Home     Story     Artworks/Bio     Studies     Journal     Updates     Press      Notable     Contact     Links     Common Ground 191        


Once Upon a Time

By Jheri St. James

“It is a legend of three brothers who, while constructing the Rozafa Castle (in Shkoder), arrived each day to find the previous day’s work demolished. A wise man was consulted and told them that only a human sacrifice could stop the devil from demolishing their work, and the brothers agreed to offer the first of their wives who came up the hill to bring food each day. Unfortunately, the two older brothers broke their promises and told their wives to stay home—so it was only the youngest brothers’ beautiful wife who showed up the next day. She valiantly agreed to be immured in the castle walls on one condition—a hole should be left so that her right arm could caress her newborn son, her right breast could feed him, and her right foot could rock his cradle. Rozafa was immured and the castle remained standing.

“Rozafa Castle crowns the 113 meter hill towering above the confluence of the Buna and Drini Rivers in the northern Albanian city of Shkoder. Shkoder’s history started on this hilltop with the establishment of a Bronze Age settlement 4000 years ago, followed much later by an Illirian fortress, a medieval castle, a Venetian and then Turkish garrison, and ultimately a historical site. Most of what remains today is from the Ottoman and Venetian periods. In early medieval times, a proper castle was built, and it is from this period that the famous legend of Rozafa originates—a legend that is found in various forms across the Balkans.”

So writes Edi Jacellari of the U.S. State Department in Albania, describing the location of her soil collection. Edi kindly responded to a mass mailing we did to many of the U.S. Embassies in foreign lands. The mailing was kind of like an archaeological dig, looking for collectors in countries that may not be frequented by holiday travelers. Thank you, Edi, we are so grateful.

View of Gjirokastër (Jim Rees)

The Republic of Albania is a Balkan country in Southeastern Europe. It borders Montenegro to the north, Kosovo to the northeast, and Republic of Macedonia to the east, and Greece to the south. It has a coast on the Adriatic Sea to the west and a coast on the Ionian Sea to the southwest. The 70% of the country that is mountainous is rugged and often inaccessible. The highest mountain is Korab situated in the district of Dibra, reaching up to 9,032 ft. The country has a continental climate with cold winters and hot summers. The capital city is Tirana, which has 800,000 inhabitants. Despite its troubled history of foreign rule and dictatorship, the country has been classified as an emerging democracy since the 1990’s. Albania has played a relevant role in managing inter-ethnic tensions in southeastern Europe and is continuing to work toward joining NATO and the European Union. Albania, with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been a strong supporter of the global war on terrorism.


Stone Age Tools found in Albania

Most historians believe that Albanians are direct descendants of, and get their name from, an Illyrian tribe called the Albanoi, which lived in modern-day Albania. Other scholars dispute this, while still others claim that Albanians (Illyrians) are descendants of the ancient Pelasgians, making their history go back at least 4,000 years BCE. Excellent craftsmen and fierce warriors, the Illyrians formed warlord-based kingdoms that fought amongst themselves for most of their history. The lands that are today inhabited by Albanians were first populated in the Paleolithic (Stone) Age over 100,000 years ago. Primitive peoples lived in secluded groups, mainly in dry caves, using stones and bones as their tools. Paleolithic peoples gathered fruits from plants and hunted wild animals. Because of their primitive conditions, they had a lifespan of approximately 21-30 years with a much higher infant mortality than today. The constant struggle with harsh living conditions led to strengthened connections among the members of each group and a change of organization of primitive peoples. At the end of the Paleolithic Age, the primitives transformed into a grouping among bloodlines, where the origins were traced to the mother. Thus a matriarchal society developed, which became common in later periods in the Neolithic (New Stone) Age.

Albania is a treasure-trove of ruins, the marks of Greek, Roman (see photo) and Byzantine lives. As recently as 2006, Neritan Ceka, Albania’s leading archeological scholar has been excavating a spectacular site in central Albania, Byllis. The Illyrian, Greek, Roman and Byzantine site is one of the most impressive recent discoveries, with a 20-row Greco-Roman amphitheater dating from the 2nd century, and 6th century Byzantine churches with mosaics rivaling any found in Greece or Turkey. Other important sites include Greek and Roman ruins in Apollonia; modern Durres, built on top of Greek, Roman and Byzantine cities; tombs belonging to 3rdf and 4th century BC Illyrian kings; in Tirana a bustling modern metropolis, a 4th century Roman house, uncovered recently at a construction site, its mosaic floors still intact.

Because of dictator Enver Hoxa’s iron grip, the Communists took over Albania in 1944 and archeological treasures were virtually lost to the world. Today conservationists in partnership with the Butrint Foundation, a British charitable trust, and other foreign organizations and colleges have begun a systematic program of excavation.

Photo: Greek and Albanian archaeologists are working together to uncover the secrets of ancient Antigoneia and its founder, Pyrrhus, king of the Molossians. Pyrrhus was a descendant of Achilles. He founded a city in 296 BC that was destroyed in the second century BC.

We started this journal entry with what sounded like a fairy tale story of a castle, which was saved by the sacrifice of a young wife and mother. Albania’s Sworn Virgins are another facet of this country: “A sworn virgin is called such because she swears—takes a vow under the law of the Kanun—to become a man. From the day she takes this vow, she becomes a man: she dresses like one, acts like one, walks like one, works like one, talks like one, and her family and community treat her as one. She is referred to as he. He will never marry and will remain celibate all of his life.

Once the sworn virgin is of age to become the head of the household, he will assume the important responsibilities of that position, which include: monitoring and supervising the wealth and labor of the family; defending the family in blood feuds; receiving guests; becoming the family’s representative in the community.

Although some descriptions of sworn virgins refer to them as women who have had to sacrifice their gender, on the contrary, it is not a sacrifice at all, but rather an avenue of opportunity. It’s an important position, and one treated with tremendous respect. As such, through dress and demeanor a woman achieves social mobility—mobility that would otherwise be completely denied her.

Our journal entry has highlighted some important decisions made by women, one to save a castle, many to become males, and there are women in the picture of the archaeologists—many roles all being played out on the breast of Mother Earth. Our soil collector is a woman.

Once upon a time, Albania was ruled by a succession of other countries and political interests. Once upon a time, her borders were other than we find them today. This is the story of the evolution of the soil of the earth, protector of archeological clues to once upon a time; cities buried beneath cities for eons. The soil of Albania holds a rich heritage of fable, myth and story, and we at Common Ground 191 are pleased to include it in our collection. The word for peace in Albania is mir.

Skanderbeg statue in Skanderbeg Square (Jim Rees)

Suela's goat. (Jim Rees)

National Folk Festival Dancers (Jim Rees)



Top | Back

All images and text © Copyright 2018 Common Ground 191 - All rights reserved