The Need for Conservation: A message from Sadi Petrela, Director, Gjirokastra Conservation and Development Organization.
Gjirokastra is an outstanding example of an Ottoman-period town, and life in its steep winding streets still reflects something of the style and culture of Ottoman society. Set against a stunning mountain backdrop and surrounded by unspoilt countryside, Gjirokastra and its environs form a priceless part of the region and its history.
In 2005 Gjirokastra was listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its architectural and cultural importance. There are over two hundred of Gjirokastra’s signature Ottoman fortified tower houses, a unique building that embodies the uneasy merging of Ottoman and Albanian cultures. However, many of these remarkable structures are dangerously dilapidated and in urgent need of restoration. Old Gjirokastra is teetering on the brink of collapse and if it is allowed to crumble further, a small yet important part of the region’s long and colourful history will be turned to rubble.
The past 100 years have been traumatic times for Gjirokastra. Following invasion and violent repression in World War II, the city suffered the ravages of communist ideology when most of its mosques and churches were destroyed in the 1960s. The uneasy democracy of the 1990’s brought further destruction, with the looting and vandalism after the collapse of the pyramid finance schemes.
Over the last ten years stability has been re-established, and the town has begun to prosper, but at a further price: the new town development on the valley floor has sucked away the economic life of the old historic town in the upper quarters of the city. While the new town is booming, buildings in the old heart are empty and crumbling with little new investment. There is an urgent need for sustainable regeneration if this stunning example of Ottoman heritage is to survive.
Projects such as the Packard Humanities Institute renovation of the Zekate house, provide fabulous examples of what can be done to conserve the world-class fortified tower houses. But the task to restore the whole city is immense and fraught with challenges. First and foremost, we must find ways to encourage the economic regeneration of the old town, because conserving buildings which then continue to stand empty would be an expensive tragedy. Secondly we must teach and support a new generation of Albanian building conservationists. While historic buildings must find a 21st century use, they should be restored sensitively and with good practise.
There is hope for Gjirokastra yet. UNESCO inscription and the close proximity to the pan-Balkan highway are bringing increasing numbers of tourists to see the sights. For this reason we believe cultural heritage tourism is the key to the city’s renaissance and the GCDO works on several fronts to implement this vision. As well as undertaking projects to repair the fabric of the buildings and monuments, we promote the town as a tourist destination. Using the principles of sustainable development, the GCDO endeavors to encourage local businesses such as bed and breakfasts, craft production and tour guides, while working in partnership with municipal agencies to provide cultural heritage attractions in the city and the wider region.
The work has started and there is much to continue. Please support us to ensure the long-term survival of Gjirokastra – a vital part of Albania’s history and our world heritage.