During the early 14th century, much of modern-day Albania was governed by the Serbian king Stefan Dusan. When he passed away in 1355, local chieftains and lords became the dominant factors managing their estates. Albania fragmented. Another external force contributed to the general instability. The Balkans and Eastern Europe as a whole suffered under Ottoman raids and conquest. By 1396 they conquered key cities and territories, including the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire.

 The Ottoman Sultan and military commanders figured fragmented Albania would be an easy conquest. However, ironically, the Ottomans faced some of the most fierce resistance from the Albanians. The celebrated Albanian commander and Ottoman deserter George Kastrioti united the fragmented chieftains and princes. Better known as Skanderbeg, he led one of the longest and most successful rebellions against the mighty Ottoman Empire, using the mountainous territory and guerilla tactics to keep his head above water against all odds. Ottoman captivity (1405-1443) John Kastrioti was an Albanian lord living in the early 15th century. 

The wealthy, noble Albanian House of Kastrioti governed a significant chunk of territory in current-day northern Albania and bordering Macedonia and Kosovo. In 1405 Gjon had a son, George Kastrioti. This boy was born in either Diber or Kruje into a large orthodox family. For decades Albanian nobles resisted the ever-expanding Ottoman Empire. Gjergj’s father was no different. He successfully fought several military campaigns. However, when in 1421 Murad II’s numerically superior army beat him, they captured George and three of his brothers forcing John to become a vassal. 

The boys were transported to Edirne, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Gjergj converted to Islam. According to Turkish chroniclers, the boy showed a great talent for military matters and strategy, was dexterous and intelligent. He left a good impression at the court, and as a son of an Ottoman vassal, the Sultan allowed him to receive a military education. Distinguishing himself at military school, his name was changed to Iskender, referring to Alexander the Great. Although historiography loses sight of his whereabouts for a few years, it is safe to assume he participated in military campaigns of the Ottomans. Somewhere along his military service, Gjergj received the title Bey, meaning as much as chieftain, often given to military commanders. 

The name Iskander Bey would later, by the Albanians, be morphed to Skanderbeg. And with this name, he would enter history, becoming one of the greatest Albanian heroes. While he served the Ottoman Sultan his father Gjon still participated in resistance efforts against the Ottomans, who had occupied large parts of his original territories. He took part in the unsuccessful Albanian revolt of 1432. Five years later, Gjon passed away and the Ottomans annexed all his territories. The Sultan appointed Skanderbeg as the subash (a sort of commander) of the vilayet Kruja (a central administrative district). Skanderbeg maintained his father’s network as the subash, including contacts with Albanian nobles and the Republic of Venice, Naples and Ragusa. These contacts would come in hanexterdy later in life. According to some historians, from this point onwards Skanderbeg was already rallying support for his defection and eventual Albanian revolt, although much is unknown about this period.

 Skanderbeg’s Desertion Meanwhile, several European leaders joined forces to drive the Ottomans out of the region entirely. The leading figure of these campaigns was the talented Hungarian commander Janos Hunyadi. In March 1442, he defeated an Ottoman force under Mezid Bey at Hermannstadt and fended off the subsequent retaliation. Then, planning a greater offensive, Hunyadi established alliances with the Balkan peoples to rise up behind enemy lines. Building on this momentum, in January 1443, Pope Eugene IV announced what would become known as the Crusade of Varna, rallying several Kings and commanders to expel the Ottomans from Europe altogether. 

In November that year, the Hungarians crossed the Danube, making their way to the city of Nish. Three separate Ottoman armies faced Hunyadi’s cavalry. Kasim Pasha commanded the Ottomans… with three Bey’s, among whom a certain Albanian nobleman and his nephew, Hamza Kastrioti. Heavy fighting broke out with five total battles fought, upon which the Ottomans were defeated and retreated. But not Skanderbeg. Instead of retreating with his army, together with 300 Albanian cavalrymen and his nephew, he deserted. After a trek of several days, the group arrived in Diber, one of Gjon’s former territories. Realising his desertion would lead to a violent Ottoman response, Skanderbeg now did his best to rapidly establish a strategically favourable stronghold. 

The most challenging part would be expelling Ottoman forces from the Kruja fortress, as it was near-impossible to take by force. So instead, Skanderbeg forged a decree pretending the Sultan appointed him as subash of the fort, convincing its governor to let him in. Then, during the nighttime, he snuck in his soldiers hiding in the surrounding woods and exterminated the Ottoman garrison. Upon victory, Skanderbeg raised his family herald, the two-headed eagle, above Kruje’s fortress. To this day it remains the Albanian national flag. Historians generally agree this moment marks the beginning of Skanderbeg’s 2.5-decade long revolt against the Ottoman Empire. He denounced the prophet and Sultan and continued his expansion campaign, reconquering his family’s territories. 

Within a month, he possessed most of his father’s castles, cities and towns, having expelled all Ottoman garrisons, and proclaimed an independent Albanian principality. Seeing Skanderbeg’s success, other Albanian nobles now rose against the Ottoman invaders as well, and by January 1444, they expelled all Ottoman troops from Albanian territory. In March, in the cathedral of Lezhe, Albanian nobles declared Skanderbeg their official leader, establishing the so-called League of Lezhe. This pooling of resources became the core of Albanian resistance against the Ottoman Empire. All territories and their nobles remained autonomous but were united in the common cause of defending Albania against the Ottomans, with Skanderbeg as their commander-in-chief.

 Skanderbeg’s rebellion Once elected by the Albanian nobles, Skanderbeg began setting up a mobile army and increasing fortresses and barriers on their territories. Waging a form of guerilla warfare with units that could rapidly disperse and using the mountainous areas to pester Ottoman forces, using a considerable number of newly-erected fortresses, the Ottomans could do nothing but spread their forces thin. Thanks to the familiarity with the region and mountain passes, Albanians employed hit-and-run tactics, severely impeding the heavily armoured and unfamiliar Ottomans. Skanderbeg’s continued resistance becomes all the more impressive because even generous estimates say the number of troops he commanded never exceeded 20,000, a marginal sum compared to the enormous Ottoman armies. The first clash happened in summer 1444 after Hunyadi’s successful long campaign but forced retreat due to the lack of supplies and bad weather. The Sultan diverted his attention to Albania. At Torviolli, Ali Pasha entered Albania at Dibra, commanding 25000 troops. Using deception tactics, Skanderbeg lured Pasha’s forces into the narrow Torviolli plain before trapping them with hidden troops and launching a devastating attack. The Sultan’s retaliation wasn’t immediate, because in November, at the battle of Varna, Ottoman forces decisively defeated the crusading armies commanded by King Wladyslaw III and Hunyadi. Part of the reason for the defeat was the Serbian George Brankovic, father-in-law of Sultan Mehmet II, who blocked Skanderbeg’s troops from moving east to aid their Christian allies. The victory at Varna secured the Ottoman position in the Balkan for centuries to come. 

It was one of the reasons why Christian commanders didn’t come to the aid of the besieged Constantinople in 1453. It was a watershed moment, convincing the Christian commanders of their inability to expel the Ottomans to Anatolia. After their victory at Varna, the Ottomans began concentrating their forces against Skanderbeg, although he managed to aptly use the mountainous area and his guerilla tactics to hold out. He swas successful in defeating two Ottoman campaigns before being left alone in 1447. Having a keen eye for strategy and politics, Skanderbeg made use of this breathing room to foster new alliances. Learning of a rebellion in the Kingdom of Naples, he came to the aid of its king Alfonso V.

 As a sign of gratitude, Alfonso allowed Albanians to settle in southern Italy and pledged troops to help the rebellion. However, in practice, these were marginal at best. Naples wasn’t the only state on the Italian peninsula Skanderbeg dealt with. North of the Kastrioti territories lay the Dukagjini family’s estate. The Dukagjini’s and Venice feuded about the possession of the Dagnum fortress. Being an ally of the Dukagjini, Skanderbeg launched attacks on multiple Venetian cities along the Albanian coast to pressure them. 

Venice sent a relief force, and diplomatic envoys to the Ottomans, urging them to launch attacks against Skanderbeg’s positions. Venice even put a bounty on Skanderbeg’s head but to no avail. Sultan Murat II received the Venetian envoys and figured it was time to crush the Albanian thorn in his side. So, in spring 1448, a force numbering over 80.000 soldiers under his direct command marched into Albanian territory. First, they besieged the fortress of Svetigrad, defended by an over ten times smaller garrison. After setting up the siege, part of the garrison marched onto Kruje. Skanderbeg had to act quick. In July, rallying local farmers and the League, he defeated Venice at the battle of Drin. He left his nephew Hamza, the one he defected with, at Drin to guard the outpost and took all his other troops to relieve Svetigrad.

 Over there, although outnumbered, the small Albanian force resisted continued attacks. Employing guerilla tactics, Skanderbeg’s troops pestered the Ottomans. However, when they discovered the water source of the fortress, it was a done deal, and in autumn, the garrison surrendered. When a 15.000-strong force under Mustafa Pasha entered Albania via Dibra, Skanderbeg’s outnumbered forces defeated them at Oranik. Learning of this Ottoman defeat, the Venetians decided to sign a peace treaty.

 The Sultan abandoned his march on Kluje after learning of Hunyadi’s plan to launch a new campaign into Ottoman territory, burning many fields and villages on his way. From then on, Venice left Skanderbeg alone. He, in turn, could fully concentrate his efforts against the Ottomans still vying for control in and around his territories. Rebellion Continues In October, the Hungarians fought the Second Battle of Kosovo. Once again, the Serb Brankovic blocked Skanderbeg’s forces from coming to his allies aid and Hunyadi’s troops were badly beaten. Having dealt with Hunyadi, the Sultan concentrated as many soldiers as he could spare against the Albanian lord. In May 1450, rallying over 100.000 Ottoman troops, Murad II himself commanded the army that would lay the first siege of Kruje.

 Count Vrana and 1500 men defended the fortress, while Skanderbeg and 8000 troops retreated to the Gumenishti mountains to the north. As soon as the Ottomans entered Albania, they were harassed by peasants using the hills for quick getaways. And if there weren’t attacks on the main Ottoman force, Albanians heavily attacked supply lines. 

Skanderbeg’s troops too harassed Ottoman garrisons around the fortress and their supply caravans. Using small contingents of troops, he managed to throw the Ottoman besiegement in such chaos that after half a year they lifted the siege. Three months later the Sultan passed away and was succeeded by his son Mehmed II. But trouble was brewing within the league. Skanderbeg grew more confident as his success continued. With Albania facing widespread famine due to the continuous war, he began infringing on the rights of nobles, quartering in their castles and making more demands of their troops. Two significant families broke away not soon after the siege of Kluje, the Dukagjins and the Arianit’s. To smooth things over, Skanderbeg married Gjergj Arianit’s daughter. But other nobles didn’t just abandon the league but joined the Ottomans, taking up arms against their own country. 

One nephew of Skanderbeg sold the Modric fortress to the Ottomans. Hamza defected to the Ottomans after Skanderbeg had a son, making him not eligible as his successor. Meanwhile, Skanderbeg continued strategising. To liberate the south of Albania, he planned the besiegement of the citadel of Berat. Supported by Albanians and 2000 Napolitan infantry sent by King Alfonso, the initial besiegement appeared to be a success. But unbeknownst to Skanderbeg, the Albanian defector Moisi Golemi, commanding a 40000-strong Ottoman force, secretly crossed the Albanian border and surprised the troops laying siege. 

They defeated the Albanians, but at the subsequent Battle of Dibra, Skanderbeg’s reinforcements defeated the Ottomans and Moisi once again switched sides, remaining loyal to Skanderbeg until his death.

 Later that year over 80.000 Ottoman troops, commanded by general Isak bey Evrenos and Hamza, appointed by Sultan Mehmed II himself, crossed into Albania. However at the Plain of Albulena, the Albanians lulled the Ottomans into a false sense of security before launching a surprise attack. With just 8000 men, they defeated the ten-times-larger Ottoman army, inflicting significant damage and capturing Hamza Kastrioti. He spent the rest of his days as a prisoner in Naples.

 Skanderbeg’s victory once again earned him praise around Europe, and after Hunyadi’s death in 1456 he became the face of anti-Ottoman resistance. In 1458 his ally King Alfonso of Naples died and was succeeded by his son Ferdinand. The Neapolitans rebelled against Ferdinand, upon which Skanderbeg decided to help the young King. He concluded a three-year truce with the Ottomans. 

In Italy, at Barletta and Trani, Skanderbeg defeated the rebels and helped Ferdinand maintain his throne.

 The Crusade While in Naples, Skanderbeg received intelligence from his many agents dispersed throughout the Balkan that the Sultan was planning to break the truce and launch an extensive invasion. By the time he returned, three separate expeditions were already in Albanian territory. He swiftly crushed all three.

 The Sultan now offered Skanderbeg to sign a peace treaty for a decade, which he accepted. They signed it in April at Shkup. But just when it seemed a period of peace commenced, organisers of a Crusade, embodied by Pope Pius II, sent Skanderbeg a message they were about to launch their campaign. Initially, Skanderbeg refused, but that summer war broke out between Venice and the Ottoman Empire. 

Albanian nobles swore loyalty to Skanderbeg, and the Pope confirmed the Crusade was to begin.

 In November, Skanderbeg once again entered into war against the Ottomans. When the Pope died in August next year before his forces gathered, it came to a fruitless end. But the war didn’t end for the Albanians, who now faced an angry and distrusting Sultan. Under the command of Ballaban Pasha, five separate expeditions were sent into Albania to destroy Skanderbeg’s resistance. 

They entered during harvest season, and due to the harsh winter, Albania faced severe famine. Yet time and time again at Vaikal, Mecad, Kashari and Kruje Ballaban’s troops were defeated. Troops were pestered by guerilla bands of peasants and Albanian troops hiding in the mountains into the land. 

But Skanderbeg’s resources were spreading thin and he had to visit Naples, Venice and Rome mid-war to try and find funds to continue his war, to no avail. In April he returned to Albania to lift the Second Siege of Kruje, killing Ballaban Pasha in the ensuing melee. But by winter 1468 another Ottoman army entered Albania from the north of Shkoder. Skanderbeg commanded the army en route to meet them but contracted a fever due to the weather.

 While his Still, today, Skanderbeg is the Albanian hero and brilliant commander who managed to fend off massive armies against all odds. forces gained a victory near Shkoder, Gjergj Kastrioti Scanderbeg passed away on January 17 1468, at the age of 62. His men buried him in the Cathedral of Lezhe and his fourteen-year-old son Gjon succeeded him. Soon it became clear no leader was up to the task of leading the Albanian resistance. 

After his death, the Ottomans took less than a decade to conquer Skanderbeg’s territories finally. In 1478 Kruje fell to the armies of Mehmed II and Venetian Lezhe too fell a few years later.