Under their hero, George Castrioti Skanderbeg, the proud mountain folk had their taste of freedom. However after Skanderbeg’s death in 1468, they could no longer withstand the powerful Ottoman Empire. The people were once again unwilling subjects of the Sultan, waiting for someone to lead them to rebellion.
Thus, when Zogu raised his standard against the Ottoman governor Gasi Bey, the mountain warriors eagerly rose with him. The Ottoman governor was killed in the rebellion and Zogu became ruler of the Mat. It was at this time that the family, heretofore Catholic, were converted to Islam and the Ottoman Sultan acknowledged them as hereditary rulers of the region.
Here, in the wild mountains and forests, the Clan prospered and was free. The prowess of its warriors was respected far and wide, and often they were called upon to assist other clans to revolt and fight the common enemy – the Ottomans.
In 1614, Zogu “The Young” was killed in one such battle. He had received a desperate call for help from the leaders of a clan in central Albania, and had assembled his forces for war. After twelve days of severe fighting in the heights of Peqin, the Ottomans were forced back; but during the fighting Zogu was mortally wounded. He was buried in Tirana. His sons Abdullah Bey and Selman Zogu continued the resistance. In 1621 Abdullah was killed at the battle of Qidhën, near the White Drini River, and six months later his brother Selman died defending “Qafe Bullit”. The reins of power fell to Ahmet Pasha Zogu, who ruled until he was condemned to death by beheading in Ohrid in 1633, presumably after a failed rebellion.
For five hundred years, the family governed the Mat valley, always striving to free themselves from Ottoman domination. There was for instance, Said Bey Zogu, who according to oral history was imprisoned and exiled for life to Tripoli because of his patriotic sentiments and his opposition to the Sultan. Even though imprisoned in Tripoli he could not be silenced; he persuaded his guards to help him in an uprising, which was successful. He took the government of the African province into his own hands, and dictated his terms to the defeated Ottoman government. Under the terms of agreement, his rights were recognized, and he returned in triumph to Albania.
Then there was King Zog’s grandfather, Xhelal Pasha Zogu, who married Ruhije Khanum, (Lady Ruhije), from the wealthy Alltuni family of Kavaje. Xhelal was a trusted confidant of the Grand Vizier Mehmet Emin Ali Pasha. Along with other patriots such as Seit Bey Toptani, Ismail Qemal Bej Vlora and Hoxhë Tasimi, he lobbied Mehmet Ali Pasha who went before the Ottoman Sultan to call for the recognition of the Albanian language.
During the Montenegrin-Ottoman war (1852-53), Xhelal Bey Zogu gained fame as a commander after raising an army of 1500 loyal men from Mati. He showed much bravery in battle, from which he emerged badly wounded. As a reward, he was bestowed the title of “Pasha” by the Sultan and the post of “Kajmekami” (Prefect) of the Sanjak of Diber.
In December 1866, “The Sublime Porte” tasked Xhelal Zogu with the duty of Prefect and commander of the troops in Herzegovina. As a diplomat and an educated man of influence, with the growing support of the Albanian clans, he lobbied Europe, including the Court of Franz Joseph I of Austria, in the hope of gaining support for a rebellion. His plans, however, were uncovered. In March 1869 Xhelal Pasha was forced into self-exile.
In late 1869, Xhelal Pasha travelled to Russia, where, after waiting for seven months, he was received by the Tsar Alexander II in St. Petersburg. Russia had at that time a great amount of influence over Turkish affairs, and the Tsar promised to use his power on Zogu’s behalf. He therefore was to return to Constantinople (Istanbul), where a decree was signed appointing him Vali (governor) of Bitlis. Before he could return and assume his governorship, he Xhelal Pasha Zogu died in Vienna. He was believed to have been poisoned by the Ottomans. The Sultan gave him a State funeral, perhaps to hide the truth, and his remains were sent to Constantinople (Istanbul) and buried at the “Haxhi Badem Uskunda” cemetery.
His youngest son, Xhemal Pasha Zogu, became hereditary governor of the Mat at a young age, with the support of Gazi Myftar Pasha the Vali of Manastir, upon the death of his older brother Riza Bey Zogu whom had represented the Mat region at the League of Prizren.
In 1878 the Albanian League of Prizren was formed, with the purpose of securing the independence of the Nation and fighting any proposals of partitioning Albanian lands. Riza Bey Zogu, was a prominent supporter of the movement and worked to prepare for a revolution. But the Ottomans crushed the rebellion and put its leaders to death, including Riza Bey. He was murdered, together with his wife, on his return to Mat. Riza Bey Zogolli’s legacy today is remembered by the song of the Franciscan friar and poet Gjergj Fishta in the lyrics of “Lahuta e Malcis, Lidhja e Prizrendit”, and by the writings of the historian Kristo Dako.
In the years to come Xhemal Pasha would become politically active and a prominent Albanian figure. He distinguished himself during the “Great Eastern Crisis of 1875-78”. In 1880, he married Zenja Malika Khanum; after she died in childbirth in 1884, he remarried.
His second wife, Sadija Khanum (Sadije Toptani), would become the Queen Mother of the Albanians.
In 1903 Xhemal Pasha joined his relative, Rexhep Pashë Mati, and other patriots in planning a revolution against the Ottoman Sultan Abdyl Hamiti II. Rexhep Pashë Mati was commander of the Turkish Armies in Libya. Other prominent Albanian patriots included Xhafer Bey Breshtoni and Said Efendi. However their attempts were betrayed when the Greek Government informed the Ottomans of their plans. The Ottomans took harsh measures against all involved. In 1908, at the age of forty-eight, Xhemal Pasha died from an unknown illness.
It was under these circumstances that Ahmet Muhtar Zogu Mati, the future King of the Albanians, was born high up in the castle of Burgajet, the North Albanian mountain stronghold of his forefathers, October 8, 1895.