Albanian Highlanders And Kosovo (I)

South-East Serbia’s province of Kosovo-Metochia (KosMet) is an autochthonous Slavic, in particular Serb, land. Now, the focal question became how this province became “disputed land”, and, in particular, what it has to do with ethnic-Albanians? In the following text, this issue is going to be considered in more details, from the geographical, (pre)historic, anthropologic, religious, and political points of view. We start with the geography, in particular, the physical geography of West Balkans.

The region of Dinaric Alps

It is known that physical and mental structures of a particular population are determined by many factors, but mainly by two of them: 1) Genetic inheritance; and 2) Physical environment.[i] In dealing with an ex-Yugoslav case, it has to be stressed that West Balkans is characterized by the mountainous transversal which goes from the Istrian Peninsula on the North-West to North Albania on the South-East, parallel to the Adriatic coast. The Dinaric Alps are separating Adriatic coast from the rest of the Balkans not only from a purely geographical sense but as well as from cultural, civilizational and even political points of view. This high-mountain region goes gradually into the Pannonic Plane towards North but goes down abruptly to the Adriatic coast.

The so-called Dinaric chain derives its name from the Mt. Dinara, in the region of Dalmatia (today in Croatia). It comprises Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and North Albania too. Some parts of the Dinaric region are still woody, but mainly the wood was cut off many centuries ago and the land is almost bare, with a stony and bushy surface. This fact, as well as the unfavorable geographical position, made the region isolated, mostly inaccessible and cut from the rest of the Balkans and Europe for that matter. It is cut from the sea and far away from the main roads, which go along the River Sava on the North. A crucial point of the issue is that these geographical features have shaped the mentality and history of the local population.

Dinaric AlpsWe have to keep in mind that their most important occupations have been: 1) Cattle breeding (sheep and goats); and 2) Plundering the surrounding regions. The latter meant first piracy on the Adriatic Sea (from the Roman Empire time) and the second robbing the plane people on the North. The first Balkan inhabitants known from historical records (mainly from the Greek language written sources) were the Illyrians[ii] (to have nothing in common with present-day Albanians)[iii] but who were known in the time of Antique as notorious for piracy (especially in the microregion of the River Neretva’s mouth to the Adriatic Sea in present-day Herzegovina), what was the cause of permanent military conflicts with the Romans.[iv]

The first known inhabitants of the Dinaric region were Illyrian tribes (in fact the Slavs or more precisely proto-Serbs),[v] of Indo-European origin who were dispersed over West and Central Balkans, even in present-day Austria and Italy. However, these illiterate people left nothing of a written historical value and records and the knowledge about them are available from the testimonies of the Greeks and the Romans only. Whenever other people arrived at West Balkans, in particular, the Slavic tribes (the second Slavic migration that was from the North to the South), they used to push the local tribes into the chain of the Dinaric Alps. Those remaining in lesser mountainous regions mixed with the incoming people, who gradually absorbed them. This process finally affected almost all Balkan ancient tribes, except for the most inaccessible mountains, where the assimilation took the mildest form. Subsequently, as a result, no pure Illyrian or any other Balkan aboriginal people (Thracians, Macedonians) have been preserved on the Balkan peninsula, except in the nationalistic textbooks.[vi]

Though generally the Yugoslav Dinaric highlanders have been known as warlike, violent people, their ethnic content appears varied, and no uniform form of their behavior may be expected in everyday life. In fact, this anthropological content has been changing for centuries, by the influx of surrounding people. The principal source for this influx was those inhabitants of the surrounding states, who sought refuge in the inaccessible mountains, fleeing from the authorities, for various reasons: from the fight for the liberty to the criminal activity. The principal areas as a source of those newcomers were Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro, in particular during the rule of the Ottoman Empire (from the 15th to the 19th centuries), and later during the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina (1878−1918).

However, as a matter of historical fact rather than of national folk songs and oral popular tradition, a majority of those incomers fled from the law pursuit and this asocial selection contributed additionally to the toughness of the Dinaroids – the Yugoslav highlanders. Generally, a Dinaric region appears retarded relative to the plane surroundings and the Adriatic coast for a century or so, what has been a permanent cause of conflicts with the latter. It was for this retardation that the Dinaroids were prone to change their religious beliefs, as various new religions arrived with new rulers. In particular, it was here only that the Muslim religion took root when the Ottoman Turks arrived on West Balkans after the Kosovo Battle in 1389.[vii] In particular, West Herzegovina and North and Central Albania adopted quickly new religion from the new Ottoman rulers who brought Islam to the Balkans. It is important to emphasize that no autochtonous Serbia’s population accepted Islam, although the Ottoman authorities used to rule parts of present-day Serbia for five centuries.

Kosovo mapThe only Muslim population in Serbia are Kosovo Albanians (the Shqiptars as they are calling themselves) and Slavic Muslims of the Serb ethnic origin (calling themselves as the Bosniaks since 1993) in South-West Serbia, called Raška by the Christian Orthodox Serbs and Sandjak (Sandžak) by the Muslim Bosniaks.[viii] The rationale for this ”religious mobility” of the Balkan highlanders was their provisional acceptance of the Christian faith, which never took roots firmly in those mountainous regions. It was for this reason, for example, that 70% of Albania’s population is now of the Islamic faith followed by the Roman Catholics (10%) and the Greek Orthodox (20%).[ix]

It can be said that from an anthropological viewpoint, a Dinaric region has been split into two principal areas: 1) The Slavophone and the Albanophone. However, that it often in practice has nothing to do with the ethnic content is, as an example, well proved by the Montenegrin-Albanian tribes, still existing in the area. As the British traveler and folklore researcher, Edith Durham found century ago (in 1908) while traveling around North Albania and KosMet, four brothers arrived from Bosnia century ago, all of the Slavic origins.[x] Here is the testimony which she recorded from an old Albanian:

“The tribe of Hoti,” said the old man, “has many relations. Thirteen generations ago, one Gheg Lazar came to this land with his four sons, and it is from these that we Hoti descend. I cannot tell the year in which they came. It was soon after building the church of Gruda,[xi] and that is now 380 years ago. Gruda came before we did. Gheg was one of four brothers. The other three were Piper, Vaso and Krasni.[xii] From these descend the Piperi and Vasojevichi of Montenegro and Krasnichi of North Albania. So we are four – all related –the Lazakechi (we of Hoti), the Piperkechi, the Vasokechi, and the Kraskechi. They all came from Bosnia to escape the Turks, but from what part I do not know. Yes, they are all Christians. Krasnichi only turned Moslem much later.”

Nevertheless, two out of these four large tribes of a common Bosnian origin, the Piperi and the Vasojevichi are now Serbophone and the Christian Orthodox living in present-day Montenegro. According to E. Durham, the Piperi threw its lot with Montenegro in 1790, but whether or not it was then Serbophone while half of Vasojevich was given to Montenegro after the Treaty of Berlin in 1878, the other portion still remained under the Ottoman rule. The Vasojevich tribe consider itself whole Serb and is a bitter foe to the Albanophone tribes on its borders. The Krasnich tribe is an Albanophone and fanatically Moslem.[xiii] The same author stressed that the Hoti tribe is an Albanophone and the Roman Catholic.

To be continued

Reposts are welcomed with the reference to ORIENTAL REVIEW.


[i] About political geography, see in [John Agnew et al (eds), A Companion to Political Geography, Second Edition, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008]. On human geographies, see in [Paul Cloke et al (eds), Introducing Human Geographies, Second Edition, Abington, UK−Hodder Arnold, 2005].

[ii] About the ancient Balkan Illyrians, see in [Aleksandar Stipčević, The Illyrians: History and Culture, Totnes, UK−Noyes Press, 1977; John Wilkes, The Illyrians, Hoboken, NJ−Wiley-Blackwell, 1996].

[iii] About Albanian ethnogenesis, see in [Vladislav B. Sotirović, „The Fundamental Misconception of the Balkan Ethnology: The ‚Illyrian‘ Theory of the Albanian Ethnogenesis“, American Hellenic Institute Foundation Policy Journal, Vol. 9, Spring 2018, 1−12, online:].

[iv] On this issue, see in [Jason R. Abdale, The Great Illyrian Revolt: Rome’s Forgotten War in the Balkans, AD 6−9, Barnsley, UK−Pen and Sword Military, 2019]. It is important to emphasize that today an Albanian tribe Hots derives its tribal name from a Dacian hot that means a highwayman or a robber.

[v] Јован И. Деретић, Драгољуб П. Антић, Слободан М. Јарчевић, Измишљено досељавање Срба, Београд: Сардонија, 2009; Миодраг Милановић, Историјско порекло Срба, Друго допуњено и проширено издање, Београд: Вандалија, 2011.

[vi] About the politics of history education in the Balkans, see in [Christina Koulouri (ed.), Clio in the Balkans: The Politics of History Education, Thessaloniki: Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeast Europe, 2002].

[vii] On the Kosovo Battle, see in [Rade Mihaljčić, The Battle of Kosovo: In History and in Popular Tradition, Belgrade: BIGZ, 1989].

[viii] Sanjak in English or Sandžak in ex-Serbo-Croat means a county in the Turkish language under a single military flag in the case of a war. Nevertheless, it has to be noted that the Muslims of West Balkan are of a Slavic origin, with Serb (or Croat) mother tongue.

[ix] On this issue, see more in a general history of Albanians [Peter Bartl, Albanien. Vom Mittelalter bis zur Gegenwart, Regensburg: Verlag Friedrich Pustet, 1995]. On Albania in outline, see in [Hugh Poulton, The Balkans: Minorities and States in Conflict, London: Minority Rights Publications, 1994, 193−195].

[x] Edith Durham, High Albania, Boston: Beacon Press, 1987.

[xi] Grud(v)a, Serb noun for a lump (of earth), block (of cheese), “rodna gruda” – a native soil.

[xii] Vaso is the short form of Vasilije, the common pan-Slavic name, derived from a Greek basileus (king, the ruler). Krasni is as well as a pan-Slavic personal name, derived from krasan, krasni, meaning handsome, beautiful.

[xiii] Krasić is the common surname among modern Serbs.

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