The stone mason from Borova

The stone mason from Borova

The stone mason from Borova

More on Albania …..

Introduction

This short story was first published in New Albania No 5, 1976. It is reproduced as part of the effort to inform people of the cultural output of Albania during its Socialist period, following the concepts of Socialist Realism.

This particular short story also has a direct relevance to the sculptural lapidars of Albania. It’s a story about the events of July 6th 1943 when the Nazi invaders murdered all the inhabitants of the small village of Borova (in the south-east of the country) who weren’t able to escape and then burnt everything of use within the village.

The statue of The Partisan and Child is part of the monument which commemorates that event.

This was part of the normal policy of the fascists as it followed an attack on a German convoy the day before in the mountains close to the village. This form of collective punishment is well known in examples such as Lidice in the (now) Czech Republic but they also occurred in those countries that were occupied by the Nazis, very often in similar retaliation to attacks upon the German Army by irregular Partisan forces.

By allowing the installation of the German Fascist Memorial in Tirana Park, after the collapse of Albanian society in the 1990s, the reactionary government of Sali Berisha displayed its contempt for the murder of its own citizens.

The stone mason from Borova

In memory of 107 Martyrs

by Naum Prifti

Many people wonder and cannot explain what urged Ligor to go to Borova that day. He took no heed either of the warnings of others or of the categoric order of the German command prohibiting the entry of civilians in to the still smouldering village.

Some say that Ligor went there because he was anxious to see what was left of his goods and chattels, whereas others say that he did so because he had had such a shock that he was unable to control his actions and, like a sleep-walker, he plodded through the streets filled with German soldiers between still smoking houses, without realizing what lay ahead. It happened that uncle Ligor was not in Borova on the day of the massacre. He had left the village early that morning taking with him, as usual, his bag with his hammer, trowel, and plumb line, and had gone to Novosel to build a wall. There is no trade in the world that requires fewer tools than that of the stone mason. Ligor was well aware of this because with that bag on his shoulder he had wandered for many years to different points of the northern hemisphere. His hammer had cracked the stones of three continents. He had worked at Khalkis, on both the beautiful shores of the Bosphorus, in the cities round the Black sea and, finally, he had crossed the Atlantic to try his luck in America. For this stone mason life had been hardship and toil everywhere. But finally Ligor had found some consolation in saying that this was due to the bad trade he had chosen. ‘That’s how it is with our trade,’ he would say, rubbing his hands on his coarse woollen trousers. ‘Wherever you go, you are dealing with stones and from them you have to earn your daily bread. But is it easy to bread from stones?’

In the end after his long wanderings abroad he returned to his village and made up his mind not to go away again no matter how things might turn out. Life had not smiled on him anywhere. Then where else would he be better off? In the dirty doss houses in Istanbul, in the damp of Odessa or the soot of Detroit where you cough up black mucus as though your lungs are filled with dye. Here at last he was in his own home, where in summer afternoons he could sit in the garden under the trees and watch the people pass by. His house was on a hill and from there he could get a very good view of both sections of the village.

He had built this house with his own hands after he had returned from abroad.

‘All my life I have built for others; now, on the eve of my old age. I’ll build a house for myself in which to rest my weary bones.’ And so he set to work and built a small house, thinking to himself that this would be the best and the only property that he would leave his children. They would remember him for a long time and then, if they were able, let them build a better and more beautiful house themselves.

For some years now he had been hard of hearing and instead of using his name others had nicknamed him ‘deafy.’ Ligor was not put out about it and admitted himself that ‘my ears fail, me, so shout because I can’t hear!’

Ligor said that this was due to sticking nails in his ears. Anyone, who has worked with momento stone masons knows this secret. When the nail won’t drive in the wood and there is no oil or lard at hand, they smear it with ear wax? The wax serves as a lubricant and the nail goes in with ease.

…That afternoon, while he was working, from the top of the scaffolding he saw a dense plume of smoke rising in the sky over his village.

‘What can this fire be?’ he said to himself, standing hammer in hand. He shaded his eyes with his free hand and tried to make out which section of the village it was coming from.

‘It must surely be the children burning the straw left in the sheds. Or is it St. Peter’s Day? How silly of me, St. Peter’s Day was a week ago whereas, today it is July 6! But may be the children have found some rubbish in a corner and have set fire to it.’ It had been the custom since ancient times to clean out the sheds at the end of June each year and burn the straw and chaff that had been left over from the past year, before putting in the new fodder. These bonfires were the joy the village children. They gathered at the village square or threshing floor, lit the fire and jumped through the mounting flames. According to an old belief, those who jumped over these fires burned the fleas left from the winter.

When he was a child, Ligor had done this, too. The memory of those days came back to him through the mists of the past, and he smiled. Was it sixty or seventy years ago?

‘However, this doesn’t look like a straw fire. The smoke from straw is white, while this is columns of grey and black. This looks as if a house or shed has caught fire. And how will they put it out in this hot weather!’

‘Some poor family,’ Ligor thought to himself, ‘It is they who meet with such misfortunes; it is their houses which burn so easily. It’s hell of a life!’

The fire seemed to come from near the stream and he tried to remember the houses there.

‘Well, what’s done is done!’ he said, ‘I’ll find out when I get back to the village. Now I must get to work to earn my wages.’

He took a trowel-full of mortar from the bucket and spread it on the wall, with quick, deft movements then stepped down from the scaffolding to select a cornerstone.

Like any mason who was master of his trade, he knew that the better the corner is built the longer the wall will stand. That’s the whole secret.

Back on the scaffolding with the cornerstone on his shoulder, he gaped in surprise. The smoke over Borova had become a dense cloud as if the whole stream were in flames.

‘What’s all this? What is happening.’

Instinctively his eyes turned to the hilltop, to his house half hidden by the trees in his orchard and his courtyard;

‘Izet, Izet! Leave that mortar and come up here a minute!’

A thin boy in a collarless shirt and red breeches made of the signal flags of the Italian army appeared on the ladder to the scaffold. Ever since his son had joined the partisans, Ligor had been compelled to hire another assistant.

‘What do you think is going on, son? Look over there towards Borova. It seems like a lot of smoke, or are my eyes deceiving me?’

Borova was not an hour’s walk away from Novosel and although it was daytime, the boy could make out the tongues of flame lapping the sky.

‘You’re right, boss, several houses are burning.’

The mason pursed his lips and stood thinking. His mind turned to his partisan son, and the war which was becoming fiercer.

‘Do those damned Germans intend to burn our village, too, as they burned Vodica? It’s possible. Then the houses of those whose sons have joined the partisans will not go unscathed.

How much toil it had cost him to build and complete that house! A whole lifetime! And the enemy might burn it and in a few hours everything he owned would be dust and ashes.

‘And they might do it,’ he said to himself. ‘You can’t expect any good from the enemy. My son was right.’ He recalled the conversation he had had with his son before he joined the partisans.

… It was on a Sunday. Father and son had been working in the garden planting out onions and, when they had finished and were washing their hands, his son had asked: ‘Father, have you a rifle hidden anywhere?’

Ligor shook the water from his hands and. from under his grey eyebrows, looked at his son in surprise.

‘I have wielded the hammer and have had no time to strut around with a rifle on my shoulder.’

‘Oh, I just asked in case you had one?’ ‘I have no rifle. If you need a hammer I can give you one’

His son hesitated to reply. Then he said slowly:

‘I thought of joining the partisans.’

His father looked him up and down and then, surprisingly, asked only:

‘When?’

‘Any day, now.’

‘Hm!’

Ligor had stood up face to face with his son.

‘Have you made up your mind to sneak away like many others or are you asking my permission?’

‘I have decided to go, but I don’t want to leave home without your permission Father, you understand, our country calls us …’ Ligor did not allow him to finish the sentence. He wiped his hands with his handkerchief, folded it, put it back in his pocket, and then said slowly:

‘Have you thought it over well?’

‘Yes, I have.’

‘Well, son, you have thought it over and had your say. Let me think it over as you have done and then I shall give you my reply.’

And after thinking about it all afternoon pacing around the house and darting quick glances on his son, in the evening he had called him aside and asked him:

‘Even if I don’t give my permission, you will go anyway, will you not?’

‘Yes!’ his son replied.

‘Good. But if I were in your place, I would have asked my father whether he had any right to stop me if a greater father had called me?’

‘You gave me no time. You said you would think it over and walked away,’ replied his son, red with embarrassment.

‘Had you said this to me, I would have been red with shame as you are now. Poverty is hard, it is bad, but bondage is worse. The hammer doesn’t seen to change this world, let’s hope the rifle will do it!’

And thus they had parted. Nearly four months had gone by since his son had taken up his rifle. Now and then he managed to come home by night, and Ligor’s heart leaped with joy to see his son happy, cheerful and optimistic as never, before. This was not just the joy that springs from youth alone, but from something deeper …

Ligor placed the cornerstone and lining it up with his eye from above and from the side, and tapped it lightly with the hammer to shift it a few millimetres inwards, as if to say, ‘that’s the right place for you, stay here and see how well-placed you are!’

‘Boss!’ called Izet catching him by the sleeve.

Like all those who are hard of hearing, Ligor Pandoja craned his head foreward and met Izet’s eyes.

‘I hear rifle shots. Listen!’

The stone mason puckered the muscles of his face as he strained to listen.

‘I hear nothing!’

‘I hear rifle and machine-gun shots!’

‘Rifle shots? Perhaps the partisans have attacked them.’

The fires were increasing quickly and now the black smoke formed a dense cloud over Borova. This cloud was growing bigger and blacker.

Ligor picked up another stone, but stood with it in his hand. His eyes were turned towards the village.

‘I can’t work. It’s no use.

He left the stone on the scaffolding, picked up the hammer, the trowel and the plumb bob and line, put them in his kit and stepped down the ladder.

‘I’m going to Borova.’

Thus he set out from Novosel to Borova when the cloud of smoke had cast a shadow over the valley and turned the whole sky black. He always walked at the same steady pace. The tools on his back rattled together. He was aware of the noise they made without hearing it, for he was used to it.

The smoke over Borova had become an enormous dense cloud as if the crater of a volcano had suddenly erupted and the setting sun cast the shadow of the smoke for several kilometres over the gravel stretching to the foot of Mount Gramos.

On the way he met the first refugees, his fellow villagers, who had managed to get away amidst the bullets and the fires.

A woman leading a child by the hand, her face deathly pale and wide staring eyes, still filled with terror, began to cross her hands and beat her head as if cursing both heaven and earth.

‘The German fascists burned our homes and killed the people! Ohlahlah! Words cannot describe what our eyes have seen!’

Her gestures were more eloquent than her words, while the child sat in a daze by her side. The woman turned towards Borova and began to shout and curse at the Nazis as if they were there before her: ‘May you and all you have be wiped out and turned to ashes! May you never reach your homes alive!

The woman seized the child by the hand and pressed on, not knowing where she was going. The child stumbled along as if half asleep.

Ligor stopped in the middle of the road. Other refugees were emerging from the creek and among them he caught sight of his wife and children.

‘They are safe!’ he said to himself relieved of the nightmare worry that he might have lost them. From their sketchy accounts, Ligor learned what had happened during those two hours in Borova.

The partisans had ambushed a motor convoy of the German Nazis, attacking them in the pass of Barmash. The Germans had turned back, taking their dead and wounded with them. The nearest village to the scene of the attack was Borova and the Nazis had decided to wreak retribution in the cruellest and most barbarous way. They had posted up some white sheets of paper near the bridge, they had attacked like mad dogs. What did those posters say? No one knew. They pronounced sentence of death on Borova. Squads of Nazi soldiers were deployed throughout the village. Shoot the people, burn the houses!

‘We would have been killed, too,’ said his wife, ‘but we escaped because we saw the Germans coming and got away through the back gate to the garden and down into the bed of the stream.

‘Did they set fire to the house?’

‘Yes!’ said his wife, ‘but who cares about the house. We are lucky to be alive.’

‘Where shall we go, where Will we find shelter when winter comes, what shall we do for food, for clothing ?’ All these questions crowded into Uncle Ligor’s mind and he shook his head in despair. Life had brought them to a very critical pass and there was no ray of hope to be seen anywhere.

That night he went to one of their friends in Novosel.

The host, as if he understood what was worrying Ligor, said:

‘Stay here with us until we win. What we have we shall share together.’

‘Thank you!’ said Ligor, ‘but these are not the times to be a burden on others. Everyone has his own problems nowadays.’

‘It’s in bad times you need a friend. And our boys are not fighting in vain. I tell you, the Germans are hard pressed; that’s why they are doing such things.’

Amidst the grief, uncertainty, and general distress the short July night seemed to drag on and on.

Next morning Ligor was up early as usual. Could that dozing, interrupted by moans, sobs, and sighs, be called sleep? The heartache, grief and anxiety abated through the night and in the morning it all seemed to belong to another time.

Ligor began to pace the room. Only the children were still asleep. He poked his head out of the window that looked towards the village. He could not sit still, and the idea that he should go to Borova, and see with his own eyes what had happened there, kept tormenting him.

In the end he made up his mind.

‘Turn back, Ligor,’ said his wife, ‘there is nothing to see. Borova has been destroyed. There’s nothing left but ruins and ashes!’

‘I’ll not turn back!’ said Ligor, and his wife, who knew him well, realized from his tone that he had decided and nothing would turn him from his course.

He had his bag with his hammer, trowel and plumb line on his back. His hearing was not good, but he was aware of their rattling because their melody was like a leitmotiv that had accompanied him all his life. Why had he taken his tools along? He himself did not know. Mostly from force of habit since he was used to walking with that small burden on his back.

Near the village, he met a group of people. They had set out to bury their dead relatives left lying in the roads and gardens, but the Nazis had not allowed this. They had threatened them with machine guns and had not allowed any one to enter the village. They told Uncle Ligor it was useless to try – ‘Better turn back before too late’ – but they could not convince him.

‘I set out for the village and that’s where I shall go.’

‘But they will kill you, Uncle Ligor!’

‘And why?’

His question was truly astonishing, but quite sincere and logical. Why should they kill an old man who was coming back to see his people, his village and his home?

The Nazis had condemned the village to extermination and they meant to carry the order out. However they did not stop Ligor. Why not? Because he entered Borova with an air of mastery, proud, head erect, disdaining them and entirely unperturbed.

Deafy walked between their vehicles without hesitation or fear, without even deigning to glance at them. He had seen any number of vehicles and armies in those far away countries and their appearance aroused not the slightest interest. Chest out and head erect, he walked firmly down the cobbled road with extraordinary calm and self-assurance. His steps were long and heavy, and echoed on the road. He made no attempt to hurry, to go away or to hide himself. He marched ahead steadily, proudly, like a man who has an important mission to perform, who assumes majesty from the importance of his task.

The German patrol opened the way to him and Ligor entered the village. He saw the burned houses, the blackened beams, the gables and foundations lying together and a knot seemed to gather in his chest. Near the bridge, on the walls around the springs and gardens he saw the posters. ‘These must be those white sheets of paper they told me about,’ he said to himself, paying them scant attention.

He left the highway and took the path towards the hilltop. The Germans were watching him from the road. According to them, this man could have nothing to do with the village. He must be some traveller who happened to pass this way.

Ligor stood in front of his house and looked it over carefully. The roof had fallen, the walls were blackened and the windows gaped empty. Some smoke was still trickling skywards from within the walls. A bitter, choking smoke. Everything had come to a sudden and unexpected end. The stones were blackened and split from the great heat. He knew every one of them, for he had laid them there with his own hands, and it seemed as if the stones knew him, too. Their gaping mouths spoke a language which the mason could understand.

He took the bag from his shoulder and walked around the house. Smoke, sorrow, silence.

Then he turned and looked over the village. The white walls, painted gates, windows with curtains and pot plants were no more Ruins, heaps of ashes and the bitter smell ol smoke that stung the eyes and throat.

From the bridge the Germans followed the movements of this man, who had walked up the hill and was surveying the village.

‘We’ve got to start from the beginning again,’ said Ligor, shaking his head. And, like a man, who knows what he is about, moved to one side, took off his jacket, folded it and laid it on the wall.

The July heat was scorching, the stones of the still smouldering houses and even the cobblestones were scorching, but more than all this he was burning with emotion.

His shirt gleamed white against the blackened walls and trees.

Ligor bent down and caressed the golden down on leaves of the tomato plants between his fingers, breathing the aroma. He loved this smell and it seemed as if he were eating fresh tomatoes. The tomatoes were still small, the size of hazelnuts and hidden among the leaves.

Then he lifted down his bag of tools, took out his hammer and trowel, rolled up his sleeves, and built an improvised scaffolding of some boxes and boards which were lying in the courtyard. He climbed on it and began to remove the ends of half-burned beams. In a little while, his hammer began to beat out the old song on the still hot stones.

The Nazis, who all this time had watched in stunned surprise, flared into anger. The challenge of this stone mason infuriated a German officer, and he ordered his soldiers to open fire.

Bullets began to fly towards the hilltop, whistling angrily through the trees, raising chips of stone and dust from the ground. They were tracer bullets which left behind a red, green or blue line. Ligor saw these missiles which flew by like so many brilliantly coloured butterflies and he was pleased. He did not hear the shots, seeing only the coloured lines the bullets left behind in the air, and he was astonished for it was something he had never seen before. ‘What are all these butterflies?’ he wondered, for he knew nothing of the new inventions in war equipment.

The bullets seemed afraid and avoided him. They flew past, through his clothes, beside him, in front of and behind him. He was like a target which could not be hit.

Then the mason thought he would make a little mortar and water his tomatoes and lettuces. So he went to the brook to fill a bucket with water. On the way back the Germans all fired one after the other, and a bullet punctured a hole in the bucket. The water began to spurt out from each side. ‘What’s happening to me today?’ he murmured to himself, ‘I don’t understand. This seemed a good bucket that didn’t leak. Or may be it was like this and I hadn’t noticed it.’

He bent down, gathered some leaves, rolled them in a wad and plugged the holes from which the water was flowing.

From the side of the bridge came a shout of relief for they thought that they had killed him, but Ligor Pandoja stood up again and walked towards the garden.

Orders, curses and shouts in German were heard, but not by the stone mason, and even if he had heard he would not have given them any importance, for he would not have believed they had anything to do with him. And Uncle Ligor walked on with the bucket in his hand up to the moment they knocked him down.

From his garden, wherever you turn your eyes, you see only mountains. Ligor saw the mountains for the last time that July afternoon. They seemed to waver, to rise higher than they were, to sink down, become misty, and be lost to sight. Then they emerged again clear and still. The vision of the mountains remained fixed fast on Ligor’s retina, and he did not close his eyes because he wanted to preserve their image forever.

The breeze rustled the grass, the leaves, the tender twigs, and sprinkled his white shirt with the pollen of flowers.

More on Albania …..

What does this monument stand for? The Mushqeta Monument

Mushqeta Monument

Mushqeta Monument

More on Albania ……

Introduction

This article first appeared in New Albania, No 4, 1976. It is reproduced here to give more information about this crucial battle against Hitlerite Fascism in the final days of the National Liberation War – and only a matter of days before the liberation of Tirana and the effective end of hostilities in Albania. Hopefully this will assist in the greater understanding of the analysis of the elements of the lapidar described in Mushqete Monument – Berzhite.

This article is further interesting as it provides a Socialist Albanian view of how they saw this battle against the German invaders.

Contrast this to those reactionaries and counter-revolutionaries who took control of the country in the 1990s. There reaction was to allow the creation of a monument to the German fascist dead and its installation in the hills of Tirana Park. To add salt to the wound this paean to fascism is only a matter of metres away from the original location of the National Martyrs’ Cemetery before it was moved to its present location and the inauguration of the statue of Mother Albania in 1972.

What does this monument stand for? The Mushqeta Monument

This monument has been raised at the village of Mushqeta, some ten kilometres south-east of Tirana. It has been raised in memory of the battle waged in this village on the 14th and 15th of November 1944 against the German forces of occupation.

The forces of the Albanian National Liberation Army were waging the decisive battle for the liberation of the capital. The entire garrison of the Hitlerite troops in Tirana had been surrounded from all sides. To avoid total disaster the German command sent a contingent of 2,000 soldiers, tanks, artillery and other armoured means from Elbasan (a city 50 kilometres south of Tirana) which were to attack the partisan detachments from the rear and, together with the forces of another German column which would come from Durrës (in the west), were to surround and liquidate the partisan forces fighting for the liberation of the capital.

On November 14th the enemy column is attacked by the detachments of the National Liberation Army lying in ambush at Mushqeta. The fighting continued fiercely all through the night. In the morning of the 15th the Nazi column is completely surrounded with the exception of a small part which managed to break the siege during the night with the aid of tanks. Seeing that they had no way out, the Germans launch a desparate counter offensive using their artillery, tanks and all other means of warfare. Bloody attacks and counter attacks continue during the whole day. By 5.99 p.m. that day, the Nazi column had been completely liquidated. The enemy left on the battlefield over 1,500 dead, many wounded and prisoners together with all their military equipment.

On November 17, 1944, Tirana, the capital of Albania, was completely liberated by the Albanian National Liberation Army. The victory at Mushqeta was the forewarning and forerunner of the liberation of the capital.

To give a better idea of what happened during that battle, we are reproducing a description by a military correspondent of the First Division of the National Liberation Army, who passed over the field of battle straight after the fighting had ended. Here is what he writes:

‘From the New Palace on the outskirts of Tirana to the village of Berzhite one can imagine that this great defeat of which so much is being spoken, especially when you see, besides the wrecked vehicles, the quintals of dynamite the enemy had abandoned on the Erzeni and Farka bridges because they had no time to blow them up. Here you can see destroyed vehicles, carts, horses and corpses. You say to yourself that this must have been the greatest defeat of the enemy. After passing this zone, you are faced with a pile of dead horses and overturned wagons, vehicles upturned in ditches, others in good order, wagons loaded with booty the Hitlerites had plundered in Greece and Albania, and armaments you had never seen before. You can count the equipment and corpses as far as Berzishta, but from here on it is impossible to count them even if you walk slowly.

Wherever you look, from right to left, you see real rivulets of blood, decaying flesh, very heavy armaments hurled off the highway as if by some extraordinary physical force, almost impossible to imagine.

You think this slaughter will continue as far as the corner of the road, no matter how great the battle had been fought. It could not possibly continue any further. But on rounding the bend, the heaps become more numerous. It seems as if the vehicles and wagons had wanted to push one another. Overturned material lying all over the place in complete disorder as if there had been a particularly heavy earthquake.

Further away from the road, on the side of the small hills on the banks of the river, 4 high calibre field guns have been abandoned facing each other even though they were used against our army. Further away, there are the number of mobile cooking houses enough for a whole division. Transport trucks complete with trailer, long wagons, vehicles carrying anti-aircraft guns directed towards the sky, small cannons, light and heavy machine-guns, cars, rifles, medical supplies and a pile of other things of every colour and kind. Among them is a baby’s pillow undoubtedly stolen by the army from some family at Elbasan.

Again corpses and dead horses and larger streams of blood. In the distance on the edge of the fields bordering the river bank, one sees horses which have escaped from this slaughter. They say there are also a number of hidden enemies who are giving themselves up to the surrounding villages. Further on, a colonel killed inside a car, the vehicle is completely wrecked, motor cycles abandoned on the road and the same scene as before.

You still walk through trails blocked by material, transport vehicles, dead horses and so on. You walk along the trails of the clearing, and then you are stuck on a sharp bend, below your right, where a small stream flows, the material and bodies are piled up in disorder. The horses lying prostrate on the ground and the bodies give the impression as if they had been knifed rather than killed by bullets. The stream looks like the channel of a slaughterhouse, the body of an enemy has fallen into the water.

Further across, the same scene over and over again. Horses, bodies, innumerable motor vehicles and wagons, war material and stolen booty in one great mess. The road looks as if the garbage of the city has been strewn along it.

Further on, guns, armaments and ammunition. The flag with the swastika lies hidden inside a wagon like some stolen article barely distinguishable. It reflects the present situation of Nazi Germany which tries to hide its criminal objectives now that the onslaught let loose against the peaceful and innocent peoples is rebounding on its own head.

Two kilometres on the other side of Ibe, two wrecked tanks give the impression as if the enemy column was not heading towards Tirana but towards Elbasan.

When you walk through the place you can’t believe that there had been only 2 to 3 thousand enemy troops. On the basis of the war material and the means of transport, it is calculated that there must have been at least a German division. The booty is so big that it gives the impression not of an army but of a savage horde of barbarians. This is a complicated scene, which reflects the character of the Nazi bands, pirates with modern means.

The destruction of these forces saved Tirana from the peril of devastation and mass massacres.

When comparing the numerous and heavy means of the enemy, their huge army on the march, the ruggedness of the terrain and their fortified positions with our armaments and positions, one wonders how it was possible to smash up and liquidate more than 2 to 3 thousand Germans by only 1,200 partisans.’

More on Albania ……

The problem of the origin of the Albanian People and their language

Obelisk to the pioneers of the Albanian language

Obelisk to the pioneers of the Albanian language

More on Albania …..

Introduction

The article below was first published in New Albania, No 4, 1977. It addresses the somewhat complex issue of the origin of the Albanian people and the roots of the Albanian language – a language very different from all others in the surrounding area. It is included here to give some background to the obelisk to this topic in Gjirokastra, which was posted some time ago. That post looked at the images and what they signified, this article puts more flesh on the bones of that explanation and answers some of the questions that might arise from the particular images.

The problem of the origin of the Albanian People and their language

by Professor Eqrem Çabej

When the problem of the origin of a people is raised, it will be examined and solved more readily from the aspect of the perseveration and continuity of its language than from the ethnic viewpoint, because language, more than other elements, is the characteristic which distinguishes one people from the others. However for any people of any country or period, such a problem is complex and in the Albanian conditions it is especially complicated. It is complex because, as we know, in the formation of a people as an independent entity with its individual features which distinguish it from other peoples, various circumstances of a geographic nature and multiple historical, ethnical, economical, cultural and linguistic processes, play a part. It is complicated because in this field of Albanian Studies the lack of historical sources and documents is keenly felt. However, despite this poverty of sources, with the constant care of the Party of Labour of Albania and comrade Enver Hoxha, the new Albanian science is striving to get to the solution of this problem with the means at its disposal. And in this field it has achieved lasting results which have taken their place in the field of international science. Because of the complex nature of the problem the method to be applied must also be complex. A number of scientific disciplines must collaborate on it. In particular historical geography, history, linguistics, ethnography and prehistoric archaeology are involved in this. The results in any one of these fields should be taken into account and duly appreciated by the other disciplines, should be combined with their results so that wide range of facts can be gathered together into a few general principles, into a few more reliable facts, in order to arrive at some sort of synthesis.

The Albanians are autochthonous or native to the Balkan Peninsula since they have been living there since early prehistoric times. Together with the Greeks, they are the most ancient people in this region; they are heirs to the ethnical situation of the period of antiquity in this part of South-eastern Europe. Under these circumstances, the question as to where the Albanian people originated can be put in other words: Under what name were the forefathers of the Albanians, that people which has spoken the language from which the present Albanian is derived, known in the Balkans in ancient times? Hence, from which ancient people of this Peninsula do the present Albanians descend?

During the last century the hypothesis was very widespread that the Albanians were the descendants of the Pellasgians. This hypothesis or theory, founded by foreign scholars, was re-echoed far and wide among the Albanian poets and writers in Albania and Italy. It found fertile soil in the ideas of romanticism which spread later in South-eastern Europe, at a time when other literary trends had emerged in the West. Subsequently the Pellasgian theory was refuted. In Greek and Roman documents, the Pellasgians are mentioned as a pre-Greek ethnical stratum no longer in existence during the ancient period. Authors like Herodotus and Strabo speak of them as of a more ancient period and describe them as barbarians, that is, not Greeks, and having a language different from the Greek language. They place them in the zone of the Aegean Sea, principally in Thessaly spreading on one side towards Epirus and on the other side towards Asia Minor, towards Crete and other islands of the Aegean zone. Meanwhile, they are presented everywhere as a legendary people, shrouded in the mists of mythology, a people without concrete historical consistency. Although in later periods there has been some acceptance of their connection with the Illyrians and Thracians, it must be said that such ethnic and linguistic element as may, with considerable reserve, be called Pellasgian, for many reasons, including those of a geographical character, is in no way sufficient to provide any scientific basis for accepting a Pellasgian origin of the Albanian people.

Proceeding from a more realistic basis, in order to clear up the problem of the origin of the Albanians, we shall turn, first of all, to history as the continuation of the prehistoric situation in the Balkan Peninsula. In the period of antiquity, this part of Southern Europe was inhabited by a number of peoples, different from the present ones and differing from one another. It is known that the western regions of the Peninsula were inhabited by the Illyrians, the eastern regions by the Thracians, the southern regions by the Greeks, and the centre by the Macedonians, who were different from the Greeks and spoke a language of their own, according to Herodotus a ‘barbarian language’, that is, not Greek. Leaving aside some minor populations, like the Iranic tribes in the eastern part of the Peninsula and certain Celtic tribes in the north-western and central regions, this was the ethnic situation during the Greco-Roman epoch. Hence the question arises: from which of these peoples do the Albanians descend, from which of these languages does the Albanian language descend? In this problem, the Greeks, or the Hellenes as they were called at that time, are automatically excluded as a different people from the Albanians. Likewise excluded are the ancient Macedonians, as a relatively small people and geographically more remote from the Albanian language region, although, because of the territorial affinity, some links cannot be completely denied. Under these circumstances, there are two peoples, the Illyrians and Thracians, who can be considered as the ancestors of the Albanians.

The Illyrians were one of the major peoples of ancient Europe. Leaving aside their distribution in prehistoric times, during the historical period they extended from Istria near Triest in the north-west and from the regions near the banks of the Danube in the north, to the Gulf of Arta in Gameria in the south to a city which at that time, was called Ambria. Thus, the Illyrian tribes inhabited the present regions of Albania together with Qameria, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dalmatia and Croatia, hence, all the eastern seaboard of the Adriatic with its respective hinterland. The Messapians and Iapygians of Apulia in Southern Italy are, by all indications, Illyrian tribes as well. In the east the Illyrian tribes extended up to the banks of the Vardar and Morava rivers in Northern Macedonia, to Kosova, a region which in ancient times was called Dardania, and to a part of present Serbia. In those regions the Illyrians bordered the Thracian tribes and here and there were mixed with them. The Thracians, too, were one of the major peoples of ancient Europe. Herodotus calls them the greatest people next to the Indes. They extended from the borders of the Illyrians in the west up to the shores of the Black Sea in the east, from the Aegean in the south to the Carpathian mountains in the north. Thus they included part of present-day Greece and European Turkey, Bulgaria, Rumania and part of Hungary and Poland. Because of the lack of source material, mentioned above, we are able to discover very little about the fate of these peoples and their component tribes, and the further back we probe into antiquity the more this obscurity deepens. We know, for instance that the concept and name Illyrian came and was spread only after some time, emerging from a population of this name and including tribes with ethnic and linguistic affinity. In Homer’s epics this name does not appear. The names of individual peoples, like those of the Dardanians and the Peonians, who in historical times lived to the north of the Macedonians, appear on the historical scene much earlier than the general name, Illyrians. It is known, also, that under the influence of the Greco-Roman civilization and, especially, during the long period of the domination of the Roman Empire, these ancient peoples of the Balkans were eventually partly hellenized and many of them romanized. In other words, without being wiped out as peoples, they were assimilated, gave up their own language and in some regions adopted the Greek language and even more of them, the Latin language. This took place especially in cities, in administrative and military centres where the Romans had established their garrisons. However in mountain regions this assimilation was not carried out completely. The local population preserved its ethnic character and mother tongue for a longer time. Some of these peoples entirely escaped romanization. Living evidence of this is the Albanian people, who must be the descendant of one of these unromanized peoples or tribes.

The question of the paternity or line of descent of a present-day people from an ancient people, of a known modern language from an extinct ancient language, is quite simple when we have relatively accurate knowledge of the ancient people and their language. But, as we have said, in connection with the Albanians and the Albanian language this problem remains specially difficult. Because of the lack of written documents, the ancient languages of the Balkans are little known or entirely unknown. From the language of the Thracians there are a few inscriptions, from the language of the Illyrians of the Balkans up till now not a single inscription has been found. The inscriptions of the Messapians of Southern Italy can be read but up till now the interpretation of them remains uncertain. From both these languages, Illyrian and Thracian, certain so-called glossa remain, that is, few words quoted by Greek and Roman authors, together with their meanings, given in Greek and Latin. There are also quite a large number of names of places and persons engraved on stone or quoted in texts by classical authors, the majority of them of unclear linguistic significance and meaning, among which modern scholars have found a free field for what are often arbitrary judgements. Thus the two languages in question remain almost unknown by us. We do not know their linguistic structure, grammatical system, or their vocabulary. Under these circumstances the means for comparison are missing. We lack the key to compare the material of the Albanian language with that of the two languages in question.

This being the case, the criterion of the language must be considered together with the geographical and historical situation. From the standpoint of historical geography it is known that the present Albanians inhabit those regions where the Illyrian tribes used to live in ancient times. From the historical point of view, it has been rightly pointed out. as far back as two centuries ago, that there is no fact, no historical reference, to show that the Albanians come from somewhere else, that they settled on this territory at a given historical period, for instance, towards the end of antiquity or during the early mediaeval period. Under these circumstances, common sense urges acceptance of the idea that the Albanian people is native, autochthonous, in these regions, if not as far back as the dawn of prehistoric times, at least since the period of antiquity. These two reasons, that of their inhabiting the former Illyrian territory and that of autochthony, automatically give rise to the idea that the present Albanians are the descendants of the Illyrian tribes of the south and that the Albanian language is the continuation of one of the ancient Illyrian dialects. Indeed it can be said that the burden of the argument falls more heavily on those who deny the Illyrian origin of the Albanians and of their language rather than on those who accept it. In this connection, it cannot be accidental that the name of the Illyrian tribe, the Albanoi, which the astronomer and geographer Ptolemy of Alexandria in Egypt, mentions during the second century of our era in the region between Durres and the Candavia mountains in Central Albania continues to exist in the form of Arbër, Arbën, Arbëresh, Arbënesh, the name by which Albania and the Albanians were known in the Middle Ages, is alive to this day. From the linguistic viewpoint, to these circumstances must be added the fact that the continuity of the names of cities, mountains and rivers of the Albanian territory of the ancient days in their present forms has developed in conformity with the phonetic rules of the Albanian language. These include such comparisons as Scardus – Shar, Scodra – Shkodra, Drivastum – Drisht, Pirustae – Qafa e Prushit, Lissu – Lesh, Isammus – Ishëm, Ishm, Dyrrachium – Durrës, Aulon – Vlonë, Vlorë, Thyamis – Çam and others. This also is evidence of the Illyrian autochthony of the Albanian people, because this development from the ancient forms of these names to the present forms cannot be explained except by means of the Albanian language. It cannot be explained either by means of the Roman or Slav languages or by any other language of the Balkan region. There are also other data from the field of linguistics of the Illyrian continuity, such as the identity between a number of names of early Illyrians and present-day Albanians. Apart from this, those few words which are known from the Illyrian language can be clearly explained by the Albanian language. And many words in Messapian inscriptions can be explained by our language. In this way the date of historical geography and of the language supplement each other. There are also a number of parallels of an ethnographic character which we shall not go into here. From the field of archaeology it is worth mentioning that in certain prehistoric settlements on the Albanian territory a continuity of the material culture can be seen, a continuity from ancient epochs to the early mediaeval period. This fact adds weight to the geographical, historical and linguistic arguments already mentioned.

As regards the Thracians and their language, on the evidence of certain historical and linguistic data (place names with Thracian features), the presence of Thracian elements in the north-western part of the Balkan Peninsula and especially along the southern Adriatic coastal regions was pointed out long ago. They must have long been mixed with Illyrian elements, but we are unable to tell from the Illyrians and the Thracians who were natives and who newcomers. In conclusion, for historical reasons also, one can say that the Illyrian element lies at the basis of the formation of the Albanian ethnos, although there may have been a Thracian component also, but certainly of smaller dimensions. At the present stage of knowledge it is difficult to determine how the process of this ethnic and linguistic formation took place and in what territorial and historical circumstances it took place. The result of the process, which is the Albanian people and their language, can be seen more clearly than the course of development which was traversed until the present situation was brought about.

Eqrem Çabej (1908-1980) was a linguist and academic specialising in the origin of the Albanian language. His name was given to the University of Gjirokastra when it was declared as such at the end of 1991.

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