Foreign travelers in the ‘800s noted that cities like Elbasan no longer existed in Europe. Indeed, this is a rare town! Skampis, as this fortress-town was once called, was founded in 1466 by two strikingly different leaders: the Roman emperor Justinian and Sultan Mehmet the Second. The two-thousand-year-old Castle of Elbasan, a Roman construction built as early as the 3rd century B.C., once surrounded the entire city, which stretched over an area of approximately 10 hectares. After it was nearly entirely destroyed during the wars of the 4th and 5th centuries, the castle walls were erected once more by Justinian in order to be used as a military shelter as well as to oversee the famous Via Egnatia, the main road which stretched across major cities of the Roman Empire. Later, during the Ottoman Empire, Mehmet the Second, intended to use this castle as the base of his military operations against Skanderbeg, the national Albanian hero who fought to gain Albania’s independence from the Ottoman Empire. Instead, the castle swiftly became the center of Albanian nationalism.
The Castle of Elbasan had its most glorious period during the 17th century, enclosing within its walls more than two thousand houses and boasting a manufacturing industry of more than 900 shops of leather crafts including silk, as well as precious metals, such as silver, which were mostly exported abroad. Only after 100 years after the Ottoman invasion, the city saw its life begin to extend beyond the castle walls. Today, the “city” within the walls is called the Castle Neighborhood, one of the very few in Albania that still contains many residences that continue harmoniously coexisting with the past. From the original castle built in the 3rd century, only the southern gate remains but this place still contains many other monuments built throughout the following centuries. Each of the monuments within the fortress, such as the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church of St. Mary’s Assumption, the old school of the castle, the King’s Mosque and the women’s hamam, the Clock Tower or any house and alley within this castle, contains significant bits of this city’s fascinating history. On the eastern side of the castle gates, stands the majestic Clock Tower, which still functions impeccably. Built in the late ‘800s, it was declared a monument of culture in 1963.
In the Albanian cities of the late Middle Ages, public monuments and religious institutions were built in very close proximity to one another, a phenomenon that did not exist in other cities of the Ottoman Empire. The center of the castle neighborhood hosts the Church of St. Mary’s Assumption as well as many homes of Islamic believers who regularly visit the King’s Mosque. At the time, Albanian cities introduced an unprecedented religious tolerance which still continues to this day!
The Castle of Elbasan also honors the prominent figures in the progress of Albanian language and culture such as Kostantin Kristoforidhi, who gave Albanians their first elementary school textbook in Albanian and the first Albanian translation of the Old Testament, as well as the founders of the Albanian Academy of Sciences. A walk through the rest of the castle reveals an astounding variation of beautiful architecture: Ottoman-style houses, typical of central Albania, Italian-style flats of the 19th and 20th centuries, and communist as well as post-communist era buildings. Through destructions and reconstructions throughout centuries, this castle has somehow retained all the epochs, emperors, stories, cultures and religions that have dwelled inside its walls!