1939 – Why the destruction of Albania’s National Theater is more than just the loss of another building.

Today is a dark day in Albanian history.

For over a two years now a war has been waging in regards to the National Theater of Albania, located in the heart of Tirana. Today at 4 am in the morning, it was torn down. In the cloak of darkness – maybe in a bid to hide the insidious nature of this act. The reasoning for doing this are numerous. The destruction of the theater is in some ways illegal. But in other ways, it sends a clear message to the Albanian people. That their voices do not matter, and that our democracy is a sham.

As an archaeologist, me pikon zemra [my heart aches] when I hear that cultural monuments are torn down anywhere, but especially in my country. Cultural heritage is a rich part of any culture. This is one of the reasons why I love archaeology so much. Uncovering and preserving aspects of our past for our current and future generations to appreciate is a privilege. Cultural heritage has a way of bringing people together in way. In the case of Albania, our rich cultural heritage is being encroached upon at an alarming rate as “development” increases. If you want to call the haphazard spread of improperly planned and illegally funded buildings development.

As an Albanian, this blatant disregard for the law and for the will of the people is terrifying. And that is why I am writing this. I have said this before, I am not a political science specialist. But the very least I can do is help bring even a little more awareness to what is going on in my country. And I would encourage anyone who reads this to do their own readings in addition to hearing what I have to say – because, at the end of the day, it is my opinion. And there are many articles out there written by people who know more then I do.

But for those of you that have never even heard of the theater and this struggle, the situation an be summarized in a few (very broad) points:

  1. The National theater was a historical monument, built-in 1939 in the “Italian style;” like many other government buildings in this part of Tirana. It has been the “home” of many famous writers, playwrights and actors; a hub for artistic expressions and thought.
  2. The building was considered to be a national monument once upon a time, which protected it from destruction. But at some point in the last year or so, it seems to have magically lost this categorization. And with it, its protection.
  3. For over a year, people have been protesting the destruction of the theater, claiming that it is an important architectural feature for the city of Tirana, which it is.
  4. Their voices, pleas, and arguments have been ignored. And peaceful protestors have been fined and removed – sometimes by force.
  5. At last, the building was destroyed in the early morning of May 17th.

Ok so you may be thinking, yes this is very sad that a cultural monument was destroyed. But so what? There are bigger things to worry about. And you would not be wrong. But the fact of the matter is that the destruction of the theater is not just about losing a piece of our cultural heritage. It is about the message it sends – and this message is a terrifying one. It says loud and clear that our government will do as it pleases and ignore the voice of the people.

Destroying a building is one thing, destroying a cultural monument, one that is specifically linked to freedom of expression and thought. That is another. In times of war, it is actually against international law to target and destroy places of cultural or religious importance. And yet it is happening at the will of our own government.

The arguments for the destruction of the theater are mediocre.

“The building was beyond repair.”

Bullshit. Let me tell you, no building is really beyond repair. If we can repair the foundations of castles and citadels from the 6th century BC (and we often do) then a building built less then 100 years ago should have been salvageable.

“The new building will bring much tourism to Tirana.”

Are you kidding me?! In my humble opinion as someone who literally works with cultural heritage, I regret to inform you that people do not come to Albania to look at shiny high-rises. People come to Albania for the rich natural and cultural resources it has to offer. Our parks, beaches, forests, archaeology, our cultural monuments. If it is highrise you want, may I suggest Toronto or perhaps New York?

And this my friends is why the destruction of a cultural monument in Tirana Albania, today, May 17th, really is foreboding. This isn’t about buildings anymore. Or let’s be honest, likely it never was. It’s about democracy. Or in our case, the lack of it. And that is terrifying.

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