Martyrs’ Cemetery, Korçë

Martyrs' Cemetery, Korçë

Martyrs’ Cemetery, Korçë

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Martyrs’ Cemetery, Korçë

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

At the very top of the steps, with the tombs of the fallen partisans fanned out on either side of him, is a large statue of a male Partisan. Throughout the country there are a number of Martyrs’ Cemeteries that include such a stand alone, bronze statue. These include Ersekë, with yet another single male Partisan; Librazhd, where the statue is of a male and female; Lushnje, with a very charming statue of a kneeling female Partisan with a young boy; and Pogradec, where there is a group of three, two males and one female.

The statue is about twice life-size and he stands with his feet slightly apart, on top of a concrete plinth. He is dressed in the uniform of a partisan and wears a cap with the star on the front. Around his neck is a tied bandana – so, as is often the case, declaring his status as a Communist. On the belt around his waist there are three ammunition pouches (of five bullets each) in sight. On his feet he is wearing shoes rather than boots but as added protection against the elements he is wearing long, thick socks into which the bottom of his trousers are tucked, the sock reaching just to below his knees.

Martyrs' Cemetery, Korçë

Martyrs’ Cemetery, Korçë

His left arm is stretched up to its full extent above him and the fist is clenched. This, to me, is the authentic Communist salute. His right arm is bent at 90 degrees and his right hand is tightly gripping the top part of the barrel of his rifle. This is a bolt-action rifle and the butt is resting on the ground, just before his right foot. He is looking down on the town of Korçë and into the distance where, at this height, it’s possible to see the mountains of Skrapar.

At the end of 2011 the general area of the cemetery, including the stepped approach was in a sad state. This included the statue, showing signs of wear and noticeable marks on the surface of the bronze. As with many of the Albanian lapidars there has been quite considerable renovation in the last year or so and the result of this is that the statue has had a very recent coating of gold paint.

The sculpture is the work of Avni Bilbili, Piro Dollaku and Ilia Xhano and was created in 1969. That’s early in the construction of Albanian lapidars and the Cultural Revolution. It was very common for there to have been a plaster statue in place initially, with a bronze statue coming later. I have not, so far, seen any pictures which indicate that in Korçë.

The only information I have about Avni Bilbili is that he is the creator of a monument to Naim Freshëri in Rruga Nëntori 28, in Korçë, in 1956.

Piro Dollaku and Ilia Xhano were joint creators of the magnificent Partisan and Child in Borovë. This sculpture, now beside the main road going through the village, used to be part of the main lapidar for the Borovë Martyr’s Cemetery, on the hill across the road. This was substantially remodeled but their bas-relief is now at the entrance gates to the cemetery.

Behind him are two, low, one-storey, rectangular buildings. The space between them is directly behind the statue. These are locked and it’s not, as far as I know, possible to go inside. As was the norm in Martyrs’ Cemeteries these would have been the small, local museum, displaying artefacts and photos from the National Liberation War.

As you look at the front of the statue the building on the left has the slogan; Lavdi Deshmoreve te Atdheut, which translates as; Glory to the martyrs of the homeland. This was the situation in May 2015. On my previous visit at the end of 2011 there was a ‘t’ at the end of ‘deshmoreve’. Today it’s still possible to see the shadow of the missing letter on the wall. I’ve been told that the ‘t’ is a more archaic grammatical form (although this is the first time I’ve come across this in all the places I’ve visited over the years) so this could be an updating of the term and, if done consciously, would have been part of the recent renovation.

On the wall of the building to the right there are 122 marble plaques. Each plaque has a name and two dates, the year of birth and death. I assume these are the names of those whose tombs are in the cemetery, the number would seem to correspond to that.

Although it’s difficult to get a feel when in the cemetery itself, standing beside the statue which is exactly in the centre, the tombs fan out on either side, somewhat like wings, spreading backwards. However, as part of the renovation an information board has been placed at the bottom of the main approach steps and here there’s a picture taken from the air.

Korca Martyrs' Cemetery - information

Korca Martyrs’ Cemetery – information

The tombs have also been renovated. New marble replacing many broken slabs and the letters of the names of the Partisans being picked out in gold paint. They now look quite smart and being accorded the dignity they deserve. One thing that’s different from most of the cemeteries I’ve been to is that there are no stars on the tombs. On my 2015 visit I thought this was a consequence of the renovation (this eradication of the stars and the re-writing of history being evident in a number of places, such as the Saranda Martyrs’ Cemetery) but on checking my 2011 photos I find that they were missing then, although at that time I wasn’t that conscious of the norms throughout the country and so wasn’t looking as closely as I have developed of late.

And the whole area of the cemetery itself is much cleaner than a few years ago. There’s a tarmacked road just below the final flight of steps and all above that road has been cleaned up and repaired. The walls have been painted and the steps renewed. Below the road the steps are as they have been for a number of years, overgrown and the concrete breaking up, although there are signs that work was started to improve the area (but not completed) at the very start of the long trek uphill.

Extirpation of idolatry

Many Martyrs’ Cemeteries in Albania are built on hills. It’s a place of honour and also a reference to the fact that much of the fighting between 1939 and 1944 took place in the hills and mountains of the country. The hill in Korçë is close to the town itself and isn’t the highest in the immediate vicinity. Just to the south-east of the cemetery you can see a large, white cross on the top of a higher mountain, close enough to the town to be seen from the streets below.

Korca Martyrs' Cemetery and white cross

Korca Martyrs’ Cemetery and white cross

You will see many of these if you travel around the country, normally on high points that can be seen for miles around. This is very reminiscent of the policy of the Catholic Church in many parts of the world. When the Spanish invaded Latin America in the late 15th and early 16th centuries they followed what they called a policy of the ‘extirpation of idolatry’. This resulted in the physical destruction or assimilation of any religious location encountered throughout the continent.

In Peru, where a special rock, tree, spring or any other natural phenomenon could have religious significance, this meant that those natural locations would be destroyed. The later building of a church was seen as sticking a knife into the heart of the indigenous culture. In 1988, just before Karol Wojtyla, the then head of the Catholic Church, was due to visit the country a large, white cross was erected on the hillside above the Andean city of Cusco. It was on this hill that the massive Incan temple of Sacsayhuaman used to be located, before being destroyed by the Spanish. This was a modern version of the ‘extirpation’.

It seems that the Catholic Church is still at it in Albania.


The cemetery is at the top of a hill to the east of the city centre. Go north along Bulevardi Republika, passing the monument to the demonstration against the Italian Fascists on the right and then turn right along narrow, cobbled Rruga Sotir Mero. At the top of the street go up the steps which take you to a small road, go left and then take the steep steps going up on your right. This is where the information plaque can be found.





40° 37′ 7.9139” N

20° 47′ 22.9525” E



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Shoket – Comrades – Permet

Shoket - Comrades - Permet, Odhise Paskali

Shoket – Comrades – Permet

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Shoket – Comrades – Permet

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

The role of art in a Socialist society

The important role of art in the construction of a socialist society has been a matter for discussion since the first writers started to posit the idea that society doesn’t have to be one created for the benefit of a few parasites who decide what should be the fate of the overwhelming majority of the population. However, no real conclusion was arrived at because such a question could not be answered until the concrete conditions existed when a new departure in art could flourish. That only became a practical problem to overcome once the first workers and peasants state was established in the Soviet Union following the October Revolution of 1917.

When Lenin started to consider this matter from a position of the workers holding state power, even when the outcome of the Civil War was still uncertain, this was at a time when artistic ‘isms’ abounded, mostly from the ‘left’ but, in the main, the majority of them were transient. This huge melting pot had many causes: the increasing speed of technology; the anger and disillusionment caused by the meaningless slaughter of the 1914-18 war; the search for a meaning in life in an increasingly alienating world; the victory of the proletariat in Russia; the defeats in Hungary and Germany; and a general environment that things didn’t have to be as they always had been.

However forward thinking the revolutionary the political ideology of the revolutionaries, first in the Soviet Union, then in the People’s Republic of Albania and later the People’s Republic of China, all those involved had been brought up surrounded by an ideology (economic, political, social, religious, and cultural) that was the antithesis to what they saw as the path into the future. What made the finest of those revolutionaries ‘great’ – at all levels of the Party and society – was their ability to suppress those influences from the past and to create a new set of values for the construction of a society seeking to abolish classes and all that a class based societies entailed.

It took some years and not a little experimentation but eventually the form of propaganda to be used in public art was what is now called ‘socialist realism’. It is country specific as to be effective such artistic endeavours have to have a relationship with the history and culture of the different people’s who have attempted the construction of socialism.

As with all the other major Marxist-Leninist leaders Hoxha understood, and took on board the consequences of, the famous sentence of Karl Marx from the Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, of 1859.

‘It is not the consciousness of man that determines their being, but on the contrary it is their social being that determines their consciousness.’

Yes, the building of socialism had to mean the improvement of the material conditions of all the working population and that task began, initially, with the nationalisation of all the land and the means of production which later led to collectivisation and industrialisation of countries that were economically backward.

But for socialism to succeed and to move to a higher stage it was the thinking of the people which had to be changed. The ‘old order’ had encouraged and nurtured self-serving selfishness, individuality and a concern primarily for personal survival and enhancement and the aim was to change this mindset to one of considering the common good of all as paramount, working and thinking collectively and considering long terms goals, not only for themselves but for generations to come.

All previous social systems have had to address this issue yet it is only when peoples in different countries attempt to move away from class systems and build socialism (with communism being the ultimate goal) that this education and discussion within society is called ‘propaganda’, used in a pejorative sense. If we just take the last two thousand years of world history we have seen the rise (and fall) of slavery, feudalism, capitalism and socialism. Can anyone really argue that capitalism, for example, could have established itself if a sizeable proportion of the population were thinking in the way of slave-owners or actual slaves. Of course not. Their thinking had to adapt as otherwise the ‘new’ social system would simply remain in a rut.

If people think that capitalism doesn’t also use public art as a weapon in its cultural battle to maintain its control of people’s minds then all you have to do is study the statues and monuments that are the products of their class war in the UK – but it’s the same in all other countries. On war memorials to those who died in the world wars of the twentieth century the phrase ‘died for King and Country’ is repeated constantly. This is carved in huge letters on the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium. Statues to the monarchy are in every major town and city. Statues and memorials of individuals who played a role in the colonialist and imperialist expansion of Britain in the past can be found everywhere, as are statues of individual capitalists as well as those to politicians who ran and controlled the country for the benefit of feudalism and capitalism.

A society reinforces its control in many more ways, too many to go into here, but it might be worth citing a recent example in the UK. The newly elected leader of the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, was criticised for not singing the national anthem at yet another event to ‘commemorate’ a specific date in World War Two (these constant, never-ending commemorations are yet other examples of that constant cultural reinforcement of the capitalist state). So even an atheist Republican it is expected and obliged to play the game – is there a greater indication of a sycophantic and pusillanimous population than its general willingness to sing an anthem that contains the words ‘long to reign over us’?

I don’t want to labour the point. I just want to stress that ALL forms of society fight a battle to win the minds of the population, even more so in the early days. The nascent socialist societies were doing nothing different. What was different was that socialism was a society that sought to break completely with the past by doing away with oppression and exploitation of the many for the benefit of the few. That meant that the mountain communists had to climb was much steeper and more difficult than had confronted those ‘progressives’ of the past. This was new ground and hence the difference in approach and also accounts for the hostility that capitalism has had to all such efforts – remembering that this attack on any of the achievements and products of a socialist society are all part of the continual class war.

But back to Albania.

From the very first days of the People’s Republic of Albania the Party placed the development of a new, socialist culture to the fore. The Albanian Film Institute was established in 1945 and this became the Kinostudio Shqipëria e Re (New Albania Film Studio). And throughout the period of socialism Albania produced probably more film footage per head of population than any country in the world. Literature, painting and sculpture were also encouraged as was an imaginative approach to folk-lore and folk culture through music and dance. However, monumental sculpture (or ‘monumental propaganda’ as Ramiz Alia described in an article published in 1968, reprinted in ALS Vol. 1) didn’t seem to play much of a role in the early cultural revolution carried through by the new socialist state.

Lapidars and monuments in Martyrs’ Cemeteries were being created but they were simple affairs and it seems there was a trend to construct higher and higher monoliths rather than create sculptures and images to which the people could relate. Interestingly, in the same article mentioned above, Alia commented on the lack of care in the maintenance of those structures that did exist.

In fact, prior to the mid-1960s there were few monumental sculptures in the country. The first that I can find in the records is the Monument to The Partisan, in the centre of Tirana, the work of Andrea Mano, which was inaugurated in 1949. (This is in no way a socialist realist statue. It’s the same sort of statue of a soldier that can be found anywhere. It is also not one of my favourite Albanian statues, he looks too angry, but in the wrong way. Compare this partisan to the one who stands atop the monument at the sea front in Durres.) The next monuments of note to be erected were ‘Shoket – Comrades’ and ‘Monument to the Permet Congress’, both in Permet and both the work of Odhise Paskali, and the ‘Monument to Agrarian Reform’, the work of Kristaq Rama, in Krutje e Sipërme, unveiled in 1966.

Monument to The Partisan, Tirana

Monument to The Partisan, Tirana

The decision to erect the two sculptures in Permet, on the 20th anniversary of the Congress of Permet, indicates that ideas were changing. Thinking in Albania of the role that the construction of ‘monumental propaganda’ could play in the promotion of the socialist ideal seems to have developed much more quickly after the decision was taken, also in 1964, to re-locate the Tirana Martyrs’ Cemetery and to place an iconic and inspirational sculpture in the new location, replacing the simple monolith that stood over the old cemetery in Tirana Park.

On 26th October 1965, in an intervention at the end of the 15th Plenum of the Central Committee of the Party of Labour of Albania, Enver Hoxha stated:

‘The further revolutionization of the life in the country cannot be understood without the development and deepening of the ideological and cultural revolution.’

In a sense this could be considered to be the opening shots of what became recognised as Albania’s Cultural Revolution – with capital letters as this was a conscious and considered attempt to counter old ideas and promote the new, mirroring a similar decision in the People’s Republic of China. In both Albania and China this was prompted by the betrayal of the Soviet Party to the ideas of Marxism-Leninism and the revolution. Over a period of just under 20 years this was to lead to the construction of the many impressive lapidars that are found around the country to this day.

One of the reasons there weren’t that many monumental sculptors in the country prior to the late 1960s might be simply due to the fact that the socialist sculptors – meaning by that those artists who had grown up in a society constructing socialism and who had an idea of what the society was attempting to build – simply didn’t exist until that time. A look at the sculptors whose names can be associated with the socialist realist lapidars would seem to support such a proposition. If we just take the case of three of the finest (and most prolific) sculptors during the twenty year period (Kristaq Rama, Shaban Hadëri and Mumtaz Dhrami) they were all born in the late 20s or early 30s and were reaching their artistic maturity at just the right time. They were from a generation who knew what they were being asked to represent in the period of the Cultural Revolution.

(The fact that some of them turned their backs on the society that had given them an education, even to the extent of getting paid to vandalise some of their own work when the social system was different – as was the case of Agim Nebiu and his ‘modification’ of the Tirana Historical Museum Mosaic – is beside the point.)

One of the most prolific sculptors in the country prior to the war let alone prior to national liberation was Odhise Paskali. He produced works which are still to be seen today throughout the country. The earlier works include: The National Fighter in Korçe (1932); The Standard Bearer in Vlore (1932); Çerçiz Topulli in Gjirokaster, (1934); and The Kolonje Martyrs’ in Erseke, (1938) and the bust to Vojo Kushi (1949) in Tirana. However, these are all inspired by Albania’s nationalist struggle of the past.

Nonetheless, he did produce important works after liberation. Among these are: a bust of Vojo Kushi in Tirana (1949); Shoket – Comrades and The Partisan in Permet (both 1964); The Partisan Triumphant, the original now at Mauthausen, Austria – with a copy in the Armament Museum in Gjirokaster Castle (1968); The Two Heroines in Gjirokaster (1974); and the most recognisable to visitors to Tirana, the Statue of Skanderberg in the centre of the city (1968). However, these are all conventional, they are well done and some of them are very evocative, but he has not brought a lot new to the idea of public sculpture. The fact that he was honoured by the Albanian state for his contribution to the sculptural heritage of the country doesn’t change that at all.

Paskali’s work proves the case that even though works are commissioned and displayed during a period of socialism that doesn’t automatically make them examples of ‘socialist realist’ art. In the same way a piece of art produced before an era of socialism, depicting the struggle of the working class, doesn’t become ‘socialist realist’ after a revolution. This non-socialist realist status is also the fate of those works produced after the socialist state has ceased to be in existence. Perhaps the best term for those particular works would be ‘neo-socialist realist’. ‘Ersatz-socialist realist’ would be the best way to describe the stone bas-reliefs outside one of the private universities in the centre of Tirana, used in a cynical move to attain some after-the-fact credibility.

Socialist Realist art has a reason for its existence, other than art for art’s sake. It’s created for a specific purpose, under certain distinctive circumstances and has a special and unique relationship with the people for whom it was created. It commemorates goals already achieved (as in the victory over Fascism and national Liberation), landmarks in the development of the new society (as in the Monument to Agrarian Reform in Krutja) or a declaration of intent (as in ‘Our Land’ in the centre of Lushnje).

Monument to Agrarian Reform - Krutje

Monument to Agrarian Reform – Krutje

Now we come to ‘Shoket – Comrades’ in Permet Martyrs’ Cemetery.

It’s almost impossible to think that such a monument would have been installed three years later, when the atheist campaign began. The reason it wasn’t removed as part of that campaign, which effectively was in existence until 1990, is a sign of the respect that the Albanian state had for works of art produced during the socialist period which were created to commemorate those who had died in the fight for national liberation – whatever its imagery might imply.

To all intents and purposes it’s a religious piece of art. It’s the type of monument you’re more likely to see in a capitalist country where Christianity is nominally the state religion. It’s an image that abounds in many Catholic churches, on canvas, in marble or in stained glass windows. But you won’t find such an image, created in the socialist period, anywhere else in Albania. It’s atypical of Albanian lapidars, it’s unique in its imagery. And that’s important to remember.

However, being created in Socialist Albania it’s not just a copy of earlier religious images. There are three figures in this sculpture. A seriously injured fighter is on the ground and has his upper body supported by a male comrade. (The title of this sculpture is sometimes translated as ‘Friends’ but that’s totally inaccurate when dealing with Communist Partisans and the correct translation is ‘Comrades’.) The injured partisan’s shoulder rests against the thigh of his comrade, who is kneeling behind him, and his head is being support by the left hand of his helper.

The injured partisan has lost his cap and his shirt is open at the front. They are all in the uniform of the National Liberation Army and we know he is a fighter as there is an ammunition belt around his waist. The male helper is in full uniform, with a star on his cap and has a pistol in a holster attached to his belt on the left hand side. He is bent over and is looking down, sympathetically, onto the face of his fallen comrade, whose eyes are closed. It looks very much as if he is in his death throes. What makes this very different from the Christian myth of the pieta (the name given to those depictions of the moments after Christ had been taken from the cross after his death and he is being mourned by his mother and, sometimes, the Magdalen) is the presence of the rifle that is on the ground between the fallen soldier and his comrade, the top of the barrel of which is just sticking out between the two.

The other figure is a female partisan. She is also in uniform, wearing a cap with a star at the front but there’s nothing to indicate she’s armed. (I’m not aware if there was a specifically devoted corps of medics in the Albanian partisan army.) She holds the right hand of the fallen partisan in her own right and seems to be looking for a pulse with her left. However the composition seems to indicate that this is futile, that they are too late to be able to help him. The injured’s left arm rests on the ground with the hand loosely open as if all life has gone out of the body. Also the right hand of the male partisan hovers over the hands of the dead, or dying soldier, and the female fighter. This seems to be him about to say that there’s no point in checking his pulse, it’s already too late.

Shoket - Permet - Hands

Shoket – Permet – Hands

There’s a very tranquil feeling emanating from this scenario. It’s a sad picture. As hard as they try they can achieve nothing. Death is final. Something precious has been lost.

But this is a pessimistic approach to death in war, the capitalist approach. This is the impression we get from the memorials that abound throughout Europe to those who died in the war of 1914-1919 – those who died in previous conflicts seemingly not worthy of remembrance in such a widespread manner.

Capitalism convinces workers to fight and possibly die for reasons that don’t benefit those same workers. This has been the case since capitalism became the dominant political and economic system a few centuries ago – the war against Fascism between 1939 and 1945 being, conceivably, the only exception. However, capitalism cannot celebrate the deaths that are a consequence of their predatory wars. It’s best if these deaths are mourned, quietly. There are annual services of remembrance but these always separate the actual deaths from the reason why they were placed in such a situation in the first place.

To celebrate those deaths might make people wonder what they actually got out of the war. To celebrate the defeat of Fascism might make people think that instead of fighting against something they should fight for something, a change in the system, a new tomorrow.

On the other hand the impression from the overwhelming majority of Albanian lapidars, and socialist realist art in general, is one of defiance, displaying a positive, optimistic, forward-looking and triumphant approach. They celebrate the deaths in the National Liberation War as those men and women fought for a future, for a new society.

In Volume 1 of the Albanian Lapidar Survey report there’s an article by a psuedo-academic called Gëzim Qëndro. In this article he attacks and attempts to denigrate ALL the production of Socialist Realist art (or at least ‘monumental propaganda’) as being the victory of Christian thinking over a proclaimed atheist state. In this article he displays a total lack of understanding of Albanian history, is unable to see any aspect of development in public sculpture from the 1960s onwards and certainly has no understanding of the aims of the country’s Cultural Revolution.

This makes the last sentence in Qëndro’s article, ‘ … the monument Shokët is a clear testimony of the presence of the religious connotations in the atheist art of Albanian socialist realism,’ a totally erroneous and ignorant reading and understanding of Albanian lapidars, their reasons for existence and the story they are attempting to convey.

Like so many bad academics Qëndro chooses his thesis and then looks for ‘facts’ to back it up, relying on most people’s lack of desire or ability to check matters for themselves.

Behind the sculpture there’s a concrete panel to which is attached a monolith (lapidar) that is positioned so that it rises exactly from the middle of the group of three. At my visit the panel was a somewhat sickly pinkish colour and the lapidar yellow. On the right hand side of the panel are the words ‘Lavdi Deshmoreve’, meaning ‘Glory to the Martyrs’.

The only other marking on this panel are the dates 1939 and 1945. This is slightly confusing. On WWII monuments throughout Europe the end date is normally the one where the war was considered to have ended in that particular country. I’ve always worked on the basis that in Albania that was the end of November 1944 so the year 1945 being on this monument is a mystery to me. It has nothing to do with treaties (the reason why some memorials for WWI in the UK show the date 1919 as the end of the conflict) as Albania was not invited to conferences where the likes of reparations were discussed and decided upon.

The sculpture has been ‘cared’ for over the years. Unfortunately this seems to be the sort of care that has more good intentions than actual skill in preservation. Whitewashing of the plaster is gradually causing some of the detail to be lost. However, considering it is now just over 50 years old the statue still allows the viewer to get an understanding of Paskali’s intentions.

As is the case with most of the Martyrs’ Cemeteries a small building was dedicated as a museum of the area, any battles that might have taken place in the vicinity and also a remembrance of the local people who died in the war. The one in Permet seems to be still acting as such (many are either totally abandoned or empty shells of what they used to be). Unfortunately on my visit there was no one around and it was all locked up but there were some busts and pictures still on display.

Shoket - Permet - Museum

Shoket – Permet – Museum

To the left of the door of the museum is a rectangular, marble plaque. This doesn’t list the names of the those buried in the cemetery but makes reference to those from the Permet region who are commemorated in the National Martyrs’ Cemetery in Tirana.

Shoket - Permet - Plaque

Shoket – Permet – Plaque

The words at the top of the plaque – ‘Dëshmorët që kanë eshtrat në varezat e kombit në Tiranë’ translates as ‘Martyrs whose remains are in the National Cemetery in Tirana’. This is something I have not seen elsewhere.






40° 14′ 11.7240” N

20° 21′ 20.2139” E


246.0 m

How to get there:

From the main square in the centre of Permet head down towards the bridge over the river. Once on the other side walk straight ahead, in the direction of Tepelene, and the cemetery is about 200m on the right, a short avenue of pine trees lining the path to the cemetery gates.

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Martyrs’ Cemetery, Gjirokaster

Martyrs' Cemetery, Gjirokaster

Martyrs’ Cemetery, Gjirokaster

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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.





40° 5′ 9.6035” N

20° 8′ 33.2195” E


207.5 m

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