Thursday, November 20, 2008

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Albanian alphabet

Part I

Disclaimer: I recently helped to organize an event to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Albanian alphabet. As I was writing a letter to my friends and supporters about this event, I felt compelled to help them understand its significance, but the letter I was writing was getting much too long and complicated. So I decided that I would write a blog post that would fill in some detail for those who were interested. Then when I set out to write this entry, once again it started getting away from me. I recognize a fundamental problem with what I've written here. If you're Albanian or someone who works with Albanians, you probably won't see anything here you don't know already know. If you're not an Albanian or someone who works with Albanians, you'll probably just find all this tedious. I guess I'm writing it for my own benefit as much as anything. I want to put into words what I've been learning. I'm no historian and no Albanolog, just a friend of the Albanians. If you disagree with my interpretation of events, or if I've gotten something flat out wrong, feel free to let me know.

I have a map of the Balkan Peninsula from the year 1850 -- an original, not a reproduction or photocopy. It was a gift from a friend in Taos, New Mexico, and I treasure it highly. The word "Balkan" or "Balkans" doesn't appear anywhere on my map; instead the title is "Turkey in Europe". That's what they called this part of the world back then.

One of the interesting things about my map is that it captures a snapshot of a very turbulent time when the Turkish Empire in Europe was on the verge of breaking up. On my map the southern part of Greece is not colored in because it was no longer part of Turkey in Europe; it had gained its independence in 1829. In the years that followed the rest of the Balkans would also tear away from Turkey.

By that time Turkey had ruled this part of the world for almost 500 years. At the very same time that the sunlight of the Reformation had been breaking through in Western Europe, the dark cloud of the Turkish empire was descending on the part of the world we now know as the Balkans.* The infamous battle of Kosovo Field, which is usually considered to mark the beginning of Turkish rule in the Balkans took place in 1389 -- just five years after Wycliffe's English translation of the New Testament.

But there were rays of light that reached the Balkans around this time. The earliest existing fragment written in the Albanian language dates back to 1462 and consists of the following words: "I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit" -- 5 centuries to the year before the Catholic Church officially decided to allow the liturgy to be recited in local langugages. And the earliest book in Albanian was the Meshari of Gjon Buzuki(the Missal) a prayer book completed in 1555. The Meshari contained excerpts from the Bible, Catholic liturgy and catechism translated into Albanian.

The Meshari was completed in 1555, just 38 years after Luther had nailed his theses to the Wittenberg Door. By this time the Counter-Reformation was in full swing, and the Catholic Church was busy banning books which dared to translate the Word of God into the vernacular. Nevertheless Gjon Buzuku, the Catholic priest who compiled it, had the foresight to recognize that if Albanian Christians were going to resist the Islamic tide sweeping their lands, they needed God's Word in their own language.

Here is his own explanation of his purpose found the in postscript of the Meshari: "I, Don John, son of Benedict Buzuku, having often considered that our language had in it nothing intelligible from the Holy Scriptures, wished for the sake of our people to attempt, as far as I was able, to enlighten the minds of those who understand, so that they may comprehend how great and powerful and forgiving our Lord is to those who love him with all their hearts. I beg of you from today on to go to church more often to hear the word of God."

To be continued...


Jeff said...

Mark, thank you for beginning to write this up! Great work! I'm looking forward to the next posting.

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