The Question of Illyrian-Albanian Continuity and its Political Topicality Today
Dr. Aleksander STIPCEVIC

( Professor - University of Zagreb - Croatia )

The question of the ethnic and cultural continuity between the early Illyrians and the mediaeval Albanians, besides being one of the most attractive issues of Balkan history, has also acquired a political dimension in recent decades. This is not the first time such a thing has happened in history.

It was the Croats who before anyone else put forward the claim of being descended from the glorious Illyrian people, to the point of identifying themselves with them and giving themselves the name of Illyrians. For centuries, the Croatian language was simply called Illyrian. It is thought that Vinko Pribojevic (Vincentius Priboevius) in the 16th century was the first to include the history of the Illyrians in what might be called a political program.

Pribojevic idea; countering the ideology and threat of pan-Germanism, he used the splendid history of the Illyrians in order to demonstrate a cultural and especially historical superiority to the GERMANS, Italians, and Hungarians. According to Pribojevic, both Queen Teuta and King Agron were Slavs, as were Alexander the Great, Diocletian, and even Aristotle and St. Jerom. (1)

After him, Mauro Orbini, another Croat historian, relaunched the pan-Slavic idea in his well-known book, "Il Regno degli Slavi, hoggi corrottamente detti Schiavoni," published in Pesaro in 1601. The book met with great success and exerted a major influence on historians and politicians of subsequent centuries. Now nobody doubted that the Slavs, especially those of the western portion of the Balkan peninsula, were the direct descendants of the Illyrians.

Illyrian was the tongue spoken on the east coast of the Adriatic, and the land inhabited by the southern Slavs, especially the Croats, was Illyria. The Croats adopted the name Illyrian for themselves, though more when abroad and in foreign-language publications than within Croatia itself. (2)

In the first half of the 19th century, the title Illyrian acquired a clear political function among the Croats. The leaders of the Croatian national movement called themselves "Illyrians" (Ilirci). Moreover, the theory of the Illyrian origin of the Croats was at this time embodied in academic form by Ljudevit Gaj, the greatest ideologue of the national movement. It was he who published a book entitled "Who Were the Old Illyrians?"(3)

This treated the question from a historical angle, but which political aims. Gay knew full well that any theory of a direct descent of today’s Croats from the old Illyrians was somehow an exaggeration. However, he believed that the name Illyrian would be the cement binding together the South Slavs in a new cultural and economic entity and a powerful political alliance that could confront the age-old enemies of the South Slav peoples.

The Illyrian ideology of the Croatian national movement was leavened with same doubtful ideas. It was not by chance that, after initial enthusiasm, critics of the idea grasped its weak points and easly refuted Gaj’s basic thesis of the South Slavs.

The political and police authorities of Vienna and Budapest rightly saw the notion of the Illyrian origin of all the South Slavs as a dangerous idea, because it could become an acceptable basis to devise a political program for all the south Slavs. It is therefore no wonder that in 1843 the authorities banned the use of the name Illyrian to designate the Croat national movement.

As time passed, the idea of a direct link between the Illyrians and the Croats was graduallyabandoned. It was the writer and philologist Bogoslav Sulek who delivered the final blow to the theory of the Illyrian origin of the South Slavs. In 1844, he published a treatise on the idea that the South Slavs could not be considered the direct descendants of the ancient Illyrians, but that the Slavs living in the western part of the Balkan peninsula were the result of a long and complicated ethnogenetic process involving the Illyrians but also the Romans, Celts, Goths, and, finally, the Slavs.

It was in the second half of the 19th century and especially in the 20th century that the Illyrian problem acquired a political meaning for another Balkan people, the Albanians.

The problem of the direct descent of the Albanians from the ancient Illyrians was originally purely academic. Researchers attempted to solve this problem on the basis of data that were not always certain or complete, relying mainly on historical and especially linguistic evidence.

The question has for years been obscured by political arguments that have frequently prevailed over academic ones. Of course, this is not the first such case in history. On the contrary, it is enough to recall the way in which Italian archaeologists at the time of fascism attempted to justify Mussolini’s conquests in the Mediterranean basin, how the Greeks today exploit data for the sake of their plans to annex Northern Epirus, and how the Serbs claim that any place where Serbian monuments or graves are found must belong to the Serbian state.

There is no need to recall other similar cases, for those we have mentioned suffice to show how archaeologists have placed their skills at the behest of national politics and ideology. Serbian archaeology and historiography have subjected the Albanians in general to such treatment, especially in Kosova. After World War II, but especially after the serious events in Kosova in 1981, Serbian archaeologists set to work to refute the theory of the Illyrian ethnic of Albanians.

They are indeed not the first to cast doubt over the historical continuity between the Illyrians and the Albanians. Some specialists, especially Germans, including C. Pauli, H. Hirt, G. Mayer, and F. Cordignano , raised the question of the origin of the Albanian language and the Albanians in general. On the basis of what they considered to be scientific data they drew conclusions that disagreed with the theory that the Albanians are an indigenous population.

Even though we do not today agree with their conclusions, we must emphasise that their arguments had no political or still less anti-Albanian overtones, and that they must be taken into consideration with proper seriousness when the problem of the ethnogenesis of the Albanians is discussed.

The politicisation of the problem that was later to become the hallmark of Serbian archaeology and historiography began with the Croat linguist Henrik Baric, who had close ties with Serbian academic and political circles. (6) Baric was a very capable linguist, but the motives impelling him to formulate his Thraco-Moesian theory of the origin of the Albanians remain dubious. His theory rests on linguistic data.

The fact that the same linguistic material can be used in support of such diverse theories may alarm any student approaching this problem. Without denying linguists their right to formulate their conclusions on the basis of linguistic material, we must say that there also exist today a large quantity of archaeological, anthropological, ethnological, and ethnomusicological data.

The large amount of research in recent decades has thus made it much easier today to tackle the problem of the ethnic origins of the Albanians than 50 or 100 years ago. The result achieved by workers in different disciplines in recent decades have reduced the importance of the work that relied on now obsolete linguistc evidence, and have made the autochthony of the Albanians, i.e. increasingly indisputable.

This conflict between new scientific result and the defenders of now obsolete theories is a phenomenon that can be explained by the increasing politicisation of the issue of Albanian ethnogenesis. In fact, the theory of Albanian autochthony has never been disputed with such determination and savagery as today, precisely when so much scientific proof has been produced in its support.

Nevertheless, the number of researchers still today refusing to take into consideration the many arguments supplied by different academic disciplines has shrunk, or, more accurately, absolutely the only researchers who deny the theory of Albanian autochthony are Serbian. (7) Serbian archaeologists and historians began long ago to dispute the autochthony theory, but this opposition increased especially after the great Albanian revolt in Kosova in 1981. It was therefore a consequence of a political event rather than of new scientific data.

The Serbian archaeologist Milutin Garasanin represents a special case. In 1955, he wrote an article in the Prishtina periodical "Përparimi", in which he asserted that the Albanians are the direct descendants of the Illyrians. (8) In the years that followed, Garasanin increasingly fell into line with other Serbian researchers who denied any such descent. This shift became still more evident in connection with the problem of the ethnic allegiance of the Dardanians, who inhabited the Kosova region.

This problem became one of the most disputed in archaeology and history, assuming apolitical character after 1981. The Serbs vigorously attacked the idea that the Dardanians were ethnically Illyrian. Not because they were led to this conclusion by scientific evidence, but purely because Kosova was "the cradle of Serbian history" and "holy soil" for the Serbs, and as such could not have been inhabited by a people that were of Illyrian stock and hence claimed by their descendants, the Albanians.

In the past, Serbian researchers had not always been of one mind in allocating the Kosova region to the ancient Daco-Moesians. Milutin Garasanin himself, in his survey of prehistoric Serbia in 1973, openly admits that on the basis of their place names and personal names the Dardanians can be considered Illyrians, and that a Thracian and perhaps Dacian element is evident only in the eastern parts of their territories. (9)

However, when the Serbian Academy of Arts and sciences in 1986 organized a series of conferences on the ties between the Illyrians and the Albanians, this same Garasanin announced that the Dardanians cannot be considered Illyrians because they were ethnically more closely connected with the Daco-Moesian substratum. (10)

It is easy to explain this change in Garasanin’s stand. We are now in a period of history in which relations between the Albanians and Serbs of Kosova, and not only within this region, have dramatically deteriorated and no Serbian researcher can freely express his opinion over the Illyrian-Albanian question without exposing himself to the danger of changes of high treason.

It would be impossible to trace here the progress of the press, television, and radio campaign waged by Serbian researchers against the idea of Albanian autochthony. It is enough to recall an entertaining incident in this campaign which took place in Zagreb in 1982. Two years previously, in 1980, the first volume of the Encyclopaedia of Yugoslavia (Secon Edition) had been published, in which there were two entries, one entitled "Albanci" (Albanians), and the other "Albansko-Jugoslavenski odnosi" (Albanian-Yugoslavian relations).

On pages 75-79, the Albanian historian from Kosova, Ali Hadri, had written the part of the entry under "Albanci" that dealt with "the origin and development of the Albanian people," in which he stated that the Albanians are the descendants of the Illyrians. The linguist Idriz Ajeti said the same, considering the Albanian language a successor to the Illyrian tongue.

When this volume had come off the press, the Albanian revolt in Kosova had broken aut, and when the Serbian edition of this same book was under preparation, the Serbian representatives on the Encyclopaedia’s central editorial board rejected the text that had already been published in the Croat edition (which they themselves had approved), and insisted that the two entries should be reformulated according to the ideas of Serbian historians. A long and bitter debate then took place within the editorial board, and was soon reflected in the Zagreb and Belgrade newspapers.(11) Ten contributions from historians and archaeologist were commissioned in order to prepare new versions of these entries.

At that time, the Serbian members of the editorial board could not impose their ideas on others. This meant that the new version that was printed in subsequent editions of the Encyclopaedia of Yugoslavia included textual changes in the sections dealing all mention of the continuity between the Illyrians and Albanians.(12)

Although unable to change what had already been published in the Croat edition, the publisher of the Encyclopaedia of Yugoslavia printed the new versions of the two entries and sent them to subscribers, requesting them to insert them in the appropriate place.

The debate within the Encyclopaedia’s editorial board was also echoed in political circles. At the ninth Congress of the Serbian Communist Party held in Belgrade on 27-29 May 1982, a bitter argument broke out over the ethnic origins of the Albanians. The congress of a political party was of course not the proper place to discuss an academic problem of this kind, but the question had apparently assumed a political character and could not be confined to academic circles.

It was nothing les than the incident involving the two entries in the Encyclopaedia of Yugoslavia that became the spark setting off this unexpected debate at the Serbian Communist Party: Congress. The Albanian linguist Idriz Ajeti referred to this scandalous incident in his speech in order to show that many Serbian researchers and journalists were politicising the issue to the extent that only a political forum could settle it, by political means.

Disgusted by the assaults of the newspapers, Professor Ajeti movingly defended at this congress the theory of the linguistic ties between the Illyrian and Albanian languages, and also the ethnic continuity between the Illyrians and the Albanians (13).

His speech met with an immediate response in the congress hall.

Pretending not to understand why a purely academic problem should become a discussion topic at a political congress, the Serbian historian Jovan Deretic asked in pathetic tones what point there was in politicising the question of the Albanians’ ethnic origin.

Why should the Albanians be the descendants of the Illyrians and not of the Thracians ? There was no point in dragging this question out of its academic context – on condition that the Thracian theory was accepted. The Illyrian theory could not be correct, simply because it was an expression of Albanian imperialism, nationalism, etc. (14) According to Deretic, the Illyrian theory had "a slight whiff of racism" that reminded him of the theory of a pure Aryan race, "and we know very well who inspired that theory." (15)

Immediately after Deretic, Petar Zivadinovic took the floor. Zivadinovic was elected a member of the Central Committee of the Serbian Communist Party at this congress. For him, science had still not solved the problem of the ethnic origins of the Albanians, but, although he had never dealt with such academic questions, he knew very well that the Albanians could not be descended from the Illyrians.

The historian Sima Cirkovic also though that the Illyrian theory "stank of racism." (16)

The newspapers at this time were full of articles about the speeches at the conference. "Politika," a Belgrade newspaper with little tolerance for the Albanians, published an article under the headline, "No Campaign, But Creative Criticism."

This newspaper apparently did not stop to consider that this stream of articles written by people who did more to compromise these authors than the Illyrian theory of the ethnic origin of the Albanians.

The book "The Albanians and Their Territories," published by the Albanian Academy of Sciences in Tirana in 1982, and in an English edition in 1985, caused considerable commotion. Albanian authors from Kosova were attacked especially harshly because their work demonstrated the autochthony of the Albanians in the province of Kosova. (17)

These authors attempted in vain to explain that all the articles included in this volume had been previously published in Yugoslavia and were therefore common knowledge long before the book appeared. (18) The attacks persisted because this book discussed what was the most delicate political problem in Kosova.

The campaign against the Illyrian theory intensified alongside the progressive deterioration of the political situation in Kosova. Serbia’s best-known historians appeared on the scene, including the linguist Pavle Ivic, who proceeded to ruin a large part of his own scientific work in order to prove that Serbian and Croatian are a single language. He had never tackled the problems of the Illyrians or Albanians, but it nevertheless emerged that the Albanians could only be of Thracian, not Illyrian origin.

In an interview for the Belgrade weekly NIN, Professor Ivic listed the linguists who have considered the Albanian language a descendant of Thracian and then recalled the well-known but now obsolete argument that the Albanians could not have lived on the Adriatic and Ionian coast, because they possessed word for fish.

According to Professor Ivic, the problem of the Illyrian origin of the Albanians is complicated, but there is nevertheless no question of any doubt that the Albanians are not descendants of the Illyrians and are therefore not indigenous to the province of Kosova. This is precisely what the journalist interviewing him and the magazine’s readers wanted to hear. (19)

A controversy then sprang up in the pages of this magazine between Professor Ivic, Mehmet Hyseni, and Shkelzen Maliqi. (20)

On one hand, all this controversy and debate encouraged the Albanians to study more deeply the problem of their ethnic origin from the archaeological and ethnographic point of view, while it drove Serbian researchers to the point of denying the results of their own work. In 1982, when this problem had become an inflammatory one in what was then Yugoslavia, the Academy of Sciences in Albania organised a national conference on the formation of the Albanian people, their language, and culture. At this conference, which was attended by many foreign historians, many specialists tried to present all the evidence that their different academic disciplines could offer to solve the problem of Illyrian-Albanian continuity. (21)

As in reply to this conference, the Serbs had the idea of organising in Belgrade, under the auspices of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences, a series of conferences that were to tackle problems also dealt with in Tirana. The conferences, that were attended solely by Serbian historians, took place in May and June 1986. Their papers were later published in a book, in Serbian and French editions. (22)

A careful reading of the contributions of Ms. F. Papazoglu and Professor M. Garasanin reveals at least a kind of uncertainty in their arguments. These writers sometimes even imply that they do not favour an unconditional rejection of the Illyrian theory of the Albanians’ ethnic origin.

Of course, writers of propaganda have paid no attention to the academic evidence, and have not grasped these authors’ doubts, but only the evidence that suit their anti-Albanian campaign. Aware of the simplification which the complicated problem of the Albanians’ ethnic origins had undergone, professor Garasanin was careful to point out that the Albanians are undoubtedly a palaeo-Balkan people and that the Illyrian element played a part, albeit a minor one, in their formation.

Garasanin asserted that there can be no question of a direct continuity between the Illyrians and the Albanians, because the Illyrians disappeared from history during the five centuries of Roman occupation. The Albanians are therefore a people who were formed in the middle ages from small remnants of peoples, including the Illyrians, who inhabited the western Balkans in classical and mediaeval times.

There is no need to continue. However, we would like to end by emphasising that the misrepresentations of the Serbian academic community in connection with the ethnic origin of the Albanians are part of a long and painful story of abuses of this kind, which have been nothing but political propaganda paving the way for military repression. This is the meaning of the way for military repression. This is the meaning of the campaign by Serbian historians and journalists against the autochthony of the Albanians in the lands they inhabit.


1.     "Oratio fratris Vincentii Priboevii sacrae theologiae professoris ordinis praedicatorum De origine successibusque slavorum, "Venetiis, 1532. Modem bilingual (Latin and Croatian) edition by Professor Grga Novak (Vinko Pribojevic, "O podrijetlu i zgidama Slavena," Zagreb, Jugoslovenska akademija znanosti i umjetnosti, 1951. Compare Pribojevic’s ideas on pan-slavism with Professor Novak’s introduction to his 1951 edition, and to Alois Schmaus, "Vincentius priboevius, ein Vorlaeufer der Panslavismus," in "Jahrbuecher fuer die Geschichte Osteuropas," I, 1952, pp. 243-254; Veljko Gortan, Sizgoric i Pribojevic," "Filologija," 2, 1959, pp. 149-152.

2.     The history of the illyrian idea among the slavs has been written Reinhard Lauer, "Genese und Funktion des Illyrischen Ideologems in den suedslawischen Literaturen, 16. Bis anfang des 19. Jahrhunderts," in "Ethnogenese und Staatsbildung in Suedosteuropa," Klaus-Detlev Grothusen, Goettingen, 1974, pp. 116-143.

3.     Ljudevit Gaj, "Tko su bili stari Iliri?," "Danica ilirska," 5 (1839), Nr.10, pp.37-39; Nr.11, pp.41-43; Nr.12, pp. 46-48; Nr. 13, pp. 49-51; Nr.15, pp. 58-59.

4.     For example, S. Popovic, "Skiti, Iliri, Slavi," in "Letopis Matice srpske," 64 (1844) pp. 67-80.

5.    Bogoslav Sulek, "Sta namjeravaju Iliri?" Beograd, 1844. See the historical commentary on this pamphlet by Antun Barac, Hrvatska knjizevnist, I. Knjizevnost ilirizma, zagreb. Jugoslovenska akademija znanosti i umjetnosti, 1954, pp. 43-44, etc.

6.     See his studies, "Ilirske jezicne studije," Rad. JAZU knj.272, 1948, pp.157-208; "Poreklo Arbanasa u svetlu jezika," in "Lingvisticke studije," Sarajevo, 1954, pp.7-48; "Mbi origjinen e gjuhës shqipe," "Jeta e re." 4, 1952, Nr.3, pp. 205-211.

7.     There are exceptions, e.g. Slobodan Jovanovic, "Jugosloveni i Albanci," "Ideje: Casopis za teoriju savremenog drustva," 1987, Nr. 5-6, pp. 181-185.

8.     Milutin Garasanin, "Ilirët dhe prejardhja e tyre," "Përparimi," 1953, Nr.6, pp. 323-331.

9.     Milutin Garasanin, "Preistorija na tlu SR Srbije," vol.II, Beograd, Srpska knjizevna zadruga, 1973, p. 523.

10.   Milutin Garasanin, "Zakljucna razmatranja," in: "Iliri i Albanci," Beograd, 1988, p. 362.

11.   Ibro Osmani, "Dogovor o spornim tekstovima?," "Vjesnik," 19 June 1982, p.17; Ibro Osmani, "Kriterium i vetem – ai shkencor," "Rilindja," 19 June 1982, p. 12; Milos Misovic, "Kuda ide Jugoslavija?" "NIN," Nr. 1,678, 27 February 1983, p.31-32.

12.  The Prishtina historian Ali Hadri strongly rejected the objections raised by the Serbian group on the editorial board in a long reply that was published in Albanian under the title "Reply to Comments on the Historical Text of the Entries "Albanians," and "Albanian-Yugoslav Relations" in the Encyclopaedia of Yugoslavia," published in the review "Kosova," Nr.11, 1982, pp.217-259. A summary of this text was published in the Zagreb weekly "Danas," Nr. 16, 8 June 1982, p. 14.

13.   His report was published in prishtina: "Mbi origjinen ilire të gjuhës shqipe," "Rilindja," 29 May 1982, p.14.

14.   Jovan Deretic, "Cemu sve to sluzi?," "Danas," Nr. 16,8 June 1982, pp. 62-63.

15.   This assertion was strongly criticised by the Croat writer Ivan Lovrenovic in his article, "Miris kao kriterij," "Danas," Nr. 17, 15 June 1982, p. 17.

16.   For further information about this dispute, see Teodor Andjelic, "Ilirsko-albanske enigma," "NIN," Nr. 1,640, 6 June 1982, pp. 30-32.

17.   Milos Misovic, "Grehovi i gresnici," "NIN," Nr. 1,660, 24 November 1982, pp. 16-17.

18.   Provodom knjige "Albanci i njihova ognjista," "NIN," Nr. 1,665, 28 November 1982, p. 2.p.

19.   Milo Gligorijevic, "Albanija i Kosovo: seobei teritori," "NIN," Nr. 1,664, 21 November 1982, pp. 32-35.

20.   Mehmet Hyseni, "Za nauku, bez spekulacija," "NIN," Nr. 1,666, 5 December 1982, pp. 2-3; Shkelzen Maliqi, "Mistifikacija istoriografije," "NIN," Nr. 1,667, 12 December 1982, pp. 3, 6; Pavle Ivic, "Naucna tastina radi osporovanja nauke," "NIN," Nr. 1,667, 12 December 1982, pp. 6, 19;Pavle Ivic, "Istorijski mitovi i indoktrinacija," "NIN," Nr. 1,671, 9 January 1983, pp. 6,13; Shkelzen Maliqi, "Mistifikacija istoriografije," "NIN," Nr. 1,673, 23 January 1983, pp. 2-3; Pavle Ivic, "Pravo nauke na istinu," "NIN," Nr. 1,675, 6 February 1983, p.19.

21.   The papers of this conference were published in French, "Problemes de la formation du peuple albanais, de sa langue et de sa culture (Choix de documents), " Tirana, Editions "8 Nëntori," 1985.

22.   Iliri i Albanci – Les Illyriens et les Albanais, Beograd, Srpska akademija nauka i umetnosti, 1988.

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