Everything you want – or need – to know about Albania ….

Guardians of the country - 1969 - Spiro Kristo

Guardians of the country – 1969 – Spiro Kristo

Everything you want – or need – to know about Albania ….

…. or almost. If not already it is hoped in the not too distant future to be able to answer many questions people might have about the small Balkan country that has been the centre of conflict for centuries.

What follows are links to pages or posts that try to fill in the gaps of peoples’ knowledge of a country that was vilified for trying to maintain a real independence in the face of severe difficulties caught up, as it was, in the ideological struggle within the International Communist Movement which saw breaks first with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1961 and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1978.

Socialist Albania

The overwhelming emphasis is upon the period from the beginning of the National Liberation War against fascism in 1942 to the success of the counter-revolution in 1990. Here you will find links to material that tells you about the history of Albania; the history of the Party of Labour of Albania (the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party that led the Albanian people in the fight against the fascist invaders and then towards the construction of Socialism from 1944-1990); documents produced by the Party of Labour of Albania which give an idea of how the party saw the construction of socialism in an Albanian context as well as comments on the developments within the International Communist Movement; the writings of Enver Hoxha, the great Marxist-Leninist leader who led the Party and the country after liberation in November 1944 until his death in April 1985; be able to read many (still unfortunately not all) of the issues of the monthly political and informative review Albania Today, from 1971 to 1990; various issues of the bi-monthly, large format, political, social and cultural illustrated periodical New Albania; views of Albania and its efforts to construct socialism whilst under great threat from the encircling capitalist, revisionist and imperialist countries from fraternal parties and friendship organisations in countries throughout the world; articles and speeches of (the later to be disgraced) Mehmet Shehu; and some of the writings of the last leader of the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania, Ramiz Alia.

Art as a means of promoting Socialism

All those countries that achieved a socialist revolution – and were led by parties that followed the Marxist-Leninist ideology (and for me there are only really four; the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania (PSRA) and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV)) – realised the importance of art as a propaganda tool to promote socialist ideals and to counter the propaganda of capitalism. Each country produced that art with their own national characteristics and that produced in Albania was particularly unique and extensive, covering many aspects of the plastic arts.

Socialist Realist Art in Albania

When I first visited Albania in November 2011 I hadn’t been there too long before I realised a number of things about the monuments that had been constructed during the socialist period (1944-1990). The first was that there were a lot of them – at that time I didn’t realise just how many. Secondly, that some of them were quite remarkable, and unique, examples of Socialist Realist Art and, thirdly, they were all in danger, whether it be through ignorance, simple neglect or vandalism – be it ‘official’ (as an expression of political hatred, as has already happened in a number of cases, such as the Five Heroes of Vig in Shkoder and more recently The Four Heroines in Mirdita) or ‘unofficial’ – some people destroy because they are themselves unable to create.

The Albanian Lapidar Survey (ALS)

This was the most comprehensive survey ever carried out which documented as many as possible of the lapidars (monuments) that were still in existence at the time of the survey in March 2014. The survey recorded the physical state of the monuments (some badly damaged and neglected) and added any other pertinent information available – such as artists involved, date of inauguration, exact location using GPS technology, etc. – as well as creating an extensive photographic record of their condition at the time.

Following the survey three volumes were published, both in physical form as well as a downloadable pdf. Volume 1 contains a number of articles introducing the concept of the lapidars and their role within Albanian Socialist society. These articles appear in both Albanian and English. This volume also contains the information of the 659 lapidars that were recorded at the time. (A number of others have since been added.)

Volume 2 includes one or two photos of each lapidar in the northern part of the country, Volume 3 in the southern part – the dividing line being set at N40º42’38”.

There are links to descriptions and photos of the lapidars as well as information of the sculptors and architects involved in this vast artistic project.

The lapidars here are listed in the order they appeared in the list of the ALS.

ALS 5 – Vojo Kushi, Sadik Stavaleci and Xhorxhi Martini

The representation of the last military action of Vojo Kushi, Sadik Stavaleci and Xhorxhi Martini in Albanian Socialist realism is an interesting one as it has been depicted in a number of formats so offers a (possibly) unique opportunity to compare how the event has been presented to the Albanian people, history and posterity. Although the sacrifice of the three is commemorated it is Vojo Kushi who is in the forefront of these representations, his last action of storming an Italian tank being an act of bravery that has transcended even the counter-revolution of the 1990s.

ALS 8 and 12 – National Martyrs’ Cemetery – Tirana

The National Martyrs’ Cemetery, Tirana, is the most important monument to those who fell in the struggle against Italian and German Fascism between 1939 and 1944. It’s also the location of one of the largest examples of Socialist Realist sculpture in the country – Mother Albania.

ALS 13 – Monument to the Artillery – Sauk

Although the plan is to attempt to record all the monuments from the socialist period in Albania’s history there are, and will be, occasions when I will have arrived too late. Either the ‘democrats’ (a mixture of monarchists and neo-fascists) have got there first and destroyed the works of Socialist Realist art as it represents all that they despise and fear – such as any of the statues of Enver Hoxha – or those lumpen elements who see only scrap value in a piece of metal – that has led to the damage to the statue of the Five Heroes of Vig in the northern city of Shkodër. Destruction and vandalism has been the fate of the Monument to the Artillery in the hills to the south of Tirana, close to the town of Sauk.

ALS 17 – Monument to Heroic Peze

Looking like a cross between a pistol and a huge road sign, the Monument to Heroic Peze sits at the junction to the village of Peze, along the old road between Tirana and Durres. This huge block of concrete, in its imagery and words, tells the story of the important role that this small village played in the war against fascist occupation (both Italian and German), the formation of the National Liberation Front and the concept of People’s Power.

ALS 19 – Monument to the 22nd Brigade – Peze

The Conference of Peze, which took place in September 1942, was only possible as the Peze Çeta (Partisan Guerrilla Group) was so feared by the fascist invaders that they could provide a safe environment to enable the discussions on the formation of a National Liberation Front to take place. This was in a location only 20 kilometres from the capital of Albania, Tirana. As the war developed the organisational structure of the People’s Army changed and became more organised. After final liberation the efforts of these men and women started to be recognised throughout the country and hence the Monument to the 22nd ‘Shock’ Brigade.

ALS 20 – Peze War Memorial

The third major monument in the Peze Conference Memorial Park is the cemetery to those from Peze who fell during the anti-Fascist war of Independence. The Peze War Memorial is a short distance from the main area of the park and you could be excused for not knowing it’s there.

ALS 21 – Peze Conference Memorial Park

The Peze Conference on 16th September 1942 was important in establishing the organisational structure for the forthcoming struggle for liberation against the Fascist invaders, first the Italian and then, when Italy fell to the Allies, the Germans. This important meeting took place in the home of Myslym Peza who had a large house and land on the edge of the small village of Peze, about 20 kilometres south-west from Tirana and this is now the location of the Peze Memorial Park.

ALS 34 and 34 – Librazhd Martyrs’ Cemetery

Like many of its kind in Albania the Librazhd Martyrs’ Cemetery sits on a high location over the town. This is both to give due reverence to those who gave their lives in the National Liberation War as well as to reflect that the war itself was very much one that was won and (for the Fascists) lost in the mountains.

ALS 38 and 39 – Qukës-Pishkash Star

There are some of the lapidars in Albania that can truly be called monumental in all meanings of the word. One of these is the massive and impressive Arch of Drashovice and another is the Qukës-Pishkash Star, to the side of the road from Librazhd to Përrenjas, just opposite one of the impressive viaducts of the, now, sadly neglected Albanian railway system. The sheer scale of the star can be appreciated when you look at the picture above which includes the team who catalogued the Albanian lapidars in the summer of 2014.

ALS 98 and 100 – Monument to the First School and a Martyrs’ Lapidar – Proger

As is the case in many towns and villages in the UK (and also in Western Europe) where it’s common to come across a war memorial (originally for the war of 1914-18/9, the ‘War to end all wars’ but which became only Part 1) this is also the case in Albania. At the time of the National Liberation War from 1939-44 the population of the country was a little more than a million and so it’s no surprise that the ‘Martyrs’ (as they are known in Albania) came from even the smallest places. Progër is no different in that case. What makes the village different is the substantial lapidar commemorating the First Communist Party Cells. This small village, off the main road, also has a Monument to the First School and a Martyrs’ Lapidar.

ALS 99 – Proger – First Party Cell of the PKSH

The majority of the lapidars throughout Albania celebrate the events of the National War of Liberation and those who fought and died in that struggle. Others celebrate and commemorate events in the period of the construction of Socialism but there are few (probably a surprise to many) that are specifically devoted to the Communist Party of Albania (later the Party of Labour of Albania). One such – I only know of one other and that’s on the facade of the museum in Ersekë – is to the First Party Cell of the PKSH in the small village of Progër, close to Billisht and Korçë, not far from the border with Greece in the south-east of the country.

ALS 121 – Martyrs’ Cemetery, Korçë

Many of the martyrs’ cemeteries in Albania are situated on hills above the towns and villages and this is certainly the case with the Martyrs’ Cemetery, Korçë, where the highest point is a fair hike from the centre of the town below. However, it’s worth the effort as, on a clear day, you have a fine view of the town, the fertile valley below and the mountains to the west as well as a fine example of Socialist Realist Art.

ALS 166 – Resistance – Monument to the struggle against Fascist invasion in Durres

Being the main port of invasion by the Italian Fascists on 7th April 1939 it’s not a surprise that in commemoration of that event, and especially the resistance that was shown by a significant proportion of the population (but not the self-proclaimed ‘King’ Zog who ran away as soon as the Italian ships came into sight) that there are a few monuments to this, constructed in the Socialist period. One is to the individual sacrifice of Mujo Ulqinaku (that used to stand close by the Venetian tower at the bottom end of town) and the other is to the general principle of ‘Resistance’ in Durrës, which is located right next to the waterfront and very likely one of the places the Italian fascists would have landed.

ALS 167 – Mujo Ulqinaku – Durrës

The first shots in Albania’s National Liberation War (although it wasn’t called that at the time) were fired on 7th April 1939 when the Italian Fascist forces invaded the port city of Durrës (as well as other locations along the coast). For years the country, ruled by the self-proclaimed ‘King’ Zog I (even before he was dead he was planning a dynasty!) had been a puppet state of the Italian Fascists and when the invasion did take place no official structure was in existence to defy the invaders. It was therefore left to brave individuals, such as Mujo Ulqinaku, to take up the banner of resistance. His sacrifice is commemorated by a monument close to the coast where the invasion took place.

ALS 168 – Durres War Memorial

The overwhelming number of Socialist Realist monuments in Albania are constructed from either concrete or bronze. However, there are occasional variations from this norm and there are a few mosaics (though not on the massive scale of ‘The Albanians’ on the National History Museum in Tirana) including those in Bestrove, Llogara National Park and at the Durrës War Memorial.

ALS 194 – Lushnjë Martyrs’ Cemetery

Many of the Martyrs’ Cemeteries throughout Albania have a statue of one or more Partisans to stress that those commemorated were those who died in the National Liberation War of 1939-44. Sometimes there’s just one male Partisan, as in Korcë or Ersekë, sometimes there will be both a male and a female, as in Librazhd, sometimes (though rarely) there’s a group of three, as in Pogradec but there are also times when the symbol of sacrifice is in the form of a single female, as in Saranda and Fier. There’s a certain commonality between many of these statues, having been constructed at a similar time, but the statue of the female Partisan at the Lushnjë Martyrs’ Cemetery is quite unique in style and presentation.

ALS 244 – Shoket – Comrades – Permet

Shoket – Comrades – was one of the early sculptures to be placed in the Martyrs’ Cemeteries throughout Albania, a simple monolith (lapidar) being the most common form of monument. It is the work of Odhise Paskali and was inaugurated in 1964, the same time as the monument to the Permet Congress was unveiled in the main square of the town.

ALS 263 – Partisan and Child, Borove

The statue of a Partisan and Child, just beside the main road passing through the small village of Borove in the south-east of the country, is one of the most charming of Albanian monuments but its charm obscures a much darker story. That story is less obvious now than it was in 1968 when it was created, in a different location and part of a bigger tableau.

ALS 294 – ‘Skenderbeu’s Wars’ bas-relief in Gjirokaster

Many of the lapidars in different parts of Albania have suffered from vandalism and neglect. This is sad as it is displays a lack of respect of the Albanians for their heritage. Those with a particular Socialist message have suffered the most, attacked by the monarcho-fascists when the country was going through a period of anarchy in the late 1990s. Caught up in this denial of the past are also some of the monuments dedicated to the country’s ancient ‘national hero’, Skenderbreu, and a bas-relief called ‘Skenderbeu’s Wars’ the ‘stone city’ of Gjirokaster has likewise being ignored and allowed to fall into decline.

ALS 306, 307, 308 and 309 – Fier Martyrs’ Cemetery

Many of the Martyrs’ Cemeteries throughout Albania are situated on hills, sometimes quite high hills, in the vicinity of the cities and towns. This is the case with the Fier Martyrs’ Cemetery which, when it was constructed, would have been clearly seen from the centre of the town, the area around Sheshi Pavarësia (Independence Square) and the Bashkia (Town Hall). Up to the 1990s the buildings weren’t that tall but subsequent construction of high-rise flats has meant that you don’t really see the cemetery until you’re almost upon it.

ALS 376, 392 and 393 – Martyrs’ Cemetery, Gjirokaster

There are a lot of mountains in Albania and they played a role in the success of the Communist led Partisan çeta (guerrilla groups) in defeating first Italian and then German Fascism. For that reason most of the Martyrs’ Cemeteries in Albania tend to be high above towns, in the surrounding hills, as is the case in Tirana. On my first visit to Gjirokaster I was, therefore, scanning the hills above the old town looking for the tell-tale signs of a white lapidar indicating the location of the cemetery.

ALS 395 – Education Monument – Gjirokastra

There’s a unique lapidar in Gjirokaster, in southern Albania, which was erected to commemorate the struggle for education in the Albanian language when the country was occupied by the Ottoman Empire. This monument to education is an obelisk in the shape of a stylised scroll, or a certificate rolled up, upon which are carved images depicting the struggles of the past as well as the intentions for the future. Its official name is ‘Obelisku kushtuar pionierëve të arsimit shqip’ (‘Obelisk dedicated to the pioneers of education in [the] Albanian [language]’.)

ALS 398 – Partisan Memorial – Gjirokastra

Most of the monuments in Albania are not complex works of sculpture. Many are simple columns, with inscriptions, some of those being quite small. These are known as ‘Lapidars’ in Albania. (‘Lapidar’ doesn’t have a direct translation into English although ‘monolith’ is a possibility – and might even have a German root.) In between the monumental and the columns are stand alone statues and structures and the Partisan Memorial – Gjirokastra, is one of those.

ALS 414 – Saranda War Memorial, Albania

Through its monuments and memorials you can tell a lot about a country, its history, its heroes, its respect for itself, the class relationships, the political balance of power, even the state of the economy.

ALS 416 – Five Fallen Stars Rise Again – Dema Monument

The monument at Dema (Manastir), just outside of Saranda in southern Albania, to those who died in the war of liberation against Fascism returns to something close to its original condition.

ALS 424 – Sarandë’s Martyrs’ Cemetery

A number of Martyrs’ Cemeteries have a single female partisan as the principal statue, Fier and Lushnje are two that immediately come to mind. This was also chosen as the case in Sarandë’s Martyrs’ Cemetery.

ALS 438 – Arch of Drashovice – Introduction and Statue

A journey along the valley of the Shushicë River is interesting under any circumstances, the road is rough in places (most places) but the view of the mountains and the countryside is astounding and makes the effort worth it. When you add the Arch of Drashovice 1920-1943 it’s almost an obligation.

ALS 438 – Arch of Drashovice 1920

The magnificent Arch of Drashovice is such an amazing structure with so much to tell us that I’m breaking the description up into three parts. This is the second and addresses the images relating to the battle in 1920 against the Italian invaders, a battle (and war) fought by an irregular army of peasants, workers and intellectuals against a heavily armed imperialist force.

ALS 438 – Arch of Drashovice 1943

If victory was only temporary in 1920 (due to the betrayal by the despot and usurper ‘King’ Zog) the success in 1943 led to a situation where, really for the first time in Albania, the people had the opportunity to build a life and a country for themselves, by themselves. With the expulsion of the Nazis at the end of November 1944 the country gained true independence and it was then for the people to take their own destiny into their hands. No longer could they put the blame on others. The battles that took place in September and October 1943, and which are depicted on the Arch of Drashovice, played a major role in that final victory.

ALS 477 – Bestrove Mosaic

Mosaics play a small part in the history of Albanian lapidars but when they do appear they do so in an impressive and memorable manner. Although not strictly a lapidar the most impressive is the huge the ‘Albanian’ mosaic on the facade of the National Historical Museum in Tirana. Also interesting and worth a visit is the mosaic in the Martyrs’ Cemetery of Durrës. Each of these have their distinctive aspects and the mosaic, near the village of Bestrovë close to Vlorë, is another unique monument in its own right.

ALS 504 – Mushqete Monument – Berzhite

In the last days of the fight for the National Liberation of Albania by the Communist led Partisan army a crucial battle took place along the road from Elbasan to Tirana, south-east of the capital. To commemorate this battle the Mushqete Monument was erected at Berzhite.

ALS 675 – Bas Relief and Statue at Bajram Curri Museum

The early Albanian lapidars were relatively simple affairs, uncomplicated memorials to those who had died in the National Liberation War against Fascism and for Socialism. Come the Albanian ‘Cultural Revolution’ – starting in the late 1960s – the intention was to use such monuments in a much more educational manner as well as establishing a distinctive Albanian identity. This meant that artists who had been educated and trained under the Socialist regime were encouraged to depict events and memorials in a much more figurative manner. Examples of this approach are seen in the Musqheta monument in Berzhite and in the Peze War Memorial. As the Cultural Revolution moved into the 1980s a new approach developed. This was one where the monument told a story which had developed over time, showing a continuum of the struggle. This is seen, in a truly monumental manner on the Drashovice Arch (close to Vlora) and in the Albanians Mosaic on the façade of the National History Museum in Tirana but also on the more modest, at least in size, bas-relief and statue in the north-eastern town of Bajam Curri – although it also presents some new questions of the meaning of Socialist art.

ALS 675 – Five Heroes of Vig – Skhodër

Celebrating solidarity and the willingness towards self-sacrifice in the common cause the statue of the Five Heroes of Vig once stood in one of the central squares of Skhodër, in northern Albania. After a period ‘out in the wilderness’ – close to the city rubbish dump and subject to crass, petty thievery it has now found a new permanent home in the centre of a roundabout to the north of the city.

As time went by that search for, and recording of, the Albanian lapidars grew into a more general search and recording of other artistic works in the public domain. This included mosaics, bas-reliefs and group statues. On top of that were the works of art in the (few) remaining museums and art galleries.

Mosaics and bas reliefs

In order that the ALS didn’t become open ended many public works of art that had been created during the Socialist period (1944-1990) were not recorded. However, in my travels I have encountered many of these and have treated them in the same, hopefully, thorough manner as I have the ‘official’ lapidars.

‘The Albanians’ Mosaic, National Historical Museum, Tirana

‘The Albanians’ mosaic on National Historical Museum, Tirana, is one of the finest examples of late Albanian Socialist Realism still to be seen in the country.

Political Vandalism and ‘The Albanians’ Mosaic in Tirana

The wonderful and impressive ‘The Albanians’ Mosaic, which has looked down on Skenderbeu Square, in the centre of Tirana, from above the entrance of the National Historical Museum since 1982, is starting to show it’s age. Less it’s age, in fact, but really the signs of intentional neglect which is tantamount to an act of political vandalism.

The bas reliefs and mosaics of the Vlora Palace of Sport

Although they are being neglected, and sometimes need dedication and determination to view them, there are still a number of artistic works from the Socialist period on many of what would have been public buildings. The most impressive (and becoming one of the most neglected) is the grand mosaic on the facade of the National Historical Museum in Tirana. Another example, which can easily be missed, is the bas-relief on both the north and south sides of the Palace of Sport in the town of Vlora. Even more easily missed are the two interior mosaics on either side of what would have been, in the past, the main entrance to this sports centre.

Bashkia Mosaic – Ura Vajgurore

The more I see of them the more I like the mosaics that were created in the Socialist period of Albania’s history. In many ways they capture a feeling of optimism and hope for the future which other art forms just can’t achieve. Yes, paintings can do that but the very scale of mosaics, out in the public view all the time, just seems more immediate. Mosaics have been around for a long time but in the past representing non-existent, mythical goods or the ‘rich and famous’. Those created in Albania in the 1970s and 1980s put the working class and peasantry into the forefront, showing that their lives are important and, if they but know it and chose to take on the task, that a better future will be theirs. Such is the mosaic on the façade of the Bashkia (Town Hall) of Ura Vajguror, between Berat and Kucove, in the centre of the country.

Radio Kukesi bas-relief

Socialist Albania was a colourful place in its time. Banners would decorate cities on anniversaries of important occasions, such as the Day of Liberation from Fascism, and when conferences and congresses were taking place banners and posters would celebrate these events. Slogans, often quotes from Marxist-Leninist leaders, would call upon the people to work to build Socialism in opposition to a hostile world surrounding the small Balkan country. Many of these symbols of the building of a new society were temporary and would be replaced when another anniversary arose or a different meeting was taking place. However, there were a number of more permanent works of art transmitting this message and one of them is the bas-relief over the main entrance to the local Kukesi Radio Station in the eastern town of Kukes.

Krrabë Miners Panel

There are more than six hundred lapidars so far listed by the Albanian Lapidar Survey but they are not the only examples of Socialist Realist Art that tell the story of the country, especially after Independence in 1944. Although a considerable number of lapidars are in a sorry state, whether due to neglect or outright political vandalism, there seems to be a move, at present, to ‘preserve’ those which are still in existence. However, I’m not aware of a similar programme (whether nationally or locally organised) that pays attention to the many statues, mosaics and panels that celebrate the achievements of the people. The panel to the miners in the small village of Krrabë is one such example.

Tobacco Factory – Durres

The work of the Albanian Lapidar Survey, in documenting and quantifying the monuments throughout the country, has produced an invaluable resource for those who have an interest in the Albanian version of Socialist Realism. However, due to time, resources and the difficulty of identifying the vast amount of examples of a new form of popular expression (made even more difficult with the criminal destruction of the archives of the Albanian League of Writers and Artists) many unique pieces of art were not part of the survey. The concrete bas-relief on the facade of the (former ‘Stamles’) Tobacco Factory, close to the seafront in Durrës, was, therefore, one of those not documented and now it has gone (unless someone with foresight was able to save it) forever.

Gjirokastra College Bas Relief

This small relief, at the bottom of the stairs into a high school in the old part of Gjirokastra, commemorates an event in 1942 when the local students from the gymnasium (college), together with their teachers, demonstrated against, and clashed with, the occupying Italian fascist forces.

Paintings, murals and sculptures

As with the mosaics and bas reliefs there are still many other examples of Socialist Realist art which it is possible to appreciate throughout the country. Sometimes they are on permanent show as they are out in the open air, others are in museums and art galleries. Many of these public areas of exhibition were vandalised post 1990 but there seems to be a trend, slow and often partial, to renovate some of these old exhibition spaces and to show what had been shown in pride of place in the past.

There are also a few reprints of articles published during the Socialist period. These have been reproduced in an attempt to give a wider view of the role of art in a Socialist society.

1971 National Exhibition of Figurative Arts – Tirana

The article below was first published in New Albania, No 6, 1971. It discusses the general idea of art in a socialist society, how the Albanians saw ‘Socialist Realism’ with mention of a handful of works (out of 180) that were displayed at the National Exhibition of Figurative Arts in Tirana in the autumn of 1971.

Traditional Wedding Mural in Peshkopia

There’s a perception by some (normally the ignorant and anti-socialist) that any work of art created during the construction of Socialism is necessarily ‘Socialist Realist’ art. They don’t understand, or refuse to accept, that the construction of Socialism is a long task. When it comes to art this involves asking the people to challenge their view of what is going around them and to look at artistic works in a critical and thoughtful manner and that this involves the unmasking of the hidden messages in a painting, sculpture, film or any other creative endeavour. One such work that needs to be seen in this light is the Wedding Mural which covers one of the walls of the Korabi restaurant in the hotel of that name in the town of Peshkopia.

‘Death to Fascism’ Mural in the National Historical Museum, Tirana

The mural that covers the whole of one wall in the room of the National Historical Museum in Tirana that’s devoted to the War of Liberation against the invading fascists of 1939 to 1944 is one of the few which can still be appreciated at leisure by any visitor.

National Art Gallery ‘Sculpture Park’ – Tirana

Each time I’ve been to Tirana I’ve made it a point to visit the impromptu ‘sculpture park’ that has been created behind the National Art Gallery, just down from the main Skanderbreu Square in the centre of Tirana.

No, Vladimir Ilyich and Uncle Joe, you shall not go to the ball

No, Vladimir Ilyich and Uncle Joe, you shall not go to the ball seems to be the message given out by the pro-Western government in Albania. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Joseph Stalin are covered up by the Albanian reactionaries in an attempt to prevent them from spoiling their Independence party at the end of the month.

A new look, and a new resident, to the National Art Gallery ‘Sculpture Park’, Tirana

The ‘Sculpture Park’ behind the National Art Gallery in Tirana, has a new resident. Well, not so much a new resident but one who has been there for a few years but it is only recently that the authorities at the Art Gallery have decided to, literally, take off the wraps and reveal his presence to the world. The new resident is none other than Enver Hoxha, up to his death in 1985, First Secretary of the Party of Labour of Albania, Chairman of the Democratic Front of Albania and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.

Socialist Realist Paintings and Sculptures in the National Art Gallery, Tirana

This post will consist of images of the paintings (and a few sculptures) from the Socialist period of Albania’s past. The first floor of the National Art Gallery is almost now solely (with one notable exception, which I’ll come to later) devoted to the period before 1990 when things fell apart.

Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Military

There are fine examples of Socialist Realism in the Armaments Museum in the Castle in Gjirokastra, but you might have to ask to go upstairs to enter this older part of the museum – especially out of the summer season. ‘Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Military’ is one such sculpture.

Emblem over Party HQ, Peshkopia

Originally my project to describe, in detail, the magnificent examples of Socialist Realist Art that are embodied in some of the lapidars throughout the country has now expanded as I’ve encountered other incidences of the unique manner used in Albania in its attempt to impart the message of Socialism. Whereas some of these are truly monumental in all senses of the word, such as the Drashovice Arch, many others are, if not actually hidden, difficult to find unless you are looking for them or, as in this case, are directed towards it by a knowledgeable local. The emblem over what used to be the Headquarters of the Party of Labour of Albania, in the mountain town of Peshkopia in the north-east of the country, is one such example.

Liri Gero and the 68 Girls of Fier

Many monuments, statues and lapidars from Albania’s Socialist period have suffered over the years, through outright political vandalism or just neglect. However, there has been a bit of a sea change in recent years but this has not come without its own problems. Here I want to develop the ideas of Albanian Socialist Realist art by looking at two works produced to commemorate the life of a young partisan woman, Liri Gero, and also a work in commemoration of 68 young women who also left their home town of Fier to join the partisans fighting the Fascist invaders.

The ‘Hanged Women’ of Gjirokastra

Tucked away at the top end of Sheshi Çerçiz Topulli (Square) in the old part of Gjirokastra is a small statue which you could easily miss. Next to the potted plants in front of the Tourist Information Office is a white stone statue, of the upper body, of two women. This is a representation of Bule Naipi and Persefoni Kokëdhima who were executed by the German Nazis in 1944. From that time they became known as the Hanged Women of Gjirokastra.

Traditional Musicians and Dancers

Although there are many monuments and statues that are overtly political, in that they commemorate events or people involved in national liberation struggles (whether that be against the Ottoman Empire or the Italian and German Fascists of World War Two) other aspects of Albanian life are also represented in various locations throughout the country. As Gjirokastra, in the Socialist period, had become the centre for periodic folklore festivals it’s not surprising to find a frieze depicting traditional musicians and dancers located there.

Albanian Socialist Literature

As of this time this is a very thin section. The hope is to include other examples in due course.

The Mother – a Socialist short story

It wasn’t just in the plastic arts that Socialist Realism had a role to play in the construction of Socialism. Putting the role of the working class and peasantry in the forefront of all that happened in society, in the post, present and future, was also a task of writers of short stories and novels. For those interested in this aspect of Albania’s road to Socialism the various foreign language publications (especially the large format, monthly colour magazine, New Albania) provided translations from the Albanian language in English, Russian, French, Chinese and Arabic. The story below appeared in New Albania, 1971, No 6.

Albanian folklore – music and dance

This is also, presently, a thin section. More will be added as material becomes available.

Albanian traditional musical instruments

The article below, written by R Sokoli, first appeared in issue No 5, 1971 of the magazine New Albania. It is reproduced here (slightly edited) to aid a greater understanding of some of the works of art that were produced during the Socialist period (1944-1990) of Albania’s past. Although folklore hasn’t been totally abandoned in the present-day capitalist Albania traditional dress and culture don’t hold the same important role in Albanian society as in the past.

Post Socialist Albania

The counter-revolution in the 1990s destroyed virtually all the industry and seriously damaged the rail infrastructure. What ‘modern-day’ capitalist Albania produces, in spades, is religious buildings of all denominations – Orthodox Christian, Roman Catholic and Islam. But what I find interesting in some of the paintings that line of the walls of these religious spaces, in particular the Roman Catholic variety, is the artistic link it has with the style of socialist realism.

Religion

Anti-Communist paintings – Shkodër Franciscan Church

Religion is interesting in Albania. Travelling around you can’t help but notice the new mosques and churches (both Catholic and Greek Orthodox) that are appearing everywhere. Whether there’s a real need for so many is debatable, I’ve hardly seen any evidence of what could be called a ‘religious revival’. However, the Catholic Church, in particular, is on the offensive and that can best be seen with the anti-Communist paintings in the Franciscan Church in Shkodër.

Resurrection of Christ Greek Orthodox Cathedral – Tirana

There doesn’t seem to be any money to improve the infrastructure in Albania but plenty for building churches and the new Resurrection of Christ Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Tirana has taken a big chunk of that budget.

Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Tirana

Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Tirana displays new and interesting murals to replace the frescoes of the past.

Panagia Monastery Church – Mother of Christ – Dhermi, Albania

The rear wall of the Panagia Monastery Church – Mother of Christ – in Dhërmi, Himara province, southern Albania, warns sinners of what’s in store for them if they don’t repent.

And if the obscurantism of the three religious denominations isn’t enough, the Albanians have good back to ancient superstitions as well – perhaps hedging their bets.

The dordolec, the ‘evil eye’ and superstition in Albania

You think that when someone buys a soft toy or a blow up Tele Tubbie it’s destined for a baby or a young child. In Albania it could well be for another purpose. This is all part of the ‘tradition’ of the dordolec, the ‘evil eye’ and superstition in Albania.

Post-revolutionary points of interest

All post-Communist societies have a problem when it comes to history. The ruling capitalist and imperialist lackeys don’t want to remind the people of the time of Socialist construction – they might wonder why they ditched the socialist past in favour of the capitalist present which offers them little hope – unless you are one of those ‘lucky’ enough to have your snout in the corruption trough. That dilemma has resulted in a number of ‘interesting’ items about which I have written.

‘King’ Zog’s remains return to Tirana

The ‘democratic’ government of Albania embraces the country’s reactionary, feudal and fascist past in a ceremony marking the return of the remains of Ahmet Zogu.

German Fascist Memorial in Tirana, Albania

A German fascist memorial in a country where more than 30,000 died in the struggle to liberate themselves from the scourge that was devastating Europe.

The English Cemetery in Tirana Park

On Sunday 11th November 2012 the British Embassy organised a Remembrance service at the English Cemetery in Tirana Park, behind the State University, in the centre of the city. There were few people in attendance, as the English community in Tirana is relatively small, but included the British Ambassador and the Prime Minister of Albania, Sali Berisha.

Albanian town planning – drastic measures taken

Some building developers rub someone in authority up the wrong way and they find their building plans didn’t go quite as they expected.

What does Independence mean in Albania today?

Any visitor to the country will soon become aware of the schizophrenic approach the people and government have towards the idea of ‘independence’. Images of the 15th century national hero Skenderberg are everywhere. November 28th is still a national holiday as it celebrates independence from the Ottoman Empire. November 29th – which is the day of the liberation of the country from the fascists in 1944 – is not. Yet NATO troops and vehicles are more evident than the national army and the government does nothing of note unless it gets the green light from external capitalist masters. And like many others throughout Europe who call for ‘independence’ – such as the Catalans, the Basques, the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish – Albania begs to become a member of the European Union. I find that a bit of a contradiction but these ‘nationalist’ groups don’t. For the ordinary Albanian they see membership as a lifeline and a means of getting an improved infrastructure, for those in real control it’s an opportunity to get their noses into the trough.

A hundred years of Albanian Independence?

Today, the 28th November, Albania celebrates the 100th Anniversary of it independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912. The streets and buildings throughout the country are festooned with red bunting and representations of the black, double-headed eagle but how independent is Albania really?

29th November 1944 – the date of true independence for Albania

For such a small country, in terms of geographic size and population – yet big in the sense of having taken on the challenge of the building of revolutionary socialism – Albania has two days on which it celebrates its independence. The first was from the Ottoman Empire on 28th November 1912 but by far the most important and significant is that of the 29th November 1944 – the date of true independence for Albania.

Foreign interference in Albania’s internal affairs

I have also, briefly, looked at efforts of capitalist nations (principally the United Kingdom) to undermine the construction of Socialism in Albania after the ending of World War II (the National Liberation War for the Albanians).

Reasons to be suspicious – Albanian-British Relationships in the 1940s

After liberating their country from the fascists Albanians were under continual external pressure from hostile government forces. At this time Albanian-British Relationships were at an all-time low. In not bowing down to this the Albanians were criticised for being ‘isolationist’ and ‘xenophobic’ whereas their actions were more a matter of survival.

Politics and ideology within International Communist Movement

Although a small country in the ‘socialist camp’ – when such an entity existed – the Albanian Party of Labour, and its leader Enver Hoxha, played a major part in the struggle against revisionism within the International Communist Movement. How this was fought out can be seen in the writings of Comrade Hoxha himself and it the material produced by the Party throughout its existence.

The definitive split between Albania and China, 1978

In July 1978 the Party of Labour of Albania published (in an open and public forum, that is, as a supplement to the July/August, No 4, edition of Albania Today) a letter which the Party had sent to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. This letter was promoted by the sudden – though not totally unexpected – move of the Chinese to remove all support, materially, financially as well as personnel, from Albania, a country which, up to that time, had held the closest fraternal links with the much bigger Party, country and people.

Travelling in Albania

A number of posts provide some information for those travelling around various parts of the country. This includes information on transport as well as a number of specific locations.

Rinas – Nënë (Mother) Tereza – Tirana International Airport

Tirana International Airport is officially known as Nënë Tereza but is still referred to locally as Rinas, the name of the nearest village.

Corfu to Saranda ferry – a travellers’ view

One of the best ways into Albania is via the ferry from Corfu to Saranda in southern Albania. What follows is the practical information of what you need to know to make that process easy and – hopefully – trouble free.

The Bus from Bajram Curri to Tirana

One of the joys of travelling is the unexpected. Well, I suppose, many people have come across a form of the unexpected they would rather not have experienced but those unpleasant situations can happen in your own country. The unexpected that I’m talking about is the experience when something happens, something changes, something develops in a manner that was totally unforeseen at the beginning, but all ends up well.

Impressions of Saranda, Southern Albania

At one time a quiet port in the south of the country, the Albanian town of Saranda gets the Benidorm treatment.

Walking from Valbona to Thethi in north-eastern Albania

Two attempts at the walk between Valbona and Thethi in north-eastern Albania and still don’t make it. The reasons why not and perhaps the reasons why the next time.

Komani Lake – The most impressive ferry trip in Europe?

I’ve done the Amazon, the Yukon and the Zambesi but you have to go a long way to beat the beauty and splendour of the Lake Komani ferry journey from the hydro-electric dam at Koman to the port of Fierza, on the way to the town of Bajram Curri – and it lasts for less than three hours.

Butrint – a Greek and Roman story in southern Albania

An archaeological site that goes back almost 2500 years, Butrint has the imprint of both the Greek and Roman civilisations. Important for its location to both those cultures it was also pivotal under Venetian rule, its decline only really beginning after it fell to Napoleon’s armies at the end of the 18th century.

Syri i Kalter, the Blue Eye

Syri I Kaltër, the Blue Eye is one of the natural attractions in the Saranda area in southern Albania, especially if you are not interested in the beach or are looking for a change. A visit here can also be put together with a day trip to Gjirokastra from Saranda.

Visiting Enver Hoxha’s grave in Tirana

After his death on 11th April 1985 Enver Hoxha was buried next to the Mother Albania statue in the Martyr’s Cemetery overlooking Tirana. However, the counter-revolution that took place in 1990 allowed his political enemies to take their revenge by denying him a place of honour in the country’s history and he was reburied in the main public cemetery of the city.

Bus travel from Tirana to Istanbul

– with, hopefully, some practical information (including surviving the first couple of hours or so) and some observations.

A new look, and a new resident, to the National Art Gallery ‘Sculpture Park’, Tirana

The new group

More on Albania ……

A new look, and a new resident, to the National Art Gallery ‘Sculpture Park’, Tirana

The ‘Sculpture Park’ behind the National Art Gallery in Tirana, has a new resident. Well, not so much a new resident but one who has been there for a few years but it is only recently that the authorities at the Art Gallery have decided to, literally, take off the wraps and reveal his presence to the world. The new resident is none other than Enver Hoxha, up to his death in 1985, First Secretary of the Party of Labour of Albania, Chairman of the Democratic Front of Albania and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.

A vandalised Enver Hoxha

A vandalised Enver Hoxha

However, the years since the neo-Fascist Counter-Revolution of 1990 have not been kind to the large sandstone bust of Comrade Enver. The fascist thugs who attacked this particular statue were not particularly efficient and all they succeeded in achieving is a somewhat radical nose job, with some scarring around the eyes and mouth. Unfortunately (to date) I have no idea of the provenance of this statue – not from where it originally was placed nor who the sculptor might have been.

Enver Hoxha - the nose always get attacked

Enver Hoxha – the nose always get attacked

The last time I was able to visit the ‘Sculpture Park’ was in the autumn of 2016 and at that time the bust was covered in a heavy, white tarpaulin. Local people I knew said that it was rumoured to be that of Enver Hoxha but as an outsider there was no way I was able to confirm or deny this.

Why the statue was even brought to this location in the first place is a bit of a mystery. If the thugs who attacked it (presumably in the early days of the counter-revolution, now almost 30 years ago) were not able to destroy it then such vandalism is well within the bounds of a modern state – which marches further and further, at each passing day, away from anything which Comrade Enver and the Party he led hoped for the people of their country. I think it’s quite amazing that it even exists at all. This is especially so in the present cultural environment where lapidars are being destroyed if they stand in the way of ‘modernisation’.

Independence comes at a price and eventually enough of the population of the country didn’t want to pay that price. Because the road was long, tortuous and hard they handed their country, their collective wealth and their fate into the hands of those who were quite happy to sell all of that to the highest bidder.

Having long been a thorn in the side of capitalism, especially the likes of Britain in Europe (who in the immediate post-WWII years considered Albania as tantamount to a British colony) those who were prepared to tear the country apart, regardless of the consequences for the people of the county, were not slow in coming forward.

Albanian Symbol and Leader

Albanian Symbol and Leader

Reactionary forces, both within the country and those who had been in effective exile since 1944, were promoted and through a series of social, political and economic manoeuvres, shenanigans and disasters virtually all those gains of Socialism were swept away. Industry and agriculture were effectively wiped out and even the savings of ordinary Albanians were stolen by mafia criminals through the likes of pyramid and ponzi schemes.

Enver would have be furious at the way the people were robbed of all they had achieved in 40 long, hard years of the construction of Socialism so perhaps it was best he had died before it all fell apart. As such the destruction of the country would not have happened if Enver had still been alive. What happened in Albania after the death of such a clear thinking leader is that which unites him to the two other great Marxist-Leninist thinkers and leaders with whom he now shares the not really salubrious location of the back entrance of the National Art Gallery.

The people of the nascent Soviet Union were fortunate that with the premature death of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin in 1924 ( precipitated by an attempted assassin’s bullet in 1918) there was another strong willed, determined and fearless champion of the working class (and peasantry) waiting to take the country into an uncertain and dangerous future. That leader was Joseph Vassarionovich Stalin.

The 'Albanian' Uncle Joe and Comrade Enver

The ‘Albanian’ Uncle Joe and Comrade Enver

Now those three leaders are united in art in a way they never were in real life. And it is sad to say that although Enver has gone through the wars it is Vladimir Ilyich who has suffered the most since being removed from his plinth just a few metres from where he is now. With Lenin the reason for his shortage of limbs is more due to greed than political antagonism, which is the reason for Enver’s lack of nose. Many of the monuments throughout Albania have had those parts that are easy to saw off removed for the simple reason of being weighed in as scrap metal. On the other side of the coin it is Uncle Joe who has survived the best.

The 'Russian' Stalin

The ‘Russian’ Stalin

Both the black, distinctively Russian, Stalin, presented to the people of Albania by the Soviet Union just after the death of the great leader in 1953, and the equally distinctive Albanian Stalin (that almost certainly used to stand on a plinth outside the textile factory that bore his name in the town of Kombinat, to the west of Tirana along the ‘old’ road to Durres) are in an almost perfect condition. (This is also the town in which Comrade Enver is now buried after his removal from the National Martyrs’ Cemetery.)

Of the group Enver is also the only statue that is made of stone. This is a slight move away from the traditional lapidars throughout Albania and perhaps was a move that took place after Enver’s death in 1985. The overwhelming number of Albanian public statues are of bronze.

It is true that many of the early manifestations of the early lapidars were originally made of plaster but that was more to do with cost than anything else and many, like the Five Heroes of Vig, were replaced with bronze versions when the resources became available. A number of the really large lapidars, such as the Arch at Drashovich and the Berzhite monument were made of concrete. Carved stone is a rarity when it comes to such public sculpture.

As well as the addition of a new visitor the whole area now looks a lot less neglected than it did a few years ago. Considering it is the National Gallery, and therefore a supposed show case for the country, the back of the building looked more like what you would expect from a building due for demolition.

Firing from the mountains

Firing from the mountains

But the cleaning up of this area might also have something to do with the growing ‘regeneration’ of the central Tirana area. The central market is nothing like you would normally see in a Balkan country and has the sterile feeling of some of the markets in London – as well as higher prices and consequently fewer people.

The tragically neglected Dajt Hotel – which, by all accounts, was a masterpiece of Socialist Realist decoration which was just left to rot – is now under renovation. This means the general area is being cleaned up and that has spread over to the ‘Sculpture Park’.

Another change is that there’s no security guard always around to prevent the casual visitor from getting up close to these statues. It was one of my games in the past to get behind the guard without him realising – and then feigning ignorance when he eventually caught sight of me.

There’s also advantage of these statues being in their new location. You can actually get up really close and touch them, fell the texture of the metal, and now the stone, of the art works. You can see them from all sides and also appreciate how big these statues are. They were all originally designed to be standing atop a tall plinth. If the actual statues in that location were not much bigger than life size they would have seemed out of proportion. (Refer to debates about the proportions of the ‘David’ of Michaelangelo in Florence.) In the ‘Sculpture Park’ you truly look up to these giants of Communism.

Also, on this visit, I was able to see that the ‘Russian’ Stalin actually has been ‘signed’. This ‘discovery’ was not too pleasant. On many of the posts I have made in the recent past about Albanian lapidars I have made a point of stating that I like the idea the works of Socialist Realist sculpture weren’t signed. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that this started to change, as in the Martyrs’ Cemetery in Lushnje and the bas relief in Bajram Curri. I will have to look in to the way public statues were presented in the Soviet Union to see how this different approach developed – when I get the time.

The signature on the 'Russian' Stalin

The signature on the ‘Russian’ Stalin

But before leaving the ‘Sculpture Park’ I should not omit to make mention of the wonderful Liri Gero – the courageous Communist Partisan murdered by the German Fascists whilst she was still in her teens.

Liri Gero on her own

Liri Gero on her own

The Communist Heroine Liri Gero

The Communist Heroine Liri Gero

She still stands in the location she has held for a number of years – facing the group on the other side of the courtyard, alone, yet with a dignity and steadfastness that truly represents the young People’s Heroine. A young woman prepared to take up arms for her own liberation and for that of her country. Instead of being a ‘role model’ (the current ‘in’ term that’s used for shallow so-called ‘celebrities’) to young Albanian women I would doubt if many of them in their teens now would even know who she was. As a consequence their lives are likely to be as shallow as those of the celebrities they so admire.

If there were enough reasons to visit this ‘Sculpture Park’ in the past, the presence of Enver (the only public statue of him I’ve seen in the country) is yet another.

More on Albania ……

Education Monument – Gjirokastra

Education Monument - Gjirokaster

Education Monument – Gjirokaster

More on Albania …..

Education Monument – Gjirokastra

There’s a unique lapidar in Gjirokaster, in southern Albania, which was erected to commemorate the struggle for education in the Albanian language when the country was occupied by the Ottoman Empire. This monument to education is an obelisk in the shape of a stylised scroll, or a certificate rolled up, upon which are carved images depicting the struggles of the past as well as the intentions for the future. Its official name is ‘Obelisku kushtuar pionierëve të arsimit shqip’ (‘Obelisk dedicated to the pioneers of education in [the] Albanian [language]’.)

As with many of the Albanian lapidars this one is the result of the collaboration of three sculptors, Mumtaz Dhrami (Heroic Peze, Drashovice, Independence in Vlora, amongst others), Ksenofon Kostaqi (Dancers and Musicians, Gjirokaster) and Stefan Papamihali (Partisan, Gjirokaster). To the best of my knowledge this was inaugurated in 1983 (on the 40th anniversary of the liberation from the Italian Fascists – the Nazis came back for a while) when a number of other monuments were constructed throughout the town.

It’s worthwhile remembering that tiny Albania, because of its strategic position, was the object of desire for many imperialist powers, for a period of more than two thousand years. The last major imperialist power to hold sway in the country for any length of time was the Ottoman Empire based in Turkey. That empire wanted to impose total control and this included the language spoken and taught in schools. Therefore the struggle to maintain and develop the Albanian language was an anti-imperialist and progressive struggle which developed throughout the 19th and into the 29th century.

Education Monument - Zamir Mati

Education Monument – Zamir Mati

The obelisk is made from the local limestone and the story unravels as you look at it from the face in front of you at the top of the steps and then continues up and around in a clockwise direction.

The first carving is of disembodied hands, one holding a flaming torch, the other a book and an olive branch. These can mean slightly different things depending upon their context and location. The torch can symbolise liberty (as in the Statue in New York Harbour) or light. As this is an education monument it’s more likely representing the light that comes to an individual once they have access to education. The other hand holds both the book and the olive branch symbolising that through reading and education can come peace.

Education Symbol

Education Symbol

Allegories are always complex. You have to take into account the situation in which Albania found itself in 1983. The break with the Chinese revisionists in the 70s had meant that the country was alone in a hostile, capitalist world. They might have wanted peace but that was going to be difficult to achieve in such circumstances.

(Allegories can also be ironic. On the back of the present US ‘dime’ (10 cent piece), you can also find a torch and olive branch depicted, supposedly representing peace and liberty. There’s been little of that for many of the US population and even less for the peoples in countries where the US considers its interests are at stake. The oak tree, which is supposed to symbolise strength, has become a club with which to beat people, both nationally and internationally.)

Above the image of the hands are the words:

‘Pionierëve të gjuhës shqipe që në vitet e errëta të robërisë mbajtën gjallë dashurinë për liri, arsim, kulturë.’

Which translates as:

‘To the Pioneers of the Albanian language who, in the dark years of captivity, kept alive the love for freedom, education and culture.’

Before continuing around the obelisk look to the building at your back and to the plaque on the wall. The top part reads:

‘Ne kete godine ne shtator te vitit 1908, pas perpjekjeve te shumta te mesonjesve e patrioteve gjirokastrite u cel e para shkolle shqipe per qytetin me emerin ‘Liria’.’

Which translates as:

‘In this building, in September 1908, after numerous attempts by the patriotic educators of Gjirokaster, the first Albanian school in the town was opened, it was called ‘Freedom’

At the bottom of the plaque it states that the building was restored in 2002 with money from the California-based Packard Humanities Institute.

On each occasion I have been to see the lapidar the building has been closed so I don’t know if it contains any more information about the event in 1908.

Back to the obelisk.

Moving clockwise we come across an image of a man and a young boy. The man is dressed in the traditional, countryside, clothing of the beginning of the 20th century, a soft cap (qylafë) on his head down to the tsarouchi shoes (with its woollen pompom to keep out the water). He is armed – no real progress for the people will come unless it is fought for – and he holds a rifle, pointing downwards, in his left hand. Around his waist he wears an ammunition belt. Across his chest are the straps of small satchels that he wears on either side.

The young boy is dressed in more modern, western style dress, more like a suit and his shoes are also from a later period. Across his shoulder is the strap for a school satchel. He represents the future. He is carrying on the legacy that the man has fought for. It’s not always the case that those who do the fighting get the benefit (the many graves in the Martyrs’ Cemeteries are witness to that) but without such sacrifices no society can move on.

The young boy is walking up steps, again an allusion to the future, going upwards and onwards. But he’s not doing this alone. The right hand of the man is resting on the boy’s shoulder, an indication of both support and encouragement, and that hand is connected, through the man’s body, to the rifle. What has been gained by arms will also have to be defended by arms. This is a motif that appears elsewhere in Albania, for example, the statue of the Partisan and Child in Borove and in the Martyrs’ Cemetery at Lushnje.

The Past and the Future

The Past and the Future

The stance of both of them is confident and they are looking up, into the distance. This is one aspect which appears a great deal in Albanian lapidars – there are few bowed heads in either despair or defeat.

But the boy isn’t just going nowhere – he’s walking into a cloud of positive words that come as a consequence of education. Words that are in a different font, of different sizes but all suggesting the results of a properly organised educational system. Here we are moving away from a strictly historical celebration of the events in 1908. A school might have been established in Gjirokaster (and other locations in the years afterwards) but it wasn’t until the liberation of the country from Fascism in 1944 that the journey along the road of free and universal education was begun. As in most countries in Eastern Europe at that time (apart from the Soviet Union) illiteracy rates were astronomical.

I’m not sure if I’ve got all the words carved into the limestone. As we move around the monument the face that takes all the bad weather, from the north, starts to show signs of wear. However. I’m fairly sure about the majority.

Shoqrite – friendship; undra – wonder; vëllezëria – brotherhood; studenti – students; lidhja – unity; puntoreve – workers; bastiljes – captivity; mesuesue – teachers; drita – light (which was also the name of the magazine of the Albanian Writers and Artists Union, with the same font); shpresa – hope; kandile – oil lamp, candle, light; bashkimi – union.

OK, some of them are not directly connected to education but these words establish the general principles and themes of a socialist state in construction, which is impossible with an uneducated population (and even difficult with) and is why the promise of universal education is a pledge by virtually all national liberation movements, wherever and whenever they might be.

These words are inscribed upon a banner which is being held by the three individuals higher up this part of the obelisk. On the right hand side of the group is what looks like an academic. He’s fairly smartly dressed, perhaps early 20th century sophisticated, but not in a western style, more a wealthy local style that is beginning to adapt to western influences. He is wearing a fez and a topcoat, is grabbing hold of the banner with his left hand and has a book clasped to his chest in his right hand (in the same way as the worker did on the mosaic of the national history museum in Tirana – before its vandalisation). I assume he represents one of those pioneers mentioned before or one of the teachers in the ‘Freedom’ school.

On the left of the group is another man. Again he’s dressed in the style of the early part of the 20th century, but he’s not an academic, he’s a fighter and has hold of the top of the barrel of a rifle in his left hand. His right hand is gripping hold of the banner with the inscribed words of the future. So what we have here are the two forces which achieved the establishment of the school in 1908.

In between is another man, but this time he’s a worker, wearing the type of protective head covering which was typical of an engineer, or someone working in a steel plant, during the socialist period. (We have to remember that, although not producing anything now, Gjirokaster was the Albanian ‘Sheffield’ during socialism, producing the cutlery needs of the country. The deserted buildings alongside the main road from the border towards Tepelene, below the old town, is all that remains of that industry.)

His right hand is stretched out and the tips of his fingers seem to be touching the barrel of the rifle and his thumb is only inches away from the banner. He’s a worker, but everyone in socialism needs to be prepared to take up arms to defend the revolution and be ready to take up the banner of the revolution’s achievements once those that have gone before leave the scene.

High above this group of three, and almost at the top of the column, the double-headed eagle is carved into the stone. There’s no star above the heads as this is a monument to an event before the establishment of the People’s Republic. Above the eagles, in large letters, is the word ‘Baskimi’, meaning union, unity. Below the birds is the word ‘Drita’, meaning light, which is in inverted commas. I’m not sure why. The magazine of that name didn’t exist until more than 50 years later, when using the inverted commas would have been valid. Below that, now fading, is the date 1908.

Continuing the clockwise trajectory there is a fighting group from the end of the 19th century. This is the part of the monument that is most exposed to the elements and some of the images are difficult to make out.

At the bottom of the group a man is kneeling, looking forward, with a rifle in his right hand, the butt resting on the ground.

Above him, at his left shoulder is a group of three, a woman and two young children. She is looking in the same direction as the man below – as I said before, there’s always this symbolism of looking forward, confidently, to the future. She wears a kapica, a long scarf wrapped loosely around her head. In her right hand she is holding the top of the barrel of a rifle. Again, as in many Albanian lapidars and friezes, the women are more often than not armed, for example the Peze War Memorial. Her left hand rests on the left shoulder of a young child. This is the older of the two children, or at least the biggest, looking at his sibling, who is looking at him/her. This is the only one in the group who isn’t looking forward. I can’t make out the gender of the children as weathering and staining are greatest at this point.

Woman and children

Woman and children

So here we have a woman armed yet still protective of children, whether they be hers or not. Women played an active role in Albania’s liberation struggle, to a much greater extent in the war against Fascism but also in the independence battles of the 19th and early 20th centuries. So this woman can either represent all those heroines and/or could represent the idea of Mother Albania, as seen at the Tirana Martyrs’ Cemetery or in expelling the priest and the military from the country in the Armaments Museum in Gjirokaster Castle.

In front of the woman, and slightly above her, is another independence fighter. He is depicted striding forward, always that forward motion, determined and prepared. He holds a flag pole in his right hand, the banner fluttering above his head. It’s impossible to make out if anything is inscribed on the banner, i.e., the double-headed eagle. His left arm is fully stretched out behind him and is holding a rifle at the mechanism end of the barrel, the butt of which is just behind the head of the woman. Often there will be a person in a lapidar who is looking backwards, urging others behind to come forward, as in the monument to the students and teachers just around the corner in Gjirokaster, but here he is using a gesture with his rifle to achieve the same effect.

On both the men so far mentioned you can see the Albanian version of the tsarouchi shoes, with the sheep’s wool pompom at the toe.

Above the banner, and now almost at the top of the obelisk, is a group of three men, one in the act of firing, one about to do so and the third in the process of getting his rifle to his shoulder. We only see their head and shoulders but what can be made out is the type of hat they are wearing. This is a round and flat cap, similar to that worn by Çerçiz Topulli on the statue in the square that bears his name in Old Gjirokaster.

We have now gone around the clock face and are now at the point were we started but now look up higher and see a large group of children with their teacher. Above the group, in large letters, is the word ‘Mëmëdhue’, meaning Motherland – the idea of nationalism being a strong motif, especially in monuments that commemorate those events prior to 1944, after which socialist elements tend to become more dominant.

Then we have the letters ABC, obviously representing literacy, both reading and writing. The only other monument where I have seen this, so far, is on a smaller lapidar to education in the small village of Proger, not far from Korça. (Albanian uses the Latin alphabet but there are 36 letters as opposed to 26 in English.)

Below that is a compressed scene from a school classroom. There are eight children, three girls and 5 boys. These are young children so this is a class where they are learning the basics of the Albanian language. From what I can make out they are wearing some sort of school uniform which indicates to me that the scene is from a country school after liberation as I can’t imagine matters being so organised way back in 1908 (and girls might not have had ready access to education at that time).

Three of them have writing tablets and pens whilst three have books, with the other two it’s not clear. There’s a mix of attention to the teacher being depicted. Four of them are looking at the teacher, one seems to be looking out the window to the mountains, one of the girls has her back to us, another girl is reading and one of the boys is looking straight at us as we view the scene. All but one of the children are bear-headed, and he wears a fez.

Immediately above the group of children we can make out the legs of a blackboard easel, the blackboard itself merging into the rest of the monument. The teacher, to the right of the children, is bare-headed, wears a tie and his dress would seem to fit into the idea that the scene is late rather than early 20th century. In his left hand he holds an open book and in his right hand he holds a ball of chalk as if just about to write something on the board. His index finger is pointing to the B of the letters in an obvious reference to literacy.

The final piece of decoration is a star carved into the stone at its highest point. This is immediately above the hands with the torch, book and olive branch.

Generally the monument is in a good condition and doesn’t look like it has suffered from any vandalism. Where there is some degradation it seems to have been caused by the weather, on the north facing parts of the lapidar.

Holiday in Gjirokaster - Zamir Mati

Holiday in Gjirokaster – Zamir Mati

It’s also in a pleasant location. Whereas the streets of the old town can get busy, especially when large tour groups arrive in coaches for a day trip, I’ve never been to the monument when there have been more than a couple of people there. The fact that the approach is not obvious until you actually find it might be the reason for that. From the small balcony on which it stands you get a great view of both the old and the new town, as well as the mountains on either side of the River Drino valley, looking northwards in the direction of Tepelene. For a few years this would have been a good place to get a high view of the statue of Enver Hoxha that was located just a little lower down the hill (and where there are now a couple of expensive bars). Unfortunately Enver suffered a terminal attack in 1992.

Enver Hoxha, Gjirokaster

Enver Hoxha, Gjirokaster

How to find it:

Go up hill from Çerçiz Topulli Square and at the junction at the top (about 100m) take the higher of the two roads on the right and then immediately the narrow road on the left. Within a few metres on the right there’s an always open door, as if going into a house. Go up these stairs and through the building – if you smell decay mixed with stale urine then you’re in the right place. Coming out into the open the steps become wider and they take you to the small plateau upon which the obelisk stands.

GPS

40.074572

20.13804104

DMS

40° 4′ 28.4592” N

20° 8′ 16.9477” E

Altitude:

318.4m

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