The problem of the origin of the Albanian People and their language

Obelisk to the pioneers of the Albanian language

Obelisk to the pioneers of the Albanian language

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Introduction

The article below was first published in New Albania, No 4, 1977. It addresses the somewhat complex issue of the origin of the Albanian people and the roots of the Albanian language – a language very different from all others in the surrounding area. It is included here to give some background to the obelisk to this topic in Gjirokastra, which was posted some time ago. That post looked at the images and what they signified, this article puts more flesh on the bones of that explanation and answers some of the questions that might arise from the particular images.

The problem of the origin of the Albanian People and their language

by Professor Eqrem Çabej

When the problem of the origin of a people is raised, it will be examined and solved more readily from the aspect of the perseveration and continuity of its language than from the ethnic viewpoint, because language, more than other elements, is the characteristic which distinguishes one people from the others. However for any people of any country or period, such a problem is complex and in the Albanian conditions it is especially complicated. It is complex because, as we know, in the formation of a people as an independent entity with its individual features which distinguish it from other peoples, various circumstances of a geographic nature and multiple historical, ethnical, economical, cultural and linguistic processes, play a part. It is complicated because in this field of Albanian Studies the lack of historical sources and documents is keenly felt. However, despite this poverty of sources, with the constant care of the Party of Labour of Albania and comrade Enver Hoxha, the new Albanian science is striving to get to the solution of this problem with the means at its disposal. And in this field it has achieved lasting results which have taken their place in the field of international science. Because of the complex nature of the problem the method to be applied must also be complex. A number of scientific disciplines must collaborate on it. In particular historical geography, history, linguistics, ethnography and prehistoric archaeology are involved in this. The results in any one of these fields should be taken into account and duly appreciated by the other disciplines, should be combined with their results so that wide range of facts can be gathered together into a few general principles, into a few more reliable facts, in order to arrive at some sort of synthesis.

The Albanians are autochthonous or native to the Balkan Peninsula since they have been living there since early prehistoric times. Together with the Greeks, they are the most ancient people in this region; they are heirs to the ethnical situation of the period of antiquity in this part of South-eastern Europe. Under these circumstances, the question as to where the Albanian people originated can be put in other words: Under what name were the forefathers of the Albanians, that people which has spoken the language from which the present Albanian is derived, known in the Balkans in ancient times? Hence, from which ancient people of this Peninsula do the present Albanians descend?

During the last century the hypothesis was very widespread that the Albanians were the descendants of the Pellasgians. This hypothesis or theory, founded by foreign scholars, was re-echoed far and wide among the Albanian poets and writers in Albania and Italy. It found fertile soil in the ideas of romanticism which spread later in South-eastern Europe, at a time when other literary trends had emerged in the West. Subsequently the Pellasgian theory was refuted. In Greek and Roman documents, the Pellasgians are mentioned as a pre-Greek ethnical stratum no longer in existence during the ancient period. Authors like Herodotus and Strabo speak of them as of a more ancient period and describe them as barbarians, that is, not Greeks, and having a language different from the Greek language. They place them in the zone of the Aegean Sea, principally in Thessaly spreading on one side towards Epirus and on the other side towards Asia Minor, towards Crete and other islands of the Aegean zone. Meanwhile, they are presented everywhere as a legendary people, shrouded in the mists of mythology, a people without concrete historical consistency. Although in later periods there has been some acceptance of their connection with the Illyrians and Thracians, it must be said that such ethnic and linguistic element as may, with considerable reserve, be called Pellasgian, for many reasons, including those of a geographical character, is in no way sufficient to provide any scientific basis for accepting a Pellasgian origin of the Albanian people.

Proceeding from a more realistic basis, in order to clear up the problem of the origin of the Albanians, we shall turn, first of all, to history as the continuation of the prehistoric situation in the Balkan Peninsula. In the period of antiquity, this part of Southern Europe was inhabited by a number of peoples, different from the present ones and differing from one another. It is known that the western regions of the Peninsula were inhabited by the Illyrians, the eastern regions by the Thracians, the southern regions by the Greeks, and the centre by the Macedonians, who were different from the Greeks and spoke a language of their own, according to Herodotus a ‘barbarian language’, that is, not Greek. Leaving aside some minor populations, like the Iranic tribes in the eastern part of the Peninsula and certain Celtic tribes in the north-western and central regions, this was the ethnic situation during the Greco-Roman epoch. Hence the question arises: from which of these peoples do the Albanians descend, from which of these languages does the Albanian language descend? In this problem, the Greeks, or the Hellenes as they were called at that time, are automatically excluded as a different people from the Albanians. Likewise excluded are the ancient Macedonians, as a relatively small people and geographically more remote from the Albanian language region, although, because of the territorial affinity, some links cannot be completely denied. Under these circumstances, there are two peoples, the Illyrians and Thracians, who can be considered as the ancestors of the Albanians.

The Illyrians were one of the major peoples of ancient Europe. Leaving aside their distribution in prehistoric times, during the historical period they extended from Istria near Triest in the north-west and from the regions near the banks of the Danube in the north, to the Gulf of Arta in Gameria in the south to a city which at that time, was called Ambria. Thus, the Illyrian tribes inhabited the present regions of Albania together with Qameria, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dalmatia and Croatia, hence, all the eastern seaboard of the Adriatic with its respective hinterland. The Messapians and Iapygians of Apulia in Southern Italy are, by all indications, Illyrian tribes as well. In the east the Illyrian tribes extended up to the banks of the Vardar and Morava rivers in Northern Macedonia, to Kosova, a region which in ancient times was called Dardania, and to a part of present Serbia. In those regions the Illyrians bordered the Thracian tribes and here and there were mixed with them. The Thracians, too, were one of the major peoples of ancient Europe. Herodotus calls them the greatest people next to the Indes. They extended from the borders of the Illyrians in the west up to the shores of the Black Sea in the east, from the Aegean in the south to the Carpathian mountains in the north. Thus they included part of present-day Greece and European Turkey, Bulgaria, Rumania and part of Hungary and Poland. Because of the lack of source material, mentioned above, we are able to discover very little about the fate of these peoples and their component tribes, and the further back we probe into antiquity the more this obscurity deepens. We know, for instance that the concept and name Illyrian came and was spread only after some time, emerging from a population of this name and including tribes with ethnic and linguistic affinity. In Homer’s epics this name does not appear. The names of individual peoples, like those of the Dardanians and the Peonians, who in historical times lived to the north of the Macedonians, appear on the historical scene much earlier than the general name, Illyrians. It is known, also, that under the influence of the Greco-Roman civilization and, especially, during the long period of the domination of the Roman Empire, these ancient peoples of the Balkans were eventually partly hellenized and many of them romanized. In other words, without being wiped out as peoples, they were assimilated, gave up their own language and in some regions adopted the Greek language and even more of them, the Latin language. This took place especially in cities, in administrative and military centres where the Romans had established their garrisons. However in mountain regions this assimilation was not carried out completely. The local population preserved its ethnic character and mother tongue for a longer time. Some of these peoples entirely escaped romanization. Living evidence of this is the Albanian people, who must be the descendant of one of these unromanized peoples or tribes.

The question of the paternity or line of descent of a present-day people from an ancient people, of a known modern language from an extinct ancient language, is quite simple when we have relatively accurate knowledge of the ancient people and their language. But, as we have said, in connection with the Albanians and the Albanian language this problem remains specially difficult. Because of the lack of written documents, the ancient languages of the Balkans are little known or entirely unknown. From the language of the Thracians there are a few inscriptions, from the language of the Illyrians of the Balkans up till now not a single inscription has been found. The inscriptions of the Messapians of Southern Italy can be read but up till now the interpretation of them remains uncertain. From both these languages, Illyrian and Thracian, certain so-called glossa remain, that is, few words quoted by Greek and Roman authors, together with their meanings, given in Greek and Latin. There are also quite a large number of names of places and persons engraved on stone or quoted in texts by classical authors, the majority of them of unclear linguistic significance and meaning, among which modern scholars have found a free field for what are often arbitrary judgements. Thus the two languages in question remain almost unknown by us. We do not know their linguistic structure, grammatical system, or their vocabulary. Under these circumstances the means for comparison are missing. We lack the key to compare the material of the Albanian language with that of the two languages in question.

This being the case, the criterion of the language must be considered together with the geographical and historical situation. From the standpoint of historical geography it is known that the present Albanians inhabit those regions where the Illyrian tribes used to live in ancient times. From the historical point of view, it has been rightly pointed out. as far back as two centuries ago, that there is no fact, no historical reference, to show that the Albanians come from somewhere else, that they settled on this territory at a given historical period, for instance, towards the end of antiquity or during the early mediaeval period. Under these circumstances, common sense urges acceptance of the idea that the Albanian people is native, autochthonous, in these regions, if not as far back as the dawn of prehistoric times, at least since the period of antiquity. These two reasons, that of their inhabiting the former Illyrian territory and that of autochthony, automatically give rise to the idea that the present Albanians are the descendants of the Illyrian tribes of the south and that the Albanian language is the continuation of one of the ancient Illyrian dialects. Indeed it can be said that the burden of the argument falls more heavily on those who deny the Illyrian origin of the Albanians and of their language rather than on those who accept it. In this connection, it cannot be accidental that the name of the Illyrian tribe, the Albanoi, which the astronomer and geographer Ptolemy of Alexandria in Egypt, mentions during the second century of our era in the region between Durres and the Candavia mountains in Central Albania continues to exist in the form of Arbër, Arbën, Arbëresh, Arbënesh, the name by which Albania and the Albanians were known in the Middle Ages, is alive to this day. From the linguistic viewpoint, to these circumstances must be added the fact that the continuity of the names of cities, mountains and rivers of the Albanian territory of the ancient days in their present forms has developed in conformity with the phonetic rules of the Albanian language. These include such comparisons as Scardus – Shar, Scodra – Shkodra, Drivastum – Drisht, Pirustae – Qafa e Prushit, Lissu – Lesh, Isammus – Ishëm, Ishm, Dyrrachium – Durrës, Aulon – Vlonë, Vlorë, Thyamis – Çam and others. This also is evidence of the Illyrian autochthony of the Albanian people, because this development from the ancient forms of these names to the present forms cannot be explained except by means of the Albanian language. It cannot be explained either by means of the Roman or Slav languages or by any other language of the Balkan region. There are also other data from the field of linguistics of the Illyrian continuity, such as the identity between a number of names of early Illyrians and present-day Albanians. Apart from this, those few words which are known from the Illyrian language can be clearly explained by the Albanian language. And many words in Messapian inscriptions can be explained by our language. In this way the date of historical geography and of the language supplement each other. There are also a number of parallels of an ethnographic character which we shall not go into here. From the field of archaeology it is worth mentioning that in certain prehistoric settlements on the Albanian territory a continuity of the material culture can be seen, a continuity from ancient epochs to the early mediaeval period. This fact adds weight to the geographical, historical and linguistic arguments already mentioned.

As regards the Thracians and their language, on the evidence of certain historical and linguistic data (place names with Thracian features), the presence of Thracian elements in the north-western part of the Balkan Peninsula and especially along the southern Adriatic coastal regions was pointed out long ago. They must have long been mixed with Illyrian elements, but we are unable to tell from the Illyrians and the Thracians who were natives and who newcomers. In conclusion, for historical reasons also, one can say that the Illyrian element lies at the basis of the formation of the Albanian ethnos, although there may have been a Thracian component also, but certainly of smaller dimensions. At the present stage of knowledge it is difficult to determine how the process of this ethnic and linguistic formation took place and in what territorial and historical circumstances it took place. The result of the process, which is the Albanian people and their language, can be seen more clearly than the course of development which was traversed until the present situation was brought about.

Eqrem Çabej (1908-1980) was a linguist and academic specialising in the origin of the Albanian language. His name was given to the University of Gjirokastra when it was declared as such at the end of 1991.

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Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Military

Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Monarchy

Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Monarchy

More on Albania ……

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.

The Castle in Gjirokastra is the place to visit for any tourist to the city. Not only is it an interesting place historically it also affords a fine view of the old town below as well as the fertile valley (now no longer farmed) and the mountain ranges in the distance. The Armaments Museum is located upstairs, off the main vaulted artillery gallery, just to the left of the new, very much bland, most recent museum manifestation. This is not always open so you may have to look for someone who has the keys but it shouldn’t be a problem and it’s well worth the effort.

The museum was opened in 1971 in what used to be part of the Castle Prison, used extensively in the days of Ahmet Zogu, the pre-war dictator and self-proclaimed king. (The entrance to the prison cells is off the corridor to the Armaments Museum so make the time and the effort to see this part of the castle. At the end of the cells look for the sculpture of The Two Heroines by Odhise Paskali, which commemorates the murder of two female Communist Partisans by the Nazis during the Liberation War.) When society collapsed in the 1990s this museum, along with many throughout the country, was looted of many of its antiquities and anything that was considered of value, as well as attacks on many example of socialist art. However, a number of examples still exist to this day.

(There was obviously discontent within the population and the reasons for that have to be studied and lessons learnt for the future. What is certain is that reactionary, fascist and lumpen elements rode on the back of this discontent and they were responsible for the mindless looting of the country’s many museums (the museum in Bajram Curri is one of the most bizarre I’ve ever entered) as well as the book burning that took place in Skënderbeg Square in Tirana.)

Here I want to just concentrate on one of the statues to be found in the section of the museum that tells the story of the anti-Fascist struggle of the Albanian people under the leadership of the Albanian Communist Party (later known as the Party of Labour of Albania) led by Enver Hoxha.

The sculpture was inspired by the novel ‘The General of the Dead Army’ by the Gjiroskaster born Albanian writer Ismail Kadare. The writer, who achieved fame during the Socialist period of Albania’s past, left the country for the capitalist west when everything fell apart in the 1990s – like many ‘patriotic’ intellectuals.

This statue, which I’m calling Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Military (as I don’t know its official name) depicts a woman, larger than real size, with her right arm outstretched and her finger pointing into the distance indicating that the other two individuals should ‘Go’ – to where we do not know but the impression we get is that they are not wanted here – ‘here’ being Albania.

Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Monarchy

Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Monarchy

We know that she is Albania as there are many representations of her throughout the country, most notably the huge statue of Mother Albania that holds the red star in her upraised hand in the National Martyrs’ Cemetery in the hills overlooking Tirana. The sensation on looking at this woman is that she is strong and determined, not just physically but in the way that she exudes confidence. She knows what she wants and she knows how to get it. And one way to make sure that she gets what she wants is the possession of the rifle, the barrel of which she holds in her left hand as it rests on the ground.

And it’s common to see women armed in the many lapidars (Albanian monuments) that still exist throughout the country. This can be seen on works of art as diverse as the mosaic on the facade of the National Historical Museum in Tirana to the statue in the Martyrs’ Cemetery in Lushnje to the (now sadly abandoned and discarded) commemoration to the young heroine of the National Liberation War, Liri Gero

(Here it might be useful to remind readers, or inform them if they didn’t know before, that the revolutionary slogan of the Party of Labour of Albania (as the Albanian Communist Party was known throughout the period of socialist construction) was: ‘To build socialism holding a pickaxe in one hand and a rifle in the other.’ And this should be remembered when analysing those works of art produced in that period. This meant that the success of socialist construction depended upon armed workers and peasants, ever vigilant against attempts to destroy workers’ power. This has its parallel in the history of Chinese Communism with the famous quote from Chairman Mao Tse-tung that ‘political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’.)

We also know the woman is Albania as her skirt morphs into the mountains of the country. Those mountains define the country. They have shaped the culture, determined its history, formed its economic development, delineated its tribal and ethnic structure, moulded the thinking of its people and provided the environment in which they were able to resist invaders for centuries. As well as all that those mountains provide the visitor with some of the finest scenery in southern Europe.

So the woman arises from, emerges out of, the soil of Albania, she is a result of the history that has gone before, she is part of a tradition that fights against ignorance, oppression and death. And those elements are represented by the two other characters in the sculpture, much smaller physically than the women, again a statement of their respective relevance to the country.

Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Monarchy (detail)

Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Monarchy (detail)

One is the priest. He wears the traditional dress of a Catholic priest at the early part of the 20th century. We know he’s Catholic as he clasps a Bible in his hands, there’s a cross inscribed on the front cover. If the woman is confident he is the opposite. He is bent almost double and looks afraid and unsure of himself. He looks questioningly at the other individual. Is he after answers, reassurance, support? That’s for us to decide. What we do know is that he’s not going to get any of what he may be after. By expelling him from the country Albania is ridding the country of ignorance, superstition and obscurantism.

That’s because the other is not concerned with the priest, he’s more concerned for himself. He’s scowling and has an angry look on his face. He’s probably as angry at the priest as he is at Albania; one is throwing him out of the country and the other weak and clinging. He is dressed in some sort of uniform, with a long trench coat, and represents all the rest of the problems that the Albanians had endured over the years such as the self-proclaimed king – who was also an oppressive landlord in his own right – as well as the dictatorial military regime. These forces of reaction produced nothing but death, represented by the skulls which he holds in a cloth in his hands and which can be seen under his coat, at his feet.

In the sculpture Albania is banishing these feudal remnants from the country forever but history has shown that if the workers are not vigilant then those same forces defeated one year will come back the next, and with a vengeance, if they are given the opportunity.

The statue could do with a bit of dusting – but then many of the museums throughout the country suffer from neglect to one extent or another. Nonetheless this is a fine example of socialist realist sculpture still on (limited) show in Albania.

(Albania is in a bit of a quandary about its past (a situation that you also experience in the erstwhile Soviet Union). If it ignores the anti-Fascist struggle against both the Italian and German invaders, which was led to victory by the Communist Partisans, then there’s not much to put in the museums. It might not be wise to remind the people of the condition of their grandparents when that existence was one of feudal oppression in the 20th century. Economic ‘liberalisation’ also means that the museums are being starved of resources and I’ve not found it so easy to get the information I would like (at least so far) and cannot provide accurate details about all the works of art I hope to post on the blog. So if any reader has any information then I would be grateful if they could pass it on. Perhaps then the picture of Albanian Socialist Realist Art will be more rounded.)

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.

An article, The problem of the origin of the Albanian People and their language, originally published in New Albania, No 4 1977, provides the background to the question of Albanian identity and the origins of the language.

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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