The lands that are today inhabited by Albanians were first populated in the Paleolithic Age (Stone Age), over 100,000 years ago. The first zones that were initially settled were those with adequate geographical conditions.
In Albania, the earliest settlements have been discovered in the Gajtan cavern (Shkodra), in Konispol, at mount Dajti (near Tirana), and at Xara (Saranda). The inhabitation of Albanian lands increased in the Neolithic age.
People began to abandon caverns and settle in open areas. Neolithic people were more prone to build their settlements in open fields or next to rivers. A large number of such settlements are discovered in Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, and the Republic of Macedonia.
Many historians believe Albanians to be the direct descendants of Illyrians. Their presence can be traced back to the formation of their political structure in the 7th and 6th centuries BC. Excellent metal craftsmen and fierce warriors, the Illyrians formed warlord-based kingdoms that fought amongst themselves for most of their history.
The Illyrians created and developed their culture, language and anthropological features in the western part of the Balkans, where ancient writers mention them in their works. The regions that the Illyrians inhabited are considerably expansive. They included the entire western peninsula, north to central Europe, south to the Ambracian Gulf (Preveza, Greece), and east around the Lyhnid Lake (Ohrid Lake).
Other Illyrian tribes also migrated and established themselves in Italy. Among them were the Messapii and Iapyges. The name 'Illyria' is mentioned in works since the 5th century B.C. while some tribe names are mentioned as early as the 12th century B.C. by Homer. The ethnic formation of the Illyrians, however, is much older.
The beginning of Illyrian origins is by the 15th century B.C., from the mid-Bronze Age, when Illyrian ethnic features began to be formed. By the Iron Age, the Illyrians were fully distinct and had inherited their developing anthropological features and language from the Neolithic and Bronze ages.
From Illyrians to Albanians
The Romans ruled the Illyricum since 168 B.C. to the fall of the Empire. Under the Roman rule big changes took place, arts and culture flourished, especially in Apolonia, whose philosophical school grew in importance. Here studied among others, the great roman orator Cicero. The Latin language and culture influenced strongly the Illyrians, though those living in the up-to-date Albanian lands managed to preserve their language and customs, although by borrowing many Latin words, which are today part of the Albanian lexicon.
The Christian religion appeared very early in Illyricum. Saint Paul is reported to have preached in Dyrrachium, the actual Durrės, in the Central Albania. A bishopric was founded here in 58 A.D. Later bishoprics were founded also in Apolonia, Buthrotum (to-day Butrint, in the southern tip of Albania) and Scodra (to-day Shkodėr).
Between the 3rd and the 4th century A.D. Roman emperors of Illyrian origin ruled the Empire. Among them there were some very important historical names, as Gaius Decius, Aurelian, Probus, Diocletian and the most important of all, the great Constantine, who made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, which would influence the whole course of the worlds history afterwards.
First mention of the Albanians
It is in the 2nd century A.D. that the name of the Albanians, a population living in to-date Central Albania, between the capital Tirana and Kruja, is mentioned. It was Strabo, in his Geographia, who first mentioned a population called Oi Albanoi, with their capital Albanopolis, 20 km in the north-west of the actual Tirana.
After the division of the Roman Empire in Western and Eastern (395 A.D.), the Byzantine Empire, the Eastern one, which would have survived for nearly a thousand years, governed the region.
The old Illyricum was invaded by various barbarian tribes, such as the Goths, who remained 150 years in Albania, the Avars and the Slavs. The Slav invasion, very fierce and intense, had long-lasting consequences in the ethnical setup of the Balkans. The Illyrian populations shrank and was finally assimilated to a greater extent.
In southern Illyricum, to-date Albanian lands, the autochthonous population managed to preserve its ethnical identity, thus not being assimilated. But their original territory shrank to a smaller extension and was subject to various Slav occupations, Bulgarian and Serbian, through the Middle Ages.
At the end of the 14th century the Albanian lands were conquered by the Ottomans. The Albanian lords were unable to resist for a long time to what was the military superpower of that time.
From 1443 to 1468 Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg, the national hero of the Albanians, led a successful resistance against the invading Ottomans. He fought 25 great battles against them, winning 22. The Skanderbeg-led resistance of the Albanians was determinant in stopping the Turkish invasion of Italy and Rome. After the death of Skanderbeg, resistance continued until 1478, although with only moderate success.
In 1480 the Turks managed to land in Southern Italy and overtook the castle of Otranto, in the south eastern tip of Italy from where they planned to head towards Rome, but the Christian resistance and the turkish exhaustion in 35 years in Albania, prevented them by achieving it.
The loyalties and alliances created and nurtured by Skanderbeg faltered and fell apart, and the Ottomans conquered the territory of Albania shortly after the fall of Kruja's castle. Albania then became part of the Ottoman Empire.
Following this, many Albanians fled to the neighboring Italy, mostly to Calabria and Sicily. The majority of the Albanian population that remained was forced to convert to Islam, but managed to keep its ethnical identity. They would remain a part of the Ottoman Empire until 1912.
The new Albania
In 1912, after the Second Balkan War, the Ottomans were removed from Albania and nearly half of the Albanian-populated lands were absorbed by Serbia (Kosovo, Western Macedonia), Montenegro and the southern tip by Greece (Ēamėria). This decision angered the Italians, who did not want Serbia to have an extended coastline, and it also angered the Austro-Hungarians, who did not want a powerful Serbia on their southern border.
Despite Serbian, Montenegrin, and Greek occupation forces on the ground, and under immense pressure from Austria-Hungary, it was decided that the country should not be divided but instead consolidated into the Principality of Albania. In 1914, World War I broke out. Albania declared its neutrality, but due to its strategic position was invaded by nearly all the armies battling in the Balkans.
A secret pact among Italy, Serbia and Greece was signed in 1915 to divide Albania after the war. But it was due to the firm stance of the President Wilson, who advocated the right to freedom and self-determination for any country in Europe that Albania escaped a further tragedy. From 1925 to 1939, the country was ruled by Ahmet Zogu, who renamed himself King Zog I in 1928.
World War II and Enver Hoxha rule
Italy invaded Albania on the eve of World War II, 7th April 1939, and took control of the country. Albanian communists and nationalists actively fought a partisan war against the Italian and German invasions in World War II. The socialists (most often called communists) took over after World War II.
In November 1944, after a fierce civil war, sustained by the British Intelligence, the communists gained control of the government under the leader of the resistance, Enver Hoxha. The Communist Party was created on November 8, 1941 with the help of Bolshevik Communist Parties.
For the many decades under his totalitarian domination, Hoxha created and destroyed relationships with Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and China. Towards the end of the Hoxha era, Albania was isolated, first from the capitalist West (Western Europe, North America and Australasia) and later even from the communist East.
The fall of communism, and democratic Albania
In 1985, Hoxha died and Ramiz Alia took his place. Initially, Alia tried hard to follow in Hoxha's footsteps, but in Eastern Europe changes had already started: Mikhail Gorbachev had appeared in the Soviet Union with new policies (glasnost and perestroika). The Albanian totalitarian regime was under pressure from the United States, Europe, and the anger and despair of its own people.
After Nicolae Ceauşescu, the communist leader of Romania, was executed in a revolution in 1989, Alia signed the United Nations Helsinki Agreement, which had already been signed by many other countries in 1975, that respected some human rights. He also allowed pluralism, and even though his party won the election of 1991, it was clear that change would not be stopped.
In 1992 general elections were held again and won by the new Democratic Party with 62% of the votes. In the general elections of June 1996 the Democratic Party tried to win an absolute majority and manipulated the results, winning over 85% of parliamentary seats.
In 1997 an epidemic of pyramid schemes sent shockwaves throughout the entire country's economy, which resulted in widespread riots. Anarchy prevailed, and many cities were controlled by militia and even-less organized armed citizens. The government resigned and a government of national unity was built. In response to the anarchy, the Socialist Party won the early elections of 1997 and Berisha resigned the Presidency. After that the stability was slowly restored.
Meanwhile the Serb repression in Kosovo was getting more and more unbearable. That led to the armed insurgency of 1998-1999, which led to the intervention of NATO, to stop the ethnical cleansing of the Albanians in Kosovo by the Serb forces. Albania itself was flooded with refugees from neighboring Kosovo in 1998 and 1999 during the Kosovo War.
The Euro-Atlantic integration of Albania has been the ultimate goal of the post-communist governments. Albania's EU membership bid, along with the rest of the Western Balkans, has been set as a priority by the European Commission.
2006 Albania signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU, thus completing the first major step towards joining the bloc. Albania, along with Croatia and Macedonia, is also expected to receive a NATO membership invitation within 2008.
The workforce of Albania has continued to migrate to Greece, Italy, Germany and other parts of Europe, and North America. However, the migration flux is slowly decreasing, as more and more opportunities are now emerging in Albania itself.