Shkodër (Albanian: Shkodër or Shkodra; see the etymology section for other names), is a city located on Lake Shkodër in northwestern Albania in the District of Shkodër, of which it is the capital. It is one of the oldest and most historic towns in Albania, as well as an important cultural and economic centre. Shkodër’s estimated population as of 2004 is 90,000; if the surrounding region is included the population is 110,000. As of 2009 the current population is 228,000 including the surrounding region, villages and mountains.
The origins of the city’s name remain shrouded in mystery. Some scholars[who?] believe that the name derives from “Shko-drin” which means “where Drin goes”, Drin being the Drin River that connects with the Buna River next to the castle of Rozafa. Others believe the name has a Latin root. Another reference claims that the name “Skodra” was used even before the area was occupied by the Romans. In early 20th century, Shkodër was referred to in English by the Italian name Scutari. In Greek, it is known as Σκουτάριον (Scutarion) or Σκόδρα (Skodra), in Serbian/Montenegrin and Macedonian as Скадар (Skadar), and in Turkish as İşkodra.
Shkodër was founded around the 4th century BC. This was the site of the Illyrian tribe Labeates as well as the capital of the kingdom of King Gentius and that of Queen Teuta. In the year 168 BC, the city was taken by the Romans and it became an important trade and military route.
The dawn of the Middle Ages saw waves of Slavs arriving. De Administrando Imperio describes how Byzantine Emperor Heraclius gave the Serbs the city of Shkodër and the surrounding territories during the first half of the 7th century. The Serbs soon formed the Byzantine sponsored Principality of Duklja there. Shkodër was a major city of the medieval Serb state. Duklja was subjected to its northern neighbor, the Principality of Rascia, forming the Grand Principality of Rascia. Its rulers recognized Bulgarian Czars as their supreme rulers during the first half of the 10th century.
Soon Grand Prince Časlav of the House of Klonimir gained control of the local Serbian lands previously under Byzantine and Bulgarian rule. Shkodër soon became Duklja’s capital during the reign of Saint John Vladimir in the second half of the 10th century who defended the city from an uprising of the Arbanas tribes. John had to briefly surrender Duklja to the Bulgarian ruler Samuil.
The Byzantines later incorporated the region directly into their empire, forming the Theme of Serbia governed by Strategos Constantine Diogenes. Stefan Voislav from Travunia expelled the last Strategos of Serbia Theophilos Erotikos and fought the Byzantines successfully during the first half of the 11th century, keeping its independence. It soon became a major city of a revived Duklja. King Constantine Bodin of Duklja and Dalmatia accepted the crusaders of the Crusade of 1101 in Shkodër. After numerous dynastic struggles, in the 12th century Shkodër became a part of Zeta, which was a part of medieval Serbia. It later fell to the hands of the House of Balšić followed afterwards by the Dukagjini control who surrendered the city to the Venetian rule, forming a coalition against the Ottoman Empire with many neighboring Albanian tribes.
Shkodër and surrounding area
15th to 19th centuries
Shkodër (under Venetian rule) resisted a major Ottoman attack in 1474. In 1478 the city was again entirely surrounded by Ottoman forces. Mehmed the Conqueror personally laid the siege. About ten heavy canons were cast on site. Balls heavy as much as 380 kg were fired on the citadel (such balls are still on display on the castle museum). Nevertheless the city resisted. Mehmet left the field and had his commanders continue the siege. By the winter the Ottomans had captured one after the other all adjacent castles: Lezhë, Drishti, Zhabjak. This, together with famine and constant bombardment lowered the morale of defenders. On the other hand the Ottomans were already frustrated by the stubborn resistance. The castle is situated on a naturally protected hill and every attempted assault resulted in considerable casualties for the attackers. A truce that would save some honor and more lives, became an option for both parties. On January 25 an agreement between the Venetians and the Ottoman Empire ended the siege, permitting the citizens to leave unharmed, and the Ottomans to take over the deserted city.
After the Turkish occupation a large number of the population fled. Around the 17th century, the city began to prosper and it became the center of a sanjak, an Ottoman administrative unit smaller than a vilayet. It became the economic center of northern Albania, its craftsmen producing fabric, silk, arms, and silver artifacts. Construction included two-story stone houses, the bazaar, and the Central or Middle Bridge (Ura e Mesit) over the Kir river, built during the second half of the 18th century, over 100 meters long, with 13 arcs of stone, the largest one being 22 meters wide and 12 meters tall.
In the 18th century Shkodër became the center of the (pashaluk) of Shkodër, under the rule of the Bushati family, which ruled from 1757 to 1831. After the fall of the pashaluk, the people of Shkodër had a number of uprisings against the Ottomans (1833–1836, 1854, 1861–1862, and 1869). During this time, many of the Serbian families had to emigrate.
Shkodër became an important trade center in the second half of the 19th century. Aside from being the center of the vilayet of Shkodër, it was an important trading center for the entire Balkan peninsula. It had over 3,500 shops, and clothing, leather, tobacco, and gun powder were some of the major products of Shkodër. A special administration was established to handle trade, a trade court, and a directorate of postage services with other countries. Other countries had opened consulates in Shkodër ever since 1718. Obot and Ulcinj served as ports for Shkodër, and later on Shëngjin (San Giovanni di Medua). The Jesuit seminar and the Franciscan committee were opened in the 19th century. It was also the main spot for transporting ‘illegal’ things through Montenegro and throughout eastern Europe.
Shkodër played an important role during the League of Prizren, the Albanian liberation movement. The people of Shkodër participated in battles to protect Albanian land. The branch of the League of Prizren for Shkodër, which had its own armed unit, fought for the protection of Plava and Gusinje, Hoti, and Gruda, and the war for the protection of Ulcinj.
In the 19th century Shkodër was also known as a cultural center. The Bushati Library, built during the 1840s, served as a center for the League of Prizren’s branch for Shkodër. Many books were collected in libraries of Catholic missionaries working in Shkodër. Literary, cultural, and sports associations were formed, such as Bashkimi (“The Union”) and Agimi (“The Dawn”). The first Albanian newspapers and publications printed in Albania came out of the printing press of Shkodër. The Marubi family of photographers began working in Shkodër, which left behind over 150,000 negatives from the period of the Albanian liberation movement, the rise of the Albanian flag in Vlora, and life in Albanian towns during the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.
Before 1867 Shkodër (İşkodra) was a sanjak of Rumelia Eyalet in Ottoman Empire. In 1867, Shkodër sanjak merged with Skopje (Üsküp) sanjak and became Shkodër vilayet. Shkodër vilayet was split into Shkodër, Prizren and Debar (Dibra) sanjaks. In 1877, Prizren passed to Kosovo vilayet and Debar passed to Monastir vilayet, while Durrës (Dıraç) township became a sanjak. In 1878 Bar and Podgorica townships belonged to Montenegro. In 1900, Shkodër vilayet was split into Shkodër and Durrës sanjaks.
During the Balkan Wars, Shkodër went from one occupation to another, when the Ottomans were defeated by the Kingdom of Montenegro. The Ottoman forces led by Hasan Riza Pasha and Esad Pasha had resisted for seven months the surrounding of the town by Montenegrin forces and their Serbian allies. Esad (Hasan had previously been mysteriously killed in an ambush inside the town) finally surrendered to Montenegro in April 1913, after Montenegro suffered a high death toll with more that 10,000 casualties. Montenegro was compelled to leave the city to the new country of Albania in May 1913, in accordance with the London Conference of Ambassadors.
During World War I, Montenegrin forces again occupied Shkodër on June 27, 1915. In January 1916, Shkodër was taken over by Austria-Hungary and was the center of the zone of their occupation. After World War I, the international military administration of Albania was temporarily located in Shkodër, and in March, 1920, Shkodër was put under the administration of the national government of Tirana. In the second half of 1920, Shkodër resisted another threat, the military intervention of the forces of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Shkodër was the center of democratic movements of the years 1921–1924. The democratic opposition won the majority of votes for the Constitutional Assembly, and on May 31, 1924, the democratic forces took over the town and from Shkodër headed to Tirana. From 1924 to 1939, Shkodër had a slow industrial development, small factories that produced food, textile, and cement were opened. From 43 of such in 1924, the number rose to 70 in 1938. In 1924, Shkodër had 20,000 inhabitants, the number grew to 29,000 in 1938.
Shkodër was the seat of a Catholic archbishopric and had a number of religious schools. The first laic school was opened here in 1913, and the State Gymnasium was opened in 1922. It was the center of many cultural associations. In sports Shkodër was the first city in Albania to constitute a sports association, the “Vllaznia” (brotherhood). Vllaznia is the oldest sport club in Albania.
During the early 1990s, Shkodër was once again a major center, this time of the democratic movement that finally brought to an end the communist regime established by Enver Hoxha.
Shkodër is an important educational and industrial center. The city produces various mechanical and electrical components, along with textile and food products. Luigj Gurakuqi University of Shkodëris one of the foremost learning centers of Albania. The public library of the city contains more than 250,000 books. Several other cultural institutions abound, such as the Cultural Center, the Marubi Photo Archives, the Artists and Writers Association, the “Migjeni” Theater (named after Millosh Gjergj Nikolla), the Gallery of Arts, and the Museum of History. Shkodër is the center of Albanian Catholicism and the most prominent city of Sunni Islam in Albania. Historic cultural architecture worth a visit include the Castle of Shkodër, the Turkish Bath, and the Lead Mosque (although the city itself is the best picturesque background for many photos). The Castle of Shkodër become famous during the First Balkan War when it was protected by the Turkish general Hasan Riza Pasha and Esad Pasha.
Mosque in Shkodra
Shkodër is also famous for its Islamic scholarship. The site of the only institution in Albania which provides high-level education in Arabic and Islamic Studies, having produced such famous Muslim personalities as Shaykh Nasirudin Albani.
Inside the Roman Catholic cathedral in Shkodër
City tunes differ from the rural music of the land, but both enjoy popularity in Shkodra. Northern music is a refined combination of romantic and sophisticated undertones with oriental-sounding scales and a constant interplay of major and minor. It bears a significant affinity with the sevdalinke of Bosnia and the neighboring Sandzak, but differs from them in their extreme forms while maintaining a typically Albanian quality through the exceptional fluidity of rhythm and tempo. Early descriptions of such music groups, which date from the end of the nineteenth century, suggest a remarkable sound: violin, clarinet, saze, defi, sometimes and Indian-style harmonium and percussion (provided by rattling a stick between two bottles). These days the accordion and guitar have replaced the more exotic instruments, but the intimate approach of the singers remains the same. Among the most important players are Bik Ndoja, Luçije Miloti, Xhevdet Hafizi and Bujar Qamili.
The city and the surrounding area are blessed with a large variety of natural and cultural elements. The most attractive quarters of the city are commonly thought to be Pjaca, identifiable as the main city centre between statues of Mother Teresa and Luigj Gurakuqi, and Gjuhadol, the neighborhood around one of the most scenic streets connecting the Cathedral on the east side of town with the middle of the city. The most recognizable memorial is the legendary castle of Rozafa.
Built during the Illyrian reign, the castle has sprouted a legend explaining the keeping of a promise. Rozafa, the bride of the youngest of three brothers, was walled up alive in the mortar of the walls of the castle to ward off evil that was destroying them each night. The calcareous water passing through the stones at the main entrance is connected in the folk fantasy with the milk of the bosom of Rozafa, which she requested be left available to nurse her newborn baby boy. She also requested that one foot be used to rock his cradle and one arm to lull him to sleep. Inside the ancient walls is a museum dedicated to the history and legends of the castle.
The Shkodra Lake is the biggest in the Balkans. It is a major summer attraction for tourists and inhabitants.
Another interesting historical site is the ruins of Sarda, a medieval town situated only 15 km from Shkodër. To go out there you must take a motor-boat from the dam of Vau i Dejes out to the island where Sarda is located (about 10 miles, or 16 km). This boat operates for tourists during the summer season twice per week. Sarda was built atop a hill on the island, roughly 5 ha in area, surrounded by the waters of the Drini river (which has been rerouted now to form an artificial lake). At one time it was the retreat of the famous Dukagjini Feudal Family, affording them a “summer palace”.
About 5 km in the east of Shkodër lies the medieval citadel of Drisht.
Many visitors feel that Shkodra is the soul of Albania. The very characteristic appearance of the city is formed by the juxtaposition of ancient houses and narrow streets joined with stone walls and modern buildings. After World War II, some of Shkodër was rebuilt with wider streets to accommodate automotive traffic, and new residential buildings are being constructed all the time.
Shkodra is also the home of Loro-Boriçi Stadium, the biggest and liveliest stadium in Albania.