Posted on Sep 29, 2012 |

The views expressed by the author and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Project Unify Team.

We all think that our country is the rarest, is the most diverse piece of heaven in the world. Personally I have never cared much for nationalism, but I have learned to love my country. Most of you think of Albania as just another post-communist country in East Europe, struggling to find its place and with a constant reminder of what was and what could have been. The Past. Most of you haven’t even heard of Albania. That’s why I want to give you my country as I see it.


My name is Elio Jahaj and I grew up in a city called Ballsh. You see, Ballsh is an important city in Albania because it holds the biggest oil refinery in the country, but not everyone thinks like me. During 22 years of democracy Ballsh has undergone a slow decay and it’s now a shadow of the city that once stood with great pride. And like Ballsh is the rest of Albania. You see in this article I don’t want to write only about the un-spoilt beaches or the rarest of natural resources, I want to give you the real Albania, the Albania I know.

 

Contents:

  1. History
  2. Geography & People
  3. Places to Visit
  4. Misconceptions[/box]

History

Before Spartacus defeated Glabus in the Third Servile War, even before Achilles burned down Troy, in the very early stages of civilization, the Balkan Peninsula was inhabited by Illyrians. Illyrians were a group of many tribes that lived from Drava river in the north to the Vjosa river in the South. As history tells us Illyria was very important for the region, because it was somewhat of a link, between Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece.
It was during the Middle Ages that the etymology of our name becomes clearer. In this period of history was born the first Albanian state, called Principality of Arbanon. The Principality was considerably smaller than Illyria, although it still held great importance in the region, thanks to Via Egnatia. Via Egnatia was one of the most important roads of the region, build by the Romans in the 2nd century BC. It served as a trade road which brought great benefits to the economy of the Principality. From 1190 to 1444 the region was run by 11 principalities, all of which came to an end oppressed by the invasion of the Ottomans.

 

The Ottoman invasion was one of the biggest influences in our culture and way of living. For over 500 years Albania was ruled by the Ottoman Turks. In 1389 took place the Battle of Kosovo Field, a moment in history in which to this day makes me proud. It was one of those moments when everybody set aside their differences for the greater good. The battle was fought by troops from the Serbian Principality, troops send from Poland, Hungary and Albania. Although the Ottoman Army won in the long-term, this battle is a great symbol of unity and coexistence.
To this day you can clearly see the impact of the Ottoman rule, from the way we drink our coffee, to the religion most of us practice the Ottoman rule left a big impact. Many of the words in our contemporary lexicon are Turkish. But the most notable change was that of the religion, form Catholicism to Islam.

2012 marks a great milestone for my country. This year Albania celebrates 100 years of Independence from the Ottoman rule. It all started on 28 November 1912 when Ismail Qemal Bej Vlora along with other distinguished leaders of the National Awakening declared independence from a small balcony in the city of Vlora. The days that followed were not easy and the challenges were many but for the first time in 500 years Albania was free to make its own choices.

In the Post-Independence Era, Albania went through more changes than in its entire history. In 1913 a delegation of Albanian patriots and leaders led by the Prime Minister of the Provisional Goverment, Ismail Qemali made a vain effort to unify all of the territories inhabited by Albanian speaking population in the new Independent Albania. But the major powers had a different mind leaving more than of Albanian territories outside the national territory. To this day in history classroom, television studios and day to day discussions this action is regarded as a major injustice. Now days with the independence of Kosovo there are growing voices that want to address the cause of Ethnic Albania.

From the years 1913-1944 Albania was a Republic, a six month Kingdom, and a Principality, invaded by the Italian forces, than by Hitler’s forces. Until in 1944 Albania was caught in the growing spiral of communism. ‘The Dictaure of Proletariat’ left e big scare on our country. My father, my grandfather, my great grandfather (also my mother, my grandmother, and my great grandmother, not to be sexist) lived oppressed under the regime. To this day I hear stories about good ice cream and non-GM food, but I ask you is it worth it when compared to the great atrocities, the mass graves and clear political imprisonments? The answer stands clear. Although I could write pages about Communist Albania I will not go any further, because I believe that communism doesn’t define us. Communists have given a bad name to communism. Albania is better than that. We aren’t just another ex-communist country. We are a proud nation with many faults, but eager, energetic and passionate to go on the right path.

Geography & People

Albania is divided in 12 counties named ‘qark’, the countries include 36 districts and 373 municipalities. Our regional culture is identified primarily with our district.

The 12 Counties are:
Berat, Dibër, Durrës, Elbasan, Fier, Gjirokastër, Korçë, Kukës, Lezhë, Shkodër, Tirana, Vlora.
This administrative division was first made during the year 1939 when Albania was occupied by the Kingdom of Italy, but at the time the county of Fier was called Levan or Apollonia. Also in 1941 the Province of Pristina was added, as Kosovo was attached to Albania.
(Also we speak the only language in the world that uses the letters ç, dh, ë, ll, xh, zh.)
Each district has its own contribution to the country’s culture. Great examples are our traditional clothing, which include more than 200 unique verities sewed to perfection with a great attention to details.

 Albanian folk music is a great example of the decay in our country. Our music holds great value, and yet in the modern society it is struggling. The Albanian folk iso-polyphony is a rare form of art and it is proclaimed by UNESCO as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”.

The cuisine is another example of how diverse Albania is. The traditional cuisine is influenced Turkish and Greek dishes; also you can find great recipes of Mediterranean dishes. What I consider to be our signature dish is BYREK, or as you might know it pie. And Byrek is divided in two branches, there is traditional Byrek and there is Lakror. The most traditional fills are spinach and gjize (form of cheese similar to ricotta).


And for those of you wondering what ‘fuels’ our alcoholics, the answer is Rakia. Rakia is a transparent alcoholic beverage very popular throughout the Balkans, but Albanian Rakia is truly exceptional. You see commercial Rakia has an alcohol content of 40%, but home produced Albanian Rakia goes from 60% higher.

My ‘Hall of Fame”
Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu
The national hero of Albania is Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu (Geroge Kastrioti Skanderbeg). Skanderbeg was e great Albanian military and political leader that lived in the 15th century. He was taken hostage by Sultan Murad II at an early age and was trained in the Ottoman military for years. Until in 1443 he escaped and returned to his homeland and became the ruler of Kruje. For 50 years he was the only leader in Eastern Europe that overcame the Ottoman Army, marking one of the greatest periods in our history. Skanderbeg was held in high regard by the Pope who gave him the title of Champion of Christ. Although recently many questions have been asked about this figure, without a doubt he was a true leader that inspired Albanian people in the darkest of our times.

Mother Teresa
The work of Mother Teresa doesn’t need a description. She is a Nobel laureate and one of the greatest humanists of all time. Mother Teresa was born in Skopje by Albanian parent under the name of Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu. She is a great symbol of Albanian humanism and compassion.

Pandeli Majko
I would have liked to keep this article a free-politician zone, but Pandeli Majko is definitely a “Hall of Famer’. In 1998 he was appointed as Prime Minister of Albania being only 30 years old. The country had recently suffered a major blow in the vents of 1997 and was in a really bad shape. But during his administration the conflict in Kosovo forced many of Kosovo’s citizens to go through a massive exodus. Having no place to go in order to escape the genocide they could only turn to Albania, and I remember clearly what my father told me about Pandeli Majko. He said: “Our water reserves aren’t enough for our citizens, but we will welcome them.”

Fan Noli
A great Albanian, a great scholar and a great idealist. The life and work of Fan Noli are too much for a man’s lifetime. He led a revolution in Albania in 1924, he was the greatest Albanian translator bringing us the works of Shakespeare, he also was a priest and a composer. Politically Noli was part of a very few good brave men that wanted a better Albania and publicly exposed the corruption of the Albanian Government.

John Belushi
Many people of Albanian origin have performed in Hollywood sets, but John Belushi was in my opinion the most talented. He died at a young age, only 33 years old and although his death wasn’t ‘the most honorable’, who are we to judge? John Belushi at the time was one of the most promising comedians of Hollywood. Still is legacy remains as a present reminder of his talent. John Belushi put the Animal in Animal House and he put the Blues in Blues Brothers.

Honorable mentions
The next 6 people on my list are well known academic, who fell in love with the majestic beauty of our country. Here to the greatest Albanophiles:
Edith Duram
Lord Byron
Baron Franz von Nopsca
Milan Sufflay
Bernd Jurgen Fischer
Robert Elsie

Places to Visit

1. Karavasta Lagoon


The Karavasta Lagoon is home to some of the rarest species in the world, especially the Dalmatian Pelican. The Lagoon is only 5km away from the Beach of Divjaka and is an area of international importance. What makes the Lagoon even more breath taking is the National Park located in close distance, home to some of the rarest species of pine.

2. Karaburun-Sazan National Marine Park

Karaburun-Sazan is the only marine park in Albania. This park is located near the bay of Vlora. Although you can visit Karaburun, Sazan which is an island is a military zone. The marine park also features many sites of Greek, Roman and WW II ships.

 3. Lura National Park

The Park of Lura is situated 25 km near the city of Peshkopi. It is well known for its 12 unique glacial lakes, home to the Smooth Newt and the Great Crested Newt. The lakes are located 1350-1720m above sea level and each lake has its unique characteristics, offering one of the most picturesque sites you’ve ever seen.

 4. Theth National Park


If you like to spend your vacations hiking, exploring the mountain wildlife and maybe fishing, Theth is the place to go. Theth national park is near the Theth river and the Valbona Valley National Park.

 5. Osum Canyon

Even if you live in Albania, you probably haven’t heard of the Osum Canyon. This canyon is one of the most perfects sites in Albania for rafting.

 6. Lake Ohrid

Lake Ohrid is divided between Albanian and Macedonia. In the Albanian side the city of Pogradec is settled by the lake. It is a major tourist attraction especially thanks to the Ohrid Brown trout, which is an endemic species found only in lake Ohrid.
7. Lake Prespa


The Lakes Prespa are shared between Albania, Greece and Macedonia. They are two lakes which are names Big Prespa and Small Prespa. The name comes from the Albanian word PRESJE meaning comma because seen from above they look like commas. The Lake has 9 endemic fish species and is located near Lake Ohrid and the city of Pogradec.

8. Llogara National Park

Located 2000m above sea level, the Llogara National Park is one of the most well known tourist attractions in the country. This area has a lot to offer from the interestingly shaped pine trees, to the majestic locally produced honey and the to the historical Caesar’s pass where Julius Caesar passed while in pursuit of Pompey. History can’t get any closer.

9. Lake Shkodër


Lake Shkodër is the biggest lake in the Balkan Peninsula located between the border of Albania and Montenegro. The lake is a managed natural reserve because it is one of the most important fauna ecosystems in the region. In the lake live 7 endemic species and 27 other species of which the most well known in Albania is carp. While in Shkodër anthoer must-see is the Buna river, which actually is an outflow of Lake Shkodër.

 

10. Butrinti National Park

 

This particular national park holds high scientific, touristic, archeological and recreative values. The park has an area of 2500 ha and is a very special touristic attraction. The activities you can do on this park are boundless from visiting the antic city of Butrinti which is said that was build by the Trojan survivors of the Trojan War, visiting the beaches of Ksamili and the aquatic sports in Lake Butrinti.

Archeological and Historical heritage
1. Bylis

Of course this is an emptional choice for me, being that Bylis is located only 25km for Ballsh and the city takes its name from this ancient town. It is thought that in ancient times when the city was thriving, it located near the sea. To this day you can see remains of giant anchors and robes used in ships. Bylis was the biggest city in South Illyria and has equal historical and archeological value as Apolonia and Butrinti. Judging from the number and state of monument retrieved from archeological excavations Bylis is the richest site, even compared with the ancient city of Dyrrahu (today Durrës). The most breathtaking aspect of visiting this ancient city is the view. Looking from the right point you can see half of the territory of Albania and beyond, including Ioannina, Mount Tomorr, the Adriatic Sea and Vjosa River.

1. B Basilica of Ballsh

In the middle of the small city of Ballsh stands the paleo christian Basilica of Ballsh. This old religious monument is rare for the city and was restored only acouple of years ago.

2. Butrint

The best part about the Butrint National Park is the ancient city called Buthrotum. There are many theories about the origin of the city. Roman writer Virgil has said that it was founded by as son of King Priam after the fall of Troy. Other evidence shows that originally there was a city in Epirus named Buthroton. Today the city is a major tourist attraction, especially the almost intact ancient theatre located in the Agora.

3. Apollonia

The ancient city of Apollonia is located near the village of Pojan in the Fier region. It was founded by colonists from Corinth and Corfu and in the early stages had a big Greek influence. In ancient times the city was home to 60.000 people, a record for ancient times. Apollonia is called ‘The Pompeii of Albania’ because only 10% of the original city has been discovered.
4. Rozafa Castle

The Rozafa Castle is located in the city of Shkodra and is surrounded by three rivers: Buna, Drini and Kiri. The name Rozafa comes from a famous legend that centers a young woman named Rozafa. Today inside the castle you can visit a museum, water cisterns from the Middle Ages and a cathedral which was turned into a mosque.

 

5. Hadrianoupolis (Theatre of Sofratika)

In 1984, in the region of Lower Dropull archeologists discovered a roman theatre with a capacity of 4.000 seats. The theatre was named Sofratika and it was the key for the excavation of the ancient city of Hadrianoupolis.

 

 

6. Onchesmos


Onchesmos was the ancient name for the city of Saranda. At the time the city was inhabited by Greek tribes, but today its part of the Albanian territory. Saranda is a coastal city and you can see the ancient remains in the middle of the town.
7. The Train Cave (Shpella e Trenit)


The Train Cave is located in the region of Devoll, and despite its great historical and natural values it’s not officially protected by the government. This cave is e less known attraction. The cave is home to many bat colonies and rare insects.

 

 

 

8. Ancient remains of Via Egnatia

As mentioned before Via Egnatia is an ancient trade road built by the Romans. In Albania it passes through 4 important modern cities, which are Durrës, Peqin, Pojan and Elbasan. Alongside the old road you can see many remains of the time.

 

 

9. Krujë Castle


The Krujë Castle is located in the city of Krujë and was the center of Skanderbeg’s battle against the Ottomans. During the Ottoman rule the Castle withstood three massive sieges. Today inside the castle is located the Museum of Skanderbeg, one of the most modern museums in Albania.

10. Dajti Castle


The Dajti Castle features ruins of roman fortification and is located 1200m above sea level on the west side of Dajti mountain. The castle is proof of the great diversity of the Dajti National Park, making it one of the top tourist attractions. In 2008 a restoration process started for the castle.

 

 

 

Misconceptions


When it comes to Albania and misconceptions there are a lot of things to talk about. Yes there is still a lot of corruption going on in the country, many have arms in their homes and our education system has always been struggling, but like they say there are two sides to a coin.
1. We are not all criminals. We are not drug dealers, murderers or human traffickers. Of course there have been some bad apples, but most of the Albanian people are just hard working citizens.
2. We are not all communists. Of course there are some disturbing aspects, like some high rank politicians, once were associated with high rank communist politicians, but at least we have freedom of speech and press.
3. Now Religion. During the time in which Albania was communist there was a ban on religion, but today only about 6-8% of the population is atheist. The major religions practiced in the county are Islam, Orthodox Catholicism and Roman Catholicism. When it comes to religion we are actually a country to be taken as an example. We do not have any radical active groups and we are very tolerant of other people’s beliefs.
4. I hope I have shown it to you, but Albania is a very picturesque country. Prior to popular belief the roads are getting better and we have many beautiful places. So when J.K Rowling sent Voldemort to the forests of Albania she actually made him a favor, believe me.
5. There is a Kanun in Albania (set of traditional laws), which unfortunately in some parts of the country is still taken very seriously, but we don’t live by those laws. There isn’t total anarchy here.
6. I want to emphasize the fact that Albanian people have always been very compassionate. And I am not talking about our world famous humanists, but I am talking about the average people. Did you know that during WW II Albania was one of the few countries that aided and protected Jewish people? Also after the Italian invasion ended many Albanian families sheltered many Italian soldiers, although they were occupiers, not to mention the situation during the Kosovo conflict.
7. Not every single Albanian has a gun in their home. After the 1997 riots many people felt the need to protect themselves and their families so a lot of guns were floating around. But in later years the government didn’t do a very good job getting the unregistered guns back, in fact the government did a horrible job. But still Albania is a safe country and only a small amount of guns are still circulating.

There is only on thing I would like to all of you reading. Do not assume. Because you know what they say about assuming, and if you don’t, Google it.

This article has been written by Elio Jahaj, who is the Albanian Ambassador for Project Unify. Read about him and other ambassadors here.

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