Elbasani (or Elbasan in a sentence with a preposition like “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 charming and unspoiled Ottoman cities. It had a mixture of eastern and medieval buildings, narrow cobbled streets, and a large bazaar where Turkish could still be heard. There was a clearly defined Christian settlement within the castle walls, a Vlach district on the outskirts and several elegant 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 strong fortress here. The town (later named Hiskampis), however, was destroyed by the Bulgars and Ostrogoths during the Slav invasions of the Balkans. It possibly 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 chosen 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; 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 in the 1960s and 1970s. It was built, with Chinese assistance, outside the city in the valley of the Shkumbini river. Dictator Enver Hoxha called it “The Second National Liberation of Albania”. But its chimneys, the tallest in the Balkans, always belched smoke and dangerous pollutants were 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.