A Short History of Kosovo (Kosovo)

kosovo map


by Noel Malcolm

The country of Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 so will be 10 years old this year, 2018.

I am a person who measures the world based on personal experience.

  • I knew a Bosnian Muslim woman from the former Yugoslavia named Alijah when I worked at the Auntie’s Bookstore extension in the Davenport Hotel several years ago. She was lovely. She missed Marshal Tito and the security that the dictator enforced. She missed the parades on his birthday, she said.
  • I knew a few Croatians who were studying at Janus Pannonius University in Pecs, Hungary years ago. They were nice too.
  • I have friends, a married English couple who live in Slovenia, and their neighbors sound great. I also took a trip to Slovenia with friends from the University of Pecs, and it was great. Very peaceful and pastoral.
  • And there is my Serbian-American friend L. Parapovich, who used to entertain us reporters on his balcony in McCall, Idaho with giant platters of feta cheese, olives and tomatoes…he was very generous.
  • bridge in KosovoUnfortunately my experiences with Serbian fighters have not been so pleasant. In 1992, While riding a bus from Hungary to Greece on spring break (above), we were stopped in Belgrade by paramilitary with guns. They searched the bus, examined our passports and scared us all to death. They were rude and arrogant and crude. Swaggering. They eventually let us go, and the Hungarians were cool, but we Americans were hyperventilating. We knew the fanatical Serbs weren’t scared of George Herbert Walker Bush Sr. any more than they would be intimidated by Bill Clinton in 1993.
    • Map Above Right: The purple line is our trip from Pecs, Hungary to Polychrono in Greece. Slovenia and Croatia had just declared independence from the former Yugoslavia. Our bus driver opted to go through Bulgaria rather than taking a direct road through Kosovo and Macedonia. Apparently there is a major highway there, but also I think he didn’t want to go through Kosovo.Huge tree in Kosovo city





Indo-European Oatmeal: Sultanas, Nuts, Apricots,Wine Gummies

Indo European languages tree








The first two chapters are like eating a huge bowl of the above. It was glorious; a linguist nerd’s heaven, but I can’t remember all of the individual ingredients because the land and the tribes and the languages changed so much, often in the same sentence. Good thing there won’t be a quiz afterward. These two chapters REALLY needed maps on facing pages AND an Indo-European Language Chart. On every page.

Serbian Bosnia and Albanian language tree


Since Kosovo is just a short sea away from Italy, many of the tribes spoke Latin as a gift from the Roman Empire; others spoke Greek from Byzantine days.

The book does not point out an obvious difference in the Serbo-Croat language. Since the Yugoslav Wars, the Serbians and the Croatians prefer to think they have their own separate language, and perhaps that is the way things are evolving, for languages are dynamic and not static. BUT, when I was in high school and Serbo-Croat was one language shared by two people, the Serbs used the Cyrillic alphabet (the one Russians and Bulgarians use) and the Croats used the Roman alphabet (the one Americans use).

Another obvious difference is that most Croats are Catholic, and most Serbs are Serbian Orthodox, descended from Greek Orthodox, although all were subject to the Pope once. (See my blog on the Holy See for the split, which happened in the 11th century.)

Kosovo's National Library

Kosovo’s National Library

The tribes:

  • Gegs (Northern Albanians)
  • Tosks (Southern Albanians)
  • Cams
  • Labs
  • Huns (Mongolian and proto-Hungarian)
  • Goths (Germanic tribe)
  • Avars (Turikik tribe)
  • Slavs (proto-Serbs and proto-Croats)
  • Vlachs (aka Aromanians or Romanians. The Romanian language has a lot in common with modern Italian.)
  • Bulgars (Turkik tribe)
  • Ilyrians (Western Balkans)–Extinct and their language died with them
  • Thracians (Eastern Balkans)–Extinct and their language also died, but bits were preserved in the Serbian Orthodox Church from AD 500 or so
  • Arnaut (proto-Albanians)
  • Bessi (Thracian Bulgar tribe)

Men of the Mountains

This bridge in Prizren was built in the 1300s, long before America was even a twinkle in Amerigo Vespucci's eye

This bridge in Prizren was built in the 1300s, long before America was even a twinkle in Amerigo Vespucci’s eye

It is thought that the world Albania comes from the Indo-European ALB, meaning ALP. As in, the Alps. Mountains. The Gaelic for Scotland is Albainn, sometimes also called Albania. The Kosovoans and Albanians in Kosovo are compared in this book to the Scots Highlanders. There is a similarity of isolation, pastoral warrior culture, and the independence of mind referred to by several authors as being special to mountain tribes. The Kosovans of old gave a lot of trouble to the Ottoman Turks, whenever the latter tried to seize the former’s weapons. Apparently a man’s weapons devolve upon his Honor and can lead to blood feuds like those referred to by Ishmael Kadare in his writing. I read another book years ago–wish I could remember the name, comparing mountain people all over the globe. They’re often indigenous, often persecuted, and often very stubbornly independent and ferocious. Many times in the book, women became fierce fighters, and not just the men.

One of the flags Kosovo has had over the decades...Hm, sure looks like the flag of Albania.

One of the flags Kosovo has had over the decades…Hm, sure looks like the flag of Albania.

This book took me forever to get through, being packed with dates and battles and ethnic groups. I read from the battle of Kosovo in 1369 or was it 1389? When the Ottoman Turks basically defeated the Kosovo defenders and it became inevitable that they would be assimilated. I read about the Ottoman custom of taking 40 or 50 young boys from villages in areas they had conquered and sending them to Istanbul to make them into the soldiers called Janisseries.  I read about the revolt of the Young Turks in the 1800s. About how that lead to mismanagement of the empire, and the massacre of the Armenians. (In the book on the Popes, I learned that Armenia was majority Christian since around the 300s, which may have been one of the reasons for the genocide.) I learned how the modern Serb narrative is one of continuous oppression by the Turks, BUT how many if not most of the peasants had it better under the Ottomans than they did under the medieval Serbian kingdom.

One thing you have to thank the Ottomans for is the presence of so many Turkish Baths in the Balkans, and beautiful Eastern architecture, right on up into Pecs, Hungary. It’s kind of amazing to me how far the Ottomans and before them the Mongols penetrated into Western Europe–all the way to Vienna.

Ethnic Albanian refugees cook under open skies on Mt. Cicavica, some 40 kilometers (24 miles) northwest of Pristina, Yugoslavia,, on September 24, 1998. According to the AP newswire that day: Serb and Yugoslav forces struck deeper into the last pockets of separatist Kosovo Albanian resistance, despite U.N. and NATO moves that edged open the door for a military strike against them. (AP PHOTO /Marco Di Lauro)

Of course, all history is revisionist, but it was interesting to see how Serb and Albanian historians interpreted it so differently. One thing I could clearly see both groups doing in the book is filtering history through a modern lens; through a nationalistic filter. Nationalism is very different from medieval Europe, or even Renaissance and Classic Restoration Europe. And I should stop saying “Turks” for Ottomans, since the Empire contained as many different nascent “nationalities” as the Roman Empire did.

Another thing you have to thank the Ottomans for is them not having the tradition of the Blood Feud, like the Albanians. So stupid, and so many innocent people lost their lives to this custom. The worst part is that to satisfy a family’s “honor”, you could kill ANY member of the offender’s family, even if they had done nothing to you. And then that person’s relatives would kill another of your relatives. It was estimated that a single blood feud could wipe out up to 600 people!

As I was finishing up this post, I got very sick and ended up in the hospital for 8 weeks. Please forgive me if it seems to end abruptly, because I know I had a concluding paragraph, but I can’t remember it.

Book Rating: Five stars over the Balkans.