Berat is a picturesque historical town in south-central Albania, an UNESCO world heritage site and probably the most beautiful town of Albania. The outstanding well-preserved white-washed stone houses of historical Berat perhaps are the best in the Balkans, forming the unique lower historical core and the beautiful Medieval Citadel district on top of the high hill with wonderful St Trinity Church, dominating the whole area and providing striking view. Due to a number of large windows of the old decorated houses overlooking the historical core, Berat is known as “the city of one-thousand windows” and in 1961 was declared as a Museum city. Berat lies on the beautiful slopes of the wild Tomorri Mountain /2416 meters/ where the Castle of the Berat city rises in a predominant hill. Berat is also set on the right bank of the Osum River which has cut a 915-metre deep gorge through the limestone rock on the west side of the valley to form a precipitous natural fortress, around which the town was built on several river terraces. The town of Berat is one of the oldest in Albania, keeping the earliest traces of human habitation and settlement dating from 2600-1800 BC. The long history of Berat is in fact the history of encounters between different civilizations and people, so this secular and multi-ethnic structure is one of the main pillars of the Berat’s rich cultural heritage. The city of Berat was composed of two fortifications on both shores of the Osum River and is adorned with 40 Byzantine churches and some 30 mosques.
Berat comprises a wealth of beautiful buildings of high architectural value and historical interest. Today is Berat specially known for its wonderfully preserved and well-refurbished Ottoman houses, which amazingly have survived the severe communist regime of Enver Hoxha. Berat region features 117 monuments of the First category and 460 of the Second category, including churches, mosques, buildings, bridges, castles, etc. The old part of the Berat city includes more than 20 preserved Byzantine churches (most built during the 13th century) and only one mosque for the use of Turkish garrison. Historical part of Berat features a castle, locally known as the Kalaja, most of which was built during reconstruction in the 13th century, carried during the reign of the Epirote despot Michael Angelos Comnenus, although its origins possibly date back to the 4th century BC. The Kalaja citadel area of Berat numbers many Byzantine churches, mainly from the 13th century, several of which contain valuable wall paintings and icons. The Cathedral of the Dormition of the Holy Virgin was built in the 18th century and was part of the Metropolitan Bishop residence, set in a dominant place within the Berat Citadel, between the numerous noble houses, that are still inhabited. The Ethnographic Museum of Berat, situated in the 18th century Ottoman house in the Kalaja Fortress of Berat is worth-visiting. The ground floor has displays of traditional clothes and the tools used by silversmiths and weavers, while the upper floor features kitchens, bedrooms and guest rooms decked out in traditional style. Especially interesting is the mafil, a kind of mezzanine looking into the lounge where the women of the house could keep an eye on male guests being entertained (and see when their cups needed to be filled).
Construction of the Old Varosh – historical part of Berat – Mangalem Quarter of Berat began during the 11th-12th centuries. Today most of the Berat houses inside Mangalem Quarter are from the 18th-19th centuries. The Mangalem quarter of Berat has the shape of a pyramid and is famous for its many windows and narrow hidden streets adding attraction and beauty. Similar to Mangalem, Gorica quarter is thought to have started being built during the 11th-12th centuries. Gorica Quarter of Berat is composed of many single-family houses which are cultural monuments and by two old Orthodox churches: the Church of Saint Spiridon and the Church of Saint Thomas.
A fortress-settlement of the Greek Dassaretae tribe existed in the area as early as the 6th century BC. It was captured by the Romans in the 2nd century BC. Livy (31.27.2) describes Antipatrea as a strongly fortified Macedonian city of southern Illyria in a narrow pass that the Romans sacked and burned. The town became part of the unstable frontier of the Byzantine Empire following the fall of the Roman Empire and, along with much of the rest of the Balkan Peninsula, it suffered from repeated invasions of various „barbarian” tribes. During the Byzantine period, town was known as Pulcheriopolis after the 5th century Byzantine Empress Pulcheria. During its long history Berat was captured and ruled by Bulgarians, Byzantines, Sicilians, Serbs. The Bulgarians captured Berat during the 9th century and named it Beligrad, which influenced the present name of Berat. In the 13th century Berat came into hands of the Michael Angel Comnenus, relative of the Byzantine tsar and Epirote despot, while in 1345 Serbs captured Berat. The local land lords of the Balsic Family reinforced their power during the reign of the last member of the Nemanjic Dynasty – tsar Uros /ruled from 1355 till 1371/. After death of tsar Uros, Balsics continued to spread their territories into the present south Albania. Balša II married Comnena, daughter of John Comnenus Asen, and so became the ruler of Valona, Berat, Kanina and Himara. In clashes with the local land lord Carlo Topi, Balsa managed to conquer town of Durres, ever since he singed his title the Duke of Durres. In order to regain his previous possessions and for revenge towards the Balsic Family, Carlo Topi asked help from the Turkish sultan Murat, who provided military support of the Hayredin pasha. The Battle between armies of Balsic’s and the Osman Turks waged on 18 September 1385, on the Sauri field, near Berat /at that time called Belgrad/, in the Epirus land. In the bad defeat of the Balsic’s army in the Battle by Berat, the Balsic Family lost administration in the south and the central Albania, and were forced to defend their lands in Zeta. In 1386 Đurađ Balšić Stracimirović signed the Peace with the Ottoman Turks, who had eventually captured Berat in 1450, to remain rulers there until 1912. The name of Berat in Turkish registers was Arnavud Belgrad. At the end of the 18th through the beginning of the 19th century Berat became the seat of the Berat Pashalik – a Pasha was a governor of a province. The most distinguished Ottoman Pasha was Ahmed Kurt Pasha who undertook much building. After his death the city of Berat was attached to the Ionnian Pashalik of the Ottoman Empire, preserving its strategic position of the commercial caravan routes. During World War I the city was occupied by Austria-Hungarian troops, while under the postwar rule of King Zog – 1928 til 1939, Berat prospered to be one of the most important cultural and economic centers of Albania. During World War II Berat was occupied by the Italians, following their invasion of the country in 1939 and later by the Germans. Berat was a vitally important for the antifascist guerrilla was. Since November 1944 Albania started its long communist-controlled dictatorship of Enver Hoxha and Berat experienced the same.
The name of Berat is derived via the Ottoman Turkish from the older Bel(i)grad /meaning “white city” in Slavic or Belgrade/, under which name it was known in Greek, Latin and Slavic documents during the early and Late Middle Ages. In the 17th century Berat was major merchant and craft center of the Ottoman Balkans specializing in wood carving.
Above Berat is a mountaintop fortress rebuilt by the Byzantines in the 13th century, with a view over the broad Osum River valley, serpentine river and snow-capped peaks. Inside Berat’s walls there are dwelling houses and the “Onufri Museum”. Paintings and icons by the outstanding Greek painter Onufri – Onouphrios Neokastrites who worked in the regions that presently are on the territory of Greece, Albania and Macedonia during the 16th century, in the frames of the former Ohrid Archbishopric are also exhibited there as well as various liturgical objects. The Onouphrios’ artistic spirit was to give rise to a school of Albanian icon-painting which we will call the “School of Berat”. Greek manuscripts on purple parchment written in silver and golden lettera, that are some of the world’s most ancient and most remarkable religious manuscripts, the Purple Codex of Berat, dating back to the 6th century AD and the Golden Codex of Berat, from the 9th century, are nowadays kept in Central State Archive in Tirana are written and artfully crafted in Berat.
According to the legend of the history of the area, Tomor Mountain was personified by a giant who fought his brother Shpirag /also the personification of a nearby mountain/ for the love of a young woman. Although both were armed and fought valiantly, they both died in the end. The legend continues to explain that the sorrow-filled tears of the woman whose love they sought flowed deep and created the Osum River. The girl is said to have turned into the large stone, upon which the Berat castle was built.
Berat is the hottest city in Albania and much warmer than the rest of Mediterranean. Thanks to its pleasant climate, abundance of delicious and tasty vegetables, fruits and grapes are harvested in Berat and surroundings. Olives from the Berat region are highly prized for their unique flavor and low fat content and often used in traditional cuisine, while extra virgin olive oil from Berat is exported worldwide. Berat is famous for the characteristic Tosk Poliphonic song, where 3 or 4 voices are accompanied by a chorus. This form of Albanian music is widely performed during celebrations in local restaurants and bars. The remarkable old town of Berat was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in July 2008. Outside the city, the countryside features steep and spectacular canyons, fine for hikers and archaeological sites with histories and myths yet to be discovered. Berat is our favorite destination in Albania.