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Robert Elsie
Albanian Literature

Oral Literature  |  Legends


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Legend of Jabal-i Alhama

Travelling through southern Albania in 1670, Ottoman traveller Evliya Chelebi (1611-1684) recounts the apocryphal legend of the Arab sheikh Jabal-i Alhama, who fled to the mountains of Kurvelesh in Albania and died in Elbasan. According to Evliya, he is the father of the Albanian people.

The origin and lineage of the Albanian people. They stem from the Quraysh tribe, the Arab tribe inhabiting Mecca. By God’s wisdom, a certain Arab sheikh named Jabal-i Alhama, one of their clan chieftains, accidentally put out the eye of an Arab bey. The Arab bey who lost his eye went to the caliph Omar and demanded that Jabal-i Alhama’s eye be put out in accordance with the definitive Koranic verse, 'Albanian Olive Pickers' by John Singer Sargent, 1909“And We prescribed for them a life for a life and an eye for an eye.” In accordance with the Book of God, Omar ordered that Jabal-i Alhama’s eye be put out. Jabal-i Alhama, terrified that he would be blinded, fled to Antioch, accompanied by 3,000 of his tribesmen, and sought refuge with king Heraclius. The king gave him the Jabaliyya mountains, so-called because Jabal settled there. One of Jabal-i Alhama’s brothers, Keysu, dwelt in the Aneh and Selme desert and the Keys Arabs are named after him. After Hulagu martyred al-Mustansir-bi’allah, the last Abbasid caliph, and destroyed Baghdad (656 A.H.[1258 A.D.]), he drove out the Keys Arabs and forced them to settle in the oak forests of the Kipchak Steppe. From them stem the Cherakis Arabs who started speaking a language of their own. It was thus that the Cherkess or Circassian people came into being - they were originally Keys Arabs of the Quraysh tribe. Meanwhile, another clan related to Jabal-i Alhama fled from Mecca and settled in Gaza with Arab al-Hashim, the uncle of the Prophet Mohammed. This is how the Hashemite people came into being.

When Omar learned that Jabal-i Alhama had taken refuge with King Heraclius and had apostasized from Islam, he sent an expedition against him of 40,000 Muslim warriors, led by Omar ibn Abdalaziz, Khalid ibn Walid and Aswad ibn Miqdad. Jabal-i Alhama could no longer hold out in the fortress he had built in Jabaliyya, so he fled with all his followers to the Aegean islands. His three sons, Abaza, Lazka and Migral, fled by fair weather to the Genoese king living in ‘Macedonia,’ i.e. Galata in Istanbul. The king gave them grazing lands on the coast of the Black Sea. Abaza settled in the Abkhaz mountains where his people started speaking a language of their own, becoming the Abhazians. Lazka settled in the region of Trebizond where his people started speaking a language of their own - known as Chichu - and became the Laz people. The third son, Migral settled in the sandjak of Batumi on the banks of the Choruh river, which flows below of the fortress of Gönye, and thus the Mingrelian people came into being.

As for Jabal-i Alhama himself, fearing the caliph Omar, he was unable to settle anywhere. Finally, travelling by ship, he took refuge with the king of Spain. When they told him that they were of the tribe of Quraysh, the king gave him the uninhabited mountains of Delvina, mentioned above. After some generations, they populated those rugged mountains and started speaking a language of their own. So as not to have their eyes put out, they used to say, “‘ār-nā-būd (“May there be no shame.”). But since they stemmed from the Quraysh tribe, they called the mountains they now occupied the Quryelesh (Kurvelesh) mountains, meaning Qurayshi. They are a ruthless people. It is they who sold their services to Venice for one gold coin a day and who always fought us in Candia. Despite this, they still claim to be Muslims. They are indeed brave and capable warriors. Such is the origin and descent of the obstreperous Albanians. Jabal-i Alhama subsequently died as a Muslim in the city of Elbasan. In the Tuhfa history, there is extensive information on this tribe. This clan of Quraysh actually do look like Arabs, and in addition to all their other weapons, they do use bows and arrows.


[extract from: Robert Dankoff and Robert Elsie (ed.): Evliya Çelebi in Albania and Adjacent Regions (Kosovo, Montenegro, Ohrid), Leiden 2000, p. 65-67. Translated from the Ottoman Turkish by Robert Elsie and Robert Dankoff.]