Upon a Time
Jheri St. James
“It is a legend of three brothers who,
while constructing the Rozafa Castle (in Shkoder), arrived
each day to find the previous day’s work demolished.
A wise man was consulted and told them that only a human sacrifice
could stop the devil from demolishing their work, and the
brothers agreed to offer the first of their wives who came
up the hill to bring food each day. Unfortunately, the two
older brothers broke their promises and told their wives to
stay home—so it was only the youngest brothers’
beautiful wife who showed up the next day. She valiantly agreed
to be immured in the castle walls on one condition—a
hole should be left so that her right arm could caress her
newborn son, her right breast could feed him, and her right
foot could rock his cradle. Rozafa was immured and the castle
“Rozafa Castle crowns the
113 meter hill towering above the confluence of the Buna and
Drini Rivers in the northern Albanian city of Shkoder. Shkoder’s
history started on this hilltop with the establishment of
a Bronze Age settlement 4000 years ago, followed much later
by an Illirian fortress, a medieval castle, a Venetian and
then Turkish garrison, and ultimately a historical site. Most
of what remains today is from the Ottoman and Venetian periods.
In early medieval times, a proper castle was built, and it
is from this period that the famous legend of Rozafa originates—a
legend that is found in various forms across the Balkans.”
So writes Edi Jacellari of the U.S. State
Department in Albania, describing the location of her soil
collection. Edi kindly responded to a mass mailing we did
to many of the U.S. Embassies in foreign lands. The mailing
was kind of like an archaeological dig, looking for collectors
in countries that may not be frequented by holiday travelers.
Thank you, Edi, we are so grateful.
of Gjirokastër (Jim Rees)
Republic of Albania is a Balkan country in Southeastern Europe.
It borders Montenegro to the north, Kosovo to the northeast,
and Republic of Macedonia to the east, and Greece to the south.
It has a coast on the Adriatic Sea to the west and a coast
on the Ionian Sea to the southwest. The 70% of the country
that is mountainous is rugged and often inaccessible. The
highest mountain is Korab situated in the district of Dibra,
reaching up to 9,032 ft. The country has a continental climate
with cold winters and hot summers. The capital city is Tirana,
which has 800,000 inhabitants. Despite its troubled history
of foreign rule and dictatorship, the country has been classified
as an emerging democracy since the 1990’s. Albania has
played a relevant role in managing inter-ethnic tensions in
southeastern Europe and is continuing to work toward joining
NATO and the European Union. Albania, with troops in Iraq
and Afghanistan, has been a strong supporter of the global
war on terrorism.
Stone Age Tools found
historians believe that Albanians are direct descendants of,
and get their name from, an Illyrian tribe called the Albanoi,
which lived in modern-day Albania. Other scholars dispute
this, while still others claim that Albanians (Illyrians)
are descendants of the ancient Pelasgians, making their history
go back at least 4,000 years BCE. Excellent craftsmen and
fierce warriors, the Illyrians formed warlord-based kingdoms
that fought amongst themselves for most of their history.
The lands that are today inhabited by Albanians were first
populated in the Paleolithic (Stone) Age over 100,000 years
ago. Primitive peoples lived in secluded groups, mainly in
dry caves, using stones and bones as their tools. Paleolithic
peoples gathered fruits from plants and hunted wild animals.
Because of their primitive conditions, they had a lifespan
of approximately 21-30 years with a much higher infant mortality
than today. The constant struggle with harsh living conditions
led to strengthened connections among the members of each
group and a change of organization of primitive peoples. At
the end of the Paleolithic Age, the primitives transformed
into a grouping among bloodlines, where the origins were traced
to the mother. Thus a matriarchal society developed, which
became common in later periods in the Neolithic (New Stone)
is a treasure-trove of ruins, the marks of Greek, Roman (see
photo) and Byzantine lives. As recently as 2006, Neritan Ceka,
Albania’s leading archeological scholar has been excavating
a spectacular site in central Albania, Byllis. The Illyrian,
Greek, Roman and Byzantine site is one of the most impressive
recent discoveries, with a 20-row Greco-Roman amphitheater
dating from the 2nd century, and 6th century Byzantine churches
with mosaics rivaling any found in Greece or Turkey. Other
important sites include Greek and Roman ruins in Apollonia;
modern Durres, built on top of Greek, Roman and Byzantine
cities; tombs belonging to 3rdf and 4th century BC Illyrian
kings; in Tirana a bustling modern metropolis, a 4th century
Roman house, uncovered recently at a construction site, its
mosaic floors still intact.
Because of dictator Enver Hoxa’s iron grip, the Communists
took over Albania in 1944 and archeological treasures were
virtually lost to the world. Today conservationists in partnership
with the Butrint Foundation, a British charitable trust, and
other foreign organizations and colleges have begun a systematic
program of excavation.
Photo: Greek and Albanian archaeologists are
working together to uncover the secrets of ancient Antigoneia
and its founder, Pyrrhus, king of the Molossians. Pyrrhus
was a descendant of Achilles. He founded a city in 296 BC
that was destroyed in the second century BC.
started this journal entry with what sounded like a fairy
tale story of a castle, which was saved by the sacrifice of
a young wife and mother. Albania’s Sworn Virgins are
another facet of this country: “A sworn virgin is called
such because she swears—takes a vow under the law of
the Kanun—to become a man. From the day she takes this
vow, she becomes a man: she dresses like one, acts like one,
walks like one, works like one, talks like one, and her family
and community treat her as one. She is referred to as he.
He will never marry and will remain celibate all of his life.
Once the sworn virgin is of age to become
the head of the household, he will assume the important responsibilities
of that position, which include: monitoring and supervising
the wealth and labor of the family; defending the family in
blood feuds; receiving guests; becoming the family’s
representative in the community.
some descriptions of sworn virgins refer to them as women
who have had to sacrifice their gender, on the contrary, it
is not a sacrifice at all, but rather an avenue of opportunity.
It’s an important position, and one treated with tremendous
respect. As such, through dress and demeanor a woman achieves
social mobility—mobility that would otherwise be completely
Our journal entry has highlighted some important
decisions made by women, one to save a castle, many to become
males, and there are women in the picture of the archaeologists—many
roles all being played out on the breast of Mother Earth.
Our soil collector is a woman.
upon a time, Albania was ruled by a succession of other countries
and political interests. Once upon a time, her borders were
other than we find them today. This is the story of the evolution
of the soil of the earth, protector of archeological clues
to once upon a time; cities buried beneath cities for eons.
The soil of Albania holds a rich heritage of fable, myth and
story, and we at Common Ground 191 are pleased to include
it in our collection. The word for peace in Albania is mir.
statue in Skanderbeg Square (Jim Rees)
goat. (Jim Rees)
Folk Festival Dancers (Jim Rees)