"Berat - History" Top 5 Page for this destination Berat by Dritan

Berat Travel Guide: 147 reviews and 427 photos

Berat's early history

Berat prides itself as being one of the oldest towns in Albania, nearly 2400 years old. The cyclopic walls that can still be seen today at the foundations of the castle were probably laid out by the Desaretes, an Illyrian tribe. We don't know what the Dasaretes named their city, but Ptolemei, a Greek geographer, calls it "Antipatrea" in the second century BC. Being at a strategic point, that controls the gorge of Osum river, and access to the interior of the country, it changed hands many times. Under Byzantines, was part of the province of Dyrrachium (Durres), until was taken by the Bulgarians (under czar Simeon) in the 9th century, who held it until the 11th century and renamed it Beligrad (white City), from which the present name Berat is derived.

The city was taken again by the Byzantines (under emperor Basil II) in the 1014, who put out the eyes of 15,000 Bulgarian prisoners. It remained under Byzantines until 1204, when, after the capture of Constantinople by the crusaders, Michael Comnenus, a member of the imperial family, withdrew to Ioannina and founded the Despotate of Epirus. The despotate of Epirus was held by the Comnenus family until 1318, and by princes of the house of Orsini until 1358. (remember Duke Orsino from Shakespeare's 'Twelve Night', situated in Illyria?)

Berat was taken again by the Sicilian kings of the house of Anjou, who formed the "Kingdom of Albania", stretching from Kruja to Berat. In 1368, a local prince of the Muzaka house conquered the city and the surrounding area, including the fertile flatlands to the west. Today that area is called Myzeqe, a name derived from Muzaka.

When Skanderbeg began his anti-Ottoman rebellion in 1443, Theodore Muzaka, joined him in the Albanian League of Lezhe. In 1450 a small force of Ottoman solders came from their garrison in Vlore, quietly scaled the poorly guarded walls of the castle, and slaughtered the Albanian garrison of about 500 soldiers led by Pal Kuka. In 1455, Skanderbeg led siege to the city, with some 10000 troops, including some 500 Neapolitans, that Skanderbeg had brought from Kingdom of Naples as experts in demolition, artillery, and siege warfare. However, during the early days of the siege, he received news that one of his top generals, Moisi Golemi, assigned with guarding the north-eastern border at Diber against any surprise attacks, had defected to Istanbul. Leaving in charge of the siege Tanush Muzaka, his brother-in-law, he left with a sizable force first to secure the border and then in the direction of Vlore, to cut any relief efforts to Berat. This turned out to be his most disastrous blunder. Although, the Albanians continued to bombard the castle, hopping for its surrender, without a towering figure like Scanderbeg to inspire them, discipline fell, and troops grew bored. One night, a turkish solder was lowered with a rope on the side of the castle situated directly above the river. It's a height of nearly 300 meters, however he went unnoticed. Having swam across the river he ran in the direction of Gjirokaster, to notify the turkish troops there of the situation. Ten days later, the sultan sent an army of 40000 troops at the head of Evrenoz Pasha, that fell on besiegers like sudden death. The Albanians were slaughtered by the thousands. Only one Albanian commander, Vranakonti, managed to resist the initial Ottoman onslaught and pushed back several attacking waves. However, in the end the Albanians were overwhelmed in the field by sheer numbers, and lost nearly 5000 men. Skanderbeg himself was not at the battle, and when he rushed back was all but over. It was the only battle lost in his war against the Ottoman Turks, but a serious setback in his efforts to liberate the country. Berat was sadly to remain in Ottoman hands and never to be taken again. The Muzakas continued to fight the Turks under the banner of Venice, until the last of them, Gjon Muzaka - author of a chronicle on Muzaka dynasty - was forced to flee to Southern Italy when Venice made peace with the Turks.

Berat's Ottoman period

During the early period of the Ottoman rule, Berat fell in decline. However when the turkish traveler Evlya Celebi visited the town in 1670, it had recovered itself as one of the most important cities in Albania, well into the process of islamization and enjoying a refined oriental culture. Celebi speaks of it as the "luxuriant walled town of Berat". He recounts some 30 neighborhoods, of which 10 christian and 1 jewish; of these today are recognizable only 5: Mangalem, Gorica, Muratcelepie, Vakef and Kala (inside the fortress). He writes of "well built and attractive houses with gardens that are spread over seven verdant hills and valleys. Among them are over 100 splendid mansions with cisterns and fountains and an invigorating climate." With a clock tower "with a bell that can hold 10 people inside" and "that is so wonderful that it cannot be described. It must be seen to be believed," with numerous mosches and churches, covered bazaars, palaces and "around 77 parks and pleasure grounds in the vicinity of Berat", and "many poets, scholars and writers here possessing vast knowledge. They are polite and elegant, intelligent and mature, and given more to carousing than to piety." Unfortunaly however, most of the monuments and buildings of which Celebi speaks of, today have either disappeared, or are in a sorry state due to centuries of neglect.

In this period a new style of poetry developed in the city and spread in southern Albania, the school of 'bejtexhi', who had their regular poetry contests in the city (and some bitter literary rivalry to go with it). The most known poet of this style was Nezim Frakulla, (or Nezim Berati) (ca. 1680-1760), of whom some 110 poems have survived, and many others including a long story in verse have been lost.

Christian orthodox art, especially iconography and mural painting, also flourished during this period in town, with Onufri (16th century) being the most celebrated painter of this art. Onufri devised a formula for a specific shade of red he used constantly in his paintings. His school of painting was followed by his son Nikolla, Konstandin Shpataraku and others.

Although a period of relative calm, the city suffered the later centuries of steady decline of the empire. In late 18th century it came under the rule of Ali Pashe Tepelena, who had ambitions of creating an independent Albanian state streching from Arta all the way to the Shkumbin river, encompasing today's southern Albania and northern Greece. Ali Pasha, undertook a vigorous reconstruction programme, builing many roads, aqueducts, public buildings and fortifying the castle. The city came again under Turkish rule in 1822, only to be liberated finally in 1912, when it was incorporated in the new Albanian state.

Modern history of Berat

The city spent most of the WWI under Austro-Hungarian rule. Under the monarchy of King Zog, it lost a lot in status and importance and fell in a state of utter neglect. During the WWII it was damaged even further, during the battle for the liberation of Berat, between Albanian partisans and the retreating German troops. Germans started to bombard and set fire to a lot of old characteristic neighborhoods and houses (such as my own grandfather's house) only to take revenge on the city for the advancing partisans. In October 1944, the Anti-Fascist National Liberation Committee held its conference in the town's theatre and formed a provisional government headed by Enver Hoxha. The town served as the seat of the new government until Tirana was liberated in the 17th of November, 1944.

Although the new government undertook a reconstruction programme, build a few factories, among them the largest textile plant in Albania (to be renamed latter "Mao Tse Dong" textile plant), the city remained a backwater, provincial town. Together with Gjirokaster, it was named as a museum town, and many objects of historical and architectural value were taken under state protection. Hoxha even took a personal interest in resurfacing most of the cobblestone streets in the city. But he did much more damage, in 1967, when he embarked in his own brand of 'cultural revolution', making religion illegal and destroying most but a handful of churches and mosques. And to please their megalomaniac boss the local branch of the communist party, had 'volunteers' write Enver's name in the slopes of Mount Shpirag facing the city. Ask locals to show you where it is, it should still be visible to this day. In the same time, a number of mansions and palaces belonging to the old caste of beys were also knocked down, as they belonged to the 'enemy of the people'. One such palace was that of Vrioni.

Vrionis had been a prominent family in Albania ever since the turkish times, several of them had been governors or otherwise had high positions in the turkish administration and later under the Albanian monarchy. As such they became a prime target by the regime. Their beautiful marble palace was destroyed and an ugly school building was built on its grounds. All that remains today are a few arches and a portico, still testifying to the beauty it once gated. The last of the Vrionis, Jusuf, a soft-spoken, Sorbonne-educated intellectual, was a political prisoner, when he came across Ismail Kadare's books, and started translating them into French, just to keep his sanity. But his skillful translations were apparently so good, that Kadare become an instant success in France, and that success saved him from being himself rotten in jail.

  • Last visit to Berat: Sep 2004
  • Intro Updated May 9, 2016
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Reviews (27)

Comments (5)

  • JLBG's Profile Photo
    Sep 7, 2007 at 8:38 PM

    This is a superb page on Berat! I have learnt a lot from you and will go back to Berat for another visit in order to see all what I have missed! Great photos and excellent documentation in your tips! Thanks!

  • richard66's Profile Photo
    Dec 6, 2006 at 6:06 PM

    I love the way you describe drinking the Raki,brilliant.The same as Faridah,are you a writer????

  • Lunaina's Profile Photo
    Sep 2, 2006 at 12:07 AM

    Wow, many tips, nice pictures!! Albania looks beautiful!

  • faridah's Profile Photo
    Jul 18, 2006 at 12:19 AM

    Its like I am reading a book... wonderful description. Are you a writer?

  • illumina's Profile Photo
    May 26, 2006 at 1:54 AM

    Wonderful historical description, thank you!! I wish I'd had the chance to visit Berat when I was in Albania.


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