Kalaja e Krujës
The region around Krujë has a long and complex history that has been shaped by various political and cultural influences. In ancient times, the region was inhabited by the Illyrian tribe of the Albani, who were among the earliest known settlers in the area. The first historical account of the tribe was recorded by Ptolemy, a Greco-Roman scientist.
In the Middle Ages, Krujë played a significant role in the emergence of the first autonomous Albanian state, the Principality of Arbër, which was established in 1190. Krujë became the capital of the principality and served as an important cultural and economic center for the Albanian people. However, the principality was short-lived, and it was dissolved and incorporated into the newly founded Kingdom of Albania. The region remained contested between various dominions, including the Byzantine, Serbian, and Albanian powers, in the 14th century.
In the early 15th century, Krujë was conquered by the Ottoman Empire, which marked the beginning of a period of Ottoman rule that would last for several centuries. Despite the Ottoman conquest, the town continued to be an important center of resistance against Ottoman rule, as evidenced by the heroic efforts of Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu and his resistance movement.
Krujë is the birthplace of Skënderbeu, an Albanian nobleman and military commander who is considered a national hero. The town feels a profound sense of pride for its most distinguished native and has expressed its appretiation in various forms, including establishing a museum dedicated to him in the castle and erecting a striking equestrian statue of him in the main square. The statue depicts Skënderbeu wielding his mighty sword in one hand, serving as a symbol of his bravery and military leadership.
Today, Krujë stands as a proud symbol of Albanian identity and cultural heritage, and its rich history continues to captivate visitors from all over the world. As a popular tourist destination, it has become a hub for traditional Albanian handicrafts, such as weaving, embroidery, and woodcarving. Alongside its historical and cultural significance, Krujë is endowed with the natural beauty of the surrounding mountains, offering visitors breathtaking panoramic views and an array of outdoor activities, such as hiking and trekking.
Kalaja e Krujës
A fortress was constructed in the 5th or 6th century on a hill overlooking the modern town of Krujë. Over time, the fort was expanded and is now recognized as Kalaja e Krujës [Krujë Castle]. This castle played a pivotal role in Skënderbeu’s resistance against the Ottoman Empire and has become an emblem of Krujë’s fortitude and resilience in the face of adversity.
In 1443, Skënderbeu gained control of Krujë by deceiving its subaşi [governor] with a forged letter from the sultan and established the castle as his headquarters. He was also able to unite the Albanian princedoms that had been divided for six centuries into a military alliance against the Ottoman Empire known as the ‘League of Lezhë’. Despite facing overwhelming odds, Skënderbeu’s small army of no more than 3,000 men defended the elliptical citadel of Krujë against three successive sieges by Ottoman troops totaling between 100,000 to 150,000 men (1450, 1466, 1467). However, in the fourth siege in 1478, ten years after Skënderbeu’s death, the Albanian stronghold finally fell to the Ottoman ruler Sultan Mehmed II.
“What we were given to witness on the eve of the attack was more horrible than any battle, worse than any carnage. When we heard their drums roll at dusk, we first thought that, contrary to all known principles of modern war, they were perhaps about to launch a night raid. But we soon saw that what they were trying to do, once they had got their equipment ready for the assault, was to raise their soldiers’ morale. At the first beats of their drums, the sight that greeted our eyes was unbearable. Such madness we had never imagined – neither in the orgies of ancient times, whose memory has come down to us through the generations, nor in the wildest carnival nights in our own villages. Shouting, screaming, praying and dancing, men offered themselves up for sacrifice, made exhibitions of themselves in which, as we were to learn later on, severed heads carried on talking as if still in delirium; soldiers wailed as if they were night owls and banged their drums dementedly. All those noises wafted up to our castle like stinking vapors.”
Ismail Kadare: Siege (1970)
Today, the castle houses the Muzeu Historik Kombëtar Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu [National History Museum Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu], which is dedicated to the legendary Albanian leader and showcases the history of the town. The museum is a secular shrine, featuring impressive statues and dramatic murals that depict scenes from his life. The exhibits have been carefully arranged to showcase Skënderbeu’s life and military accomplishments, which remain one of the proudest periods of Albanian history. One of the most important display is the replica of the Arms of Skënderbeu, which includes his famous goat head-topped helmet and sword. While most of the information panels are displayed in Albanian, the museum remains a must-see destination for anyone interested in Albanian history and culture.
Regrettably, the Krujë collection lacks original artifacts belonging to Skënderbeu. Only four items have survived to this day: his famous helmet, two swords, and a prayer book. At present, the helmet and swords are displayed at the Collection of Arms and Armour in Vienna’s Neue Burg [New Castle], which is affiliated with the Kunsthistorisches Museum [Museum of Fine Arts]. The prayer book, on the other hand, is archived at the Shelley Publishing House in Chelsea, London.
The remains of an Ottoman-era mosque and its minaret, Xhamia e Fatih Sulltan Mehmetit [Sultan Mehmed Fatih Mosque] can be found in front of the museum. The mosque was named after Sultan Mehmed II, commonly known as Mehmed the Conqueror, who eventually succeeded in capturing the castle after several failed attempts. He was an Ottoman sultan who ruled twice, from 1444 to 1446 and again from 1451 to 1481. He is best known for conquering Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1453, which marked the end of the Byzantine Empire and the beginning of the Ottoman Empire’s rise to power.
In the environs of the castle, there is a traditional Ottoman building, that now houses the Muzeu Etnografik [Ethnographic Museum]. The 19th-century house once belonged to the wealthy Toptani family. The museum provides insights into the household’s self-sufficient lifestyle, which included food and drink production and creation of household artifacts. The luxurious nature of the house is showcased through frescoes lining the walls, intricately carved woodwork, colorfully painted furniture, and even a small hammam [Turkish bath]. All objects on display in the museum are original and in good working condition.
A small Bektashi place of worship, Teqja e Dollmës [Tekke of Dollmë] is located at the bottom of the castle complex. The teqe has been maintained by successive generations of the Dollma family since 1789. It is believed that Skënderbeu himself planted the knobby olive tree among the graves in front of the building, although this claim is not confirmed.
The cobblestone street leading up to the castle features a section of a 450-year-old bazaar. The experience of strolling through this neighborhood feels like a journey back in time. In the bazaar’s heyday, over 150 merchants sold their goods to the castle’s residents and visitors. Today, the bazaar sells traditional local crafts and antiques, including embroidery, traditional clothing, silver filigree jewelry, copper household objects, woodcarvings and carpets. Artisans can even be seen crafting items in their shops.
Know Before You Go
Krujë is located on a mountainside, so drivers should be experienced in driving on narrow, winding roads while using a handbrake.