Scholars know less about Albanians’ origins than most of the peoples of the Balkans, partly because Albanians were among the last peoples to write about themselves. Spoken Albanian is an ancient and unique branch of the Indo-European language family, at least 3000 years old. Written Albanian dates from only 800 years ago.
Historians generally agree that Albanians are descendants of the Illyrians. The Greeks were the first (2300 years ago) to write about a collection of tribes on Greece’s northwest frontier that spoke a non-Greek language, calling them Illyrioi. (Albanians call themselves Shqiptar). Illyrian tribes all spoke a similar language, but did not think of themselves as a single people. They occupied the mountainous areas of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Eastern Macedonia, Northern Albania, and the east coast of southern Italy.
Lack of unity among Illyrian-speaking tribes led to their domination by stronger neighbours – Celts, Macedonians, Greeks, Romans, Slavs, and Turks. These peoples gradually blended with the Illyrians to form the Albanians. The Illyrian/Albanian language, however, remained the spoken language of the new blend.
Romans dominated the area (then known as Illyricum), when Christianity became the official religion (325CE). Illyricum’s position between Rome and Byzantium resulted in churches in its northern region being administered from Rome, its southern region from Constantinople. This simple administrative expedient was to have a profound influence on Albania’s future.
As Roman/Byzantine control began to fade, parts of Albania came under the control of Bulgaria (800’s), Sicily & Venice (1200’s), Naples & Serbia (1300’s),
When the Turks invaded, (1385-1488) Albanian resistance was fierce. Their all-time national hero, (and creator of their flag), Skanderbeg, inspired resistance that held off the Ottomans for 100 years.
Today’s Albania is the result of Albanians’ relatively easy-going attitude towards religion. After the Turkish conquest, many Albanians converted to Islam in order to gain privileged positions in the military and administration of the Ottoman Empire. Albania became a bulwark of Islam in the Balkans, and this kept it geographically stable during the gradual dismemberment of Ottoman territories in the 1800’s. In 1912, Albanians launched a large-scale revolt, and by then the Ottomans were too weak to prevail.
Albania became independent of the Turks only. Serbia, Montenegro, Italy & Greece were eager to divide Albania between them. Outside influences had effectively divided the country into two regions. The largely Muslim & Catholic pro-Italian north speak the Gheg dialect and are culturally conservative, while the largely Muslim and Orthodox pro-Greek south speak the Tosk dialect and are culturally liberal. Tosk is subdivided into Arberesh, spoken in southern Italy, and Arvanitika, Lab & Cham, spoken in Greece. Albanian/Greek Chams & Arvanitika made critical contributions to the Greek War of Independence.
Physiologically, Ghegs are seen as being taller, more slender, with a lighter skin color, while Tosks are perceived as of a darker Mediterranean type.
During WW1, Italian influence prevailed, and Ghegs dominated government. Their king Zog tilted Albania towards Mussolini, leading to Nazi occupation in WW2. Resistance took the form of a Tosk-Communist alliance, which eventually prevailed, leading to a Communist government. The fall of Communism in the 1990’s led to a tilt toward Ghegs. Ghegs are the majority in Kosovo, & support for Kosovo’s cause briefly united Albanians. Lately, Albania’s economic woes shifted power to Tosks.
Music and dance in Albania are divided along Gheg/Tosk lines. Gheg music is “rugged, heroic”, while Tosk music is “relaxed, gentle, and exceptionally beautiful”. Most folk dances known to us utilize Tosk music.