“Anon from the castle walls
The crescent banner falls,
And the crowd beholds instead,
Like a portent in the sky,
Iskander’s banner fly,
The Black Eagle with double head;”
“And a shout ascends on high,
For men’s soul are tired of the Turks,
And their wicked ways and works,
That have made Ak-Hissar
A city of the plague;
And the loud, exultant cry
That echoes wide and far
Is: “Long live Scanderbeg!”
Scanderbeg: A poem, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1873
Should you find yourself descending into the depths of Albania’s tumultuous past, you will inevitably come face to face with a man whose heroic deeds echo through the passages of time.
His name is Gjergj Kastrioti, “Lord of Albania”, today commonly referred to as Skanderbeg.
When Europe’s monarchs trembled in fear, confronted with a rising Ottoman Empire that had firmly set its gaze on the riches of the Balkans and the realms beyond, no one could have predicted that Christianity’s salvation would hail from the then wild periphery of the continent.
Educated at the Ottoman court (he was taken hostage at a young age), the revelation of his origin would change the tale of Albania forever. Determined to free his ancestral home, Skanderbeg forsook the Sultan, united the warring aristocracy of Albania under his banner, and faced the seemingly unsurmountable Turkish hordes in the open field. Yet, as the smoke of battle cleared, he emerged victorious.
And carried by the joyful rejoicing of his troops, a jet-black, double-headed eagle proudly soared above the slain.
THE ORIGINS OF THE ALBANIAN FLAG
Following its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912, Albania revealed a new national flag to the world: a black, double-headed eagle on red ground. While the colour red represents valour, courage, strength, and bloodshed, the eagle stands for a sovereign Albanian nation.
The flag is in fact modelled after the coat of arms of the Kastrioti family, an homage to Skanderbeg's glorious fight for freedom, as well as the League of Lezhë, the first united Albanian political body in the Middle Ages.
Despite minor changes throughout the years, no political (Albanian) entity dared to alter the flag entirely. Not even the communists had the audacity to touch Skanderbeg's legacy, and simply added a golden star after their ascent to power.
Against all odds, the Ottoman army had been vanquished. Triumph followed triumph, and soon tales of their legendary commitment to the liberation of their beloved land spread across Europe like wildfire. Before long, Skanderbeg was crowned Athleta Christi (“Champion of Christ”) by the Holy See, as the pope deemed his just fight no less than the vindication of the entirety of Christendom.
Although Skanderbeg and his brothers in arms continued to repel the Turkish onslaught manyfold, absent support by the Europeans, who were quick to praise but reluctant to open their coffers, rendered their efforts a losing battle.
In 1468, Skanderbeg finally had to yield. He succumbed to malaria while trying to reorganize his troops. Upon learning of his death, Sultan Mehmed II is said to have proclaimed: “The Christian land, has lost its sword and shield.”
While the Balkans now lay exposed, Skanderbeg’s family fled into exil across the Adriatic.
Even though the legendary lord never saw his homeland freed from the Turkish yoke, his valiant battle for liberty elevated him to the very pinnacle of Albanian identity. To this day, he is revered by many as Albania’s national hero and considered to be the greatest general the country has ever seen.
During my time in Tirana, I found out that this holds especially true for a very peculiar Albanian minority in the south of Italy.
One mild evening, while we were sauntering along the fringes of Skanderbeg Square in the centre of Tirana, my eyes fell upon an intriguing sight. Blocking the walkway in front of us stood a curious group of men and women, lavishly clad in festive costumes and traditional clothes.
White shirts, various coloured trousers, jackets, belts, and the Albanian qeleshe (a distinct white headwear) for the men; colourful, silken skirts, embellished with golden embroidery, paired with green and black tops, garnished with intricate, white lace around the décolleté, for the women.
However, it wasn’t necessarily their flamboyant attire that sparked my interest but rather the displayed insignia: red fabric and shields proudly boasting the double-headed eagle, an Albanian flag, sashes in the Italian colours, another eagle embroidered on a blood-red satchel. And amidst all the excitement, a well-groomed man wearing the unmistakable goat-headed helmet of Skanderbeg.
This was not an ordinary procession but something rather unusual!
Lured in by our apparent confusion, an older woman approached us with a completely unsuspected story. As she spun her tale, shedding light on the present ensemble, we were left flabbergasted.
To our disbelief, we stood face to face with people who claimed ancestry from the great Skanderbeg himself!
They were the direct descendants of his banished family, the men and women who vacated their ancient homeland and sought refuge in Italy, following his death more than 550 years ago. Since then, they have paid their respects and celebrated his everlasting legacy, as well as the continuation of his lineage, through yearly festivities and, more recently, pilgrimages to Albania.
As we tried to grasp this astonishing revelation, the group began to move. Accompanied by energetic chants the eagle soared whilst we headed towards the centre of the square.
And there he waited, exalted on his trusted steed rearing, his eyes stoically fixated on the horizon, one hand on the reins, one holding a giant sword, yearning for the blood of his enemies: Skanderbeg, immortalized in bronze.
Under the watchful eyes of the static horseman heads turned and phones were drawn as the party positioned itself in a semicircle beneath the statue. Chants intensified, the Albanian flag flew high, and hands coalesced to form the double-headed eagle in honour of their legendary forefather.
After a few group pictures, euphoric shouts, and floral tributes, the celebration ceased as quickly as it started. The crowd dispersed slowly, and the stars of this extraordinary spectacle left for their “exile” across the Adriatic.
The moment may have been brief but the elation lingering is lasting.
Extraordinary encounters like these are the reason I wander aimlessly, without much of a scheme, because they are not predictable. By sheer luck, we just happened to be at the right place at the right time to witness something special.
Such traditions do not solely define a single group but humanity in its entirety. They are the fabric of history, the collective memory of our species, the reassuring indication of permanence in an ever-shifting world. Passed on for centuries, they shape our existence in nuances we often fail to comprehend yet simultaneously give us a sense of belonging.
They are the reason I long to journey across this magnificent planet. To explore. And to discover.
Because one day you might turn around and stand face to face with the heirs of a fallen hero.