Kruja, the ancient Albanian capital, just 32 km from Tirana, is the symbolic city of anti-Ottoman resistance, as well as the city of the national hero Scanderbeg.
The citadel is geographically part of central Albania and extends picturesque, thanks to the thick scrub that covers the surrounding hills, at the foot of the western slope of the mountain of the same name that overlooks the underlying plain placed as an intermezzo between the Adriatic and the mountains offering a panorama spectacular.
The picturesque natural mosaic that offers the intertwining of mountainous, hilly and rural hills, in which the oak and pine forests can be distinguished, is immediately visible as you take the road towards Kruja.
Unfortunately the black hand of globalism has not hesitated to challenge the generosity of nature, ruining the idyllic landscape with the deep quarries for the extraction of limestone.
Even before reaching Kruja, a white hill should not be forgotten in the Zgerdhesh village *(1), which despite the simple appearance, was an ancient Illyrian settlement inhabited by the Albans from which then (at least according to the main sources, but with some reservations in this regard) derives also the Albanian name with which the Shqipetare are known all over the world. The first evidence of Albanopolis and of the Albans date back to the II century. BC mentioned by Ptolemy as an important Illyrian tribe.
The ancient city extended approximately on an area of ten hectares on a hill surrounded by defensive walls. On the upper part of the hill there was the acropolis defended by high walls with towers.
The golden age of this tribe dates back to the 3rd century. B.C
The name Kruja is believed to derive from the term krua,*(2) that is, spring, numerous in the whole city and characterized not only by the fresh water that comes down from the mountains, but also by the shadow created by the ancient oaks.
Historically Kruja has always played a central role also thanks to its geographical position as a meeting point of the roads that connected the north, the south, the west and the east, which allowed the development of commerce by attributing to the city also a dominant role in all neighboring territories.
Based on archaeological discoveries in the area (Sesere)*(3), the first urban traces date back to the III century B.C
The continuity of life and economic-social development in the early Middle Ages is witnessed by the findings in the cemetery and in the fortress area, including decorative objects, various containers and terracotta objects.
In historical documents we find Kruja and its fortress first mentioned in the Xth century Notitiae Episcopatum. BC and in other Byzantine ecclesiastical documents.
Between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries it was part of the Principality of Arberia and experienced the greatest development during the times of Prince Dhimiter.
In 1338 Kruja came under the control of Tanush Topia and later reached its most flourishing period under Karl Topia called "Lord of all the lands of Arberia" with Kruja as the most important center.
In the 1437-1438 Kruja passed under the banner of the Kastrioti, including the national hero Gjergj Kastrioti or Scanderbeg who, abandoning Turkey returned to his homeland proclaiming himself 28 November 1443 lord of Kruja, the Albanian resistance against the Ottomans began. .
In fact, in the 15th century, under the leadership of Scanderbeg, Kruja attracted the attention of the whole of Europe because with its resistance it rose from a defensive barrier and prevented the Ottomans from entering the rest of Europe, thus defending Christianity for much 25 years of Ottoman terror.
The Ottoman armies surrounded it three times led by great strategists and even by the sultans themselves including Murad II and Mehmet II, but still failed to subdue it.
The symbol of the glorious medieval period is still the fortress of Scanderbeg. The castle is located on a rocky ridge on the eastern side of the city. Before the 1617 earthquake the rock was attached to the mountain of Kruja, following the earthquake it fell off taking on its present appearance due to the clay layer on which it rests.
The castle, thanks to its favorable position, presents a very extensive panorama that sweeps between the Adriatic sea, Tirana, the Dalmatian coasts, etc.
The construction of the castle dates back or at least it is believed to the V-VI sec. A.D*(4). It has two entrances, the main one that is currently accessible is a stone tunnel, while the second minor entrance is located at the west corner that leads to the source of Taslloi, one of the oldest in the city, obviously defense against thick walls and two towers, of which fragments are still preserved.
Inside the castle, near the entrance door we find the Museum "Gjergj Kastrioti".
All covered with marble was inaugurated in the 1981 and is a journey on the history of the city of Kruja over the centuries, but in particular it is a tribute to the history of Scanderbeg and its resistance against the Ottomans, a source of pride for all Albanians. In fact, at the entrance to the museum, you immediately come across a very tall marble statue depicting the hero and his soldiers in war clothing.
Among the various rooms that make up the museum there are exposed frescoes, paintings, testimonies, mosaics, historical documentation and much more of great value that testify to the heroic deeds of the Kastrioti lords of Kruja as well as of all the Albanian people who have always put up with the foreign domain.
However, Scanderbeg's sword and helmet are missing, located at the Vienna Arms Museum.
Another museum of great interest always within the walls of the castle is the Ethnological Museum.
The building historically belonged to the Toptani family, a name not indifferent to the Albanians for the role that many members and descendants of this family had in Albanian history. It was a kind of harem or home of the women of the Pasha Toptani. It is a specimen of a typical Albanian noble house, furnished exactly as it was at the time and thanks to the great architectural, historical and artistic values it bears has been declared a monument of culture.
Upon entering, one has the sensation of crossing a threshold that leads directly to the past, for a few moments the link with the present is lost and one gets wrapped up in that feeling of nostalgia that transmits contact with the simple, rustic and frugal life of the Albanians of once.
Externally, the white building has many windows with wooden shutters.
On the ground floor, immediately after the courtyard, in which it is often usual to find turkeys that swell and gurgle unperturbed, there are several rooms each dedicated to a different operation, for example there is a chamber for processing shajak (a kind of woolen cloth), the one for the production of grappa, the extraction of oil, the production of flour, cheese, etc.
The upper floor, on the other hand, presents the real home, with a wooden floor on which the brightly colored woolen carpets are spread, usually sewn by the ladies of Kruja as wool processing was one of the main activities of the city and almost all women learned this trade at an early age.
Very interesting are also the wall paintings, the wood engravings that cover the walls, the hearths or the ceilings.
The rooms are different: the kitchen with characteristic wooden and ceramic tableware, fruit of the patient work of the Kruja artisans, the hamam that is the Turkish bath equipped with a heating and refueling system, the hearth room, the men's room to which the women had no access in the presence of the men but she was allowed to observe them from a small balcony with a view of the room, it is also particular the women's room where they would gather to embroider in the company usually to prepare their dowry that was all for work manual, an expression of the refined tastes of young girls of marriageable age.
The Clock Tower is another element of the castle to visit. *(5) Its function in the past was that of the clock and the watch tower thanks to the boundless view that allowed to identify the enemy in the distance. About 16 meters high, it had three non-existent bells today.
During the excavations near the tower the remains of an ancient church have been found, believed to date back to the period of the first synod of Constantinople.
In the space between the Ethnographic Museum and that of Gjergj Kastrioti one can still see the remains of ancient houses and buildings ruined by time, although there is still a neighborhood that is still habitable in the western part known to the inhabitants as the district kalà (castle).
Another particular structure inside the fortress is the hamam (Turkish bath). It is located in the western part of the castle and is distinguished by its originality in heating systems, water supply and architecture that allows light to penetrate from above the dome and illuminate the entire environment. It is indirectly connected to the source of Taslloi *(6) which supplies it with water as it also supplies the wells inside the castle. Probably it was the same one that tried to poison the Turks during the third siege in order to besiege the city, also described by Kadare in the novel "The fortress".
Throughout the city of Kruja there are various places of worship and prayer bektashiani or tekkè, which usually contain within them the tombs of second saints and bektashian beliefs. One of the most important tekkè is located inside the castle (Tekkè by Dollma)*(7) declared a monument of culture and is also one of the oldest in the area.
In reality it was built over the foundations of another older tekkè. It presents a distinguishable Byzantine style with various well-preserved murals of anonymous painters and murals in Arabic, Persian and ancient Turkish.
Returning from the castle one cannot help but cross the ancient bazaar of Kruja, a veritable heart of the city. The Bazaar, also known as derexhik, was built simultaneously with the castle. Beginning in the 12th century, Kruja underwent a certain commercial development as the caravans of goods before reaching the north, stopped at Kruja.
The bazaar is made up of two rows of small shops and old wooden shops, mostly on one side on the two sides of a cobblestone street that connects the castle with the rest of the city. As a child my grandfather told me that cats crossed all the roofs of small shops side by side throughout the continuation of the bazaar.
Crossing it you have the feeling of being in a small Istanbul with a thousand bright colors, ancient robes, hand-made objects, woolen products, embroidery, qilim etc.
Even today many ladies of the city continue the tradition of wool processing and can be seen on the loom among the various derexhik shops. Particularly also the female embellishments with all kinds of embroideries, which once formed the dowry of the girls of the city.
Over the centuries the city of Kruja has developed a rich and varied local handicraft, which was often a family tradition handed down from father to son. The same cannot be said today. At one time in fact, many Krutan families had turned into real small companies working fabrics or wool for the production of characteristic clothes, the processing and engraving of wood, the production of qeselie shoes and shajak, specialties worked with mastery of Kruja's shopkeepers.
Other shops were dedicated to leather processing, wood carving, metal working, shoemakers, barbers, jewelers, carpenters, etc.
There are also art salons among the many bazaar shops, with paintings by many artists from Kruja.
Nowadays, there is no shortage of commercial products imported from China which, alongside ancient and authentic ones, do nothing but smile.
Moving on to the city it is unfortunately easy to observe the buildings that do not comply with the harmony and uniformity of this city leaning against the mountain and that due to its natural position does not tolerate disproportionate structures.
Looking up from the city you can see a white building at the top of Mount Kruja, which watches over the city. It is a real place of pilgrimage known as Sarisalltik. Easily reachable by car, it allows you to observe the whole city from above and beyond, and you can also visit this bektashian sanctuary, where there are the tombs of some bektashian saints and a water source considered miraculous according to popular beliefs. All in a natural cave in which the saint Sarisalltik is believed to have taken refuge.
Nature lovers are usually fascinated by the series of caves and caverns all over the mountain, including the Scanderbeg cave *(8) where according to legend the hero with his men and the pigeon cave would have gone.
Continuing towards the other side you can reach the Qafshtama Natural Park, at a height of 1245 meters known for the pine forest, where at the time of communism there was a well-known healing center. However, before going to Qafshtama, you will come across a natural canyon in the Abaze district of the city of Kruja that has carved out the mountains from which the Droja river passes, surrounded by mountains with thick vegetation. On the top of the road there is an ancient lapidary that looks towards the river below. According to legend, in order not to fall into Turkish enemies' hands after Scanderbeg's death, 99 girls from Kruja would have been thrown, sacrificing their lives, so the place gets its name "The rock of tears". *(10)
A small curiosity about the city of Kruja is the fact that until a few years ago there were no hotels, this is because the ancient Albanian tradition wanted guests to be hosted by the homes of citizens with all due respect and affability.
Finally, with regards to the kitchen, it does not differ much from the typical Albanian or Balkan one in general. Yet there are some peculiarities, for example the "hashure" and "kabuni" desserts are prepared in a different way than the rest of the country and are real delicacies of the place.
* (1-10): historical references were taken mainly from the last book "Historic places and events of Kruja and Kurbini" of the historian and professor Baki Dollma, and his previous writings and publications always concerning the city of Kruja.
This dossier was originally published in Albania News the 27 August 2013