Berat was established by the Illyrian tribe of the Dassaretae in the 6th century BC. Later, in the 3rd century BC, it became a Macedonian stronghold known as Antipatrea. When the Roman military presence became stronger in the region in 200 BC, the fort was seized by legatus Lucius Apustius. Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the town became part of the unstable frontier of the Byzantine Empire. It suffered from repeated invasions by the Slavs as rest of the Balkan Peninsula. This is the time when the town received its Slavic name Beligrad [White City]. In 1417, the town became part of the Ottoman Empire and its name was changed to Berat. During the early period of Ottoman rule, the town fell into severe decline. However, it began to recover by the 18th century and became a major craft center of the Ottoman Empire specializing in woodcarving.
The old part of the city is divided into three major neighborhoods: Kala (the hill with the remains of the old castle) and Mangalemi (the traditionally Ottoman part of the old city at the foot of the castle) on the right bank of the Osum River, and Gorica (the traditionally Orthodox part of the old city) on the left bank of the Osum River. The rows of white Ottoman houses built along the steep hill below the castle earned Berat another name, the ‘City of Thousand Windows’.
Kalaja e Beratit
Kalaja e Beratit [Berat Castle] is built on a rocky hill and is accessible by a steep and very slippery cobbled stone street. The Macedonian stronghold, mostly destroyed by the Roman legatus Lucius Apustius, was later rebuilt under the Roman rule to provide protection from Barbarian incursions. The fort was enlarged over time, particularly by the Muzakaj family in 1396.
Probably the most notable event in the life of the castle was the Siege of Berat in 1455, when the Albanian army of Skënderbeu unsuccessfully tried to seize it from the Ottoman forces. Skënderbeu besieged the town’s castle for months, causing the demoralized Ottoman officer in charge of the castle to promise his surrender. At that point, Skënderbeu departed the siege leaving behind one of his generals and half of his cavalry in order to finalize the surrender. The Ottomans saw this moment as an opportunity for attack and inflicted a devastating blow on the remaining Albanian cavalry.
The current remains date mainly from the 13th century and contain houses, Byzantine churches and Ottoman mosques. Behind the crumbling walls, residents still live along narrow cobbled stone streets in whitewashed stone houses. While wandering around the ruins, it is very easy to stumble into someone’s garden thinking it is part of the ‘attraction’. Nevertheless, the most striking feature of the castle is its serene atmosphere as not many tourists have discovered the city yet.
Muzeu Onufri [Onufri Museum], housed in Katedralja Fjetja e Shën Mërisë [Cathedral of the Dormition of St Mary], is an Albanian national museum dedicated to Byzantine art and iconography. The museum was named after Onufri, a famous Albanian iconographer of the 16th century. He applied a greater degree of realism and individuality into facial expressions in his paintings, this way breaking with the strict conventions of the time. He also introduced a new color, shiny red. Onufri founded a school of painting in Berat, which was passed on to his son Nikolla, upon his death. There are over 100 icons on display in the museum created between the 14th and 20th centuries and they include the works of Onufri and Nikolla as well as Onouphrios, Selenicasi, Shpataraku, Çetirs family, and many other anonymous iconographers.
The cathedral itself, built in 1797 on the foundations of an earlier 10th-century chapel, is a most representative example of post-Byzantine architecture in Berat. The most striking feature of the cathedral is the Iconostasis (a wall of icons and religious paintings, separating the nave from the sanctuary) which is among the best achievements of the nineteenth-century Albanian woodcarving masters.
Other museum worth visiting is the Muzeu Etnografik [Ethnographic Museum]. It was established in a traditional 18th century building called çardak in 1979. This type of building was mainly built for the landowning classes who resided in the city and lived from renting out their estates. The museum displays details about the lifestyle and daily traditions of its residents.
The ground floor of the building replicates a traditional medieval bazaar lined with local crafts of the time, such as embroidery, woodcarving and metalwork. The upper floor is divided into different rooms, such as guest rooms, bedrooms and kitchen. An interesting part of the Chamber of Men is the mezzanine where the women of the house could keep an eye on the male guests without being seen. The women were only allowed to enter this room to serve them.
Byzantine Churches and Ottoman Mosques
Beside the already mentioned Katedralja Fjetja e Shën Mërisë (now Muzeu Onufri), there is an ensemble of Byzantine churches in the castle (normally locked). The most artfully positioned of them is Kisha e Shën Mëhilli [Church of St Michael] that is perched on a cliff ledge on the southern end of the castle. Kisha e Shën Triadha [Church of Holy Trinity] contains two stone columns thought to originate from an ancient ruin. Kisha e Shën Gjergj [Church of St George] was originally a monastery style church. However, in the 1980s, the upper part of the church was demolished and rebuilt to resemble a traditional Berat-style house.
The Ottoman occupation also left its mark on the city. Unfortunately, from the 15th-century mosques in the castle, Xhamia e Bardhë [White Mosque] and Xhamia e Kuqe [Red Mosque], only few ruined walls and the bases of the minarets survived. The 19th-century Xhamia e Beqareve [Bachelors’ Mosque], down by the Osum River in Mangalemi, was built for the Bachelors’ guild which united the unmarried artisans. The members of the guild had an additional responsibility during nights; they served as guards of the city. The mosque has an unusual painted decoration on the facade.
Berat, located on the Osum River surrounded by the rugged Tomorr and Shpirag mountains, is also a nature lover’s paradise. Mountain climbing, hiking, rafting and kayaking are some of the outdoor activities available.
According to an Albanian legend, there were two brothers, Tomorr and Shpirag, who fell in love with the same girl, Osum. She was in love with both of them as well. The brothers fought for her – Tomorr cut Shpirag into pieces with his sword while Shpirag retaliated by throwing stones upon Tomorr. After killing each other, they became the mountains Tomorr and Shpirag. If you look carefully, you can see that Mount Tomorr’s surface is full of holes while Mount Shpirag is full of ravines. Osum heard about the tragedy and her endless tears formed the Osum River, which flows between the two mountains.
Astin, A. E. et al. (Eds) (1998) The Cambridge Ancient History: Rome and the Mediterranean to 133 BC
Fine, John (1994) The Late Medieval Balkans: A Critical Survey from the Late Twelfth Century to the Ottoman Conquest