Tiranë is relatively a new city, although, the region has been continuously inhabited since the Iron Age. Finds show that Ancient Illyrians, Ancient Romans and Early Christians lived here, however, the area had no special importance at that time.
In 1614, Sulejman Pashë Bargjini, an Albanian general of the Ottoman Empire, established the main institutions of the early Ottoman settlement – he built a mosque, a hammam [Turkish bath] and a small bazaar. The mosque, badly damaged in the Second World War, was completely destroyed by the Communist regime in 1967. Some time later, the monument of the ‘Unknown Soldier’ [Ushtari i panjohur] was placed on its site. After 1816, the city deteriorated under the control of the Toptani family of Krujë.
The most important date in the city’s life is 8 February 1920, when the Congress of Lushnjë declared Tiranë as the temporary capital of Albania, which had gained independence in 1912. The city acquired the definitive status in 1925.
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, at the spot where a Communist-era statue of Stalin once stood, in 1968. In 1988, monument of the Communist leader Enver Hoxha was also placed on the square. However, after the fall of communism on the 20 February 1991, the citizens removed the statue.
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 is also home to other landmarks, such as 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] is the Tyrbja e Kapllan Pashës [Tomb of Kapllan Pasha]. The Ottoman tomb 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] that can provide some context for understanding the turbulent history of the country. The collection of the museum takes the visitor on a journey from the Bronze Age through Ancient Illyria to the Communist era. The museum’s façade is decorated with Socialist Realism style mosaic entitled ‘Shqipëria’ [Albania] and 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 from 4th century BC. The mosaic, oldest in the country, was discovered within the foundations of an old house in Durrës. The bust, depicting god Apollo, was found during the excavation of the amphitheater in Butrint. The curiosity of the sculpture is that from the front it resembles a female while the profile suggests a male face. You can see many replicas of this marble bust throughout the country.
The most exceptional artefact in the Medieval Collection is the Epitaph of Gllavenica. It is a 14th-century epitaph that was embroidered on a silk cloth with gold thread by monk Savia from Gllavenica [Ballsh]. Part of the medieval collection is dedicated to Skënderbeu, who symbolizes the struggle of the Albanians against the Ottoman occupation.
The Albanian National Renaissance collection, covering the period from the mid-19th century until 1912, is one of the richest assortments in the museum. It contains various original objects and documents. A prominent person of this period of Albanian national ideology was Sami Frashëri (1825-1904). His political pamphlet ‘Albania – What It Was, What It Is and What Will Become of It?’ is one of the most important works of political thought of the 19th and 20th century Albania.
The Albanian Independence collection ushers the visitors into the key historical period of the country from the declaration of independence in 1912 until 1939. Anti-Fascism National Liberation War collection is dedicate to the contribution of Albanian people during Second World War. While, 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 museum also owns a Collection of Icons originating from different churches of Albania and dating from the 16th century until the early-19th century. The collection includes works from Onufri, a famous Albanian iconographer of the 16th century, his son Nikolla, and Onufër Qiprioti.
There is a special area dedicated to Mother Teresa, the famous Albanian Roman Catholic nun and missionary. She founded the Missionaries of Charity whose members take vows of chastity, poverty, obedience, and more importantly to give “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor”.
West of the city center in a Soviet-era buildings complex a small museum is ‘hiding’ with its treasure known as the Mozaiku i Tiranës [Mosaic of Tiranë]. It is believed to have been a fragment of a floor from a 3rd century Roman villa. Around the site, the remains of an Early Christian basilica (5th and 6th century) were found.
During the Communist era, from 1944 to 1991, massive Socialist Realism style apartment complexes and factories were built in the city. Grey, boxy buildings dominated the landscape. To tone up the dull look of the city, Edi Rama, a painter and also the mayor of Tiranë, added some color to the buildings in 2000. This makeover did not address the more pressing problems of the city, but it definitely made a more pleasant backdrop for the daily struggle of the citizens.
The most intriguing part of the Communist city was a segregated residential area of the most senior communist officials known as the Blloku. In the heart of this neighborhood is Enver Hoxha’s villa. He was Albania’s Communist leader from 1944 up until his death in 1985. His wife continued to live here for years after his death. The area, off limits to public, was finally opened in 1991. Today, it is a popular entertainment destination with high-end boutiques, restaurants and trendy bars.
At the former entrance to the Blloku is the Postblloku Memorial (2013), a tribute to the political prisoners of the Communist regime. It brings together three daunting symbols of the Communist era as a reminder of the troubled past: the bunker which 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.
Probably the most famous landmark of the city is Piramida e Tiranës [Pyramid of Tirana]. It was originally intended to house a museum dedicated to Enver Hoxha. The building was designed by Hoxha’s architect daughter, Pranvera and son-in-law, Klement Kolaneci along with architects Pirro Vaso and Vladimir Bregu. The architects took such liberties, which would have been forbidden during Hoxha’s regime – for example, they used ‘capitalist’ materials imported from the United States to attach the marble tiles on the façade. The museum was opened three years after Hoxha’s death in 1988 as a posthumous dedication to him, not long before the fall of communism. After 1991 there was little demand for a museum celebrating the dictator’s life – the main purpose of the marble-tilled pyramid shifted from museum to convention center, military staging area, television station, nightclub and even, during the Kosovo War of 1999, as a temporary NATO base. Meanwhile, the building was looted for materials and vandalized. The red star, the infamous Communist symbol, which topped the pyramid, had also been removed. Today, it is a dilapidated structure covered in graffiti with an uncertain future. The bell in the front of the building is known as the Peace Bell. Made from thousands of bullets, it is a memorial to those who died in 1997 following the collapse of the Pyramid Investment Scheme.
Bunk’Art 1 and Bunk’Art 2 are former nuclear bunkers that were built for Albania’s political elite and remained a secret for most of their existence. In 2014 and 2016, respectively, these Cold War bunkers were converted into history and contemporary art museums.
Bunk’Art 1 is on the outskirts of the city on the site of a still-active Albanian military base. The bunker, a 3000 sq. meters of space underground spread over five floors, was built in the 1970s for Enver Hoxha. The exhibitions and art installations reveal 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). Probably the most interesting part of this underground city is Hoxha’s suite.
Bunk’Art 2 is in the city center near Sheshi Skënderbej. The bunker was built in the 1980s for the Ministry of Internal Affairs. It is 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 the harsh persecution weapon used by the regime of Enver Hoxha. 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 because initially the bunker was only accessible from within the Ministry. The entrance dome was damaged by a group who saw 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, mosque, churches and monasteries were demolished. Only sites with a status of cultural monument were spared from destruction. (For example, Xhamia Et’hem Bej was spared from the ill faith.) After a 45-year long suppression of religious freedom arrival of new churches, such as the Catholic Katedralja Shën Pali [St Paul’s Cathedral] (2001), the Orthodox Katedralja Ngjallja e Krishtit [Resurrection of Christ Cathedral] (2012) and the Muslim Xhamia e Madhe [Great Mosque] (under construction) is a significant event for the country.