Albania has been described as the last secret of Europe and its rich and diverse cultural heritage is undervalued within the country, much of it suppressed or neglected during the long years of isolation. The reality is very different: two current and three potential, UNESCO World Heritage Sites are complemented by extremely valuable intangible cultural heritage, such as iso-polyphonic singing traditions, distinctive textiles designs and exemplary inter-faith relations. Mosques, Muslim quarters, Orthodox and Catholic Churches, convents, Shia Tekke, Byzantine walls, Roman and other ancient vestiges all testify to the meeting of different peoples and civilisation, and a history of peaceable co-existence over nearly three millennia. For that reason the Albania government approved the Strategy and Action Plan for the Development of Tourism based on Cultural and Environmental Tourism on 17 December 2005. It aims to rediscover Albania’s cultural and historical identity and to take action to better protect, manage and promote its national patrimony. It is based upon the UNESCO report on “Cultural Patrimony in South – Eastern Europe: Albania” (No:3 : May 2004). On the other hand the strategy will be accompanied by current interventions being taken by agencies in Albania such as UNDP’s Support to Eco and Cultural Tourism Development Programme (2006-2009), UNESCO’s Centre for Restoration of Monument in Tirana (June 2005 -November 2009) and other initiatives related to the further safeguarding and promotion of the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of Albania.
Soon after Gjirokastra (a city in South Albania) qualified for UNESCO’s List of World Heritage, there was a public debate with a cultural and political background, on whether Gjirokastra deserved to qualify ahead of Berati, another ancient city. In fact, Berati is much older than Gjirokastra, at around 2 300 years. A Lobby group from Berati argued that Gjirokastra had political support from the government, but professionals from the National Institute of Monuments replied that Gjirokastra’s file was much more impressive to the board and that Berati could try again, since there are no national quotas in this matter. Following the debate, the Ministry announced it would provide substantial funding to cultural projects taking place in historical sites, with both heritage and tourism interest. The most interesting development in this direction was a series of concerts of classical music, held in ancient castles, churches and archaeological sites, from Butrinti in the extreme South, to Shkodra in the far North.
The protection of cultural heritage in Albania is a priority of the Ministry of Culture Youth and Sport which shares responsibility for heritage with the Academy of Science. Within the Ministry, the Department of Cultural Heritage oversees the Institute of Monuments and the nine National Museums, and the Centre of Registration of Cultural Property. The Academy of Sciences has institutes relating to specific scientific fields including the Institute of Archaeology and the Institute of Popular Culture; the latter of which is mainly dealing with questions of folklore. The Academy of Science is partly responsible for the protection of the natural environment. The Cultural Heritage Act No 9048 approved on 7/04/2003 is the most important legal framework which includes all the activities in relation to the preserving, promoting and managing the Albanian national heritage. On 27/07/2006 certain amendments were made by Act No 9592, which introduced the National Committee of National Heritage as an advisory body. The Committee is composed of a series of senior officials who are directly responsible for the promotion of cultural heritage in Albania. Article 17 provides for the establishment of a National Council for Restorations which assumed the right to grant permission for any restoration of cultural heritage buildings or monuments. Taking into account the valuable experience and visible results of good management of the National Park of Butrinti, the Ministry of Tourism, Culture, Youth and Sport took the decision to establish seven other Archaeological Parks in Albania in Apolonia, Antigonea, Amantia, Shkodra, Bylis, Finiq and Orikum. These are spread around the country and aim to further promote the historical and cultural heritage and provide sustainable development for the local economies concerned.
Architectural Cultural Heritage protection and restoration in Albania is carried out by the following institutions:
- Institute of Cultural Monuments, under the responsibility of the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport; and
- regional branches or art studios under the auspicious of the Institute of Monuments. There are currently eight regional departments and workshops all over the country.
Following the destruction of several key built heritage sites in 1997, efforts have intensified in recent years to collect information about the state of protected buildings. Some of the major projects include the reconstruction of the administrative district in the centre of Tirana, restoration of the “Independence” building in Vlorë, urban restoration in Gjirokastër, and the Butrint archaeological project in the middle of a natural park (the only Albanian item on the UNESCO World Heritage list). The latter is receiving support from a host of partners including UNESCO, the European Union, the World Bank and the Butrint Foundation (which is an interesting example of national, intergovernmental and non-governmental co-operation in this field).