Gjirokastër is a city in southern Albania with a population of 43,000. Lying in the historical region of Epirus, it is the capital of Gjirokastër County.
Its old town is inscribed on the World Heritage List as "a rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town, built by farmers of large estate." Gjirokastër is situated in a valley between the Gjerë mountains and the Drino River, at 300 m (984 ft) above sea level.
The city is overlooked by the Gjirokastër Castle where Gjirokaster National Folklore Festival is held every five years. Gjirokastër is the birthplace of former Albanian communist leader Enver Hoxha and notable writer Ismail Kadare. It hosts the Eqerem Çabej University.
The city appears in the historical record in 1336 by its Greek name, Argyrokastro (Αργυρόκαστρο), as part of the Byzantine Empire. It later became the center of the local principality under the Albanian lord, Gjon Zenebishi (1373-1417), before falling under Ottoman Empire rule for the next five centuries. Taken by the Greek Army during the Balkan Wars on account of its large Greek population, it was eventually incorporated into the newly independent state of Albania in 1913.
This proved highly unpopular with the local Greek population, who rebelled and after several months of guerilla warfare established the short-lived Autonomous Republic of Northern Epirus with Gjirokaster as its capital in 1914. It was definitively awarded to Albania in 1921. In more recent years, the city witnessed anti-government protests that lead to major political instability in Albania (1997).
Alongside Albanians, the city is home to a substantial Greek minority. Gjirokastër, together with Saranda, is considered one of the centers of the Greek community in Albania, and there is a Greek consulate in town.
The city appeared for the first time in historical records under its medieval Greek name of Argyrocastron (Greek: Αργυρόκαστρον), as mentioned by John VI Kantakouzenos in 1336. The name comes from the Medieval Greek ἀργυρόν (argyron), meaning "silver", and κάστρον (kastron), from the Latin castrum meaning "castle" or "fortress", thus "silver castle".
The theory that the city took the name of the Princess Argjiro, a legendary figure about whom Ismail Kadare wrote a poem in the 1960s, is considered a folk etymology, since the princess is said to have lived later, in the 15th century.
The definite Albanian form of the name of city is Gjirokastra, while in the Gheg Albanian dialect it is known as Gjinokastër, both of which derive from the Greek name. Alternative spellings found in Western sources are Girokaster and Girokastra. In Aromanian the city is known as Ljurocastru, while in modern Greek it is known Αργυρόκαστρο (Argyrokastro). During the Ottoman era the town was known in Turkish as Ergiri.
Archaeologists have found pottery objects of the early Iron Age in Gjirokastër, which first appeared in the late Bronze Age in Pazhok, Elbasan District, and are found throughout Albania. The earliest recorded inhabitants of the area around Gjirokastër were the Greek tribe of the Chaonians.
The city's walls date from the 3rd century AD. The high stone walls of the Citadel were built from the 6th to the 12th century. During this period, Gjirokastër developed into a major commercial center known as Argyropolis (Ancient Greek: Ἀργυρόπολις, meaning "Silver City") or Argyrokastron (Ancient Greek: Ἀργυρόκαστρον, meaning "Silver Castle").
The city was part of the Byzantine Despotate of Epirus, and it was first mentioned, by the name of Argyrokastro, by the Byzantine Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos in 1336. During 1386–1418 it became the capital of the Principality of Gjirokastër under Gjon Zenebishi. In 1417 it became part of the Ottoman Empire and in 1419 it became the county town of the Sanjak of Albania. During the Albanian Revolt of 1432-1436 it was besieged by forces under Depë Zenebishi, but the rebels were defeated by Ottoman troops led by Turahan Bey
According to Turkish traveller Evliya Çelebi, who visited the city in 1670, at that time there were 200 houses within the castle, 200 in the Christian eastern neighborhood of Kyçyk Varosh (meaning small neighborhood outside the castle), 150 houses in the Byjyk Varosh (meaning big neighborhood outside the castle), and six additional neighborhoods: Palorto, Vutosh, Dunavat, Manalat, Haxhi Bey, and Memi Bey, extending on eight hills around the castle. According to the traveller, the city had at that time around 2000 houses, eight mosques, three churches, 280 shops, five fountains, and five inns.
In 1811, Gjirokastër became part of the Pashalik of Yanina, then led by the Albanian-born Ali Pasha, and was transformed into a semi-autonomous fiefdom in the southwestern Balkans until his death in 1822. After the fall of the pashalik in 1868, the city was the capital of the sandjak of Ergiri (the Turkish name for Gjirokastër).
On 23 July 1880, southern Albanian committees of the League of Prizren held a congress in the city, in which was decided that if Albanian-populated areas of the Ottoman Empire were ceded to neighbouring countries, they would revolt. During the Albanian National Awakening (1831–1912), the city was a major centre of the movement, and some groups in the city were reported to carry portraits of Skanderbeg, the national hero of the Albanians during this period.
Given its large Greek population, the city was claimed and taken by Greece during the First Balkan War of 1912–1913, following the retreat of the Ottomans from the region. However, it was awarded to Albania under the terms of the Treaty of London of 1913 and the Protocol of Florence of 17 December 1913.
This turn of events proved highly unpopular with the local Greek population, and their representatives under Georgios Christakis-Zografos formed the Panepirotic Assembly in Gjirokastër in protest. The Assembly, short of incorporation with Greece, demanded either local autonomy or an international occupation by forces of the Great Powers for the districts of Gjirokastër, Saranda, and Korçë.
In March 1914, the Autonomous Republic of Northern Epirus was declared in Gjirokastër and was confirmed by the Great Powers with the Protocol of Corfu. The Republic, however, was short-lived, as Albania collapsed at the beginning of the First World War. The Greek military returned in October–November 1914, and again captured Gjirokastër, along with Saranda and Korçë.
In April 1916, the territory referred to by Greeks as Northern Epirus, including Gjirokastër, was annexed to Greece. The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 restored the pre-war status quo, essentially upholding the border line decided in the 1913 Protocol of Florence, and the city was again returned to Albanian control.
In April 1939, Gjirokastër was occupied by Italy following the Italian invasion of Albania. In December 8, 1940, during the Greco-Italian War, the Greek Army entered the city and stayed for a five-month period before capitulating to the Germans in April 1941 and returning the city to Italian command. After Italy's capitulation in September 1943, the city was taken by German forces, and eventually returned to Albanian control in 1944.
The postwar Communist regime developed the city as an industrial and commercial centre. It was elevated to the status of a museum town, as it was the birthplace of the Communist leader of Albania, Enver Hoxha, who had been born there in 1908. His house was converted into a museum.
Gjirokastër suffered severe economic problems following the end of communist rule in 1991. In the spring of 1993, the region of Gjirokastër became a center of open conflict between Greek minority members and the Albanian police. The city was particularly affected by the 1997 collapse of a massive pyramid scheme which destabilised the entire Albanian economy.
The city became the focus of a rebellion against the government of Sali Berisha; violent anti-government protests took place which eventually forced Berisha's resignation. On 16 December 1997, Hoxha's house was damaged by unknown attackers, but subsequently restored.
Religion and culture
In 1925, Albania became the world center of Bektashism, a Muslim sect. The sect was headquartered in Tirana, and Gjirokastër was one of six districts of the Bektashism in Albania, with its center at the tekke of Asim Baba. The city retains a large Bektashi and Sunni Muslim population. Historically there were 15 and tekkes and mosques, of which 13 were functional in 1945. Only Gjirokastër Mosque has survived; the remaining 12 were destroyed or closed during the Cultural Revolution of the communist government in 1967.
The city is home to an Eastern Orthodox diocese, part of the Orthodox Church of Albania.
17th-century Ottoman traveller Evliya Çelebi, who visited the city in 1670, described the city in detail. One Sunday, Çelebi heard the sound of a vajtim, the traditional Albanian lament for the dead, performed by a professional mourner. The traveller found the city so noisy that he dubbed Gjirokastër the "city of wailing".
The novel Chronicle in Stone by Albanian writer Ismail Kadare tells the history of this city during the Italian and Greek occupation in World War I and II, and expands on the customs of the people of Gjirokastër. At the age of twenty-four, Albanian writer Musine Kokalari wrote an 80-page collection of ten youthful prose tales in her native Gjirokastrian dialect: As my old mother tells me (Albanian: Siç me thotë nënua plakë), Tirana, 1941. The book tells the day-by-day struggles of women of Gjirokastër, and describes the prevailing mores of the region.
Gjirokastër, home to both Albanian and Greek polyphonic singing, is also home to the National Folklore Festival (Albanian: Festivali Folklorik Kombëtar) that is held every five years. The festival started in 1968 and was most recently held in 2009, its ninth season. The festival takes place on the premises of Gjirokaster Castle. Gjirokaster is also where the Greek language newspaper Laiko Vima is published. Founded in 1945, it was the only Greek-language printed media allowed during the Socialist People's Republic of Albania.
The city is built on the slope surrounding the citadel, located on a dominating plateau. Although the city's walls were built in the third century and the city itself was first mentioned in the 12th century, the majority of the existing buildings date from 17th and 18th centuries. Typical houses consist of a tall stone block structure which can be up to five stories high. There are external and internal staircases that surround the house.
It is thought that such design stems from fortified country houses typical in southern Albania. The lower storey of the building contains a cistern and the stable. The upper storey is composed of a guest room and a family room containing a fireplace. Further upper stories are to accommodate extended families and are connected by internal stairs. Since Gjirokastër's membership to UNESCO, a number of houses have been restored, though others continue to degrade.
Many houses in Gjirokastër have a distinctive local style that has earned the city the nickname "City of Stone", because most of the old houses have roofs covered with flat dressed stones. A very similar style can be seen in the Pelion district of Greece. The city, along with Berat, was among the few Albanian cities preserved in the 1960s and 1970s from modernizing building programs. Both cities gained the status of "museum town" and are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The Gjirokastër Castle dominates the town and overlooks the strategically important route along the river valley. It is open to visitors and contains a military museum featuring captured artillery and memorabilia of the Communist resistance against German occupation, as well as a captured United States Air Force plane, to commemorate the Communist regime's struggle against the imperialist powers.
Additions were built during the 19th and 20th centuries by Ali Pasha of Tepelene and the Government of King Zog. Today it possesses five towers and houses a clock tower, a church, water fountains, horse stables, and many more amenities. The northern part of the castle was turned into a prison by Zog's government and housed political prisoners during the communist regime.
Gjirokastër features an old Ottoman bazaar which was originally built in the 17th century; it was rebuilt in the 19th century after a fire. There are more than 200 homes preserved as "cultural monuments" in Gjirokastër today. The Gjirokastër Mosque, built in 1757, dominates the bazaar.
When the town was first proposed for inclusion on the World Heritage list in 1988, International Council on Monuments and Sites experts were nonplussed by a number of modern constructions which detracted from the old town's appearance. The historic core of Gjirokastër was finally inscribed in 2005, 15 years after its original nomination.
Gjirokastër is principally a commercial center with some industries, notably the production of foodstuffs, leather, and textiles. Recently a regional agricultural market that trades locally produced groceries has been built in the city. Given the potential of southern Albania to supply organically-grown products, and its relationship with Greek counterparts of the nearby city of Ioannina, it is likely that the market will dedicate itself to organic food in the future.
However, currently trademarking and marketing of such products are far from European standards. The Chamber of Commerce of the city, created in 1988, promotes trade with the Greek border areas. As part of the financial support from Greece to Albania, the Greek Armed Forces built a hospital in the city.
In recent years, many traditional houses are being reconstructed and owners lured to come back, thus revitalizing tourism as a potential revenue source for the local economy. However, some houses continue to degrade from lack of investment, abandonment or inappropriate renovations as local craftsmen are not part of these projects. In 2010, following the Greek economic crisis, the city was one of the first areas in Albania to suffer, since many Albanian emigrants in Greece are becoming unemployed and thus are returning home.
The first school in the city, a Greek language school, was erected in the city in 1663. It was sponsored by local merchants and functioned under the supervision of the local bishop. In 1821, when the Greek War of Independence broke out, it was destroyed, but it was reopened in 1830. In 1727 a madrasah started to function in the city, and it worked uninterruptedly for 240 years until 1967, when it was closed due to the Cultural Revolution applied in communist Albania.
In 1861–1862 a Greek language school for girls was founded, financially supported by the local Greek benefactor Christakis Zografos. The first Albanian school in Gjirokastër was opened in 1886. Today Gjirokastër has seven grammar schools, two general high schools (of which one is the Gjirokastër Gymnasium), and two professional ones.
The city is home to the Eqerem Çabej University, which opened its doors in 1968. The university has recently been experiencing low enrollments, and as a result the departments of Physics, Mathematics, Biochemistry, and Kindergarten Education did not function during the 2008–2009 academic year.
In 2006, the establishment of a second university in Gjirokastër, a Greek-language one, was agreed upon after discussions between the Albanian and Greek governments. The program had an attendance of 35 students as of 2010, but was abruptly suspended when the University of Ioannina in Greece refused to provide teachers for the 2010 school year and the Greek government and the Latsis foundation withdrew funding.