Gjirokastër is a city in southern Albania. 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 population at the 2011 census was 19,836. 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 Grek 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.
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.