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.
This very modern structure, nothing like the traditional Orthodox churches, is to be found on Dëshmorët e 4 Shkurit, just before the junction with Myslym Shyri, a couple of minutes from Skënderbeu Square in the centre of Tirana. It was officially opened on 24th June 2012 and cost ‘millions of Euros’.
In place of looking for local, Albanian architects the Orthodox Church decided to go to architects based in New York, Papadatos Partnership LLP. They have established themselves as specialists in building Greek Orthodox churches in the United States. The founder of this partnership is an Archon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and it is through the influence of this lay organisation that the money was probably found to pay for the cathedral.
The head of the Albanian Greek Orthodox, Archbishop Anastasios, is quoted as saying, in July 2003, ‘I was asked to revive the Church without any financial support, in a destitute country undergoing a wrenching political transformation.’ And in the last 10 years or so 83 new churches have been rebuilt and 40, that were in ruin, repaired.
One of the strange things that you notice when travelling around Albania is that although there are a lot of new churches they never seem to have anyone in them. For example I went to see what the congregation was like at the time of the six o’clock evening mass in a couple of Catholic churches in Shkodër – the Franciscan Church was deserted and the Cathedral was locked up. And this has been repeated virtually everywhere I’ve been.
Almost like a mantra anti-communists get indignant when talking about the concrete bunkers that were built throughout the country during the socialist period. Yes, these would have diverted resources away from other projects but there is no denying the fact that the country was being threatened from all sides and the construction of these bunkers was a matter of national defence. It was said that the resources could have been spent on roads and housing but if that was true then what are we to say about the untold billions that get spent in capitalist Britain, the USA and other European countries on extremely expensive armaments. Aren’t there better ways of spending this money than on the new Trident submarine system, for example, being proposed in the UK? I don’t mind criticism but can’t we have a little bit of consistency? (Of course not!)
So if bunkers are no longer being built in Albania why aren’t resources being used to improve the infrastructure rather than the building of churches and mosques by all the three main religions, Islam, Catholic and Orthodox Christian? And I’m sure that fundamentalist protestants are there somewhere – they seem to try to get in everywhere they can.
Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ, Tirana – Main entrance at night
But back to the new Resurrection of Christ Greek Orthodox Cathedral. Some facts. It’s the third largest Orthodox church in Europe and took 8 years to construct.
It’s an interesting building and I can see uses for it after the next atheist campaign in Albania. But for a cathedral it’s relatively small on the inside. There are supposed to be a couple of levels below ground, where there’s a concert room, but it wouldn’t take a lot to fill the main church – quite useful if not many people come.
Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ, Tirana – Christ painting on dome
The interior is ornate in its own way at the moment but according to the computer generated pictures I’ve seen of the architect’s intentions there should be a great deal more decoration on the walls. On the four corners of the square dome supporting arches images of the four evangelists were planned as well as covering much of the interior walls with paintings or mosaics but, at least for the moment, there are only bare walls. But they’ve managed to complete the image of Christ on the dome. All in all a little bit more luxurious than the Mother of Christ church on top of the hill in Dhermi.
Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ, Tirana – View from main entrance
One of the more interesting aspects of the structure is the clock tower which is completely separate from the main building. This is in the design of four pillars which converge slightly towards the top where they cradle the clock, which is lit up at night.
Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ, Tirana – Clock Tower at night
When I went there it had rained a little bit earlier in the day and the marble on the steps and the platform before the main entrance were like a skating rink so those in a hurry in the wrong weather conditions could end up meeting their maker sooner than expected.
At the corner of Deshmoret e 4 Shkutit and Myslym Shyri, west of the main concentration of government buildings.
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.
No one who travels around Albania, especially in the part of the country south of Tirana but to a lesser extent all over the country, can avoid noticing scarecrows in places you don’t normally see them, e.g., on the top floor of an unfinished building. Or soft toys hanging from balconies, fences, fruit trees and vines.
This is all related to the ancient superstition of the ‘evil eye’ and the attempt by the superstitious to retain what they have. And the instrument that is used to provide protection is the dordolec, whose meaning in Albanian covers scarecrow, doll, or guy (as in Guy Fawkes). Traditionally this would have been a figure, in the shape of a human, made out of old clothes stuffed with straw, and many of these can be seen in your travels.
Dordolec in Delvine
But there has been a reduction in what is necessary and anything that looks, sometimes only vaguely, like a human figure will suffice. This minimalist approach even goes down to just a shirt, arms outstretched and tied to a fence. However, new consumerism has been recruited into the 21st century version of this old superstition and you will often see soft toys (teddy bears, Smurfs, monkeys, etc.,) as well as blow up plastic toys of animals, Tele Tubbies or even Spiderman – one of the most surprising to me (on my first visit and before knowing what they symbolised) was a life-size version of Spiderman attached to the outside of an unfinished building. In Albanian kukull is the word for a store-bought soft toy and might be one of the words you hear if you ask the locals.
Kukull Smurf in Polican
It’s on buildings, either in the process of construction or perhaps not occupied as they are up for sale, that you are most likely to see the dordolec. But not exclusively. When travelling by road this is the impression you get but once you walk around Albanian towns and villages you begin to understand that they’re more ubiquitous. A small soft toy might be hanging from a grape-vine or from a fruit tree, a citrus or perhaps an olive, or just near the entrance to a family home.
The idea of the dordolec is not to frighten away people as the scarecrow ‘frightens’ birds, it’s more complex than that. The idea is the passer-by ‘fixates’ on the dordolec and in that way doesn’t covet the property on which it’s attached, it’s there to prevent envy which might lead to someone taking action to acquire that particular piece of wealth. It’s there to help reinforce one of the strictures of the Ten Commandments, the one about coveting your neighbour’s house, wife, servants or ox.
However, there is no direct correlation between this superstition and religious beliefs. In Albania such beliefs can be found in all religious communities, Muslim, Orthodox or Catholic – in fact I encountered less examples of the dordolec in the north, in the area around Skhodër, where the Catholic Church is particularly strong. And knowing the intolerance of the Catholics I’m sure that they would have come down on such superstitions with an iron fist in Albania’s feudal past and would be very wary if signs of it were to return with the end of socialism and the openly atheistic state authority.
There are a couple of theories as to why this tradition has again become prevalent. One is the stratification that has developed since the early 1990s between the rich and the poor means that people have a greater fear of losing what they have. This was not an issue under Socialism when land was the property of all the people but this all changed when land was privatised. And now that the population is caught up in the mire of consumerism they might have more to ‘lose’. This is a bit like the way homes in Britain are increasingly becoming like fortresses whilst at the beginning of the 20th century many houses didn’t even have locks, merely a latchkey. In the UK people install expensive locks and security systems, in Albania a soft toy suffices, so I suppose they are using a cheaper option.
Another theory is that this ‘tradition’ has been imported from Greece, where many Albanians have been forced to go to in order to find work after the wholesale destruction of industry in their own country in the last 20 years or so. Greece is not a country I personally know very well so can’t compare the situation between the two countries. This theory has some credence when you consider that the scarecrows and toys are more in evidence in the southern part of the country, especially around the town of Saranda.
Ram’s Horns and Garlic, Saranda
Whatever the exact reason for such an upsurge it seems to fit into a society that is looking for something to protect itself from the hostile world outside. In the same way that there has been an explosion in the construction of religious buildings (although I never experienced hoards of people going into those buildings in the way I would have expected if there was a true religious revival – I seemed to be entering more churches that the general population) perhaps the dordolec is a belt and braces approach to (divine or pagan) protection.
The positioning of such effigies on property goes along with other manifestations of superstition. Travelling around the country you’ll see a number of people, surprising to me especially older men, who walk around with worry beads in their hand. As well as that garlic, animal skulls/horns and horseshoes will adorn working businesses, especially shops or restaurants. Bunches of garlic sit on the dashboard of cars and other vehicles and once I even noticed a dordolec with a string hanging from it which had both a horseshoe and a rope of garlic, so they were definitely bringing out the big guns at that place.
Religion in Albania
If you are interested in how beliefs in Albania currently manifest themselves you might like to click on these links for some other observations and comments:
Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Tirana displays new and interesting murals to replace the frescoes of the past.
Part of Albania’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ in the late 1960s took the form of a concerted attack upon organised religion, whether it be Islam, Orthodox or Catholic Christian. Apart from declaring Albania to be the world’s first atheist state both the infrastructure and the personnel of the different religions underwent radical changes.
Many of the previous religious buildings were converted to general use becoming cinemas, gymnasiums or places that could be utilised by the population as a whole. A significant number of the priesthood were subject to arrest and imprisonment for conspiring against the Socialist state and even though these accusations were denied at the time, both within and without the country, the manner in which some of these individuals have been rehabilitated and lionised by the present reactionary government proves the justified claims of the People’s Republic of Albania.
Since the decision of the Albanian people in the 1990s to destroy everything that had been constructed since the defeat of Fascism in 1944 after they had; finished being robbed by con men with their ‘get rich quick’ pyramid schemes; stopped killing each other for no apparent reason; emigrated from their country in their millions; they turned their attention (for some inexplicable reason) to what appeared to be the most pressing need of the time, i.e., the building or restoration of hundreds of religious buildings.
Any visitor who travels even a short distance in Albania cannot avoid noticing the number of new churches and mosques in virtually every village, town and city. The total destruction of the economy during the madness of the 1990s meant that the resources to pay for this could not have come from within the country itself, even less from the so-called ‘faithful’ who barely had enough to feed themselves.
The resources for all this building programme came from the oil rich feudal monarchies of the middle east (for the mosques), the gangsters of the erstwhile Soviet Union (for the Orthodox churches) and that centuries old bastion of reaction in Rome (for the Catholic churches).
Much of this money has been put into ‘prestige’ projects. The Catholic Cathedral of St Paul and the very recently opened Orthodox Resurrection of Christ Cathedral (Katedralja Ngjallja e Krishti), both in Tirana, are cases in point. Not a lot of this wealth has filtered down to maintain some of the, older, much smaller and more modest, historically important buildings that were placed on a list of structures that were part of the country’s heritage. Even at the height of the atheist campaign more and more of these buildings were being identified and protected yet the present day religious state is ignoring these as they have a very low profile, for example, the two ancient Orthodox churches in Old Himara or the Panagia Monastery Church, Dhermi in the south of the country.
The mosques follow very much a formula in their construction, both inside and out, and the decoration avoids any depiction of people or animals. The Orthodox churches are also formulaic, but in different way, with the icons of the saints that dominate the interior. It is in the Catholic churches, which are in the minority, that you encounter interesting, post-Communist paintings that tell (at least for me) a much more interesting story, a story which cannot be separated from the socialist period.
I’ve already written about the paintings in the Franciscan Church in Skhoder, in the north of the country, here I want to write about a Catholic church in Tirana.
This is the Sacred Heart church (Kisha Zemra e Krishtit), run by the Jesuits, in Rruga Kavajës, less than a kilometre from Skënderbeg Square in the centre of the city. This is the road that you would go along if you were to take the public bus to Kombinat, where you find the city’s main cemetery and the present location of Enver Hoxha’s grave (he’s not been allowed a lot of peace since his death).
Previous frescoes were removed when the church was converted to a cinema in the late 1960s and new ones were completed in 1999 and the painter was Shpend Bengu (born 1962 in Tirana). The murals, although based upon traditional images seen in many Catholic churches throughout the world, have elements that are both interesting and slightly strange, if not to say unique, in Christian iconography. These murals are on either side of the altar.
On the left is a depiction of The Last Supper. This follows the ‘standard’ representations of this mythical event. Christ sits at the middle of the table and is the centre of attention. In front of him is a wine goblet and a chunk of bread – the origin of the Eucharist. The closest one to him, on his right, will be Peter. He has the typical short, curly (greying) hair and is the angry one – you can see he has his right fist tightly clenched. Fast asleep (has he drunk too much of the wine or is this a misreading of the event in the Gospels?) is John. The youngest, because he doesn’t have a beard, will be Philip or Thomas. The others could also possibly be recognised due to the tradition that has grown up over this image.
However, there are a couple of differences in this painting. Whilst all the others are concentrating on Christ one is looking into the distance, seemingly over our heads. Why? I don’t know and can’t even guess. We see the faces of 12 but there is one with his back to us – that is Judas. Traditionally he is depicted in a number of ways at the table. He is nearly always separate in some way, often looking away as if ashamed of what he has already done and is about to do. I’ve even see pictures where he has already left the table to carry out his dastardly deed of betrayal. Here he has his back to us.
Tirana Catholic Church – Judas
That’s not uncommon and might come from the Byzantine tradition of not having an ‘evil’ person looking out of a painting as they could, possibly, corrupt the viewer. This would very much feed into the local Albanian idea of the ‘evil eye’ that I write about in the post about the ‘dordolec’ and superstition in general in present day Albania. What is also interesting about this Judas is that whilst the others are dressed in fine, brightly coloured robes, he wears what looks like an animal fur, something rough, yet again separating him from the rest of the Saints. And, of course, he doesn’t have a halo.
All the faces also appear as if they are of real people. Many Last Supper images are idealised yet in this painting you could very likely meet these people in a present day Albanian bar or cafe, a realism that is rare, Caravaggio being the model for this type of representation. And notice the noses, they are long and straight, just like Albanians today, especially in the north of the country – that becomes relevant a bit later
Tirana Catholic Church – Mary at the Crucifixion
To the left of this painting there’s an image of the Crucifixion. This is very strange. Crouching at the base of the cross is Mary Magdalene. She is very often depicted with long flowing hair (often a redhead) and is also dressed in red. This encompasses the legend that she was a prostitute and the colour encourages thoughts of the ‘scarlet woman’ and it is also argued that this shows her love for Christ. But I’ve never seen a Mary wearing such a diaphanous cloak that she appears almost naked. Yes for nymphs of the forest – but not normally in a church. After all she’s supposed to be a ‘reformed’ prostitute.
Tirana Catholic Church – Mary Magdalene – detail
On the other side of the altar is a painting of The Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel appeared before Mary to tell her she was to bare the son of God. This again follows the normal, traditional format, but not completely. Mary has been reading a book (how such a poor woman would have got the resources to possess such a valuable commodity 2,000 years ago and one produced on a printing press that wasn’t invented for another 1,450 or so years is never explained); Gabriel carries a lily – this represents both Mary’s virginity as well as the idea that this all happened in the Spring – yet I’m not sure if the lily is a native plant of Palestine; and flying above is the Holy Spirit, represented by a dove, this one with a surprisingly bright red beak and feet.
Tirana Catholic Church – The Annunciation
But this painting is different from the norm in one particular way – the Archangel Gabriel here is obviously a very young woman, almost a contemporary of Mary. Often Gabriel can appear androgynous, especially in Renaissance paintings, but here her long flowing hair and facial features are unmistakeably female. For me that’s definitely a first.
And as in The Last Supper these are real people, you could imagine passing such women in the street, there’s no separateness, nothing special about them that identifies them as different from mere mortals. Mary definitely looks surprised, as anyone would be if they were told they were to be having a child without having known any sexual relationship, let alone it being the son of God.
Again look at the noses. These are typical Albanian noses. Whereas, especially in the north, many Albanians have a classic Roman nose, long and straight, also reasonably common is the small, turned up nose that you see in this mural.
For a religious painting I find it quite charming.