I have always entertained a genuine interest in exploring the roots of the Albanian nation and the genesis of Albanian history through the millennia to the pre-history of the Illyrian peoples. I have come to understand that for historical and political reasons, the Albanian peoples remain divided from a geographical standpoint as there are in fact more Albanians residing in the Balkans outside the borders of the state of Albania than reside within the country itself. The Albanians live in large numbers in Kosovo, North Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, even in Southern Italy, Turkey and Greece. Smaller communities can be found in other countries in south-east Europe such as Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine.
Among the list of settlements with an indigenous Albanian population, there is one Albanian community that has truly intrigued me for many years. That is the Arvanites, the Albanians of Peloponnese, Morea, Boeotia and the Attica regions of Greece. I recall once googling the geographical distribution of the Albanian language and I was surprised to learn that areas around Athens, and Athens itself, have a large Albanian-speaking community. The exact number of the Albanian community in Central Greece, who speaks Arvanitika (Albanian Tosk dialect), is difficult to determine, but they certainly number in the hundreds of thousands.
According to a group of scholars from Leiden University1, the Arvanites have had a documented presence in Greece since the 14th century AD and have traditionally inhabited the Greek countryside. Other scholars claim the Arvanites settled much earlier, but as the subject of the present essay does not concern this subject, I will leave it up to experts in the field to determine the demographics of Arvanite settlements in Greece.
There is little doubt or ambiguity regarding the valuable contributions of the Arvanites and their role in the formation of Greek society and the establishment of the first Hellenic Republic in 1822 According to scholars such as Arben llala2, who wrote a book funded by the Ministry of Culture of North Macedonia on the origins of the Arvanites, members of the Arvanite community held numerous high-ranking political (even Prime Ministers) and military positions. The Arvanites were worthy and earnest citizens of Greece and Avantika was widely spoken in the country.
It is recorded that when Greece became a kingdom in 1832 and King Otto (Bavarian prince) became the monarch, foreign visitors did not expect that a non-Greek speaking community would in fact exist in Greece. “Was I really on Greek soil, among Greeks? Not really. The bare rock of Hydra (island), the nearby islands such as Spetses Poros, Kastri and Kranidhi were occupied by Arvanite Albanians,” said the German philological archaeologist Ludwig Ross (1806-1859).
The French archaeologist Edmond About described Athens in the following words3:“Athens itself, when founded, was only an Albanian village. Every night when the sun goes down, you meet Albanian couples around Athens who return from fieldwork.” For the Scottish historian George Finlay, “Marathon, Plates, Leucter, Salamis, Mandini, Ira and Olimbi are no longer inhabited by Greeks, but by Albanians,” he said.4
With the territorial expansion of Greece and the demise of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th and 20th centuries, Greece would acquire territories with larger communities of Greek-speaking populations and non-Arvanite communities. This would diminish the influence and role that the Arvanites previously had in the Greek world, as the Greek majority population grew and a Greek-dominant culture emerged. Inevitably, with the 1923 Lausanne Treaty and the Greek-Turkish population exchanges that ensued, this trend would only consolidate and adversely affect the representation of the Arvanites in the social and political spheres.
Today, seven centuries after the recorded presence of Arvanites in Greece, the Arvanites still preserve and and are in the process of revitalizing their ethnic, cultural and linguistic identities. A quick search on YouTube provides you with a spectrum of Arvanite songs that are being sung by the population across different villages of Greece. During the 1998-99 armed conflict in Kosovo, the Arvanite publicist, historian and lawyer, Aristidh Kola, vehemently championed the cause of external self-determination for the Kosovo Albanians.
I am delighted to see that international scholars have started to discover the presence of the Arvanite community in Greece and its importance to contemporary Greek culture and collective memory: For Linguistics Professor at the University of Chicago5, Eric Pratt Hamp, “Arvanitika has a unique contribution with a special richness to many important areas, and Greece is very lucky to have this rich source in its land and among its citizens.”
Numerous Greek scholars also acknowledged the origins of the fustanella, the stiff white kilt used by Greek soldiers guarding the Greek Parliament in Athens, can be traced back to the Arvanites who wore them for centuries in Central Greece.
As relations between Greece and Albania can be tense politically on occasions, here is an opportunity for both Greeks and Albanians to build bridges and overcome political polarizations. A shared understanding of the past, is necessary for building a future defined by trust, solidarity and confidence. Greeks and Albanians have much more in common than they think. The sooner we all realise what unites us, the more obvious will the path to a lasting friendship between two proud and historical peoples be.
Preserving and reviving the Arvanite culture and the specific Arvanite ethnic and linguistic identity is very much in the spirit of the UNESCO constitution because they constitute the intangible heritage of humankind. Celebrating this heritage should be perceived as a priority for the 21st century.
1 Bintliff, J.L.; Brown K.S., Hamilakis Y. (2003) The ethnoarchaeology of a 'passive' ethnicity: The Arvanites of Central Greece.
2 Llalla, P. A. (2021) Arvanites. The Founders of Modern Greece. Myths of the Greek historiography., page 33.
3 Ibid, page 34.
4 Ibid, page 34.
5 Ibid, page 35.