Lying above the Drinos valley in southern Albania and overlooking lush fields and snow-capped mountains, Gjirokastra awes visitors with its architectural and cultural wealth. The silver flat roofs have earned the city the epithet of the City of Stone. Ismail Kadare, Albania’s most celebrated writer and winner of the Man Booker International Prize, was born here and has drawn inspiration for numerous books from the city’s history.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site and an outstanding example of an Ottoman merchant town still surviving in the Balkans, Gjirokastra features two-story houses built in the 17th century, a bazaar, a mosque and two churches of around the same period. The town was developed by major landowners around the 13th century citadel, which looms over the fortified tower houses (Albanian: kulla) below.
As the legend goes, when the Ottomans besieged the town, the Albanian Princess Argyro was left alone in the castle with her infant son. She refused to be caught alive by invading forces and jumped from the fortress walls into the abyss. Some believe that the city was named after the princess. Inspired by her audacity, Ismail Kadare immortalized Argjiro’s story in a poem that is widely read by Albanian students in schools. Others claim that the city took its name from the Greek word for silver – argyrókastron – in reference to the grey stone walls, streets and roofs, shining of silver in the rain.
The citadel was enlarged in 1811 by the Ottoma-era pasha Ali Pasha Tepelena, who added a clock tower and an aqueduct. The castle has been shaped by various rulers; it was used as a prison by both King Zog in the early 20th century and later by the dictator Enver Hoxha. The interior houses numerous tanks and weapons dating from World War II. The shell of an American fighter jet, allegedly forced down by the Communist regime on suspicions of espionage also displayed on the citadel’s grounds.
The vastness of this place takes you by surprise once you step out on the yard and grasp the soaring walls. It is one of the largest castles in the Balkans. The castle museum serves as a research and cultural center, where local and international students learn about conservation of woodwork and preserving the distinctive architectural features of Gjirokastra.
The museum is working to pass on unique, centuries-old traditions to the youth, including the Albanian iso-polyphony, a fascinating musical tradition and a protected UNESCO intangible cultural heritage. Both men and women sing the iso-polyphony at weddings and other communal events. It is polyphonic singing with different tunes sung simultaneously by a choir. This type of singing is thought to have originated from the ethno-geographical region of Epirus. Although not taught in schools, the iso-polyphony has survived thanks to the locals, who would sing it at cafes and the town square.
The historical part of town, including the bazaar, bustles with life and people strolling through the cobblestone streets. Shops filled with antiques, hand-woven rugs and traditional folk costumes line up the alleyways alongside restaurants serving mouthwatering pashaqofte (rice balls with meat) and shapka (corn phyllo dough with spinach). Artisans sitting outside engrave the surrounding mountains on wooden canvas.
As the church bells mixed with the call to prayer from the mosque, we cherished the view from the top of the castle. The historical richness and architectural significance make Gjirokastra a must-see during a trip to Albania.
“and the Turks rushed
to catch the star alive
but how can a star be caught?
The quick Argjiro
with her baby
leapt into the air like a bird
plunging from the castle into the abyss.
She fell like a star,
but her light shone on.”
( Ismail Kadare – “Princesha Argjiro”)