From 24-28 March 2011 I was with my wife Pauline in Tirana for a conference of the Hizmet movement also known as the Fethullah Gülen network for education, social emancipation and interreligious harmony. In various short stories I will record some impressions of this most interesting and revealing trip.
Tirana was the capital of the most severe communist country in the period 1950-1990. All churches, all mosques but one, various holy places of the Bektashi movement were destroyed. The centre of the town was reconstructed with broad, empty alleys, fit for the monstrous demonstrations that we know also from North Korea. People of Tirana compare that Stalinist period under Enver Hoxha (died 1985) now also the with present North Korean situation. The most curious building along the broad central lane is the Pyramid, designed as the mausoleum for the Communist leader, who is now replaced to a private grave only known to his family. There are not yet final plans for the building under the new constitution since the collapse of Communism in 1991.
There is a tremendous building activity in the whole country. In the centre of Tirana the major square, the Iskandar Beg, is closed for this reconstruction. On a side rode a sober, new Roman Catholic Cathedral has been built with on its front a statue of Sister Teresa, an icon for Albania. Also the international airport has been named after her.
The only remaining mosque from the pre-communist period is a rather small but very refines building in Ottoman style. Next to the mosque is a clock building from the 17th century. The paintings reminded us to the inner court of the Ummayad mosque in Damascus with nice buildings and splendid gardens, evoking dreams of paradise. The mosque is evidently much too small for the Friday prayers and a good number of faithfull was standing and bowing outside on a small square, still left free, while the attaching Iskandar Beg square is now closed for recontrsuction.
Not so far from this central mosque we visited the shrine of the Bektashi Teke, that will be discussed in a special issue of this blog. In fact there are four major religious groups in Albania: Sunni Muslims live besides Bektashi (or Alevi) Muslims, while Roman Catholics live besides the Orthodox. Percentages given are 70% for Muslims in total, 20% for the Orthodox and 10% for the Catholic community.
But we had the impression that Albanians are not too fanatic about religion and at the time of the Friday prayers the number of those who joined the only mosque in Central Tirana was not really impressive. The government is now giving room for expressions of religion. However, the plans for a grandiose Islamic Centre is still waiting for permission from the municipality, while the Catholic and Orthodox already could build spacious new churches. One informant told us that the mayor now is an Orthodox Christian, but this was doubted by other informants.
The new orthodx is nearly finished. It stand just of the Iskandar Beg square, just on the opposite side of the mosque. Whatever the personal faith of the new Albanians may be, religions have now become very visible again in the Albanian capital!