Historical Notes: A proud people who built aqueducts by eye

BURSTING OUT of Anatolia in the 14th century, the Ottoman Turks conquered the whole Balkan peninsula, from the Adriatic to the Black Sea. By the time Mehmed the Conqueror took Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1453, most of Europe's Orthodox population was under Ottoman rule. In 1517 the empire swept up the heartlands of Islam - Syria, Arabia, and Egypt, along with the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. In Europe, Belgrade held out until 1524, but it was captured by Suleiman the Magnificent, whose armies overran Hungary and laid siege to Vienna.

Ottoman rule brought peace and prosperity. Christians and Jews were given religious autonomy under the Sultan. The Ottomans themselves were composed of Christian youths, who were picked from the villages, marched to Istanbul, persuaded to discard their faith, and trained as functionaries or soldiers, the famous janissaries. It was a stern meritocracy which owed nothing to faith or birth; the shepherd's son could rise to become Grand Vizier, through a lifetime's training and service.

Many Ottoman dignitaries were Albanian. Albanians were always dirt-poor. They were also proud and quarrelsome. Their conduct was governed by a harsh, Homeric code of honour and vengeance, known as the Law of Lek, which taught them how to live in a remote corner of the world. When the Ottomans began to invade their mountains in the 1450s, they rallied under their leader Skanderbeg and held them off right up to the old chieftain's death in 1462.

After that, they became enthusiastic supporters of the Ottoman Empire, sharp at exploiting the wide horizons which the Ottomans opened up. Many of them converted to Islam, though by the 18th century some had become so confused that they "declare they are utterly unable to judge which is best, and go to the mosque on Fridays and the church on Sundays". By then, Constantinople was mired in corruption and intrigue, and these wild mountaineers were highly valued for their love of fighting and their fierce sense of honour, which included "besa", an unshakeable oath of loyalty.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in 1717, like Byron a century later, adored their dress sense, but the Ottomans admired their practical abilities - one of which was to build perfect aqueducts by eye. "Without any mathematical learning, precepts, or instruments," a contemporary wrote,

they make these Aqueducts, measure the height of mountains and distance of places more exactly than a geometrician can, and judge very well the quality and quantity of water. When they are asked the grounds of this art, they know not what you mean, nor can explain themselves.

In 1682 the Ottomans made their second attempt to capture Vienna, and their spectacular failure there condemned the empire to recognise its limits. Gradually it declined into mere provincialism, so that by the 18th century the old empire had been transformed by the rise of local warlords, jockeying for imperial rewards. One effect was the rise of nationalism, which in the end doomed the Ottomans to extinction (Turkish nationalism, organised by Ataturk in the 1920s, delivered the coup de grace).

The Albanians were far too riddled with vendettas, and too fond of easy pickings abroad, to have much interest in nationalism themselves. Albanians had become the Ottomans' best card against the insurrectionist Greeks, unleashed on them with devastating effect.

In the 19th century, they had five separate and competing alphabets, one of which had 50 letters; and both Ottoman and foreign observers tended to think of Albania as a (criminal) profession rather than a country. Edward Lear found the Albanians very uncongenial when he travelled through the province in 1848; but I have been offered a promise of safety by them quite recently, and would rather have them as friends than otherwise, just as the Ottomans did.

Jason Goodwin is author of `Lords of the Horizons' (Vintage, pounds 7.99)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'