Aleksandar Stipcevic – The Illyrians are the autochthonous population of the Western...

Aleksandar Stipcevic – The Illyrians are the autochthonous population of the Western Balkans


Aleksandar Stipcevic, a highly distinguished Croatian archeologist, bibliographer, academic, essayist and Albanologist who was also an external member of the Academy of Sciences and Arts of Kosovo, passed away at the age of 85. The Republic of Albania honored and decorated him with “Naim Frasheri” medal and the order of “George Kastrioti Skanderbeg”.

Aleksandar was born on 10 October 1930, in the village of Arbanasi near Zadar, Croatia whose family of Albanian origin came some 300 hundred years ago from Ana e Malit, a region in present-day Montenegro. His ancestral roots deeply ingrained in him, had an important influence in his upbringing and this was one of the main reasons why he decided to study the Illyrians while still being a student of archaeology at the University of Zagreb. He has clearly stated this in an interview-based article which was published many years later: “I decided to study the Illyrians when I was a student of archaeology. I’ve continuously been preoccupied with them, first of all because I thought and still think that the history of the Balkans and even the present, cannot be studied without having a knowledge of Illyrian element. Everything that has happened in the Balkans since the Middle Ages, in some way has been built on a layer known and called by us as Illyrian. So every story about the Balkans begins with the Illyrians. (“Bota e Re”, Prishtina 1985).

His first book “Gli Iliri”, Milan 1966, was translated into Albanian by Prof. Zef Mirdita and was published in Pristina, 1967 by the Rilindja Publishing House. Prof. Zef Mirdita, a translator and colleague sent me a copy of the book and with all due respect to the author and appreciation for his work, I published a review for readers and scholars in Albania (Studime Historike, no.4, 1968), where among others I write: “The work of A. Stipecevic, after the work of Karl Çaçi “The Illyrians”, Tirana 1923, marks a new success in the field of Illyrology. The author has been able to give a more complete insight into Illyrian history and culture. A. Stipcevic has put together different aspects of the lives of the Illyrians, of their history and culture and has managed to make a synthesis of everything that was said and written for the Illyrians “. In this way I became acquainted with the author of the Illyrian work, an acquaintance that turned into a friendship, which through the writings and the literature exchange lasted for more than four decades. Prof. A. Stipcevic with his systematic work, with his rigour and scholar’s acrimony in collecting, classifying and generalizing the results of Illyrian studies, continued to rewrite, supplement and expand his work “The Illyrians”, which today has 9 editions and reprints in four different languages (Italian, Croatian, Albanian and English). The latest and most complete version is “THE ILLYRIANS, history, life, culture and cult symbols”, Tirana 2002, p.514, TOENA publications. Each topic constitutes the chapters of this book, each one being elaborated in detail, plainly and clearly. Thus the chapter called “History” considers the name of Illyrians, Illyrian ethno-genesis, ethnic boundaries and topography of Illyrian tribes, Greek colonisation, the main Illyrian states, Roman-Illyrian wars, and Illyrians under Roman occupation.

Stipcevic’s contribution lies in the presentation of his views on the origin of Illyrians, their country and their historical significance in the ancient world. He supports the thesis that the Illyrians are the autochthonous inhabitants of the Western Balkans. What matters is the author’s attitude towards the penetration of Roman culture and civilization. ”Illyrians in their own lands”, the author writes, “continue to speak their own language, worship their own gods, bury their dead in a traditional way, cultivate their land the same way their ancestors did, wear their traditional costumes and obey the political and social order of their tribal organisation, which they only adapt to the structure of Roman administration if necessary. (The Illyrians, Pristina 1980, p.70).

Owing to the careful consideration of the sources of ancient authors and evidences from archaeological discoveries, the author for the first time provides a bunch of useful data on the Illyrian customs, their daily lives, birth and death, their beverages, clothing, hygiene and illnesses. He illustrates many of these aspects through different objects of material culture, objects of everyday use and cult objects. In his almost exhausting work, A. Stipcevic reconstructs the spiritual life, religion, and totemism. Efforts are made to extract evidence from the depths of the centuries on Illyrian music, dances and language. Regarding the economic life and social relations, the author in particular speaks about agriculture, livestock, language, fishing, salt mines, glass production, piracy, trade and trade routes, coins, and social organisation of the Illyrians.

Aleksandar Stipcevic was a cabinet archaeologist. He was Head of Library of the Croatian Academy of Sciences, giving a remarkable contribution to the methodical and scientific processing of books. He is the author of the Illyrian Bibliography, of the ancient Bibliography of Yugoslavia, etc. Publication of his work “Povijest knjige” (The history of the book), Zagreb 1985, p.560, accompanied by many illustrations, translated into Albanian and published in Pristina 1988 and in Tirana 2000, best reflects his half-century working and his encyclopaedic knowledge. The story on the history of the book begins with clay tablets found in ancient Mesopotamia 4500 years ago, with the Library of Alexandria, with Gutenberg’s printing press up to the electronic book. And in the end he writes: “Is the end of Gutenberg’s Era approaching”, referring to the books made out of papers “or will the future computerized libraries of Alexandria take their place? Let’s leave it to book historians of the future” A. Stipcevic concludes.

Stipçeviç devoted the last years of his career to scientific research of the cultural, spiritual and linguistic heritage of his homeland which is best reflected in the compilation of studies “Traditional culture of Zara Arbëresh people” Pristina 2012, p.438, a work written with love about the values and tradition of his forefathers.

Prof. A. Stipcevic, has actively participated in many congresses and scientific conferences held in Tirana and Pristina. In the lecture he presented at the second Assembly of Illyrian Studies in Tirana (1985) he addresses and proves the presence of the Illyrian element throughout the Balkans. He concludes that this component is an ethnic substrate, which is present in all the peoples of the Peninsula. It cannot be a divisive element, but rather a unifying one. A.Stipcevic in many cases refers to the studies of Albanian colleagues when he writes: “Of all the experts I’ve known who haven’t  only been my role models but also very important people in my life, I would like to mention my Albanian colleagues: Anamali, Prendi, Korkuti. They are absolutely world-class experts and good friends”. (Bota e Re, Pristina 1985).

A fifty-year scientific research work of Prof. A. Stipcevic on ILLYRIANS, on Arbanasi people of Zadar and beyond, stands dignified and solid like a “Cyclops Stone” ( massive carved stones used in wall construction of Illyrian cities and towns  4th-3rd century BC) in the history of Illyrian studies.