For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of othersNelson Mandela
Under the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha many freedoms were denied to Albanians. Among them the freedom to travel abroad, the freedom to express dissent, and the freedom to worship. Hoxha declared that ‘the only religion of Albania is Albanianism’.
Today’s Albania is very different and in the heart of Tirana we found three striking places of worship. All lie in the immediate vicinity of Skanderbeg Square where Hoxha’s statue once stood. One, the mosque, is historic; prior to Hoxha’s time the country was the only predominantly Muslim one in Europe. The other two are modern, both Christian cathedrals.
Our walk from the Catholic cathedral to the Orthodox one took us past both the mosque and Skanderbeg Square. If you’ve never thought about visiting Tirana, join me to see a little of what the city has to offer.
St Paul’s Cathedral (Katedralja e Shën Palit)
This Roman Catholic cathedral sits on the north bank of the Lana River. It was built between 1993, the cornerstone having been laid by Pope John Paul II on his visit to Albania that year, and 2002. It has a striking design, both outside and in.
Starting outside there is a statue of St Paul above the door (see my feature photo) and one of Mother Teresa in the grounds. She was born in Skopje to a Kosovar Albanian family. Her father’s family however originated from Albania and the country’s Catholics seem to claim her as their own.
Inside the building is simple but I found it very attractive. It is in the form of a triangle with a rounded front, with the latter pierced by beautiful modern stained-glass windows. We visited on a sunny morning when the light through these fell in coloured splashes on the ground (see my recent post on backlighting) and even on the ceiling high above.
Et’hem Bey Mosque
From the Catholic cathedral our walk takes us north past several government ministries and the Bunk’Art 2 museum (more on that in a future post) to this somewhat older place of worship in the south eastern corner of Skanderbeg Square.
This was built in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It was founded by Molla Bey and completed by his son Haxhi Ethem Bey, great-grandson of Sulejman Pasha. The latter was an Albanian general and nobleman who founded the city of Tirana. The mosque was closed during the period of Communist rule in the country. On January 18th, 1991, it reopened its doors and 10,000 people attended, despite opposition from communist authorities. This was a significant moment in the overthrow of Communism and Hoxha, marking a return to religious freedom for Albanians of all creeds.
We weren’t able to go inside the mosque as each time we passed prayers seemed to be in progress. It was Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan and a time of celebration for Muslims. Coinciding this year with Orthodox Easter meant there was something of a holiday atmosphere in Tirana.
But I was able to get a good look at the frescoes on the upper part of the outside walls. These mostly depict landscapes with buildings, as do those inside from what I’ve read.
Sulejman Pasha and Kapllan Pasha
Let’s take a detour on our way to the next place of worship, past the statue of Sulejman Pasha, the city’s founder, which stands in the small square of the same name just east of the mosque. This was once the location of his tomb. However this was ruined by bombing in 1944, along with the nearby mosque of the same name (Tirana’s first) which had stood here since 1614.
Statue of Sheshi Sulejman Pasha
The communist government, under Enver Hoxha, destroyed what remained of these structures in 1967, apart from Kapllan Pasha’s tomb. This is now tucked under a cleverly designed modern building across the road. It has one lower corner cut away in an arc of gold to accommodate and set off the ancient tomb. Kapllan Pasha was an Ottoman administrator of Tirana, who died in 1819. The tomb was built in the early 19th century but today is empty, as Kapllan Pasha’s remains were later exhumed and reburied in Istanbul. However the tomb itself remains and is protected as the only remnant of the mosque.
Where the mosque itself once stood is now the statue to the Unknown Partisan. It depicts a soldier with fist and gun extended, marching towards victory, and was created by Andrea Mano in 1949. The monument was dedicated to the fallen heroes of the National Liberation War in Albania.
In Tirana all steps lead eventually to this massive open space, and ours are no exception. We need to cross it to reach our final place of worship, but let’s stop for a moment and look around.
The square is named for Albania’s national hero, whose statue dominates its southern side. This monument was inaugurated in 1968 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of his death. Skanderbeg was an early 15th century Albanian feudal lord and military commander. He led a rebellion against the Ottoman Empire in the region that today encompasses Albania along with several other countries.
My panoramic shot shows two sides of the square. Among the significant buildings are:
On the far left, the National Historical Museum, the huge mosaic on the front of which was undergoing restoration when we visited, covered by scaffolding and a fabric reproduction of what lies beneath.
Left of centre, some new construction dwarfing the white block of the Tirana Hotel, once infamous for the bugging of rooms occupied by foreign visitors.
Right of centre, the Soviet-style Palace of Culture, housing the Opera and Ballet Theatre and National Library, which replaced the city’s old bazaar.
Far right, the Et’hem Bey Mosque and behind it the city’s clock tower, a well-known local landmark which was built in 1822, its design influenced by that of the Campanile San Marco in Venice.
The Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ (Katedralja Ortodokse ‘Ngjallja e Krishtit’)
Leaving Skanderbeg Square by its south west corner we come to the final place of worship on our little tour. This was opened on June 24, 2012, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the revival of the Albanian Orthodox Church. Outside there is a small Chapel of the Nativity to one side and an impressive bell tower to the other. The latter was designed by Archbishop Anastasios, Archbishop of Tirana and Durrës and head of the Orthodox Church of Albania. The design is composed of four candles which symbolise the four Evangelists. These surround the central column with its spiral staircase leading to two open floors holding sixteen bells. We heard them ring when passing on Orthodox Easter Sunday and they were lovely!
On that occasion we weren’t able to go inside but it didn’t matter as we’d already visited a day or so previously. There are some beautiful mosaics, frescos and icons, while the dome is shaded in blue with a central painting of Christ Pantocrator.
Just across the road from this beautiful cathedral is the House of Leaves, a building with a sinister past. But we’ll leave that, and others of the city’s sights, for another day …
I visited Tirana in April 2023