After having provided readers with different aspects and facts about the ethno-cultural origins of the Arvanites of Greece, the attention will now be turned towards the little-known Arbëresh community in Italy. When visiting Southern Italy, it may come as a surprise to many people that the southern tip of Italy contains scores of ethno-lingual Albanian settlements in the regions of Abruzzo, Apulia, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, Molise and Sicily numbering approximately 300,000 strong and vibrant Albanian-speaking community.
Arbëresh in itself is a synonym of Albanian both in etymological and ethnical terms. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the term “Arbëresh denotes both their dialect and their ethnic origins; it is derived from the word Arbëria, the name by which Albania was known during the Middle Ages.”
Following the invasion of the Balkan peninsula by the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century, the Albanians - led by the Albanian feudal lord and former Ottoman military commander, Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg - spearheaded a rebellion under the banner of the League of Lezhë against the Ottomans. This uprising lasted from 1444 until Skanderbeg’s death in 1468. Although there were sporadic uprisings thereafter, they never reached the scope and magnitude demonstrated by Skanderbeg.
The end of the Albanian rebellion resulted in an exodus of Albanians from their native homeland, as the Ottoman Empire secured control of territories composing modern-day Albania. The family and relatives of Skanderbeg, and many other fellow Albanians fleeing from the Ottomans, were given refuge by The Kingdom of Naples and enjoyed the right to settle villages in Southern Italy.
Believing that their presence would be short-lived and their return to their homeland a near reality, they would hardly imagine that their exodus to Southern Italy would be permanent and continue for more than 500 years.
Like the Arvanites of Greece, the Arbëresh of Italy have maintained and preserved in a genuine, coherent and profound manner their linguistic heritage and cultural affiliation with the Albanians on the other side of the Adriatic Sea. This continuity is very much in the spirit of the UNESCO constitution. This heritage is indeed an intangible common heritage of mankind.
What is striking and noticeable with the Arbëresh community in Italy is their resolve and commitment to cultivate and embrace their ethnic, religious and linguistic heritage. In many Arbëresh settlements, road signs are bilingual - in Albanian/Arbëresh and in Italian - and Albanian is spoken with pride, if not fluently, by the inhabitants.
This is best expressed in the settlements of Piana degli Albanesi/Hora e Arbëreshëvet (Palermo, Sicily), Greci/Katundi (Avellino, Campania), Barile/Barilli (Potenza, Basilicata), Civita/Çifti (Cosenza, Calabria) and Casalvecchio di Puglia/Kazallveqi (Foggia, Puglia), to name but a few, scattered across Southern Italy.
The Arbëresh community also have their own church, the Italo-Albanian Church, that remains an Eastern-rite member of the Roman Catholic communion. The celebration of Easter (Pashkët), also known as the Arbëreshë Easter’s Day, remains an important festive and spiritual occasion to commemorate their religious heritage, traditional customs and to proudly display the Albanian flag that Skanderbeg waved during the Albanian rebellion against the Ottoman Empire. The website/blog CityXcape depicts and portrays the Arbëreshë Easter’s Day in Piana degli Albanesi in a festive manner:
Festoons, fronds, embroidered curtains that adorn the balconies along the main street. Right along this path, the magnificent women’s procession parades in the splendid and famous traditional costume – rich in gold embroidery on precious fabrics, adorned with accessories that are handed down in the various families from mother to daughter.
Influenced by both Albanian and Italian cuisine, the Arbëresh gastronomt likewise remains a treasured and authentic component of the Arbëresh community’s DNA. The most famous dishes being, among others, Strangujët, Kanojët, Tumacë me tulë and Panaret. The Albanian food heritage has been kept alive by the Arbëresh.
How the Arbëresh community has succeeded in preserving their linguistic, ethnic, religious and cultural heritage for more than 500 years remains, what some intellectual voices consider. an ‘anthropological miracle’. Indeed, it constitutes a noble expression of the metaphysical right to one’s identity. We are what we are and we must have the freedom to express it – while respecting everyone else’s right to “do their thing”.
The determination and resolve of the Arbëresh community, despite their small number, to reinvigorate and preserve with dedication and pride their heritage is laudable and praiseworthy. Perhaps, the dream of returning one day back to Albania made the Arbëresh community resilient to assimilation to the Italian general culture, given that their presence in Southern Italy would be temporary.
Law number 482/99, under the Italian linguistic minorities law, protects the language and culture of historic minorities including the Albanian language. But often, legislation in itself does not suffice to protect an ethnic, cultural, religious and/or linguistic minority from disappearing or being absorbed into the ‘majority culture’ of the country that they have emigrated to.
Pride, honour, self-awareness and a sense of belonging remain imperative to preserve and cherish one’s heritage that can, later on, be passed on to future generations. This consciousness is not xenophobic, not directed against anyone. Patriotism is caritas patriae (Cicero). It is love of one’s history and heritage. It is a positive, optimistic attribute that should be cherished as an expression of joie de vivre.
The Arbëresh of Italy have truly honoured this commitment.
Before the end of the month, I plan to watch the Netflix movie Arbëria, which is devoted to the Arbëresh community in Italy. I also invite everyone to watch the movie as it may serve as a source of inspiration for other communities that live distant and far away from their home societies on how to best preserve their identities while simultaneously remaining fully integrated citizens in their host countries.