About 2 hours drive from the capital Tirana is the city of Berat which in old Slavic means white city. It is also referred to as the City of the Thousand Windows. The city is believed to be an Illyrian settlement in the 6th century BC and later in the 3rd century BC became a castle city. It provides a window into Albanian history and culture and the melding of eastern and western traditions as well as religion and architecture and was made an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. Inside this castle city which is still inhabited is a wealth of buildings with influences from the different civilizations that occupied Albania in its storied past. The mosques and churches here have beautiful frescoes and icons and are worth a visit. Old Berat is made of 3 parts: Kala (the castle hill itself), Mangalem (below castle hill), and Gorica (across Osum River). Not far from the city is Mount Tomorr, the ancient home of the Illyrian gods. Legend has it that Mount Tomorr was originally a giant who fought another giant Mount Shpirag over a young woman. They killed each other and became mountains and the girl drowned in her own tears which became the Osum river. Mount Tomorr is home to Baba Tomorr who is believed to be the Illyrian father of the gods. Centuries later, he still holds an important place in the hearts of the locals of this region who still take an oath on the name of Baba Tomorr. It is said that this oath is more powerful than any sworn on God or Allah. From the river in Mangalem, you can see the facade of the white Ottoman houses stacked one on top of the other spilling down the hill lending Berat the name “City of the Thousand Windows”. You will notice that there are more large square windows on the upper floors than on the lower floors. The houses were so designed to protect the residents from attackers climbing through the lower windows.
Up in Kala is the Berat Castle which was built and rebuilt since 200 BC by several Byzantine Emperors and now considerably damaged. Castle Hill is still inhabited today and the buildings were built mostly during the 13th century. There was once 20 churches and a mosque up in Kala but they remain in various states of ruin. The largest church remaining in Kala is the Church of the Dormition of St. Mary which was built in 1979 on the foundations of an earlier 10th century church. It is not easy to find because even though the Ottomans who were Muslim allowed Christians to build churches and practice Christianity, they were told to be discreet about it. Inside the church are beautiful wall paintings from the 16th century and a gilded 19th century iconostasis. In Eastern Orthodox churches, there is always an iconostasis which is a wall with paintings of religious icons used to separate the nave from the sanctuary. This is also the site of the Onufri Museum, also known as the National Iconographic Museum, with a collection of 173 religious objects from Albanian churches and monasteries. Onufri was one of the most important medieval Albanian painters who was said to be the first to use a shiny red now named “Onufri Red”. His influence in using this shiny red color spread to many of the other churches within Castle Hill. Several other small churches worth checking out are the Church of St. Mary of Blachernae, Church of St Nicolas, and Church of St Theodore. Church of St Mary of Blachernae and Church of St Nicolas stand side by side and have some impressive frescoes. Church of St Mary of Blachernae was built in the 13th century with 16th century wall paintings by Nikolle Onufri, son of Onufri of “Onufri Red”. These churches are usually locked and it is worth while to look for the caretaker to let you in in exchange for a small tip. Unfortunately, I asked around and nobody seemed to know where the caretaker was. A side note, I asked the hotel (The Plaza Tirana) for a guide and driver to accompany me to Berat and the hotel insisted that they don’t have any guides they work with and that the driver is familiar with the sights and can also act as the guide. Turns out the driver is but a driver. He knows the way but doesn’t know anything about the sights and when I told him to look for the caretaker of the smaller churches, he seemed surprised and said that is never done. If that was never done, then how come tourists on various travel sites all say you can enter if you tip the caretaker and have photos to prove it. Sigh. All I can say is the country is not yet geared for tourism.
My favorite church here is the 14th century Church of the Holy Trinity built on a hillside using the typical Byzantine red colored bricks in the form of a cross with a Byzantine dome. It is considered one of the best preserved and best constructed of the churches in Berat. There is an inscription inside the church with the name of Andronicus Paleologus who was the governor of Berat province from 1302 to 1326 who most probably funded the building of the church. Beautiful frescoes adorn the walls of the church with scenes of Jesus Christ and his disciples, the Last Supper, etc. The church was locked when I visited and of course the caretaker was no where to be found.
Underneath Kala Castle Hill is the traditionally Muslim Mangalem quarter. In the 18th century, Berat was the center of Pashalyk which was an autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire. There is not much left of the Pasha’s palace here but three grand mosques still stands: the Sultan’s Mosque, the Lead Mosque, and the Bachelors’ Mosque. The Sultan’s Mosque built in the 16th century is one of the oldest mosques in Albania. There is a Helveti teqe behind the mosque used for worshipping by the Bektashi branch of Islam. The Helveti and the Bektashi are dervish orders of Muslim mystics. The structure has a beautifully carved ceiling with acoustic holes for better sound projection in the prayer hall. The Lead Mosque is a large 16th century mosque on the town square so named because of the lead coating on its dome. On the other side of what remains of Pasha’s palace is the 19th century Bachelors’ Mosque so named because it was built for uniting unmarried craftsman from the different guilds. The union of these young men from the various guilds was important at the time for creating a police-like force to maintain order and defend the city. Unfortunately, all the mosques were boarded up and under restoration during my visit.
In any case, it was nice to escape the city and spend a pleasant day in Berat. Next post will be on Ohrid in North Macedonia just across the border to the east of Albania. Stay tuned!
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