Why hasn’t every schoolchild in the Western world learned about Albania’s national hero Skanderbeg, who held off the Turkish conquest of Europe for twenty-five years?
His father, John Kastrioti, extended the family fief to include much of central Albania. After a defeat by Amurat II in 1421 his youngest son, George, then nine years old, was sent with three older brothers as a hostage to the sultan’s court. Contrary to the sultan’s promise, he was converted to Islam and given the Moslem name Skander (Alexander). He was trained as a Janissary, a member of the elite imperial guard that included many Albanians, and his military successes earned him the title of bey, or beg.
The sultan had also promised to return John’s eldest son to take over his rule when John died, but by the time of his death in 1442 the older sons had disappeared (poisoned at the Ottoman court?) and the sultan turned the Kastrioti lands over to an interloper rather than to Skanderbeg, the lawful heir.
The following year Skanderbeg was sent together with another Turkish general at the head of an army to put down a revolt by the Hungarians. Instead, he seized the opportunity to retake the sixth-century fortress of Kruja from its Turkish garrison and raised his family banner, a black double-headed eagle on a red field, as a rallying point for Albanians eager for independence and religious freedom. His fight against the Turks only ended with his death (of malaria) at the age of 56 in 1468.
The banner of Skanderbeg is the flag of Albania today.