As Albania's capital since 1925, Tirana has been the stage for some of the most extreme experiments and dramatic developments in 20th-century Europe.
Enver Hoxha led Tirana and Albania through four decades of isolation under Stalinist communism in its most extreme form. Since the collapse of the socialist state in 1990, Tirana has been the nucleus of a country which has seen changing institutions, political and financial turmoil, mass emigration, violent demonstrations and one of the fastest economic transformations in recent history. In the 21st century, Edi Rama, Tirana's artist-cum-mayor, has brought change in its most vibrant and visible form to the city.
In 1614, local Ottoman ruler, Süleiman Pasha Mulleti, established a town, then known as Tehran, in an area that had been settled for thousands of years. Located at the crossing of two trade routes, it prospered for two centuries until the rule of the Toptani family, beginning in 1816, which heralded a period of decline. It was first names as the capital city in 1920. King Zog I was crowned in Tirana in 1928. His rule saw the modernisation of Tirana by architects from Italy.
During World War II, Tirana was occupied first by the Italians, and then after 1943 by the Germans. The Albanian communist party was formed during these years, and many of the partisans who fought in the National Liberation Army (NLA) were communists. Enver Hoxha, the NLA's supreme commander, became Prime Minister of a provisional government in October 1944. Under his rule, Tirana became the industrial centre of Communist Albania, specializing in the manufacture of machines and food. The regime also built a university, opera house, museums and a film studio in Tirana. Nevertheless, the four decades of Hoxha's rule were a time of extreme hardship, as Tirana, like the rest of the country, suffered the consequences of increasing political and economic isolation under a repressive dictator. Nonetheless, in 1962, James Cameron, one of the few foreign journalists who succeeded in visiting Albania under communism, described Tirana's charm amidst its backwardness:
"Down past New Albania Boulevard, down past Scanderbeg Square, where the vast statue of Stalin brooded over the […] banners demanding long life for the worker's state, Tirana petered out gently into a tangle of wayward little streets and lanes of unmistakable poverty and increasing charm […] there strolled the sort of Albanians one would not have thought ever to see outside a "fête folklorique". Half the people wore the drab serge of a normal urban proletariat, but the other half, without any kind of self-consciousness at all, swaggered around in […] the enormous baggy pantaloons of the Muslim highlander. Albania must be one of the few countries left where what is known as peasant costume is in fact worn by peasants. It gave the backstreets of Tirana a wonderfully rakish air."
Today's Tirana is a very different place. Between 1999 and 2004, the number of cars in the city leapt from 1,000 to 125,000. The population has more than doubled since 1990 and is now well over 700,000, fuelled by an influx of migrants from rural areas. At the same time, many have left Albania for other countries, particularly Italy and Greece. Despite this brain drain, and the crisis resulting from the collapse of the pyramid investment schemes in 1996 and 1997, the city's economy has been growing fast. The "bllok" district of the city with its array of new bars, cafés, restaurants and nightclubs is beginning to make frequent appearances in the travel pages of European newspapers.
Tirana's modernisation has gone beyond the economy. Edi Rama, Tirana's mayor since 2000, has transformed the city's image with a series of innovative projects. An artist himself, he initiated a scheme to brighten up the facades of many of Tirana's greying old buildings. As Rama told the Architecture Biennale Rotterdam:
"And when we painted the first building - purple, and orange - I received a call: there are hundreds of people on the street, it is a traffic chaos. And everybody started to talk about colors - it was the first time that people debated about something which was there, instead of debating what the quickest way out of the country is."
Rama, who was the winner of the World Mayor award in 2004, has also invested in street lighting, done away with many illegal kiosks and structures built on public land, and expanded Tirana's parks and green areas under the "Clean and Green project".
Tirana will need to continue to adapt if it is to cope with the strains caused by its rapid development. The fast-growing population is placing considerable strain on the city's aging infrastructure. The rising number of cars has contributed to a serious air pollution problem. However, freed from its stagnation under communism, there is now cause for hope that Tirana will be able to harness its newfound dynamism to combat these problems.