"Thanks to the dedicated, 20-year commitment of the Gjirokastra Foundation to rescue their town from decay, this World Heritage City is being saved through the introduction of the best principles and models for conservation and heritage-based development. This work was undertaken in a challenging social and political context and in the spirit of community-based practices with a participatory approach.”
The Europa Nostra Jury
The Gjirokastra Foundation started 20 years ago as an emergency initiative with international support. Situated in south Albania, the city of around 35 000 inhabitants has a rich history and an immense cultural heritage - 600 historic buildings built along cobbled streets, an impressive castle overlooking the Medieval bazaar - all built in stone.
The last period of communist regime and the 10 years which elapsed after its fall in 1991, with their traumatic political, social and economic events, took an especially heavy toll on Gjirokastra. The city had entered a downward spiral of disrepair and decay; the state-controlled heritage management system was in deep paralysis and chaos; investments in heritage seemed an impossible luxury - local citizens, business, even public institutions were massively abandoning the historic center.
The very initiative of Gjirokastra Foundation was a series of consultations with all the potential actors and groups of interest i.e. specialists, public institutions, communities and citizens, national and international NGOs. The deep and thorough assessment of problems, needs, potentials and resources, chances to take and routes to follow for changing the trend toward saving the "City of Stone", was the basis for producing the strategic document "Conservation and Development in Gjirokastra". Introduced by a high-level international expertise, It became the guide for the activity of GF and served as the backbone of the file for the inscription of Gjirokastra in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2005.
In parallel, the very first intervention started immediately with the restoration of the abandoned building of the first Albanian School of the city, where the Gjirokastra Foundation established its office afterwards .
Year by year this restored building, situated in the very heart of the historic center, became a focal point of coordination, collaboration and partnership in efforts for preservation and development of Gjirokastra heritage as an instrument for social, economic development and social cohesion.
The comprehensive approach
“Their endeavours promote the training of a new generation of architects, craftspeople and other heritage professionals, with a combination of conservation, restoration and revitalisation projects, using all resources efficiently while remaining focused on sustainable solutions”
The Europa Nostra Jury
Dealing with the huge and diversified heritage of Gjirokastra is a difficult challenge, but it also offers excellent opportunities. The comprehensive approach is not the easiest, but it has the potential to bring an immediate effect and produce synergy and mobilization, providing sustainability by developing a kind of circular economy, in which the output of an action serves as a stimulus and resource for further steps. Thus a rising spiral of overall development based on heritage was established gradually, bringing in and increasing hope and interest to invest and stay in the historic town.
Following the guidelines established in its strategic document "Conservation and Development in Gjirokastra", the Gjirokastra Foundation planned, fundraised and implemented successfully more than 50 projects which include initiatives like following:
• restoration of abandoned buildings in disrepair and their revitalization i.e. reuse for the modern-time activities, mainly dedicated to culture heritage and/or tourism,
• development of culture activities related to intangible heritage, for example iso-polyphonic singing (also inscribed in the UNESCO Intangible Culture Heritage Heritage List), traditional dances, etc.,
• improvement of the existing museums and building a new one,
• development of attractions and activities related to culture tourism, which enriched the tourism offer, by introducing new services and facilities, including new attractions as, for example, the local culinary traditions ,
• revival of traditional arts and crafts, needed for restoration work and for the souvenir market,
• training of professionals of various fields related to culture heritage management, restoration, museology, tour guiding and service etc.,
• publications related to cultural heritage management, cultural tourism,
• support and training for citizens starting small businesses related to culture tourism in their historic buildings
• active participation in some ecological projects aiming at raising awareness about the inherent connection of cultural heritage with natural heritage etc.
This activities resulted in outputs like:
• restoration and revitalization of a row of abandoned historic buildings of 18th 19th centuries, like Zekate (pictured), now one of the most visited attractions in Gjirokastra, the Omari House, a center for artisan development, the two Babameto buildings, reused for tourism related activities, etc. ,
• the 10 year program for developing traditional arts and crafts through training, supporting new workshops, organizing every September the National Heritage and Artisan Fair in the cobbled streets of the Medieval Bazaar, which became a very popular event gathering up to 120 participants and bringing thousands of visitors,
• developing a 5-year plan of restoration and other interventions in the Castle aiming at improving visitors' experience.
Artisan Fair Heritage days 2008
Some groundbreaking endeavors
• the Gjirokastra Museum is the first one created after communism in Albania. Established in 2012, on the 100th anniversary of the independence of Albania, it is highly valued as an overall exhibition of the heritage of Gjirokastra, introduced in a comprehensive, balanced and unbiased way. We succeeded to follow strictly these sacrosanct principles, especially regarding the period of communist regime in Albania, (led by the dictator Enver Hoxha, who was a native of Gjirokastra), facing enormous political pressure and numerous obstacles,
• establishing as a tourist attraction the underground tunnel built by the communist regime during the Cold War (a premiere initiative in Albania replicated later in bigger scale in the capital Tirana by the government)
• the European Commission supported REVATO - Revitalization of the historic cities of Gjirokaster and Berat (the other UNESCO city in Albania). Two innovative elements were introduced with this project: 1) a completely open procedure of planning and implementation of its numerous activities and 2) fundraising of restoration work through co-financing by citizens. This experience is embraced by the Ministry of Culture which took a similar initiative recently,
• the publication and dissemination of best international experiences in preparation of integrated management plans for historic cities, part of another EU-Commission-supported project called EVAH (European Values in Heritage). On the basis, an international project is under implementation now for preparing an integrated management plan of Gjirokastra,
• starting in Gjirokastra the first Tourist Information Center in Albania in 2006,
• development of Experiential Tours - a new trend in international tourism - as an overall introduction of culture traditions, including traditional arts and crafts, culinary, iso-polyphonic singing etc., with active involvement of local citizens and communities.
Activism in heritage preservation
The spiral of development based on preservation of heritage is presently working and rising in Gjirokastra. The city has now an unprecedented attention and interest coming from more and more actors, public, private, local, national, international entities, which are bringing in more hope and contributions, more development and investments on heritage.
This is good, but it also can inherently bring more threats to heritage as for example out-of-context interventions, unplanned and unstudied overdevelopment, lack of far-sighted plans to avoid uncontrolled touristification etc.
That is why the Gjirokastra Foundation is recently focusing on direct activism for the preservation of genuine values of heritage and protecting it from threats coming from citizens, business or public institutions.
In 2019 the Foundation has prepared the nomination of Gjirokastra, as one of 12 heritage sites shortlisted for the 7 Most Endangered programme of Europa Nostra, in relation of some potentially detrimental-to-heritage developments, such as a controversial project for the construction of a by-pass road in the very heart of the historic centre.
A year after, the Gjirokastra Foundation prepared the file for the nomination of the National Theatre in Tirana, which was declared among the 7 Most Endangered sites in Europe, by Europa Nostra 2020.
We are now involved in the discussions for preparation of the integrated strategic plan of Gjirokastra. Undertaken by public institutions with the support of international donors, the process of its preparation offers a good chance for more harmonious, inclusive, participatory heritage-based development of historic Gjirokastra.
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