Shkodra is a city in North Western Albania. It is located on the coast of Lake Shkodra, the biggest lake of the Balkans and surrounded by three rivers, the Buna, the Drin, and the Kiri. Its population is around 120 thousand people, making it the largest city of northern Albania. Outside the city proper, it has three suburbs: Bahcalleku to the South, as well as Shirokaj and Zogaj to the East. To the south and East it is also bordered by the hills of Renci and Tepes. This is where the fortress of Rozafat, famous for the Ottoman sieges of the late 1400s is located. Rozafa is the site of the earliest pre-historic settlements in the area.
Rozafa is a woman’s name. In legend, she was the wife of the youngest of three brothers who built the castle. Though they labored tirelessly, their construction crumbled each night. A wise man told them that in order for the walls to hold up, one of their brides must be sacrificed. The brothers agreed to make a secret pact not to tell their wifes and to sacrifice the bride who next day brought their lunch meal. The two elder brothers broke their pact and alerted their wives. When Rozafa of the youngest brother came, she was to be entombed within. She cried for baby and husband and requested to be entombed with one breast out to feed the baby, one foot out to rock him, and one arm out to hold him. And so the castle got its name.
Shkodra is blessed to be near the Adriatic coast, where the beach of Velipoja is situated. At the same time it is also blessed with an impressive mountain range. To the north, past the lowlands of Fush Shkodra, begin the Alps of Albania, the most dramatic range in a country known for mountains. This dichotomy makes one wonder is Shkodra a mediterrenain paradise? Or is it a rugged highland town? Perhaps it is a bit of both. When sunny, its skies are bright. It has a warm climate down in the plain. However, just outside the city, in the mountainous winter, the climate is harsh. So harsh and life so hard, that perhaps this is why the locals have named them the cursed mountains.
Shkodra is one Albania’s oldest cities, and has been inhabited since the Illyrian Era in the 4th century BC by the Labeats tribe, capable sailors and traders, who laid the foundation for it. Here the likes of King Gent and Queen Teuta ruled until the Roman conquest of 168 BC. It remained in Roman hands for over four centuries. In the fourth century Shkodra was the seat of a bishopric. Then it fell to the East Roman Empire. In 1043, it was captured by Montenegrin Slavs. In 1180, Shkodra was captured by Stefan Nemanja of Serbia. Then it was ruled by the local Balsha family until in 1396, the Venetians moved in and used it for their own mercantile purposes. Italy has historically exerted more influence in the north. The Christian population here is Catholic, unlike the south where Christians are Orthodox. Likewise, after Communism, many Albanians from here have immigrated to Italy as opposed to Greece.
In 1470’s the Ottomans launched two long sieges against the Rozafat Castle. These events were captured by eye witness and Albanian historian Marin Barleti (1450-1512) in his book, the Siege of Shkodra (1504), an international bestseller in the 16th century:
Now it came to pass that the Ottoman, realizing that Shkodra was the most eminent city and epicenter of the region of Epirus…the shield of Italy and all the Christians-began to nurture a great hope that he could subdue it…therefore he decided to dispatch an amazingly large army to invade it…It would be too lengthy to describe here how many thouands of Turks lost their lives there in humiliation and how the Shkodrans fought so corageously, defending themselves, their fatheirland, their women, and their children…The Turk was repulsed by the besieged-and what a loss it was!
Sultan Mehmet II was only 21 when he captured Constantinople, a feat that earned him the name “the Conqueror.” Having reached such heights so fast, his eyes were set on Rome. After decades of conquering the Balkans, he reached Shkodra, the final Balkan frontier. He personally led both sieges of the Rozafat fortress but here his dreams of reaching Rome were cut short. Venice, which was in power, eventually signed the city over to him but his army was too weakened and he died two years later.
When the Ottomans captured it in 1479 they caused further disruption to life and self determination. People fled in mass to southern Italy creating an Albanian-Italian minority that exists today. The Ottomans suppressed native ways and brought in their own culture and religion. Yet, whether in native hands, or under the foreign yoke, in each epoch Shkodra has persevered and remained an important city, both economically and culturally, producing much Albanian talent in the way of art, music, painting and writing.
Shkodra has a cute quarter of old fashioned eclectic architecture. Here the main streets are lined with buildings that date to the 1920s, an era of monarchy in Albania. Today, Shkodra also has the new modern apartment buildings of lean, clean, and light aspect, with bright and colorful paint like pink, orange, and yellow. Although a bit “lego like,” for those unaccustomed to this type, these buildings may please the eye. Besides, athough not famous landmarks, residences do matter; they are what a city is most comprised of. These apartments are the new wave, as if a reaction to the deliberately drab, no-nonsense apartment buildings of Communism. The new apartment complexes can be highly stylish, and have a modern flair unique to the Balkans.
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Dhora, Romina. “The Social and Cultural Impacts of Tourism, A Case of Shkodra.” University of Shkodra Luigj Gurakuqi: 131-135
“Shkodra.” Albania. Sept. 12, 2021.
Barleti, Marin. Hosaflook, David, translator. The Siege of Shkodra. Tirana, Albania: Onufri, 2012.
Gjergj Fishta. Elsie, Robert, translator. The Highland Lute. London: IB Taurus, 2005.