15 Dec 2010 / 08:50

Albanians question "negative" view of Ottomans

Gjergj Erebara

Aggressive invader or friendly administration? The portrayal of the Ottoman Empire in Albania’s history books remains the subject of fierce debate for Albanians and Turks alike.

When Dorina Zhupa decided to take advantage of free Turkish language classes in the Albanian capital Tirana, she found herself on the receiving end of a history lesson she had not bargain for at all.

While the 27-year-old expected to spend the lesson practising her Turkish, she was surprised to discover that Albania had never been a subject state of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans were not so much invader as friendly administrator, the professor declared.

“We were discussing Albanian history in the class and, at some point I said that Albania was freed from Turkish occupation in 1912. However, Professor Derjaj corrected me immediately by saying that, indeed, the Ottoman Empire administered Albania and had not occupied it,” says Zhupa.

And the professor in charge of the course, which was taught last year and was funded by the Turkish government, stands by his statement.

Adriatik Derjaj, professor of modern Turkish and Ottoman-era languages at the University of Tirana, says: “The Ottoman Empire was a conglomerate of nations with equal opportunities. There were 36 viziers who ruled the empire and were of Albanian blood [nationality].

Extracts from The History of the Albanian People*

“The struggle against the national yoke of the Ottomans to create an independent state, which has been the fundamental intention of the National Liberation Movement was, in itself, a democratic measure. The fulfillment of such objective would pave the way for the country’s economic and cultural development. Furthermore, the National Movement was directed towards a specific social class, against the semi-feudal, Turkic-Ottoman one (with the Sultan at its head), which had the political power and oppressed and kept the Albanians, and other non-Turkish nations more in general, under its yoke.” [Page 23]

“At a time when Albania was ruled by a medieval and despotic invader, with the ugliest features of economic and political violence (like heavy taxation, political discrimination that lead to the denial of identity of the Albanian nation, the barring of teaching in native tongue in schools, the absence of most elementary human rights, and even the massacring of the Albanian population through punitive expeditions.” [Pages 24-25]

“The diffusion of national culture and education would help in the emancipation of the Albanian nation from fanaticism, backwardness, intolerance and religious divisions, which had been planted by the Ottoman rulers.” [Page 25]

“The division into three religions, especially their dependence on different clerical bodies, and the policy of religious division followed against the Albanians had been a problem in its struggle against foreign yoke.” [Page 27]

Translated by Altin Raxhimi

* Fragments retrieved from The History of the Albanian People, published by the Albanian Academy of Sciences, 2002, Vol II

“I think that living together with the Ottomans was welcomed by Albanians. If we analyse the language and customs of Albanians today, we can see that Albanians and Turks lived together and Turks were welcomed.”

The Ottoman Grand Viziers acted as de facto prime ministers and effectively run the empire. They came second only to the Sultan himself.

However, like most Albanians, Zhupa learned little about these Albanian-born viziers. Instead, she was taught that the Ottomans invaded Albania and occupied the country by force for five centuries until the 1912-1913 Balkans War.  

As is the case with other nations in the Balkans, not only is the Ottoman presence in Albania seen as an invasion, it is widely regarded as a national tragedy.

The Ottomans are still blamed for arresting Albania’s development to such an extent that Albanians still suffer the consequences today. To be told the Ottomans were friendly administrators came as something of a shock to Zhupa.

Nascent nationalism

While Derjaj’s views may be controversial for Albanians, he is certainly not alone in questioning whether Ottoman rule in Albania was an occupation by force. Many historians now believe that, in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in Europe, Albania’s new leaders and nation-builders set about deliberately constructing a new, unifying western identity that cast the Ottoman past as a tragic accident.

Similarly the official histories of other Balkan states, notably Bulgaria and Serbia, describe their past in terms of a centuries-long fight to liberate themselves from their Ottoman yoke. However, while such predominantly Christian countries could portray their history in such terms with relative ease, the issue among Muslim-majority Albanians was more complex.

The idea of a national, Albanian identity was a novel one, given that Albanian Muslims were still regarded as ‘Turks’, and their Christian counterparts as ‘Greeks’, until the 20th century.

In an attempt to unify and strengthen the newly-independent Albania, the political elites downplayed religious differences, choosing instead to focus on cutting links with the Ottoman past.

Turkish words were purged from the Albanian language and those Albanian-born grand viziers who ruled the Ottoman Empire are not even mentioned in the country’s official historical records.

That official version, recently republished by the Academy of Sciences of Albania, states that the political leaders of the new Albania believed that subjugating individual identities in favour of a national consciousness and education would “help in the emancipation of the Albanian nation from fanaticism, backwardness, intolerance and religious divisions, which had been planted by the Ottoman rulers”.

This new, post-Ottoman and purposely western identity was forged at the expense of historical accuracy, argue some historians, as these new leaders – some of whom were former Ottoman Empire officials - sought to falsely emphasise Albanian resistance against their Ottoman oppressors.

“Creating a western identity was a matter of survival for Albanian elites in the late 19 century,” explains Tirana-based sociologist Enis Sulstarova.

“The kind of history that portrays Turks simply as enemies of Albanians begun in the late 19th century as part of the Albanian nation-building process known as the ‘national revival’… this practice of nationalistic history-telling continued under communism and continues today.

“Today, the legacy of Ottoman Empire is considered in Albania as responsible for almost every economic, cultural or political issue that the country encounters. This is a banal historicism where many people find it easier to blame today’s problems on the Turks. Some say that if we were not invaded by the Ottomans (referred to simply as Turks in Albania), we would be a developed western nation today.”


Historians generally agree that Albanian historical records were influenced by nationalistic propaganda during the ‘national revival’ of the 19th century and the communist regime during the second half of 20th century.

Ferid Duka, a historian and Ottoman era specialist at the European University of Tirana, says: “Albanian history under communism portrayed the Ottoman period in an extremely negative way by unreasonably emphasising… underdevelopment, subjugation and the violence used by the Ottomans and by defining that period simply by the popular uprising against the Ottoman rule.

“This point of view also dominated the historiography of other countries in the Balkans, but to a lesser extent. The main reason for this kind of history was simply that the official ideology of the communism dictated that any reality created by foreign rule must always be considered as dark and hated.”

Indeed, the historical records of many Balkan states have been strongly criticised as unbalanced and containing highly prejudicial portrayals of the Ottomans and neighbouring states. So much so, back in 1998 the Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeast Europe - appointed a group of 60 historians from 11 southeast European countries to revise regional history books.  

In September this year, the group produced four new books to be used by history teachers across the Balkans.

 “The new workbooks… do not offer a new, single ‘truth’ about past controversies, but provide a variety of information and sources through comments, documents, letters and pictures,” says historian Dubravka Stojanovic, the editor of the Serbian history books.

Despite historical disagreements between Ankara and Tirana over the Ottoman past, Turkey is now seen as a friendly nation. Frequently referred to as a ‘brother nation’, Ankara is the chosen ally when it comes to Turk-Greek influence in Albania.  

Economic benefits have also helped to override historical mistrust, and Turkey is now one of the biggest investors in Albania with strategic holdings in telecommunications and finance industries, public engineering contracts and higher education.

Ottoman renaissance

In addition, today’s Turks are looking to their Ottoman past with a renewed sense of pride. Once shamed of the collapse of the empire and its reputation for decadence, the Ottomans have enjoyed a sort of rehabilitation to Turkish society.

The current government is now keen to encourage other countries to portray what it would regard as a more balanced view of the Ottoman past in other countries too.

To that end, the government in Ankara has set about countering the widespread, negative view of the Ottoman Empire among Albanians by financing scholarships to study Ottoman history and publishing new books in Albania.

Ahmet Davutoğlu, the Turkish foreign minister, has purposefully sought to put the Ottoman Empire of the 16th and 17th centuries – the empire’s ‘golden age’ which is also referred to as “Pax Ottomana” by some historians – into context.

During this time, the Ottoman Empire ruled as far as Hungary and its leaders set about constructing some of the great works of Ottoman architecture - most notably the Suleymaniye Mosque, or Blue Mosque, in Istanbul. At the same time, new Balkan towns were founded, including the Albania capital city Tirana.

In Bosnia, the Ottoman’s built the famous Drina Bridge – immortalized by the Yugoslav Nobel Laureate writer Ivo Andric in his most famous novel, The Bridge on the Drina. During this period, clock towers began to appear for the first time in Balkan towns.

During an official visit to Tirana in October 2009, Davutoğlu purposely declared that Balkan countries and Turkey share a “common history, destiny and future”, while also claiming “until the 16th century, cities in the Balkans were wealthier than those of Western Europe”.

It should be noted that many historians, including Sevket Pamuk, a leading economics historian at the Bogzici University in Istanbul, dispute this claim. Pamuk insists that in the 16th century, wages for Ottoman Empire citizens were about a third lower than those of their western counterparts.

Revising history

While Davutoğlu statements about the Ottoman past were controversial in themselves, there was intense speculation by the Albanian media that Davutoğlu had officially requested that Tirana revise the negative portrayal of the Ottoman Empire in its textbooks. Albanian government officials have refused to confirm or deny that any such requests have been lodged.

Historian Ferid Duka recalls that the first Turkish ambassador to Kosovo, appointed shortly after Pristina declared independence in 2008, also called for historical accounts in that country to be revised. Almost 90 per cent of Kosovo’s population of 2m are ethnic Albanians.

“The first Turkish ambassador to Kosovo… stated in the local media that Kosovo and the Albanians needed to review the way it saw the Ottoman history, saying that first of all, the Ottoman conquest was not an invasion,” recalls Duka.

“I was then called to give an interview to ALSAT, a pan-Albanian television station, to comment on it, and I said that it was definitively an invasion. I said that the Albanian historiography did make the Ottoman period, especially during communism, bleaker than it was… but the Ottomans did invade Albania and that was a fact that we cannot ignore.”

Enver Hoxhaj, the Kosovar education minister, claims that in 2008 his then Turkish counterpart, Huseyin Celik, went so far as to ask that school textbooks and historical accounts in Pristina should be revised.

Pristina ‘told to revise history books’

By Lavdim Hamidi in Pristina

Enver Hoxhaj, the Kosovar education minister, claims that in 2008 his then Turkish counterpart, Hüseyin Çelik, suggested Kosovo alter its negative portrayal of the Ottomans as ferocious invaders.

“During that meeting with the Turkish Education minister, I was informed that the same request was made also to other ministers from Balkan countries.” Hoxhaj stressed that the Turkish request to revise history and school textbooks was “generalised” and did not refer to specific books or texts.

Hoxhaj, however, does not entirely reject the possibility of revising Kosovan historical texts: “I have no personal opinion on issues that are for professionals [historians]. Textbooks should reflect a social consensus on events related to citizens of the Republic of Kosovo.”

Despite numerous written and telephone requests lodged during the past month asking for a response to Hoxhaj’s claims, both Hüseyin Çelik and the current Turkish education have so far declined to comment.

Albania and present day Kosovo – along with large swathes of the Balkans – came under direct Ottoman rule for five centuries until the fall of the empire in Europe in 1912. The subject of Ottoman rule remains a highly charged issue in the region.

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“During that meeting with the Turkish education minister, I was informed that the same request was made also to other ministers from Balkan countries,” says Hoxhaj, who stresses the request to revise historical accounts was “generalised” and did not refer to specific books or texts.

While Hoxhaj does not entirely reject the possibility of changing Kosovo’s history books, he underlines that it is a matter “for professionals [historians]” and that textbooks “should reflect a social consensus on events related to citizens of the Republic of Kosovo”.

Some historians believe that people in the Balkans, after a period of prolonged and often difficult nation-building, are now ready to view the Ottoman era with less antagonism.

Dritan Egro, an Ottoman era historian at Albania’s Institute of History, says this “softening” towards the Ottomans is a result of a more sophisticated approach to social sciences combined with a renewed, general curiosity about the period

“After the creation and solidification of nation states in the Balkans, that needed… [historical accounts portraying] the Ottoman Empire as subjecting its peoples to 500 years of darkness and a choking oppression… [has developed into] a curiosity about what really happened during the Ottoman Empire,” says Egro.

Yet, revising historical accounts is still seen as an attack on Albanian’s national identity by some. Others have mixed feelings with regard to renewed ties with the Turks.

“In recent times, there has been a debate in Albanian media on the ‘neo-Ottoman’ foreign policy of the Turkish Government.

Some see improved relations with Turkey as dangerous for Albanian Europeanism, but there are others who see Turkey as a good balance when it comes to strong Greek influences in the country,” notes sociologist Sulstarova.

Regardless of the political imperatives to restore relations with Turkey, Albanian nationalist sentiments remain as sensitive as ever.

Media speculation about Turkish requests to revise Albanian accounts of the Ottoman period accompanies every high-level official visit from Ankara.

These visits are invariably followed by weeks of intense national debate about the need, or otherwise, to revise Albania’s history books.

Despite the fact that many concede that Albania’s historical records are the product of a period of fervent nationalism, there is harsh and persistent resistance to any attempt to revise them.

Altin Raxhimi, based in Tirana, and Lavdim Hamidi, based in Pristina, contributed to this article

Fellow Bio


Gjergj Erebara

Gjergj Erebara was born in 1979 in Tirana, Albania. He has been specialized in economic reporting and currently works as journalist in “Shqip” daily published in Tirana and BalkanInsight.com publication.


Turkey and the Balkans

The re-emergence of Turkey as a growing economic, political and religious power in the Balkans is the subject of the latest Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence Alumni Initiative project.

Meet the Journalists


Altin Raxhimi

Altin Raxhimi from Tirana, Albania, is an experienced journalist currently working freelance from Albania for a host of English-language publications, including BIRN, www.reportingproject.net, Inter-Press Service and The Chicago Tribune


Lavdim Hamidi

Lavdim Hamidi was born in 1982 in Trnovac and is currently living and working in Kosovo. He is an experienced economics reporter and works for the daily newspaper, Zeri


Gjergj Erebara

Gjergj Erebara was born in 1979 in Tirana, Albania. He has been specialized in economic reporting and currently works as journalist in “Shqip” daily published in Tirana and BalkanInsight.com publication.


Aleksandra Stankovic

Aleksandra Stankovic was born in 1973 in Pirot, Serbia. She graduated in 1997 in Arabic language and literature from the Faculty of philology at Belgrade University


Yana Buhrer Tavanier

Yana Buhrer Tavanier is a freelance journalist and a human rights activist based in Sofia, Bulgaria. Previously she was editor of weekly Capital, and worked as a journalist for Tema magazine and daily Dnevnik.

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