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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)