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Gjirokastra June 5, 2009
by Oliver Gilkes

History, restoration, and daily life in Albania's Silver City

In "Saving the Silver City" (May/June 2009), I wrote of efforts to preserve Gjirokastra, an Ottoman merchant town in southern Albania. As an adviser to the Gjirokastra Conservation and Development Organization, I've been involved with the work here for 8 years. But I never grow tired of Gjirokastra, with its 13th-century castle overlooking steep slopes on which perch hundreds of distinctive tower houses with stone roofs, wooden balconies, and whitewashed stone walls. It's no wonder that the city has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here you'll find links to the 19th-century despot Ali Pasha (see "Encounters with Ali Pasha") and to Enver Hoxha, the xenophobic communist leader of the later 20th century. Nearby are impressive ruins of classical cities such as Hadrianopolis and Antigoneia. From the cobbled streets that climb steeply out of the bazaar to the castle, I hope you enjoy these views of Gjirokastra, a unique treasure of cultural heritage.

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Ali Pasha (1741-1822), the Ottoman ruler of much of modern Albania, as seen in a statue in his native town of Tepelana, and in a pre-1812 painting by French landscape painter Louis Dupré, one of the many European visitors who came to Albania to meet the colorful pasha in person. Ali fortified Gjirokastra heavily and used it as one of his centers of administrative and military power. (Courtesy Alket Islami, Chris Hassle & GCDO)
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19th-century European artists including Edward Lear (left) and Thomas Allon (right) were fascinated by the landscapes of Albania, and especially by Gjirokastra with its imposing castle and fortifications and Ottoman houses perched on steeply sloping hills. (Courtesy Alket Islami, Chris Hassle & GCDO)
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Native son communist dictator Enver Hoxha visits his hometown in 1978. (Courtesy Alket Islami, Chris Hassle & GCDO)
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Children work on a cobble road in the 1970s as part of a communist initiative to restore Gjirokastra. (Courtesy Alket Islami, Chris Hassle & GCDO)
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Currently efforts are underway to restore Gjirokastra's 19th-century bazaar, open new shops and cafes, and attract residents back to and tourists to the city's historical center. The bazaar remains the centre of life in the old city, a place to meet and shop and still the principal, and sometimes chaotic, main thoroughfare through the town. New businesses are opening as entrepreneurs cater to the increasing tourist trade. (Courtesy Alket Islami, Chris Hassle & GCDO)
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Dozens of Gjirokastra's historic mosques including were destroyed by Hoxha when atheism became Albania's official religion. This mosque (left) was demolished in 1967 to make space for public lavoratories. The bazaar mosque, seen in a ca. 1924 photograph (center), is one of only two to survive the communist era. It has now been restored (right). (Courtesy Alket Islami, Chris Hassle & GCDO)
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Gjirokastra's old town is dominated by a 14th-century castle that has been restored and refortified many times over the past 500 years. The slopes leading down from the castle to the modern town of Gjirokastra in the valley are covered with 18th- and 19th-century houses. (Courtesy Alket Islami, Chris Hassle & GCDO)
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Once reputed to be the worst hotel in Albania, the Communist-era Albtourist Hotel is now being restored by a group of local hoteliers. This is a big step forward as it will provide space for large parties of guests to stay in Gjirokastra. Alternative lodging for the many tourists visiting Gjirokastra are now being created in some of the old 19th-century mansions. (Courtesy Alket Islami, Chris Hassle & GCDO)
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The early 19th century Kikino House, shown here in a recent photo in its current state. While a bit shabby the house remains occupied and maintained to a degree. A detail of Kikino House's elaborate frescoes. Floral motifs were popular in the Ottoman era painting and echo the styles of court painters in Constantinople. (Courtesy Alket Islami, Chris Hassle & GCDO)
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Renovation of the Gurgai house, one of Gjirokastra's 50 first category historic houses. The work here is funded by the Albanian government and undertaken by the craftsmen of the Institute of Cultural Monuments. (Courtesy Alket Islami, Chris Hassle & GCDO)
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Gjirokastra's original limestone tiles gave it its distinctive silvery appearance and its name, which means "Silver City." They are being replaced and repaired wherever possible by specially trained stonemasons and roofers from Albania and Kosovo, but some roofs now have modern ceramic tiles, altering the town's unique look. Fitting the tiles together is like doing a puzzle--they are held onto the roof only by their own weight and balance, with no mortar. (Courtesy Alket Islami, Chris Hassle & GCDO)
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The 18th century Xheneti House, one of the finest of Gjirokastra's tower mansions awaits restoration. Its owners however, in a typical problem, wanting a modern residence, have built a new house directly in front, blocking the façade view. (Courtesy Alket Islami, Chris Hassle & GCDO)
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The Fico House was built in 1904. It's elaborate woodwork and plaster facade are in desperate need of conservation. The roof also needs replacing--which will cost about $30,000--before water is allowed to seep into the house and destroy the wood fittings, beams, and floors. (Courtesy Alket Islami, Chris Hassle & GCDO)
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TRADITIONAL HOUSE
In additional to Gjirokastra's more spectacular mansions, there are also over 300 traditional houses across the city. (Courtesy Alket Islami, Chris Hassle & GCDO)
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Gjirokastra is surrounded by many impressive classical sites including the theater of Hadrianopolis, founded by the emperor Hadrian in the second century A.D., and Antigoneia, a great Hellenistic city created by King Pyrrhus of Epirus in the 3rd century B.C. on the eastern slopes of the valley. (Courtesy Alket Islami, Chris Hassle & GCDO)

Oliver Gilkes is a research associate at the University of East Anglia.

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