In the southern Balkans. nationalist controversies involve history, archeology, religion, language and even geography. Northern Epirus has been described wholly or in part as Illyria, Epirus, Macedonia, Albania, and Greece. Some have claimed that the ancient Epirote tribes were Illyrian, while others contend that they were completely Hellenized. Unlike most other Greeks of the time, who lived in or around city-states such as Athens or Sparta, the Epirotes lived in small villages. Their region lay on the edge of the Greek world and was far from peaceful; for many centuries, it remained a frontier area contested with the Illyrian peoples. However, Epirus had a far greater religious significance than might have been expected given its geographical remoteness, due to the presence of the shrine and oracle at Dodona - regarded as second only to the more famous oracle at Delphi. The Epirotes seem to have initially been regarded with some disdain by the Greeks of the south. The historian Thucydides describes them as "barbarians" and the only Epirotes regarded as truly Greek were the Aeacidae, who claimed to be descended from Neoptolemus, son of Achilles. The Aeacidae established a state in Epirus from about 370 BC onwards, expanding their power at the expense of rival tribes. They allied themselves with the increasingly powerful kingdom of Macedon and in 359 BC, princess Olympias, niece of Arybbas of Epirus, married King Philip II of Macedon. She was to become the mother of Alexander the Great. In the 3rd century BC Epirus remained a substantial power, unified under the auspices of the Epirote League as a federal state with its own parliament (synedrion). Epirus fell to Rome in 167 BC, 150,000 of its inhabitants were enslaved and the region was so thoroughly plundered that it took 500 years for central Epirus to recover fully.
The diversity of the Greek-Albanian border zone was a consequence of two millenia of human traffic. Epirus became the westernmost province of the Eastern Roman Empire (subsequently the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire), ruled from Constantinople when the empire was divided in two in 395 AD. In 536 the Slavs arrived. Many of the towns and villages still bear their Slavic names. When Constantinople fell to the Fourth Crusade in 1204, Michael Angelos Komnenos Ducas seized Epirus to establish an independent Despotate of Epirus. The rulers of the Despotate controlled a substantial area corresponding to a large swathe of northwestern Greece, much of modern Albania and parts of modern FYROM. In 1430 the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Murad II annexed Epirus. Ottoman rule proved particularly damaging in Epirus; the region was subjected to deforestation and excessive cultivation, which damaged the soil and drove many Epirotes to emigrate to escape the region's pervasive poverty. Nonetheless, the Ottomans did not enjoy total control of Epirus. In 1443 George Kastrioti Skenderbeg, who converted to Christianity, revolted against the Ottoman Empire and conquered Northern Epirus, but on his death it fell to Venice. The Ottomans expelled the Venetians from almost the whole area in the late 15th century. The fustanella (white cotton kilt), a significant component of traditional Greek dress, originated in this region and the ancestors of the "Arvanites." an Orthodox Christian Albanian-speaking Greek-identifying community in Greece, migrated from this region to present-day Greece in the Middle Ages. Epirus was unique among Ottoman provinces in that it was scarcely subjected to Turkish colonization or deportation policies. Most Muslims who lived there were local Christians converted in the 17th and 18th centuries.
In the 18th century, as the power of the Ottomans declined, Epirus became a virtually independent region under the despotic rule of Ali Pasha, an Albanian brigand who became the provincial governor of Ioannina in 1788. At the height of his power, he controlled much of western Greece, the Peloponnese and Albania. Ali Pasha's campaigns to subjugate the confederation of the Souli settlements is a well known incident of his rule. His forces met fierce resistance by the Souliote warriors of the mountainous area. After numerous failed attempts to defeat the Souliotes, his troops succeeded in conquering the area in 1803. When the Greek War of Independence broke out, Ali tried to make himself an independent ruler, but he was deposed and murdered by Ottoman agents in 1822. When Greece became independent, Epirus remained under Ottoman rule. However, the inhabitants of the region contributed greatly to the Greek War of Independence. Two of the founding members of the "Filiki Eteria" (secret patriotic society), Nikolaos Skoufas and Athanasios Tsakalos as well as Greece's first constitutional prime minister (1844-1847), Ioannis Kolettis, were native Epirotes.
The key to understanding current conflicts in the area lies in the study of its 19th century history, which was the embryo of Balkan identities. The Treaty of Berlin of 1881 gave Greece parts of southern Epirus, but it was not until the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 that the rest of southern Epirus joined Greece. Northern Epirus was awarded to a newly independent Albania by an international boundary commission. This outcome was unpopular among both Greeks and Albanians, as settlements of the two people existed on both sides of the border. Among Greeks, northern Epirus was regarded as "terra irredenta.". When World War I broke out in 1914, Albania collapsed. Under a March 1915 agreement among the Allies, Italy seized northern Albania and Greece set up an autonomous Greek state of North Epirus in the southern part of the country. Although short-lived, the state of North Epirus left behind a substantial historical record. The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 awarded the area to Greece after World War I, however, political developments such as the Greek defeat in the Greco-Turkish War of 1921-22 and, crucially, Italian, Austrian and German lobbying in favor of Albania meant that Greece, although backed by Russia, could not claim northern Epirus. The area was finally ceded to Albania in 1924.
During the 1930's the Albanian government took measures to suppress the Greek minority including the closing of Greek schools, in violation of the League of Nations Treaty. After World War II, Albania was governed by a Communist regime lead by Enver Hoxha, which transformed the country into a hermetically sealed Gulag, which did its best to blurr the distinction between Albanians and Greeks. The attack was two pronged, destroy the Greek language and more importantly,the Orthodox religion. Adherence to Orthodoxy was considered "anti-modern" and dangerous to the unity of the Albanian state. In 1967, the authorities conducted a violent campaign to extinguish religious life in Albania, claiming that it had divided the Albanian nation and kept it mired in backwardness. Student agitators combed the countryside, forcing Northern Epirotes to quit practicing their faith. All churches, mosques, monasteries, and other religious institutions were closed or converted into warehouses, gymnasiums, and workshops. Clergy were imprisoned, owning an icon became a offense that could be prosecuted under Albanian law. The campaign culminated in an announcement that Albania had become the world's first atheistic state, a feat touted as one of Enver Hoxha's greatest achievements
Various sources estimate that the number of Greeks in the whole of Albania is approximately 100,000 to 200,000. A number of villages of Northern Epirus use Greek as the predominant language. There have been many small incidents between members of the Greek minority and Albanian authorities over issues such as the alleged involvement of the Greek government in local politics, the raising of the Greek flag on Albanian territory, and the language taught in state schools of the region; however, these issues have for the most part been non-violent. The crisis in Greek-Albanian relations reached its peak in late August of 1994, when an Albanian court sentenced five members (a sixth member was added later) of the ethnic Greek political party "Omonia" to prison terms on charges of undermining the Albanian state. Greece responded by freezing all EU aid to Albania, sealing its border with Albania, and between August-November 1994, expelling over 115,000 illegal Albanian immigrants. In December 1994, however, Greece began to permit limited EU aid to Albania, while Albania released two of the Omonia defendants and reduced the sentences of the remaining four. Greece and Albania signed a Friendship, Cooperation, Good Neighborliness and Security Agreement on 21st March 1996. Additionally, Greece is Albania's main foreign investor, having invested more than 400 million dollars in Albania; Albania's second largest trading partner, with Greek products accounting for some 21% of Albanian imports, and 12% of Albanian exports coming to Greece; and Albania;s fourth largest donor country, having provided aid amounting to 73.8 million euros. The Greek minority in Albania however, continues to suffer. The Albanian government has purged ethnic Greeks from appointed positions of power, continues to restrict the teaching of the Greek language and seeks to exert control over the Orthodox Church in Albania.