Before the Bunkers: Ottoman Albania

In Tirana, it is easy to see signs of Albania’s recent history with Communism and Enver Hoxha. However, there is much more to Albanian history, most notably the five-hundred-year period during which Albania was part of the Ottoman Empire. This empire was the predecessor to modern-day Turkey, and controlled a large part of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa until it was dissolved shortly before the start of the First World War. Albania’s Ottoman history is best experienced outside the capital.

Berat

My first stop was the city of Berat. Though only about fifty miles south of Tirana, Berat is in a different valley, so the trip takes a few hours. Berat is tucked in a narrow part of the Osum River valley at a point where the hills slope steeply down on both sides of the river to create an easy lookout and defensive position.

The houses in Berat reflect an architectural style that is unique to the region. They are made of timber and painted white, with rows of enormous rectangular windows to provide natural lighting. Some of them are also designed with a traditional Ottoman layout, having a large and luxurious living room for hosting guests and eating meals. The houses are clustered into historic neighborhoods that cascade down the hillside along zigzag cobble streets, giving the impression of houses stacked on top of each other. This layout combined with the large windows is what gives the town its nickname: the city of 1000 windows.

High above all the windows, the hilltop is dominated by Kalaja e Beratit, the Citadel of Berat. The castle was built many centuries ago and was used to defend Berat and the towns further up the valley. Many people built houses within the walls and lived there instead of in the town below. Though the castle no longer serves a defensive purpose, many people still live within its crumbling fortifications. A walk through the Berat citadel reveals a fascinating series of contrasts: ruins and Mercedes; incredible scenic overlooks and men mowing the lawn; tourists taking selfies while a woman hangs out her laundry.

Ottoman House in Berat, Albania
A typical Ottoman-style house in the Citadel of Berat.
Mangalem in Berat, Albania
Mangalem, one of the historic neighborhoods in Berat that make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site distinguished by its unique architecture. Part of the Citadel of Berat can be seen atop the hill.

Krujë

Next, I headed to the town of Krujë. You arrive in Krujë in a recklessly-driven furgon (minibus) on a steep hairpin road that branches off the highway a short distance north of the capital. Once in the town, you walk through an open-air souvenir market where you can find all of the Albania-themed paraphernalia you could ever want, and then you arrive at the castle. The mountainside edifice in Krujë is one of the most important sites in Albania because it belonged to a man named Skënderbej.

Though Albania was part of the Ottoman empire, which was officially Muslim, it was also home to many Christians due to its location in the “melting pot” of the Balkan Peninsula. An Ottoman law enforced a particular type of draft called a devshirme, in which young Christian men were brought to Istanbul to be indoctrinated into Islamic Ottoman life, then placed in military or administrative positions within the empire.

One of the young men drafted into Ottoman service was George Kastrioti Skënderbej, the son of an Orthodox noble family in fifteenth-century Albania, which at the time was still independent. He dutifully served the empire for many years, but resented his forced conversion and the empire’s attempts to expand further in to Europe. So, in the course of a battle between the Ottoman forces and the Hungarians, Skënderbej deserted and returned to his homeland.

Back in Albania, Skënderbej gathered forces and led an uprising, seeking to maintain Albanian sovereignty and expel the invading Ottoman forces. The struggle lasted for several decades, and he was successful in resisting the Ottomans from his base in Krujë. After his death, though, the Albanian kingdoms were quickly captured and incorporated under Ottoman rule, where they remained for the next four hundred years. Despite this, Skënderbej is revered by Albanians as the national hero, the one who valiantly resisted the Ottoman conquest, and he is often depicted riding into battle with his sword drawn.

The perfectly-constructed castle that stands on the hillside in Krujë today is in fact not the one in which Skënderbej lived. The original castle is nothing more than a small pile of ruins. The modern castle was acutally built in the 1980s to be a museum dedicated to Skënderbej. This is not your typical museum, though. Nearly everything displayed here, from the paintings and frescoes to the sculptures and swords, was created in the 1980s specifically to be displayed in the museum. The focus of the museum, it seems to me, is not historical accuracy or to preserve authentic artifacts, but mainly to reinforce Skënderbej’s role as the national hero. Indeed, there were far more Albanian schoolchildren being herded through the museum than there were tourists.

Skënderbej Museum in Krujë, Albania
The National Museum of George Kastrioti Skanderbeg is perched on a mountainside just north of Tirana.

Shkodër

From Krujë, I caught a bus further north to Shkodër. Shkodër is a truly ancient city whose history goes back well beyond the Ottomans, as it was in important city for the Illyrian kingdoms that existed during the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

The Rozafa Castle looms dramatically over the modestly-sized city on a strategically-located hill. The fortress predates the Ottoman Empire and, like Skënderbej, played an important role in the resistance and was one of the final Albanian strongholds to succumb. For this reason, it is cloaked in legends that attribute its strength to a beautiful woman named Rozafa who is said to have been buried alive inside its walls.

From the ramparts, it is easy to see why Shkodër has such a strategic location. The city sits at the point where the Buna River spills out of the massive Lake Shkodër on its short journey to the Adriatic Sea. Two other important rivers, the Kir and the Drin, merge with the Buna at the base of Rozafa Castle after their journeys through the wide plains of northern Albania. As a hub for trade surrounded by fertile agricultural land, abundant fishing waters, and navigable waterways, Shkodër was an important regional city throughout much of history and is still the most significant city in the north of Albania.

Panorama from Rozafa Castle in Shkodër, Albania
This panorama from Rozafa Castle takes in the city of Shkodër, Lake Shkodër, and the Buna River. As usual in Albania, mountains are the ever-present backdrop.
Selfie in Rozafa Castle in Shkodër, Albania
Enjoying the view from Rozafa Castle in Shkodër.
Ura e Mesit near Shkodër, Albania
Ura e Mesit over the Kir River near Shkodër is one of many stone bridges that can be found throughout the Balkan countries. This particular bridge is notable for its backdrop: an abandoned factory that was used to make cement for Enver Hoxha’s bunkers!

For a small country, Albania has a wealth of interesting history and places to visit, not to mention its beautiful nature. If it weren’t for the isolationism that the country endured for much of the twentieth century, it would probably be a rather popular tourist destination. So far Albania is one of my favorite countries in Europe, and I hope more people have the opportunity to explore it. Just not all at once though – it’s in incredible experience to explore a place that has not yet been overrun by the tourism industry! 🙂


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