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The Middle Ages in Albania is that period that starts after the region that is now Albania in the Byzantine Empire, until their incorporation in the Ottoman Empire. When the Roman Empire divided into east and west in 395, the territories of modern Albania became part of the Byzantine Empire. After that Albanian Principalities were created in all the territory, while all of them were unified in League of Lezha. The fall of the league in 1481, signifies the total occupation of Albania by the Ottoman Empire, thus giving an end to the Middle Ages.
After the region fell to the Romans in 168 BC it became part of Epirus nova that was in turn part of the Roman province of Macedonia.Later it was part of provinces of the Byzantine empire called Themes.
In History written in 1079–1080, Byzantine historian Michael Attaliates referred to the Albanoi as having taken part in a revolt against Constantinople in 1043 and to the Arbanitai as subjects of the duke of Dyrrachium. It is disputed, however, whether that refers to Albanians in an ethnic sense.
In the first decades under Byzantine rule (until 461), Epirus nova 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 Roman territories. In the 4th century, barbarian tribes began to prey upon the Roman Empire. The Germanic Goths and Asiatic Huns were the first to arrive, invading in mid-century; the Avars attacked in AD. 570; and the Slavic Serbs and Croats invaded in the early 7th century. About fifty years later, the Bulgars conquered much of the Balkan Peninsula and extended their domain to the lowlands of what is now central Albania.In general, the invaders destroyed or weakened Roman and Byzantine cultural centers in the lands that would become Albania.
The territory of modern Albania was part of the Bulgarian Empire during certain periods in the Middle Ages and some parts in what is now eastern Albania were populated and ruled by the Bulgarians for centuries. Most Albania became part of the First Empire in the early 840s during the reign of Khan Presian. Some coastal towns such as Drach remained in the hands of the Byzantines for most of that period. The castles of the inner mountainous country remained one of the last Bulgarian strongholds to be conquered by the Byzantines in 1018/1019 during the fall of the First Bulgarian Empire. During the Byzantine rule Albania was one of the centres of a major Bulgarian uprising. The last Bulgarian Emperor to govern the whole territory was Ivan Asen II (1218–1241) but after his successors the Bulgarian rule diminished. In 1040 an uprising broke out in the area around Durrës under the leadership of the soldier Tihomir following the discontent of the Bulgarian population by the heavy taxes required by the Byzantine administration. Soon the rebellion encompassed the whole of Albania and the rebels joined forces with Peter Delyan who claimed to have been a successor of Samuil. Following the defeat of the Bulgarians in 1041 the Byzantines restored their control over Albania. In 1072 another uprising broke out under Georgi Voiteh but it was also crushed.
The Serbs controlled parts of what is now northern and eastern Albania toward the end of the 12th century. In 1204, after Western crusaders sacked Constantinople, Venice won nominal control over Albania and the Epirus region of northern Greece and took possession of Durrës. A prince from the overthrown Byzantine ruling family, Michael Comnenus, made alliances with Albanian chiefs and drove the Venetians from lands that now make up southern Albania and northern Greece, and in 1204 he set up an independent principality, the Despotate of Epirus, with Ioannina in northwest Greece) as its capital. In 1272 the king of Naples, Charles I of Anjou, occupied Durrës and formed an Albanian kingdom that would last for a century. Internal power struggles further weakened the Byzantine Empire in the 14th century, enabling the Serbs' most powerful medieval ruler, Stefan Dusan, to establish a short-lived empire that included all of Albania except Durrës.
The first proto-Albanian state in Middle Ages was established in the late twelfth century. The proclamation of the Principality of Arbër of Arberia, in the north of present-day Albania, with Kruja as the capital took place on 1190. As the founder of this state is known Progoni and later on Gjini and Dhimiter. Nderfandina is known as the most important center of this principality. For this was spoken clearly by the emblem of Arber found carved on a stone in the Catholic Church of Saint Maria. After the fall of Progon Dynasty the principality came under Grigor Kamona and Gulam of Albania. Finally the Principality was dissolved on 1255. The best period of the principality was under Dhimiter Progoni. Dhimitër Progoni was the third and the last Prince of Albania from the Progon Dynasty, reigning between 1208 and 1216. He succeeded his brother Gjin and brought the principality to its climax. Western sources of the time attribute him the titles judex (judge) and princeps Arbanorum (prince of the Albanians), while Byzantine records refer to him as megas archon (grand archon). Marrying Komnena, daughter of the Serbian Prince Stefan Nemanja and granddaughter of the Byzantine Emperor Alexios III Angelos, he also earned the exalted Byzantine title panhypersebast. Dhimitër’s marriage with Nemanja’s daughter did not rule out the risk of a Serbian expansion toward the Albanian domains. However, in 1204, the most serious threat came from the Venetian Duchy of Durrës, a Latin entity formed after the Fourth Crusade in the former territories of the Byzantine Empire. In search for allies, Dhimitër signed in 1209 a treaty with the Republic of Raguza and began negotiations with Pope Innocent III regarding his and his subjects’ conversion to Catholicism. This is considered a tactful move, which Dhimitër undertook to establish ties with Western Europe against Venice. Dhimitër had no son to succeed him. His wife, Komnena, married an Albanian noble, Grigor Kamona, who later became Prince of Albania. Grigor Kamona saw a decadence of the principality and was succeeded by his son-in-law, Gulam. Under Gulam's rule, the principality seized to exist.
After the fall of the Principality of Arber in its territories and in territories captured by the Despotate of Epiros was created the Kingdom of Albania, which was established by Charles of Anjou. He took the title of King of Albania in February, 1272. The kingdom extended from Durazzo (modern Durrës) south along the coast to Cape Linguetta, with vaguely defined borders in the interior. A Byzantine counter-offensive soon ensued, which drove the Angevins out of the interior by 1281. The Sicilian Vespers further weakened the position of Charles, and the Kingdom was soon reduced by the Epirotes to a small area around Durrës. The Angevins held out here, however, until 1368, when the city was captured by Karl Thopia.
The 14th century and the beginning of the fifteenth century was the period in which, in Albania were created sovereign principalities, under Albanian noblemen. Those principalities were created between the fall of the Serbian Empire and the Ottoman invasion of Albania.
In the summer of 1358, Nikephoros II Orsini, the last despot of Epirus of the Orsini dynasty, fought against the Albanian chieftains in Acheloos, Acarnania. The Albanian chieftains won the war and they managed to create two new states in the southern territories of the Despotate of Epirus. Because a number of Albanian lords actively supported the successful Serbian campaign in Thessaly and Epirus, the Serbian Tsar granded them specific regions and offered them the Byzantine title of despotes in order to secure their loyalty.
The two Albanian lead states were: the first with its capital in Arta was under the Albanian nobleman Peter Losha, and the second, centered in Angelokastron, was ruled by Gjin Bua Shpata. After the death of Peter Losha in 1374, the Albanian despotates of Arta and Angelocastron were united under the rule of Despot Gjin Bua Shpata. The territory of this despotate was from the Corinth Gulf to Acheron River in the North, neighboring with the Principality of Gjon Zenebishti, another state created in the area of the Despotate of Epirus.
From 1335 until 1432 in these parts of Albania were created four main principalities. The first of them was the Muzakaj Principality of Berat, created in 1335 in Berat and Myzeqe. The most powerful was the Princedom of Albania, formed after the disestablishment of Kingdom of Albania, by Karl Thopia. The principality changed hands between the Thopia dynasty and the Balsha dynasty, until 1392, when it was occupied by the Ottoman Empire. When Skanderbeg liberated Kruja and reorganised the Principality of Kastrioti, the descendant of Gjergj Thopia, Andrea II Thopia, managed to regain control of the Princedom. Finally, it was united with other Albanian Principalities forming the League of Lezha in 1444. Another principality was that of Kastrioti, created by Gjon Kastrioti, and later captured by the Ottoman Empire. Finally it was liberated by the national hero of Albania, George Kastrioti Skanderbeg. The Principality of Dukagjini extended from the Malësia region to Pristina in Kosovo.
Being under pressure by the Ottoman Empire, the Albanian Principalities, were united in a confederation, created in the Assembly of Lezha in 2 March 1444. The league was led by George Kastrioti Skanderbeg and after his death by Lekë Dukagjini. Skanderbeg organized a meeting of Albanian nobles, the Arianits, Dukagjins, Spani, Thopias, Muzakas, and the leaders of the free Albanian principalities from the high mountains, in the town of Lezhë, where the nobles agreed to fight together for mutual gain against the common Turkish enemy and they voted Skanderbeg as their suzerain chief. The League of Lezhë was a confederation and each principality kept its sovereignty. In the light of the modern geopolitical science, the League of Lezhë represented an attempt to form a state union. In fact, this was a federation of independent rulers who undertook the duty to follow a common foreign policy, to defend jointly their independence and recruiting their allied armed forces. Naturally, it all required a collective budget for covering the military expenditures and each family contributed their mite to the common funds of the League. At the same time, each clan kept its possessions, its autonomy in solving the internal problems of its own estate. The formation and functioning of the League, of which George Kastrioti was the supreme feudal lord or suzerain, was the most significant attempt to build up an all-Albanian resistance against the Ottoman occupation and, simultaneously, an effort to create, for the span of its short-lived functioning, of some sort of a unified Albanian state. Under Skanderbeg's command the Albanian forces marched east capturing the cities of Dibra and Ohrid. For 25 years, from 1443 – 1468, Skanderbeg's 10,000 men army marched through Ottoman territory winning victory after victory against the consistently larger and better supplied Ottoman forces. Threatened by Ottoman advances in their homeland, Hungary, and later Naples and Venice – their former enemy -, provided the financial backbone and support for Skanderbeg's army. On 14 May 1450, an Ottoman army, larger than any previous force encountered by Skanderbeg or his men, stormed and overwhelmed the castle of the city of Kruja. This city was particularly symbolic to Skanderbeg because he had been appointed suba of Kruja in 1438 by the Ottomans. According to the Chronicles of Ragusa (also known as the Chronicles of Dubrovnik), the fighting lasted four months and thousands of Albanian soldiers lost their lives. Even so, the Ottoman forces were unable to capture the city and had no choice but to retreat before winter set in. In June of 1446, Mehmed II, known as "the conqueror", led an army of 150,000 soldiers back to Kruja and massacred the Albanian forces. Skanderbeg's death in 1468 did not end the struggle for independence, and fighting continued until 1481, under Lekë Dukagjini, when the Albanian lands were forced to succumb to the superior Ottoman armies.
Since the 1st and 2nd century AD, Christianity had become the established religion in Byzantium, supplanting pagan polytheism and eclipsing for the most part the humanistic world outlook and institutions inherited from the Greek and Roman civilizations. But, though the country was in the fold of Byzantium, Christians in the region remained under the jurisdiction of the Roman pope until 732. In that year the iconoclast Byzantine emperor Leo III, angered by archbishops of the region because they had supported Rome in the Iconoclastic Controversy, detached the church of the province from the Roman pope and placed it under the patriarch of Constantinople. When the Christian church split in 1054 between the East and Rome,the region of southern Albania retained its ties to Constantinople while the north reverted to the jurisdiction of Rome. This split in marked the first significant religious fragmentation of the country.
In the latter part of the Middle Ages, Albanian urban society reached a high point of development. Foreign commerce flourished to such an extent that leading Albanian merchants had their own agencies in Venice, Ragusa (modern Dubrovnik, Croatia), and Thessalonica (now Thessaloniki, Greece). The prosperity of the cities also stimulated the development of education and the arts. Albanian, however, was not the language used in schools, churches, and official government transactions. Instead, Greek and Latin, which had the powerful support of the state and the church, were the official languages of culture and literature. The new administrative system of the themes, or military provinces created by the Byzantine Empire, contributed to the eventual rise of feudalism in Albania, as peasant soldiers who served military lords became serfs on their landed estates. Among the leading families of the Albanian feudal nobility were the Topia, Balsha, Shpata, Muzaka, Araniti, Dukagjini, and Kastrioti. The first three of these rose to become rulers of principalities that were practically independent of Byzantium.