Gjirokastra (or Gjirokastër when in a sentence with a preposition as in "to", "in" or "from Gjirokastër") is a city with a population of around 43,000, remarkable for its great natural beauty, as well as its harmonious intercultural mix of Albanian, Byzantine and Ottoman heritage. It is an ancient city in the historical region of Epirus, at 300 metres above sea level on the slopes of the Mali i Gjerë ("Wide Mountain"), overlooking the Drinos river in the south of Albania.
Gjirokastër was probably founded some time in the 12th century CE in the time of the Byzantine Empire, around a fortress on the hillside and was known by its Greek name of Argyropolis ("Silver City") or Argyrokastron ("Silver Castle"). In 1417 it became part of the Ottoman Empire and remained so until it was captured in 1811 by the Albanian-born Ali Pasha of Tepelena, who carved out his own semi-autonomous fiefdom in the southwestern Balkans. It subsequently became a centre of resistance to Turkish rule in the late 19th century. The Assembly of Gjirokastër, a key event in the history of the Albanian liberation movement, was held there in 1880.
As the region has a substantial Greek minority, the city was claimed by Greece during the First Balkan War of 1912-1913, was occupied a number of times by the Greek army but eventually returned to Albanian rule in 1919. During the Second World War, when Albania was under Italian occupation, the Greek army occupied "Argyrokastron" again for six months, but, after capitulating to the Germans, had to return it to Italian and later German control; it was under Albanian control again in 1944. During the communist years the city was developed as an industrial and commercial centre and, as it was the birthplace of the dictator Enver Hoxha (in 1908), it was elevated to the status of a "museum town". Hoxha's house was converted into a museum which became a focal point of the dictator's cult of personality. Many houses in Gjirokastër have a distinctive local style that has earned the city the nickname "Town of the Stones", because most of the old houses have roofs covered with stones. Unfortunately many of its historic buildings have become dilapidated, a problem that is only slowly being resolved. As tourism is becoming increasingly important, some houses are beautifully restored; an example is Hotel Kalemi, with its carved wooden ceilings, stone fireplaces and authentic furniture. Its old town is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List as "a rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town".
The Kalaja (Citadel) dominates the town and overlooks the strategically important route along the river valley. It has a military museum featuring captured artillery and memorabilia of the Communist resistance against German occupation, as well as a United States Air Force Lockheed T-33 reconnaissance plane that had lost its way and was forced down in December, 1957. The citadel dates back to the 13th century. Additions were built during the 19th and 20th centuries by Ali Pashë Tepelena and the Government of King Zog. Today it possesses five towers and houses a clock tower, a church, water fountains, horse stables, and many more amenities. The northern part of the castle was eventually turned into a prison by Zog's government and housed political prisoners during the communist regime. Nowadays it is the site of the National Albanian Folk Festival held every four years.
Thirty kilometres to the north of Gjirokastër is the small town of Tepelenë (Tepelena), on the left bank of the Vjosë river, about three kilometres downstream from its union with the Drinos. It boasts a statue of Ali Pashë Tepelena, the "Lion of Yannina" (1741 - 24 January 1822), who was the Albanian ruler (pasha) of the western part of Rumelia, the Ottoman Empire's European territory. His court was in Ioannina, now part of Greece. He was a semi-independent despot and allied himself with whoever offered the most advantage at the time. He had a splendid court but was infamous for his cruelty to anyone crossing his path. He was assassinated by Ottoman agents in 1822 and his head sent to the Sultan. He was buried with full honours and despite his, at times, brutal rule, villagers paid their last respect to Ali: "Never was seen greater mourning than that of the warlike Epirotes" (the people from the region where Ali came from and lived).