Historic Centres of Berat and Gjirokastra

Berat and Gjirokastra are inscribed as rare examples of an architectural character typical of the Ottoman period. Located in central Albania, Berat bears witness to the coexistence of various religious and cultural communities down the centuries. It features a castle, locally known as the Kala, most of which was built in the 13th century, although its origins date back to the 4th century BC. The citadel area numbers many Byzantine churches, mainly from the 13th century, as well as several mosques built under the Ottoman era which began in 1417. Gjirokastra, in the Drinos river valley in southern Albania, features a series of outstanding two-story houses which were developed in the 17th century. The town also retains a bazaar, an 18th-century mosque and two churches of the same period.

Historical context

The town of Berat is one of the oldest in Albania, with the earliest traces of settlement dating from 2600-1800 BC. There are also ceramics from the 7th or 6th century BC. The Berat people were first called Illyrians, then Arbër, and finally Albanians.

The castle area had stone fortifications by the middle of the 4th century. An Illyrian town developed under its protection.

In antiquity, Berat was known as Antipatreia, a fortified centre which succeeded in resisting the Roman legions for a time. The town is mentioned by Polybius and Livy, and in the list of fortifications of Emperor Justinian. During the Byzantine period, in 533, Berat is called Pulcheriopolis, after the 5th century Byzantine Empress Pulcheria. It developed at the summit of the hill. The castle and its fortifications were rebuilt.

In the middle ages, the town was under Bulgarian occupation (860-1018), and grew in importance. The name Berat is first mentioned in 1018. From the Crusader period onward (13th century), Berat had various occupants, including the Angevins, the Serbs, and the Muzakaj Princedom. Much of the fortification system was rebuilt, in the 13th century, assuming its present-day general form, and many features of this period have been conserved.

During the 13th and 14th centuries three important churches were built: St. Mary Vllaherna, Holy Trinity, and St. Michael. At this time the town had a remarkable cistern system.

At the start of the 15th century Berat was occupied by the Ottomans. Substantial alterations were made at this time; the fortifications were repaired and new towers were built to strengthen them. The town remained part of the Ottoman Empire for a long period, characterised by peace and prosperity. Situated as it was on a major communication route between the capital and the Adriatic, it spread beyond its fortifications. Its quarters took on their present-day form: Kala (the castle), and Mangalem and Gorica on the opposite bank. The communities of inhabitants built many mosques, several of which have outstanding architectural qualities (Leaden Mosque, Teqeja Helvetive mosque).

This period was notable for its remarkable religious tolerance, and the conservation of the Orthodox Christian heritage within a sizeable Muslim population. Christian arts such as illumination and iconography developed (School of Onufri, 16th century) and the Orthodox Cathedral was restored (18th century).  

After the uprising against the Turks in 1834, the Castle of Berat was damaged, and lost its defensive function. Nevertheless, it has retained much of the historic fabric. Until 1961, the condition of Berat remained practically the same. The historic town was then recognised as an important heritage property by the Albanian government.

The first protective order by the Albanian government dates from 16 October 1948 (Academy of Sciences, decree no. 93), and consisted of a list of monuments of national value. For Berat, it included: the castle, the bridge over the river Osum, four churches and a mosque. In 1961, the order of 2 June (no. 172) declared that Berat was a national historic centre and museum-town. The list of category 1 monuments in the town was increased to 50 properties, including many private residential properties. Monuments and houses were later added to this list: two in 1963, and one each in 1973, 1977 and 1983.

In 1965, the creation of the Albanian Institute of Cultural Monuments led to the setting up of an annual programme for the maintenance and restoration of category 1 monuments. It is supervised by architects and based on compliance with the Venice Charter directives. Under this scheme, any monuments at Berat have been consolidated and restored, including the castle and the religious monuments, and frescoes have been conserved.

The preservation and conservation of the monuments in Berat was however greatly neglected during the 1990s, as a result of the political transition. A true heritage project for the town was not resumed until two or three years ago. A five-year plan has been set up for 2007-2011 by the Institute of Cultural Monuments.

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