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Sicilian Peoples: The Albanians
by Vincenzo Salerno

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Some Terms
Angevins - People and dynasty of Anjou in France.
Aragonese - People and dynasty of Aragon in northeastern Spain.
Byzantine - Pertaining to Byzantium or its culture. Relating to medieval successor of the Eastern Roman Empire until 15th century.
Constantinople - Later name for Byzantium, city founded by Greeks on the Bosporus strait.
Islam - Religion founded by Muhammad (570-632) in Arabia as Prophet of Allah (God), whose message is revealed in the Koran. Islam is Arabic for "surrender" or "submission."
Latin - Language of Rome, also Italic culture of Rome, the Western Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church.
Orthodoxy - Relating to the original Christian Church and its traditional teachings maintained in the East, as opposed to the Roman Catholic Church of the West.
Roman Catholic - Church of Rome, particularly following the Schism of 1054.


Scanderbeg. Painting in Monreale Abbey collection.Albania was anciently inhabited by a people called the Illyrians and became a province of the Roman Empire. Later, as part of the Byzantine Empire, it was Orthodox in faith. The peoples north of the Shkumbi River became identified as Ghegs and those to the south as Tosks, with different dialects spoken in each region. In the Middle Ages, Goths, Bulgars, Slavs and even Italo-Normans invaded Albania. By the fourteenth century, Albania was part of a sovereign Serbian kingdom that included other Balkan regions ruled by Stefan Dushan with the support of local lords such as, in Middle Albania, Gjon Kastrioti. By 1400, the menace from Turkish expansion was becoming serious. Constantinople fell in 1453, an event which according to some historians marks the end of the "Middle Ages."

An Albanian resistance to foreign domination coincided with Ottoman expansion in the Balkans. This was led by the Albanian patriot Gjergi (George) Kastrioti "Scanderbeg," son of Gjon. Across the Adriatic, Scanderbeg found support from Pope Pius II, the Venetians, and particularly Alfonso, King of Aragon, Naples and Sicily (died 1458). On several occasions, the Neapolitan kings hired Albanians as mercenaries

Despite heroic efforts, Albania fell to the Turks, and Islam was widely introduced in the region. In Italy, Alfonso and his successors offered refuge to thousands of Albanians. Scanderbeg himself died in 1468, and in the decades to follow waves of refugees arrived in southern Italy, particularly in Calabria. A few were nobles and some had been soldiers, while others were clergy, farmers or craftsmen - all in search of a better life and freedom from Turkish oppression. In 1480 the Turks attacked the Italian coast and briefly occupied the city of Otranto. In the following two decades, one Albanian town after another fell to Turkish control.

In Sicily, several towns were founded or repopulated by the Albanians, who in Sicilian records were often described as "Greeks," Albanians, Slavs or even "Tartars." These "Arbereshe" communities still exist today.

In Sicilian land census (rivelli) records dating from the 1490s, the early Albanians' surnames are somewhat Italianized, perhaps because many were assumed or modified in Sicily based on nicknames. It is believed that most of the refugees arriving in Italy bore simple patronymics. Early Albanian acts of baptism and marriage in Sicily are sometimes recorded in Greek characters with some Latin and even Sicilian phrases.

The Albanians arriving in Sicily were Orthodox Christians. (In the decades following the Great Schism of 1054, Sicily's Christians became predominantly Roman Catholic.) By 1600, under the Spanish rule of Sicily, their parishes had fallen under Roman Catholic "Uniate" jurisdiction, though use of the Byzantine rite was permitted. In towns settled by the Albanians, there are usually two main churches - one "Latin" and the other "Greek." Today, the Martorana (in Palermo), constructed as an Orthodox church in the twelfth century, is part of the Byzantine Catholic diocese of Piana degli Albanesi. (Back in Albania, Islam became popular, and many of today's Albanians are Muslims.)

The Albanian language has been preserved in the towns populated by the immigrants. As one might expect, the language bears the marks of fifteenth century grammar and diction. In some cases, the Church itself encouraged the Albanians to settle on formerly monastic lands, particularly in western Sicily. In others, feudal lords welcomed the new residents. Messina and Palermo boasted the largest urban Albanian communities in Sicily. The Sicilian towns founded or repopulated by the Albanians are Piana degli Albanesi, Santa Cristina Gela, Mezzojuso, Contessa Entellina, Palazzo Adriano, Sant' Angelo Muxaro, Bronte, Biancavilla and San Michele di Ganzaria.

By 1300 the Orthodox parishes and monasteries of Sicily had been Latinized. (That is to say, they had become Roman Catholic.) Today's "Byzantine" presence, such as it exists, is attributed to the Albanians.

The Albanians in Sicily came from various parts of Albania, but their Sicilian communities were linked by common bonds, and marriages between spouses from different Arberesh towns were not unusual. It would be fair to describe the Albanians' arrival as the largest single historical "immigration" into Sicily, as distinguished from a military conquest or mass colonization. By 1500, there were probably over a thousand Albanian families in Sicily, and many thousands of today's Sicilians are their descendants.

About the Author: Palermo native Vincenzo Salerno has written biographies of several famous Sicilians, including Frederick II and Giuseppe di Lampedusa.

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© 2005 Vincenzo Salerno