By Endrit Habilaj
Tirana’s fortress is almost disappearing due to illegal constructions over the last years in the archeological area. If you pass through “Murat Toptani” street, today is very difficult to identify the monument. Constructions illegally built near the fortress have almost fully covered the monument, where a side wall still on its feet is all left from it.
If this was not enough, the medieval fortress of Tirana risks to be sold as a night club throwing away hundreds of years of history the capital’ cultural monument carries. All constructions built in the fortress area like Restaurant “Valle Verde”, “Folie Terrace” and “Mumja” clubs, as also a part of Millennium Cinema are all illegal built and properties of the businessman Alban Xhillari, well-known in Tirana for his past close relations with Prime Minister Edi Rama. Employees in Tirana City Hall said to investigim.al that no permit for construction development has been given in the last years within the fortress area. Despite this, all these buildings were built under Tirana Municipality territorial jurisdiction and just few meters away from the City Hall.
The constructions began in 2001, with the reconstruction of the Children Cultural Center which was transformed into a cinema, today known as Millennium Cinema 2. It was the company “IDA Sh.a”, owned by Alban Xhillari who earned a 20 years rent contract of the Center by the Ministry of Economy. According to the contract the company could utilize the existing building but having the right to expand the Cinema’s entrance.
In 2007, Alban Xhillari signs an agreement with the heir of Albanian Royal Family, Leka Zogu I, to develop the family’s properties within Tirana’s fortress. Two years later, in July 27, 2009 the National Restorations Council (KKR) signed three projects for the businessman Xhillari, respectively: Recreation Complex at the “Black Field”, restoration of Millennium Park and the construction of “Valle Verde” Restaurant. All these projects were signed by the secretary of National Restoration Council Valter Shtylla and the Minister of Culture back in that time Ardian Turku. Asked by investigim.al, Shtylla said that he initially signed the projects but he was not aware of what happened later. According to him, all constructions were made when he retired. Meanwhile the former Minister of Culture Ardian Turku explained that the businessman introduced seven (7) projects for the development of the area, while only three of them were approved. According to him, all projects needed the approval of Tirana Municipality which issued all necessary permits. “We took a decision after many objections to the blueprint introduced for the development of the area. Anyway there was no construction permit because it was necessary that each part of the blueprint for the development of the fortress and the territory near it to transform into a concrete project which would need local governance permission”-said Turku.
Nevertheless, the approval of three projects from the National Restorations Council were enough for the businessman Xhillari to further build inside the archeological area of the Fortress. Thus, during post election period of 2009, “IDA Sh.a” company tore down former “Fortress” bar while started to build Restaurant “Vale Verde” which included a layer of concrete above the historic wall of the Fortress, as proved by an official record of the time.
The former Minister of Culture says the construction company submitted a project for the restoration of “Fortress” bar but not a project for building a new restaurant. “As far as I’m aware, this bar is not in accordance with the decision we took, because it is out of criteria. The project did not follow the necessary steps for construction and the company did not obtain the relevant permits, while the initial one was alienated”-explains the Former Minister of Culture, Ardian Turku.
Investigim.al obtained an official request of the Ministry of Culture addressed to the National City Planning Inspectorate and to the City Planning Inspectorate of Tirana for the suspension of construction’ work of “Valle Verde” Restaurant. The document brought down all claims made by Xhillari that he won 3 projects from the National Restorations Council. A few months later, in March 2010, a memo drafted by the Cultural Heritage Department emphasizes the lack of attention by central and local government institutions toward the monument. The memo, a copy of which was obtained by investigim.al, says that Tirana Regional Department of National Culture charged the National City planning Inspectorate for inaction toward the illegal construction work at the Fortress. This was the last institutional response till the beginning of 2015. During this 5 years period, the businessman Alban Xhillari managed to establish an investments empire within Tirana’s Fortress. Two of the main night clubs of the capital were built there: “Mumja” and “Folie Terrace”, both illegally constructed. Also Xhillari built a two storey restaurant “Valle Verde” on the antic wall of the Fortress. For all these investments, Xhillari took a big loan in one of banks in Tirana, which he could not liquidate. Therefore in the end of 2015, “Folie Terrace” built over the Tirana’s Fortress territory was seized by an execution company for a unpaid loan of 1.3 million Euro. Yet, the fate of this part of the Fortress is still unclear, if it will be sold as a night club or will remain to Tirana, as part of the cultural heritage of the Albanian capital.
The Royal Family
All constructions built within the Fortress area were made including the Royal Family, whose building is nearby. In April 6, 2007 the Royal Family, which owns many properties around Tirana’s Fortress, signed a business agreement with the entrepreneur Alban Xhillari. Several investments within the area of the cultural monument were part of the contract, which aimed to generate incomes. Former Minister of Culture, Ardian Turku says the businessman used this contract he had with Leka Zogu in order to obtain a development permit within the Fortress area. “The Royal Family gave the exclusive right for developing the area to a construction businessman. Despite the agreement, whether it’s a public or private property, developing rules are such that require approval and permission by state institutions”-says Turku. According to the contract, the businessman Xhillari would invest 5.4 million Euros into the Royal Family properties in Tirana and Durres. The contract also included joint ownership of the investment at Tirana’s Fortress and also at the Royal Chateau in Durres, after the businessman would earn the amount of 5.4 million Euros through investment revenues. From 2007 to 2009, Xhillari covered all expenses of Leka Zogu properties’ maintenance and surveillance. The businessman even helped the Royal Family to privatize the Children Cultural Center, today transformed into Millennium Cinema 2. Therefore Leka Zogu became the owner of the Cinema till the beginning of 2009, when the property passed over to Alban Xhillari for 1 million Euros earned by the Royal Family.
Investigim.al asked to the Royal Family to comment whether the agreement with Alban Xhillari included illegal constructions in the Fortress area which was denied. “There have been many reports against the businessman Xhillari over the years for all illegal constructions in Tirana’s Fortress area, but the institutions did not response”-said the representatives of the Royal Family. Regarding the constructions in the park in front of Millennium Cinema, the Royal Family says it is was their property but it belongs to the state now due to cultural values it carries. “Despite this, Alban Xhillari used the property to build “Folie Terrace” night club. We are not aware if he took a construction permit, but this area belongs to the cultural monument and cannot be transformed into a discotheque”-is written in the official statement of the Royal Family. Sources said for investigim.al that members of the Royal Family were involved into a domestic discussion during 2007-2009, when Prince Leka was against his father’s decisions regarding arrangement with Alban Xhillari. Prompted by this situation but also disappointed by the businessman, Leka Zogu went to coart in 2009 asking for the suspension of the contract with Xhillari. But the deal signed by the businessman and its annulment would turn into a boomerang for the Royal Family. After 6 years of judicial dragging, Tirana Appeal Court headed by Alaudin Malaj ruled in 05.02.2015 that Prince Leka, the heir of royal properties should pay 3.3 million euro to Alban Xhillari, as part of the investments the businessman had made into the Royal Family properties, mainly in Tirana’s Fortress. In the beginning of 2015, after he gained 3.3 million euro, Xhillari expanded again the constructions in the Fortress are, this time over the Park’s area. The Cultural Monuments Institute observed the illegal situation and decided to suspend the construction work and even penalize the investor. A few months later experts from the Regional Culture Department reported that unauthorized construction work was continuing in the archeological area of the Fortress. The department addressed to the Directory of Police in Tirana and to the National Inspectorate for the Protection of the Territory (IKMT) with a letter on 14.05.2015, to inform that “Folie” subject was carrying out unauthorized construction works and appealing for preventive measures and to penalize the company. The Royal Family, who until few years ago gave him the exclusive right to use the territory within the Fortress, became part of the report against Alban Xhillari. The National Inspectorate for the Protection of the Territory (IKMT) responded after three months with a lawsuit against “IDA Sh.a” while tearing down the illegal building. Meanwhile IKMT did not take any action to demolish other illegal buildings inside the territory.
Cultural monuments experts say that the Fortress of Tirana carries many particular characteristics and it is one of the few historic buildings of the city. “It is not an object with extraordinary value, but it is what Tirana does have. It has some kind of verticality, those big blocks and a kind of pomposity in itself. It is also rather a beautiful monument. Unfortunately the old bazaar which was destroyed during communism, could show how the city was created and developed”-says Apollon Barçe, who headed the Culture Monuments Institute for many years. In May 2009, a project for the Medieval Fortress of Tirana was funded by the European Commission. The project included the construction of glassed bridge over the tower, signage and the rehabilitation of water, electricity and telecommunication infrastructure. But a year later the European Commission expressed its concern over the implementation of this project. Meanwhile at the same year, in 2009 it was the businessman Alban Xhillari who expressed his interest to reconstruct the Fortress of Tirana. He submitted to the National Council of Restorations his three projects, which were later approved. The restoration of former “Fortress” bar was part of his projects, but instead the building was torn down and a new restaurant was built over the Fortress walls. “What is now above the Fortress walls is totally wrong. It was a mistake. When I was there, I tried to remove that bar which was also built in an incomprehensible manner. They approved something they shouldn’t have”-says Apollon Barçe.
In June 16, 2010, the European Commission funded a second project for the Fortress restoration, this time with some changes proposed by the National Council of Restorations. For professor Barçe, the first restoration project was a failed one; despite the fact that European Commission funds were spent. “In my opinion it was a half crazy project which meant to show the Fortress’ foundations in glass and wood, whilst it is categorically forbidden to interfere into the substructure of the monument. At least I stopped this project”-says Barçe, who was the head of the National Council of Restorations when the second project was introduced.
The Fortress of Tirana was a road station of Via Egnatia (track), Mansio-Mutatio type. The most ancient evidence of the capital is located exactly at the place where the old and new roads of Tirana which connected north with south and west with east of Albania crossed with each other.
After 1814, the Fortress became a residence of the new rulers, Toptani family who came from Kruja and built there two houses, the first as their own residence and the other one as a guest house. During 20th Century, the Fortress lost a big part of its surrounding walls and that is why today we cannot figure out its full stylistic shape. The Fortress of Tirana is an “Archeological area” A grade, announced by government’s decision in 2009.
Assisted by students Besar Bajraktari and Olsjan Topalli
* This project is financially supported by Democracy Commission Small Grants Program of US Embassy in Tirana. The opinions, findings, conclusions and recommendations expressed in the story are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Department of State.
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