für die Zusammenarbeit mit Albanien
Reemerging into History
Known to the Albanians as Çobans (or shepherds), to the Slavs as Vlachs, and to the Greeks as Koustchovlachs, they call themselves Aromanians or Rrumanians. Numbering over 80,000 members, in the opinion of the best-known Vlach scholar, Tom Winnifrith, one could find them throughout much of the southern part of the country, and as far north as Elbasan. Usually, they live intermingled with their Albanian neighbors and only a few areas could be claimed to be purely Aromanian, the most notable one being the one between Pogradec and Korçë. Omnipresent to a knowledgeable eye, dispersed and hardly visible to a passing visitor, the Aromanian community in Albania remains today, much like it has in the past, one of the most elusive ethnic groups of the country.
While little is known of this community today, partly due to the isolation in which Albania was subdue for so long, even less is known of its past, its origins. In spite of the fact that so much has been written about Albania's Aromanians, especially in the first decades of the 1900's, few studies have paid a special attention to the early history of this community. Most have focused on the status of the community at the time and on the problems with which they were faced in relation to the state and the majority of the population. Partly to blame for this apparent lack of interest toward Aromanian history is the absence of reliable sources of information before and during the Turkish period, and partly to the unique style of living practice by a large part of the Aromanian community as wondering shepherds.
To further complicate matters, some Balkan countries have often speculated this lack of pertinent information in order to foster their political interests in the region. Today one can read about the Greek origin of the Aromanians, about the Illyrian origin of some Vlachs and even about the Aromanian origin of the Romanians, and vice-versa. While some theories can easily be refuted as mere speculations, some are based on more scientific observations and are worth taking a second look at.
Whatever little is known today of the origin of the Aromanians comes mainly through their language which stands as a clear proof of their link to the Latin culture which has existed in the area since the beginning of the millennium. As to their actual ethnic origin, that is a subject much debated and which may never be properly answered. Greeks and Albanian historians point to a Greek or Illyrian origin of the Aromanians which they say were Latinized during that time, and somehow managed to maintain their newly adopted language. Others point to the fact that the area inhabited today by Aromanians corresponds roughly to Via Egnatia, the road that once connected the Eastern Roman Empire to the Western one. It could be safely assumed that the road was heavily guarded by Roman troops, which in turn may help explain the presence of a Latin speaking population so far south in what is regarded by most historians as an area dominated by the Greek language. The truth may lie somewhere in the middle, since it is most likely that the Roman legionaries intermarried with the local, native population, Greek and Illyrian, giving birth to a new nation, the Aromanians.
By the fourth century much of the Balkan peninsula has been romanized and a distinct form of Vulgar Latin was developing in this area of the empire. However, it was not until the tenth century, after the fall of the Byzantine norther border along the Danube and the massive arrival of the migratory populations, that the Latin speaking population was split into two main groups: the Romanians in the north and the Aromanians in the south. This explains in fact the close similarity that exists to this day between Romanian and Aromanian and also explains the classification made by most linguists of Aromanian as a dialect of Romanian, rather then a separate language. Due to these circumstances it is unclear whether the first mention of spoken Latin in the Balkans made by Theopanes and Theophylact in 579 during a ride of the Byzantine army in present-day Bulgaria, refers to Romanian or Aromanian. However, the next mention of Vlachs (the name used for Latin speaking populations in general - e.g. the Swiss-German word »Welschschweizer« for their french speaking compatriots) made in 976 by Cedrenuc, a Byzantine historian, clearly refers to Aromanians. In his writings, Cedrenuc talks about the assassination of David, the brother of Samuel, the Tsar of Bulgaria, by wondering Vlachs. From that point on there are numerous mentions of Aromanians especially since they become an active presence on the political stage with the establishment of the Second Bulgarian Empire by two Aromanian brothers, Peter and Asan, in 1204. Later on, Aromanians come to play an increased role in the region as it can be assumed from the fact that two areas, one just south of present day Albania, in Epirus and another around Thessalonika, came to be known as Little Vlachia and respectivly Vlachia. It could be easily observed that even during those times when there is a relative wealth of information about Aromanians, little is known about those living in present-day Albania. This may be due to the fact that most of the mentions were made by Byzantine historians and therefore were limited to the areas with which they had a more direct contact.
The rapid conquest of the Balkans by the Turks and the relative peace and prosperity brought about by a unified administration greatly benefitted the Aromanians. They were no longer hindered in their migratory paths and also began controlling much of the trade that went through the area. The best example of the prosperity that came about for the Aromanian community was the city of Moscopolis (today Voskopojë) which became the most important trading center in southwestern Balkans. Further more, Aromanians gained a privileged status under the Turkish administration and were required to pay only a symbolic tribute and were formally exempted from the law which prohibited non-Muslims from carrying weapons. By the time nationalism started to gain ground in the Balkans, in early seventeen century, the Aromanians came to recognize the benefits of the unified rule of the Turks. Consequently, the Aromanians in and around Thessalonika petitioned in 1829, when the area came under Greek rule, to remain under the Ottomans. The Aromanians still within the borders of the empire were granted in 1878, the right to open schools in their native language and in 1888 to set up their own churches. The movement of national awakening culminated in 1905 when Aromanians were recognized as a separate nation (millet) and soon after, in 1908 when the first Aromanians were admitted as full members in the Turkish Parliament.
At about the same time, the Aromanian community became the focus of attention of the Romanian and Greek governments. While for Romanians the interest in Aromanians came as a result of their own struggle to define a national identity, with the Greeks it was more of a calculated political move. By bringing the Aromanians into their camp they would stay to gain a stronger bargaining position in the multi-ethnic region of Macedonia. In 1906 Brailsford, a British scholar, said in his book Macedonia and its Races: »they (the Aromanians) are not numerous in comparison with Macedonians, or even the Albanians, but without them the Greeks would cut a sorry figure.«
The first Aromanian school was opened in 1862 in Macedonia and soon after, by the turn of the century, with the support of the Macedo-Romanian Cultural Society in Bucharest and that of the Romanian government another one hundred and thirty schools and three high-schools were opened in the region. In Albania there were six schools opened during this time, including one in Korçë, two in Grabovë, and one in Plasë. With the exception of the one in Plasë closed in 1927, soon after much of the population left for Romania, all the others continued to exist until 1948 when the new communist regime in Romania discontinued its financial support.
With the arrival of the communist regime in Albania, the Aromanians lost their official recognition and were considered to be almost completely assimilated. The policy of settlement carried out by the government of Enver Hoxha has greatly altered the distribution of the community in Albania, and it corresponds today only to some extent to the original areas of habitation. Many of the Aromanian communities found along the southern coast of Albania, especially around Sarandë and Vlorë, were in the past only temporary areas of migration during the winter when the shepherds descended with their flocks from the inland mountains. A perfect example is the village of Anton Poçi, today a purely Aromanian village, but which only a few decades ago had only a handful of Aromanians. They were settled first in huts and later in the houses left uninhabited by the Albanians that moved to the nearby towns. However, given the relative lack of economic development and the isolation of the country, Aromanians managed to maintain a far stronger sense of national identity then their kin brothers living in neighboring states. It is therefore in Albania that one can still find the wondering Vlachs, and it is there that the more traditional ways of life of this community have been preserved.
After the fall of the communist regime in 1991 the latent national identity became, once again, visible. Numerous Aromanian organizations appeared across the country and on April 5th, 1992 the first national conference was organized in Tirana with guests from all neighboring countries and from as far as France and United States of America. There is also a renewed interest in this community from the Romanian and Greek governments. The two countries have encouraged and sponsored large numbers of Aromanian students to come and study in their countries, and have also advocated for the opening of Aromanian and Greek schools in Albania. This has once again split the community along pro-Greek and pro-Romanian lines, but there is a growing sense of a distinctive identity, that of Aromanian. Recently, the first Aromanian language school opened its doors in Divjakë and in Korçë one can hear a religious service in Aromanian in the newly renovated church.
Aromanians are once again making their presence felt both on the international as well as on the national level. In 1997 the European Parliament adopted Resolution 1333 calling for the protection of the Aromanian language and culture in the countries they inhabit. In Albania, Aromanians like the Albanian ambassador to the United Kingdom, Mr. Pavil Gesku, and many other notable intellectuals and politicians come today to complete a long list of Aromanian writers, such as Poradeci (Llazar Gusho), Mitrush Kuteli (Dhimitër Pasko), the author of the national anthem, Asdren (Alex Stavre Drenovawho), and national figures, such as Frashër, who through their efforts, have contributed and continue to contribute to the development and progress of their home-country, Albania.
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