The most interesting places to visit are often those furthest from the beaten path.
“Albania? Why, of all the places to go in the world, would you choose to go to Albania?” That was the usual response from friends when they learned I’d just come back from this forgotten corner of Europe. I have found, I told them, that the most interesting places to visit are usually the ones furthest from the beaten path, and that was certainly the case this time.
Bordering on Greece and just across the Adriatic from southern Italy, Albania is the poorest country in Europe, about the size of Maryland but with 7,000 foot mountains. It was the most repressive Communist country in those years when repression was raised to an art form, and became, after Communism fell, the stolen car capital of the world. Its history, both before the 20th century and during it, tells one something of the sort of place it later became.
What is now Albania was part of the Roman Empire until it was conquered by the Slavs, later by the Bulgarians, and ultimately by the Ottoman Empire. The Turks kicked it around for centuries until the First Balkan War, in 1912, and with the dissolution of Turkish rule Albanians found themselves being invaded by Serbs, Bulgarians, and Greeks, all of whom wanted pieces of it, until a truce, in 1913, supervised by the Great Powers, created an independent country. But that only lasted for a year or so until the Serbs again invaded, followed closely by troops from the Habsburgs’ Austro-Hungarian Empire, who were actually welcomed, in pursuit of the Serbs. By the end of World War I and the demise of Austria-Hungary, Albania was again thrown into turmoil, and in 1939 Mussolini’s forces invaded, soon followed by the Greeks bent on defeating the Italians. The collapse of Italy in 1943 brought in the Germans, and in 1945 the place descended into Hell with the emergence of Enver Hoxha, a young resistance fighter turned Communist who eventually became head of state. The role model of Kim Jong Il, he is described by Albanians as “Stalin on steroids.”
Albania started its journey into communism allied with Yugoslavia, but broke that off in 1948 because Hoxha found Tito too moderate, and signed up with Uncle Joe Stalin instead. Stalin had about the right temperament, but that love affair soured after Stalin died in 1953 and Khrushchev turned out to be a squish. So this time Albania signed up with Communist China, which lasted until 1978 when Hoxha decided Mao was a middle-of-the-roader and threw him over and decided to go it alone, friendless, at least outside of some American faculty lounges. In the meantime, Hoxha turned the place into a police state to end all police states, armed it to the teeth, built 150,000 mushroom-looking concrete bunkers to repel western infiltrators, declared the country an atheist state — the only country in the history of the world ever to be so designated — and put together an internal security apparatus that made the East German Stasi look like a bunch of pikers. He locked the place down, eliminating almost all contact with the outside world, leaving diplomatic relations with only a few Warsaw Pact countries that met the test of severity.
After Communism’s fall two decades ago, Albania understandably had the most difficult time of any Eastern Bloc country in returning to freedom, and only after ten years of lawlessness, riots, organized and street crime, suppression and attempts by thousands to flee to Greece and Italy, and a pyramid scheme that practically cleaned out the country, did it achieve a degree of normality and begin to join the civilized world.
What happens, I wanted to know, when such a tyrannical place achieves liberty? What transpires when those in a designated atheistic state are allowed again to practice their faith and to worship? What are the consequences when every scintilla of entrepreneurial spirit has been crushed and people are again permitted to make a living as they see fit?
OVER A PERIOD of 10 days, traveling from one end of this little country to the other with my English friend Christopher Hancock, a professor at Oxford and an Anglican priest, often in the most primitive ways, even walking for full days at a time, staying in cheap hotels and inns and even cheaper farm houses, and talking to dozens upon dozens of every sort of person, I began to answer these questions. In a nutshell, nothing happens overnight, but the desire for freedom, faith, truth, and entrepreneurship do re-emerge, people get back on their feet, help arrives, often from the most surprising places, and life slowly acquires a sense of the normal.
First, you fly into Mother Teresa Airport in Tirana, the capital. The famous nun after whom the international airport is named was an Albanian and is now a national hero and well on the path to sainthood. It’s an amazing switch for a place that not only banned religion (the Albanian Constitution of 1976 unabashedly declared, “The State recognizes no religion, and supports and carries out atheistic propaganda in order to implant a scientific materialistic world outlook in people”), but shot priests, nuns, monks, and Muslim clerics; bulldozed churches or, if they were venerable enough, turned them into warehouses and stables after painting out every fresco, portrait, and vestige of religious adornment; and imprisoned anybody who even breathed a word about any sort of religion.
Soon after we arrived we drove to a small Catholic church perched high on a mountain side under a huge white cross, probably about 80-100 feet high, visible from 20 miles away. The church would host, the next week, a pilgrimage of Christians who would walk from the valley, about five miles up a steep, hot, and winding road to some 2,000 feet, to spend the day in prayer.
“How many people do you expect?” I asked the priest who had organized it. “Last year we had about 250,000,” he responded. “We expect about twice that many this year.” And, in fact, it is estimated that about half a million people walked up the 2,000 foot mountain — not bad, in country of fewer than four million — people who would have gone to prison until 20 years ago for even mentioning religion.
Albania is a mix of Christians and Muslims. Of those who have returned to faith, it is estimated that half are Muslims, 30 percent Orthodox, and 20 percent Catholic, with a smattering of Evangelicals, although much of the population remains atheist. Many of the Muslims are known as Bektashi, a mystic sect that is unique to the Balkans. Albania’s Bektashi are moderate and peaceful people, get along well with Christians (and in fact intermarry and convert to Christianity without objection), but are considered infidels by the Wahabbis.
We visited many mosques that have been reopened or rebuilt, as we did Christian churches and monasteries, and even found a new Orthodox monastery being built from the ground up. For whatever reason, Hoxha seemed to have a certain respect for old buildings, and many churches built in the 11th and 12th centuries, and even a few from the 2nd century, remain. Many religious organizations, particularly the Catholic and Orthodox churches, have sent missionaries, artisans, and money to help rebuild and restore churches and to help re-establish organized religion, with the result that since the fall of Communism nearly 1,500 churches have been built or restored. Compared to secular Western Europe, religion is thriving in Albania.
MY PLANE landed in Tirana after midnight, and my concern that no taxis would be available to take me into town was alleviated when a bevy of cab drivers were waiting as I claimed my luggage. I wondered if in fact these guys were really cab drivers or muggers, and was surprised when mine ushered me into a new and very clean Mercedes. As I looked around as we drove into Tirana, it seemed that every car on the road was also either a new Mercedes or BMW. Where, I wondered, did this poor country happen on all these expensive cars? It didn’t take long for an answer: they were stolen.
Albanian organized crime was a significant venture until a few years ago, and non-Albanian gangs also discovered Albania to be a ready market, although I was told by at least one high-ranking official that the enterprise has been drastically reduced in recent years, and that wiping it out all together is now a high priority. Nevertheless, Albania has more Mercedes and BMWs per capita than Germany. Like drugs coming into the U.S. from Mexico, the flow is difficult to stop. A survey done several years ago of BMW X5s (the four-wheel drive luxury SUV) situated in Tirana found 118 of them. Fully 110 had “irregular” identification numbers, and 10 had identical numbers.
And then there is the infrastructure. No on-time Russian-built subway systems here, as in Warsaw and Budapest, just dusty, pot-hole laden overcrowded roads, often blocked by herds of sheep and goats, people on donkeys, and flocks of chickens forcing those shiny Mercedes onto the shoulder. Mother Teresa is the country’s only major airport, and what railroads exist are falling apart and used only for freight, leaving the primary means of transportation to an efficient system of entrepreneur-owned buses and minivans (also mostly Mercedes) with a sign in the window indicating where they are going; when they have enough passengers they’ll get you there, usually at break-neck speed, for a couple of dollars.
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