The Arvanites, the descendants of people who came to Greece from what is now Albania in the Middle Ages, have their own distinct language and culture; they played an important role in the history of Greece, particularly in the War of Independence.
There is great dispute regarding the ethnic origins or the Arvanites, as some claim they are Albanian, and others Greek. However, it is agreed that the group originally came from what is now southern Albania, and moved to southern Greece in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
Considering this fact, the origins of the Arvanites depends on one’s own beliefs regarding nationality and ethnicity, especially after a group left one land during a period when firmly-defined modern nations did not exist, and then lived in another for centuries.
Today, most Arvanites in Greece consider themselves nationally and ethnically Greek, not Albanian.
The origins and history of the Arvanites
Traditionally, Arvanites speak Arvanitika, which is a variety of the Tosk Albanian language, which is spoken in Southern Albania, which has been heavily influenced by Greek. It resembles the Arberesh dialect, which is spoken by the Arbereshe peoples, who, like the Arvanites, left Albania and settled in Italy in the Middle Ages.
Arvantika is at risk of dying out as a language, since much of the younger generations of Arvanites no longer speak the tongue, as they prefer to speak Greek, and many Arvanites have married outside of their communities throughout the century, leading to the loss of many of their traditions.
Additionally, the language is not legally recognized by the Greek state.
Arvanite populations are concentrated in the Peloponnese, Attica, and Boeotia, which are the areas where the group first settled way back in the Middle Ages.
Some historians believe that the Arvanites were brought to Greece by Byzantine rulers to inhabit areas that had been depopulated by war or famine, while others claim they were used as soldiers and builders in the region.
There is also evidence that Arvanites, who are Christians, may have been pushed into moving to Greece in order to resist the spread of Islam in the country after the Ottoman conquest.
Migration to Greece reached its peak in the fourteenth century, and trickled out by 1600. Arvanite communities traditionally lived in small villages that were centered around farming and animal husbandry.
By the fifteenth century, Arvanites made up the majority of residents in many of the areas in which they had settled.
Members of the community largely remained in those villages in the Peloponnese, Attica, and Boeotia until the mid-twentieth century, when internal migration from Greek villages to the city took place in the country on a massive scale. This has also contributed to the decline of the Arvanitika language.
In Arvanite communities, women have always played a strong role, and they were given a voice in public discourse. Incredibly, they were even allowed to bear arms and learn to fight.
The Arvanites were in the forefront of resisting the Ottoman regime during the Greek War of Independence. In fact, many of the most iconic heroes of the war were Arvanites, including Lascarina Bouboulina, Andreas Miaoulis, and Odysseas Androutsos.
During the period after the end of the Greek War of Independence in 1829, nations across Europe became more firmly defined. In the Balkans in particular, which had been under Ottoman rule, the concept of the nation as an defined area with actual borders was relatively foreign until that period.
When the Albanian nation-state was created, the Arvanites aligned themselves more with Greece than with Albania.
Arvanites’ language suppressed
The word “Arvanite” is believed to have come from the region of southern Albania called “Arvana” which was called “Arvon” and “Arvanon” in the Middle Ages. Many have theorized that the Arvanites came from this region.
Others argue that it comes from the prefix arb, or alb, which refers to something related to Albania. In much of Greece’s history, until relatively recently, Arvanites were referred to mainly using the same word for people from Albania generally.
This began to fall out of fashion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when people began to stress the distinction between the Arvanites and Albanians.
When immigration from Albania to Greece increased heavily in the 1990s, some Arvanite groups connected to the new immigrants, citing linguistic similarities, while others began to even further stress the differences between the two groups.
Although Arvanites have played an integral role in the country’s history, their customs and language have been suppressed in Greece during certain periods.
Under the rule of Greek nationalist leader Ioannis Metaxas (1936-194), Greece instituted policies that actively suppressed the use of Arvanitika as a language. This same campaign was reinstituted during the right-wing military dictatorship from 1967 to 1974, when many Arvanites were urged to speak only Greek and abandon their language.