By Fatmira Nikolli
Illyrian and medieval castles in Albania could be soon turned into bars and restaurants according to a government plant to lease cultural monuments to local businessmen.
According to the plan unveiled in late January by the head of Albania’s Institute of Monuments, Apollon Bace, some 40 monuments would be leased for a period of up to 100 years, mainly because the government is unable to preserve them.
Bace says detailed plans for the use of these monuments will determine which parts of them are suitable for commercial activities and which parts should not be touched.
Rich with monuments dating back to Roman times, Albania has struggled for years to preserve them properly, as government after government failed to invest enough in restoration.
However, the proposal, which could be acted on as soon as next month, has drawn a fierce response from historians, archeologist and architects, some of whom accuse the authorities of failing to safeguard the nation’s heritage.
They point to the fact that two castles privatized under the previous Socialist government have not been preserved properly, and they argue that other monuments could have the same fate if the latest government proposal is finalized.
“The Ministry of Culture’s proposal to grant concessions for cultural heritage monuments is an awful idea,” historian Auron Tare said.
“That the state is rejecting its responsibilities for cultural heritage and transferring this responsibility to private hands is testimony to the collapse of state institutions,” he added.
Bace, from the Institute of Monuments, declined to be interviewed for this story, but Enton Derraj, an adviser to the Minister of Culture said the accusations made against the project were politically motivated.
“Any interventions in these monuments will be carried out in accordance with the international treaty on restoration of cultural monuments,” Derraj said.
The ruins of the Illyrian castle of Akrolisit, close to the town of Lezha were leased ten years ago to a local businessman, Gjovalin Kadeli, now a Socialist MP in parliament.
For the past decade the ruins have housed a number of mobile phone antennae built on a concrete platform, which preservation specialists say has damaged the site.
However, Kadeli defends his investment, arguing that what he bought was only a ruin, so talking of a “castle” makes no sense.
“I bought it lawfully and there was no castle there, just a two- metre-high wall, which they call a castle,” he said. The antennae have been put up on a hill and not on “the castle,” Kadelli added.
The medieval castle of Lekurs, close to Saranda, has also been the object of controversy after it was leased 12 years ago. The new owners restored it but also added a bar and a restaurant.
Cultural heritage specialist have complained repeatedly about the restoration of the monument, now owed by another Socialist MP, Vangjel Tavo.
Lulzim Iljazi, manager of the Lekurs castle and its bar and restaurant, dismisses complaints that the monument has not been properly preserved. The accusers just want the castle for themselves, he says.
“We have worked a lot on this castle and everything has been done to preserve its historical value,” Iljazi said.
Gjergj Frasheri, a well known Albania archeologist, says that what has happened with leased out cultural monuments in the past should serve as a lesson.
He believes transferring more monuments to private hands will be a mistake as Albanians are notorious for carrying out building work for which they have no planning permission.
“Albania is a country of [hundreds of thousand] of buildings built without permits, where neither the state nor the law punishes people who build illegally,” Frasheri noted.
“Damage to monuments damages our historical record, and it is irreparable and unrecoverable,” he added.
Auron Tare, historian and former director of the Butrint Archeological Park, agrees.
“If the authorities cannot even control two single projects, the question is how will they be able to control more monuments?” he asked.
This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.