Lying above the Drinos valley in southern Albania and overlooking lush fields and snow-capped mountains, Gjirokastra holds within a medley of architectural and cultural wealth.
The silver flat roofs have earned it the epithet of the City of Stone. Ismail Kadare, Albania’s most celebrated writer and winner of the Man Booker International Prize, is a native of Gjirokastra, drawing 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 built by major landowners around the 13th century citadel looming 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 Ottoman-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 is also displayed on the citadel’s grounds.
The vastness of this place takes you by surprise once you step out into 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 woodwork conservation 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 a folk singing style 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 never taught in schools, the iso-polyphony has survived under the patronage of local fans, 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.
The narrow alleyways of Gjirokastra are gilded in historical richness.They take you up to Ismail Kadare’s museum house, Enver Hoxha’s ethnological museum house, and up to the Zekate house, which lies above one the hills, crowning the city…
“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”)
(Photos by Rilind Latifi)