There has been a settlement here for 2500 years though the town first appeared in historical records in 1336 by its Greek name Argyrokastro [Silver Castle] as part of the Byzantine Empire. Later, the town was contested between the Despotate of Epirus and the Albanian clan of John Zenevisi before falling under the Ottoman rule and remaining so for the next five centuries (1417–1913). For Albanians, the town is synonymous with the former Albanian communist leader Enver Hoxha, who was born here in 1908. He gave the town a ‘Museum City’ status, which meant that it was spared from the senseless destruction of the Communist era.
According to Albanian and Greek mythology, the eponymous founder of Gjirokastër was a Byzantine Princess Argjiro. She 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 will transport you back in time. The charming streets that climb onto steep slopes are paved with chunky limestone and shale and lined with whitewashed stone houses. The Ottoman-style tower houses that lean against the slopes of the hills with stonewalls, wooden balconies and slate roofs look like small fortresses. Due to the intensive use of stone in building the city, Gjirokastër is also known as the ‘City of Stone’.
Gjirokastër is also the birthplace of the most famous Albanian writer of all time, Ismail Kadare (b. 1936). He lived here and used the town as a setting for one of his most notable novels, ‘Chronicle 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)
Kalaja e Gjirokastrës
Kalaja e Gjirokastrës [Gjirokastër Castle] dominates the city’s skyline and most of what can be seen today dates from the early 19th century. It has been an invincible fortress, accommodation for various troops, and a shelter for the city’s inhabitants during airstrikes as well as an inspiration for artists and writers.
The first major fortification was built here under the Despots of Epirus in the 12th century who established the basic towered structure of the castle. After the Ottoman conquest, the castle was continually improved and the most extensive changes were made around 1490 by Sultan Beyazid II. From 1811, the Ottoman ruler Ali Pashë Tepelena left a major mark on the castle – he completed fortifying the full area of the cliffs, built an aqueduct to bring water to the castle from the surrounding mountains and added the clock tower on the eastern side. During the Ottoman occupation, an extensive conversion to Islam occurred and the city became a major center for Bektashi Sufism, which is a liberal branch of Islam. You can find a reconstructed Bektashi Turbe [tomb] tucked away within the walls of the castle.
In 1932, the castle was redesigned as a prison by King Zogut and it was used by his and all of the subsequent regimes (the Italian and German occupation forces during Second World War and the Communist regime) up until 1968. The prison has seven infamous windows that face the old town – “Be careful, or you will be sent to the Seven Windows…” was a common warning in the town during the Communist era. Every morning the guards would hammer the bars to check that they were secure – it is a sound that many still remember. For a place frequented by visitors, it is interesting that not many of them find their way to the prison – being their all by yourself is an eerie experience.
There are two museum housed in the castle. Muzeu i Gjirokastrës [Gjirokastër Museum] is dedicated to the tumultuous past of the town and the region. The information is well presented on wall panels in Albanian and English, however, there are not many actual artifacts on display.
Muzeu i Armëve [Museum of Armaments] was opened in 1971 and the exhibits contain an assortment of weapons from the prehistoric times up to the Second World War. Large part of the collection is dedicated to the struggle of the Albanian Partisans against the Italian and German occupation forces from 1939 to 1944. The imposing Great Gallery is lined with an array of artillery pieces captured from the Italians and Germans during the Second World War alongside the examples from the Royal Albanian Army. There is also a small Italian light tank built by Fiat in one of the niches of this gallery. An interesting exhibit of the museum is the two-seater aircraft belonging the United States Air Force. It was forced to land at Rinas Airport, near Tirana in December 1957 due to technical problems or the ingenuity of the Albanian air defense forces. Anyway, the captured plane commemorates the triumph of the Communist regime over the ‘imperialist’ western powers.
The Ottoman-style tower houses, known as kullë [tower in Turkish], belonged to wealthy individuals such as local landowners, administrative officials or merchants. The finest examples of these traditional houses are Shtëpia e Skënduli, Shtëpia e Zekatëve and Shtëpia e Ficove.
Tower houses all follow the same basic layout: a secure stone lower floor without windows topped by a wooden gallery. The ground floor usually contains storage rooms, kitchen and the cistern, whereas the reception rooms and the living quarters for an extended family are located on the upper floors. The Chamber of Men in these dwellings is the grandest of the rooms – typically has frescoed walls, carved wooden ceiling and an ornate fireplace.
Shtëpia e Skënduli [Skënduli House] is dating from the early 1700s, but it was partially rebuilt in 1827. The peculiarity of the house is the room used solely for wedding ceremonies. Shtëpia e Zekatëve [Zekatë House], constructed in 1812, has a great double arched façade overlooking the old town between its twin towers. These houses have been in the hands of the same families for generations (except during the communist period when the government took it over). The owners live next door and you will most likely be shown around by a member of the family.
The Muzeu Etnografik [Ethnographic Museum] stands on the site of the home of former communist leader Enver Hoxha. 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. Following the fall of communism in 1991, the museum was transformed into an ethnographic museum. The current museum provides a rich insight into the lives led by the upper classes in the 19th and 20th centuries. The exhibits contain traditional folk costumes, cultural artifacts, and local homewares. However, the collection does not contain anything related to Hoxha himself.
In the middle of the old town on a narrow cobbled street, you can also find the reconstructed childhood home of the world-renowned writer, Ismail Kadare – Shtëpia e Ismail Kadarese [Ismail Kadare House].
Know Before You Go
Driving or even walking on the steep and very slippery cobbled stone streets of the old town is challenging.