By Endit Keraj and Emirjada Baço
The charm and heritage of Gjirokastra is unmistakable, from its cobblestone streets to its old style Ottoman architecture. One of the oldest cultural centers in Southern Albania, the town’s standing as a unique and historical landmark was cemented when UNESCO designated it as a World Heritage center in 2005.
The designation was expected to help bring in valuable tourist money and spur renovation to buildings with great history but in deep disrepair. However, the tourists never arrived, and neither did the restoration. Instead, internal squabbling, mismanagement and a lack of organized planning has resulted in more buildings being destroyed than rebuilt, according to property records, interviews with residents and two UNESCO monitoring reports. In fact, for the first five years after the designation, destruction of historical property outpaced restoration by 3-1, although those figures have improved in the past two years.
The population in the historical part of the town of Gjirokastër has fallen by 20-percent because so many people are migrating from the town because it offers few opportunities to find a job and maintain a good standard of living.
The rate of abandoned property has also risen sharply. And while the World Heritage designation is supposed to preserve the town’s history, uncontrolled illegal construction has led to new buildings that retain none of the historical and architectural integrity.
Complicating matters is that 90-percent of properties designated for restoration are tied up in ownership disputes, most relating to inheritance. In most cases, at least 10 people have staked claims to the buildings.
According to records, approximately 200 buildings in the top two categories marked for restoration are at high risk of collapsing due to the lack of investments by their owners or the state. Restoring a house while keeping its historical integrity costs about five times restoration of a normal home.
The lack of progress comes even though Gjirokastra has received more than €3 million in restoration money from the Albanian government. So far 20 cultural monuments listed as top priorities have been restored, including historically important buildings such as the Angonats complex, the Zekat, Gurgai and the Baboçat housings. But the restorations are in danger because many remain vacant, leading to a lack of maintenance and care.
UNESCO – Report
In November, UNESCO commissioner Eleni Maistrou visited Gjirokastra and neighboring Berat, which is also on the heritage list but hasn’t experienced the same difficulties as Gjirokastra. The visit came only 16 months after an agency report found serious problems with the region’s compliance, and the region’s place on the World Heritage list in in jeopardy.
In UNESCO’S 2011 report, the World Heritage Committee said it “expresses its great concern regarding the lack of control for illegal construction, and regrets that a long-term plan has been been established to rectify the violations that have already occurred.’’
The report also said that “no progress is being made,’’ to create a program that will help protect historic buildings and restore others that have fallen into disrepair.
The agency also repeated an earlier request – ignored by local authorities – “to urgently put in place an agreed action plan and timescale to address the current ones and prevent any further violations.’’
During her visit, Eleni Maistrou was accompanied by municipal officials and leaders in charge of historical monument protection in Gjirokastra , along with an expert from the company IKOMOS, Unesco’s subcontractor in charge of monitoring progress. Although there was local speculation that the town had been put on UNESCO’S watch list because of slow progress in restorations, in an interview with journalists Maistrou said that her visit was part of standard procedures in which each UNESCO nominated town be visited once every two to three years.
Cultural heritage at the service of tourism
The World Heritage designation in 2005 was greeted with excitement and high expectations for tourism. Locals dreamed of a large influx of Albanians and foreign tourists flocking to what they hoped would become a picturesque town worth of a guidebook. But tourism has remained flat, and many of the most important monuments and structures remain off limits or unappealing to visitors.
Argjiro’s Fortress, built in the four century A.D., is the town’s most important structure and the source of the greatest pride for the people of Gjirokastër. Local residents say the old fort could be the greatest draw for visitors, and that inside the castle sits important museums such as the national firearms museum, which displays firearms and ammunition stretching from the earliest days of gunpowder to World War II.
But locals said the artifacts are not displayed properly. Making matters worse is a dispute between the Gjirokastra Municipality and the Ministry of Culture over who should administer the fort and its contents.
In general, according to experts on tourism and development, there is no concrete investment plan to build recreational facilities, café’s restaurants and hotels — the infrastructure needed to lure visitors. that would attract visitors is translated into the reduction of budget revenues for the local institutions.
Millions of euros have been invested by the National Institute of Cultural Monuments and various non-governmental organizations, and pockets of success can be found around town. But without an integrated plan to highlight those, it is difficult to bring tourists to the region.
Spartak Drrasa, director of the Institute for Cultural Monuments in Gjirokastër, said several factors are hampering progress. Among the biggest problems, Drrasa said, is that almost all of the buildings that have been declared cultural monuments have more than ten owners, most of the time through inheritances. Those disputes are preventing routine maintenance and other steps usually taken by owners, he said, and in more than 90-percent of the cases disputed buildings are degrading.
At this moment, Mr. Drrasa adds, the state has been forced to intervene by restoring the façade of the buildings that are at risk of losing their identity, as it is actually happening with the historical marketplace in Gjirokastër, which has been operating for more than 300 years. What once were specialty shops with art and local goods from merchants – good for attracting visitors and commerce – have now been converted into food and everyday consumption goods shops.
That change comes as, according to the UNESCO report, in 2009 more than 35.5 million LEK were spent for emergency intervention and maintenance, and 4 million LEK were spent to create facilities that were supposed to support the development of cultural tourism.
In 2010, approximately 1 million LEK were invested in the restoration of the historical marketplace. According to the restoration plan, after the money was spent to replace glass windows the shops in the marketplace. It would be become operational and revitalized, luring in tourists with badly needed money. However, today most of the shops continue to remain closed.
Challenges of illegal constructions
When Gjirokastra, “The City of Stone,’’ first entered the UNESCO process in 2005, there was an understanding that the region had a
State Party Progress Report_Berat-Gjirokastra
number of illegal construction sites and properties that didn’t conform to the standards of historical designation. There was also an understanding that the illegal constructions would gradually be slowed or eliminated.
However, according city and UNESCO records, the number of illegal buildings in just the museum area alone totals 290. The violations include contractors and owners replacing traditional construction of stone and wood with modern or plastics. Aluminum windows are being installed with no care for historical detail, the reports say, and traditional stone roofs are being replaced with cheap tiling.
Making matters worse is that officials are taking no action to prevent further abuse, the UNESCO report said. The continuing violations raise the possibility that the town may be removed from UNESCO’s historical designation, local officials and shop keepers worry. On top of that, the poor quality of some new construction is endangering the public because some buildings are close to collapse.
Today the city of Gjirokastra has only one building inspector responsible for checking all the work, and he must use his private vehicle with little support from municipal officials.
When asked about the issue of illegal construction, the head of the Regional Directorate of National Culture Spartak Drasa said that his office is aware of the problem.
“We are an institution that under the law simply monitors and reports on any illegal structure in Gjirokastra to the Ministry of Culture, under the law,’’ he said. “I have already made public lists of unlicensed facilities where we have sought through official letters to terminate their (right to operate).
On the other hand, Vullnet Tola, the head of the Inspector’s office, says that recent changes in the law have made policing of illegal structures weak and even more unenforceable.
In its report, UNESCO also noted that poor laws are making it difficult for inspectors to do their jobs properly.
“The lack of detailed rules of the authorities responsible for heritage leads to uncertainty in the local level and is followed by the lack of implementation,’’ according to UNESCO’S report. Gjirokastra’s actions are “not an action plan for the destruction of illegal constructions. It is important that each institution to meet obligations to minimize and prevent and minimize the violation of heritage.’’
STATE PARTY PROGRESS REPORT_BERAT-GJIROKASTRA (1)
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