A Short History of Kosovo (Kosovo)

kosovo map

by Noel Malcolm

If you want to learn about the history of the Balkans, this is an enjoyable though very slow way to go. That’s not a criticism of the writer, by the way–there is a lot to get through here.

Note: The country of Kosovo was created when it declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

The first two chapters of this history are a glorious, confused dream for linguist nerds like me as they list all the tribes who passed through and lived in the area, and all the languages spoken there. I wanted to roll in the pages like a dog in dead fish. (However, they really could have used a few maps on facing pages plus an Indo-European language tree like the one I’ve imported into this blog. You’re welcome. 😉

Serbian Bosnia and Albanian language tree

But back to the tribes: Since Kosovo is just a short sea away from Italy, many groups in the area spoke Latin as a gift from the Roman Empire; others were Greek speakers from Byzantine days. The Serbs and the Croats spoke basically the same Slavic language but wrote it differently; Serbian uses the Cyrillic alphabet and Croatian uses the Roman. The book also notes that although the two ethnicities were once subject to the Pope, most Croats are now Roman Catholic, and most Serbs are Serbian Orthodox, from the Greek Orthodox. (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:

  • Arnaut (proto-Albanians)
  • Avars (Turikik tribe)
  • Bessi (Thracian Bulgars)
  • Bulgars (Turkik tribe)
  • Cams
  • Gegs (Northern Albanians)
  • Goths (Germanic tribe)
  • Huns (Mongolian and proto-Hungarian)
  • Ilyrians (Western Balkans)
    • –Extinct, as is their language
  • Labs
  • Thracians (Eastern Balkans)
    • –Extinct, but bits of their language were preserved in the formal liturgy of the Serbian Orthodox Church from approximately AD 500
  • Tosks (Southern Albanians)
  • Slavs (proto-Serbs and proto-Croats)
  • Vlachs (Aromanians/Romanians)

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

The fascinating facts just keep on coming in this book, and the next part starts with the notion that the word “Albania” comes from the Indo-European “Alb”, meaning “Alp.” The author then draws a parallel between the Highland people of Scotland–“Albainn” in Gaelic–and the ethnic Albanians and Kosovars. He claims a similarity of isolation, pastoral warrior culture, and the independence of mind referred to as being particular to mountain tribes. For example, in mountain culture, women often become fierce fighters along with their men. For another example, historically speaking, the Kosovans were known for giving their Ottoman Turkish overlords hell, whenever the latter tried to seize the former’s weapons. In Kosovar culture, a man’s weapons represent his honor and prying them out of his living hands can lead to blood feuds like those in the novels of excellent Albanian writer Ishmael Kadare. (In a blood feud, you can kill ANY member of the offender’s family, even if they have done nothing to you and yours. It is estimated that a single blood feud could wipe out up to 600 people!)

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.

Kosovo: The Empire Years

The middle chapters of this book took forever to read, being as crammed with dates and battles and ethnic groups as a Tokyo subway at rush hour. Fortunately there is only one crucial date to remember: The Battle of Kosovo in 1389, when the Ottoman Turks defeated an army led by the Serbian prince making assimilation inevitable. From there the book sweeps you into the Empire years: and first into the formation of the soldiers called Janissaries. Standard operating procedure for Ottoman soldiers was to take 50 young boys from the villages in conquered areas and send them to Istanbul to be trained to fight for their invaders. The author makes the case that it wasn’t as bad as it sounds to American ears, since the peasants actually had it better under the Ottomans than under the medieval Serbian kingdom. And the peasants in Kosovo weren’t alone: you can find Turkish Baths and Mughal doors all over Eastern Europe and all the way to Vienna.

But no Empire lasts forever.  I next read about the revolt of the Young Turks in the 1800s. About the growing mismanagement of the empire, and the massacre of the Armenians. This slaughter may have had its root in religious differences, since the Armenians had been majority Christian since the year 300.

Revisionist History
I appreciated that the author, being neither Kosovo Albanian nor Kosovo Serb, didn’t have a dog in this fight–the fight to interpret history through our modern lens. Everyone does it, of course. According to the author, the modern majority Serb narrative is one of continuous oppression by the Turks, while the story the Albanians tell is much different. Yet, as the author points out, nationalism is really a modern concept that you can’t apply backwards to history. He does have an opinion on the war in the former Yugoslavia that took place between Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia, and that opinion is that the Serbs were definitely in the wrong.

Sometimes when an author states his strong opinion as fact, I question his judgment. But in this case, I agreed. He presented so many facts. So many true facts. I found myself wishing I had had this book as an exchange student to Pecs, Hungary, in 1991 during the war. Like many, or dare I even say most Americans at that time I didn’t understand why these white Europeans were fighting each other. Well, I do now.

Book Rating: Five stars over the Balkans.