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Tourist Information

Tourist Information

Tourist Information

Gjirokastra is a treasure of Albania, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, because of its outstanding historical and cultural assets. Like other European towns, the evolution of Gjirokastra began in antiquity and continued through the Middle Ages and European Renaissance. What makes Gjirokastra’s history unique is its position in the Drino Valley, which has been home to many civilizations. Excavations show that the Drino Valley has been inhabited since the 3rd century BC, as have many other sites in the area: Apollonia, Butrint, Dyrah, Corfu, Dodona, and Bylis. Gjirokastra, along with 15 other small settlements, was controlled by Antigonea in the period before Christ, and by Hadrianopolis after Christ. Antigonea, a few km east of Gjirokastra, was founded by Pyrrhus of Epir in 297, and served as the center of this civilization. Antigonea was burned less than 2 centuries later. Thereafter, the town of Hadrianopolis was built and served as the valley center for 150 years until it was destroyed by floods of the Drino River. After Hadrianopolis was destroyed people began moving to higher ground to feel more secure. The earliest archaeological evidence found in Gjirokastër (some wall fragments found inside the Castle) dates to the 5th century AD, at the end of a Roman Empire. Another discovery, a stone altar depicting four doves and some eucalyptus leaves, dates to the 10th century, a time when Albanian princedoms were established in the area due to its strategic position on the routes leading to Onhezmi (Saranda), Butrint, Ioannina, and Nicopolis. The alter was found on the hillside where the Obelisk is now located. Historical documents show that the town of Gjirokastra was founded in the early 13th century and the dwellings were initially built within the Castle walls. At the end of the century homes began to appear beyond the Castle fortifications. Byzantine chronicles indicate that in 1336 Gjirokastra was called Argyropolihne (Argyro town) and was under the control of Prince Gjin Zenebishi. He died without surrendering to the Turks, but in 1432 Gjirokastra came under Turkish domination. Turkish chronicles of 1583 indicate that Gjirokastra was a sanjak (an administrative unit of the Ottoman Empire) and boasted 434 buildings. In 1672 the Turkish chronicler Evliya Celebi visited Gjirokastra and his realistic description is considered the best documentation of the historic town’s evolution. Celebi describes everything as it is today, the neighborhoods of Old Bazaar, Varosh, Teqe, Mecite, Hazmurat, Cfake, Manalat and Dunavat, etc. The documents show that in the late 17th century Gjirokastra was almost the size it is now. Today the historical center covers an area of 1.2 sq. km., including the castle and the structures built up to the 19th century. The area protected as a UNESCO heritage site includes 1400 buildings.

The origin of name Gjirokastra

There are several theories for the origin of the name GJirokastra. One is that it comes from the name of a 13th century princess, Argyro. This was during the period when the Castle was headed by Albanian princes (the 10th -13th centuries). Argyro was the sister of the feudal lord of the town. Rather than be taken alive by the Ottomans, she threw herself from the battlements together with her young son . Another theory is that the name derives from the silver and grey color of the houses of Gjirokastra. The term Argyrokastron in Greek means silver city, and on rainy days the grey stone walls and roofs of GJirokastra shimmer like silver. A third theory is that the name is linked with the native Argyri family, but there is no supporting documentation for this claim.

Gjirokastra under ottomans

According to tax register during ottoman occupation in 1431-1432, Gjirokastra has 163 houses. Turkish chronicles of 1583 indicate that Gjirokastra was a sanjak (administrative unit on Ottoman Empire) that boasted 434 buildings. In 1672 the Turkish chronicler Evliya Celebi visited Gjirokastra and his realistic description is taken as the real documentation of the historic centre’s evolution. The chronicler describe everything as it is today, the neighbourhoods of Old Bazaar, Varosh, Teqe, Mecite, Hazmurat, Cfake, Manalat and Dunavat etc. Here is a description of Gjirokastra (Ergiri in Turkish), according to Evliya Celebi. “The city is resided in 8 hills and in all the valleys around the Castle, with two- or three storey buildings, with stone roofs, and surrounded by gardens and wineries. Each of this strong structure has a tower. The surrounding walls are built with white granite, carved by the best craftspeople as if they were taken by Ankara. These walls surrounded rich and poor houses. Such stones in square shape you may found only in the cities of Tiri and Manisa in Anadoll. The type of the houses is unique, not seen anywhere in the world. They are all 20 inch high, made of red sandstone blocks, simply placed each stone above other, without mud or other materials to bind them. The houses are hundred years old, since the time of non-believers. The city has a good climate, and people has good health. The people of Gjirokastra mourn for the dead relatives 40-50 or even 80 years and for this reason I called Gjirokastra the “mourn city”. It is very strange how professional mourners cry for dead people with such strong feelings. “ Historical Documentation indicates that the town of Gjirokastra was founded in the early 13th century and initially the dwellings were within the Castle Boundaries. At the end of the century the homes began to appear beyond the Castle fortifications and continuing until the late of 17th century. The documents shows that in late 17th century Gjirokastra was almost the size it is now. In 1811 the city was under the control of Ali Pashe Tepelena. He ordered the new fortifications in the castle, expanding it, and also built an aqueduct to bring water to the castle, which was 12 km long taking water from the Sopot Mountain. During Ali Pasha reign the city of Gjirokastra was turned into administrative center and very important trade area for all the region. After the killing of Ali Pasha, the city continued to be a developed center and to resist ottoman occupation. In 1908 was opened the first school in the city “Liria” and the first teachers were Thoma Papapano, Iliaz Hoxha, Asaf Çipi, Bastri Beqiri, Safet Canole. After the declaration of Independence of Albania in Vlora, 28th November 1912, Gjirokastra raised the flag of Independence in 4 December 1912. Than the other years the history of Gjirokastra was followed the same steps as the historical developments of all the country, the wars WWI, and WW2 with involvement in the National Liberation Army, and then with the longest years in communism regime. Even during these turbulent times, (the world wars and communism regime), Gjirokastra traditional houses were preserved. The worst moment was after the communism collapsed, during the following years of civil unrest, when the museums and castle and other historical places were looted and the characteristic buildings were in danger. It was this moment, when started the process for inscribing Gjirolastra into UNESCO. The historical center covers an area of 1.2 sq km. including the castle and the constructions up to 19th century. The protected area as UNESCO heritage site include 1400 buildings.

How Gjirokastra became UNESCO property ?

There is a saying that Gjirokastra was built by rich people, but is now preserved by poor people. It’s amazing that the houses, the streets, and the bazaar have remained in such good shape after centuries of use. One reason for this is that Gjirokastra was the birthplace of dictator Enver Hoxha, and during his rule the city enjoyed a protected status. However, after Hoxha’s communist regime collapsed, many people emigrated and the city began to deteriorate. In 1998, especially after the civil unrest in Albania, the city was in serious danger. In response, the municipality of Gjirokastra created a file called Gjirokastra SOS, requesting help to save the city, but not intentionally seeking World Heritage status. Nevertheless, UNESCO asked the Albanian Government to compile a formal request and application. The people who worked on this initial application were Arben Lenja, Pilo Koçi, Njazi Çobani, Emin Riza, Eli Buka, Latif Lazimi, Jorgo Xuhano. The document was presented to UNESCO by the Mayor of Gjirokastra (at that time Ylli Asllani) at a conference in Paris attended by the famous writer Kadare, Ambassador Jusuf Vrioni, and other notable people who loved GJirokastra (Kosta Kuruni, Bernard Buzhe, Ilda Mara). UNESCO’s reaction was impressive and encouraging, and it asked for a timeline and some study tours in the region These steps were fulfilled in two years. The first nomination file was delivered to UNESCO in early 2000. The technical process that followed required the hard work of professor Emin Riza, other specialists, and Albania’s ambassador in UNESCO, Tatjana Gjoni (Zeko). She expanded Gjirokastra’s request for World Heritage status to include the city of Berat and added Albania’s iso poliphony music as a basis for designation. This was an extremely important step in obtaining UNESCO protection for these outstanding historical and cultural assets

Gjirokastra Folklore Festival

Gjirokastra’s National Folklore Festival (Festivali Folklorik Kombëtar i Gjirokastrës) is an artistic festival held every five years in Gjirokastra’s Castle. It was first held in 1968 and is regarded as the most important event in Albanian Culture. The festival showcases Albanian traditional music, dress, and dance from within Albania, but also the diaspora, and Albanian inhabited lands throughout the Balkans and southern Italy. Over 1000 Albanian singers and dancers from Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Italy, Germany, Switzerland and the United States performed in the last National Folk festival from September 29 to October 5, 2004. The next festival is expected to be scheduled for the autumn of 2020.

Iso-Polyphony Music, part of UNESCO

Albanian folk music (iso-polyphony) was inscribed in 2008 on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (originally proclaimed in 2005). Traditional Albanian polyphonic music can be divided into two major stylistic groups as performed by the Ghegs of northern Albania, and the Tosks and Labs in the southern part of the country. The term iso is related to the ison of Byzantine church music and refers to the drone accompanying polyphonic singing. The drone is performed in two ways: among the Tosks, it is always continuous and sung using the ‘e’ or ‘ë’, staggered breathing, while among the Labs, the drone is sometimes sung as a rhythmic tone, conforming to the text of the song. Rendered mainly by male singers, the music traditionally accompanies a wide range of social events, such as weddings, funerals, harvest feasts, religious celebrations, and festivals, such as the well-known Albanian folk festival in Gjirokastra. Albanian iso-polyphony is characterized by songs consisting of two solo parts, a melody and a countermelody with a choral drone. The structure of the solo parts varies according to the different ways of performing the drone, which has a great variety of structures. Over the last few decades, the modest rise of cultural tourism and the growing interest of the research community in this unique folk tradition have contributed to the revival of Albanian iso-polyphony. However, the tradition is adversely affected by poverty, the absence of legal protection and the lack of financial support for practitioners, threatening the preservation of the vast repertoire of songs and techniques. The exodus of rural young people to the bigger cities and abroad in search of jobs compounds this danger. Given these conditions, this tradition is presently maintained through professional folk artists, rather than within the family structure.