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Title: Ghegs  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Albanians, Music of Albania, Roman Catholicism in Albania, Albanian language, History of Albania
Collection: Albanian People, Ethnic Groups in Albania, Gegëri
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


Regions with significant populations
Kosovo[1] around 1,500,000[1]
Albania around 1,500,000
Macedonia around 400,000
Montenegro 30,439
Zadar, Croatia 4,000[2]
Serbia 50,000–70,000[3][4][5][6] Albanians live in Serbia out of whom majority live in the municipalities of Preševo (Albanian: Preshevë), Bujanovac (Albanian: Bujanoc), and part of the municipality of Medveđa (Albanian: Medvegjë).[7]
Gheg Albanian
Predominantly Sunni, Bektashi minority
Predominantly Catholic, Orthodox minority

The Ghegs or Gegs (tribal, with several distinct tribal groups of Ghegs.

The Ottoman Empire annexed and ruled the Tosk-inhabited south at the beginning of the 15th century, while territory populated by Ghegs remained out of the reach of the regular Ottoman civil administration until the beginning of the 20th century. As a consequence, the Ghegs evolved isolated from the Tosks.[11] The Ottomans never completely subdued the northern Albanian tribes of Ghegs because they were more useful to them as a stable source of mercenaries. Instead, they implemented the bayraktar system, and granted some privileges to the bayraktars (banner chiefs) in exchange for their obligation to mobilize local fighters to support military actions of the Ottoman forces. After establishment the state of Albania in the 20th century its politics has been centered on the constant rivalry for superiority between the Tosks and the Ghegs.


  • Etymology 1
  • Territory 2
  • Language 3
  • Tribal social organization 4
  • Religion 5
  • Culture 6
  • Physical anthropology 7
  • History 8
    • Pre-Ottoman and Ottoman period 8.1
    • Albania 8.2
  • See also 9
  • Notes and references 10
  • Further reading 11
  • External links 12


The etymology of the term Gheg is not completely clear. According to Arshi Pipa, the term Gegë was initially used for confessional denotation, being used in pre-Ottoman Albania by its Orthodox population when referring to their Catholic neighbors.[12] Some theories say that the term Gegë is derived from the onomatopoeic word for "babbling", in contrast to Shqiptare which is the Albanian word for those who speak clearly. This is sometimes considered illogical because the self-ethnonym Shqiptare seems to have been developed by Ghegs.[13]


The Ghegs predominantly live in the mountainous north, north of the Shkumbin river.[9] This territory is sometimes referred to as Ghegeria.[14] Little more than half of ethnic Albanians from Albania are Ghegs.[8] Except for a small Tosk population around lakes Prespa and Ohrid in Macedonia, all ethnic Albanians in the Balkans who live outside of Albania (Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro) are Ghegs.[15]


A map showing Gheg speakers in green

The Ghegs speak Gheg Albanian, one of the two main Albanian dialects. The Albanian communist regime based the standard Albanian language mostly on Tosk Albanian. This practice has been criticized, notably by Arshi Pipa, who claimed that this decision deprived the Albanian language of its richness at the expense of the Ghegs,[16] and referred to the literary Albanian language as a "monstrosity" produced by the Tosk communist leadership which conquered anti-Communist north Albania militarily, and imposed their Tosk Albanian dialect on the Ghegs.[17] Although Albanian writers in former Yugoslavia were almost all Ghegs, they chose to write in Tosk for political reasons.[18] This change of literary language has significant political and cultural consequences because the language is the main criterion for self-identification of the Albanians.[19]

Tribal social organization

The social organization of the Ghegs was traditionally clan system of loyalties, and the dispersed settlement pattern of separate, scattered, mostly fortified homesteads.[22] There are several distinct tribal groups of Ghegs which include Mirëdita, Kelmendi, Hoti, Kastrati, Pulti and Shala.[23]

The Ghegs, particularly those who live in the north-eastern area, were the most faithful supporters of the set of traditional laws (Kanun), traditional hospitality, and blood feud.[22] The clan, also called the fis, was headed by the oldest male, and formed the basic unit of Gheg society. A political and territorial equivalent consisting of several clans was the bajrak (English: standard). The leader of a bajrak, whose position was hereditary, was referred to as bajraktar (standard bearer). Several bajraks composed a tribe, which was led by a man from a notable family, while major issues were decided by the tribe assembly whose members were male members of the tribe.[24]

The organization of once predominantly herder Gheg tribes was traditionally based on patrilineality (a system in which an individual belongs to his or her father's lineage), and on exogamy (a social arrangement where marriage is allowed only outside of a social group).[25] The land belongs to the clan, and families are traditionally extended, consisting of smaller families of many brothers who all live in one extended menage (Albanian: shtëpi).[25] Girls were married without their consent, while bride stealing still existed to some extent until the early 20th century.[26] Marriage was basically an economic and political deal arranged among the members of the tribe, while those who got married had no say in the matter.[27] Sworn virginity was occasionally practised among the Ghegs.[28] Child marriage was also practised by the Ghegs, sometimes even before birth.[28][29]


Initially the population of Albania was Orthodox Christian, but in the middle of the 13th century the Ghegs decided to convert to Catholicism to better resist those among the Serbs who belonged to the Orthodox Church.[30][31][32] During the Ottoman period in the history of Albania (1385 — 1912), the majority of Albanians converted to Islam. Today, the majority of Ghegs are Sunni Muslims, with a large minority being Catholic. The Catholics are most heavily concentrated in northwestern Albania and the Malesia region of Montenegro, in both of which they form of which, and have a thinner distribution in Central Albania, Kosovo, and Northeastern Albania. There are also Ghegs who practice Orthodox Christianity, mainly living in the southwest of the Gheg-speaking region, especially Durrës (where they formed 36% of the population in 1918) and Elbasan (where they formed 17% of the population in 1918).[33] Orthodox Ghegs were traditionally also heavily concentrated in the region of Reka e Epërme in Macedonia. There are also some Ghegs who practice Bektashism, living in areas such as Kruja and Bulqiza. Additionally, as is the case with all Albanians, there is a significant percentage of people who don't identify with any faith, and a large number of people do not usually attend the services of any religion.[34][35][36][37]


In the second half of the 19th century, aiming to gain influence over Catholic Albanians Austria-Hungary, with Ottoman approval, opened and financed many schools on Albanian language and Franciscan seminaries and hospitals and trained native clergy which all resulted in development of literature on Albanian language.[38] The culture of the Ghegs blossomed at the beginning of 20th century. Gjergj Fishta and the Scutarine Catholic School of Letters led by Fishta significantly contributed to this blossoming.[39] The Ghegs are known for their epic poetry.[40]

The revival of Catholicism among Albanians gave a new and important impulse to the rise of Gheg culture.[41]

Physical anthropology

The Ghegs have often been described as taller, more slender and having a lighter skin color than the Tosks, who are described as being of a darker Mediterranean type.[42] The Tosks have smaller noses and rounder faces than Ghegs.[43] Some claim that this difference has been reduced because of population movement in the period after 1992.[44]


Pre-Ottoman and Ottoman period

There was a distinction between Ghegs and Tosks before the Ottomans appeared in Albania at the end of the 14th century.[30]

The Ghegs remained out of the reach of the regular Ottoman civil administration until the end of Ottoman rule.[45] The fact that the tribes of northern Albania were not completely subdued by the Ottomans is raised to the level of orthodoxy among the members of the tribes. A possible explanation is that the Ottomans did not have any real interest in subduing the northern Albanian tribes because they were more useful to them as a stable source of mercenaries. The Ottomans implemented the bayraktar system within northern Albanian tribes, and granted some privileges to the bayraktars (banner chiefs) in exchange for their obligation to mobilize local fighters to support military actions of the Ottoman forces.[46] Still many Ottoman officers thought that Ghegs, often referred to as "wild" (Turkish: vahşi), were burden for the empire.[38]

The Ghegs were dominant in the political life of Albania in the pre-communist period.[47]


Politics in Albania has been centered on the constant rivalry for superiority between the Tosks and the Ghegs.[48][49]

Before World War II, the dialect predominantly used for official purposes was Gheg Albanian. This was because Zog, the King of Albania, was the leader of the Ghegs.[50] Nazi Germany recruited Ghegs from the northern territory of the Albanian Kingdom into 21st Waffen Mountain Division of the SS Skanderbeg (1st Albanian) during the World War II. This recruitment was also supported by some anthropological researches which considered Ghegs an Aryan race.[51]

At the end of World War II, communist forces predominantly composed of Tosks captured Albania after the retreat of the Wehrmacht. That was perceived by many Ghegs as the Tosk takeover of Gheg lands.[13] Most of the members of the post-war communist regime and three quarters of the communist party members were Tosks, while Ghegs were predominantly anti-communists. Therefore, the communist takeover was accompanied by the transfer of political power from the Ghegs to the Tosks.[52] The Albanian communist regime unsuccessfully attempted to make the presence of the Ghegs invisible by silencing the Gheg Albanian dialect through the introduction of a standard Albanian literary language predominantly based on the Tosk dialect.[9] The Ghegs were consistently persecuted by the predominantly Tosk regime, which saw them as traditionalist and less developed.[53] After Enver Hoxha died in 1985, he was succeeded by Ramiz Alia, who was one of the few Ghegs among the leaders of the country.[54] He took cautious steps towards changing direction on the national identity issue by gradually assuming the cause of the Ghegs from Kosovo.[55] This change was accompanied by a long-lasting fear that the introduction of "too-liberal" Albanians from Kosovo might disturb the fragile balance between the Tosk and Gheg sub-ethnic groups.[55] Absorbing Yugoslav Ghegs, who were almost as numerous as all Albanians from Albania, could have ruined the predominantly Tosk regime.[1][49]

A former president Sali Berisha, a Gheg from northern Albania, purged the state administration of antagonistic Tosks[56]

After the fall of the communist regime, religion was again the major factor which determined social identity, and rivalry between Ghegs and Tosks re-emerged.[57] The new political leaders of post-communist Albania appointed by Gheg[58] Sali Berisha were almost all Ghegs from northern Albania.[47][56] The administration of Sali Berisha was identified as northern nationalist Gheg in opposition to southern Socialist Tosk,[44] which additionally increased the contention between Tosks and Ghegs.[56] In 1998 Berisha exploited the traditional Gheg—Tosk rivalry when he encouraged armed anti-Government protesters in Shkodër in actions that forced the resignation of prime minister Fatos Nano.[59]

In the 1990s, the Ghegs of Albania were more sympathetic to the struggle of the Ghegs from Kosovo.[60] During the Kosovo War, rivalry between Ghegs and Tosks faded, and a huge number of refugees from Kosovo were catered for with no internal conflict, despite unavoidable grumbles about the disruption of the community and theft.[44]

See also

Notes and references


  1. ^ Kosovo is the subject of a territorial dispute between the Republic of Kosovo and the Republic of Serbia. The Republic of Kosovo unilaterally declared independence on 17 February 2008, but Serbia continues to claim it as part of its own sovereign territory. The two governments began to normalise relations in 2013, as part of the Brussels Agreement. Kosovo has been recognised as an independent state by 108 out of 193 United Nations member states.


  1. ^ a b
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  7. ^ Official Results of Serbian Census 2011–Population PDF (441 KB), pp. 12–13
  8. ^ a b
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  30. ^ a b
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  33. ^ Gruber, Siegfried. Regional variation in marriage patterns in Albania at the beginning of the 20th century. Social Science History Association Annual Meeting St. Louis, October 24–27, 2002. Data ultimately from the 1918 Albanian census. Urban city data displayed on this map here:
  34. ^ "Instantanés d’Albaníe, un autre regard sur les Balkans" (2005), Etudiants en Tourisme et Actions Patrimoniales. (Plus de 72 % irréligieux ou non pratiquants.) -
  35. ^ Zuckerman, Phil. "Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns ", chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed. by Michael Martin, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK (2005) -
  36. ^ O'Brien, Joanne and Martin Palmer (1993). The State of Religion Atlas. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster ("Over 50% of Albanians claim 'no religious alliance.'") -
  37. ^ Goring, Rosemary (ed). Larousse Dictionary of Beliefs & Religions (Larousse: 1994); pg. 581-584. Table: "Population Distribution of Major Beliefs" (Nonreligious 74.00%) -
  38. ^ a b
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  54. ^  – via Questia (subscription required)
  55. ^ a b
  56. ^ a b c
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Further reading

External links

  • Northern Albanian Culture and the Kanun - Lecture given by Robert Elsie at the Symposium: Albanese Tradities en Taal: 100 Jaar Onafhankelijk Albanië / Albanian Language and Culture: 100 Years of Independence, University of Leiden, 10 November 2012
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