Elbasani (or Elbasan when in a sentence with a preposition as in "to", "in" or "from Elbasani") on the Shkumbin river in the centre of Albania is one of its largest cities with almost 80,000 inhabitants. Before the Second World War it was one of the most pleasant and unspoilt Ottoman cities, with a mixture of eastern and medieval buildings, narrow cobbled streets, a large bazaar where Turkish could still be heard, a clearly defined Christian settlement within the castle walls, a Vlach district on the outskirts and several fine mosques and Islamic buildings.
Elbasan came into prominence 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. The town (later named Hiskampis), however, was destroyed by the Bulgars and Ostrogoths during the Slav invasions of the Balkans and apparently was abandoned until the Ottoman Turks built a military camp here and, in 1467, a massive four-sided castle with a deep moat and three gates. It was named Ilibasan, "strong place" in Turkish, and became a centre of Ottoman urban civilisation over the next 400 years. In 1909 it was decided here by the Albanian National Congress that the Latin alphabet would be adopted to write the Albanian language. Elbasan also boasted the first teachers' training college in Albania.
There was much damage to the city during the Second World War and many of its buildings were destroyed. An intensive programme of industrial development in the Communist period boosted the city's population to around 75,000 inhabitants and ugly Stalinist apartment blocks and other modern structures were built. The culmination of this process was the construction of the huge "Steel of the Party" metallurgical complex outside the city in the valley of the Shkumbini river, with Chinese assistance in the 1960s and 1970s. Dictator Enver Hoxha called it "The Second National Liberation of Albania", but its chimneys, the tallest in the Balkans, were always belching smoke and a stream of dangerous pollutants was released in the environment. Much of the hitherto prosperous agricultural area in the river valley has been rendered useless for agriculture. The complex is now lying idle, a vast monument to the folly of those years.