Martyrs' Cemetery & Mother Albania
More background info:
This is actually the second incarnation of Tirana
’s Martyrs’ Cemetery. The original one set up in 1945 used to be in the Grand Park to the south of the city centre (there’s still a memorial stone marking the former site). The new location on a hill to the east of the Great Park was converted into the present memorial cemetery in 1971/72 (sources vary a little on the exact year).
It comprises some 900 graves, mostly partisans who fell in the struggle against the fascists and Nazis
between 1939 and 1944.
The centrepiece of the complex is the Mother Albania statue, created by Kristaq Rama (sometimes Muntaz Dhrami and Shaban Hadëri are also credited as co-sculptors). The 40 feet (12m) high statue is made of concrete, though you wouldn’t guess that going by her almost white colour (maybe painted on?).
After the death of Enver Hoxha
’s dictator for over four decades, his body was initially buried in a grave at Mother Albania’s feet. But with the fall of communism
in 1991/92 also came the fall from grace of Hoxha, and his remains were exhumed and transferred to the municipal cemetery at Kombinat
for reburial. (And the museum about his legacy in the so-called Hoxha Pyramid
was also closed.)
This was not the last instance of “cemetery revisionism” at this site, though. There is also an added memorial to the 22 Albanians who were implicated in the bombing of the Soviet
embassy in February 1951 and who were subsequently executed – making them “victims of communist terror”, as the monument declares (even though they were strictly speaking terrorists themselves … it just goes to show how political shifts can change perspectives).
And as if to add insult to death and reburial, the spot where Enver Hoxha’s grave used to be is now occupied by the grave of one of the student leaders of the protest movement that eventually brought down communism in 1991/92, Azem Hajdar. He was also heavily involved in post-communism politics in the troubled 1990s – and not to everybody’s liking: in 1998 he was ambushed and assassinated, triggering yet more street violence in what was the most severe crisis of the post-communist era in Albania
. I don’t know where Hajdar was originally buried, but I’ve read claims that his grave wasn’t yet at the Martyrs’ Cemetery in 2012, so his remains would have been moved sometime after that, but before 2014.
What there is to see: When I went to visit this site I found the gate to the complex closed and locked, but it was easy enough to squeeze through a hole in the fence next to the gate. And I was not the only one there. There were groups of elderly women and men sitting around chatting and also a few younger folks wandering about. So it seems to be quite normal to come here even out of the official opening times.
As you walk along the approach road you can already see the top of the Mother Albania statue towering over the hillside. Then you come to the bottom of the grand stairs leading up.
When you’ve managed the ca. 100 steps you come to an open expanse of the plaza in front of the main item here: the grand 40 feet (12m) high Mother Albania statue with her cloak flying in the wind, as it seems, and holding up a wreath of laurels and a communist star. The inscription on the plinth translates as “eternal glory to the martyrs of the fatherland”.
The graves of all those martyrs (some 900) are to be found on the slope to the east of Mother Albania, with one exception that is actually behind here. All the graves follow a more or less uniform pattern, with the name and birth and death year inscribed on the marble top below a gold leaf and communist star.
And then there’s the grave of Azem Hajdar
), allegedly in roughly the same plot that Enver Hoxha
’s grave used to be (also near Mother Albania) before it was moved to a regular municipal cemetery near Kombinat
At the eastern end of the plaza before you get to the field of martyrs’ graves is another later addition that goes against the communist origins of this site, namely the monument to those executed after their attempt at bombing to Soviet
embassy in 1951 (i.e. before Albania
fell out with its former Stalinist ally). The executed bombers are referred to as “Viktimat e Terrorit Komunist”, ‘victims of communist terror
Other than all this, there is the view
that is to be had from up here, and the view towards the mountains that rise up just to the east of the city. At the foot of the hill in front of the cemetery are several embassies, including Saudi Arabia’s, Kuwait’s, Hungary
’s and Austria
On balance, this is a more niche site, not central for tourism at all, but for dark tourists interested in the communist legacy – and in the complicated politics and their concomitant iconoclastic revisionism that followed the communist era – this is a worthwhile excursion to make.
some 2 miles (3 km) to the south of Tirana
’s city centre and just east of the Grand Park, by Rruga e Elbasanit, the main artery leading south out of the city towards Elbasan.
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: a bit out of the centre, but not too difficult to reach; free
Details: To spare yourself the long uphill walk to the cemetery from the city centre, I suggest getting a taxi out there, it will only cost a few hundred lek. A bus also passes the site, but the bus stop would be on the wrong side of the road, making access to the gate to the complex tricky, whereas a taxi can drop you off right outside it. Don’t ask to be taken to the “Martyrs’ Cemetery”, which most taxi drivers won’t understand, but say Mother Albania, or better still in Albanian: “Nëna Shqipëri”.
For the return journey the bus is indeed the best option. You have to walk a bit down the main road (Rruga e Elbasanit) to get to the bus stop; then just hop on, pay the conductor to get a ticket (40 lek – change is given if you pay with a 100 or 200 lek note) and get off when you’re back in the city centre, or at the terminus, which I believe is at the end of Rruga George W. Bush.
The cemetery does have official opening times, when the gate at the start of the approach road will be open, but as a pedestrian you can go there any time, really, but may have to squeeze through the bent hole in the fence to the right of the gate. So in effect the place is freely accessible at any time.
Time required: not long, perhaps 20 minutes to half an hour or so.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
theoretically, the cemetery is very near the Grand Park of Tirana
, (with its various memorials, including dark ones) yet that is not easily accessible from where the cemetery is, you’d have to take a big detour, as the premises of the presidential place “are in the way”, so to speak.
You may also want to make the pilgrimage to the place where Enver Hoxha
was reburied after he had been removed from his original grave at the Martyrs’ Cemetery. For that you have to make your way out to Kombinat
on the western outskirts of Tirana.
The red marble tombstone under which Hoxha had been raid to rest for seven years until his reburial in 1992 later reappeared in an unlikely location: in the Grand Park serving as a new memorial stone dedicated to British
casualties of WWII
in Tirana. The marble slab now stands upright and has new plaques in Albanian and English on it, but you can still make out the holes in the granite where Enver Hoxha’s name had been attached in gold. Now this former tombstone of Albania’s former communist leader stands amidst a set of Commonwealth war graves! How exactly this repurposing has come about is a mystery to me, though. And I wonder whether the Brits are fully aware of the previous function of their memorial stone …
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
nothing in the immediate vicinity – but see under Tirana
- Martyrs Cemetery 1 - steps up
- Martyrs Cemetery 2 - wide expanse
- Martyrs Cemetery 3 - Mother Albania statue
- Martyrs Cemetery 4 - fields of graves
- Martyrs Cemetery 5 - uniform symbol
- Martyrs Cemetery 6 - memorial next to Mother Albania
- Martyrs Cemetery 7 - memorial to the victims of communist terror
- Martyrs Cemetery 8 - view over the city
- Martyrs Cemetery 9 - national symbolism