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Albania: from Illyria to today.

Viola: What country, friends, is this?
Captain: This is Illyria, lady.
Viola: And what should I do in Illyria?
(Twelfth Night, Act 1 Scene 2)

MANY people probably share Shakespeare's shipwrecked heroine's bewilderment, perhaps thinking Illyria a mythical country. Yet at its most powerful it extended along the western side of the Balkan peninsula encompassing Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro. Bosnia/Herzgovinia and much of Serbia. Whereas invading armies have frequently penetrated its mountainous terrain, its turbulent history and political regimes were uninviting to travellers.

It is beyond the scope of this article to give an account of every invasion and rebellion, though each has left its mark. The result is a many-layered landscape and culture of which Albanians are proud. Archaeological sites have been excavated, historic buildings conserved and museums opened. Where funding (often foreign) is available, finds are well-documented and displayed and attractive, informative booklets produced. Tirana's splendid National Historical Museum (opened 1981) gives an overview; others are site or subject specific.

Albania has probably been occupied since the Neolithic period (c.6000 BC) and the Illyrians are thought to have entered the area from about the tenth century BC. They built strongly fortified settlements on high ground and, among other activities, mined silver and gold. From these precious metals they made coins and jewellery, exquisite examples of which are in Tirana and Durres museums.

From the seventh century BC Greeks from Corinth established colonies on Corfu and the adjacent mainland, trading with inland Illyrians and, as the economy prospered, so did the arts and culture. In the third century BC, however, raids on Italian ships provoked the wrath of Rome and, in 168BC, they conquered the last Illyrian stronghold, the fortress of Rozafa (Shkoder). After the division of the Roman Empire (AD395) Albania came within the Byzantine Empire, ruled from Constantinople--apart from incursions by the Goths, Bulgarians, Angevins/Normans and Serbs--until the Turks invaded (1417) and stayed for 500 years. When the Ottoman Empire was collapsing in the late nineteenth century European powers began re-drawing Balkan boundaries. Threatened with the disappearance of their country, a surge of Albanian nationalism resulted in a declaration of independence in 1912. In the twentieth century the country endured two world wars, periods of anarchy, a monarchy/dictatorship, communism and financial crises. In April 2009 Albania became a full member of NATO and applied to join the EU.

Albania is a small country and a poor one; the GDP is 26 per cent of the EU average for a population of three million. The landscape is chocolate box beautiful but earthquake-prone. Deep tectonic lakes contain some unique species, mountain peaks are snow-capped even in midsummer and rushing rivers have cut deep ravines. Since the sixteenth century Albanians have called their country Shqiperia (using this on postage stamps): Land of the Eagle. The main lowland areas lie in the central southern and coastal areas, whose rocky coves have golden sandy beaches. Inevitably, road building is difficult and expensive. Though roads are being improved we were unable to visit the site of Byllis in June because the road was still impassable after winter storms.

There is little tourist development outside Sarande and Durres--where day visitors from Corfu are catered for with a seafront promenade, cafes and restaurants--and Pogradec on the shore of Lake Ohrid. Hotels have been refurbished and some new ones built, distinctly superior to the accommodation encountered by Edward Lear (described in Journals of a Landscape Painter in Greece and Albania, 1851): sleeping with his head on his knapsack and his guide with pistols beside him, he was bitten by fleas, plagued by cats playing bo-peep behind him and nearly roasted by a great wood fire. Lear suffered in other ways too: Muslims, deeming his sketching profane, called him Satan and, whereas he describes 'a fearful species of cheese soup, with butter, perfectly fabulous as to filthiness', we found the food excellent; varied, sometimes unusual, and a half portion often sufficient. Lunch on a shady verandah beside Lake Shkoder one day was delicious local fish cooked and served in individual clay roof tiles. One thwarted tourist development, though, is an eyesore. South of Sarande, and only 2 to 3 km from the important archaeological site of Butrint, is a scene of earthquake-type destruction: a whole tourist village of unfinished apartment blocks and houses has been partially bulldozed because planning permission was not granted.

Legend says Butrint was founded by Helenus and Andromache fleeing from the fall of Troy. Certainly it was a flourishing city by the eighth century BC, standing on a rocky ridge, a peninsular site between the Ionian Sea and the Lake of Butrint. From the lakeside track the walls still present an awesome barrier: massive stone blocks--no mortar--pierced only by two gateways. Travellers came here from long distances to the shrine of Asclepius because the springs were believed to have healing powers. The theatre--probably built by Pyrrhus (306-272BC, of Pyrrhic victory fame)--seats around 1,500 and, in addition to entertainment, seems to have been used for worship and political meetings as there are inscriptions recording the freeing of slaves during various ceremonies. These give names of slaves and their owners; unusually, women were allowed to own, and free, slaves since widows inherited their husband's property. The theatre is still used for occasional performances though changes in water level now require a wooden platform over the stagnant pool that occupies the former stage.

Butrint's other evocative monument is the circular Baptistery. Begun in the early Roman period and added to up to late medieval time, it is one of the largest and most elaborate in the Mediterranean area. Every Easter people assembled here at dawn. Baptismal candidates, after stepping down into the font and being doused with water (heated by the hypocaust), were dressed in white robes to process to the cathedral for their first communion. The cruciform font in the centre and its two concentric rings of eight columns can still be seen but the incredibly intricate mosaic floor--seven concentric bands of interwoven patterns, vine leaves and animals, birds and fish associated with baptism--is under plastic sheeting weighted down with sand and gravel, this being the best way of preserving it. Photographs exist, however, in the excellent site guide book and museum.

The ruins at Butrint, and at Apollonia further north, convey the atmosphere of a Greco-Roman city. In Apollonia visitors may walk along the stoa, a novel shopping arcade with an upper level promenade where its wealthy citizens (exempt from taxes) could stroll, secure behind the 4 km perimeter wall remnants of which are still visible. Imagine the consternation when news arrived of Julius Caesar's assassination and Octavian, who was studying here, rushed back to Rome to claim the succession as Augustus.

The Romans built a road, the Via Egnatia, from Apollonia linking the Adriatic coast to Thessaloniki and, from thence, Byzantium. Another branch began at the Greek city of Epidamnus, which the Romans fortified and called Dyrrachium, now Duress, Albania's main port. Where the two branches of the Via Egnatia joined, a trading post grew up: Scampa.

The walls here have stories to tell. Built by the Romans in the second century BC, they were repaired by the Ottomans (1466) who re-named the town Elbasan which, translated as 'the place for raiding other people's territory', makes their aim explicit. The only surviving wall, the south, runs alongside the present west-east road, from where the Bazaar Gate gives entry to the old town. A couple of hundred yards or so inside is the King's mosque, one of the oldest in Albania (1492), and just beyond that visitors step onto the Via Egnatia.

On the outside of the wall is a plaque commemorating Kostandin Kristoforidh (1826-95), a lexicographer and leading figure in the nineteenth century nationalist movement. At this period Greek, Roman and Turkish scripts were in use and the plaque (dated 1888, showing Kristoforidh with a group of students) asserts, Albania will never learn anything, will never be illuminated, will not be at all civilised with foreign languages, but only with its mother tongue, which is Albanian'. Albanian is an Illyrian language, one of the oldest Indo-European, and distinct from Italian, Greek, and Serbo-Croat though with some Romanian grammatical features. Kristoforidh was a member of the Commission on the Alphabet which met in Elbasan in the late 1860s. In 1909 a congress there formally adopted the Roman alphabet, with 36 characters, for the written language and Albanian-medium language schools opened.

The Education Museum in Korce is housed in the first of these schools. Opened in 1887 with 45 pupils, numbers increased annually and a girls' school followed four years later with more in other towns, albeit at this time such schools were illegal. The museum has a period classroom set out with benches, a blackboard, slates, text books, photographs of teachers and pupils and other documents. Outside is a modern sculpture: a white marble slab representing a sheet of paper on which stand an inkwell and quill pen in front of a Roman case a,b,c.

A common language is a unifying factor. A Hag forms a visible rallying point. Albania owes its black double-headed eagle on a red background to resistance leader Skanderbeg (1403-68), the youngest son of the tribal chief Gjon Kastrioti. As the Ottoman Empire pushed westwards Kastrioti made a deal: his sons were taken hostage in exchange for permission to rule his territory as a vassal. So young Gjergj was trained as a soldier in the Sultan's army and re-named Alexander (Skender), with the title bey. After participating in a resounding defeat in Serbia in 1443, Skanderbeg seized his chance and--accompanied by 300 Albanian horsemen--galloped home to raise his standard on the family fortress at Kruje. Three months later he gathered the local chiefs together and persuaded them that the most effective way of halting the Ottoman advance was to stop their inter-clan warfare and unite against the common enemy. In the following twenty-five years Skanderbeg fought over twenty battles losing only two. Little foreign support was forthcoming so, almost single-handedly, he held off the Turkish advance into western Europe. Kruje withstood three sieges before falling in 1478. The following year the Ottoman conquest of Albania was complete.

Skanderbeg died of malaria at Lezhe and was buried in the cathedral. This ruined building is now his shrine: facing the entrance is a bronze bust, backed by his standard and flanked by replicas of his sword and helmet (topped with a roebuck's head)--the originals are in Vienna. On the side walls hang shields commemorating his battles. Another shrine is Kruje museum (opened 1982, designed by the architect daughter of the communist president Enver Hoxha and her husband). Dominating the foyer is a massive white marble sculptured scene: backed by his shield-and-weapon-carrying warriors (including his sister) stands the commanding figure of their leader. Sword in hand, unmistakable helmet on head and dressed in the traditional kilt, Skanderbeg is clearly not to be trifled with. There are huge murals (up to 100 sq km with 300 characters) depicting scenes from his life; the detail in these, especially the facial expressions of the warriors, would take hours to fully appreciate. Another gallery houses over a thousand books about him, published in seventy-three countries and twenty-five languages. Nearly five centuries after his death Skanderbeg remains Albania's national hero. Astride his horse he occupies a plinth in Tirana's main square, which bears his name.

Despite Skanderbeg's efforts, the Ottoman army prevailed and, walking downhill from Kruje museum, their influence is noticeable in the bazaar with the minaret rising behind. Mosques were built and many Albanians converted to Islam, though this may have been partly pragmatic; Roman Catholicism retained a hold in the mountainous north and Eastern Orthodox Christianity in the south-east. Albanian converts preferred the Sufi form as preached by Bektashi dervishes. Bektashism expanded rapidly in the early nineteenth century and their teqes can be found in most towns. Teqes resemble meeting rooms with tables and chairs set out in an inward-facing square, instead of towards a focal point of teaching or worship. Albania has been the world headquarters of Bektashism since its expulsion from Turkey in 1925.

The typical eighteenth-century Ottoman houses make delightful ethnographic museums. A loquacious guide to the Kruje museum provides a vivid and light-hearted insight into traditional life, enthusiastically demonstrating the use of equipment. The ground floor was used for storage, livestock in winter and tasks such as olive pressing and raki distilling. The upper floor of the house was the family living quarters with separate men's and women's rooms. Guests were received in the former, though women could look and listen through the gallery's wooden fretwork grille. The women's room was private, where they busied themselves with spinning, weaving, embroidery and child care--in the Elbasan museum this room has a wooden cradle with dragon heads carved onto the ends. A feature of these houses is the covered verandah--added in wood to a stone house--providing a cool place during the summer heat. In the Berat museum part of the ground floor is laid out as a medieval bazaar: a narrow cobbled street with booths on either side displaying regional costumes and the trades practised: blacksmithing, tailoring, shoe making, carpet weaving, embroidery, metal work (gold, silver, bronze, tin, copper) and weaponry. Although wool manufacture was dominated by Christians and leatherwork by Muslims, other crafts were practised by members of both religions who co-existed amicably in their respective trade quarters of the town.

Berat thrived during the Middle Ages. One of Albania's oldest cities, it was founded by fourth-century BC Illyrians, who fortified both banks of the river thus controlling the whole valley. It fell to the Ottomans (1417) and became the first seat of the communist government (1944). The fortress on its rocky outcrop, with perimeter walls still standing, rises high above the more modern town. Visitors climb up a steep rocky track, pass through an arch and enter a maze of narrow, twisting cobbled streets. Several hundred people live up here, their privacy guarded behind heavy wooden doors set in stone walls whose starkness is relieved by climbing plants, hanging baskets and tubs of colourful flowers.

During the Ottoman occupation there was some degree of autonomy as local rulers (pashas) were appointed. Pashas extended their territory by military means and built fortresses, roads, bridges, aqueducts, mosques. Ali, allegedly a brigand, from Tepelene became Pasha of Ioannina (now in Greece) in 1788. He soon controlled all southern Albania, having added Berat, Vlore and Gjirokaster, re-fortified Tepelene, built a triangular hunting lodge on an island opposite Butrint and a castle on a promontory in the Bay of Palermo. Lord Byron visited Ali Pasha at Tepelene (1809) and was enthralled by the exotic court, immortalising it in his epic poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812): on arrival he
Surveyed the dwelling of this Chief of power,
Where all around proclaimed his high estate.

Since the days of our Prophet the Crescent ne'er saw
A chief ever-glorious like Ali Pashaw.

In a letter to his mother, though, Byron described Ali as 'a remorseless tyrant, guilty of the most horrible cruelties ... as barbarous as he is successful, roasting rebels, etc.'. Eventually Ali became too powerful for the Sultan's comfort and, after a seventeen-month siege of Ioannina, he was killed (1822). His head was sent to the Sultan.

Pasha Kara Mahmoud Bushatlli, who ruled the area north of Berat extending into Kosovo, met a similar fate. Trying to expand into Montenegro in 1796, he lost a battle and his head. His capital, Shkoder, has played a significant role in Albanian history from its Illyrian foundation in the third century BC. It was the last citadel to fall to the Romans, the Ottoman and the communists. Standing on the battlements of Rozafa castle perched high above the confluence of three rivers, and having climbed up a steep track to reach that point, leaves no doubt about its impregnability. Shkoder was the first to experience the effects of the Ottoman Empire's collapse when northern Albania was invaded from all directions.

A remarkable English lady witnessed this: Edith Durham (1863-1944) had travelled widely in the Balkans between 1900 and 1914, often alone on horseback through trackless mountains. This gave her a unique insight into the growing nationalism and distinct ethnic differences between its peoples. Her detailed first-hand observations are documented in several books and Contemporary Review articles. She sent despatches to The Times and Manchester Guardian and, on her return to England, lobbied Parliament in what the Foreign Secretary termed 'strong language'. Despairingly, she wrote of the Treaty of Berlin (1878) which,
  while pretending to arrange for the Balkan people it ignored,
  possibly intentionally, all their national aspirations and the
  distribution of races. ... they drew [frontier] lines with the
  deliberate intention of preventing the development of certain races
  and of fomenting race hatred. Few are aware of the number of lives
  that have been lost on these frontiers and the amount of bitterness
  that has been created and fostered. During the past eight years I
  have yearly travelled the western half of the Balkan peninsula and
  bit by bit have managed to see both sides of all the frontiers ... I
  can only say that the whole arrangement of land distribution seems to
  have been planned with the intention of ... weakening each race.
  (Contemporary Review, January 1909)

Prophetic words falling on deaf ears, as did the hope with which she ended the article: that 'in any further delimiting of territories that may take place the people most concerned may receive ... a little consideration, and that the conditions may be carefully examined on the spot'.

Edith Durham is remembered with gratitude in Albania. A Korce street--now with a row of banks on one side and modern flats on the other--bears her name. Present when the town was under Greek attack, she walked for three days over the mountains to Berat to send a telegram to London begging--vainly--for help. King Zog awarded her the country's highest honour, the Order of Skanderbeg, and offered her a permanent home. She declined and her last visit was in 1921, though she continued to write prolifically and helped establish the Anglo-Albanian Society.

Zog--Ahmet Zogu (1895-1961)--was another highland chief-lain. Emerging from the anarchy and post-World War I political chaos, he overthrew the government by military force in 1924 crowning himself king--with dictatorial powers--four years later. His reign, albeit longer than the puppet-king appointed by the Great Powers in 1914 (the German Prince Wilhelm of Wied, who lasted only six months) was brief. The League of Nations gave Italy responsibility for Albania's defence but Zog encouraged Italian investment and settlement--an influence seen in the architecture of Tirana--gradually ceding sovereignty. In April 1939 Mussolini annexed Albania and Zog, his wife and baby son escaped into exile; he never returned. (His half-American wife was a distant cousin of Richard Nixon and Robert Frost.) Albania was once again under foreign rule and another remarkable lady's first-hand knowledge was about to be disregarded.

The Scottish-born Margaret Hasluk (1885-1948) spent sixteen years in Elbasan becoming an expert on the traditions of the area. Ordered to leave (for reasons unknown) just before the Italian invasion, she settled in Cairo from where, in 1942, she was recruited by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to advise on ways of encouraging resistance fighters. Within a year she was head of SOE's Albania section. Though several resistance groups emerged, the British considered the partisans (ie. communists) were the best organised and most effective, so, to Margaret's dismay, they received the largest supplies. She resigned (1944) and was awarded the MBE.

At the end of November 1944 the Germans (who had succeeded the Italians as occupying power) were driven from their last stronghold and the whole country was under communist control. It is estimated that some 28,000 people were killed and thousands more made homeless. At Borove a mass grave marks the place where the entire population of the village was shot for allegedly assisting the partisans and most towns have monuments to similar martyrdom.

The communist leader Enver Hoxha (1908-85) was born in Gjirokaster, a town which had prospered under Ottoman rule; it was declared a Museum City in 1961 and a World Heritage Site in 2005. A narrow cobbled street winds steeply up from the main square to Ali Pasha Tepelene's castle, used by King Zog as a prison. Craft workshops, making the woven rugs and fine lace for which the town is famous, provide welcome reasons for pauses in the climb. Substantial nineteenth-century Ottoman houses cling to the hillside. In Chronicle in Stone the writer Ismail Kadare (1936-) tells of his childhood here: 'It was a steep city ... Because of its steepness it would come about that at the roof-level of one house you would find the foundations of another; and certainly this was the only place in the world where if a passer-by fell, instead of sliding into a roadside ditch, he might end up on the roof of a tall house. This is something which drunkards knew better than anyone'.

When the communists came to power the economy was in ruins and the infrastructure destroyed. The United Nations set up a relief programme and the government organised work groups to construct houses and roads, terrace hillsides for fruit and olive trees and drain marshland to increase cereal production. Assisted by Russian (1946-60) and Chinese (1960-76) investment, mines were opened, factories built and hydro-electric schemes developed--still providing almost all of Albania's power. Every village acquired a school. There was full employment and, for many, living standards improved. Over the last twenty years, though, many mines and factories have closed because demand for their output declined. Their derelict remains stand like skeletons, blots on the landscape. Descending into Elbasan the predominant feature is the huge steel works--built with Chinese money--which used to employ over 8.000. Now only a couple of units show any sign of life. Consequently unemployment rose, but benefit can only be claimed for a maximum of a year.

An agricultural revolution also took place. In 1945 large landholdings in the south were confiscated and plots redistributed to individual ownership. Later, these and the newly-drained marshland were collectivised, ie. taken over by the state. Opposition arose when in 1966-7 the government tried to apply collectivisation to the highlands. Here land was in family-owned plots each with its own dwelling and the terrain was unsuitable for large-scale cultivation; highland farming is labour-intensive and complicated by transhumance (seasonal movement of animals between high pastures and lower land/indoors). People were, unsurprisingly, resistant to giving up their land and livestock to a common pool even though refusal resulted in imprisonment.

The new democratic government's 1991 land reform then nullified all previous ownership and parcels of land were distributed on a per person basis, ie. a large family received more than a small one. This was impractical in the highlands where memory of hereditary ownership was more recent. Thus field and settlement patterns here probably look much the same as they have for generations: a patchwork of small fields, pasture and forested slopes. In the south the large fields are cultivated in a strip pattern and, with hay being cut with a scythe, give the countryside a medieval appearance. The huge collectivisation-era barns now stand redundant and derelict.

Equally unattractive are the concrete bunkers peppering the landscape. Hoxha became paranoid about invasion in the 1970s and ordered the construction of 300,000 bunkers as a first line of defence. Laid out in lines, they command main routes and, in the event of an invasion, every able-bodied male was expected to collect a gun and man his assigned pillbox. Set one to two metres into the ground they are more difficult to remove than Hoxha's 10 metre high statue, which demonstrators tore from its plinth in Tirana's Skanderbeg Square in February 1991. About 300 metres away the white marble Pyramid, designed in 1988 by his daughter and son-in-law as a mausoleum and museum of his life, is now a cultural and conference centre. The former dictator's remains were moved to the city cemetery. This was part of an orgy of countrywide vandalism which, accompanied by a breakdown of social organisation, followed the downfall of communism.

Land de-collectivisation caused bitterness, contributing to a rise in deaths from blood feud, estimated at nearly 10,000 since 1991. Clarissa de Waal (in Albania Today, 2005) quotes many current examples and comments, 'Imprisonment is not considered a quid pro quo for murder'. A victim's family must avenge the death or lose status. Blood feud, like all aspects of Albanian life, was codified in the fifteenth century Kanun of Lek Dukagjin. Banned under communism, the Kanun is so ingrained, it survived. Three or more generations of a patriarchal family in a joint household, parents, sons and their wives and children living together with complementary tasks, which is still common, fosters tradition; young people absorbed the Kanun's principles.

This traditional joint household enables each member to contribute to and benefit from a shared budget. Under communism, however, a married son was allowed to build a house on co-operative land if his parents' home was overcrowded. Some did, and disputes arose when the land was returned to its hereditary owners. They also found their single family unit and small parcel of land impractical and the mid-1990s failure of pyramid investment schemes left many people destitute.

As a result of a combination of all these factors and freedom from communist restrictions, many Albanians sought work abroad. In the 1990s 40 per cent of professional people emigrated and, though this outflow is decreasing as the economy improves, there are more ethnic Albanians living abroad than in Albania. The exodus is not merely a recent phenomenon, though. It began in the fifteenth century when, to escape Ottoman rule, refugees fled to southern Italy. Young people often take seasonal or temporary work abroad while waiting to inherit the family farm. Whatever the incentive for leaving, they send money home, helping family finances and doubtlessly accounting for the many attractive and substantial houses--often with magnificent wrought iron gates patriotically incorporating the double-headed eagle in their design--recently built or under construction, and the decrepit Mercedes cars clogging up Tirana's streets and heaped in scrapyards.

Another of Hoxha's cataclysmic orders was the 1967 violent campaign to extinguish religion. Student agitators toured the country closing all religious institutions. At the end of the year he proudly pronounced Albania the world's first officially atheist state. Religious worship remained illegal until May 1990 and many buildings were destroyed or fell derelict; any that survived changed use. Of Gjirokaster's thirteen Ottoman-period mosques only one remains--because its high dome was suitable for training circus acrobats. The thirteenth-century Orthodox monastery at Ardenice escaped destruction thanks to its courageous bishop convincing the student gang it was a significant historical building: it is believed Skanderbeg was married there. The gang retreated, though the monastery was used as a barracks, then a tourist centre until returned to the monks in 1996.

There is an air of serenity about the place today. The church is the only part open to visitors. Though dimly lit, the gilded wooden iconostasis and pulpit, and the walls covered in frescoes, are breath-taking in their magnificence. This is the work of the Zografi brothers (Konstandin and Athanas) and Konstandin Shpataraku from the eighteenth and nineteenth century Korce school of iconography.

Due to its geographical position Albania was open to both Italian and Byzantine influences, so the work of its two schools of iconography (Korce and Berat) shows a fusion of ideas as well as innovative features. Though the main figures--Christ, the Virgin Mary and innumerable saints, identifiable by standardised symbols--and Bible stories are universal, Albanian artists broke Byzantine traditions by introducing greater realism into background scenes and facial expressions of bystanders. The wonder of their icons is in the detail: meticulous care taken over a tiny manuscript held in the figure's hand, the drapery of garments.

Much of Albania's rich heritage of ecclesiastical art survived the atheist purge. Religious paintings can be found in situ where a church was designated a Cultural Monument, for example the tiny thirteenth-century village church of St Mary in Mborje on the outskirts of Korce, where every inch of space is covered with painted scenes. Even in dim light the tenor on the faces of those being thrown down to Hell and the torments that await them are so vividly portrayed as to be more effective than any number of sermons.

Far larger collections, though, are held by two museums. The National Museum of Medieval Art in Korce (opened in 1980 in, ironically, the former cathedral) contains over 7,500 items, including heavily embossed silver Bible covers, intricately engraved chalices and crosses, embroidered robes and examples of the work of all major Albanian iconographers. The National Onufri Museum in Berat (opened in 1985, and again ironically, in the citadel's former cathedral and an annexe) displays 1,500 items from its archive collection of religious art and artefacts. The emphasis here is on the work of the sixteenth-century monk Onufri and his son Nikolla. The prize possession is the icon of St Mary with Christ in her right arm. This not only shows the vivid shade of red which Onufri developed, it also breaks with the tradition--allegedly established by St Luke--of showing the baby on his mother's left arm. Nikolla is thought to be the first artist to sign his name on an icon, thereby breaking another tradition.

This quintessentially Christian art survived five centuries of Islam and thirty years of atheism. And today's traveller, landing in this country in which so much blood has been spilt in anger, finds Tirana's new (2007) international airport named, not after the warrior Skanderbeg, but a Christian nun recipient of the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize: Mother Theresa.

Irene Waters is a retired lecturer who enjoys off-the-beaten track travel. She travelled to Albania with ACE Cultural Tours which arranges a large number of small group tours to many parts of the world. Further information is available from ACE at Babraham, Cambridge, CB22 3AP. Telephone 01223 835055 or visit
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Author:Waters, Irene
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EXAL
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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