The austere and beautiful town of Gjirokastra began to spread downhill from its castle in the 13th century. The castle still broods on its hill, overlooking the whole city and the river valley below. From that vantage point, the grey stone of houses below and the grey slates of their roofs blend into the hillside, distinguished from it only by their whitewashed walls. Gjirokastra’s architecture and haunting atmosphere are described by one of the city’s most famous sons:
“This was a surprising city, which seemed to have come out of the valley unexpectedly, one winter’s night, like a prehistoric being and clambered up with difficulty, stitching itself on to the side of the mountain. Everything in this city was old made of stone, from the streets and fountains right up to the roofs of its big houses, a century old, which were covered with stone tiles the colour of ash, like so many huge carapaces. It was difficult to believe that under these hard shells the soft flesh of life thrived and was renewed.’’
Ismail Kadare, Chronicle in Stone.
Gjirokastra first enters in history in 1336, in the memoirs of John Cantacuzenus. He was the son of the governor of Morea, the Byzantine province in the Greek Peloponnese, and would later become Emperor John VI Cantacuzenus. In the 15th century it was besieged and then captured by the Ottomans, but unlike many other hithero important Albanian towns, Gjirokastra flourished under its new rulers. It was the administrative centre of a province (sanjak) covering what is now central and southernr Albania, and it became a major trading centre.
By the 17th century, the city had 2000 houses and the bazaar was constructed at this time. It was subsequently destroyed by fire and the shops and other building that remain in the old bazaar area, Qafa e Pazarit, date from the early 20th century. Most of the large traditional houses were built in the first half of the 19th century.
In the 20th century Gjirokastra produced two particularly well-known sons. Enver Hoxha was one of the leaders of the partisan resistance in the World War II and went to run Albania for 41 years, until his death in April 1985. The site of the house where he was born in 1908 is now the Etnographic Museum, and a good example of Gjirokastra traditional architecture. Ismail Kadare is the only Albanian writer who is at well known in the English-speaking world; he stayed in Albania until late 1990, at which point he left the country for France where he still spends most of his time. Other local heroes are Cerzis Topulli, who led an uprising the Ottomans in 1908 and whose statue stands in the square named after him, and the young women who are commemorated with a monument in the same square, Bule Naipi and Persefoni Kokedhima, hanged by the Germans on suspicion of being partisans.
Gjirokastra became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2005. It has been awarded the status of a “museum-city” by the Albanian government in 1961, which gave legal protection to its architectural heritage and kept new building out the historic centre. Thanks to this, and no doubt also to its steep cobbled streets, the town has retained its charming atmosphere.
”It was a steep city, perhaps the steepest in the world, which had broken all the laws of town planning. Because of its steepness, it would come about that at the roof-level of one house you would find the foundations of another; and certainly this was the only place in the world where if a passer-by fell, instead of sliding into a roadside ditch, he might end up on the roof of a tall house. This was something which drunkards knew better than anyone.
It really was a very surprising city. You could be going along the street and, if you wanted, you could stretch out your arm a bit and put your hat on top of a minaret. Many things here were unbelievable, and a lot was dream-like.”
Ismail Kadare, Chronicle in Stone.