Saturday, December 09, 2006


Written by His Beatitude Anastasios Archbishop of Tirana, Durrës and All Albania

In the next period we can distinguish two chronological phases, the dividing line being the Ottoman Conquest. In the first, the archbishopric of Ohrid was founded in the year 1018, after the collapse of Samuel's Bulgarian state, and the Emperor Basil II issued three bulls to this end, making over to the archbishopric thirty-two ecclesiastical provinces in all. A very large independent archiepiscopal see was thus created, and subordinate to it were the following sees in what is today Albania: Glabinitza-Akrokeraunia, Belegrada-Poulcheriopolis, Tzerenikos, Adrianopolis, and Bouthrotos.

From the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, the metropolis of Dyrrachion continued to be subordinate to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. It was Dyrrachion that was the birthplace of the great twelfth-century (or by other accounts fourteenth-century) Byzantine musician saint, John Koukouzelis. He lived on Mount Athos; and Athos was also the home of two fourteenth-century ascetics from the region, Saint Nephon from Loukovo in Cheimara, and Saint Neilos Erichiotes from Kanina.

After the dismemberment of the Byzantine Empire by the Latins in 1204, the Epirus area, New and Old, did not go unscathed by the expansionist plans of the Angevin Kings of Naples and the commercial plans of the Venetians. With the rise of the Despotate of Epirus (1267-1479), many of the sees on the soil of what is today Albania were beset now by one influence, now by another; but to discuss these is beyond the scope of the present short historical sketch.

From the late eleventh century onwards, the Roman Catholic church intensified its efforts to extend its sway further south (with the creation of the sees of Kroia (Krujë), Antibaris, Skodra, and so on). It was above all from the thirteenth century onwards, after the Latin rule of 1204-1474, that the northern zone of what is now Albania was most strongly touched by Roman Catholicism. When the Orthodox metropolitan of Dyrrachion perished in an earthquake in 1273, a Roman Catholic bishop installed himself in the town. An invasion by the Serbs in the fourteenth century caused the evacuation of many provinces. At the same time, certain Albanian families such as the Thopia, Balsha, Spata, and Muzaqi, set up minor princedoms. In 1335 the Emperor Andronikos the Younger came out from Constantinople on campaign and reached Dyrrachion by way of Thessalonike, imposing Byzantine rule on his revolting subjects. The powerful local lords of the Thopia family surrendered Dyrrachion to the Venetians, who were to control the town from 1392 to 1501. At the very end of this first phase there was the resplendent and heroic figure of George Kastriotes Skanderbeg, whose valiant efforts (1451-1468) made him a symbol of the last Christian resistance to the Ottomans. Dyrrachion finally fell into Turkish hands in 1501, and the Ottoman Conquest was complete.

We have no information when the metropolis of Velegrada was founded. The name itself is found in the early fourteenth century. This town -which was also known as Berat, was taken by the Ottomans in the reign of Murad, in 1431. There is mention of twenty church leaders, and of these the best known are Ignatios (1691-1693), later archbishop of Ohrid, and Joasaph 1(1752-1760 and 1765-1801). It was during the latter's tenure that the province of Belegrada was returned to the throne of Constantinople. Even before the town itself was built, in 1490, the district of Korytsa belonged the metropolis of Kastoria, which had itself become subordinate to the archbishopric of Ohrid. The metropolis of Korytsa was established early in the seventeenth century, incorporating the sees of Kolonia, Debolis, and Selasphoro (Sevdas). The first well known bishop of Korytsa (1624 and 1628) was Neophytos. In the year 1670, Parthenios archbishop of Ohrid, a native of Korytsa, elevated his mother town to a metropolitan seat, its occupant bearing the title of bishop of Korytsa, Selasphoro, and Moschopolis.

The southern regions continued to be subject to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. We have rather more evidence about the see of Dryinoupolis (eleventh-eighteenth century). Prominent among the forty-one bishops whose names are known to us were Sophianos (1672-1700), a heroic warrior in the fight to throw off the yoke of Islamization; Metrophanes (1752-1760), a man of culture and "a most excellent musicologist"; and Dositheos (1760-1799), who saw to it that some seventy churches were built.

Under Ottoman rule the church's most serious problem was continual mass conversions to Islam. It was the Albanian population that was most vulnerable to them: other reasons apart, there was a lack of Christian literature in the native Albanian tongue. At the same time, various Roman Catholic propaganda missions were active in the coastal region of Cheimara. To bolster Orthodoxy, new monasteries were built in many regions from the seventeenth century onwards, and these evolved into centres of Orthodox resistance, spiritual culture, training, and charitable works. Simultaneously there were many clergy working enthusiastically to strengthen the Orthodox population. Prominent among these was the holy monk Nektarios Terpos of Moschopolis, active between 1710 and 1730 in the Berat and Spathia areas.

In many parts of southern Albania the resistance was stiffened by building churches and organizing schools. One of the major centres of Orthodoxy was Moschopolis, built on an inaccessible plateau. In the eighteenth century it had about sixty thousand inhabitants, and enjoyed an astonishing flowering of economic and intellectual life. The New Academy (1744), with its library and printing press, was widely renowned. No less than twenty churches adorned the town. Until 1760 Moschopolis was directly subject to the archbishopric of Ohrid; but after this date it was assigned to the metropolis of Korytsa. Its decline began in 1771, when it was pillaged for the part it had played in the Oriov rising, and was complete in 1916, when the town was set on fire by unruly Albanian units.

In order to escape forcible Islamization, and at the same time to retain their identity of origin, groups of the enslaved in the Ottoman Empire in many places preferred to become "underground Christians" [kryptochristianoi]. They would go about their social life using Moslem names and behaving like Moslems, but in family life they would keep up their Orthodox traditions. The most typical example of "underground Christians" in Albania were the Tosks of Spathia, a mountain region south of Elbasan. This phenomenon was one which lasted from the late seventeenth to the late nineteenth century. The region also had its "New Martyrs": the holy martyr Nikodemos (in 1722 at Elbasan) and Christos Kepouros (the Gardener) or the Arvanites from the Gjanicë river area (in 1748 at Constantinople).

George A. Christopoulos, THE SPLENDOUR OF ORTHODOXY. 2000 Years – History • Monuments • Art , Vol. II - Patriarchates and Autocephalous Churches - , Ekdotike Athenon, Athens, 2000.

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