March 7, 1887: Korça, Albania — Albanian patriots opened the first desegregated, secular school in what was then the Ottoman Empire, a country that spanned across three continents. 35 students of different religions and social backgrounds attended classes in their native Albanian language.
This was a great achievement for the Albanian national movement as well as secular liberals in the Ottoman Empire.
The Ottoman government didn’t recognize ethnic or linguistic communities; it only recognized religion establishments and their languages. As the Albanians lacked a common religion or a national church, they were allowed no education in their own tongue — save for a few Catholic schools in some areas, which were also heavily oppressed. For centuries of Ottoman rule in Albania, Albanian books were prohibited, and any printing in the language had to be done abroad.
The tide turned briefly as an ethnic Albanian became a high official for education in the Ottoman government, and issued a licensed for the first secular Albanian school in Korça. It opened on March 7, a day now observed as Teachers’ Day in Albanian-speaking countries.
The Korça school’s legacy is undeniable. But its actual existence was brief.
It didn’t take long for the Ottoman authorities to resume oppression against Albanian education. The school was shut down, and its leaders imprisoned or killed.
An infamous role, which continues to this day, has been played by the Orthodox Christian churches of neighboring countries. The Greek Orthodox Church, in particular, condemned the use of the Albanian language as diabolical, in an effort to assimilate Albanian speakers and expand Greece’s national boundaries.
Ottoman Turkish nationalists, on the other hand, sought to assimilate Muslim Albanians through Turkish schools. “Albanian . . . will be utterly forgotten in twenty years,” wrote a prominent Ottoman author in the 19th century.
But Albanian wasn’t forgotten. It only grew stronger and became the driving force for Albania’s independence from the Ottoman Empire. And again, after Albania was partitioned in 1913, the language kept the nation together, despite the borders forced by foreign powers.
Efforts to exterminate the Albanian language and nation have not come to an end. They continued throughout the 20th century, and continue to this day, with Serbia taking the lead in shutting down Albanian schools and carrying out atrocities against the Albanian people.
But history has shown us again, and the Albanian people know better, that their language will live. I, for one thing, am not giving up on it.
Photo: Tori Oseku (CC BY-SA 4.0).