Tirana, Albania (Day 1, afternoon)

Albania was constitutionally atheist under communist rule and religious people suffered persecution. Now, religion is back. On my first afternoon in Tirana, on my wanderings, I saw a new church, an old mosque that somehow survived, and a mosque so new it hasn’t opened yet.

See below to find out who the guy on the horse is and see photos of:

  • Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral
  • Skanderbeg Square
  • Et’hem Bey Mosque and the Clock Tower
  • Toptani Mall
  • Toptani Castle
  • Namazgah Mosque (and Downtown One)

Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral

At one point soon after moving to Singapore, I found myself trying to explain to a colleague that there are two types of Christianity, protestant and Catholic. But I realized it’s not quite that simple. The third largest Christian denominational family is the Eastern Orthodox Church, of which the Albanian Orthodox Church is part. And this is the Albanian Orthodox Cathedral in Tirana. It’s a beautiful building!

The back of the cathedral.
The back of the cathedral and the clock tower.
Just the clock tower.
Front of the cathedral, with fish-eye lens.
Front door.
Grumpy Jesus, the sun of God, blesses you. (Either that or he’s doing a rabbit shadow-puppet with his hand.)
There’s scaffolding because they’re still painting the murals.
I grew up going to a Presbyterian church that had a rectangular worship hall. This round room gives me Beauty and the Beast ballroom vibes.
Clock tower again.
This guy was chilling in the gift shop downstairs. Just living the life.

Skanderbeg Square

Historical photos of Skanderbeg Square show it cluttered with roads and cars. They’ve hidden the cars in an underground parking garage, leaving an enormous and lovely pedestrian space.

That’s the national history museum, with an awesome mosaic mural on the front.
That’s the Palace of Culture. (It has a bookstore in it! I bought two books there.)
Carousel. Looks even cooler at night (you’ll see).
Square stone tiles make up the surface of the square.
This is not Thor. This is the national hero, Skanderbeg, for whom the square is named.
He is also known as Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu.
Do I know how to pronounce his name? No. No, I do not.
Striking silhouette.

Et’hem Bey Mosque and the Clock Tower

This mosque is small but important. The Wikipedia page for Et’hem Bey Mosque can tell you more about its history.

(Those buildings aren’t all connected to each other.)
Front entrance.
Surrounding portico.
We already saw a clock tower at the cathedral, but this clock tower is much older.
I wanted to climb the stairs. (I don’t know if they let you do that.)
When it was built, it was the tallest thing in the city. Can you imagine???
Lots of tall stuff in the city now, including these apartments going up just next door.

The Wikipedia page for the Tirana Clock Tower has some interesting information. But also, there’s a little sign next to the tower, which says:

“Haxhi Et’hem Bey started building the Clock Tower in 1822 and it was finished with the contribution of the rich families of Tirana. At first, the tower was 30m high and the clock had a fixing mechanism and a brass bell. The number of its “ding-dongs” showed the time because the clock had no field and no hands. The clock was put together by Tufina family, who were mentioned as clock professionals. In certain heights the tower had small windows for ventilation, lightning and protection. In 1928, the tower changed its shape and took the appearance it has today. It was 5 m higher than before reaching 35 m, the balcony was built, 4 clock fields with hands were placed on the tower and a Venetian style roof was set to it. The Albanian state bought a clock in Germany to show the modernization of Tirana at that time. The tower has accompanied the development of the city and this was reflected in its appearance, with the first half in Ottoman style, all carved in stone, while from the balcony and up in Western style. In the ’30s, the tower was lit for the first time in the evening. During the World War II it was damaged, but it was restored in July 1946. Until 1970 the tower was the highest building in the capital city. The lower part built with thick stone walls, used to have wooden stairs that could take you to the upper areas. During the restauration the wooden stairs were replaced with metallic ones. The Clock Tower is the symbol of the Municipality of Tirana and together with the Et’hem Bey mosque represents a unique architectural ansemble. Funding for the restoration of the Clock Tower and the reconstruction of the Museum was made possible by the Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Tirana District, Mr. Nikolin Jaka, in April 2016.”

This is serviceable English, if a little strange in places. But what gets me is how much the world has changed. It was a big deal to have a piece of technology in your city that could tell everyone the time. And it was upgraded twice! To have a face and hands (which I would have thought were essential parts of a clock), and to have lights at night! But now this thing is a somewhat drab historical curiosity. Not only do we not tell time by the sound of a municipal clock, we don’t even tell time with pocket watches or wristwatches. We carry around little rectangular computers that are synced to a global clock somewhere, and take them out and look at them if we want to know the time. Or we don’t even do that, we wait for a vibration to notify us that it’s time to do something we scheduled an alarm or calendar appointment for. I’m not sure why the new cathedral, finished in 2012, even has a clock tower, to be honest. Tradition, I suppose.

What familiar bits of public technology will people of the future carefully preserve as quaint? “Ah, you see this array of what were called LED lights on the side of this ancient multistory retail ‘shopping mall’? Our best computational archaeologists recently restored it and using it to play a selection of archived movie trailers from the 2010s. You’ll note that the image is two-dimensional. Go inside if you want to see how an escalator would carry people up and down between levels of the building before there were gravity inverters!”

Toptani Mall

Speaking of shopping malls:

You can see the reflection of the new apartment building.
Nice place.
I wandered around for a while.
Went in the equivalent of the dollar store, which is a 1.30 Euro store, despite the fact that Albania’s currency is the lek, not the Euro. Bought a drink and a neck warmer that turned out to be useful. (Paid using lek.)
Okay so my reason for taking a photo of this sign is that half the words are loans: ashensor, toilet, restorant, bar, kafe, supermarket. But you’ll never guess dalje, argetim, and zyra (entertainment, office, exit). I really wanted “argetim” to be related to “argent” (silver) and mean “bank”. Nope!
I don’t know what Rogers sells, but they’re doing a good job of it compared to every other shop that has windows on this side of the building.
These are ruins of a castle or wall or something.

Toptani Castle

The rambling text of a sign I took a photo of indicates that the original castle (the ruins of which are now next to Toptani Mall) may have been built during the Early Byzantine Period (4th-6th century AD) by Emperor Justinian. A newer part was built at the end of the 18th century, and fell into the hands of the Toptani family. A siege damaged it, and it was partly reconstructed, but in 1832 it was demolished by the Ottomans. Some fragments remain, and they’ve been turned into a tourist district with shops and restaurants.

Entrance to the Castle tourist district, seen from inside Toptani Mall.
Same same but vertical.
The area could do with a few more tourists. Not a lot of foot traffic in January.
Not inside the castle, but nearby. Another nice place for leisure and food and drink. But I kept walking!

Namazgah Mosque (and Downtown One)

Namazgah Mosque is also known as The Great Mosque of Tirana, presumably because of its size; Wikipedia says it will be able to accommodate up to 4,500 people praying simultaneously. Now, though, it is still under construction. Albania’s Muslims wanted it built sooner, but approval was only granted in 2010. I gather it’s still a controversial project.

Plaza and mosque seen from inside Toptani Mall.
Same same but horizontal. (You could be on a computer, you could be on a phone…)
Gorgeous building! A big dome, lots of small domes, 4 minarets.
Looks pretty finished to me, but it’s still got fences around it blocking the entrances.

And lastly, another new building, just across the Lana river from the mosque:

Downtown One is Albania’s tallest building at 40 floors (140m or 459ft tall). The protruding windows form the shape of the country. (I wouldn’t have known that if an Albanian hadn’t told me.) Expected completion this year.