Masio Scampa – Elbasan, Albania

Driving down into Elbasan

My grandfather is an Elbasan Jew. I really didn’t know much about the city, pretty much nothing at all actually, except for the infamous metallurgic complex uptown. I asked grandpa what it’s worth seeing in Elbasan as we’d drive by the city on the way to Pogradec. He completely dismissed my new-found interest in his hometown and said that there’s really nothing there, except for a really nice restaurant he suggested we stop to have dinner in.

The restaurant was easy to find, right inside the front-walls of the castle. So yes, there’s a castle in Elbasan. It’s not by any means an impressive one from the military point of view. I think its role was mostly that of encapsulating the city and providing a few watchtowers to look out for potential invaders.

Elbasan, Albania

I have to say, my parents and grandparents as well had all informed that this restaurant was top notch, but I really couldn’t have imagined how amazing it actually would be. It was more than a restaurant; it was a conglomerate of buildings and complexes, including a bar, a restaurant, a hotel and a stage for festivals or shows of any kind, build to look like a little amphitheater. The foundations of many of the buildings were elevated, displaying various ruins and artifacts that were still being excavated by a team of archeologists who looked like they worked for the Scampi complex. The architecture of the new complex was classic and sophisticated. I thought it really dignified the spot it took within the castle walls. We only explored the insides of the restaurant, which I was very impressed with. The furniture, lighting, decorations and atmosphere exquisitely combined to synthesize a very authentic high-class Albanian setting. The attention to detail was remarkable and the food itself was great and very affordable since prices in various Albanian restaurants usually fluctuate only by a few dollars. Service was fine, thought I thought the waiter was a little cocky.

When we were done eating and exploring the restaurant, we set off to explore the neighborhood inside the castle walls while we did a little digesting. I could not believe my grandpa was so dismissive of the place because I found the castle neighborhood to be beautiful and unique. It was full of narrow ancient streets of cobblestone, bright white walls running everywhere to connect houses’ yards, grapes growing in the sun and random monuments dropped here and there. I found every other moment in the castle neighborhood to be picture-worthy because every house or street I saw were unique. We asked some locals what there was there to see, and they gave us directions to an ancient church nearby. On the way there, we had to ask for directions again, this time from some British guy who just happened to be visiting there I don’t remember what for, and who seemed to be mesmerized with Elbasan, the only Albanian city he’d ever been to. The church looked very interesting, almost gothic, ornamented with big gloomy gargoyles (or chimeras, I was not sure if they worked as waterspouts). It had a unique architecture for an Orthodox church and I was very curious to see it on the inside, but as it turns out with most churches of similar caliber, it was locked and accessible only through some priest who had the key and whom we had no idea how to find. (Later that week upon returning to Tirana, I was very surprised to find out that this priest was actually my relative, a cousin of my grandpa’s. Made me wish I’d stuck around for him to come unlock it.)

So after seeing as much as we could of the church from the outside, we met with some other distant relatives of mine, who lived in this weird house right in front of the church. I knocked on their door just to inquire on how to get in the church, and the front door was unlocked. As I stepped in, I saw the place was loaded with Jewish symbols everywhere, but when I later asked the lady living there she said it was just a coincidence; well she said that before she found out I was part Jewish myself, but I still don’t understand why she didn’t want to reveal that. It’s not a big deal to be Jewish in Albania at all. She had a few girlfriends next to her as she was chatting with us from her house’s terrace. One of them was eye-humping Michael so hard he was getting uncomfortable. I got a kick out of that.

There was a lot to see in the castle neighborhood and I’d like to go there again sometime.


Google Map of Elbasan

Elbasan entry from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Elbasan came into prominenece in the Roman period when it was known as Masio Scampa. The word Scampa means rocks or peaks in the ancient Illyrian language. The Romans built a substantial fortress here, about 300 meters square, protected by towers. In the 3rd and 4th centuries it became known as Hiskampis. It had developed as an important trade and transport centre near the junction of two branches of the Via Egnatia coming from Apollonia and Dyrrachium.

Ptolemy wrote that it was the town of the Eordaei tribe, who later migrated to Macedonia. It took part in the spread of Christianity along the Via, and had a bishop, cathedral and basilicas as early as the 5th century. But as a town in a wide river valley, it was vulnerable to barbarian attacks once the legions were withdrawn, and despite the efforts of the Emperor Justinian to improve the fortications. Hiskampis was destroyed by the Bulgars and Ostrogoths during the Slav invasions of the Balkans. Although some semblance of urban and military life must have continued for a time, as it is mentioned in the work of Procopius of Cæsarea in the 6th century, it was totally destroyed by the Bulgars in intermittent attacks over the next 200 years.

The site seems to have been abandoned until the Ottoman invaders built a military camp here, followed by urban reconstruction under Sultan Mehmet II in 1467, who constructed a massive four-sided castle, with a deep moat and three gates. He named it Ilibasan, meaning ‘strong place’ in Turkish. It became a centre of Ottoman urban civilisation over the next 400 years. By the end of the 17th century it had 2000 inhabitants. The fortress was dismantled by Reshit Pasha in 1832.

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