From Lonely Planet Guide Books (Australia)
The Illyrians, ancestors of today's Albanians, occupied the western Balkans in the 2nd millennium BC, and a convoy of interested warring states followed. The Greeks arrived in the 7th century BC, set up self governing colonies and in the main traded peacefully with the Illyrians, who set up their own tribal states by the 4th century BC. The Greeks took over the south, and still have a claim on it today. The expanding Roman Empire came to blows with an expanding Illyrian Empire based around Shkodra in present day northern Albania, and the Illyrians came off the worse after the Romans sent 200 warships in 228 BC. The Romans spread their rule to the whole of the Balkans by 167 BC, and in the main Illyria enjoyed peace and prosperity, as long as you weren't one of the slaves working on the agricultural estates.
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When the Romans couldn't hold on any longer, the Visigoths, Huns, Ostrogoths and Slavs salivating outside city limits struck poses then compared armies during the 5th and 6th centuries AD. In the 11th century, the Byzantines, Bulgarians and Normans squabbled over the northern region of Illyria, which, before Roman times, had stretched north to the Danube. Serbia, the Turks under the Ottoman Empire and even the Venetians all came and stayed, at least in parts of Illyria, but in 1479 the Ottomans invaded and ruled until 1912, letting the region languish as the most backward part of Europe. In 1878, the Albanian League at Prizen (in present day Kosovo, Yugoslavia) began a struggle for autonomy that continues today. The Turkish army squashed the first glimmers of independence in 1881, but further uprisings between 1910 and 1912 culminated in the declaration of independence and the formation of a provincial government led by Ismail Qemali. The London Ambassadors' Conference of 1913, however, put paid to aspirations of independence by handing Kosova, (you're less likely to cause offence if you call it Kosova) - nearly half of Albania - over to the Serbs.
WWI temporarily wiped away further moves for independence as Albania was occupied by Greece, Serbia, France, Italy and Austria-Hungary in succession. From 1920 to 1939 the country governed itself, but Ahmet Zogu, representing the landed aristocracy, went to bed with Mussolini's Italy. That move sprang back to hit him in the face when the Italians invaded at the outbreak of WWII. The communists, under Enver Hoxha, led the resistance against Italy and, after 1943, Germany. By October 1944 they'd thrown the Germans out, the only East European nation to do so without the assistance of Soviet troops. The communists consolidated power after the war, and proclaimed the People's Republic of Albania in 1946.
Two years later the country broke off relations with Yugoslavia and allied itself with Stalin's USSR. Britain and the USA backed a few Balkan-style Bay of Pigs operations - landings by right-wing Albanian émigrés, which nevertheless failed to topple the communists. When Khruschchev demanded submarine bases in 1960, Albania broke off diplomatic relations. After the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Albania left the Warsaw Pact altogether. It embarked on a self-reliant defence policy that has left the country littered with around 750,000 igloo-shaped concrete bunkers and pillboxes, some of which have since been painted in bright colours. After the break with the USSR in 1960, Albania turned toward China for its inspiration, even embarking on its own cultural revolution in 1966-67. Albania's special relationship with China ended in 1978.
Hoxha died in 1985, and the new leader, Ramiz Alia, embarked on a liberalisation program and strengthened Albania's ties abroad. By early 1990 the collapse of communism in most of Eastern Europe had created a sense of expectation in Albania, and after student demonstrations in December the government agreed to allow opposition parties to exist. The communists won the 1991 elections, but by mid-May a general strike forced the ruling Socialist Party into a coalition with the opposition Democrats. Central economic planning was now on the skids, factories ceased production and the food distribution network broke down. By late 1991 the country faced chaos, and food riots broke out in December. The EU, fearful of a refugee crisis, stepped up economic aid, and the Italian army set up a large military base south of Durrës to supervise food shipments.
The 1992 elections ended 47 years of communist rule, and the Democratic Party wasted no time in launching a witch hunt against former communists and party officials. By 1993, Amnesty International was prompted to condemn the increasing human rights violations in the country. Albania signed a military agreement with Turkey in 1992 and joined the Islamic Conference Association in a move to counter Greek territorial claims to southern Albania (which the Greeks call Northern Epiros). The mid to late 90s saw quick changes in prime ministers and presidents as the new democracy stumbled and nearly collapsed, and boatloads of refugees have sporadically fled and washed up on Italy's beaches as the political climate at home became sticky. Successive leaders have consistently denounced Serbian repression of the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo, the last place where there is still fighting in Europe during the dying days of the 20th century.
Full country name: Republic of Albania
Area: 27,748 sq km (10,822 sq mi)
Population: 3.3 million
Capital city: Tirana (pop: 400,000)
People: Albanians, with Greek, Vlach, Macedonian and Gypsy minorities
Religion: Sunni Muslim (70%), Albanian Orthodox (20%), Roman Catholic (10%)
Head of State: President Rexhep Meidani
GDP: US$4.4 billion
GDP per head: US$1290
Major industries: Cement, chemicals, food processing, hydropower, mining, oil, textiles and clothing, timber
Major trading partners: Greece, Italy, Macedonia, USA
Polyphony is a southern Albanian tradition dating back to ancient Illyrian times, involving blending several independent vocal or instrumental parts. The songs usually have epic lyrical or historical themes, and may be slow and sombre with beautiful harmonies or include yodelling when it really starts whooping up. There is little Albanian cinema, but the most notable recent film is Lamerica, a stark portrayal of post-communist Albanian life. Before written Albanian was standardised in 1909, there was very little literature. Fan Noli, who died in 1965, was the giant of 20th century Albanian literature. Many of his own works were based on religious themes, but the introductions he wrote to his translations of Cervantes, Shakespeare, Ibsen and Omar Khayyám established him as the country's foremost literary critic. Albania's best known contemporary writer is Ismail Kadare, who fled the country's police state in 1990. His work has been translated into 40 languages.
Albanian (Shqipja) is an Indo-European language with many Latin, Slavonic and modern Greek words. It has two main forms, Tosk and Gheg, which diverged about 1000 years ago. In 1972 the Congress of Orthography established a unified written language, which is now universally accepted for both languages. Italian is useful for travel in Albania; many Albanians learned it before 1943, but others have picked it up by watching Italian TV stations or through recent trips to Italy.
Traditionally, Albania has been 70% Sunni Muslim, 10% Roman Catholic (mostly in the north) and 20% Albanian Orthodox, making it the only European country to have a Muslim majority. From 1967 to 1990 it was also the only officially atheist state in the world, and many churches were converted into cinemas and theatres. The spiritual vacuum left after the fall of communism has in part been filled by US evangelists, but new churches and mosques are springing up all over the country.
Albanian food has been strongly influenced by Turkish food. Grilled meats like shishqebap (shish kebab), romsteak (minced meat patties) and qofte (meat balls) are common dishes. Popular local dishes are çonlek (meat and onion stew), fërges (a rich beef stew), rosto me salcë kosi (roast beef with sour cream) and tave kosi (mutton with yoghurt). Lunch is the main meal, although eating out in the evening in Tirana is increasingly common. Ice cream (akullore) is very popular, and the coffee is either kafe turke and strong enough to walk over to your table by itself, or kafe ekspres (espresso). The white wine is usually better than the vinegary red, and other local drops are raki (brandy), konjak (cognac), uzo (an aniseed flavoured liqueur like Greek ouzo) and various fruit liqueurs. If you're taken to a bar, always offer to pay. Your Albanian host will rarely let you, but your gesture gains your host 'face' in front of others.
Ismail Kadare's The Palace of Dreams is a vision of totalitarianism with echoes of Kafka and Borges. Agents of the Palace of Dreams control the empire by systematically collecting the dreams of its populace.
Albania: From Anarchy to a Balkan Identity by Miranda Vickers and James Pettifer, looks behind former President Enver Hoxha's isolationist policies and examines the momentous events that led to the country's transition to a parliamentary government.
Anton Logoreci's Albanians is a well balanced and readable account of Albanian history up to 1987.
Biografi by Lloyd Jones is a fanciful story set in the immediate post-communist era, involving the search for Enver Hoxha's alleged double.
A clear, insightful interpretation of the collapse of communism throughout the late 80s is Timothy Garton Ash's We the People.
June Emerson's Albania: The Search for the Eagle's Song is a picture of what it was like to visit Albania just before 1990.
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