Peace and beauty – a tour of Albania in ten religious sites
‘The religion of Albanians is Albanianism’, famously wrote one of Albania’s classic poets. So if want your Albanian itinerary to take in religious sites, it might be hard to know what to expect. In fact, because of the diversity of religious belief and the high level of tolerance here, there is a wealth of sites of religious significance in Albania, all places of great beauty and peace which can be enjoyed by all.
Often there are sites sacred to different religions side by side – as in the heritage town of Berat where you can see not only eight medieval churches but also two fifteenth century mosques. As Pope Francis said on his 2015 visit to the country, “The climate of respect and mutual trust between Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims is a precious gift to the country,”
Enjoy this ‘precious gift’ and the chance to see some of the most beautiful and fascinating cities in Albania with this itinerary of places of meditation and the sublime.
1. Et’hem Bey Mosque, Tirana
If you’re flying into Albania then you’ll start your journey in the capital. At the heart of the city is Skanderbeg Square with the exquisite Et’hem Bey Mosque a landmark on its eastern side. Built in the eighteenth century, its painted walls - both internal and external - feature trees, waterfalls, and cityscapes which are rare in Islamic art.
2. Bektashi World Centre
While you’re in Tirana, take the opportunity to visit the world centre of Bektashism, a mystical dervish order. In 1925, having been outlawed in Turkey, the sect moved its headquarters to Tirana and a dazzling new ‘tekke’ place of worship in the outskirts of Tirana also hosts a museum set in peaceful gardens.
3. Catholic villages of the North – Theth
North of Tirana takes you into the Catholic heartlands. The churches in remote mountain villages such as picture postcard Theth in its mountain pastures are a lesson in spiritual and cultural endurance. Despite Ottoman conquest and Communist campaigns of atheism, Catholicism was maintained in these communities, often in secret and at great risk, and the simple churches amid simple houses and stunning landscapes are a source of inspiration, whatever your creed.
4. Icons in Berat
Heading south from Tirana will take you to the UNESCO World Heritage town of Berat. One of the town’s eight medieval churches houses the Onufri Museum of icon painting, which is one of the top destinations in Albania for art-lovers. Here you can see the work of the sixteenth-century painter, Onufri, who broke with tradition in the realism and even the colouring he included in his vibrant paintings. While you are in Berat don’t miss the chance to see the town’s fifteenth-century mosques.
5. Mount Tomorr
Make a drive from Berat through dramatic mountain capes to reach the remote Mount Tomorr. This is a sacred site to Christians and to the Bektashi – the former climb it on Assumption Day (August 15) and the latter during an annual pilgrimage from 20 to 25 August. Tomorr offers skiing and hiking as well as the meditative calm you’d associate with a site of pilgrimage.
6. Korça’s National Museum of Medieval Art
Further south is the charming town of Korça, home to the newly restored National Museum of Medieval Art. Its over 7000 objects are mainly religious icons.
7. Voskopoja frescoes
To see religious art in its original context make the short but beautiful drive from Korça to Voskopoja – once the largest city in the Balkans, with the only printing press in the region outside Istanbul, but now a community with a village pace of life. Reminders of its heyday are seven eighteenth-century Orthodox churches with intricate frescoes.
8. The Monastery of Saint John Vladimir
The Monastery of Saint John Vladimir (Shën Gjon Vladimiri) in Shijon is located only 4 km away from Elbasan. It was built in 1381 CE by the Albanian prince, Karl Topia, who brought the remains of Saint John Vladimir. Saint John Vladimir was the Duke of Krajina (Montenegro). He was declared a Saint and is well known in the Balkan Peninsula. A large pilgrimage was organized in his honor at this monastery until 1967 CE, when the communist regime forcibly closed religious institutions all over the country. Nowadays this pilgrimage is organized every 3-4 June. The monastery, with its rich library, was a very important cultural center forAlbanians. Unfortunately, Nazi Forces burned a part of the monastery during II World War. The monumental gate of the monastery, carved from stone, is currently being preserved at the National Historic Museum in Tirana.
9. The Monastery of Saint Mary
in Pojan is located within the complex of the Apollonia Archaeological Park. It was built in the 13th century CE. By the end of antiquity, Apollonia was largely depopulated, hosting a small Christian community that built this monastery on a hill, probably the site of the old city. Byzantine Emperor Andronicus Paleologus the Second, reconstructed it. The chapel was built in the Byzantine style. The Monastery of Saint Mary is one of the most beautiful structures of this kind in Albania.
10. The Monastery of Ardenica
The Monastery of Ardenica
is located close to the village of Kolonja. It is a Byzantine structure occupying a surface area of about 2,500 m². This monument consists of the Saint Mary Church, the Saint Triad chapel, the “konake”, the oil mill, the oven and the stall. In the center is situated the Church of St. Mary, partly built with pumice stones brought from Apollonia. It occupies a large area, covered by a wooden roof and a flat ceiling. The church is composed of a naos, a narthex, and a two-story exonarthex, which at the one end connects with the 24-meter tall bell tower. At the southern part of the complex is an open portico built with columns and cantilevers. The naos is made of three parts, each of them divided into two lines by wooden columns. An iconostasis divides the naos from the altar. The church floor is paved with stone tiles, as are the narthex and exo-narthex. In 1743 CE, with the initiative of Berat’s bishop, Metod, the monastery, including Saint Mary’s Church, underwent restoration. The icons of the Monastery are painted by Konstantin Shpataraku (a famous Albanian painter of XVIII century). The monastery of Ardenica is known as a place where the Prince Gjergj Kastrioti Scandarbeg got married with princess Andronika Arianiti.
Which religious site of Albania is your favorite so far? Visit the official website of Albania as well as destination page on WAYN, where you can explore amazing photos, find travel tips or ask questions, or read another article about Albania. If you like this article, share it with friends or leave us your feedback below.