Thursday, December 9

My trip to Albania in search of the Muslim heritage of Europe | Albania Holidays

TGjirokastër’s silhouette began to emerge in the distance. This city is located in the mountainous south of the country, dominated by its ancient fortress, with Ottoman stone houses from the 17th and 18th centuries cascading down the slopes like a medieval mirage.

We turned off the road onto a road dominated by an eight-story concrete building with pink balconies, below which locals sat in the sun sipping coffee on lime-colored garden furniture.

“This is Gjirokastër,” announced Idar, my Albanian friend from England, with some degree of triumph.

“Yes it is, but you know I’ve come to find Ergiri!” I joked.

Ergiri was the Ottoman name for Gjirokastër when the Muslim empire ruled this part of Albania between 1417 and 1913. It was in the middle of this period that my literary companion on this trip, the 17th century Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi, arrived in Ergiri.

The house of an Ottoman merchant in Gjirokastër
The house of an Ottoman merchant in Gjirokastër, Albania. Photography: Tharik Hussain

The popular image of Albania today is based on the negative representations of white western travelers of the early 20th century, such as Edith Durham, who called Albania “lawless”, and Rose Wilder Lane, who said that Albanians “lived in the infancy of the Aryan race. ” which means that they were behind her in the evolutionary process. These stereotypes have been reinforced by modern popular culture. In the Hollywood Taken trilogy, Albania is reduced to the abode of violent and ruthless human traffickers, and the only reference to their faith that I can remember is when they are seen swearing by Allah to avenge their son’s death by killing the white American hero. of the movie. I don’t remember any other depictions of Islam in Albania in the entire movie.

He had read numerous works on the Balkans, but none recognized the Muslim culture of the region as Evliya did. Without his translated works, Idar and I would never have known what Muslim Gjirokastër had been like. It was clearly no longer a place where people were “addicted to prayer.” Before we had heard the adhan from the lonely mosque in the city, but no one rushed to the prayers, nor was there any remnant of the many institutes of Islamic education for which Ergiri had been famous.

Evliya’s translated works offer one of the only Muslim perspectives on Muslim Europe, one that embraces culture and heritage as its own and not as alien, alien, or inferior.

All other travel writing about the region in the English language had been written by people from the same narrow demographic: white, western, privileged, Christian, and most worryingly, from the colonial classes. They were people who traveled with the purpose of colonizing a place or part of the class of people who did. They saw the world from a high position where they felt superior by default. However, his writings were often presented as romantic wanderings and many later travel writers relied heavily on them for socio-historical context. This is the literary heritage of modern travel writing.

A cobbled street in the old bazaar district of Gjirokastër.
A cobbled street in the old bazaar district of Gjirokastër. Photography: Alamy

I came to Gjirokastër as part of a family road trip to seek out the living indigenous Muslim presence of Europe and to follow in Evliya’s footsteps. He expected to see this part of the continent like him, when it really was Muslim Europe, under Ottoman rule at the height of the empire’s powers.

The trip would become the premise of my new book. I had traveled with my family from London to start the trip in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Until now, we have visited Muslim communities in Serbia, Kosovo and North Macedonia, marveling at their history and the richness of their heritage. After Albania, we would head to Montenegro before returning to Sarajevo.

Today, while my wife and two daughters were laying on a beach in Vlore, Idar’s hometown, he was helping me follow in Evliya’s footsteps.

In his great Ten Volume Travel Book, or Seyâhatnâme, Evliya described Gjirokastër as a beautiful open city, spread over eight hills and valleys dominated by the fortress, a place where The stone houses with slate roofs had vineyards and gardens surrounded by walls of white granite.

A decorated fireplace inside an Ottoman house in Gjirokastër.
A decorated fireplace inside an Ottoman house in Gjirokastër. Photography: Tharik Hussain

As our rented white Megane struggled up the steep cobbled roads of the “stone city,” Idar gaped out the window, admiring the Ottoman houses scattered across the hillside. Gjirokastër still clearly had the charm of Evliya’s Ergiri, as this was the longest time he had passed without puffing on a cigarette.

We were heading to the original Ottoman bazaar area of ​​the city, rebuilt in the 19th century. This was the prettiest of all the neighborhoods, overlooked by the only surviving Ergiri mosque that is still in use, the Memi Bey Mosque or Bazaar.

In Evliya’s time, the city was a deeply religious place. Ergiri, home to at least 15 mosques, was the place where aspiring Islamic scholars of Hadith (traditions of the Prophet) came to train in one of the three madrasas who specialized in this field. There was also emerging (lodges) for three different Sufi orders and four shrines dedicated to Muslim saints. Sadly, all of this was destroyed when Enver Hoxha, the locally born communist dictator, ruled Albania. The Memi Bey escaped to this destination because it was listed as a cultural monument.

The wheels of the car were beginning to spin and I was grateful when we rounded a corner and the thick minaret of the mosque came into view, towering above us. After parking in its shade, I looked up at the circular balcony that breaks its pencil shape, noticing its fractal, similar to a honeycomb. muqarnas Pattern. Two symmetrical staircases led to the main courtyard.

To the left is one of the original bazaar lanes. Once the bustling heart of a medieval market, today it is filled with shops selling fridge magnets, Gjirokastër T-shirts and miniature models of the city’s fort. A handful of tourists milled inside, their silhouettes framed by the climbing bougainvilleas that the owners had placed on the roofs of their shops and houses.

Shops in the historical bazaar of Gjirokastra
The historical bazaar of Gjirokastër is now mainly tourist shops. Photography: Tharik Hussain

Gjirokastër was easily the most beautiful place I had visited in Albania and I could see why even Hoxha declared it one of only two “museum cities”. The other was Berat, 100 km to the north: it is also an ode to classical Ottoman architecture and the only other historical city that is not fully subjected to the communist version of modernization that it saw as mosques, synagogues, churches, Sufi lodges and monasteries closed and demolished. , along with many other monuments. These were replaced by the austere and functional buildings that are the hallmark of communist architecture. With such a destruction of its overt Muslim identity, Gjirokastër today shows little sign of its former life as a Balkan center of Islamic scholarship and Sufism, a place where students of theology and spirituality from all over the Muslim world came to study, although fortunately both Gjirokastër and The ancient cities of Berat are now protected by Unesco.

We had a better idea of ​​its history when we went up to the fort. Gjirokastër is indeed a very beautiful city, and as Idar and I leaned against the stone walls, as much to catch our breath as anything else, we silently stared at a scene that still seemed to belong on the pages of Evliya’s books. I was able to see the many gardens, vineyards and “magnificent townhouses” that he had described, perhaps even standing in this very spot, framed by green hills and valleys. The only places that were missing were the many Muslim buildings and monuments that he collects in his Travel Book: the Hizir Aga Mosque with its stone minaret; the Hadji Murad Mosque, with its source of sweet-tasting water; the Halveti hostel, where Evliya had to bury one of the boys in her entourage; The various khans (guest houses), fountains and madrasas, all gone.

Tharik Hussain's friend and guide, Idar, looks through Gjirokastër.
Tharik Hussain’s friend and guide, Idar, gazes at Gjirokastër from the fort overlooking the city. Photography: Tharik Hussain

“I didn’t know there was a place like this in Albania, Tharik,” Idar said after a while. I could see that he was quite excited.

Idar was born in Albania during the Hoxha rule, a time when observing any faith could get you killed. This was the reason why he had never been aware of the Muslim heritage of the country. Standing in that fort looking towards Evliya’s Ergiri, he clearly felt a loss. I did too.

Albania was not a place where you expected to discover impressive historical Ottoman cities that were once centers of Islamic knowledge. Nor, apparently, had Idar.

Albania is one of three European countries, along with Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, with Muslim-majority populations, and these countries were central to my road trip in search of the continent’s living indigenous Muslim heritage. Our Muslim heritage. Having Evliya by my side helped me to better appreciate Albania’s rich Islamic past, and reading her description of its people made me realize something else: the continued demonization of this beautiful nation and its inhabitants is the result of a literary phenomenon. non-Muslim white European. , an Evliya helped me avoid repeating.

Minarets in the mountains: a trip to Muslim Europe by Tharik Hussain (Bradt Guides £ 9.99) now available, also available in

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