Gjirokastër (known also by several alternative names) is a city in southern Albania with a population of 43,000. Lying in the historical region of Epirus, it is the capital of both the Gjirokastër District and the larger Gjirokastër County. Its old town is inscribed on the World Heritage List as “a rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town, built by farmers of large estate.” Gjirokastër is situated in a valley between the Gjerë mountains and the Drino River, at 300 meters above sea level. The city is overlooked by the Gjirokastër Castle where Gjirokaster National Folklore Festival is held every 5 years. Gjirokastër is the birthplace of former Albanian communist leader Enver Hoxha and notable writer Ismail Kadare. It hosts the Eqerem Çabej University.
A short history of Gjirokaster
The city appears in the historical record in 1336 by its Greek name, Argyrokastro, as part of the Byzantine Empire. It became latter the center of the local principality under the Albanian lord, Gjon Zenebishi (1373-1417), before falling under Ottoman Empire rule for the next five centuries. Taken by the Greek Army during the Balkan Wars on account of its large Greek population, it was eventually incorporated into the newly independent state of Albania in 1913.
Alongside Albanians, the city is home to a substantial Greek minority. Gjirokastër, together with Saranda, is considered one of the centers of the Greek community in Albania, and there is a Greek consulate in town.
The city appeared for the first time in historical records under its medieval Greek name of Argyrocastron (Greek: Αργυρόκαστρον), as mentioned by John VI Kantakouzenos in 1336. The name comes from the Greek Αργυρό (“Αrgyro”), meaning “silver”, and Κάστρον (“Kastro”), from the Latin castrum meaning castle or fortress, thus “silver castle”. The theory that the city took the name of the Princess Argjiro, a legendary figure about whom Ismail Kadare wrote a poem in the 1960s, is considered a folk etymology, since the princess is said to have lived later, in the 15th century. The definite Albanian form of the name of city is Gjirokastra, while in the Gheg Albanian dialect it is known as Gjinokastër, both of which derive from the Greek name. Alternative spellings found in Western sources are Girokaster and Girokastra. In Aromanian the city is known as Ljurocastru, while in modern Greek it is known Αργυρόκαστρο (Argyrokastro). During the Ottoman era the town was known in Turkish as Ergiri.
Archaeologists have found pottery objects of the early Iron Age in Gjirokastër, which first appeared in the late Bronze Age in Pazhok, Elbasan District, and are found throughout Albania. The earliest recorded inhabitants of the area around Gjirokastër were the Greek tribe of the Chaonians.
The city’s walls date from the 3rd century AD. The high stone walls of the Citadel were built from the 6th to the 12th century. During this period, Gjirokastër developed into a major commercial center known as Argyropolis (Ancient Greek: Αργυρόπολις, meaning “Silver City”) or Argyrokastron (Ancient Greek: Αργυρόκαστρον, meaning “Silver Castle”).
The city was part of the Byzantine Despotate of Epirus, and it was first mentioned, by the name of Argyrokastro, by the Byzantine Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos in 1336. During 1386–1418 it became the capital of the Principality of Gjirokastër under Gjon Zenebishi. In 1417 it became part of the Ottoman Empire and in 1419 it became the county town of the Sanjak of Albania.
According to Turkish traveller Evliya Çelebi, who visited the city in 1670, at that time there were 200 houses within the castle, 200 in the Christian eastern neighborhood of Kyçyk Varosh (meaning small neighborhood outside the castle), 150 houses in the Byjyk Varosh (meaning big neighborhood outside the castle), and six additional neighborhoods: Palorto, Vutosh, Dunavat, Manalat, Haxhi Bey, and Memi Bey, extending on eight hills around the castle. According to the traveller, the city had at that time around 2000 houses, eight mosques, three churches, 280 shops, five fountains, and five inns.
In 1811, Gjirokastër became part of the Pashalik of Yanina, then led by the Albanian-born Ali Pasha, and was transformed into a semi-autonomous fiefdom in the southwestern Balkans until his death in 1822. After the fall of the pashalik in 1868, the city was the capital of the sandjak of Ergiri (the Turkish name for Gjirokastër). On 23 July 1880, southern Albanian committees of the League of Prizren held a congress in the city, in which was decided that if Albanian-populated areas of the Ottoman Empire were ceded to neighbouring countries, they would revolt. During the Albanian National Awakening (1831–1912), the city was a major centre of the movement, and some groups in the city were reported to carry portraits of Skanderbeg, the national hero of the Albanians during this period.
Given its large Greek population, the city was claimed and taken by Greece during the First Balkan War of 1912–1913, following the retreat of the Ottomans from the region. However, it was awarded to Albania under the terms of the Treaty of London of 1913 and the Protocol of Florence of 17 December 1913.
The postwar Communist regime developed the city as an industrial and commercial centre. It was elevated to the status of a museum town, as it was the birthplace of the Communist leader of Albania, Enver Hoxha, who had been born there in 1908. His house was converted into a museum.