Tanners’ Bridge. Image by Ermal Bega

Op-ed: Tirana’s dwindling cobblestone structures reflect Albania’s neglected Oriental-Islamic heritage

In the capital of Albania, the largest Muslim society in Europe, the cobblestone roads, structures and surfaces that date back to the arrival of the Ottomans mark the country’s Oriental heritage. And for Albanian Orientalist, Ermal Bega, their systematic neglect reflects the government’s agenda of western secularisation.

Dating back to the arrival of the Ottomans in the Balkans, cobblestone roads and surfaces across Tirana, and Albania in general, are undoubtedly one of the most distinguished urban expressions of the area’s Oriental-Islamic history and culture. Locally known as kalldrëm (cobblestones), the use of this material served multiple purposes over the centuries: they paved the passageways for horse-drawn carts and were applied to exterior surfaces to beautify spaces and structures, such as the bazaars, forts, bridges, neighbourhoods and Albanian courtyard houses. Now though, the country is witnessing the demolition of these sites, which are vulnerable to the development of new projects that are built with little respect to their surrounding urban fabric.

Hafiz Ibrahim Dalliu Street. Image by Ermal Bega

According to a recent article about the cobblestones laid in the bazaar of the characteristic Albanian city of Gjirokastra, which reported on a study done in collaboration with UNESCO, researchers confirmed that one of the city’s streets dates back 500 years. This means that the use of cobblestones in the old Albanian territories started during the first few years of Ottoman rule, as the Ottomans were quick to spread not only cultural and political practices, but also architectural styles of road construction.

While cobblestone construction can be found across all Albanian cities, this article will focus on its use in Tirana, the capital of Albania. Almost the entire centre of the city, including the streets, old bazaar (which is now destroyed), and all of the old houses that surround the area – until the first half of the 20th century – were paved with cobblestones. This can be confirmed by archival imagery of the city from before the advent of the communist system in Albania.

Vildan Luarasi Street. Image by Ermal Bega

Cobblestones marked the special beauty of the city – for many locals, they are not just stone; they hold within them the soul of the city, and every time you cross paths with a cobblestone surface, it seems as though you are walking back in time.

Of the few remaining cobblestone sites, one of the most important streets is Hafiz Ibrahim Dalliu, which is considered one of the oldest neighbourhoods and somewhat preserved areas of Tirana. Unfortunately, it will not stand for much longer, as permission from the Municipality of Tirana has been given to start construction of several tall buildings there. One could easily argue that this is a typical reflection of the local government’s disinterest in keeping heritage sites that reflect the county’s Oriental-Islamic past alive, as depicted by a pattern of behaviour among political officials since the advent of communism in Albania. Regardless, this area has been written about extensively by travellers who visited during the Ottoman era, as well as the years of the kingdom, and exalted in the beauty of this city.  

Castle of Tirana. Image by Ermal Bega

Important cobblestone homes in Tirana include a home on Jul Variboba Street, where one of the most famous Albanian poets after the 1990s, Ervin Hatibi lived. The house, which has been turned into a restaurant, has an entire courtyard paved with cobblestones, and those who dine here often marvel at it. Nearby, another home on Vildan Laurasi Street, which once belonged to famous Albanian painter Sali Shijaku, has been turned into a museum and was preserved by the state, but today, it is used as a coffee bar. The cobblestones paved in the backyard are just as distinct as those that frame Ervin Hatibi’s home.

The sidewalks next to the castle still feature cobblestones. Image by Ermal Bega

Elsewhere in Tirana, we have Tanners’ Bridge (Ura e Tabakëve), which was built in the 18th century and is one of the preserved assets of the Oriental cobblestone heritage of Tirana, reflecting the city’s fine bridge construction. While it was once part of the road that connected Tirana with the eastern highlands, and was mainly used by farmers bringing produce and livestock to the city, following its restoration in the 1990s, it became solely used by pedestrians.

Kadiri Tekke of Sheikh Durri. Image by Ermal Bega

It should also be noted that other well-known heritage sites paved in cobblestone include the Castle of Tirana and the mansions of the Toptani family. The castle, which was recently reconstructed, is one of the most frequented historical sites in the capital today. There’s also the Kadiri Tekke of Sheikh Durri, which presents the use of cobblestone courtyards around Islamic spaces in Tirana, and the cobblestone alleyways which meander through the surrounding neighbourhoods near the ‘Red School’ on Ludovik Shllaku Street. Regarding the latter example, the local municipality tried to pave over the cobblestones, but they were unable to eliminate their traces completely.

In the early 2000s, the mayor of Tirana was Edvin Kristaq Rama, who is now the prime minister of Albania. At the time of his mayoralty, the municipality ordered the paving of Abdi Toptani Street, and the covering of the cobblestone road with asphalt. Rama’s decision mirrored Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha’s political agenda when he destroyed the old bazaar in the city centre, and with it the hundred-year-old houses, mosques, and of course, cobblestone surfaces. Both had the same goal: to leave no trace of the Islamic culture and heritage of Tirana.

Traces of cobblestone still exist on some of the streets. Image by Ermal Bega

During that time, I had visited several European cities, such as Berlin, Basel, Barcelona and Marseille. I saw how Europeans now strive to preserve the culture of their countries, no matter the historical timeline. In Albania, though, we have long worked to eradicate our own identity and heritage, particularly our Oriental-Islamic heritage, and the worst period of this was no doubt during Hoxha’s time.

Albania’s democracy was established after 1990, and the country opened to Europe and the rest of the world. Various organisations and institutions were established for the protection and preservation of Tirana’s heritage, and yet, no one dared to raise their voice to preserve the cobblestone heritage of the city of Tirana – not even the cultural association aptly named ‘Tirana’, which claims to preserve the capital’s cultural heritage. It has been, and continues to be, powerless in this regard.

An old cobblestone pathway in Tirana. Image by Ermal Bega

Moving forward, a law is definitely needed to ensure the preservation of Tirana’s cultural heritage – and other Albanian cities too – and it should not matter what era in our history something was created, if it is part of our story, we should protect it as such.

This was written by Ermal Bega, an Albanian Orientalist from Tirana. He graduated from the department of Philology and Oriental Studies at the University of Prishtina in Kosovo, and also obtained two Master’s in Oriental Studies and Islamic Philosophy. He is known as Albania’s first Orientalist after the 1990s. Ermal is the editor-in-chief of Ura (The Bridge), a semi-annual cultural and scientific journal about Oriental studies. In addition to Oriental studies, his research also deals with Islamology, Islamic civilisation in Albania, East and West relations and the role of Albania, and Albanians living in the Orient (the Arnaouts). His articles have been translated into Arabic, Farsi, Turkish, English and Italian.