The very reflection of its history and heritage, Albanian architecture is a cumulus of cultures and lifestyles resulting from the numerous civilizations that occupied the country’s borders: Illyrians, Ancient Greeks, Venetians, as well as Ottomans, and Romans. These new colonizers came and presented new perspectives concerning both the building style and techniques of the local architecture.
Classical Antiquity found the Albanian architecture developing from within the intra muros territory with new functions such as dwellings or religious and commercial spaces. Monumental Roman architecture emerged from the occupation period of the Roman Empire, architecture which now represents important attractions when visiting the country.
However, perhaps the most prominent legacy was provided by the Byzantine Empire. The cities and surroundings of places like Korçë, Berat, Voskopojë, or Gjirokaster are architectural treasures of Albania that offer the inquisitive eye castles, churches, and monasteries with amazing historical value and breathtaking views.
Berat and Gjirokastra are now part of the cultural and historical heritage sites and offer a wide pallet of information on the culture and architecture of a lost time. In the few lines below, the present article tries to value their cultural importance and mark—at the same time—a few of the enormous qualities they possess.
Located in Albania, both the historic centres of Berat and Gjirokastra represent exceedingly rare examples of architecture and urban planning typical to the Ottoman period. Due to their unique character of historical importance, those two sites from Central (Berat) and Southern (Gjirokastra) Albania, were added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list.
At first, only Gjirokastra was added in 2005, but soon after -in 2008- Berat was added too as a site extension. Both sites bear visible shreds of evidence and feature specific to the former civilizations that previously conquered them throughout the centuries. Berat is more commonly known as “the city of a thousand windows”, whereas Gjirokastra’s nickname refers to the material most typically used in the area, “the city of stone.”
The two regions have traces going back to the Neolithic period. Around the 4th century BC, permanent fortifications emerged. From that moment forth, the two continued to develop, adding up important features of Illaryan, Roman, Byzantine, European medieval, and Ottoman architecture (to name but a few).
Over the centuries, various cultures peacefully coexisted in these regions, enriching the immaterial qualities they possess. The wall paintings in Berat’s churches gained tremendous attention, in particular those dating back to the 16th century, as they testify the painting school established here by Onufri. The vernacular housing, on the other hand, goes back to the 18th – 19th century and confirms the main occupations of their inhabitants, craftsmanship, and merchandising.
Both settlements sum up about 24 centuries of history, and from 1834 -when they lost their defensive character- until today, no great changes occurred on those two sites. However, in 1851 there was an earthquake that damaged most of the buildings and, consequently, after that event, the upper floors of the damaged constructions were rebuilt in timber.
Even so, this did not affect the overall spatial qualities of the buildings. Their integrity was maintained over the ages both at the micro-scale (in terms of individual architectural objects) and at the macro-scale (as part of an urban ensemble).
What makes those two locations in Albania so authentic? One may simply say: “its atmosphere.” Yet, there are a lot of other obvious aspects to be equally considered. First, there is the historic material anyone can notice. Then, there is the actual built form which sends it back to a distant moment in time.
Most of the built structures, as well as the general morphology of the two, have been beautifully preserved, allowing them to pass on valuable heritage features of the towns, such as:
“• the fortification system;
- the various religious architectural pieces, namely the 16th-century Orthodox churches;
- the vernacular architecture of the 18th and 19th centuries;
- the homogeneous urban landscape.” (according to ICOMOS, Historic centres of Berat and Gjirokastra (Albania), No 569 bis)
Not only the built aspects of the two were kept, but even their green urban voids in-between too.
Gjirokastra, as well as Berat, provide a complementary view over the diverse urban development in the Balkans region. Both of them reveal a full range of military -and civil alike- functions, a housing typology specific to the given spatial and social context, and last but not least, a harmonious simultaneity of different cultures and religions (especially during the Ottoman occupation).
The two encapsulate an important part of the history in the area and store, in their built form, valuable characteristics that have to be preserved and taken care of, as their loss may represent -in fact- missing vital roots going deep into history. Such areas undoubtedly need our attention to be preserved and passed onto future generations.
Even though Today’s architecture no longer aims to be immortal and transcend time and ages, such past examples have to be kept intact as they are priceless pieces of jewelry.