Independent country in the western Balkans since 1913, and a region before that of varying extent.
1. Origins. Its inhabitants are generally believed to be the descendants of the Illyrians, who lived in much of the western Balkans before the coming of the Slavs. The name comes from a tribe, the Albanoi, that lived in the Durrës region, but the Albanians’ own name for their land means land of eagles. The Albanians are divided into two main dialects: the Ghegs north of the River Shkumbi and the Tosks south of it. Among the Ghegs, who lived in the more mountainous parts, a clan system still prevailed in the 20th century; the Tosks’ life was centred on their villages.
Much of Albania is mountainous, though there are coastal plains, quite wide in the centre of the country. As in many mountainous regions power has tended to be broken up and held locally rather than centrally, so that clans and tribes have importance into modern times. Even when Albania has been held by one of the great Balkan Empires – Byzantium, the First Bulgarian Empire, Stephen Duãan’s Serb Empire, and eventually the Ottoman Empire – control of the mountains has often been tenuous.
Though some of the coastal lowlands are marshy, there is also fertile land, but Albania is today the poorest country in Europe and has never been a rich region. Yet it has often been of interest to outsiders, partly because of its ports and partly because of an old land route, the Via Egnatia. This was the Roman road from Dyrrachium to Constantinople (from Durrës to Istanbul, via Elbasan, Ohrid, Bitola and Thessalonica), the route from Italy to Constantinople that avoided too long a crossing by sea. Control of the route made Albania, or at least central Albania, attractive to the great Balkan Empires, and also to the rulers of southern Italy, particularly to those ambitious for a Balkan Empire, like Charles I of Sicily and Naples. The ports of Albania had attraction for the rulers of inland Serbia even into the 20th century, when their ambitious hopes and the frustration of those hopes by the great powers contributed to the coming of the First World War. They also had attractions for a maritime power like Venice.
In the middle ages northernmost Albania of the present time usually belonged to the region called Duklja (Dioclea), then Zeta, and now Montenegro. The present town of Shkodër, on the lake named after it, was then the town of Skadar, at times the residence of those who ruled in Zeta. In 1913 Montenegro was bitterly disappointed that the creation of an independent Albania prevented the return of Skadar to Montenegro. Much of southern Albania was linked with the Greek territory of Epirus during the middle ages.
Albania was one of the areas where Bulgaria challenged the Byzantine Empire, both in the reign of Simeon (893-927), when the First Bulgarian Empire reached its height, and in the reign of Samuel (976-1014), the ruler of the successor Kingdom that was centred on Macedonia. Simeon held much of Albania but not Dyrrachium (Durazzo/Durrës) and the coastal lands to the north; Samuel captured Dyrrachium.
The Norman rulers in southern Italy in the late 11th century, Manfred of Hohenstaufen, King of Sicily (1258-66), and his Angevin successors thereafter, all had footholds on the Albanian coast. Charles I of Anjou, King of Sicily, who held territory around Durazzo, took the title of King of Albania in 1271. His successors as Kings of Naples kept the title and usually had some possessions in the region, but they never succeeded in establishing anything like a real Kingdom there.
During the 1330s the Angevins still had possessions in Albania and the Byzantines recovered much of southern Albania when they resumed control of Epirus late in the decade, but Albanian chieftains, most notably the head of the Thopia family, still controlled much of the land. The Serb King, Stephen Duãan, intervened in Albania at times; in the 1340s he became the dominant figure, driving the Byzantines out and restricting the Angevins of Naples to Durazzo. After Duãan’s death in 1355 his Empire gradually disintegrated. One of his associates, John Comnenus Asen, held southern Albania and much of Epirus; in Zeta and in northern Albania the Balãiæi emerged and they were later to acquire territory in south central Albania. The Thopia family, who controlled much of the country between the Shkumbi and Mata Rivers, achieved the expulsion of the Angevins from Durazzo in 1368, and Carlo Thopia took the title of King of Albania.
In 1392, with the Ottoman Turks threatening the western Balkans, George Thopia, Carlo’s son, handed Durazzo over to Venice, and abandoned the title of King. In 1396 George II Balãiæ, the feeble ruler in Zeta, handed over Skadar (Scutari/Shkodër) to Venice. In the 1420s the Turks began to absorb Albania into their Empire, but from 1443 met with strong resistance led by an Albanian prince, George Katriotis, who had been a hostage among the Turks. On converting to Islam, he was renamed Iskander Bey, whence his name as hero: Scanderbeg. He died in 1468. By 1479, the year in which Venice lost Scutari, Albania was under Ottoman control. The fall of Venetian Durazzo in 1501 completed the Ottoman conquest, except that in the far south of present-day Albania Venice held on to the port of Butrint, acquired in 1386, until the end of the Republic in 1797.
As the Ottoman Empire in its turn declined, a Moslem family, the Bushati, controlled the region around Shkodër, c1760-1831, whilst in Epirus and southern Albania, Ali Pasha, the Lion of Janina, held sway between 1788 and 1822. In the later 19th century, with the independence of Greece achieved in 1830 and that of Montenegro recognised in 1878, Albania tended to mean the western part of the Ottoman lands in Europe, and so included Epirus as well as present-day Albania.
2. Independence. During the First Balkan War, when Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Montenegro united to drive the Turk out of Europe, an Albanian assembly proclaimed independence on 28 November 1912. If Greece, Serbia and Montenegro had had their way Albania would have been divided up between them, but the the great powers gave their support to Albanian independence. Scarcely had that independence been precariously established than the First World War broke out, and the German Prince of Albania, William of Wied, withdrew in September 1914 after a six-month reign that had done little to sort out the internal chaos. At the end of the war troops of several of the allied nations were present in Albania, but at the Peace Conference in 1919, at President Wilson’s insistence, Albania’s continued independence was accepted.
Internal instability continued. In 1925 one of the northern chieftains, Ahmed Bey Zogu, who had been Prime Minister in 1922, became President, and in 1928 he became King Zog. Although he was the target of many feuds, he ensured that at least one way of killing him was closed by having his mother cook his meals. The stability that he brought about came through accepting satellite status under Italy.
On Good Friday 1939 Italian troops entered the country and King Victor Emmanuel III became King of Albania as well as of Italy. Albania continued to have its own government, but under Italian control. With the Italian surrender in September 1943, German forces occupied Albania and a new Albanian government restored, at least in name, the country’s independence. By May 1944 much of southern Albania was free of German troops and by late November the last of them withdrew from the country.
Albania had been enlarged in 1941 with the addition of the Kosovo region from fallen and dismembered Yugoslavia, but with the return of peace and the restoration of Yugoslavia this district with an Albanian majority was handed back.
Part of the resistance movement in Albania had been Communist-led, and as the Germans withdrew in 1944 it was these Communist-led Partisans who were able to take control in Tirana. Sections of the Albanian Communist Party were strongly pro-Yugoslav. They were overthrown in 1948 when the Soviet Union turned against Tito’s Yugoslavia, and Enver Hoxha was able to assume full control in Albania. With one neighbour, Yugoslavia, a pariah in the Communist world, and the other, Greece, having renewed, in the ideological climate of the Cold War, demands for the restoration of “Northern Epirus” to Greece, Albania was physically isolated. Its isolation became more intense in 1961 when it supported Communist China against the Soviet Union, and even worse in the late 1970s when it became disillusioned with China’s rapprochement with the West.
In 1991 the regime was forced to allow free elections. The urban voters mostly turned against Communism but the caution of the rural voters allowed the Communists to retain power, though only briefly. In 1992 they were voted out.
3. Extent. The present borders, which slightly modified those of 1913, were drawn up by the Conference of Ambassadors late in 1921 and marked out on the ground by an international demarcation body over the next four years.
4. Territorial divisions. In 1923 Albania was divided into 10 Prefektorats (prefectures). Since 1949, with an interruption between 1953 and 1956, when the prefektorats returned, Albania has been divided into 26 Rrethët (districts; sing., rreth), plus the capital Tirana.