On the 11th of February 2019, the capital city of Tirana celebrated its 99th birthday.
Located in the centre of Albania, the city is surrounded by mountains and hills as well as a large plane that stretches out to Durrës and the Adriatic Sea. A mish-mash of architectural influences, and full of colour, peculiarities, and eccentricity, it truly is a unique gem in the heart of the Balkans.
Tirana existed long before it became the capital and the area has been inhabited pretty much continuously since the Iron Age. Having been home to a number of Illyrian tribes, it was then annexed by Rome and became an important part of the Roman Empire with its mosaics still visible today. After the Roman occupation it fell into the hands of the Byzantine Empire as well as Ottoman Empire, until the 20th Century when the Congress of Lushnjë named it as the country’s capital.
Today, it is the centre of the country- home to a third of the population as well as being the most important economic, political, financial, and trade centre in the country.
As you walk around the streets of Tirana today, you could be fooled into thinking it is a modern city that sprung up only during the last century. The 18th Century Eth’hem Bej Mosque is one of the oldest structures still standing, almost everything else has been demolished or built over during the last few decades. The architecture on offer comprises of communist apartment blocks with more modern extensions teetering on top, Italian neo-classical government buildings painted in bright colours, and crumbling brick work interspersed with concrete, glass, and steel monoliths.
Whilst many complain that Tirana is an “ugly city” and needs a lot of work to modernise it, I feel that doing so risks getting rid of the charm that attracted myself and many others to both visit and live here. There is nowhere quite like Tirana and as you walk down any street; tree lined boulevards, backstreets lined with colourful graffiti and fruit sellers, or pedestrianized streets flanked by quirky shops- you couldn’t ever mistake it for anywhere else.
I love Tirana- I love the energy when I walk outside of my house and I love to browse the street markets and winding streets just for fun, with no particular aim in mind. I love the characters I encounter on my travels and I like to photograph the fascinating buildings and street views around me. This is what attracts people to visit- the uniqueness, and my images portraying these scenes have amassed thousands of likes and followers on social media. These are the scenes and images that inspire people to book a last minute city break to Tirana. People like originality and they like to stumble across places that are unlike no other.
I have written before that many places in Europe are starting to visually merge into one. You can walk down the street in Prague, Berlin, or London and come across the same kind of buildings and the same international high-street shops. Photo’s posted on social media all look the same, and finding places that look truly unique in these sprawling metropolises are becoming harder and harder to find. What Tirana still has is its originality but I fear that this is something that is under threat.
It started before my time with projects like the highly controversial and corruption-ridden Skanderbeg Square and it continues with the horrific proposal to demolish the national theatre and replace it with skyscrapers. Every day we hear of more old buildings being earmarked for redevelopment and citizen’s homes and businesses are routinely and often illegally, bulldozed all in the name of “progress”. Whilst I understand that there is an element of updating that needs to be done to accommodate the changing needs of this growing city, we need to be mindful that we are not getting rid of the very things that gives this city its soul.
If the politicians of this country really want to make improvements to Tirana, I would suggest they stop knocking down people’s homes and selling off public land and consider a few of the following suggestions. Why not redo all of the pavements in the city? Make the city wheelchair and pushchair friendly? Repair all of the holes in the pavements and roads, do something about pollution, invest heavily in public transport, start providing proper recycling facilities, work hard to improve the quality of the water that we pay for. These are the things that will benefit citizens and residents, as well as the tourists that you so desperately crave.
There is a saying that culture and cultural heritage is what shapes us at the most fundamental level- we construct identities from stories, buildings, and objects that conjure up the past of our ancestors- for good and for bad. When we visit historic places we are walking in the footsteps of people that have all contributed in some way to our present as well as our future.
As far as I believe, we never really own the land we inhabit, we are mere custodians who are entrusted with preserving it for future generations. It is not our place, nor our right to erase parts of history to make way for self-serving, capitalist, steel monoliths that serve no benefit to the inhabitants of the city. No one is going to look back and say “I’m so happy that government demolished the old theatre/historic building/beautiful old landmark”, quite the contrary, they are going to look back with regret and pity on the greed of a few that was a detriment to all.
As Tirana celebrates its 99th birthday, I just hope that by its 100th it will have not lost more of what makes it such a truly special place.