In a tiny lane in the bazaar in the southern Albanian town of Gjirokastra, the sound of repeated hammering draws passers-by to a small shop.
Outside, stones are slowly being turned into pieces of art. The shop belongs to Murtezan Makriu who spends his days carving shapes and pictures in relief into the rocks.
Stones are symbols of Gjirokastra. The famous Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, in his book Chronicle in Stone, describes Gjirokastra thus: “Everything in the city was old and made of stone, from the streets and fountains to the roofs of the sprawling age-old houses covered with gray slates like gigantic scales.”
Like Makriu, other artisans are recreating traditional crafts in the town these days.
Under communism, craftsmen were organized in handicraft cooperatives. A lot of their produce was exported to the West.
But in the early 1990s, with the arrival of the market economy, the cooperatives fell apart and handicrafts went into decline. The former members of the cooperatives tried to adjust to the new economic reality, but most of them lost contact with their markets.
Artisans restore pride in Gjirokastra
Many abandoned their work because there was no longer any money in it. Instead of producing arts and crafts, they chose to work on construction sites or make furniture to order. Others emigrated abroad in search of a better life.
Murtezan Makriu, however, has remained a stonemason throughout the last 20 years. His three sons are in the same trade, having learned from their father the art of turning stones into souvenirs.
“The long [economic] transition has taken many young people away from Albania as emigrants,” Makrui said, “but now is the time to make the bazaar a vivid place, with a lot of art pieces.
“That is why I taught my sons this traditional profession, which is typical for Gjirokastra, where stones are all around.”
The town of some 35,000 inhabitants is an historic site, with UN’s cultural branch, UNESCO, recognition in 2005. In recent years, it has drawn the attention of more and more tourists, interested in its hand-made works.
“They are attracted by the sound of the tools giving shape to the stones. They like to touch the pieces and that impresses them,” Makriu adds.
Next door, Anastas Petridhi is turning woodwork into art. Several years ago he emigrated to Greece. But recently he returned to Gjirokastra. He has been an artisan for 30 years.
“In the beginning I was pessimistic, but when I settle in this shop, I realize that things had changed,” he says.
“Many tourists came and they continue to come. It is very important to have such shops in Gjirokastra; they’re helping give life back to the city,” he added.
“Without the wood and the stones, Gjirokastra is nothing. It is our tradition.”
Made in Gjirokastra
One door down is a craftswoman, Elida Zhulati. Needle in hand, she is making a traditional Albanian costume. She says it is not easy. “You have not only to sew and be careful with the pattern, but you also have to work with your own creativity,” Zhulati explains.
Modern women have become less interested in making crafts, she went on: “Gjirokastra has its own traditions. The men build the houses, but the housewives have the most important job: giving their houses a style, with carpets and other crafts.
“And of course it is better to make them yourself, instead of buying them in a shop.”
The prices of craft items in the town vary. Decorated stones can cost up to 50 euro, carved wood as much as 280 euro, while a traditional costume costs around 250 euro.
The three artisans are keen to keep up their traditions. The shops that they work in are part of a project of the non-profit Gjirokastra Conservation and Development Organization.
This took on the job of reconstructing the old houses and turning them into shops and workshops. The organisation pays the rent for five years to help businesses become established.
In recent years, the organization also has a handicrafts centre, where 450 products by 45 artisans from Gjirokastra and other regions of Albania are on display.
The survival of traditional arts in Gjirokastra depends on tourism
The guild has also organised exhibitions and held training sessions for artisans, helping them develop new skills, while remaining true to their craft traditions.
The organization gets the support from the US-based Packard Humanities Institute and a number of other donors, such as the UN, the Vodafone Foundation and the Swiss Cooperation Office.
Albania’s Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sports has also helped to support traditional crafts in Gjirokastra, giving 7,000 euro since 2008 to support projects such as the refurbishment of workspaces for the artisans and organizing exhibitions.
Elenita Roshi, deputy director of the Conservation Organisation, says there are still difficulties. Among them is the rising age of the artisans. On average, they are over 45 and few of the younger generation are learning the old skills.
Cheaper copies of products flooding in from the Far East are also eroding profits. “Nowadays China produces the Albanian souvenirs and then they come back to Albania,” Roshi says.
“During a handicraft conference last year, the artisans mentioned this as a major problem. Samples of crafts come from Albania; they reproduce them in China, and then they are in the Albanian market.
“So we have a big problem with respecting the copyright of Albanian artisans, and of course a problem selling the authentic handicrafts, because the Chinese ones are cheaper,” Roshi explains.
Legislation to control this piracy is still in the preparatory phase. Meanwhile, Roshi’s organization’s focus is on encouraging artisans to continue their work.
She says Albanian artisanship shouldn’t lose its specific identity: “In a globalized world, the fact that artisans provide a national identity shouldn’t be considered naive”.
The future survival of traditional arts in Gjirokastra depends much on tourism. “Tourists everywhere want to buy something that reminds them of that specific place, and we want to make this possible also in Gjirokastra,” Roshi said.
Back in the bazaar, Murtezan Makriu continues his stonework. He expects more tourists to visit his small shop and spread the word. “The tourists who come here, and see our work are our best promoters,” he says, smiling.