From: Artan Rama
Save Gjirokastra!

The new regulation that protects the historical center did not protect the home of Thanas Kamberi, found at the entrance of Pazari i Vjetër neighborhood in Gjirokastra. The fire blazed out of the roof first and then it spread in both floors of the house, in thirty minutes everything was reduced to ashes!

The well-known residence known as House of Vasilika burned down on Sunday, March 5, and it has been less than a year since this old stone home with wooden roofs and ceiling was declared a Category II cultural monument and put under protection of the Ministry of Culture.

Andreas Roman is a restaurateur of world fame and one of the founders of ICOMOS. In 1992, he arrived in Albania and he disclosed to UNESCO: “The protection of monuments in Albania is done according to the highest European standards using an original restoration work.”

UNESCO started the processes of registration. But the destiny of the city would be intertwined with a number of events that determined the political history of the new post-communist capitalist Albania.

The political upheaval and the toppling of Ponzi schemes in the nineties delayed the process. Nevertheless, after the rehabilitation of the 2000s, even though it left its traces, Gjirokastra got the attention it deserved.

In 2005, when the Democratic Party led by Sali Berisha returned to power, the city was registered as World Heritage. The pride of the historical past became part of people’s enthusiasm. A future was guaranteed through international protection.

But within a decade the hope was succeeded by silence and it’s a disappointment to see how the “World’s strangest city” is threatened to be lost!

Here are some proofs!

Degradation within 10 years. The House of the Çanos in 2006 (l) and 2016 (r).
Degradation within 10 years. The House of the Çano family in 2006 (l) and 2016 (r).

When the first mission of international experts visited Gjirokastra, they concluded lack of economical resources. Even though it was under an isolated management because of the communist paranoia, or perhaps because of the special care for the dictator’s birthplace, the protection of the values of the city had been guaranteed.

So after seven months, on July 15, 2005, the historical and archeological collection of the old city of Gjirokastra together with around 650 residences and religious objects were all declared UNESCO World Heritage.

Precisely, let us see the progress, under the perspective of management from 2005 until now!

In 2008 ICOMOS suggested for the first time that an inventory of the monuments be made while distinguishing the illegal objects from the authentic ones built since 1990.

For a short period of time they insisted on a plan to demolish these structures. The report asked also for the improvement of fire precaution in the historical center.

But during that very year, the directors of the Ministry of Culture fired the supervisors in regional directories that took care of noting down and observing any illegal intervention inside historical centers and especially for cities of Berat and Gjirokastra. This observation was considered rather important as the number of supervisors of monuments in the communist administration for the entirety of Albania was 250 employees, at a time when order and security were in the hands of a dictatorial regime(!).

Therefore, within a year, the volume of interventions inside the protected area of the city tripled. Deformations in the historical center took ion dramatic proportions. According to the Report on the Condition of Conservation (UNESCO 2009), the number of new buildings in the protected area was at 245 structures! According to the observations, fire protection was weak due to difficulties that firefighters faced on ground.

The alarm, however, had its effect when in 2010, new interventions and construction stopped. Still though, UNESCO requirements were ignored. Any reaction against the illegal structures build in the historical center was nonexistent.

Reports of 2011 declare 70 new buildings, 62 additions and 110 minor interventions on the outside, the façades. Portable extinguishers and small firetrucks, necessary due to tight roads in Gjirokastra, were missing.

In this uncontrollable urban mayhem a special mission of UNESCO arrived in Gjirokastra in 2012. The results are easily fathomable: the control system for illegal construction does not function! The action plan is nonexistent! The illegal buildings have been put in the same map with the residences of the second category.

At this exact moment there is a change, the start of the fall of Gjirokastra!

According to the mission, extraordinary universal values such as roads, panoramas, and monuments must not only be written down but also put on the map! So UNESCO asks an exact classification of historical residences including monuments and illegal constructions.

But in fact, the mapping requires the depiction of four categories: monuments of first category, monuments of second category, illegal constructions, and legal constructions that weren’t previously considered monuments. It was easily expected that the hidden massacre would be quickly revealed.

Luckily the Democratic Party was removed from power, but the return of the socialists did not improve the condition of the historical monuments.

Even though the government signed a moratorium to temporarily stop the construction work, it did not undertake any action plan against illegal interventions.

Passively, able to irritate even its most avid supporters, the Ministry of Culture handed to UNESCO a list of 244 illegal buildings, 68 of which were brand new. (You can imagine what kind of buildings I am referring to!)

In these circumstances, the UNESCO asked the Albanian government in its annual report of 2013 to immediately organize a management structure that would be responsible for the monitoring and controling of illegal buildings.

In the period 2014–2015, the Regional Directorate of Culture (DRKK) in Gjirokastra reported only 13 illegal interventions.

This directorate employs four workers and a supervisor with a monthly salary that doesn’t exceed 30,000 lekë, even though it ranked on scale 7! This nucleus, responsible for the revival of the heritage, possess a yearly budget at a value of 15 million lekë that goes for the maintenance of a territory with an area of tens of hectares and hundreds of monuments!

During last year, which consists of the last full year of the mandate, the socialist government allocated 0.38% of the entire budget to culture and only one third of this went to cultural heritage!

Degradation within 10 years. The House of the Lolomans in 2006 (l) and 2016 (r).
Degradation within 10 years. The House of the Lolomani family in 2006 (l) and 2016 (r).

But let us return to the UNESCO reports and see the ruin of heritage from their perspective.

“Lack of strategy for education, training, and strengthening of capacities in the heritage area” were some of the performance results from UNESCO’s 2014 report. “The required budget necessary to cover at least the conservation basis for monuments was not enough” and this was considered a serious issue.

So, the propaganda in Tirana moved. “Friend of the monument,” a promoton campaign that aimed the education of the new generation with the cultural heritage values, was awarded to some schools in Gjirokastra.

The government did not keep its promises that it would draft a new law in 2015 but it compiled a list of regulations (July 7, 2015) that protected the historical centers inside the museum cities like Gjirokastra and Berat, and after some months, for the first time since 1961, when Gjirokastra was declared museum-city, it officially declared the residences in Gjirokastra, inside the historical center, as monuments of the second category.

Half of these residences, also part of UNESCO inventory, were left out of the declaration. The status of protection had failed!

These residences without a status are former monuments altered by illegal interventions during many years and reflect the incompetence of all central and local authorities that have managed the city and its heritage. They are proofs for the shame and common barbarity that unites all governments, Ministers of Cultures and Prime Ministers of this country.

In their complete ineptitude to manage a revival plan to return them to their previous form, the Ministry of Culture, in March 2016 abandoned them forever! Their future fate can be guessed…

It is ridiculous to think that these monuments or “status objects” would be protected by the new Regulation, which in art. 13 only protects them in general terms and still leaves possibilities for adaptation, while professing to protect the historical nsemble. Utter hypocrisy!

Leaving these buildings without status can open doors to the process of legalization for former monuments. But according to article 39 of law for Legalization of Illegal Constructions, it does not permit legalization of cultural monuments.

A study conducted by Cultural Heritage without Borders published in 2016 a report on Gjirokastra, where 35 monuments have turned into ruins. According to this study, 357 monuments have undergone illegal interventions and 170 of them have lost their monumental character, while 122 others have been totally transformed.

Authorities could be busy preparing new files for UNESCO, as for  the Lake of Ohrid or Apollonia. The Minister of Culture, Mirela Kumbaro can be removed from office, because she has already started a premature campaign running as deputy for the Drin Valley. Some residents could be enthusiastic that they can legalize their residences but meanwhile Gjirokastra of stone could be forever lost and is at serious risk to remain only in the famous drawings of Lear or works of Kadare.

Gjirokastra on a work by Edward Lear.
Gjirokastra on a work by Edward Lear.