sail from Himara, near the castle of Gjomoçari (Gjon Boçari), on board a "foreign," probably Ragusan ship. According to legend, Rugina had the vessel filled with Albanian earth because she did not want to live on anything but Albanian soil. She died in Corfu.

The Isle of Pontikonissi, Corfu (Photo: Robert Elsie, 2007)

The Isle of Pontikonissi, Corfu (Photo: Robert Elsie, 2007)

The Isle of Pontikonissi, Corfu
(Photo: Robert Elsie, 2007)

Even today, there is an Orthodox monk there, who with great mystery will show indifferent visitors the cell of the now abandoned nunnery of Pontikonissi, the flooring of which is made of stone slabs with a simple cross in them. With genuine or artificial emotion in his voice, he whispers to them: "Here lies Rugina, servant of the Lord, in her own soil."

What human suffering, what tragedies of our people echo in these words! Rugina was the last pre-Ottoman ruler of Vlora. The people of Dukat remember her with compassion to this very day. Place names near Pashaliman or Porto Ragusaeo (near Erikùa) such as the Kanali i Ruginës (Rugina's Channel) and the Shkëmbi i Ruginës (Rugina's Cliff) recall her and her tragic fate. (8)


4. The Muzhakas

Historians and chroniclers hold varying views on the origins of the house of Muzhaka. Some assert that the plain along the Albanian coastline called Myzeqeja bears this name because it was in the possession of that pre-Ottoman dynasty. Others are of the view that the Plain of Myzeqeja gave the dynasty its name. We are of the opinion that the plain bore the name long before the Myzeqeja family appeared in history. We believe that the real name of the dynasty is Muzhaka, the name used by a number of Albanian families today. It was Italian chroniclers who adapted the name of this well-known dynasty to the Italian form Muzaqja of the Albanian name Myzeqeja, i.e. the name of the coastal plain, when Gjon Muzhaka achieved prominence. John (Albanian Gjon or Gjin) Muzhaka, a prominent member of that family, derived the word from Molassaqje (9), an Albanian form of the term for the Molassians. He also, rather eccentrically derived the word Epirus from the Albanian pylloria (forest area). At any rate, there is still a village called Muzhaka in the Polis mountains near Elbasan and the aga of the place calls the people there the "house of Muzhaka." In support of this view, one may note that according to Gjon Muzhaka's family chronicle, part of his family came into possession of land in the Shpat mountains, i.e. in the area of Polis.

Be this as it may, tradition has it, without a doubt, that the Muzhaka family in Polis was Christian and of "princely blood." Perhaps related to this family is another branch of the Muzhakas in Berat. They owned the village of Remanica near Berat. Both of these families are now Muslim.

In view of all of this, it would seem apparent, indeed almost certain, that the real name of the dynasty was Muzhaka and not Muzakja. There is not doubt that around 1450, this Muzhaka family owned seventy to eighty villages in Myzeqeja (10) though one cannot draw any conclusion about the name of the region. At that time, the Mataranga family owned just as much land as the Muzhaka, and the Araniti also had large stretches of territory in Myzeqeja, without either of them taking over the name of the plain as their own.

There is no doubt that in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Muzhaka family had attained a status of nobility and military honour. It was in the good graces of the Emperor of Byzantium, as can be evinced by its family ties to the imperial dynasty.

We do not need the fantastic genealogy presented by Gjon Muzhaka nor any other to know that Andrea Muzhaka, who ruled from 1280 to 1319, was indeed "Lord of Berat and Marshal of Albania" and head of the dynasty. Though not proven in written documents, Muzhaka rule in Berat is recorded in oral tradition as deriving from the time of the Norman invasions around 1200. The title "marshal of Albania," given to Andrea Muzhaka by Charles I, King of Naples, proves, in addition, that the family had ties with Naples in 1280.

On the death of Andrea, the estates fell to his son Theodor I. Theodor left two sons. The elder one, Andrea I, marshal and despot of Albania and Lord of Kastoria (1319-1372), held onto Berat and lived in the fortress there. Chroniclers also speak of Theodor's younger son, called Mentuli or Mentori. In these chronicles, he is known as the Count of Klissania (no doubt the present Klissura or Këlcyra), which was subject in the Byzantine period to the Sebastocrator of Berat and in the Turkish period belonged to the Sanjak of Vlora, with its seat in Berat.

Andrea II is remembered in history for his military struggle against the weakened Despotate of Janina. In such endeavours, he was allied to the Balsha family which resided in Ballsh in the Mallakastra region and to the Gropa family, Lords of Ohrid.

Andrea II Muzhaka was succeeded by Theodor II, Lord of Berat, Kastoria and Stoja.

The descendants of Gjon I, who held power in and around Berat, maintained their rule until the time of Andrea III, who fought the Turks between 1394 and 1396 with this brothers and cousins Biagio, Matarango and Laldi. Around 1400, the Muzhakas submitted to the sultan, at least in appearance. They nonetheless maintained secret ties with Venice and Ragusa. Chroniclers report that an envoy of the Republic of Ragusa contacted Theodor II Muzhaka in 1412 to ask him to mediate with the Porte on behalf of a certain Count Nikita Popia, who had been captured by the Turks. The Muzhaka family would thus seem to have enjoyed generally amicable relations with the Turks, even though Gjon complains bitterly about them in his chronicle.

Although these good relations were shaken by the fury of the Araniti family at the Porte (the Aranitis also came from the region of Berat and Mallakastra), and by the advance of the Turkish governor, Turhan Bey, from Greece, they remained acceptable until the rise of Scanderbeg and his bitter struggle against the Turks, because the Muzhakas allied themselves with the Castriotas and remained faithful to this alliance until the last Muzhaka, Gjon, was forced to flee to Italy in 1476 or 1501. The proper date of his exodus is probably 1501 and it was most likely in 1476 that he abandoned the Berat and Myzeqeja region for Durrës, where he continued to live for quite some time. Otherwise, the note in his chronicle that "he was not able to take his wife and newborn child with him on his escape from Durrës and left them with friends in Durrës who later got them to Italy" is incomprehensible.

It is conceivable that there were other members of the dynasty who lived and fought at the time, but since there is no later mention of a Muzhaka in the chronicles. They are all forgotten. There is a house in Ururi (Aurona in Campobasso, Italy) which today belongs to the descendants of the Muzhaka family.


5. The Gropas

Mention must also be made of the Gropas among the Albanian ruling families of the age. They seem originally to have stemmed from the area of Gora where there is a valley and village bearing their name. In the thirteenth century, chroniclers called Paul Gropa of Ohrid a "feudatario della corona di Napoli" and referred to him as the "Lord of Dibra." In 1242, Charles I of Sicily, who was Lord of Durres and the surrounding region (regnum Albaniae) invested Paul with seven villages in the Devoll valley and other property in the Ohrid and Dibra area "con una bolla d'oro." The Great Zhupan Andrea Gropa, probably the son of Paul Gropa, makes his appearance in the chronicles in 1284. A Zacharia Gropa is also mentioned during Scanderbeg's wars against the Turks in connection with Moisi Dibra (the Battle of Tumenisht on 7 September 1457).

The sphere of influence of the Gropas was no doubt concentrated in the region between Pogradec, Ohrid and Dibra. They seem to have ruled in that area for two centuries and, with their ties to the Muzhaka in Berat, to the Vuksani in Prizren and to the Lords of Kastoria, were of no little significance. This can be seen in a (Serbian) inscription at the foot of the castle of Ohrid. There still exists a coin minted by the Gropas.

The last son of this dynasty left Albania with his family in 1467 and all traces of the family fade in Italy.


6. The Thopias

With regard to its significance and influence, to the extent of its possessions and to the importance attached to its relations with ruling dynasties abroad, the Thopia family is no less important than the branch of the imperial family of Byzantium that founded the Despotate of Janina.

The homeland of the Thopias was probably within the triangle between Durrës, Kruja and Elbasan, but at certain times it expanded northward to the Mat river and southward to the Vjosa river.

The name Thopia occurs initially in documents around the year 1260. There is also an inscription discovered in Elbasan which dates from the same period.

The family soon split into two branches: the northern branch simply called the Thopia, and the southern (which in our view was the older of the two) in the Berat region which called itself (Topia) Araniti-Comnena, no doubt as the result of a marriage with a princess from the house of Comnena. The northern branch acquired a prominent state from a marital tie with the Angevin house of Naples. The individual who laid the foundations for the definitive rise of the Thopias was Tanush (Tanusio) Thopia, upon whom, in 1327, the pope bestowed the title Count of Matja, a designation which King Robert of Naples recognized in 1338. At approximately this time, however, the Thopia family fell victim to a Serb invasion. In 1343, the Serbs occupied the lands of the Thopia under their leader Tsar Stephan Dushan. Fortunately, they did not succeed in conquering central and northern Albania completely. Shkodra and Durrës held out and, in the latter town which was placed under the protection of the King of Naples, the Thopias managed to maintain their sphere of influence. Andrea Thopia, the son of Tanush, married the daughter of the King of Naples, a relationship that has remained alive in song and legend due to its idyllic and tragic nature. Robert of Naples had promised his daughter to a prince in the Peloponnese. Andrea caught sight of the maiden while her ship stopped over briefly in Durrës and the young couple fell madly in love. The maiden was able to escape from her guards and married her arduous lover Andrea. This happened in 1346. King Robert initially put on a good face and, even though the Thopia ruler had lost much of his wealth and territory, he promised to forgive them under the condition that they both present themselves ceremoniously in Naples. Three years later, Andrea sent sail for Naples with his young wife, but the moment the couple arrived, they were executed.

The fruit of this romantic liaison were two sons, George and Charles. Charles was able to revive his Thopia heritage and by 1365 had extended his territory to cover not only former Thopia land, but all of southern Albania and, for a short time, territory right to Janina. He was able to free himself of all other submission. With the faithful support of the townspeople, he even ventured to reject Venetian suzerainty in a successful campaign to repel Naples, thus avenging the murder of his parents. With this deed, Angevin influence in Albania seems to have waned for good. In fact, Angevin influence had never really included possession of territory, it was more in the form of a protectorate.

It was at the time of these events that national awareness among the Albanians first made itself felt, in particular in that remarkable period of change that paved the way for the resistance led by Scanderbeg. In Durrës, Petrela and Elbasan, where Charles Thopia had constructed castles and monasteries, one can find inscriptions describing him for the first time as a prince of Albania (princeps Albaniae).

Charles Thopia was Catholic. Pope Gregory XI sent him two letters in which he addressed him as the Duke of Albania and Croatia (dux Albaniae et Croatiae) and beseeched him to make the Archbishop of Sarda (a town of 100 churches near Shkodra) pay the dues he owed to Rome. The letters show that the Thopias were able to make their influence felt in the Shkodra area, too, i.e. in virtually all of western Albania.

Charles Thopia died in 1388 and was succeeded by his son George, a weak leader, who went over to the Patriarch and persecuted the Catholics, thus being branded by the Pope as a Son of Iniquity (filius iniquitatis). (11) Rome did not leave it at words and got the Balshas to attack George Thopia with arms. The Balshas actually robbed George of part of his possessions while Venice took Durrës and installed a governor for the Republic there (1391). With Venetian support, Durrës withstood attacks from the Balsha and the Turks for a hundred years.

Despite their losses, the Thopia remained lords of much of central Albania. George's children, Tanush and Helen, lived in Kruja and Petrela. Helen married Constantine Balsha and was given Kruja and the surrounding region as a dowry. However, the Turkish invasion which began in 1420 deprived her of her inheritance.

In 1432, Tanush's son Andrea, who continued to resist the Turks with his cousin George Araniti, became the first major Albanian figure to defeat the Turks in open battle. However, he was soon thereafter so weakened by domestic foes that in 1436 he was obliged to accept the position of a paid vassal of the Venetians, with a monthly salary of 50 ducats.

Other members of the house of Thopia surfaced and disappeared from the annals of history during great Scanderbeg's struggle against the Turks until they were all conquered by the victors.


7. The Dukagjinis

Fifteenth-century Turkish chroniclers called the Dukagjinis "princes of German origin." Whether this is true or not is difficult to ascertain. Ragusan sources, published by Makushev in "Research on the Chronicle of Ragusa," (12) claim that the Dukagjinis were known as the Dukagjinis of Arbania in the seventh century and ruled over the Albanian part of Montenegro (Piperi, Vasojevich, Podgorica and Kuchi, i.e. Zeta). They apparently rose in revolt against the Slavic invaders but were put down by Bosnian chieftains. In 695 they attempted to interfere in domestic Ragusan issues but were repulsed again and submitted to the local Slavic leaders. Their pride and self-confidence hindered them from creating family ties with the Slavs whom they regarded as below their dignity. As the Chronicle puts it: "compari per sempre non accattarono che infra loro." (13)

In his testament, Gjon Muzhaka writes with great fantasy on the origins of the Dukagjinis, alleging that they stemmed from Troy and emigrated to France. Two brothers from this dynasty, on the other hand, are thought to have emigrated to Italy during the Crusades. One of them is said to have been the founder of the Este dynasty, the other returned and settled in Zadrima near Shkodra and founded the Dukagjinis.

Closest to the truth in this tangled net of fables and legends is, in our view, the report of a Byzantine chronicler of the seventh century. He states that at the end of the fifth century, a tribe of Goths under their leader Duke Gentius (or Genusius or Gjin) penetrated into the Shkodra region from Dalmatia and settle there. Compelled to react to this new reality, the Byzantine Emperor made Gjin his Sebastocrator, also calling him a magister militum from Dalmatia. This Gentius is said to have set up a realm between Shkodra and Durrës, (14) which proved to be to the liking of the rural population because it adapted Gothic laws to those of the local tribes. The connection of the name Dukagjini to the code of customary law in the Albanian mountains, the so-called Canon or Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini, would seem to derive from this, such that the Goth in question may be regarded as the ancestor of the Dukagjinis. This, at least, would seem more likely than the above-mentioned legends.

The title duke (dux) with no reference to any particular region appears for the first time in 1281, the year in which Gjin Tanushi appeared as "ducem Ginum Tanuschu."

The territory of the Dukagjini family stretched from the left bank of the Drin river near Lezha (Alessio) to the source of the Fan river. In the fifteenth century, there were two well-known branches of this family: a northerly one under Paul Dukagjini had expanded beyond the above-mentioned border to become lords of the tribal region of Gashi, Krasniqi and of the lands of Peja (Ipek) and Gjakova. Paul's son was Lekë Dukagjini who resided in Vulpiani or Ulpiana (near Prishtina). The southern branch of the family were rulers of the regions of Lezha, Zadrima, Puka, Selita, Zhuba and Mirdita. They resided in the castle of Lezha which was peacefully handed over to Venice in 1393.

In the thirteenth century, we come across the tribal leader, Tanush Dukagjini, who had two sons, Gin and Progon, lords of Zadrima.

In the fourteenth century, chroniclers also mention the two sons of Progon, Paul and Leka as lords of Zadrima. Two of their descendants, George, Lord of Zadrima, and Tanush, Lord of Fan (who was perhaps an ancestor of the Gjonmarkaj?), left many sons at the time of Scanderbeg, who all played roles in the national resistance against the Turks. The Dukagjinis and the neighbouring Balshas, fought many a battle with one another for power and land until the Balshas lost out and their common foe, the Ottomans, seized the country.

Even after the Turkish conquest of the country, the descendants of this dynasty continued to enjoy the fame of the Dukagjinis. Unfortunately, we do not know much about the various branches of the dynasty that remained in Albania. What is for sure is, as mentioned, that the house of Dukagjini had split into two main branches by the time of the invasion. The Turks seem to have had contact by 1433 with the branch that settled in Zadrima. "In the north of the county, (15) The sultan appointed Hasan Bey to watch over the Albanian lords and Venetian territories," say the Turkish chroniclers of the time. "When the Albanians rose in revolt against the Turks in 1433, Nicholas I Dukagjini, the brother of Tanush IV, drove the Turkish occupiers from Dagno (Deja). But Venice, which wanted at all costs to avoid a rupture in relations with the Porte, and therefore maintained good relations with Hasan Bey, ordered its governor in Shkodra to support the Turks against attack from the Dukagjinis." (16) When war subsequently broke out between Scanderbeg and Venice, we find the Dukagjinis on the side of the Albanian national hero. The Dukagjini wrath at Venice was not over yet. One scion of the house of Dukagjini, called Paul, refused to make peace with Venice and sign the peace agreement that Scanderbeg had worked out with the Republic in 1448. This stance was perhaps one of the reasons why Paul Dukagjini pursued pro-Turkish policies from that time on, and sent two of his sons to the sultan as a pledge.

Turkish chroniclers of the period describe the event as follows: "Duka in Albanian means a Bey. Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror - Allah be merciful to him - learned that the Duke (Duka) of Menobar (?, or Minevbur) had two splendid sons. In his illustrious mind, the noble sultan thought to himself: 'What a gain it would be for the Empire and the Faith if these two incomparable princes were to become good Muslims.' The sultan's divine inspiration gave rise to the flight of these two stars in the vaults of the Albanian heaven to Constantinople. They prostrated themselves before the sultan's feet and converted, taking the names Ahmed and Mahmud, and were taken in by the imperial pages."

We know that these two lads belonged to the house of Dukagjini, "that Mahmud died of natural causes soon thereafter and Ahmed Bey had an illustrious career in the service of the Ottoman Empire. He became a vizier during the reign of Sultan Selim I, but fell in the year 920 (1514) in the Battle of Amasja. His son, Mehmet Pasha, achieved high rank in the palace and State functions. He was Beylerbey of Aleppo in 957 (1550), Vali of Egypt in 961 (1554), and died in 964 (1556). He was married to Cevher Muluk, the daughter of Sultan Bayezid II. In the course of Ottoman history we come across many other high dignitaries stemming from this branch of the Dukagjini dynasty." (17)

Later, part of the dynasty settled in Aleppo where the Dukagjinis still have land and are now Arabs. Yet they still carry the name Dukagjin-zade.

As to the members of the Dukagjin family who fled to Italy after the Turkish conquest, we know only that some of them are buried in Naples and many noble Italian families in Rome, rightly or wrongly, regard themselves as their descendants. We feel obliged in this respect to include some details about the connections between the Dukagjinis and Albanian customary law, though these may lead to false conclusions and are actually beyond the scope of our study here.

Albanian customary law, the Canon of Lekë Dukagjini, or more properly its codification, is often and quite without factual basis attributed to Lekë, the son of Paul Dukagjini. The similarity between Lekë Dukagjini and the Canon of Lekë Dukagjini has led to the erroneous assumption that Lekë Dukagjini was the founder of Albanian customary law. Lekë Dukagjini was certainly an influential figure with a large body of followers, and played an important role in his country at the time. He was primarily a fighter, and a stubborn one at that. But no one would ever have called him an expert in jurisprudence. In his book L'Albanie et l'invasion turque au XV. siècle, Paris 1937, page 15, the Albanian historian Athanas Gegaj wrote: "Leka is no doubt one of the best-known members of the Dukagjini family. He was a foe of Venice and of Scanderbeg. His opposition to both only increased after the events leading to the capture of Dagno (Deja). He was the son of Paul Dukagjini, and was energetic and foolhardy. He was a much-feared foe of the Turks, a talented organizer and perhaps an expert in customary law." But all tribal leaders knew the stipulations of the Canon. That he had more to do wit the Canon than this is unlikely.

We believe that Lekë Dukagjini, who was active in the years 1450-1485, had nothing at all to do with customary law. This ancient form of law is a creation of the Albanian people and was well-attuned to its needs. It served for thousands of years to impede anarchy in Albanian regions. Although barbaric in some aspects, it prevented everyone from waging war on one another because it condemned those who used violence in such an ancient form of society as that of the Albanian tribes, and threatened them with severe punishment, which was mercilessly executed. Fear of such punishment sufficed to bring the wildest of the tribes under control.

The older and more modern Turkish historians who have dealt with the Canon have called it "the most barbaric code of customary law on earth." In his work Osmanli tarahinde Arnavutluk (Izmir 1944, page 337), Sülejman Külçe noted: "Studying the various canons of customary law on earth and evaluating them from moral and social points of view, one can easily assert that there is no code anywhere that is nearly as bloodthirsty as that of Lekë Dukagjini. This form of criminal law that regulated the doings of the Albanian tribes for centuries caused the deaths of millions of people. It is indeed a surprise that the Albanian people were not totally annihilated by such draconian regulations in their society." The author, however, ignores the fact that it was these draconian regulations that maintained law and order, albeit in a severe manner, in the Albanian mountains, a region where no government authority was ever able to impose its influence.

The customary law of the canon has changed over time and has been subject to foreign influence. One cannot fail to notice the introduction of Roman laws or of German

legal norms from the Gothic period. The influence of the Church, and in particular of Catholic monks, also made itself felt in the northern mountains in later years and alleviated the harsh punishments originally foreseen. We are convinced that the missing link between the Dukagjinis and Albanian customary law must be sought in the person of the above-mentioned Germanic duke Gjin (Gentius). It is probably he who adapted the provisions of Germanic law to the legal system encountered in Albania to create a code conducive to the needs of his subjects. The code accordingly took on his name: lex dux Gencii. To this was later appended the popular term "canon" from a Greek-Byzantine milieu, which later appeared in Turkish as kanun, i.e. the Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini.

When the Turks recognised the native tribal structures in 1550, they referred to the this local code of customary law as the jibal kanuni (Law of the Mountains). There is no doubt that the term kanun was first widely used in the Turkish period. Turkish chroniclers often referred to it as the "strange customs of the Albanians," but it was never systematically elucidated by Turkish historians. It is only sixty or seventy years ago that we find the first more detailed description of the canon in a Turkish publication. The Albanians, Germans, Italians, French, English and Serbs for their part have often written about the canon (18).


8. The Balshas

Another ruling family came to the fore in the fourteenth century and in particular in the age of Scanderbeg: the Balshas. An account of their activities must be included in any description of the decades before the complete conquest of Albania by the Turks. The influence of this dynasty extended over a large part of the country. They were probably of Albanian origin although historians hold various views. In his Histoire des Etats Balcaniques jusqu'à 1924, Iorga, for instance, asserts that they were of Romanian-Kutzovlach origin. Du Cange, in his Histoire de Constantinople sous les empereurs (pages 288-289), although admitting the possibility of Albanian origin, holds the view that they were identical with the French dynasty of the Baux, a theory which can be rejected because the coat of arms of the Balsha and the Baux are completely different. Sansovino, in his Dell'historia universale dell'origine dal impero dei Turchi, believes they were of Slavic descent. Though we have no specific proof, we tend to the opinion of Du Cange (Du Cange: I, Illyricum vetum et novum, page 131-132: "quidam ex Albaniae proceribus cognomento Balsa," and of Orbinus who says: "ex indigenis nobilibus Albaniae," because Albanian origin is in total accord with the deeds of the Balsha.

After the death of Dushan in 1355, whose empire disintegrated into various realms led by rulers of Serbian and Albanian descent, mostly as governors of the Byzantine emperor or of the rulers of Serbia, real power fell into the hands of those alleged to be subordinate to them, such that a comparison can be drawn, as to their position, with the great feudal lords of Germany or with the counts of Charlemagne during the rule of his weakest descendants.

Particular recognition among the rulers of Albania goes to the Balsha for their endeavours to unite Albanian territory. The first Balsha to enter the annals of history was Balsha I who initially pacified Zeta through his exceptional qualities and the skills of his sons Strazimir, George and Balsha and later, after the death of the Serb King Urosh III in 1331 expanded his realm considerably.

These endeavours soon brought about a conflict with the Dukagjinis, which the Balshas won. Balsha I thereafter learned how to take excellent advantage of his good relations with King Vukashin of Serbia in order to take over Serb possessions in northern Albania. These endeavours were crowned by his takeover of Shkodra (1361?). With the death of Balsha I, his sons decided to rupture Serb influence in northern Albania once and for all. They withdrew from the Orthodox Church and asked Pope Urban V to be taken in by the Catholic Church. On 29 January 1369 they officially renounced their Orthodox beliefs before Bishop Peter of Shas.

George I, the most important of all the brothers, and the youngest of the three, Balsha II, joined forces with other leading Albanian families to try to bring the rest of Vukashin's Albanian land under their control. This successful endeavour took the brothers right down to Vlora and Berat. The Balsha family of Mallakastra is most probably a branch of this house, although this is not attested. Slightly to the north of the settlement of Ballsh is the village of Patos in Mallakastra. Even today, one can see the impressive remains there of what the local people call the Balsha Palace (Serajet e Balschenjvet) or the Galleries of Djafer Pasha (Gallonjat e Xhafer Pashës). Both terms are probably right. If one takes a close look at the remains of the walls, one sees that the upper part dates from the Ottoman period. From this fact one can deduce that the imposing building was once the manor of Djafer Pasha of Vlora, son of Ibrahim Pasha. Djaver Pasha fell at the Battle of Zenta in 1697. He was the Sandjak Bey of Vlora and later of Elbasan, and was twice Sandjak Bey of Roumelia: 1102 (1689) and 1108 (1695). The foundations of the ruins also show mediaeval Byzantine origins in which cyclopean blocks seem to have been encompassed. These remarkable ruins show that the settlement was the estate of powerful families both in ancient and in more modern times.

This region is of particular importance for the history of central Albania. Here in ancient times was the town of Byllis. In the early Middle Ages we find in modern Ballsh the town of Baletium which was the seat of a bishop around 1350. The German Bishop of Grünberg was here in 1351-1357. Scanderbeg attempted to restore the fortress which had been severely damaged during fighting at the time. According to Neapolitan chroniclers, it was however destroyed once again (by the Venetians?). The Balsha brothers did not confine themselves to Albania, but invaded Montenegro, the whole of which came under their control. The Montenegrins (who at the time were of primarily Albanian origin) supported their conquests in Herzegovina (Trebinje, Canali, Trashenica) which fell to them, too. Their conquests go hand in hand, if you will, with Albanian expansion into Greece and are further proof of the density of the Albanian population in the mountains in the age of Serbian and Bulgarian oppression.

In 1375, George Balsha and his brother-in-law Charles Thopia invaded Bosnia, attacked the Serbs and took possession of parts of Bosnian territory.

George Balsha died on 3 January 1379. It is to be noted in this connection that his possessions at that time stretched all the way from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Përmet and Vlora. George was one of those remarkable figures both in the Albanian Middle Ages and in the Turkish period who arose in the country, north and south, and brought about movements of northern Albanians southwards and of southern Albanians northwards. These were men who contributed substantially to the unification of the Albanian nation and to a development of an Albanian national identity.

For the centuries of Ottoman rule, we can add in this connection the names of Mahmut Pasha Bushati and Ali Pasha Tepelena even though their activities were not determined to any great extent by a sense of national awareness, but by personal ambition.

George I was succeeded as head of the Balsha dynasty by the youngest brother Balsha II. His reign was doomed to failure from the start. Intimidated by the expansion of Balsha power, Charles Thopia called upon Sultan Bayezid I for assistance against their attacks and Bayezid agreed. In 1385, a large Turkish force advanced on Albania under the leadership of Evrenos Kasim Bey. This army was thoroughly defeated by Albanian troops led by the Balshas on the Plain of Savra near the village of Karbunara south of Lushnja, and Ballsha II was killed.

The widow of Balsha II, Comita of the house of Muzhaka, came to an understanding with the Turks and got Vlora back from them. She died in the fortress of Kanina in 1396.

The successor of Balsha II was his nephew George II Strazimir, the son-in-law of the Despot of Serbia, whose daughter Despina became his wife. He was a weak figure, yet a typical troublemaker, who was kept in prison for many years in the fortress of Durrës. When he took over the dynasty, he tried by all means to regain the lost possession of his family, but had little success. In 1392 he allied himself with the Hungarians who were preparing to attack the Turks. George was the first leader of the Balshas to have fought consciously for the independence of Albania. In Shkodra, he had coins minted in his name in Latin but in Cyrillic script, that were dedicated to Saint Stephen.

However, Venice, which regarded the return of the Balshas as contrary to its interests, countered his success by informing the Turks of the intentions of the Hungarians and warning them about George Balsha. George and all of his relatives were taken prisoner by the Turks, and Shkodra and Ulcinj were taken from him. Venetian intrigues continued to occur in later years. George Balsha was nonetheless released one year after his capture, with the mediation of Ragusa.

He was hard pressed by uprisings because his prestige had suffered substantially from previous events. In 1396, the Turks invaded Albania once again with large forces and took not only Ulcinj, but also Shkodra, Berat, Kruja and Kastoria.

Shortly thereafter, George reached an agreement with the sultan, whose army had forced him to flee into the mountains, and the sultan bestowed Ulcinj upon him because George had presented the sultan with a young maiden from among his relatives.

George spent his last years restlessly as he was involved in fighting with the Dukagjinis and with their vassals in revolt. These were difficulties almost always caused by Venetian intrigues. He died in 1403.

It must be noted that in this continuous flux of events, the Balshas, both those in Shkodra and those in Berat, managed to hold onto their substantial possessions in central Albania and lost none of their influence. A chronicler from Ragusa noted: "et est de sapere, che Messer Zorzi Strazimiri, fu Signore della Valona, fino a Belgrado (Berat)."

George II was succeeded by his son Balsha III, who managed for a few years to keep the peace which his father had concluded with Venice, but collaboration with the Republic was not to last long. The Venetian governor who had now been installed in Shkodra, was forced to ward off Balsha III who in almost seven years of uninterrupted fighting (1410-1417) had taken to attacking all Venetian possessions in Albania. Two years later, Venice decided that it was time to eliminate its persistent and obviously irreconcilable foe. Too weak to defeat him in open battle, the Republic persuaded a notorious Italian soldier of fortune, Stephan Maramonte, to murder Balsha for 5000 gold ducats. Maramonte, who had been in Venetian service with his mercenary troops, had once fallen out with the Republic and fled to Balsha II, who accorded him land in Zadrima as his vassal. Maramonte made use of the one-time relationship and of Balsha's trust to carry out the deed, but his attempts failed. After one particularly compromising failure, Venice decided to eliminate Maramonte and in 1420 endeavoured to reach an understanding with Balsha, mediated by the Venetian Proveditore of Shkodra, Jacop Dandolo. But Balsha II died two years later before this plan could be successfully implemented.

Stephan Lazarovich of Serbia demanded the succession of Balsha III, but the population, both in Shkodra and in Montenegro, reacted furiously to the claims of the Serb king and preferred Stephan Chernovich of Montenegro, whom they knew better. He drove the Serbs out and set up his capital in Zhablak. This Stephan Chernovich allied himself with all the rulers of Albania in the region and joined them as a faithful ally of Scanderbeg for the whole duration of his heroic struggle against the Porte.

Balsha III married the daughter of Koya Zacharia but died childless. One of his nephews, Stephan Balsha, a vassel of Zacharia and later son-in-law of Scanderbeg, in whose battles he took part, revived the glory and precarious position of the Balshas. After the death of Scanderbeg, he or his son seem to have fled to Romania where a very wealthy dynasty of Great Boyars, the Balsh, which was influential right up to the communist revolution, correctly regarded him as their ancestor, Even today, the Balshas have managed to maintain a certain aura.


9. The Matrangas

Also recorded in central Albania in the fourteenth century is the Matranga dynasty (the name often occurs in documents as Matrangus or Materangus). A certain Paul Matrangus, baron of the regnum Albaniae (of the Kingdom of Naples), rose to power and glory around the year 1319. Between 1358 and 1374, Blasius Materangus was Lord and Sebastocrator of the region of Bregus or Vregus near the mouth of the Shkumbin river (a name no doubt related to the Albanian bregdet "coast"). In 1386, his son Johan had the same position. After him, the Matrangas disappear from the annals of Albanian history. It would seem that their descendants emigrated to Greece because we encounter the name Matranga among the Albanians in Attica, Messenia and the Morea (Peleponnese), and much later, around the year 1800, in Sicily. In Albania itself, the name and dynasty has vanished.


This short survey of the major ruling families in Albania before the Turkish invasion serves to offer a picture of power structures in the country at the time, although there are a number of minor dynasties of purely local significance, that deserve to be mentioned among them:


10. The Zacharias

This name refers to the Zacharias who were Lords of Danjo in the fourteenth century. Originally Orthodox, they converted to the Roman Catholic Church in 1414 and subsequently disappeared from history.


11. The Jonimas

Also to be mentioned is the Jonima family. They are recorded in 1274, at the time of Charles I of Naples, as being the rulers of the area between Lezha and Durrës, with their headquarters in Sappa. In the early fifteenth century, they were vassals of the Zacharias and left no further trace.


12. The Spanos

To judge by its name, the Span or Spanò dynasty is of Byzantine-Greek origin. Little is known of their history. Their land was situated between Shkodra and Drivasto (Drisht). The Spanos did have modest significance since one of their members signed the Treaty of Lezha between Scanderbeg and the other rulers of Albania in 1444. Like Scanderbeg, they were supporters of King Alphonso V of Naples.


13. The Pulatis

The Pulatis were another ruling family in the region of Pulat (as the name implies). Around the year 1400, we know of the Pulati brothers: Hieronimus, Meade and Damian.


14. The Dushmanis

We know of a ruling family from the Dushmani region, which achieved modest importance at the time of the Balshas and Scanderbeg.


15. The Kastorias

This family flourished in the south between 1300 and 1430 and was probably of mixed Albanian-Bulgarian origin. It owned much land in the region of Kastoria under that name and under the name Vukashin. The dynasty would seem to be more closely connected to Albanian families (the Despotate of Janina, Muzhaka, Gropa and the "Lords of Përmet") than to Serbian and Bulgarian rulers. Nonetheless they maintained close contacts with the Serbs, in particular in the days of Dushan and Lazar because in some documents, the Lords of Kastoria are referred to as the nephews of the tsars.


16. The Scuras

The region between Durrës and Tirana was known as Scuria, named after the Scura or Zgura family, of whom nothing more is known.


17. The Shtrezis

A family called Shtrezi appears in the region between Lezha and Kruja at the time of the Turkish invasion of Albania. A certain George Shtrezi is referred to in passing, but no details are known of him or his family.


Thus we conclude this chapter of Albanian history. There were, of course, certainly other families of local significance and with noted chieftains among the tribes of the northern mountains, but none of them is mentioned in the documents of the period. None of them seems to have had any direct ties to the historical events of the period.


Cf. Thalloczy, Ludwig v. and Jirecek, Konstantin, Illyrisch-Albanische Studien, vol. 1, p. 133: "In 1330 Albanian tribes of shepherds and nomads invaded the regions of Berat (Beligrad), Kanina and Vlora etc., which forced Emperor Andronicus III personally to gather an expedition against these mountain peoples and put them down. As a result, the Greeks and Albanians now opposed one another, a situation which proved to be of great benefit to Serb operations (in Albania)." Thus, local interests and sentiments replaced the common State and religious ties which had grown over the centuries.
In oral tradition it is said that he stemmed from Laberia. His men are said to have given him the name Shpata (sword) because he preferred a Frankish sword (spada) to the usual jatagan (sabre). Historical sources such as Corsi di penna e catena di notizie sopra l'isola della Cefalonia (Venezia 1628), tell us that he was "Vicedespota dell'Imperatore di Costantinopoli".
Although he lived at least one hundred years after the first Albanian migration to Thessaly, oral tradition among the Albanians of Greece (in Hydra and Corinth) would have it that he was the leader and duke of the Albanians for whom he created a new homeland. The family name Llosha can be encountered often, even today, in northern and central Albania (for instance in the form of the family name Llohja in Shkodra). His family relations with the Shpatas also serve to prove that he was an Albanian. Marriages between Albanians and Aromanians were not usual.
It is nothing new to mention that this region was also called Rrogos. Reference is made in this regard to the Seyahatname (Book of Travels) of Evliya Çelebi who, on his journey through southern Albania in 1670 mentions such a settlement between Luros and Arta. He probably means Rogaj, where the ruins of a mighty castle now astound travellers. One can easily assume that this castle was the home of the Lloshas and for this reason their most important town, Arta, was also known, by the Albanians in particular, as Rrogos (for Rogaj). Cf. W. Leake: Travels in Northern Greece, Vol. 1 (London 1835), who mentions it.
In Albanian oral tradition, the name Rogos is said to have been given to the town because it was here that the trade of mat-weaving flourished, Alb. rrogoz 'reed mat.'

In 1908, on a foot tour lasting several days over the Karaburun Peninsula, the author of this work, Ekrem bey Vlora, could still see remnants of these settlements (bits of walls, church ruins, wells, primitive aqueducts) which are proof of a certain cultural advancement among the inhabitants there. It is not clear when these settlements were abandoned, but we believe there were two reasons that caused the population to flee and settle in the villages of Dukat, Tragjas and Radhima. Firstly, there was fear of pirate attacks and secondly the peninsula grew increasingly karstic as a result of deforestation. We refer in this connection to a treaty between the Lord of Vlora and the Republic of Ragusa, according to which Ragusa was entitled to cut 400 shiploads of wood on the peninsula each year. cf. Thalloczy, Sufflay, Jirecek: Illyrisch-Albanische Forschungen (Leipzig 1916).

The Despot of Janina, Michael II, was involved in a great battle with the Byzantines in 1213 and appealed for help to King Frederick of Sicily and Naples, later King Frederick II of Staufer. He did receive a modicum of assistance. This brought about close friendly relations between the two dynasties and Michael's daughter Helen married Frederick's bastard son Manfred. As a dowry, she received Durrës, Berat and Vlora (to which the above-mentioned Archondia of Erikùa belonged). After the death of King Manfred in the Battle of Benevento (against Charles I of Anjou in 1266), the Despotate once again seized the region given to Helen as a dowry, with the exception of Erikùa, Pirgo and Himara which were considered private property and had been inherited by Rugina's mother Comita and then by Rugina herself. Erikùa was therefore taken over by the Turks in 1419 as a private property and was bought as a muaccele (a muaccele is a form of acquisition of property which has fallen to the State as a result of conquest or lack of heirs and is auctioned off at the price of twelve years of revenue) from the State by Kara Sinan Pasha of Vlora in 1544 and remained in the possession of the Vlora family until 1810. The archives of the Vlora family in Vlora include a judgment of the chief inspector of the Sharia (Kasam), i.e. of the religious authorities of Berat, in 1790, on legacies for minors, dealing with the estates in Dukat, Tragjas and Radhima after the death of Ahmed bey Vlora (the original is in the archives of the Müftiniye of Berat).
Cf. Ekrem bey Vlora: Kalaja e Kaninës, a monograph (Rome: Shêjzat 1962).
Cf. Charles Hopf: Chroniques gréco-romanes inédites ou peu connues (Berlin 1873) in the chapter on the testament of Gjon Muzakja).
Hopf, op. cit.
Theiner, Monumenta Hungariae, Vol. II, p. 165.
Cf. Vikentij Makušev: "Istoriceskija razyskanija o Slavjanakh v Albanii v srednie veka (Historical Research on the Slavs in Albania during the Middle Ages) Warsaw 1871.
op. cit.
Johann Georg von Hahn: Albanesische Studien, Vienna 1850.
This version is confirmed by many Venetian and Ragusan sources.
The order which the Conte Capitano di Scutari received says: "quoni eum (the sultan) in fratrem habemus." Jorga II, B. page 261; Giuseppe Gelcich "Archivio di Cattaro" 250, 369, 389, 402.
Eidjilli-Osmani, 1. B, page 195. Mahmud Syreja bey, Istanbul 1308 (1890).
Ahmed Dschevdet Pascha Ereignisse im Osmanischen Reiche vom Jahre 1188-1209 (1777-1794), Istanbul, 4 vol.; Almanac of the Vilayet of Shkodra which, in volume for 1310 (1893), contains almost the whole text of the canon in Turkish; the resolution of the Council of the Vilayet of Shkodra of 31 mart 1292 (1874?), 22 temmuz 1303 (1885?), and 12 ejul 1304 (1886) contains the new provisions and changes to the canon and the decisions of the mejlisi jibal (council of elders of the mountains) under the supervision of the Turkish authorities; the Almanac of the Vilayet of Monastir with short extracts of the canon on pages 472-479, volume 1305 (1887) in Turkish; Bahrija sol kolagalarindan: M. Karadag, Istanbul 1294 (1876); Angelo de Bergamo (O.F.M.), Relazione (17th century) in the archives of the Convento O.F.M. di S. Michele di Venezia; P. Camillo Sibardi: Sylva documentorum ad Albania pertinentium, Centro Studi Albanesi della R. Accademia d'Italia, Rome; Marie Amelie Freiin von Godin: Das albanische Gewohnheitsrecht, vollkommener Text, bedeutsame Rechtsfälle und historische Erläuterungen, in Zeitschrift für vergleichende Rechswissenschaft, Bad Godesberg, 1954, 1955, 1956; Giuseppe Valentini, La famiglia nel diritto tradizionale albanese, in Annali Lateranensi, Rome, vol. IX (1945); Nikola D. Aschta, Das Gewohnheitsrecht der Stämme Mi-Schkodrak (Oberscutariner Stämme) in den Gebirgen nördlich von Scutari, published as an article in Albanian in 'Albania,' and in German in Illyrisch-Albanische Forschungen 1 (116); Antonio Baldacci: Note statistiche sul Vilayet di Scutari e la legge della montagna albanese, in Rivista geografica italiana, VII, 7, 1904; Giuseppe Castelletti, Consuetudini e vita sociale nelle Montagne albanesi secondo il Kanun di Lek Dukagjinit, in Studi Albanesi, 3-4 (1933-1934), p. 61-163; Ernesto Cozzi, La donna albanese con speciale riguardo al diritto consuetudinario delle Montagne di Scutari, in Anthropos, VII (1912); Stef. Constantini Gietschov, Kanuni i Lekë Dukagjinit, Shkodra: Françeskane 1933; Theodor Ippen: Das Gewohnheitsrecht der Hochländer in Albanien, Illyrisch-albanische Forschungen, 1916; Ernest Koliqi, Il diritto albanese del kanun e il diritto romano, in Studime e Texti, Rome 1941; Giuseppe Valentini, Il diritto della communità nella tradizione giuridica albanese, Florence 1956; Edith Durham, Some tribal origins, laws and customs of the Balkans, London 1928.

[excerpt from: Ekrem bey Vlora: Beiträge zur Geschichte der Türkenherrschaft in Albanien: eine historische Skizze, 1956. Translated from the German by Robert Elsie.]


Ekrem Bey Vlora in the 1930s.