That old dude carving people in half with a gigantic sword is Skanderbeg. Skanderbeg is the national hero of Albania. He's a hardcore, skull-crushing Albanian hardass who fought for 20 years on the side of the Ottoman Empire, then got bored of that, flipped his shit, and spent the next 25 years leading an Albanian revolution that kicked the Turks in the balls every time they tried to fuck with him. Now, surviving for 40 years of constant warfare in the 15th century is a big enough deal by itself, but this guy went above and beyond – his biographer credits him with personally killing 3,000 men on the battlefield during his career. That number might be a load of crap (then again, it might not) but the truth is that this dude is such an all-important hero to his people that his medieval battle standard is the present-day Albanian Flag, and all elementary school kids in Albania are required to memorize a song talking about how badass he was. It's like their pledge of allegiance. Or the lyrics to "Ice Ice Baby".
But this guy didn't start his life shirtless with six-pack abs and a two-handed falchion. No, the origin story for the Dragon of Albania is much weirder. Gjergjj Kastrioti was born in 1405, the son of the Prince of a small Albanian district headquartered in the fortress city of Kruje. Gjergjj, whose name is mercifully Anglicized to George (because how in the holy living hell are you supposed to pronounce a man's name when the last three letters are g, j and j?), grew up in the shadow of the mighty Ottoman Turkish Empire – an ever-expanding Muslim world power that was brutally crushing all before it in a tremendous, unstoppable scimitar-laden stampede of blood, fire, and delicious pastries. By the time Georgejgjj (pronounced "GEORGE-guh-jay-jay") was eighteen, the armies of the mighty Sultan had crossed the Bosporus, conquered every Byzantine city except for Constantinople, and was already flooding the Christian cities of Eastern Europe with hundreds of thousands of horsemen, infantry, and artillery – all hardened by years of battle and equipped with some of the most advanced and badass weaponry in the world. Stuff like gunpowder cannons and rifles – which nobody else in the world really had at the time, and which just so happened to be pretty fucking useful in medieval combat.
So when the Turks came knocking on the gates of Kruje with a sheet of notebook paper that said, "Tribute or Death? Pls circle 1", it probably shouldn't be too surprising that George's dad ran up the white flag, handed over his four kids as hostages, and agreed to pay an annual fee to his new Ottoman overlords. What this means for our homey George is that he and his three bros were forcibly circumcised (which probably isn't much fun when you're 18 years old), converted to Islam, and shipped out to war college to train as Ottoman Janissary warriors.
Now, the Janissaries were pretty fucking awesome. I'm not going to get into it in too much detail here (it's probably a story for another time), but basically the premise was that the Ottoman Sultan would take the children of Eastern European families, force them to convert to Islam, indoctrinate them in military tactics and religious fanaticism, and then send them back out to attack their former countrymen. Here's a fun fact: Many of the troops who comprised the first wave of soldiers assaulting the walls during the fall of Constantinople were ethnic Greeks, some of whom had been born to Greek nobility that at the time of the battle were still living in Constantinople. This is amazingly diabolical and awesome – through the use of these soldiers you simultaneously build an army of fiercely loyal professional warriors, break the morale of your enemy, and win battles without sacrificing your own countrymen. Goddamn genius.
George was really only supposed to remain in the Sultan's Janissary Corps for a period of three winters, but when his dad bit the dust the Sultan cancelled his contract, and the legitimate heir to the Princedom of Kruje remained a slave-soldier of the Ottoman Empire for a little more like twenty years. Oh, and his three brothers were all poisoned to death for reasons (and by persons) nobody has really ever been able to figure out. Regardless of this giant shit buffet life had served George Kastrioti, however, this guy persevered and lived to kick ass whenever it was presented to him, and to do so with whatever objects were made available to him at the time. He quickly proved himself as one of the toughest men in the entire Corps, shredding his enemies across Asia and Europe, and when this shit-kicker wasn't eating shards of broken glass or jamming cinders in his eyes, George commanded a cavalry regiment, governed over nine provinces, and once personally beat the snot out of a Mongol and two Persians in the Throne Room of the Ottoman Court after they were being disrespectful to the Sultan. On account of his ultimate bad-motherfucker-dom, the Sultan bestowed George with an appropriately badass title – Arnavuthu Iskender Bey, meaning "Lord Alexander the Albanian". Sure, Alexander wasn't this guy's given name or anything (as you'll remember, his Albanian name had significantly more consonants), but it was a pretty bitchin' reference to Alexander the Great, so George was pretty much down with it – although he preferred to go by Scenderbeu, because that was a little more Albanian-sounding (Western historians changed that to Skanderbeg, and since that's the one version of his name that doesn't make Spell Check freak out and die, that's the one I'm rolling with for the rest of the article.)
Skanderbeg sawing through a guy's head while the Sultan looks on like the Emperor from Return of the Jedi.
Despite being a high-ranking Turkish official with all the wealth, women, and power he could shake a scimitar at (wow, that sounds a lot dirtier than I intended it to), the whole "Building an empire on the backs of my former countrymen" thing really started to get to Skanderbeg after a while. (Note: While his admittedly-biased biographer claims that Skanderbeg only killed Muslims in combat and never attacked Christians on the battlefield, it seems a little hard to believe that you become a Janissary Commander without skewering an infidel or two.) So, somewhat abruptly, at the age of 38, Skanderbeg made a decision that would impact his life forever – he took a company of 300 Albanian Janissaries and deserted the Turkish army in the middle of their battle against the badass Hungarian Crusader John Hunyadi. Skanderbeg marched his AWOL army through Albania, straight to the gates of Kruje (his ancestral castle, which was now under Ottoman rule), presented a forged document to the governor claiming that Skanderbeg had been appointed Turkish Governor of the region. As soon as the legitimate Turkish governor of Kruje hit the road, Skanderbeg tore down the Ottoman flag and flew his own battle-standard from the parapets. So yeah, there's more than one badass way to occupy a city, motherfuckers, and they don't all involve catapults.
Skanderbeg immediately proceeded to rally the Albanian lords and declare open rebellion against the Turkish Sultan. He re-converted back to Christianity again, declared himself the Avenger of the Albanian People, and went to work kicking the crap out of everyone around him. Reacting quickly before the Ottoman forces could mobilize, Skanderbeg's rebels captured a number of cities and towns throughout Albania – and in each fortress he took he gave the Turkish defenders two options – Baptism or Martyrdom. Neither was particularly appealing to them.
Murad II quickly figured out what was going on, got ripshit pissed, and came after Skanderbeg with 100,000 of his former friends, who at this point were eager to repay the Albanian for his loyalty. Skanderbeg, who never commanded an army larger than 15,000 at any point during his 25 year slugfest with Turkey, ordered a scorched-earth retreat – burning everything around his capital in an effort to deny the Turks food. When Murad reached the walls of Kruje and layed siege to Skanderbeg's castle, the Albanian hero personally commanded 1,500 men in the defense of the citadel while ordering the rest of his men to fan out and hammer the Turkish supply caravans with hit-and-run guerilla attacks. With Murad deprived of ammunition, reinforcements, and food, and his force suffering from widespread disease and being turned back every time they assaulted the walls, he was forced to call off the attack. Sultan Murad returned a little later with another force, but Skanderbeg was ready for that too – he hid his men in some trees, drew the Turkish army into a trap, and then launched an ambush that annihilated the invading army and captured their supply train.
For the next 23 years, Skanderbeg would personally lead his troops into battle on dozens of occasions. As one of the last Eastern European bastions of Jesus-ness, he was constantly surrounded, fighting the enemy from every direction, and outnumbered by 10-to-1 odds, but he seriously didn't give a shit that Albania was basically just a little circle completely surrounded by the Turkish Empire. The Roman Catholic Popes were obviously pretty ridiculously super-psyched about Skanderbeg's insane powers of being both alive and Christian, and they sent him a bunch of pump-up words of encouragement. For instance, Pope Nicholas V called him the "Champion of Christendom" (though this is sometimes awesomely translated into "The Athlete of Christendom"). Pope Pious II called him the "Christian Gideon", and Pope Calixtus III appointed him Captain-General of the Holy See in his ongoing Crusade against the invading infidels. I suppose that, above all, it's a testament to his longevity that he survived long enough to have three Popes give him sweet nicknames while basically being involved in a never-ending war with a significantly more-powerful adversary. To his peeps, Skanderbeg was simply the Dragon of Albania, which is kind of an interesting choice for a nickname considering that his battle-standard was a badass two-headed Eagle and didn't really involve dragons at all.
An appropriately-epic sculpture of the man.
When the Sultan Murad died, his son, Mehmet the Conqueror, gave the Albanians a slight reprieve – mostly because Mehmet wanted to go off and conquer Constantinople, and he didn't need Skanderbeg stabbing him in the ass the second he turned his back. Skanderbeg used this time to rebuild his fortresses, assemble his Crusaders, and get ready to once again assume the role of being the last bulwark between Ottoman Imperial expansion and European Christendom. Once Mehmet turned his attention back to those wacky Albanians, Skanderbeg was ready to cram some Catholicism into their chest cavities with a two-handed sword. Mehmet launched two more full-scale invasions of Albania, twice besieging Skanderbeg's castle, but both times the cagey warrior used guerilla attacks, mountain warfare, and hack-and-slashing to fight them back – and he did it all while wheeling and dealing with rival factions in Hungary, Serbia, and Venice, and putting down a rebellion instigated by his own nephew. He also somehow found time in his busy schedule of fighting for his life to lead 800 horse on an amphibious assault across the Adriatic Sea and break apart the Siege of Naples – a deed of heroism that would get him appointed to a Dukedom in the Neapolitan Kingdom (a position his son would inherit – even though Albania would fall, Skanderbeg's line would survive to be Dukes of Naples for the next few centuries).
Since no conventional weapons seemed to be able to kill him, Skanderbeg eventually died in 1468 of malaria while organizing the defense of Albania against yet another obnoxious horde of Turkish invaders. At the time of his death, his biographer credited him with personally killing over 3,000 men on the battlefield. While that might be something of an exaggeration, it is true that when Albania finally fell to the Turks (an event that happened a good 10 years after Skanderbeg's death), the Turks dug his body up, dismembered him, and made bracelets out of his bones. I've heard two reasons for this – they either really hated his ass and wanted to destroy his corpse beyond all recognition, or they thought his bravery would rub off on them if they wore part of his skeleton around on his wrist. Either interpretation is pretty badass.
"At last Europe and Asia are mine! Woe to Christendom! It has lost its sword and its shield."
- Mehmed the Conqueror, on hearing news of Skanderbeg's death
History of War
Babinger, Franz. Mehmet the Conqueror and His Time. Princeton Univ. Press, 1992.
Butterworth, John. God's Secret Listener. Monarch, 2011.
Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Penguin, 1996.
Schwander-Sievers, Stephanie. Albanian Identities. Indiana Univ. Press, 2002.