In the land of the living past
By Eugenio Berra- Shkodra is placed at the north of Albania, few kilometers from the border with Montenegro. Gentjan Memaj, the Municipality official of the Department for Economic, Tourist and Environmental Development brings us to discovery of the country that perhaps more than any other has been able to tie into a single story line past and present, tradition and modernity.
„The land of the living past”. This is how Edith Durham, an English writer that lived at the beginning of the 20th century describes Albania in one of her numerous travel reports called “High Albania”. It's a work that is half-way between a historical-political analysis ( Durham was one of the fiercest defenders of the Albanian national cause, for which she fought until her death) and ethnography that is not free of “cultural filters” and stereotypes that were typical for that time but could be also found in the current discourses on this part of the Europe- although in a more hidden form.
There has never been such an apt definition. As Renato Novelli once wrote, “ the real history of the Shkodra region can be seen as dual: on one hand there is the history of events, of great past confrontation between West and East that unfolded in the small Adriatic area; on the other hand stands the extraordinary continuity of the traditions of the local society, with unwritten rules that function for centuries, the local life-style with its own rhythms that are always the same and always different while adapted to the particular moment of time”. Illyrians, Slavs, Byzantium, Venice and Ottomans in the end have forged these places without ever compromising the functional foundations of the local traditions.
With Gentjam Memaj we climb to the Rozafa fortress that is placed on the confluence of the rivers Drin and Buma. Our eyes try to follow the remote horizon, the town is spreading underneath our feet while we are trying to imagine, in the distance, the Adriatic sea and the mouth of the Drin river. The fortress, the way it looks today, is a result of the superposition of constructions from different eras, from the Illyrians to the recent centuries, and it represents in fact “the living past” mentioned by Durham. The present mosque was originally a church dedicated to St. Stephen, constructed in 1319 and later enlarged by Venetians in so called Dalmatian style during the 16th century; the minaret was built using the bricks of the existing church tower. “Although its origins go back to the 5th century A.C. its present look was shaped by Venetians who ruled in Shkodra from 1396 to 1479, before the arrival of the Ottomans. Venice was interested for this region for purely economical reasons: throughout the middle Ages Shkodra was an important center of silk production that was sold not only locally but exported along both sides of the Adriatic sea. After the Turkish conquest the town was part of a relatively autonomous Sandzak which made it possible for the relations with Venice to stay very strong even in the 18th century. Paolo Rumiz was right when he said that “ Serenissima fought the Ottomans but considered them relatives of the Levant. Twenty years prior to the Battle of Lepanto the Doge Andrea Gritti sustained for three days and nights in Senate the necessity of a dialogue with Muslims”; In 1571, a year of the great battle, Venice was still keeping open the fòndaco (hotel reserved for the merchandiser traveling along the Mediterranean coast) for the Turks: “ On the sea there was a battle, but back on earth the trade was on its way”.
(Photo by Christine Bednarz)
As all the other archetype places that are pivotal of a collective memory Rozafa Fortress is surrounded by a myth. The legend says (the same motif was used by Ivo Andric in his book The Bridge on the Drina) about the initiative of three brothers who set about building the castleThey worked all day, but the walls fell down at night. They met a clever old man who advised them to sacrifice someone so that the walls would stand. The three brothers found it difficult to decide whom to sacrifice. Finally, they decided to sacrifice one of their wives who would bring lunch to them the next day. Of all the three brothers only the youngest one was honest enough to respect the deal they made and didn't tell to his wife about it. The next day, as expected, his wife came and they decided to wall her alive in the castle. Accepting her destiny she asked them that they leave her right breast exposed to feed her newborn son, her right eye to see him, her right hand to caress him and her right foot to rock his cradle. It is said for the lime water that still today flows out of the walls of this castle to be her milk.
We go down town to Marubi photo library, a collection of photographs of more than one century of the town's history, proclaimed World Heritage by UNESCO. On the way we talk with Gentjam about centuries-old multi-religious character of this town: “ In the center of Shkodra there is different mosques, a Catholic Cathedral and an Orthodox Church called of the Nativity. In the thirties years of the past century a Franciscan priest-poet, one of the founders of Albanian Alphabet, organized each November 28th (The Independence Day) a symbolic action of connecting all three different religious objects in town with hundreds of lights that illuminated streets and squares filled with people celebrating.”
It all began in 1856. Pietro Marrubi, a member of Garibaldi's troupes from Piacenza that was forced to go to exile due to his political activities, ends his long wanderings in Shkodra where he changes his name in Pjetër Marubi and opens the first private photo-studio “Marubi”. Beside the private services (family and personal potraits) Marubi gets commission for different photo-reports from Italian and Albanian magazines.
The studio had most success in the twenties when Gege Marubi, with his fresh diploma obtained in Paris at the office of the Lumiere brothers, applies the most modern techniques of the time, infrared rays, solarization and photo-reliefs. The gallery is located in the city center, not far from the recently renovated pedestrian area where you can stroll and admire the old houses of Shkodra. Unfortunately the photos on display in the gallery are few and poorly exposed, loosely arranged on the walls of the entrance hall. It's a shame, because they represent a unique testimony of the Albanian society since the end of the nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century, and not only the wealthy citizens but also the communities of shepherds in remote mountain areas , their customs and rites . The archive is not only a source of material for anthropologists and ethnographers, but also a testimony of the single steps of Albanian history. In one of these photo there is a man waving the Albanian flag at the top of the Rozafa fortress: we are in 1914, a first year of Albanian independence.
The forgotten lake.
From Shkodra we move towards the small village of Zogaj placed on the coast of the Shkodra Lake, an immense body of water whose 368 square kilometers are divided between the states of Albania and Montenegro. “Unfortunately”, says Gentjam with bitterness in his voice, “the water transport is virtually not existing.Yet the potential of this lake is enormous, both in terms of transportation and tourism: the lake can be reached from the sea by going up the stream of the Buna river, various tourist offer could be combined in such a way, from the beach to the birdwatching and fishing in the lake area”. All of a sudden a phantasy takes over and I see myself on a boat trip from the rocky Montenegrin coast to the solitary and sandy Albanian beaches - where even the Bora disappears- ending up at the lake and admiring the pelicans flying low among willows and pomegranates.
Having passed the catholic village of Shiroca ( the name comes from San Rocco, the local patron saint) a small minaret of the Zogaj appears at the horizon. It looks like some lighthouse on the lake. Zogaj village was chosen from the Shkodra municipality as the venue for implementation of the project “ Development of environmental tourism in the territories of Shkodra, Nis, Kraljevo, Niksic and Pec/Peja “ in the Seenet program. For the purposes of the project the new infrastructure will be built in the village, new types of accommodation will be introduced (like diffuse hotels) and all this with the idea to make this place become an engine that will start the development of an intelligent and sustainable development and stop the migration of the village's population towards big cities. Olives, figs and vines in the stone-walled courtyards, the Tarabosh mountain at the back of the village, numerous mulberry trees and sheep flocks on the hills: “ there are paths leading out of the village that once were connecting it with the southern side of the mountain where the climate is suitable for growing the fruit-trees. Today that side of the mountain is not inhabited and nobody takes care of the trees anymore”. It is planned, inside our project, to invite the Mountaineering Society of Trentino (a part of Italian Mountaineering Club) to create hiking paths starting from the village. This will be a small step in combating the abandonment of these places.
Before returning to Shkodra, Gentjam takes us to Nebi's house-laboratory: about fifty years old Nebi is watching us with his curious eyes and sending us a big airy smile. After proudly showing us the hives in his garden from which he extracts chestnut and medicinal herbs- honey he brings us in a small room transformed into a textile workshop in which mostly carpets and bags are produced and decorated with traditional Albanian motifs. The most present is the motif of the double-headed eagle, in different shades and dimensions (however, the black-red combination of the Albanian flag seems to be the most popular). “There's been a 300 years old tradition of this particular work with wool, it was handed over to me by my mother. She used to go every week to Zogaj and Shkodra and to sell our products in the town's čaršija “ says Nebi.
After the collapse of the regime Nebi decides to turn what was a simple hobby into a small family business. “To be honest, it all happened by accident, thanks to a found by my husband. About twelve years ago when I was just starting out he bought advertising space on the television, without informing me about it, and the orders started to grow, especially from Lezhe and Shkodra. Given the sudden success I had to employ more women of the village and set up a real company. Today we receive orders not only from Albania but also from some foreign countries, which makes me positive about the future of our job”. When I asked if the younger generations are willing to learn this ancient craft she spread her arms forlornly: “ the village girls do come to work for me, the problem is that I lose them after few years, they get married in Shkodra and I never see them again.
We go back to the car parked in front of the marina. The small fishing boats - the most important means of livelihood for the local community” are resting there. In front, the Albanian Alps – rocky mountains of a violent beauty dominate the horizon.
During her trip in these mountains Edith Durham wrote: “ I believe no other place inhabited by people gave me greater impression and feeling of loneliness. It's a place where the centuries dry out, the river is possibly the source of the world, its banks the homeland of the basic passions, rapide and flammable.