Porto Palermo Fortress

Porto Palermo Castle is a small picturesque castle with an intriguing history near Himara in wonderful southern coast of Albania of the Ionian Sea. The Porto Palermo fortress is situated in the closed bay of the Porto Palermo /known in antiquity as Bay of Panormes/, surrounded with nicely arranged beaches, few kilometers south of Himarë, that actually makes an island connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of land. The Porto Palermo fortress served as the former Soviet submarine base during the communist regime in Albania, and nowadays its semi abandoned tunnel and barrack attract attention of visitors, as well as the stronghold walls and gates built by the powerful Ali Pasha of Ioannina – Ali Pasha of Tepelene. Directly across the Porto Palermo fortress there is the church of Saint Nicolas dating from the same period of the last reconstruction in the 18th century, erected on remains of the destroyed stronghold built by Emperor Iustinian.
By the middle of the 17th century the Ottoman Empire system of administration of vilayets or sanjaks /provinces/ changed into the near-autonomous governance of local rulers who were known as pashas. At the end of the 18th century the sultan appointed a certain Ali from Tepelene /1744-1824/ as the Ottoman governor of the most of the western Rumelia with the Epirus area /the present day southern Albania/ and the large part of the Greek mainland /much of Albania and Macedonia, Epirus, Thessaly, and the Morea/, with his court at Ioannina – Yannina. The ancestors of Ali were Christian Skipetars who had converted to Islam under the Turkish invasion. As young fellow, Ali was patrolling highroads and lanes with his gun on his shoulder and his yataghan in his belt, attacking, holding for ransom, or plundering all whom he encountered. After some years of this profitable business, he found himself a wealthy man and came to power with a distinguished and honorable rank among the beys of the country. He married Emineh, the daughter of Capelan Tigre, Pasha of Delvino, who resided at Argyro-Castron /today Gjirocastra/. Capelan’s object in giving his daughter to Tepeleni was to enlist him among the beys of the province to gain independence, the ruling passion of viziers, but Ali wished to succeed both – the government and the wealth of his father-in-law. So Ali made by the perfidiously act that the Capelan was soon arrested and beheaded in Monastir. Already possessing great richness which every day saw increasing under his rule and management, Ali pasha maintained a large body of warlike and devoted troops, and he united the offices of Pasha of two parts of Yanina, the Toparch and the one of Thessaly. Ali and his main wife Emineh had two sons, Mouktar and Veli, both fully grown and carefully educated in the principles of their father. The notorious and brutal Ali pasha, nicknamed Aslan – the Lion captured the sanjaks of Berat, Vlora and Girocastra and Delvin which was bounded from Venetian territory by the district of Buthrotum in attempt to extend the territory he controlled, which provided him much larger income of tribute collection, as his sole aim was to acquire and increase power. Ali Pasha of Ioannina, also known as Ali Pasha of Tepelena was known as having no enemies who could really injure his power, and knew that in an absolute government no conviction can hold its own against the power of gold. Ali Pasha of Ioannina had entered into secret negotiations with all the great powers of Europe, hoping in the end to make himself independent ruler and to obtain recognition as Prince of Greece. His efforts to seize control of the area from the Turkish Sultan in Constantinople alarmed the Ottoman government and he was declared guilty for treason. Legend has it that Ali Pasha had 300 women in his harem and 300 boys in his seraglio – saray.

Ali Pasha of Ioannina allegedly built the castle in honor of his favorite mistress – lovely young wife Vasiliqi – Vasilessa, whom he kidnapped from the nearby Greek village of Plessio at the age of 15. The old lord trusted the lovely Vassiliki. The notorious Ali Pasha of Ioannina launched a decisive attack on his fractious mountain-dwelling subjects – the Christian Suliotes. However she learned of his plan to torch Greek villages and in 1822 she abetted assassins sent by the Sultan in Constantinople giving a signal which allowed the killers entrance to Ali Pasha’s island home, where they cut off Ali Pasha’s head and carted it to the Sultan in Constantinople, along with Vassilki as a witness—to prove that the tyrant was dead. The headless body of Ali Pasha of Ioannina was buried under an elaborate wrought-iron cage in Ioannina, still standing near the mosque that is now a museum and big tourist attraction. Ioannina – the capital of Epirus was the last part in Greece to be liberated from the Turkish rule, as the seat of one of the most famous representatives of the Sublime Porte – the Albanian Ali Pasha. After the First Balkan war of 1912–1913 and the Treaty of London the southern part of the Ioannina Vilayet, including Ioannina became the part of Greece, which had also seized northern Epirus during the Balkan Wars, but the Treaty of Bucharest, signed after the Secong Balkan War, assigned Northern Epirus to Albania
The Porto Palermo castle features a triangular shape of 150 x 400 meters and its walls go up to 20 meters. Strong defensive walls protect the entire area with gun loopholes at the front and at the side. The peninsula on which the castle is located has ever-green Mediterranean bushes while from its walls one can enjoy a great view of the bay.

The well preserved Porto Palermo castle is wrongly asserted, by guide books and the local tourist guides, to have been built in early 19th century by Ali Pasha of Tepelena, since it looks to have been built earlier. In 1662 the Venetians feared the Turks would recondition it. In 1803 Ali Pasha offered the castle and port to the Royal Navy, at which time the fort only had 4 or 5 cannon implying that Ali Pasha did not consider it as important defensive system. A French engineer designed this castle in the shape of a Pentagon with stone blocks that have a width of up to 1.6m. The Ottomans made several attempts to take over the area from the Venetians and use it as a platform from which to attack Corfu, when at the end of the 18th century Ali Pasha succeeded to swiftly conquer and claim rule over the former Venetian positions during his reign whose influence has proved enduring to this day. The settlements actually compromise the main fortification considering the fact that a fortress is not only a fort but also the building that provide supplies for the troops and give a sense of security to the people of the battle. The coasts of the Ioannian Sea and the access points leading to it are captured by the Pasha of Ioannina and the fortresses turn their faces towards the danger coming from the coasts. Most probably the Porto Palermo castle has been built by the Venetians as it could be relieved by sea and it has the same triangular plan with round towers found in the Venetian fort at Butrint. In 1921 the castle was called Venetian. At this time the identity of its builders ought to have been clear, from a plaque above the entrance gate, which is now missing, but the weathering of the stones clearly shows that it has not been missing for many decades. Almost certainly this plaque had a carving of the lion of St. Mark. The most plausible explanation of the error found in the guide books is a rewriting of history in the communist period. Re-ascribing a colonial legacy to construction by an Albanian fits a nationalist isolationist agenda. The castle would have been vulnerable to cannon fire from the hill above and this also suggests an early date for its construction when cannon had not developed the range they had later.
The village of Qeparoi is located close to the gulf of Porto Palermo and has its own distinctive beach. The Old Upper Qeparoi, built on the hillside, and has several historical sights including the three-story Towers of Ali Pasha, the Monastery of Saint Demetrius – Shën Dhimitri, and the House of Minella Gjika. In ancient times, Qeparo was situated in the hill of Kasteli. Later on, its inhabitants settled a little further down, in the Gjivlash Slope, southeast of the hill of Kasteli, to be closer to their fields and to escape the cold of the winter. Qeparo is famous for the Karos fortress, a castle settlement inhabited in prehistoric times. It is located in the old – Upper Qeparo, in a place called Gradishta and is set on a hill 450 m high rocky located 3.5 km from the sea.
The original Qeparo was built on a site on the other side of the gorge from the present day Upper Qeparo. That village site is now only ruins. Today, Old Qeparo is situated on hills 300m above the Ionian coast. The houses are built on successive levels, creating the impression of stone stairs. Olive groves cover the terraced hillsides. As is true of most of the traditional villages, the central public area of old Qeparo has several old Sycamore trees in the area of the center. The area includes clear and ancient cobbled footpaths on the mountain side, down to the beach area, and over to the Borsh valley. The majority of the settlement, (about ¾), is situated on the top and slopes of the western hill overlooking Qeparo valley, and the rest of the houses are situated on the slopes of the eastern slopes of the eastern hill. The village impresses with the stunning beauty, the harmony with the terrain and the traditional architecture that the profile of the hill where the village is situated creates.
All paths inside the Keparo – Qeparo village radiate from the central square area. The square is basically a widening of the cobbled road area. The circulation within the Keparo village is organized by cobbled alleys which get narrower within the village and they have been so far maintained. The road that leads to the north in fact is the one that defines the limit of the village used to be organized with a lot of branches on the left hand side that led to houses or group of houses. Unfortunately, this road has totally deteriorated and almost all the stone that was used to build it had fallen on the lower slopes of the northern hillside. Most of the deterioration was caused by shepherds and herds of goats that would use these alleys during the last 15 years. In deserted parts of the village, natural vegetation is beginning to take root and grow in the cobbled alleyways, which will lead to rapid further deterioration of the village.
The Qeparo valley is deep and narrow and is fed by sweet water springs. The eastern side of the valley is very steep and half way up to the top of the 600 meters ridge is a natural shelf above a cliff. The upper slopes of the hills have some stands of well developed maquis. The valley opens into a wide delta near the shore and ends in a long mixed sand and pebble beach. There are several undersea fresh water springs along the shoreline which contribute to cold water areas in the sea. One large spring some meters into the sea, can be discerned from above by the eye like change in the color of the sea at the spring location. Qeparo lies 3 km northwest of the Borsh settlement. The national highway divides Lower Qeparo into quarters below the road and above the road.