Tiranë is a jumble of Ottoman-style, Italian Neo-Renaissance and disintegrating Communist-era buildings, speckled with brand new projects.

Tiranë is relatively a new city, but the region has been continuously inhabited since the Iron Age. Ancient Illyrians, Ancient Romans and Early Christians have all lived here, though the area had no special importance at the time.

In 1614, an Albanian general of the Ottoman Empire, Sulejman Pashë Bargjini, established the main institutions of the early Ottoman settlement, including a mosque, a hammam [Turkish bath] and a small bazaar. Under Bargjini’s leadership, Tiranë became an important commercial and administrative center in the region. He built a bridge over the Lana River, which helped to connect the city with the important trade routes of the time. Additionally, he helped to establish the first madrasa [Islamic school] in Tirana, which attracted scholars and students from all over the Ottoman Empire. He was buried in his mosque. Unfortunately, the mosque was badly damaged in World War II and was completely destroyed by the Communist regime in 1967. Later, the monument of the ‘Unknown Soldier’ [Ushtari i panjohur] was placed on its site.

After 1816, the city of Tiranë began to decline under the control of the Toptani family, who were a powerful feudal family from the town of Krujë. The Toptanis were known for their wealth and influence, and they played an important role in the political and economic life of the region during the Ottoman occupation. They used brutal power to suppress any opposition to their rule. Under their control, Tiranë was characterized by corruption and lawlessness. The heavy taxes imposed by the family on the local population led to widespread poverty. Moreover, they completely neglected the development and maintenance of the city. As a result, Tiranë became an unhealthy place to live. The Toptanis’ unrestricted control of the city came to an end in the early 20th century, as Albania began to move towards independence from the Ottoman Empire. Their legacy of greed for power and unconcern for the city continued to affect Tiranë for many years to come.

The most important date in the city’s history is February 8, 1920, when the Congress of Lushnjë declared Tiranë as the temporary capital of Albania, which had gained independence in 1912. The city was given definitive capital status in 1925. However, it was only after Albania’s transition to democracy in the 1990s that the city began to experience significant improvements in its infrastructure and quality of life.

The city center has undergone a significant transformation, with the creation of new public spaces, parks and landmarks, as well as a boom in construction of new buildings such as large-scale apartment complexes and factories. Many of these buildings were designed using the Socialist Realism architectural style, characterized by their grey and boxy appearance, which dominated the city’s skyline. As part of the city’s transformation, in the early 2000s, Edi Rama, who was both a painter and the mayor of Tiranë at the time, initiated a project to paint the city’s buildings in bright and vibrant colors, with the aim of improving the city’s appearance and uplifting the spirits of its residents. The project was initially met with some skepticism but has since become a defining feature of Tirana’s landscape, a popular subject for photographers and tourists alike. While this superficial makeover did not address the more pressing issues facing the city, it certainly did help to brighten up the daily lives of its citizens.

Sheshi Skënderbeu

The focal point of the city is Sheshi Skënderbeu [Skënderbeu Square]. An impressive monument to the Albanian national hero was erected in the middle of this eponymous square, where a statue of Stalin once stood during the Communist era in 1968. Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu was a prominent Albanian nobleman and military commander. In 1988, a monument of the Communist leader Enver Hoxha was also placed on the square. 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. However, after the fall of communism on February 20, 1991, the citizens removed the statue as a form of retaliation.

In one corner of the square are the oldest buildings of the city: Kulla e Sahatit [Clock Tower] and Xhamia Et’hem Bej [Et’hem Bej Mosque]. The clock tower was completed by Ottomans in 1822, and it was for years the tallest building in the city. The early-19th century mosque was spared from destruction during the atheism campaign of the late 1960s because of its status as a cultural monument. It has unusual wall paintings depicting landscapes, rarely seen in Islamic art. The fundamental element of Islamic art is the arabesque, an elaborate recurrent design of intertwined floral motifs or complex geometrical patterns. Moreover, in religious art depiction of living beings is opposed because of the belief that the creation of living forms is unique to God.

The square also boasts other landmarks, including the Muzeu Historik Kombëtar [National History Museum] (more about it below) and Pallati i Kulturës [Palace of Culture]. The white marble palace houses a theatre, art galleries and shops. Construction of the building began as a gift from the Soviet people in 1960 and was completed in 1966, years after the Soviet–Albanian split of 1961. In the adjoining Sheshi Sulejman Pasha [Sulejman Pasha Square], visitor can find the Tyrbja e Kapllan Pashës [Tomb of Kapllan Pasha], an Ottoman tomb that has a strange synergy with the modern building of Hotel Plaza, which towers over it.

Muzeu Historik Kombëtar

The most prominent museum in Tiranë is the Muzeu Historik Kombëtar [National History Museum], which provides visitors with context for understanding the turbulent history of the country. The museum’s collection takes visitors on a journey from the Bronze Age through Ancient Illyria to the Communist era. The façade of the museum is decorated with a Socialist Realism style mosaic entitled ‘Shqipëria’ [Albania], which depicts glorified Albanians from Illyrian times through to the Second World War.

The most iconic artefacts of the Antiquity Collection are the ancient Greek ‘Beauty of Durrës’ mosaic and the ‘Dea of Butrint’ bust, both dating back to the 4th century BC. The mosaic, which is the oldest in the country, was discovered within the foundations of an old house in Durrës. The bust, which depicts the god Apollo, was found during the excavation of the amphitheater in Butrint. The sculpture is noteworthy because from the front it appears to be female, while the profile suggests a male face. Replicas of this marble bust can be found throughout the country.

The Medieval Collection also includes several noteworthy artifacts, such as the 14th-century Epitaph of Gllavenica. Embroidered on a silk cloth with gold thread by the monk Savia from Gllavenica [Ballsh], this epitaph is considered a masterpiece of medieval Albanian art. Another significant part of the collection is dedicated to Skënderbeu, who represents the struggle of the Albanians against the Ottoman occupation.

The Albanian National Renaissance Collection, which covers the period from the mid-19th century until 1912, is one of the richest collections in the museum, containing various original objects and documents. A prominent figure of this period of Albanian national ideology was Sami Frashëri, whose political pamphlet ‘Albania – What It Was, What It Is and What Will Become of It?’ is considered one of the most important works of political thought in 19th and 20th century Albania. Sami Frashëri (1850-1904) was a writer, poet, translator, philosopher, and a key figure in the Albanian cultural and political movement of the late 19th century. In his writings, he advocated for the preservation of Albanian language and culture, and called for the unification of all Albanian-inhabited territories under a single national flag.

The Albanian Independence Collection guides visitors through a significant period in the country’s history, from the declaration of independence in 1912 until 1939. The collection showcases various artifacts and documents related to the establishment of the Albanian state and the formation of the country’s first government.

The Anti-Fascism National Liberation War Collection is a tribute to the Albanian people’s contribution during World War II, especially in their struggle against the fascist occupation and their participation in the partisan movement. This collection exhibits a variety of artifacts, documents, and photographs related to the war and the resistance movement, including weapons used by partisans, photographs of guerrilla fighters, propaganda posters, and personal items of resistance fighters.

The Communist Persecution Collection covers the period from 1944 until 1990 and is dedicated to those who suffered political or religious persecution under the Communist regime. The collection includes artifacts, documents, and photographs related to the Communist regime’s repression, including the prison system, labor camps, and secret police. It also pays tribute to the victims of the regime and their families.

The museum also owns a Collection of Icons, which features a selection of religious artworks from various churches in Albania. The icons date back to the 16th to early 19th century and include works from notable Albanian iconographers such as Onufri, his son Nikolla, and Onufër Qiprioti. These icons provide insight into the rich cultural and religious heritage of Albania and are an important part of the country’s history.

The museum features a special area dedicated to Mother Teresa, the world-renowned Albanian Roman Catholic nun and missionary. She founded the Missionaries of Charity, an international congregation of religious sisters, whose members take vows of chastity, poverty, obedience, and most importantly, to provide “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor”.

West of the city center, there is a small museum located in a Soviet-era buildings complex, which houses a hidden treasure known as the Mozaiku i Tiranës [Mosaic of Tiranë]. The mosaic is believed to be a fragment of the floor from a 3rd-century Roman villa. The mosaic is considered to be one of the most important archaeological discoveries in Albania and is an important testament to the country’s rich Roman heritage. In the vicinity of the site, remains of an Early Christian basilica from the 5th or 6th century have also been discovered.

Communist Heritage

The most intriguing part of the Communist-era city was a segregated residential area for the most senior communist officials, known as the Blloku. In the heart of this neighborhood is the villa of Enver Hoxha, who served as Albania’s Communist leader from 1944 until his death in 1985. His wife continued to live in the villa for years after his death. The area was off-limits to the public during the Communist era, but it was finally opened in 1991. Today, it has been transformed into a popular entertainment destination for locals, with high-end boutiques, restaurants and trendy bars.

At the former entrance to the Blloku neighborhood stands the Postblloku Memorial, which was erected in 2013 as a tribute to the political prisoners of the Communist regime. The memorial is composed of three formidable symbols of the Communist era, brought together as a reminder of the troubled past. These symbols include the bunker that once guarded the main entrance to the Blloku, concrete supports from the forced labor mine for political prisoners in Spaç, and a brightly-colored section of the Berlin Wall.

The most famous landmark in the city is undoubtedly the Piramida e Tiranës [Pyramid of Tirana], originally built to house a museum dedicated to Enver Hoxha. The building was designed by Hoxha’s architect daughter, Pranvera, and her husband, Klement Kolaneci, along with architects Pirro Vaso and Vladimir Bregu. Despite being forbidden during Hoxha’s regime, the architects used ‘capitalist’ materials imported from the United States to attach the marble tiles on the façade. The museum opened in 1988, three years after Hoxha’s death and not long before the fall of communism. However, after 1991, there was little demand for a museum celebrating the dictator’s life. The marble-tilled pyramid was repurposed as a convention center, military staging area, television station, nightclub, and even a temporary NATO base during the Kosovo War of 1999. The building was looted for materials and vandalized, and the red star, the infamous Communist symbol that once topped the pyramid, was removed. Today, the dilapidated structure is covered in graffiti and has an uncertain future. The bell in front of the building is known as the Peace Bell, made from thousands of bullets and serving as a memorial to those who died in 1997 following the collapse of the Pyramid Investment Scheme.

If there is one thing foreigners know about Albania, it is that it is a land of bunkers. There are around 750,000 bunkers of various sizes across the country, and they are literally everywhere: in the middle of neighborhoods, playgrounds, cemeteries, farmlands, forests, beaches… The large number of bunkers was due to Hoxha’s obsession with being prepared for a potential invasion from foreign enemies. The bunkers were constructed to shelter Albanian citizens, but also served as military installations, ammunition and food storages and communication centers. Today, many of these bunkers have been abandoned and left to decay, while others have been repurposed for various uses, such as cafes, storages, and even homes.

Bunk’Art 1 and Bunk’Art 2 are former nuclear bunkers that were constructed for Albania’s political elite and remained a secret for most of their existence. In 2014 and 2016, respectively, these Cold War bunkers were transformed into history and contemporary art museums. Bunk’Art 1 is located on the outskirts of the city on the site of a still-active Albanian military base. The bunker occupies 3000 sq. meters of space underground and is spread over five floors. It was built in the 1970s for Enver Hoxha. The exhibitions and art installations showcase the history of the Albanian Communist army and the daily lives of Albanians during the Communist regime. The exhibition is divided into five collections: Albania Under the Fascist Italy (1939-43), Diplomacy During the War (1941-45), Albania Under the German Invasion (1943-44), After the War: Hope and Disappointment (1945-47), and Albania After Liberation (1945-90). The most intriguing part of this underground city is Hoxha’s suite.

Bunk’Art 2, located in the city center near Sheshi Skënderbej, was built in the 1980s for the Ministry of Internal Affairs and is considered one of the last ‘great creations’ carried out by the Communist regime. The museum is dedicated to the history of the ministry and reveals the secrets of ‘Sigurimi’, the political police that was used as a harsh persecution tool by Enver Hoxha’s regime. The exhibition is divided into three collections: The Gendarmerie from the Independence to World War II (1912-39), The Police Forces from the Fascist Invasion to Liberation (1939-44), and Police and ‘Sigurimi’ During Dictatorship (1944-91). During the development of the museum, an entrance and exit dome was added to the complex, as initially, the bunker was only accessible from within the Ministry. The entrance dome was damaged by a group who viewed the project as a ‘glorification’ of the Communist regime. The damage was not repaired and is now part of the visitor experience.

In 1967, Albania was declared the first atheist country in the world, and all kind of religious practices were banned. In the following years, many religious sites, including mosque, churches and monasteries, were demolished. Only sites with a status of cultural monument were spared from destruction. After 45 years of suppression of religious freedom, the arrival of new churches, such as the Catholic Katedralja Shën Pali [St Paul’s Cathedral] in 2001, the Orthodox Katedralja Ngjallja e Krishtit [Resurrection of Christ Cathedral] in 2012, and the Muslim Xhamia e Madhe [Great Mosque] under construction, is a significant event for the country.


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