The deportation of Muslim Albanians from the Niš Sanjak in 1877-1878

When the Eastern Crisis began, the Albanians’ relations with the Ottoman Empire were in a state of exacerbation. None of their demands raised during previous decades had been accepted by the High Porte. Albania did not have any national rights.

The Congress of Berlin opened on 13 June 1878 and its agenda was to revise the Treaty of San Stefano. The six Great Powers of Europe: Germany, Great Britain, France, Russia, Austro-Hungary and Italy, participated. Invited by the Great Powers, the Balkan states (Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and Montenegro) sent their governmental delegations to Berlin. They put forward and defended their political and territorial claims at special sessions of the Congress’  The Albanians and, in particular, the organs of the League of Prizren presented their demands to the Congress.

At the persistence of Austro-Hungary, it was decided that Serbia would not expand south (in direction of Novi Pazar, Mitrovica, Pristina, which Vienna desired for itself) but south-east, giving them regions of Pirot, Tren, Vranja and Nis; at the Treaty of San Stefano, all of these had been promised to Bulgaria. With Britain’s support, the Congress likewise took into consideration the demands of Greece, who had not taken part in the Russo-Turkish War. Athens assumed to annex Thessaly, Macedonia, Crete and particularly Epirus (Vilayet of Ioannina).

Akademia e Shkencave e Shqipërisë, Instituti i Historisë. Historia e Popullit Shqiptar I. (Tiranë, Toena, 2002), 134-163.

The period also saw a deterioration in relations between the Muslims and Christians of Kosovo. The prime cause of this was the mass expulsion of Muslims from the lands taken over by Serbia, Bulgaria and Montenegro in 1877-8. Almost all the Muslims … were expelled from the Morava valley region: there had been hundreds of Albanian villages there, and significant populations in towns such as Prokuplje, Leskovac and Vranje. A Serbian schoolmaster later recalled that the Muslims had been driven out in December 1877 at a time of intense cold: ‘By the roadside, in the Gudelica gorge and as far as Vranje and Kumanovo, you could see the abandoned corpses of children, and old men frozen to death.’ Precise figures are lacking, but one modern study concludes that the whole region contained more than 110,000 Albanians. By the end of 1878 Western officials were reporting that there were 60,000 families of Muslim refugees in Macedonia, ‘in a state of extreme destitution’, and 60-70,000 Albanian refugees from Serbia ‘scattered’ over the vilayet of Kosovo. Albabian merchants who tried to stay on in Niš were subjected to a campaign of murders, and the property of those who left was sold off at one percent of its value. In a petition of 1879 a group of Albanian refugees from the Leskovac area complained that their houses, mills, mosques and tekkes had all been demolished, and that ‘The material arising from these demolitions, such as masonry and wood, has been sold, so that if we go back to our hearths we shall find no shelter.’ …

All these new arrivals were known as muhaxhirs ….  A general word for Muslim refugees. The total number of those who settled in Kosovo is not known with certainty: estimates ranged from 20,000 to 50,000 for Eastern Kosovo. While the governor of the vilayet gave a total of 65,000 in 1881, some of whom were in the sancaks of Skopje and Novi Pazar. At a rough estimate, 50,000 would seem a reasonable figure for those muhaxhirs of 1877-8 who settled in the territory of Kosovo itself.

Noel Malcolm, A Short History of Kosovo, London, 1998, pp228-9.

Parallel to the Treaty of San Stefano, the Treaty of Berlin decided to give Albanian-populated lands to other countries. The High Porte’s (the Ottoman Government) inability to secure the interests of territory where 70% of the population was Muslim and generally loyal, encouraged the Albanians to organise the protection of their lands. Likewise, they were considering the creation of an autonomous administration like Serbia’s and the Danubian Principalities’.

As the Treaty of Berlin had prescribed, the Great Powers formed a commission in August 1878 to establish the Turko-Montenegrin border. They relied on the Porte (Ottoman government) to unequivocally impose these decisions upon the native population but Ottoman troops were not strong enough to accomplish it.

Barbara Jelavich. Historia e Ballkanit-shekulli i tetëmbëdhjetë dhe nëntëmbëdhjetë. (Tiranë, Përpjekja, 1999), 337.


What’s wrong with mountains that are rattling
poor Muhaxhirs where they’re headed
through rain and snow
their children dying in their hands
none of them cannot begin the journey
Who’s Albanian who’d do a charity
to Muhaxhirs to give shelter,
warms them up and gives them dinner
prepares the beds so that calmly they can sleep
since they left their darkened house
had no bread to bake on ashes,
neither a pan, nor a shovel,
Sheikh Ahmet sent his words:
– My heart has always wanted,
to sing songs for the Muhaxhirs,
Where they fled and they headed,
– O king, say Muhaxhirs!
O king, the new king,
You sold Bosnia and Rumelia
Do you see to what happened to the children?
our poor children they did slaughter
and they have entirely frozen
naked and barefooted, in rain and snow…

(a Folk song)

Emigrants’ properties and the implementation the Article 39 of the Treaty of the Congress of Berlin

-Permitted by states (Serbian Principality and the Ottoman Empire), Albanian landlords, Circassians and others who relinquished their lands had the right to go in person to the local council and begin the procedures to sell their properties in this way:

– Albanian landlords and others could authorize a different person living there (a Serb or other) to sell their properties. (This is what those Albanians, Turks and others who had remained, there did. Mostly people from the feudal class mediated the selling and renting of properties, etc.)

– If landlords had no wish to loose and sell their properties, they could use them by giving to somebody to use it as agreed in contract between the two parties; that money had to be sent to the relevant Muhaxhir landlord.

As these data show, Article 39 was well-constructed in theory. However, when the political element entered the scene, difficulties and complications arose and, therefore, this article remained unimplemented.

Sabit Uka. Shpërngulja e shqiptarëve nga Serbia Jugore më 1877-1878 dhe vendosja e tyre në Rrafshin e Kosovës. (Prishtinë, Zëri, 1991), 7.

A general picture of the population in the Sanjak of Novi Pazar.

New Serbian territories gained in 1877/78.

Facsimile of the Russian Encyclopaedia map showing Serbia’s actual borders in 1817

Kosovo Vilayet

Kosovo Vilayet 1881-1912.

A mosque in Jagodina, built in 1555, destroyed in 1928.

Niš Castle in 1878

Pirot, known at that time as Sheherkoy, was populated with Albanians.

Before 1877, Niš had 2,000 Albanian and Turkish houses and approximately 30,000 inhabitants and 3,500 houses inhabited by Christians.

Before 1877, Niš had 2,000 Albanian and Turkish houses and approximately 30,000 inhabitants and 3,500 houses inhabited by Christians.

Albanian houses in Prokuplja, most of them burnt or ruined

Kurshumlia had 67 villages and 1,571 Albanian houses and very few Serbs


Muhaxhir inhabitants. The man, sitting in the middle, comes from Pestresh (Toplica)

An Albanian Muhaxhir family deported in Turkey.

Sejdi Hysen’s family from Kapit village in Medvegja region

All the above sources come from: State Agency of Kosovo Archives. The Deportation of Albanian from the Sanjak of Nis 1877-78. Pristina, 2018. E-book, link:

Political events in the Balkans 1812-1919. Georges Castellan. Histori e Ballkanit. (Tiranë, Çabej, 1991), 256.