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Albania’s dynamic cultural heritage

Back in Albania for meetings about the future of Butrint and to see the excavations along the Trans Adriatic Pipeline project. Butrint is astonishing: between 3000 - 5000 visitors when I arrive. Quite astonishing. No less astonishing are the Abkons excavations along the pipeline. The quality of the excavations and recording of the two digs I saw – near Berat and near Korça – respectively, an Ottoman hamam and Middle Neolithic village were of the very highest international standards.

16th century icon in the new Korça Icon Museum

Yes, Albania has changed. You feel it everywhere. For the sceptics look at the flocks of new cars on the roads, old ones (many stolen in the early post-communist years) because they are polluters are taxed heavily. Short tracts of old roads, yet to be overhauled, remind me of awful journeys. Now crossing Albania is not a torture as highways are completed. Then look at the amazing restoration of Lake Ochrid from Linn to Pogradec. All the illegal buildings have been removed and a bicycle path runs beside the new lakeside road. The panorama across the dark lake to the Macedonian mountains is simply majestic.

Cultural heritage is now in this changing picture. The new icon museum at Korça is an elegant building, designed by a German architects ( The stonework in a contemporary reprise evokes the old Ottoman dwellings in Korça’s old city. Inside the museology is dazzling.

The new icon museum at Korça

Boldly painted in primary colours, the museum makes some concessions to the hands of its most celebrated late medieval and early modern icon painters in traditional galleries. But the biggest gallery has a high wall, brightly painted and covered with dozens of luminescent icons. The brilliance is startling and mesmeric and above all it shows the colossal diversity of these works and their collective sacred effect.

A section of the icon wall

No less bold is Tirana’s new House of Leaves, once home of the Sigurimi, the secret police ( A discrete house dating back to the ‘thirties, it was a clinic taken over in 1945 by the communists because its location being central was ideal for spying on everyone.

House of Leaves at Tirana

The effect is chilling, truly chilling. As many as 5,000 political prisoners were executed by the communist regime until 1990 and upwards of 18,000 others suffered from discovery and torture by the venal occupants of this house. Once covered in ivy, hence its name, each room illustrates the methodology and materials used by the Sigurimi. Films, files of documents, recordings as well as all manner of technical equipment including listening devices and bugs are displayed. Room by room, culminating in the cookie-cutter living room of the average post-war Albanian, this extraordinary exhibit leaves you numb.

Chinese listening 'bugs'

Then, too, the newly restored bazaars in Korça and Tirana. Until recently tragically abused vernacular centres, these two bazaars are humming with Albania’s new generation, strident proponents of European values with a sharp eye on Albania’s rich and often conflicted history. What was unthinkable twenty years ago and a pipe dream ten years ago is happening city by city. Truly inspiring.

Tirana's newly restored bazaar

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