BERAT CITADEL (KALAJA E BERATIT)
Petit Futé's opinion on BERAT CITADEL (KALAJA E BERATIT)
Overlooking the hill of Mangalem at 187 m altitude, this large stone vessel is one of the jewels of tourism in Albania. Its half-destroyed walls and its 24 decapitated towers give it a threatening appearance: these are the scars left by the Angevins during the siege of 1280-1281. Once through the large vaulted door at the north entrance, you discover a much less hostile world: a small village of 10 hectares out of time, peaceful and romantic as one could wish, without Mercedes backfire or deafening music. A tangle of alleys with slippery cobblestones, Byzantine churches that are very sober in appearance but which house priceless frescoes, a breathtaking view of the Osum valley, a minaret, grandmothers selling knitwear and lace, the good hotel-restaurant Klea and the precious Onufri museum.
A solid rocky spur dominating the Osum valley, the site was fortified by the Illyrians from the end of the 5th century BC. The fortress was destroyed by the Romans in 200 B.C. However, when the Empire separated the East from the West, Berat once again became an important strategic point: it controlled the Via Egnatia which linked Rome to Constantinople via Dyrrhachium (Durrës). The walls were therefore reinforced in the 5th century by the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II, then in the 6th century by Justinian
The threat of Charles of Anjou - In the 13th century, the Byzantine Empire broke up after the Crusaders took Constantinople (1204). The Catholic powers of the West are seizing vast territories in the Balkans. But Berat remains under the control of the Epirus despot Michael II Comnenus. This Byzantine prince financed the most important fortification works of the fortress. For the city was then threatened by the last son of the King of France Louis VIII: Charles I of Anjou, King of Sicily. In 1258, it seized Durrës, Vlora and Butrint, and advanced towards Macedonia. At the same time, the Byzantines managed to retake Constantinople (1261) and set out to reconquer their Empire with the support of Michel II Comnenus. The confrontation between the Angevins and the Byzantines begins. It's all going to come down to Berat
The failure of Hugues de Sully - In 1279, the Burgundian lord Hugues de Sully was appointed vicar-general of Albania by Charles of Anjou. His mission: Berat, last lock on the road to Constantinople. In the summer of 1280, he seized the outskirts of the city at the head of an army of 8,000 men and surrounded the fortress. To hold the siege, the Byzantines have only a small garrison. But Emperor Michael VIII orders his subjects to pray for Berat's fate and, above all, he sends his best general, Michael Tarchaniotes. Arriving in the region in the spring of 1281, he managed to supply the fortress with rafts launched on the Osum. Avoiding a direct confrontation, he leads ambushes against the Angevin troops. The strategy pays off, as Ottoman mercenaries from the Byzantine army succeed in capturing Hugues de Sully. Demoralized, the soldiers from Anjou begin to flee and are for the most part taken prisoner
A turning point in Albanian history - The victory of the siege of Berat allows the return of Byzantium to the region. But, weakened by internal quarrels and faced with the Ottoman threat in the East, the Empire abandoned Albania to the feudal lords in 1347. For the Angevins, this defeat marks the end of their expansion in the Balkans. The Kingdom of Albania founded by Charles of Anjou will last nearly a century. It will disappear with the capture of Durrës in 1378 by the Albanian prince Charles Topia (himself a grandson of Charles of Anjou). To achieve this, the Topia clan has allied itself with the Ottomans. They will then establish themselves in Albania for more than five centuries
The defeat of Skenderbeg - After the withdrawal of the Byzantines, the citadel passed from hand to hand before finally being occupied from 1417 onwards by the Ottomans. In 1745, Skanderbeg is about to take it over. Aware of what was at stake, the sultan quickly sent 20,000 men through the Via Egnatia and inflicted a heavy defeat on the Albanian insurgents. Guarded by a large garrison, the citadel was never again under siege
Ali Pasha's cunning - In 1808, while Berat was under the control of a rival Ottoman governor, Ali Pasha managed to seize the fortress without provoking a reaction from the sultan. To do this, he uses an odious mixture that he keeps secret: a thin layer of negotiation to begin with, a good dose of civilian massacres to sow terror, a great burst of diplomacy to soften up the adversary and a few drops of poison to eliminate the garrison chief.
Built on a triangular plan following the relief, the citadel is surrounded by fortifications that measure about 620 m in the north-south axis, and 410 m in the east-west axis. It was within these walls that the bulk of the population of Berat was concentrated for centuries. A few dozen inhabitants continue to live there, in stone houses dating mainly from the 18th and 19th centuries. Access (paying visitors) is through the North Gate. Small passages in the ramparts are also accessible by stairs to the south (from the bottom of Mangalem), but they are quite difficult to find. On a north-south axis, Mbrica Street, serves a network of narrow streets where the main sights are well indicated. Of the 42 religious buildings in the citadel, half of which date from the Byzantine period, only 10 have survived the jolts of history and the destructive madness of Enver Hoxha: 2 ruined mosques and 8 Orthodox churches. Right in the centre of the citadel, the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary houses the Onufri Museum
North Gate - After Mihal Komnena Street coming from the bottom of Mangalem, already steeply sloping, turn left through the pines to face a last curved section, also steeply sloping - parking lot. This monumental entrance was erected by Michel II Comnene in the 13th century. It is always decorated with the initials of the despot of Epirus: "MK" (for Μιχαήλ Κομνηνός/Mihaïll Komninos). That's where the guard is selling tickets to enter the citadel. This one keeps the keys to all the churches of the citadel. He only entrusts them to the director of Berat's Heritage Department when he receives the go-ahead. To get them, you'll first have to go through the director of the Onufri museum, then play your negotiating skills (not easy!)
Cathedral of the Dormition-of-the-Virgin-Theotokos - National Museum of Onufri Icons.
Saint-Théodore Church (Shën Todrit) - To the left of the North Gate, in Gjon Muzaka Street which runs along the east rampart. It houses 13 frescoes by the great Onufri, of which the best preserved are those of Saint Theodore and Saint Basil of Caesarea. It was built in three phases (11th century, 14th century and second half of the 16th century) on the site of an early Christian church, some elements of which can be seen, such as the vaulted window column. It also houses an 18th-century copy of the Epitaph of Gllavenica, a silk sheet symbolizing the Shroud of Christ (the 14th-century original is on display at the National History Museum in Tirana)
Saint-Constantin-et-Sainte-Hélène Church (Shën Kostandinit dhe Helenës). Near the west rampart. Dedicated to the Roman emperor founder of the Byzantine Empire and his mother, it was erected in the 16th century. It is decorated with a mosaic on the floor (in poor condition) and frescoes made by anonymous painters, mostly in 1591: Descent from the Cross, Washing of the feet (Jesus washing the feet of his disciples the day before his death), Arrest of Christ, etc.. Surprisingly, the Descent from the Cross is reproduced on another fresco dating from 1649.
Eglise de la Vierge-des-Blachernes (Shën Mëri Vllahernës) - Near the western rampart, about 20 m south of the church of St-Constantin-et-Ste-Hélène. She was raised at the end of the 13th century. (on the site of a former monastery of the 5th century) to celebrate the defeat of the Angevins in 1281. Its name refers to the ancient Basilica of the Virgin Theotokos in the Blachernes district, north of Constantinople/Istanbul, one of the most important shrines of the Greek Orthodox Church. It houses magnificent frescoes created in 1578 by the son of the great Onufri, Nikolla Onufri: Dormition of the Virgin, Virgin Theotokos, Christ in Majesty, Descent from the Cross, Christ appearing to his disciples after his resurrection. The painter also represented his namesake: Saint Onuphre the Anachorete. The floor is also decorated with mosaics
Eglise Saint-Nicolas (Shën Kollit) - Near the western rampart, next to the church of the Virgin of Blachernes. It's the newest of the churches in the citadel. It was built during the Ottoman period, at the end of the 16th century, as evidenced by the date 1591 on one of the frescoes. These are remarkable, especially those representing the prophets. They were painted by one of the most famous painters of the school founded by Onufri, Onufri the Cypriot (Onufër Qiprioti), exiled from Cyprus after the Ottoman invasion of the island in 1571. Notice the altar that comes from an early Christian church
Trinity Church (Shën Triadha) - Southwest of the ramparts, next to a 13th century bastion called "Citadel" on the panels. It was erected at the beginning of the 14th century by Andronic Angel Palaeologist, a member of the Byzantine imperial family and governor of the province of Berat. Of modest size, it is a beautiful example of the "late Byzantine" style, influenced in the region by the Franks and Slavs, with its cross shape, dome and "cloisonné" bricks. His frescoes have almost disappeared, eaten away by mould.
White Mosque (Xhamia e Bardhë) - To the south-west of the ramparts, in the bastion "Citadel", between the Church of the Holy Trinity and the Red Mosque. The oldest mosque in Albania, it was built shortly after the Ottomans took the city in 1417 for the needs of the garrison and the caravans of merchants crossing the Empire. It was destroyed in the 19th century when soldiers fled the city during an uprising.
Red Mosque (Xhamia e Kuqe) - South of the ramparts, in Mbrica Street, leaving the bastion housing the White Mosque. Only part of the walls and its minaret remain. Dating back to the early 15th century, it was severely damaged by German aircraft during the Second World War: pilots used the minaret as a landmark to drop their bombs on the city. The mosque could reopen, since a reconstruction project has been launched.
St. George's Church (Shën Gjergjit) - South of the ramparts, at the end of Mbrica Street. Mbrica Street ends in front of a large abandoned building. It is in fact the former church of St. George. Dating from the 14th century, it was modified in the 17th century and dedicated to George Kastriot Skanderbeg. This is where the Berat Codex was kept for centuries. All the frescoes were lost in the 1980s, when the church was transformed into a tourist residence and then into a restaurant, before being abandoned.
South Tower (Kulla e Jugut) - At the south-eastern end of the citadel - at the end of Mbrica street, follow the path. This 13th-century military building offers a wonderful view of the Osum Valley and the citadel on Gorica Hill. Below the tower, on the right, you can see the small Byzantine church of the Archangel Michael (Shën Mëhillit).
Other churches - Two other Byzantine churches are located along the eastern rampart on the way back to the North Gate: St. Sophia (Shën Sofisë) and St. Demetrios (Shën Mitrit).
Information on BERAT CITADEL (KALAJA E BERATIT)
24-hour access - paid during the day when the guards are present: 100 lek
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