Not All Restorations Are “à la Kumbaro” 73rd Anniversary of the foundation of the 8th Brigade, April 28, 2017. Source: Facebook

In 2014, I finished the first and only survey of all lapidars (monuments) constructed all over Albania during the communist period, around 700 in total. The results of this project, the Albanian Lapidar Survey, were documented on a blog, video, and publication. Although the project was partially funded by the Ministry of Culture, the data I gathered remained unused. There is still no law in Albania that protects this type of cultural heritage.

The result of the absence of any legal protection is that the regional and local governments, as well as private citizens on whose land these monuments are located, can basically do with them whatever they want, including “restoration” or “reconstruction.” Sometimes, as we will see below, this goes relatively well. But most of the times it ends in disaster.

In the past, I have written several times about how this important cultural heritage has been maltreated by the government:

  • In 2014, the giant star-shaped lapidar for the First Brigade in Pishkash was painted white, destroying the unique color variations of the local stone from which the monument was sculpted; a similar type of white-washing befell the large “Mother Albania” monument on the Cemetery of National Martyrs and many other monuments around the country.
  • In 2016, former Minister of Social Welfare and Youth Blendi Klosi went up to the lapidar of the Artillery on a hill overlooking Tirana, and “restored” the monument together with a group of “youth activists.” The monument was severely damaged by an electric grinder, and the marble-clad base was partially restored with regular plaster.
  • In 2017, the “reconstruction” of the Pazar i Ri in Tirana, one of Mayor Erion Veliaj’s proud “accomplishments,” included the destruction of the lapidar for Muhamet Gjollesha and Shyqyr Ishmi, which was beheaded and whose characteristic wings were cut off.

These are just three examples of state-sanctioned vandalism, the actual list is much longer.

Now suddenly, after four years of absent policy and gross negligence, Minister of Culture Mirela Kumbaro appears at the 73rd anniversary of the foundation of the 8th Brigade in Sheper, Gjirokastra (where she is incidentally campaigning for the elections), declaring:

We gather here three generations, I am happy that we have here both children and veterans, a great possibility not only to exchange historical events. But I think that it is a good possibility to turn our attention to one of the zone with a great touristic potential.

I do not deny that the valley of Zagori is of great loneliness and beauty, and that the location of the lapidar near Sheper is truly impressive. But it is typical that Minister Kumbaro can only speak about cultural heritage in terms of tourism. In fact, nearly all of her policy in the last few years seems to have been tourism oriented, and as a result large swaths of cultural life in Albania have become barren.

Meanwhile, many regional and local governments have destroyed 20th-century cultural heritage, while indeed severely diminishing any “touristic” value this might have had.

The lapidar for the 8th and 14th Brigades, Sheper, 2014. Photo © Marco Mazzi.
The lapidar for the 8th and 14th Brigades, Sheper, 2014. Photo © Marco Mazzi.
73rd Anniversary of the foundation of the 8th Brigade, April 28, 2017. Source: Facebook
73rd Anniversary of the foundation of the 8th Brigade, April 28, 2017. Source: Facebook

Also in the case of the lapidar in Sheper, the restoration work was completely financed and supervised by the regional government, the County of Gjirokastra. Armand Hilaj, head of the County Council, stated:

We as County Council, in view of our legal duty that we have for the reconstruction of this monument of our martyrs, we have completed the reconstructions with our own budget.

As can be seen from the 2014 photograph above, the lapidar in Sheper was in fact one of the best preserved lapidars in the country, due to its remote location. All the engraved marble plaques were still attached to it, the bas-relief (except a paint layer that suggests oxydized bronze) was undamaged, and even the communist star on top of the double-headed eagle was stil intact, perhaps also because this lapidar was one of the tallest ever built.

The pictures from the celebration on April 28 show that the basement has been reconstructed, and that the bas-relief has received a fresh layer of paint. The green now looks more like spring-time leaves, but at least it’s not pink and yellow like the monument on the martyrs’ cemetery in Përmet. The same holds for the flag in top, with the star painted over with a fresh red together with the background of the black eagle. Otherwise, the good people from Gjirokastra have refrained from “touching up” the marble with plaster or paint, as the Ministry of Culture has done at several locations around Mother Theresa Square in Tirana, with hideous results. All in all, not the worst “reconstruction.”

But the problem remains that the restoration of these monuments of national value cannot be left to regional or local governments. There is not enough expertise or enough budget to save this unique feature of the Albanian cultural landscape for future generations. Only an appropriate legal framework that deals with 20th-century monumentality can safeguard proper maintenance and restoration, and perhaps – perhaps! – that a more proficient Minister of Culture after the elections could take actions in this direction. But I’m not hoping too much.