I’m glad that I went to the National History Museum in Tirana on the first full day of my visit. Beyond crazy Enver, who built bunkers all over his country because he expected invasion, I knew nothing about Albania’s past and figured that I’d get a balanced education here. Wrong. Although he ran this country as Communist leader for 41 years, Enver Hoxha is pointedly underrepresented in Albania’s National History Museum, and I had plenty of time to look for him since there was nothing in English and photography was strictly forbidden.
Since the National History Museum, the largest museum in Albania, was built during the Communist Era, its concrete and iron architecture is monumental but plain and ugly. Having been warned the day before to take precautions while wandering around, to lock my passport in a safe, and to avoid getting too much Albanian currency, I never quite felt comfortable in this museum, where I always felt watched.
The initial exhibits were about the Illyrians, the first tribe of note in Albania’s long and troubled history. Archaeological evidence of their presence–religious icons, utensils, and tools–was well displayed in this museum. The people here were first identified as Illyrians during the Bronze Age. Illyrian jewelry worn by soldiers in the Iron Age looked vaguely Egyptian to me. Greek writers used the word Illyrian to describe the people who lived in this part of the Balkan Peninsula, and Greece established colonies here. The Romans conquered them in 168 BCE following 3 Illyrian Wars. During the 13th and 14th centuries, this area was known mainly for agriculture and horse breeding. The name Illyria survived until the 15th century. How and why Shakespeare set his play Twelfth Night in Illyria is anybody’s guess.
One of the more interesting artifacts was a bottle used to collect tears. It was found near a grave. But the object receiving the most attention in the entire museum was a copy of national hero Skanderbeg’s oversized sword. How he fought the Ottomans on horseback with such a giant weapon remains a mystery. He won 23 of 25 battles over 25 years. His head atop a massive body on a giant statue was proportionally way too small, at least I assume that his real head was not that freakishly tiny. The double headed eagle, which is seen everywhere in Albania, was prominently displayed in Skanderbeg’s exhibit.
In the modern era Mother Teresa, whom Enver Hoxha apparently hated, was well represented. He would not let her visit her dying mother. In 1967 Enver declared that Albania was the first atheist country in the world.
But I still hadn’t seen him. Finally, I spied Hoxha in a military uniform in a photograph taken during World War II. He looked very young and resolute in the picture, but the museum seemed to want to distract visitors from focusing on him. Nearby was the gun that killed Mussolini. Italy reportedly gave it to the Albanians when they allowed the Italians to attack Greece through their country. The last photo I saw of Enver Hoxha in the National History Museum was of his statue being knocked over in front of it.