Gjirokastra, Albania: A City With Two Tales

Thus, quick Argjiro,
Ran with her baby girl,
Swung like a bird in the wind
From the fortress to the abyss,

Rock on rock thus broken,
She fell like a star,
but was not extinguished

Ismail Kadare – excerpt from his poem, She Fell Like A Star, But Was Not Extinguished

Gjirokastra’s skyline is dominated by its enormous castle, also known as ‘The Fortress of Argjiro’. In his 1960 poem, She Fell Like A Star, But Was Not Extinguished, local poet, Ismail Kadare, sheds light on the legend behind the naming of both the fort and the city.  

Folklore credits Princess Argjiro, Byzantine ruler Gjin Zenebishi’s sister, with founding Argjiro kastra in the 15th century. The story goes on to state that, to escape capture when Ottoman forces besieged the city, she hurled herself to her death from the castle ramparts, clutching her child. Miraculously, Argjiro’s baby survived, and milk flowed from the rocks to feed her.

White deposits of calcium minerals at the base of the castle walls seem to back this up. Milk is certainly a rich source of calcium, but the deposits are perhaps better explained by the limestone cliffs, which are actually made of calcium carbonate.

But we should never let geology get in the way of a good yarn.

Unfortunately, when it comes to busting the Princess Argjiro myth, archaeology has also thrown in its own spoiler.

Excavations within the castle precincts reveal the strategic hilltop location, which overlooks the entire Drina Valley, was occupied and fortified with substantial stone walls as early as 500 BC. This pre-dates the founding theory of our plucky princess by fifteen hundred years. Plus, in 1336, the first mention a settlement called Argyrókastron – Greek for ‘silver castle’ – appears in the records, at least a century too soon.

Although this does make Gjirokastra a city of two tales!

Gjirokastra’s UNESCO-listed fortress is one of the largest in the Balkans. It is boat-shaped and sits on a cliff which soars above the city like the prow of a gigantic stone battleship. For two millennia, it has crashed its way through the surging waves of history, and navigated a course through the rise and fall of the greatest empires in Europe: from pre-Roman times, through Byzantine and Ottoman rule, right up to the twentieth-century and Soviet, Chinese, then local lad, Enver Hoxha’s home-grown brands of communism.

A model of Gjirokastra castle

The day we visited, the rain-washed stonework looked more iron-grey than silver. The current buildings date to the 19th century Ottoman period, when Ali Pasha of Tepelenë renovated and expanded the fortress. We will meet Ali Pasha many times on our travels – he was a prominent figure in Albania, and ruled Gjirokastra from 1811 to 1820. He built both the clock tower and the monumental aqueduct, which carried water 12 km from Sopot mountain to the castle. English artist, author, and poet, Edward Lear, sketched the aqueduct as he toured the Ottoman empire in the mid-1800s.

Edward Lear’s 1851 sketch showing Gjirokasra Castle & Ali Pasha’s aqueduct

Through the castle’s imposing stone entrance, we turned into a cathedral-like limestone corridor with high arches and vaulted ceilings. Symmetrical recesses on either side contained huge wheeled guns – Ali Pasha’s cannons. As we passed beneath, their barrels formed a cast iron guard of honour.

Ali Pasha’s Cannons, in Gjirokastra castle

In the castle courtyard, we spotted another unlikely English connection. Some of the cannons bore a rose and crown and/or a ‘broad arrow’ insignia. These emblems mark them out as property of the English military. This tiny detail is absolutely symbolic of the power struggles going on between – and within – the great empires of the day.

The Rose & Crown and broad arrow insignia on this cannon mark it out as property of the English military

Ali Pasha controlled large tracts of the eastern Ottoman empire, but had a tendency to act independently and venture way beyond his pay grade. To prevent local rulers from becoming too powerful, the Sultan limited the supply of weapons, but Ali Pasha negotiated his own solutions, based on whatever suited his purpose at the time.

Ali Pasha – Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

For example, when his supposed ally Napoleon Bonaparte signed the Treaty of Tilsit and made a secret pledge to aid Russia against the Ottoman Empire, Ali Pasha approached Britain. In return for cannon and two corvettes (small warships), Ali Pasha agreed to fend off the French advance in the southern Balkans during the Napoleonic wars of 1803-1815.

After meeting Ali Pasha, the English poet, Lord Byron, wrote in 1809,

“Napoleon has twice offered to make (Ali) king of Epirus, but he prefers the English interest and abhors the French, as he himself told me. He is of so much consequence that he is much courted by both, the Albanians being the most warlike subjects of the Sultan…” 

Lady Caroline Lamb famously described her lover, Lord Byron, as, “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know”, but this phrase could equally apply to Ali Pasha. He was a harsh ruler, whose pursuit of power did not go unnoticed.

In 1820, Sultan Mahmud II declared him a rebel and ordered his assassination. Having survived until his early eighties, Ali Pasha was killed in 1822.

On an open terrace granted a spectacular view of the stone roofs of the city and the river valley. In 1815, English traveller Henry Holland described an outlook, which has probably changed little in those last 200 years.

“The vale of Deropuli, or Argyro-Kastro, is luxuriantly fertile in every part of its extent; and the industry of a numerous population has been exerted into bringing it a high state of culture. The tillage here is remarkable for its neatness.”

Gjirokastra, City of Stone, viewed from the castle

In this area, we stumbled upon the derelict silver fuselage of a small jet. It’s the remains of a Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star, which landed at Rinas airport, near Tirana, in December 1957. The US military used the T-33 ‘T-Bird’ for training and reconnaissance, but in keeping with Gjirokastra’s duality, this relic is a plane with two tales.

The capitalist’s tale is that the pilot got lost in thick fog while flying from the US airbase in Chateauroux in France to Naples, Italy. He ran low on fuel and made an emergency landing in nearby Albania…

The communist’s tale states that the Albanian People’s Army intercepted a US spy plane in Albanian airspace and forced it to land at Rinas airport.

Geology or archaeology can’t solve this conundrum, but one fact is certain. To Enver Hoxha’s communist regime at the height of the Cold War, capturing a US plane was one in the eye for the imperialist west.

Lockheed T-33 ‘T-Bird’ – A Plane with Two Tales

Past a row of what looked like railway arches, once used by artisans to work in wood, stone, and textiles, we approached the most joyful and the most sinister part of the castle. We were faced with a large open area in front of Ali Pasha’s clock tower, which was once filled with houses. 17th century Ottoman travel writer, Evliya Çelebi, described it as a bustling neighbourhood with a broad street, but since 1968, this is the festival field, where Albania’s National Folk Festival is held to celebrate and keep alive the intangible cultural heritage of traditional food, song, dance, storytelling, and crafts.

Ali Pasha’s Clock Tower, Gjirokastra Castle

Just opposite the festival field, a dark staircase led down into the gloomy Ottoman-era prison cells. Yet this wasn’t the castle’s only prison. Further along, we stumbled upon the castle’s largest and newest prison.

Over the years, Ali Pasha’s great aqueduct fell into disrepair. In 1932, Albania’s King Zog plundered most of the stone from the structure to build his infamous prison. Subsequent regimes, including the Fascists, Nazis, and Greeks, put the prison to good use during World War II, and it remained in use until 1968, under Hoxha’s brutal brand of communism. Locals still recall overhearing the anguished cries of the inmates incarcerated and tortured within the prison’s dank walls.

Stairs to the Ottoman Prison in Gjirokastra Castle

Only a small section of the aqueduct remains standing. It is in the Manelat quarter of Gjirokastra, and is known as the Manelat Bridge, or Ali Pasha’s bridge. 

Beneath the castle is another striking feature – The Cold War Tunnel. A nuclear bunker 800 metres long, with 59 rooms, they built it in such secrecy during the 1970s that residents only found out it existed in the 1990s. Enver Hoxha ordered its construction. Hoxha was a paranoid leader who feared an invasion or nuclear strike, particularly after his break with the Soviet Union in the 1960s.

As a further test for the city’s duality, we walked into town to experience something most tourists miss – Gjirokastra by night.

Gjirokastra, The Stone City by Night

It had a lovely vibe, as balmy as the soft evening air and sun-warmed cobbles. We plonked down outside the ubiquitous Irish bar, which was festooned with teddy bears. Throughout Albania, we had noticed all kinds of bedraggled and weatherbeaten cuddly toys tied to houses. Their purpose is to ward off envy and the evil eye.

As we savoured a cold beer, we met and chatted to Erik, a Pole from Lublin, who had settled in the city and ran his own tour business.

“I’m filming the nightlife,” he said. “Most people just come to Gjirokastra for the day, but it’s wonderful at night.”

I agreed with him – I wanted to stay a few days because there was so much to see. Erik gave us so many recommendations, both in Albania and Kosovo.

Nightlife in Gjirokastra. The teddies on the pub ward off the evil eye

“I have friends in Kosovo,” he said. “I’ll give you my number. Just ask me if you run short of ideas.”

We asked him how he liked living in Albania. He told us,

“I love it here. Albanians are well known around the world for their hospitality and religious tolerance, especially during World War II. The Nazis hunted jewish people down all over Europe. Albania became their second home.

“In this country, harmony between religions compares to no one. Muslims and Christians live together and give good wishes to each other for festivals and ceremonies. Churches stand close to mosques. Muslims go to churches. Christians go to mosques – and they marry each other regardless of religion. 

“And best of all, in Albania, you get all the Christian AND Muslim holidays!”

And so we end on a tale of two holidays – the true path to religious tolerance!

Join us next time as we head south to the white sand of Sarandë

For more information about Gjirokastra and its history, click here. To find Erik’s tour company, click here.

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Published by Jacqueline Lambert @WorldWideWalkies

AD (After Dogs) - We retired early to tour Europe in a caravan with four dogs. "To boldly go where no van has gone before". Since 2021, we've been at large in a 24.5-tonne self-converted ex-army truck called The Beast. BC (Before Canines) - we had adventures on every continent other than Antarctica!

13 thoughts on “Gjirokastra, Albania: A City With Two Tales

  1. Thanks for sharing the very interesting story of Ali Pasha. You have some beautiful photos of the castle and surroundings – a lovely view from the castle indeed. And Gjirokastra is picture-perfect during the night … I think, just in case, I’ll share a table with one of those teddies 😉.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Albania has been on my list of places to visit since I read one of Ismail Kadare’s novels and you keep poking a stick at my longing! Hanging teddy bears on the outside of buildings sounds such a fun way to keep away evil, it would certainly make everyone smile and is now added to my reasons for wanting to visit! Always an interesting read, thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

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