‘Skenderbeu’s Wars’ bas-relief in Gjirokaster

Skenderbeu's Wars, Gjirokaster, Hector Dule, 1968

Skenderbeu’s Wars, Gjirokaster, Hector Dule, 1968

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.

The monument is located just above the old town, where the road starts to zigzag as it heads up to the entrance of the castle. This is the north facing side of the hill and is covered with trees and bushes which, in the heat of summer, make for one of the most pleasant locations in the city to cool down. However, this is not the best kind of climate for the bas relief created by Hector Dule in 1968. In Albanian it’s official title is ‘Lapidar kushtuar luftrave të Skënderbeut’ which translates as: ‘Monolith dedicated to Skenderbeu’s Wars’.

I’m sure that during the period of Socialism the area would have been kept clear but over the last 25 years or so the trees have been allowed to grow and if you didn’t know what you were looking for would easily miss whilst passing only a few metres away.

The monument consists of two parts – a concrete panel with images from the time of the Skenderbreu wars and a black stone column about twice the height of the panel to which it is attached.

The construction of the bas-relief is different from all the others I seen so far in that the constituent parts were obviously created elsewhere and then brought to the site to be put together. There are 4 square sections (on the left) and a larger, rectangular section on the right. Most later lapidars of similar materials appear to have been created on site. This was perhaps made possible as expertise and the technology improved as this depiction of Skenderbreu is one of the earliest of the sculptural lapidars.

This is not to say that Albanian lapidars didn’t exist before 1968. As the article ‘About the film ‘Lapidari” in Vol 1 of the Albanian Lapidar Survey points out the first lapidars appeared as soon as the National Liberation War had ended – if not before with the placing of simple grave markers over the bodies of some of the fallen Partisans. However, it was not until the mid-1960s that the Party of Labour of Albania decided that these locations would be an ideal place to develop both Socialist Realist Art as well as create an educational and propaganda tool for the promotion of the Socialist ideal – this was the start of Albania’s Cultural Revolution.

There are three males depicted, Skenderbreu himself and two of his followers. Skenderbreu is seated on a rearing horse and takes up more than two thirds of the space whilst the two soldiers stand behind him on the left hand side of the panel.

Here it’s worth well mentioning that the image that all Albanians have of Skenderbreu is one very much created in the mid 20th century by the sculptor Odhise Paskali who created the first sculpture of him in 1939, a head and shoulders bust. From then on that was the image and look that has been perpetuated by all subsequent artists. This ‘created’ image was as a result of the fact that no images exist of Skenderbreu as a fighting man, the only ones I’ve seen are of him when he was well past his fighting days. So here we have another situation where reality has been sacrificed for visual effect.

Although a fan of Dule’s work I’m not a fan of this particular piece. The image of the female Communist over the entrance to the main hall of the Palace of Congresses, for example, is a stunning piece of work but here the image is let down by how he has portrayed the horse – it’s a really ugly horse for a steed that would charge into war. Such horses had be be even more fearless than their riders as they weren’t able to rationalise the environment into which they were forced to go. But this horse looks thin, weak and afraid.

Skenderbeu's Horse

Skenderbeu’s Horse

Its hind quarters, especially, appear as if the hide had been removed and is reminiscent of some of Michelangelo’s sketches of the muscles and ligaments of living creatures he produced 500 years ago. The horse is reared up on its hind legs, front hoofs pawing the air as if it were just at the point of beginning a charge but it doesn’t look too happy about it. To me the proportions of the head are wrong, it looks to small and gaunt for what, at that time, was the version of a tank. The size and speed of the horse was as much a weapon as the rider with whatever vicious cutting instrument he was carrying. The other thing that’s strange about this horse is that he has an incredibly, ridiculously even, long tail, trailing on the ground as it rears up.

If the horse is hesitant then Skenderbreu certainly isn’t. He has the steely look of determination that such warriors would have had with their faith in their own destiny. But, again, this is Paskali’s image and not Dule’s, the younger sculptor following an older master’s lead. And as always in such images the fighter is shown wearing a helmet with the Kastrioti (his family name) emblem, that of the small head of a ram with long, swept back horns. Here the horns are slightly shorter than normal as that part of the sculpture is beyond the edge of the panel and would have been a weak point if made any longer. (At the same time as the look of Skenderbreu is a Paskali invention I’m not too sure whether the design of the helmet was something else that appeared first in the 20th century.)

Skenderbeu

Skenderbeu

His face is in semi-profile. Dule has him looking slightly to his right, and it’s possible to see the features of the determined face, covered in the obligatory bushy moustache and beard of the time. He is well protected for the period, wearing a chain mail shirt over which he appears to have the top half of a suit of armour. Around his waist can be seen a short skirt of chain mail so this is probably a chain mail doublet.

He has leg guards but it’s not possible to make out from what they are made. He’s wearing some armour but not the full suit that would have been more common at the time in Western Europe so it’s possible these guards were made of leather. What is possible to see is a design around the ankle area, just before his foot is shown in the stirrups, so giving the impression that aesthetics were also part of battlefield etiquette.

His right arm, bare from just below the shoulder, is stretched out in front of him and he is holding a long sword, slightly curved at the end. This extends way in front of the horse, Skenderbreu’s hand holding the hilt of the sword close to the horse’s neck. The empty scabbard of this sword is shown hanging from his waist, over the chain mail skirt. His left hand can be seen gripping hold of the bridle between his body and the back of the horse’s neck.

Finally, when dealing with Skenderbreu, we have his cape which is doing something it couldn’t, and that’s flying out a long way behind him. The only way this would have been possible in real life was if he was charging at full tilt, but that’s impossible on a horse that is rearing up. Either a full blown charge or an incredibly strong wind, neither of which are possible here.

Being a lord Skenderbreu has a real saddle and the rear pummel can be seen at his back. As well as that there are intricate designs on the blanket and a relatively sophisticated stirrup for his feet.

In the bottom right hand corner we are shown that Skenderbeu was victorious in this conflict. Here are the discarded weapons, a scimitar, a shield (with the crescent moon symbol of the Ottomans) and a ferrule at the top of the opposition’s standard, now laying in the dirt, no longer fluttering proudly in front of a powerful army.

War trophies

War trophies

This little collection of trophies is very reminiscent of pictures of another famous warrior fighting against Moslem invaders – Santiago (Matamoros) of Spain. In countless paintings depicting his miraculous intervention in the mythical Battle of Clavijo of 834 (more or less) the battlefield is always littered with discarded symbols of the invaders defeat.

This influence from earlier Christian iconography should neither be considered strange or alien to early Socialist Realist Art. As with ‘Shoket’ in Permet Martyrs’ Cemetery (the work of Odhise Paskali) any and everyone in the early stages of a Socialist society will be carrying with them the influence and baggage of the society that preceded that socialist construction. That will show itself in works of art as well as in language and ways of thinking. It is changing this thinking that is the most difficult task facing Communists after the revolution.

The first soldier behind Skenderbreu and his horse is the standard bearer. He is shown holding the pole of the independence army’s flag. His right hand grips the pole just below the flag (the tensed muscles showing his strength) whilst his left holds it close to his waist. He has the same look of determination on his face as his leader. He also has a bushy moustache but no beard – perhaps that was the private domain of the lords of the land.

Skenderbeu's foot soldiers

Skenderbeu’s foot soldiers

He is also relatively well protected and armed. He has a chain mail vest that extends to the level of his groin which is over a loose sleeved shirt and a fustanella (the skirt like garment worn by men). Like Skenderbreu he is bare armed. His shins are bare and on his feet he wears the standard shoe and socks of the 15th century. Hanging from his waist, so that it lays against his body horizontally, is a short scimitar style sword. I didn’t think these were common in the Albanian army at the time so perhaps what we are seeing here is a trophy of war. (Soldiers in all wars have done this, picked up something from the enemy if it is considered to be of better quality than what is in their possession.) It’s not clear but he appears to have a long cloak that’s attached to a cape that is on his head, the one piece for protection against the weather.

Appearing just before the flag and above Skenderbreu’s flowing cape is the image of a long handled axe, attempting to give the impression that there are more actors in this scene than are actually shown. This is a trick Dule uses on a number of occasions to give a feeling of depth, for example, with the fore hoofs of the horse.

The third soldier stands at the left hand edge of the panel. We are definitely moving down the pecking order now. He is heavily armed but poorly protected. He has something on his head but it looks nothing other than a skull cap (and not a traditional cap with which I am familiar). He’s wearing a close fitting t-shirt top and his arms are bare. It’s difficult to see exactly but he also looks to be wearing a fustenella.

His left hand is gripping the long pole of a double-headed axe at shoulder height – these battles weren’t overly sophisticated, it seems. They just hacked and thrust at each other with as many pieces of sharp metal they could muster, the winners were the ones who hacked the most – an extremely bloody victory.

The double-headed eagle

The double-headed eagle

His right hand is holding a large shield, the point of which is resting on the ground, half way along its top edge. On this shield can be made out the image of the double-headed eagle, the symbol of Skenderbreu, which then became the emblem of Albania when it declared its (short run) independence in 1912 and which became – with the addition of a gold star – the official flag of the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania after 1944. We only see the hilt but there’s a long sword behind the left hand edge of this shield.

The face of this soldier is also strange, compared to the other two males shown. It’s back to the style of the horse with it’s frailty and almost a sense of fear. This face is also short of facial hair of any kind. This is the foot soldier who would have been in the thick of battle and who would have suffered the heaviest casualties.

I’m not too sure whether Dule is making a statement about these ‘national heroes’. Yes Skenderbreu fought for independence from the Ottoman Turks but he was first and foremost an aristocrat and landowner. He was fighting for the right to oppress the ordinary Albanian peasant, not for some utopia where all would be equal.

Here we have that stratification, that class division, in society shown by the very clothes the fighters in the same army used. Those at the ‘top’ got most protection and that got less as you closer to the foot soldiers, the basis (however ‘great’ the leader or general) of any army, then and since.

I don’t like this bas relief for the very fact that it ‘celebrates’ the lord who led he fight for national independence but not for the liberation of the people. I also don’t really understand why the myth around Skenderbreu was perpetuated as much as it was during the Socialist period. You don’t have to make such an individual so important just to prove you hadn’t forgotten the past.

Individuals from the past are problematic for a Socialist society. In Britain, for example, some see the person of Boudecia as a heroine as she fought against the Romans in AD60. However, they conveniently forget that first she was a collaborator and then, in seeking revenge for wrongs she considered the Romans had committed against her, became a mass murderer and, in modern parlance, a war criminal.

If Dule’s approach was as I’ve just suggested then I warm to the sculpture but still don’t consider it one of his best. If that was the underhand manner in which he depicted the ‘national hero’ he should be praised for subverting the common held image.

The Monolith

Whilst the panel with Skendebeu and his soldiers is made of concrete the monolith is made of black, local granite. This is more than twice the height of the panel and stands out from the surrounding trees, indicating where the monument can be found.

Top of the monolith

Top of the monolith

However, with so many lapidars, this monolith provides another enigma, conundrum. At the very top of the column the stones are arranged in such a way as to suggest that there was some sort of slogan, message which could be seen from far off. Now it is impossible to make out what those letters would have been. It doesn’t make sense for there not to have been something there originally. For most of its height the column is completely regular, it’s only at the top that that regularity is broken.

I can only assume that this is yet another example of conscious vandalism.

Condition

As mentioned before the trees in the vicinity of the monument have just been left to grow unhindered and it’s quite possible to pass close by and not know it exists. However, it is the lack of maintenance of the monument itself that serious problems are starting to emerge.

The bas-relief is constructed with iron wires throughout and some places these have been uncovered as the concrete has crumbled. The iron then starts to rust and this must have a knock on effect. There are a number of places where this is evident, for example, by Skenderbeu’s foot, and a little bit of restoration would prevent the situation from deteriorating and thus causing irrepairable damage. In places the concrete is breaking down to such an extent that you could actually pull pieces off with your fingers. At the same time, considering there’s been little care of the lapidar for 25 years the monument it has survived well – demonstrating that it was well made in the first place.

Result of vandalism

Result of vandalism

There’s also a place on the sculpture where there seems to have been some deliberate vandalism. The nose and part of the face of the soldier on the extreme left has broken away. This looks like someone has had a lucky hit with a stone and a piece of concrete has broken away. There’s also an indication that Skenderbeu’s nose has been the target for some wag.

Location:

From Sheshi Çerçiz Topulli go up hill along Rruga Gjin Zenebisi. At the crossroads at the top go left along Rruga Gjin Bue Shpata. As the road goes around to the left take the steps that go up on the right. On arriving at a small cafe take the path to the left, pass the stone tables and seats ‘stolen’ by the cafe and the monument is 20 or so metres away.

Lat/Long:

N 40.07375099

E 20.13939497

DMS:

40° 4′ 25.5” N

20° 8′ 21.8184” E

Altitude:

325.6 m

Martyrs’ Cemetery, Gjirokaster

Martyrs' Cemetery, Gjirokaster

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.

It wasn’t until details came out in the Albanian Lapidar Survey that I learnt that it was located at probably the lowest part of town, right beside the place where the long distance buses drop off and pick up. I had stood beside it a number of times not realising what was behind the trees. In the past the vegetation hadn’t been so dense (and there was probably more care taken on basic maintenance) and buildings wouldn’t have been constructed so close, but things are different now.

Like a number of lapidars the Martyrs’ Cemetery monument in Gjirokaster has gone through changes, developments, since it was first constructed in the 1960s. The earliest picture I have found is one taken in 1969.

Martyrs' Cemetery, Gjirokaster, 1969

Martyrs’ Cemetery, Gjirokaster, 1969

It’s not a very good picture (unfortunately, to date, the only one I have been able to find from the period of major lapidar construction) but on this we can see that the general, architectural, aspect is the same as it is today. What is different is the design on the right hand panel. I’ve been told by Vincent from the ALS that the original wording on the panel was LAVDI DESHMOREVE, TE LUFTËS N.C. The N.C standing for Nacional Çlirimtare, there not being enough room for the complete words – but understood by all who saw it. This translates as ‘Glory to the Martyrs of the National Liberation War’. That was all in 1969. (And if you look really hard you can make out those letters.) Some time later (and I would hazard a guess at 1983, when the Education, Partisan and Music and Dancing Monuments were constructed) the frieze of the faces and Partisan fighters were added. And, since the Albanian Lapidar Survey made their visit in the summer of 2014, the monument has been ‘cleaned and restored’.

A common aspect of Albanian monuments (and which provides the generic name of ‘lapidar’) is a soaring monolith, more often than not surmounted by a star. Not all present lapidars have this aspect but it was from this that the monuments got their name. Here there are two, which start out at the base further apart than they are at the top. Through the construction of a sloping section up to the height of the panel they are brought closer together and then a section links them together.

The column on the left is narrower than its companion but is a couple of metres taller. The column on the right is painted red and it would seem that has always been so. That can be seen in the indistinct 1969 picture above and also from the colour picture (below) taken sometime in the 1970s of a commemoration event. This was a little bit unusual. Although through recent renovations more colour has been introduced to many of the lapidars from the evidence I’ve seen the vast majority, at their inception, were just bare and unadorned concrete, at times concrete faced with stone tiles/slabs or white plaster.

At the top of the red column is a black double-headed eagle. This represents the Albanian national flag. Perched on the very top is a red star – but the present star is not the original. As can be seen in the historic pictures the original star was much larger. The restoration of a smaller version is a sign of the changing politics and the need for its replacement is a demonstration of the vandalism that occurred in the 1990s where the star (the symbol of Communism) was the target of reactionary ire.

The concrete of the structure is faced with tiles made from the local limestone and is in a much better physical condition than a number of lapidars I’ve seen.

It’s the panel to the right of the columns which tells a story.

Martyrs' Cemetery - Gjirokaster

Martyrs’ Cemetery – Gjirokaster

The panel has images which are slightly unusual. On the extreme left hand side, immediately next to the red pillar, two men are depicted. Both are armed but what makes this unusual is that they are not in any sort of uniform. One of them is wearing a bandana around his neck, which would have been red and indicates that he is a Communist, but apart from that they are dressed as civilians.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. The Partisan army was not a state army. It didn’t have a huge infrastructure to supply it with all the equipment that a modern army normally uses. At the time that the Albanians were fighting the Fascists who had invaded the country the British were producing the uniforms but the soldiers weren’t involved, to any great extent, in the European theatre of war until most of the fighting to break the fascist power had been done. It’s just that in most of the lapidars that I’ve seen so far the fighters, overwhelmingly, are in some sort of uniform. Pictures of the guerrilla groups taken at the time indicate that uniforms were not always available to all.

Typical Partisan Group

Typical Partisan Group

To the right of these two partisans are the faces of eight partisans, 6 men and 2 women. This is again an unusual presentation of the story. The only other place I’ve come across the disembodied faces of clearly defined individuals is on the lapidar in Ngurrez e Madhe, to the south of Lushnje. So these are almost certainly actual images of particular people either from the Gjirokaster area or who died there.

Unfortunately, at this moment, I’m unable to identify them all but I do have an idea of some of them. To my mind the two female images are that of the ‘Two hanged Women’, Bula Naipi and Persefoni Kokëdhima.

Bula joined the youth wing of the Albanian Communist Party very soon after its foundation in November 1941. The first meeting of the Party cell in Gjirokaster was held in her home (when the country and the city were under the occupation of the Italian Fascists) and she was soon a member of the Party’s Regional Committee. She worked clandestinely organising support for the Partisans and was betrayed by the nationalist collaborators when she returned to her neighbourhood of Dunavat, close to the castle in Gjirokaster. She was captured and imprisoned in the Castle.

Dunavat - Gjirokaster

Dunavat – Gjirokaster

Persefoni was born in the village of Qeparo, on the coast between Himarë and Saranda. Not so far as the crow flies but there’s a few mountain ranges in the way. She was part of a Partisan group and was captured when she got wounded. She was also imprisoned in the castle.

After being tortured (giving no information) they were ‘tried’ by the collaborator organisation Balli Kombëtar and sentenced to death by hanging. Persefoni was 20 years old, Bule 24.

After liberation they were both declared “Heroine i Popullit” (Heroine of the People).

From pictures I’ve seen I think that Persefoni is the face at the top left and Bule the one in the bottom right.

Following that line of thought (that all the eight are People’s Heroes) I think that the face at the very bottom is that of Fatu Dudumi (Berberi). He was another Partisan fighter who was born in Gjirokaster.

Palorto - Gjirokaster

Palorto – Gjirokaster

He joined the Partisans in 1943 but in June of that year he fell in the mountains at night and was captured, unconscious, by the Nazis. After suffering the normal torture at the hand of the Nazis he was transported to a concentration camp in Thessaloniki in Greece. Early in 1944 he was murdered by being hung in that camp. He was only 17 years old.

The only other one I think I can identify now is the face in the top right, the male with the moustache. If you look you will see that he is wearing a flat cap, the sort that was common during the 19th century, and the cap Çerçiz Topulli is often depicted wearing. The problem with this theory is that if it is him it’s not a particularly good likeness. He was born in Gjirokaster and spent most of his adult life fighting the Ottomans for national independence. He was killed in 1915 in Shkoder, in the north of the country, but in 1936 his remains were brought back to the city and he was buried in a plot a few hundred metres from the Martyrs’ Cemetery (Enver Hoxha in attendance). There’s also a statue of him in the square that bears his name in the old town.

Çerçiz Topulli - Gjirokaster

Çerçiz Topulli – Gjirokaster

But if it is not him I’m not sure who it is. A common ‘problem’ when looking at the lapidars is that a person could be commemorated in more than one place; where they were born, where they fought in an especially important battle, and where they died. That wasn’t a problem during the Socialist period as all the information would have been to hand. Since the early 1990s that information has either been lost or if it does exist deep within different archives. So nowadays we have to complete the jigsaw by trying to find some of the pieces from different parts of the country. For example, Persefoni is not named on any of the Girokaster lapidars in different parts of the town but is in her place of birth of Qeparo.

(I’ll attempt to fill in the gaps when new information comes to light.)

The rest of the panel holds 4 images of Partisans. A male and a female in uniform and two men in ‘civilian’ clothes. All of them hold a rifle, three of them are standing and the male on the extreme right is kneeling. The uniformed Partisans have a star on their caps and are wearing a bandana, indicating their status as Communists. They have ammunition pouches around their waists and the woman has another across her shoulder.

One of the other men is dressed in the clothes of the mountains, with a loose cape across his back and is wearing the footwear of the mountains (I started to develop a bit of a foot fetish during my May 2015 trip in using the differences in footwear as an indicator of the background of the fighters). The Partisan who is kneeling, grips his rifle with both hands, the butt resting on his knee, is dressed in town clothes of the 1940s.

This bas-relief lacks the dynamism and sense of movement of some of the other lapidars but demonstrates that there were no strict rules laid down on how the events and individuals commemorated were depicted. No uniformity which is supposed to charcaterise Socialist societies (from those who know nothing of them and just trot out regurgitated anti-Communist propaganda without thinking) but quite a lot of experimentation in different forms and messages being conveyed.

The graves themselves are slightly overgrown and not cleaned as they would have been in the past but there is obviously some periodic maintenance being carried out. I thought that some of these cemeteries would have been pristine up to 1990 but as can be seen in the picture of a celebration prior to that date the grass was allowed to grow even during the Socialist period. (Here I’m obviously bringing my northern European prejudices to bear. One time in Tirana I saw the grass at the German Fascist Memorial being cut with a pair of scissors and bottled water used to clean the gravestones in the English Cemetery. Albanians celebrated their dead in a different way.)

Martyrs' Cemetery, Gjirokaster

Martyrs’ Cemetery, Gjirokaster

In looking at the names on the gravestones one thing you notice is the youth of so many of the fighters, many of them barely out of their teens (as was the case with the three of the ‘People’s Heroes’). Also there’s one to Astrit Toto. That name is on the memorial in Dema, Saranda and I assume it’s the same person.

Although it’s not the case in all Martyrs’ Cemeteries I’ve visited here in Gjirokaster there have been a few post-1990 additions. Normally, if they have been buried in these cemeteries to the fallen of the National Liberation War, they would have had some military or police connection. (The extreme example of desecration of an historical location is the Martyrs’ Cemetery in Tirana where there seems to be the ambition to fill the empty space with monarcho-fascists.) Here in Gjirokaster it looks as if a few partisans have been ousted to make room but I don’t know the exact details around such an eviction.

How to get there:

The steps to the cemetery go uphill, through the trees and bushes, on the left hand side of the road if walking north, just at the place where the buses and furgons depart, at the bottom end of Bulevardi 18 Shtatori.

GPS:

40.08600097

20.14256098

DMS:

40° 5′ 9.6035” N

20° 8′ 33.2195” E

Altitude:

207.5 m