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The Tribes of Albania,
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Northern Albania and Montenegro are the only regions in Europe to have retained a true tribal society up to the mid-twentieth century. This book provides the first scholarly investigation of this tribal society, a pioneer work that offers a detailed survey of all the major Albanian-speaking tribes in Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo. Robert Elsie provides comprehensive material on the 69 different tribes, including data on their locations, religious affiliations, tribal structures and relations, population statistics, tribal folklore, legends and history. Also included are excerpts from the works of prominent nineteenth and early-twentieth century writers, such as Edith Durham and Johann Georg von Hahn, who travelled through the tribal regions, as well as short biographies on prominent figures linked to the tribes. As the first book of its kind, The Tribes of Albania will be of interest to scholars and students of the Balkans, of southeastern European anthropology, ethnography and history.

‘The tribal system of northern Albania is one of the most fascinating aspects of a very distinctive part of Europe. Over hundreds of years, when their territory was under Ottoman rule but seldom fully under Ottoman control, these tribes provided a basis for social identity, local justice and military action. So cohesive were they that the unity of a tribe could easily survive the conversion of one part of it to Islam. Anyone who studies the history of these people will encounter tribal names and tribal identities at every step; and yet, until now, there has never been a general work gathering all the scattered information about them that survives in sources of many different kinds. The Tribes of Albania will be an indispensable and authoritative work of reference. There are few people in the world who could have written such a work; absolutely no one could have done it as well as Robert Elsie, whose knowledge of this material is unparalleled.’ -

Sir Noel Malcolm, Senior Research Fellow, All Souls College, University of Oxford
Published: I.B.Tauris on
ISBN: 9780857739322
List price: $40.00
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The Kelmendi Tribe

Location of Tribal Territory

The Kelmendi tribal region is situated in the present District of Malësia e Madhe in the most northerly and isolated portion of Albania. The core of this region is the upper valley of the Cem (Cijevna) River. Kelmendi borders on the traditional tribal regions of Gruda and Triepshi to the west, Hoti to the southwest, Boga to the south, Shala to the east and on Slavic-speaking tribes to the north. The administrative centre of this region, which consists mostly of canyons and deep valleys, is now the village of Vermosh. The main settlements of Kelmendi include: Vermosh, Tamara, Selca, Lëpusha, Vukël and Nikç.


The name Kelmendi was first recorded in an Ottoman tax register in 1497 as Kelmente¹ and as nahiye Kelmenta (district of Kelmendi).² The Turkish traveller Evliya Çelebi (1611–85), who journeyed through northern Albania in 1662, referred on numerous occasions to the infidel tribe of Klemente or Kelmendi. The ecclesiastical report of Pietro Stefano Gaspari recorded the form Clementi in 1671, as did the map of the Venetian cartographer Francesco Maria Coronelli in 1688 and the map of the Italian cartographer Giacomo Cantelli da Vignola in 1689. The term Kelmendi, with its early variants Klmenti, Klmeni, Klimenti and Clementi, was at any rate known in western Europe in the seventeenth century. Kelmendi, which is also a common family name, in particular in Kosovo, is commonly said to be related to the Latin personal name Clementus or to Saint Clement, borrowed into Albanian through the influence of the Catholic Church, but it is likely that the tribal designation is earlier than the association with Saint Clement. There was, at any rate, a church of Saint Clement in Vukël that was built by the Franciscans in 1651.³

Figure 1.1 A Kelmendi man and woman (copperplate etching by Jacob Adam of Vienna, 1782)

Figure 1.2 Idriz Lohja and his family, of the Lohja tribe

In 1614, the Kelmendi tribe is reported by the Venetian writer Marino Bolizza to have consisted of 178 households and 650 men in arms, commanded by Smail Prentasseu and Pedda Sucha.⁴ He describes them as an untiring, valourous and extremely rapacious people. In a report to the Congregation of the Propaganda Fide in 1634, Gjergj Bardhi (Giorgio Bianchi), the Bishop of Sappa, informs us that the Kelmendi consisted of 300 houses and 3,200 inhabitants.

In 1838, the Austro-Hungarian physician Joseph Müller was informed by a Pater Deda of Vukël that there were 4,200 inhabitants in Kelmendi.⁵ At about the same time (1841), in his ‘Brief Information on the Tribes of High Albania, in particular on the Independent Mountains’, Nicolay, Prince of the Vasoyevich, gave the population of Kelmendi as 2,000, of whom 500 were men in arms.⁶ In 1866, Emile Wiet, the French consul in Shkodra, noted 510 households comprising a total of 3,263 people.⁷ In the late nineteenth century, we can thus estimate the population of the Kelmendi tribe at some 4,000.

Figure 1.3 Classification of the Albanian tribes by Franz Seiner, 1918

In the first reliable census taken in Albania in 1918 under Austro-Hungarian administration, the population statistics of the Kelmendi tribe were given as follows: 779 households with a total of 4,679 inhabitants. This comprised the bajraks of Nikç, Vukël, Selca and Boga, and the settlements of Nikç, Broja, Vukël, Selca, Vermosh, Kolaj and Preçaj.

The Kelmendi were and are a Catholic tribe, although a small minority converted to Islam in the Turkish period. The parish of Selca was founded in 1737 when the first births and deaths were recorded.⁹ Their patron saint is the Virgin Mary, called Our Lady of Kelmendi (Zoja e Kelmendit), whose feast day is celebrated on 24