Kalaja e Gjirokastrës
The history of Gjirokastër dates back to for 2500 years, although the town was first documented in 1336 under its Greek name, Argyrokastro [Silver Castle], as part of the Byzantine Empire. Over the centuries, the town was fought over by the Despotate of Epirus and the Albanian clan of John Zenevisi before falling under the Ottoman rule, which lasted 500 years (1417–1913).
According to Albanian and Greek mythology, the eponymous founder of Gjirokastër was a Byzantine Princess Argjiro, who is said to have built a castle there in the 15th century. When the Ottomans captured the town, she refused to surrender and threw herself, holding her young child, from the top of the castle hill.
Rambling around the network of cobbled streets in Gjirokastër can feel like stepping back in time. The charming streets, which climb up steep slopes, are paved with chunky limestone and shale and are lined with whitewashed stone houses. The Ottoman-style tower houses, with stonewalls, wooden balconies and slate roofs, that lean against the hills appear as small fortresses, Gjirokastër has earned the nickname ‘City of Stone’, due to its extensive use of stone in construction.
For Albanians, Gjirokastër is also known as the birthplace of former communist leader Enver Hoxha, who was born here in 1908. Hoxha was the leader of Albania from 1944 until his death in 1985. He was a staunch communist and implemented a harsh regime that was heavily influenced by the ideology of Joseph Stalin. Hoxha gave the town a ‘Museum City’ status during his rule, which helped to protect it from the senseless destruction of the Communist era.
Ismail Kadare (born: 1936), the most famous Albanian writer of all time, was also born in Gjirokastër. He lived in the town and even used it as a setting for one of his most notable novels, ‘Chronicles in Stone’.
“Everything in the city was old and made of stone, from the streets and fountains to the roofs of the sprawling age-old houses covered with grey slates like gigantic scales. It was hard to believe that under this powerful carapace the tender flesh of life survived and reproduced. The traveler seeing it for the first time was tempted to compare it to something, but soon found that impossible, for the city rejected all comparisons. In fact, it looked like nothing else. It could no more support comparison than it would allow rain, hail, rainbows, or multicolored foreign flags to remain for long on its rooftops, for they were as fleeting and unreal as the city was lasting and anchored in solid matter. It was a slanted city, set at a sharper angle than perhaps any other city on earth, and it defied the laws of architecture and city planning. The top of one house might graze the foundation of another, and it was surely the only place in the world where if you slipped and fell in the street, you might well land on the roof of a house — a peculiarity known most intimately to drunks. Yes, a very strange city indeed. In some places you could walk down the street, stretch out your arm, and hang your hat on a minaret. Many things in it were simply bizarre, and others seemed to belong in a dream. While preserving human life rather awkwardly by means of its tentacles and its stony shell, the city also gave its inhabitants a good deal of trouble, along with scrapes and bruises. That was only natural, for it was a stone city and its touch was rough and cold.”
Ismail Kadare: Chronicle in Stone (1971)
Gjirokastër, with its rich history and well-preserved Ottoman architecture, is a unique and fascinating destination for travelers interested in culture, history, and architecture. Its picturesque streets, stone houses, and imposing castle provide a glimpse into the past and make for a memorable visit. In recognition of it cultural and historical significance, Gjirokastër was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.
Kalaja e Gjirokastrës
Kalaja e Gjirokastrës [Gjirokastër Castle] is an impressive and historically significant landmark that has played a vital role in the town’s past. Its imposing presence on the skyline primarily dates back to the early 19th century. Throughout its history, the castle served as an invincible fortress, provided accommodation for various troops, and offered shelter to the city’s inhabitants during airstrikes. It has also inspired countless artists and writers with its rich history.
The initial fortification was constructed by the Despots of Epirus in the 12th century, who established the basic towered structure of the castle. However, it was after the Ottoman conquest that the castle was extensively improved, with the most significant changes made around 1490 by Sultan Beyazid II. In the early 19th century, Ottoman ruler Ali Pashë Tepelena made further enhancements, including fortifying the full area of the cliffs, building an aqueduct to bring water to the castle from the surrounding mountains and adding the clock tower on the eastern side. Ali Pashë (in office: 1788-1822) was a prominent Ottoman Albanian ruler, known for his military and political power, as well as his patronage of the arts and architecture. During the Ottoman occupation, Gjirokastër played a significant role in the conversion to Islam and became a major center for Bektashi Sufism, a liberal branch of Islam. A reconstructed Bektashi Turbe [tomb] can be found tucked away within the walls of the castle for visitors to explore.
In 1932, King Zogut I (reign: 1928-1939), Albania’s first and only king, repurposed the castle as a prison, a function it serves for many years under subsequent regimes including the Italian and German occupation forces during the Second World War and the Communist regime, until 1968. The prison’s seven windows facing the old town became infamous, and locals would warn each other about being sent there during the Communist era – “Be careful, or you will be sent to the Seven Windows…”. Even today, the sound of guards hammering the bars in the morning to check their security is remembered by many. Despite being a popular tourist destination, the prison is often overlooked by visitors, making for an eerie and solitary experience for those who do venture inside.
There are two museums housed within the castle walls. Muzeu i Gjirokastrës [Gjirokastër Museum] showcases the town and the region’s tumultuous past through well-presented information panels in Albanian and English. However, there are not many actual artifacts on display. Muzeu i Armëve [Museum of Armaments], opened in 1971, features a diverse collection of weapons ranging from prehistoric times to the Second World War. The collection is especially dedicated to the Albanian Partisans’ struggle against the Italian and German occupation forces from 1939 to 1944. The Great Gallery is particularly impressive, showcasing artillery pieces captured from the Italians and Germans during the Second World War, alongside examples from the Royal Albanian Army. In one of the niches of this gallery, visitors can also see a small Italian light tank built by Fiat. Additionally, the museum features an intriguing exhibit, a two-seater aircraft belonging the United States Air Force, which was forced to land at Rinas Airport, near Tiranë in December 1957 due to technical problems or the ingenuity of the Albanian air defense forces. Anyway, the captured plane is a testament to the Communist regime’s triumph over the ‘imperialist’ Western powers.
The Ottoman-style tower houses in Gjirokastër, known as kullë in Turkish, were owned by wealthy individuals such as local landowners, administrative officials or merchants. These houses were built with thick stone walls and a tower-like structure, which provided protection and defense against attacks. The finest examples of these traditional houses are Shtëpia e Skënduli, Shtëpia e Zekatëve and Shtëpia e Ficove. Today, many of these tower houses have been converted into museums or guesthouses, giving visitors a sense of what life was like in this bustling merchant town during the Ottoman era.
The tower houses all follow a similar layout, with a secure stone lower floor without windows and a wooden gallery on the upper floors. The ground floor usually serves as animal pens, storage rooms, kitchen and cistern, while the upper floors are used for living quarters and reception rooms for extended families. The grandest room in these houses, known as the Chamber of Men, is usually located on the first floor and features frescoed walls, intricately carved wooden ceilings and ornate fireplaces.
Shtëpia e Skënduli [Skënduli House] was originally built in the early 1700s, and later partially rebuilt in 1827. One of its unique features is a room specifically used for wedding ceremonies. Meanwhile, Shtëpia e Zekatëve [Zekatë House], was constructed in 1812 and has an impressive double arched façade between its twin towers overlooking the old town. These tower houses have been owned by the same families for generations, with the exception of the communist period when the government took them over. Visitors are often given a tour by a member of the family who currently owns the property and usually lives in a neighboring house. This provides a unique opportunity to learn about the history and culture of the region from those who have lived there for generations.
The Muzeu Etnografik [Ethnographic Museum] stands on the site where the former home of the communist leader Enver Hoxha once stood. However, the current building, in the style of a traditional Gjirokastër home, was constructed in 1944 after the original house was destroyed by fire. It became a museum in 1966 and contained displays relating to the communist leader and the martyrs of war. After the fall of communism in 1991, the museum was transformed into an ethnographic museum. The present museum offers a rich insight into the lifestyle of the upper classes during the 19th and 20th centuries. The museum’s displays include traditional folk costumes, cultural artifacts, and local household items. The museum does not contain anything related to Enver Hoxha or the communist regime.
Shtëpia e Ismail Kadarese [Ismail KadareHouse] is located in the heart of the old town on a narrow cobbled street. It is the reconstructed childhood home of the world-renowned writer, Ismail Kadare. The house offers a glimpse into the life of the famous author and his family, as well as the literary and culture heritage of the region. The house is a typical Ottoman-style tower house, consisting of a ground floor with animal pens and storage rooms, a first floor with reception rooms and a guest room, and a top floor with living quarters for the family. Visitors can see the original furniture, including a wooden cradle where Kadare was said to have been rocked as a baby, and various personal items and memorabilia.
Know Before You Go
The steep and slippery cobbled stone streets of the old town pose a challenging obstacle for drivers and pedestrians alike.