From: Robin Suerig Holleran
Kulla: A Centuries Old Way of Life in the North of Albania

Scattered throughout the mountains and villages of northern Albania are distinctive stone homes (known as kullë/kulla) that, in many ways, resemble miniature fortresses. Some have been abandoned and are falling into a state of disrepair. But others are still occupied and provide a glimpse of a traditional way of life in this corner of the country.

Built for strength and power

Construction of kullas in Albania, as well as other parts of the Balkans, began with the decline of the Ottoman Empire largely to protect families from the lawlessness that ensued. But northern Albania also has a well-deserved reputation for fierce resistance not just against the Turks, but also against communists and marauders that has allowed many to preserve their Catholic roots and other traditions. During conflicts, kullas sometimes became symbolic targets for invaders bent on breaking the will of the mountain villages. Even in the late 1990s, kullas were the object of attacks in neighboring Kosovo during the war with Serbia.

Building these fortified homes was no easy feat and required hiring workers and craftsmen not just from the immediate area but surrounding regions as well as from other Slavic and Balkan countries. For this reason, they were largely built by wealthier and middle-class families and became a symbol of affluence and power. 

The word kullë is believed to be derived from the Arabic word for castle. Limestone from the surrounding mountains was the primary material used in mountain homes, while kullas built in valleys and lower areas included clay and wood to better absorb earthquake tremors and prevent building collapses. Many wealthy families added elements such as stone walls to give their kullas the ambiance of an actual castle. Other castle-like features, such as a jut in the exterior stone that circled the rectangular home like a belt, were also included and kept unwelcome visitors from scaling the walls and gaining entry.

Most kullas were built three to four stories high and with meter-thick stone walls, with only a few windows on the upper levels that were as high to the room’s ceilings as possible to prevent attackers from being able to know who, what or where anything was inside. As the north became more stable and villagers started adopting kullas as their primary homes, some added larger windows for more light and air circulation. 

The windows on the older kullas tended to be wider on the outside and carved narrower toward the interior. This design allowed occupants to shoot at intruders while being protected from counterfire because of the small openings. The thick walls also provided additional insulation from harsh, erratic mountain weather, keeping the home cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

Prestige and hospitality

In accordance with the customs of the kanun (ancient laws that governed all aspects of mountain life in the north until communism), the owner of a kullë was obliged to open his home to any stranger who came to the door in need of help or risk bringing shame to his family and community.

Although locked from the inside with a heavy metal bolt, the front door was one of the most important features of a kullë. Masons carved images of nature and symbols of the times along the sides of the stone entrance to show the owner’s status and sense of hospitality.

A guest at a kullë would be brought immediately upstairs to the oda (livestock were frequently kept in stalls on the ground level). Oftentimes, there were two odas—one for men on the top floor and another for women on the floor just below. The oda had a fireplace and was considered the finest room in the home. Earlier odas had unfinished ceilings that exposed the beams and underside of the roof tiles but with time, these were covered in wood and decorated with carved images.

Next to the fireplace, cubby holes were strategically hollowed out of the thick walls to hold coffee, bottles and cooking utensils. Animal furs covered the floors until the early- to mid-1900s until woven carpets became popular.

A glimpse at the past

In the Mat region, about two hours north of Tirane, kullas were a traditional style of home for centuries. According to local historians, the first kullas date back to the 16th and 17th centuries, although most were built in the 19th century and some even in the early 20th century. 

Outside Burrel, in the mountain village of Macukull, is an ancient kullë reportedly managed by the Ministry of Culture Institute of Cultural Monuments, although there is little evidence of any preservation measures. The road to Macukull was improved, but it is still a rough dirt road that requires an experienced driver with steady nerves and a sturdy vehicle. 

It is also best to have someone along with Albanian language skills as the roads are not always well marked and you will need to find the “man with the key” to get inside this historic stone house in Macukull. (If making these arrangements seems a bit daunting, day-long trips to the kullë and interesting nearby sites can be organized with Hotel Vila Bruci in Burrel.) 

Doubling as locked towers

Locked towers are another form of kullë that has captured the imagination of the media from time to time. These were used to imprison those who committed serious violations against the laws of the kanun and to hold families caught in the crosshairs of blood feuds. A locked tower was the setting for much of the acclaimed 2012 film The Forgiveness of Blood about a family struggling in kullë isolation after their father killed a man during an argument about road access. These towers were also where tribal leaders and family members met to try to negotiate settlements between those affected by a crime and a representative of the accused.

Probably, the most well-known building of this sort is the iconic Lock-In Tower of Theth (also known as the Tower of Nikoll Koçeku) in the Accursed Mountains north of Shkodër. The tower is still owned by the Koçeku family and tours come complete with vivid tales of its history.

The plight of kullas today

When communism fell and people were allowed to move more freely, many left their homes in the rugged and inhospitable mountains to pursue a better life in towns and cities. Kullas were abandoned and started crumbling under the weight of heavy snow and other harsh elements of nature. There is an inkling of interest by some in preserving and rehabilitating kullas, but the investment can be significant and more often they are allowed to deteriorate, much in the same way as traditional village life in the mountains is also slowly slipping away.

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