Bosnians and Armenians came to the Durres area of central Albania more than a century ago and, while integrating well into the community, have preserved their distinct cultures.
Abdulla Kapidani worked his whole life in agriculture in Albania, becoming a well-known expert in the field. However, since retiring, he has found another passion.
He now spends his days collecting tales and documents about the Bosniaks who came to Durres in central Albania at the end of the 19th century and settled in an area around the town of Shijak.
Kapidani is cataloguing any documents that he can find about his ancestors. “We’ve collected documents and testimonies from the elders, aiming to reconstruct their trip by land and sea,” Kapidani told BIRN.
Back in the 1870s, Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of the most culturally diverse parts of the Balkans, was mired in a multisided conflict.
As the Ottoman Empire began to disintegrate, both the Russian and Austrian Empires competed to replace it in the Balkans, along with Serbia, Greece and other local actors.
After the Ottomans were defeated by the Russian Empire in the 1877-78 war, the Great Powers intervened to decide what would be done with several parts of the Balkans.
Legend has it that a group of Bosnian Muslims from the Mostar area in Bosnia decided to emigrate to other parts of the Ottoman Empire, as the Austro-Hungarian Empire took over control of Bosnia.
Kapidani says many took ship for what today is European Turkey, an area where millions of Muslims of various ethnicities settled after emigrating from various former Ottoman lands in the Balkans.
But their ship suffered an engine failure and was obliged to land in Durres instead.
Kapidani says an army officer from Bosnia stationed in Durres urged the immigrants to settle there, instead of going further south in a hazardous journey on the Ionian and Aegean seas.
They settled in a hilly area around the town of Shijak and saw it as very similar to their previous home. For them, the nearby Erzen river substituted for the river Neretva flowing through Mostar in Bosnia.
Locals referred to the arrivals as “muhaxhire”, a Turkish word for “emigrants”. However, relations were good and no conflicts arose. The Albanian state granted them the status of minority in 2017.
Kapidani says the community paid for the lands they settled while learning to communicate in Albanian. “But at home we continued to speak our mother tongue, nashke language,” Kapidani said.
About 80 per cent of the Bosniak community in Albania lives in just two villages, Boraka and Koxhasi. A welcoming placard in Boraka hails visitors in Albanian, English and their own ancestral language: Dobro Dosli! it reads, or, “Welcome!”
Kapidani says the community built a watermill while the tomatoes they planted were later known as “Koxhasi”. They also danced in the old way, in order to preserve their heritage. “They opened the first restaurant in Shijak,” Kapidani notes.
Their entrepreneurial spirit, however, was stifled during Albania’s harsh 45-year-long Communist dictatorship, when private economic activity was more or less banned.
They restarted these activities after the Communist regime fell in 1992. One restaurant along the highway connecting Tirana with Durres is named “Sarajevo”, after the Bosnian capital. Another one is simply called “Bosna”.
Since 1995, they have also formed an association, named “Zambak” – or “Nymphaea”, after a much-loved aquatic plant that grows on the Neretva river mouth back in Bosnia.
Kapidani says the community integrated well with the local population, and marriages with locals were common. However, his parents had another story.
“My father, Ali, went back to Počitelj [a village] near Mostar to seek his future wife from a well-known family in the area. The new couple came back here and raised us with all the difficulties of that era.”
As the Second World War closed, Albania and Yugoslavia, of which Bosnia was now part, became friends for a short period, but then, bitter enemies. The border was closed.
“I still curse the dictatorship each time I remember how my mother passed away without having the chance to met any of her brothers or relatives that remained back in Bosnia,” Kapidani said.
The ‘stairs of the Armenian’
The stairs of the Armenian in Durres. Photo: Gezim Kabashi
Bosnian families weren’t the only group of foreigners to settle in Durres during the dying days of the Ottoman Empire.
Today, near the Municipality of Durres’ central offices, a series of steps on the hillside, built more than a hundred years ago, are still known to locals as “The stairs of the Armenian”.
“The reason for this is simple,” explains Agop Bodikian, a descendant of one of the several families of Armenian origin who settled in Durres.
“My grandfather and his children started a business nearby, so the locals referred to the steps in that way,” he told BIRN.
Millions of Armenians were scattered all over the vast Ottoman Empire, with the largest communities in eastern Anatolia. Some came to Albania while serving in the Ottoman Army. Others came after the notorious genocide perpetrated against them by the Ottoman authorities during World War One [which Turkey denies].
“My forefathers went to Bulgaria hoping to rescue their family members but didn’t manage to find them,” Agop told BIRN, recounting a story passed on by his parents.
Armenian families settled in Durres, Tirana, Elbasan, Korca, Shkodra and Berat.
“Our ancestors, families such as Bodikian, Ballxhian and Zacharian, felt good in Durres,” says Agop, who bears his grandfather’s name and manages the properties built up by his family in 1930s, which included one of the cinemas of that time, which is now closed.
“Our grandfathers started with small stalls at the port entrance but managed to grow the business and later opened shops on the main street,” he added.
Major contributors to the arts
The Armenians fared well in Albanian society as tradesmen. However, they are perhaps best known for their contribution to the country’s arts and literature.
In the 1980s, Anisa Markarian, captured the nation’s imagination as a teen actress in a state-produced movie. Her success in the arts was preceded by that of Haig Zacharian, a composer who wrote the music for dozens of movies, songs and symphonic orchestras.
Haig told BIRN that his parents, Lusi and Agop, tried to preserve their traditions and Christian religion and passed them on to their children even under Communism, when a ban on all religion effectively undermined their culture.
“They read a lot and knew several languages and that is how I remember them,” says Haig, who named his son Kyd, which means “wise one” in the Armenian language.
Meanwhile, Anisa Markarian became a doctor after her stint as an actor and now lives in France.
Last year, she became a bestselling author in Albania through her book in which memories of the Armenian Genocide and the life of their community in Albania come alive.
She recounts how her family feared they would lose their heritage when Albania’s Communist authorities started a campaign against “religious names”, which included a list of banned names for children as well as pressure on adults to change names deemed to be the result of “foreign influence”.
Agop Bodikian says that they continue to maintain their Armenian traditions by passing them on to their children the names of their forefathers.
It doesn’t matter to them how good or strange they sound. “We are proud of our heritage,” he declared.
Source: Balkan Insight