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feature 08 Jan 18

Floods Worsen Woes of Albania’s Decaying Heritage Sites

December’s floods did serious damage to several heritage sites in Albania – but experts blame part of the damage on earlier failures to carry out preservation work, and mismanagement of resources.

Geri Emiri

The heavy rain that hit Albania last December flooded thousand of houses and tore down roads and bridges.

Emergency services struggled to evacuate people trapped in cars by rising floodwater. The highway from Tirana to Elbasan has since been partly blocked by a massive landslide.

But, apart from homes, farms and transport infrastructure, the flash flood also damaged cultural heritage sites, such as old churches and mosques.

As a result of filing Freedom of Information requests to the Ministry of Culture, the Institute of Cultural Monuments, IMK, and the Durres Regional Directory of the IMK, BIRN has found out that the bad weather damaged at least six churches and mosques and several historic buildings in Gjirokastra, a world heritage site under UNESCO protection.

Damage was done also to the Byzantine-era forum in Durres, the 17th-century Goliku bridge on the ancient Via Egnatia and to parts of the medieval castle of Libohova.

BIRN learned also that while conservation work had started at some of these sites, like the Church of John the Baptist near Kruja in central Albania and the Libohova castle in the south, work on these projects was postponed, which increased their vulnerability to floods.

In Gjirokastra, the roof of the Brotherhood Kale, a house at the heart of the historic city, was so heavily damaged that it was deemed a “a risk” to passers-by and torn down.

According to preservation experts, heavy rain was not the only cause of the damage. Neglect over years plus perceived mismanagement also helped.

“The state has the duty to maintain and preserve, not to destroy,” Arben Biçoku, an architect and member of the Forum for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, a pressure group based in Tirana, said.

“The priority of protecting people’s lives is right – but it would be better to avoid such situations by not letting buildings decay up to that point,” he added.

Flood damage ancient churches and mosques:

Albania has a rich cultural heritage, including religious sites, medieval forts and vernacular urban architecture built over the centuries.

However, preservation of this heritage for future generations is a major challenge for a poor country, which does not always manage the available funds properly.

Shkodra’s Xhamia e Plumbit mosque, built in 1773 by Mehmet Pasha Bushatlliu, is a cultural symbol for the country that repeatedly goes under water following heavy rain.

The IKM told BIRN that the mosque was flooded again in December, after suffering the same fate last year.

“The mosque in Shkodra goes under water because the site is lower than the level of the [nearby] Kir and Drin rivers,” the IMK explained.

Preservation work that aimed to create barriers to protect the mosque from flooding should have started in 2015, when Turkey’s Agency for International Cooperation, TIKA, offered to fund the work.

Despite that, the work has not yet started. Culture Minister Mirela Kumbaro told a local television station last December that intervention at the site needed more time.

The Church of John the Baptist in Derveni, near Kruja, considered a monument of the first category, suffered worse damage in December, when overflowing water from the nearby Zeze river damaged it.

“Our staff from the regional directory in Durres have removed the water and cleaned [the dirt] caused by the heavy rain. Currently, the situation has been normalized,” IMK told BIRN.

But architect Arben Biçoku says the damage done to the church is irreversible.

“This church was flooded even before the last heavy rains. It is below the surface of the surrounding land, and has been excavated, so the water pours in each time that it rains,” he said.

The church was discovered by chance in 2008. According to Biçoku, its fate is a prime example of the poor coordination between the Archeological Institute that conducted the excavation and the Institute of Cultural Monuments that should preserve the findings.

Scholars believe the church was built in the 13th or 14th centuries. It was uncovered during work to build a new church at the site. BIRN learned that in 2008, the Monuments Institute allocated funds to protect it.

However, Biçoku says that no actual preservation or restoration work has taken place.

He also says the church has already lost the wall paintings discovered in 2008.

“The excavation was completed – but no restoration or preservation was ever done, so we lost the qualitative part of this monument.

“All that remains are the walls, but the wall paintings were lost, not just from the last rains but from each time it rained over the years,” Biçoku said.

Several other historic churches situated in the western lowlands of Albania have also been flooded and damaged.

Further south, part of the internal wall of the castle of Libohova was lost due to rains.

Two years ago, the government promised 18.5 million leks [about 140,000 euros] to renovate the site.

However, Kreshnik Merxhani, an architect specializing in cultural heritage, said the project was never implemented.

“The project to evaluate and restore the Libohova Castle included overall intervention on the circuit wall and other structures of the castle. However, the project is still on paper,” he said.

Buildings collapsing in Gjirokastra:

The UN’s cultural wing, UNESCO, added the ancient nearby town of Gjirokastra to its list of world heritage sites in 2008.

However, it lost two of its old houses in December, one of which was located in the heart of the town in the medieval bazaar.

“The wall on the east side on the ground floor partly collapsed while the north and west side collapsed in half. The roof on the northeast side totally collapsed. The building posed a risk, so the family living on the ground floor was evacuated,” the IMK said.

As in other cases, a project to preserve the building, this time costing 15 million leks, was never implemented.

In another case, the town authorities tore down a house because they had no money to protect it and considered it a risk to pedestrians. This building is now lost forever as there is no plan to rebuild it.

“The Gjirokastra Directory plans to consolidate and preserve the building in a state of ruin, to avoid further damage,” the IMK said.

Kreshnik Merxhani says bad weather is not the only cause of the damage.

“These buildings suffered lack of maintenance for years,” he said, adding that other buildings in Gjirokastra were also damaged, but their cases had not been reported by the authorities.

Built on steeply sloping hills, houses in Gjirokastra are at constant risk of landslides. The entire town is built of stone and is best known for its heavy stone roof tiles.

Preserving these buildings has been neglected for decades, however, due to economic difficulties.

The IKM says it has prepared ten conservation projects for the town.

However, an article published in Monumentet, a specialist magazine publication, authored by Lejla Hadžić and Elena Mamani, says 169 monuments in Gjirokastra need repair and 51 are at risk of collapse and require immediate intervention.

Merxhani said some simple but regular intervention work would help avoid further deterioration, saving a lot of money in the long term.

“We need to manage water streams, either by planting trees or by cleaning riverbeds of urban waste that has accumulated over years,” he said, stressing that such intervention was relatively cheap.

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