The question of the origin of the Albanians is still a matter of controversy among the ethnologists.
All indications point to the fact that they are descendants of the earliest Aryan immigrants who were represented in historical times by the kindred Illyrians, Macedonians and Epirots.
Moreover it is believed that of these cognate races, which are described by the ancient Greek writers as “barbarous” and “non-Hellenic,” the Illyrians were the progenitors of the Ghegs, or Northern Albanians, and the Epirots the progenitors of the Tosks, or Southern Albanians.
Albania’s origins, therefore, date in the 2nd millennium BC, when the Illyrians occupied the western Balkans.
The Illyrians were not a uniform body of people but a conglomeration of many tribes that inhabited the western part of the Balkans.
In its beginning, the kingdom of Illyria comprised the actual territories of Dalmatia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, with a large part of modern Serbia. Shkodra (Scutari) was its capital, just as it is now, the most important centre of Northern Albania.
The earliest known king of Illyria was Hyllus (The Star) who is recorded to have died in the year 1225 B.C. The Kingdom, however, reached its zenith in the fourth century B.C. when Bardhylus (White Star), one of the most prominent of the Illyrian kings, united under scepter the kingdoms of Illyria, Molossia (Epirus*) and a good part of Macedonia. But its decay began under the same ruler as a result of the attacks made on it by Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great.
In the year 232 B.C. the Illyrian throne was occupied by Teuta, the celebrated Queen whom historians have called Catherine the Great of Illyria. The depredations of her thriving navy on the rising commercial development of the Republic forced the Roman Senate to declare war against the Queen. A huge army and navy under the command of of Santumalus and Alvinus attacked Central Albania, and, after two years of protracted warfare, Teuta was induced for peace (227 B.C.)
The last king of Illyria was Gentius. In 165 B.C. he was defeated by the Romans.
Henceforth, Illyria consisting of the Enkalayes, the Taulantes, the Epirotes, and the Ardianes, became a Roman dependency.
From the 8th to the 6th century BC the Greeks founded a string of colonies on Illyrian soil, two of the most prominent of which were Epidamnus (modern Durrës) and Apollonia (near modern Vlorë).
The presence of Greek colonies on their soil brought the Illyrians into contact with a more advanced civilization, which helped them to develop their own culture, while they in turn influenced the economic and political life of the colonies.
In the 3rd century BC the colonies began to decline and eventually perished.
Roughly parallel with the rise of Greek colonies, Illyrian tribes began to evolve politically from relatively small and simple entities into larger and more complex ones. At first they formed temporary alliances with one another for defensive or offensive purposes, then federations and, still later, kingdoms.
The most important of these kingdoms, which flourished from the 5th to the 2nd century BC, were those of the Enkalayes, the Taulantes, the Epirotes, and the Ardianes.
The Romans saw Illyria as a bridgehead for eastern conquests, and in 229 BC, Rome crossed the Adriatic and attacked. By 168 BC Romans had established effective control over Illyria and renamed it the province of Illyricum.
The Romans ruled Illyria for almost six centuries. Under Roman rule Illyrian society underwent great change, especially in its outward, material aspect.
Art and culture flourished, particularly in Apollonia, whose school of philosophy became celebrated in antiquity.
To a great extent, though, the Illyrians resisted assimilation into Roman culture. Illyrian culture survived, along with the Illyrian tongue, though many Latin words entered the language and later became a part of the Albanian language.
Christianity manifested itself in Illyria during Roman rule, about the middle of the 1st century AD. At first the new religion had to compete with Oriental cults–among them that of Mithra, Persian god of light–which had entered the land in the wake of Illyria’s growing interaction with eastern regions of the empire. For a long time it also had to compete with gods worshiped by Illyrian pagans.
The steady growth of the Christian community in Dyrrhachium (the Roman name for Epidamnus) led to the creation there of a bishopric in AD 58. Later, episcopal seats were established in Apollonia, Buthrotum (modern Butrint), and Scodra (modern Shkodrë).
When the Roman Empire divided into east and west in 395, the territories of modern Albania became part of the Byzantine Empire.
In the first decades under Byzantine rule (until 461), Illyria suffered the devastation of raids by Visigoths, Huns, and Ostrogoths. Not long after these barbarian invaders swept through the Balkans, the Slavs appeared. Between the 6th and 8th centuries they settled in Illyrian territories and proceeded to assimilate Illyrian tribes in much of what is now Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia.
The tribes of southern Illyria, however– including modern Albania–averted assimilation and preserved their native tongue. In the course of several centuries, under the impact of Roman, Byzantine, and Slavic cultures, the tribes of southern Illyria underwent a transformation, and a transition occurred from the old Illyrian population to a new Albanian one.
As a consequence, from the 8th to the 11th century, the name Illyria gradually gave way to the name, first mentioned in the 2nd century AD by the geographer Ptolemy of Alexandria, of the Albanoi tribe, which inhabited what is now central Albania.
From a single tribe the name spread to include the rest of the country as Arbri and, finally, Albania. The genesis of Albanian nationality apparently occurred at this time as the Albanian people became aware that they shared a common territory, name, language, and cultural heritage.
Owing partly to the weakness of the Byzantine Empire, Albania, beginning in the 9th century, came under the domination, in whole or in part, of a succession of foreign powers: Bulgarians, Norman crusaders, the Angevins of southern Italy, Serbs, Venetians and the Turks.
The Turks established their dominion over Albania just as the Renaissance began to unfold in Europe, so that, cut off from contact and exchanges with western Europe, Albania had no chance to participate in, or benefit from, the humanistic achievements of that era.
Conquest also caused great suffering and vast destruction of the country’s economy, commerce, art, and culture.
Moreover, to escape persecution by their conquerors, about one-fourth of the country’s population fled abroad to southern Italy, Sicily, and the Dalmatian coast.
Albanians rose in rebellion time and time again, against Ottoman occupation.
Islamization aggravated the religious fragmentation of Albanian society.
In 1878 Albanian leaders met in the town of Prizren, in Kosovo, where they founded the League of Prizren (Albanian League) to promote a free, unified Albania in all Albanian- populated territories.
The league also sought to develop Albanian language, education, and culture, and in 1908 Albanian leaders adopted a national alphabet based on the Latin script.
Between 1910 and 1912 Albanian nationalists waged an armed struggle against the Ottomans, who had refused to give Albania autonomy (self-rule).
The Ottomans were simultaneously attacked and, in 1912, defeated by Serb, Greek, and Bulgarian armies in what was later called the First Balkan War (see Balkan Wars). Albania immediately proclaimed its independence from the Ottoman Empire.
At a conference following the war, Great Britain, Germany, Russia, Austria, France, and Italy (collectively known as the Great Powers) agreed to accept Albanian independence, but because of strong pressures from Albania’s neighbors, the Great Powers gave the Albanian-inhabited region of Kosovo to Serbia and much of the Çamëria region to Greece. Roughly half the Albanian population was left outside the country’s borders.
The Great Powers also appointed a German prince, Wilhelm zu Wied, as Albania’s ruler, but he was in power only six months before the outbreak of World War I.
During the war, Austrian, French, Italian, Greek, Montenegrin, and Serb armies occupied Albania, and the country lacked any political leadership.
At the Paris Peace Conference after the war, United States President Woodrow Wilson vetoed a plan by Britain, France, and Italy to partition Albania among its neighbors. In 1920 Albania was admitted to the newly-formed League of Nations, thereby gaining international recognition as an independent state.
From 1920 to 1939 the country governed itself, first by Ahmed Bey Zogu, leader of a conservative class of landowners, then by the liberal Fan S. Noli and then by Zogu again.
Zog’s dictatorial rule was marked by economic stagnation, although he helped create a modern school system and made the country somewhat more stable. Zog failed, however, to resolve the problem of land reform, and the peasantry remained impoverished. During Zog’s reign, Italy exercised so much influence over Albania’s affairs that Albania was virtually an Italian protectorate. In April 1939, shortly before the start of World War II, Italy invaded and occupied Albania, sending Zog fleeing to Greece.
The communists, under Enver Hoxha, led the resistance against Italy and, after 1943, Germany. By October 1944 they’d thrown the Germans out, the only East European nation to do so without the assistance of Soviet troops.
The communists consolidated power after the war, and proclaimed the People’s Republic of Albania in 1946.
Hoxha died in 1985, and the new leader, Ramiz Alia, embarked on a liberalization program and strengthened Albania’s ties abroad.
By early 1990 the collapse of communism in most of Eastern Europe had created a sense of expectation in Albania, and after student demonstrations in December the government agreed to allow opposition parties to exist.
The communists won the 1991 elections, but by mid-May a general strike forced the ruling Socialist Party into a coalition with the opposition Democrats. Central economic planning was now on the skids, factories ceased production and the food distribution network broke down.
By late 1991 the country faced chaos, and food riots broke out in December. The EU, fearful of a refugee crisis, stepped up economic aid, and the Italian army set up a large military base south of Durrës to supervise food shipments.
The 1992 elections ended 47 years of communist rule, and the Democratic Party wasted no time in launching a witch hunt against former communists and party officials.
By 1993, Amnesty International was prompted to condemn the increasing human-rights violations in the country. Albania signed a military agreement with Turkey in 1992 and joined the Islamic Conference Association in a move to counter Greek territorial claims to southern Albania (which the Greeks call Northern Epiros).
The mid to late 90s saw quick changes in prime ministers and presidents as the new democracy stumbled and nearly collapsed, and many Albanians left the country in search of work.
As much as 20% of the labour force currently works abroad, mainly in Greece and Italy.
When NATO bombed Yugoslavia in spring 1999, nearly half a million ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo spilled over the border into neighbouring Albania.