Argyrokastron

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Argyrokastro (Greek: Αργυρόκαστρο or Γυρόκαστρο; Albanian: Gjirokastër or Gjirokastra) is a city in Northern Epirus / southern Albania with a population of around 30,000, including a substantial Greek community. Its old town is inscribed on the World Heritage List as "a rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town, built by farmers of large estate".

History

Argyrokastro is an ancient city with traces of human habitation dating back to the 1st century BC. It is located on the slopes of the Mali i Gjerë ("Wide Mountain"). The city was probably founded some time in the 12th century AD around a fortress on the hillside. Under the rule of the Byzantine Empire, it developed into a major commercial centre known as Argyropolis ("Silver City") or Argyrokastron ("Silver Castle"). It was part of the Despotate of Epirus in the 14th century before passing to the Ottoman Empire in 1417. It was captured in 1811 by Ali Pasha and in the late 19th century became a centre of resistance to Turkish rule. The Assembly of Gjirokastër, a key event in the history of the Albanian liberation movement, was held there in 1880.

Argyrokastro was liberated by Greek forces during the First Balkan War, however, the Great Powers - especially Italy and Austria - refused to acknowledge Greek sovereignty over Northern Epirus, forcing the Greeks to cede it to the newly-created state of Albania. The population of Northern Epirus reacted and, on February 17, 1914, Georgios Christakis-Zografos the Former Foreign Minister of Greece declared the creation of the autonomous state of Northern Epirus from Argyrokastro. Argyrokastro was proclaimed the capital of the autonomous state and in the ensuing war against Albanian troops, the Greeks aided by Cretan volunteers, were victorious. Once again, however, the Great Powers intervened and forced the region to accept Albanian rule with promises of autonomy.

During the First World War Argyrokastro was occupied once again by Greek troops but once again they were forced to withdraw by the forces of the Entente alliance. The city, along with the rest of Albania, was occupied by the Italians in 1939. When the Italians used Albania as a springboard to attack Greece in World War II, the Greeks counter-attacked and liberated the city once more on December 8, 1940. After the war, the city was restored to Albanian rule. The postwar Communist regime developed the city as an industrial and commercial centre, and elevated it to the status of a "museum town" largely due to the fact that it was the birthplace of the dictator Enver Hoxha. Argyrokastro suffered severe economic problems following the end of communist rule in 1991. It was particularly badly affected by the 1997 collapse of a massive pyramid scheme, which destabilised the entire Albanian economy. Violent anti-government protests took place in the town; on December 16, 1997, Hoxha's house was blown up by unknown (but presumably anti-communist) attackers. Its population has dropped since the 1990s, with many ethnic Greeks departing for Greece. However, they still are a sizeable presence in the city and exert a large cultural influence.

Economy

Argyrokastro is principally a commercial centre with some industries, notably the production of foodstuffs, leather, and textiles.

Culture and places of interest

Many houses in Argyrokastro have a distinctive local style that has earned the city the nickname of the "town of the stones", because most of the old houses have roofs covered with stones. Due to the city's importance to the Communist regime, its city centre was spared at least some of the thoughtless redevelopment that afflicted other cities in Albania, but its designation as a "museum town" unfortunately did not translate into maintaining the old town. Consequently many of its historic buildings have become dilapidated, a problem that is only slowly being resolved.

The Citadel dominates the town and overlooks the strategically important route along the river valley. It's open to visitors and contains a military museum featuring captured artillery and memorabilia of the Communist resistance against German occupation.

Argyrokastro also features an old bazaar which was originally built in the 17th century, but which had to be rebuilt in the 19th after it burned down. There are over 20 museums in Gjirokastër today and it is also the site of the annual National Folk Festival.

When the town was first proposed for inscription on the World Heritage List in 1988, ICOMOS experts were nonplussed by a number of modern constructions which detracted from the old town's appearance. The historic core of Argyrokastro was finally inscribed in 2005, 15 years after its original nomination.


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