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Eastern Albania's Korçë District

Korça (or Korçë when in a sentence with a preposition as in "to", "in" or "from Korçë") is the main city of south-eastern Albania, situated on a plateau surrounded by the Morava Mountains at an altitude of about 850 metres above sea level. The site has been continually inhabited for the last 6,000 years, with strong Greek cultural influence in the Iron Age. It was important in the spread of Byzantine Christianity, with a church established in 898.

Mirahori Mosque, Korçë
Xhamia e Mirahorit
Apartment block, Korçë
Albanian Orthodox church
St. George Church
First Albanian school
Communist memorial
Korçë street
Old house, Korçë
Quiet street, Voskopojë
Church of Shën Kollë
Gallery, Church of Shën Kollë
Fresco, outer gallery
Church of St Michael
Interior St Michael's Church
Farm house, Voskopojë
Farmyard, Voskopojë
Monument and tractor
Monastery, Voskopojë
St. Athanasius' Church
Church of St. Athanasius
Damaged frescoes
Shën Kollë Church paintings
Outer gallery

It was a feudal estate in the 13th century and in 1484 Koja Mirahor İlyas Bey, the local lord and a Muslim convert, who had taken part in the 1453 Ottoman siege of Constantinople, returned. He developed Korçë under the command of Sultan Mehmet II and in 1494 built the single domed Xhamia e Mirahorit (Mirahori Mosque) that still bears his name; it is one of the most architecturally important mosques in Albania. Korçë was rivalled by nearby Voskopojë, that in the mid-18th century counted about 30,000 inhabitants (some claims are over 60,000, including immediate surroundings), making it the second-largest city of European Turkey, after Constantinople, now İstanbul. But after military expeditions had been mounted against Voskopojë during the late 18th century, that city declined rapidly and Korçë became the regional centre. Today it has a population of over 100,000.

From the 17th century onwards Korçë was a centre of commerce and trade. It was an important stopping point on the caravan routes in those days. In the 19th century it became a centre of the growth of Albanian national consciousness ("Rilindja") and in 1887 the first school to use the Albanian language opened here; its building is now the Museum of Education. Upon the declaration of Albanian independence in 1912, Korçë was seized and occupied by Greek irredentist forces who called it Koritsa and claimed it and its surroundings as Greek territory. In 1920, after great turmoil during the Balkan Wars, the First World War and a four-year French occupation, Korçë was finally awarded to Albania by the International Boundary Commission. Enver Hoxha, the Albanian communist leader, attended and later taught at the Lycée (public secondary school) that had been founded by the French in 1916. Used as a military base by the Italians for operations against Greece during World War II, the city was occupied by the Greeks in 1940-41, then by the Germans, and finally restored to Albania in 1944. Korçë suffered greatly from the brutal redevelopment by the Hoxha regime in the 1970s; the old bazaar area was all but demolished; it still has some large villas, in need of restoration but the impressive Shën Gjergj (Saint George) Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania has been renovated and looks brand new.

Voskopojë (or Voskopojë when in a sentence with a preposition as in "to", "in" or "from Voskopojë) is now a small village, 21 kilometres west of Korçë in southeastern Albania. In the 18th century, it was known as Moscopole, a rival of Korçë, a major Balkan city and a cultural and commercial center of the Aromanian people, also known as Vlachs. At its peak, in the 1760s, it is claimed that it had a population of over 60,000 and was the second most important city of the Balkans in regard to population and prosperity, surpassed only by Constantinople; it had the first printing press in the Balkans, banks, a University and 70 churches. It acted as a business entrepôt between Venice and Constantinople. The language spoken here was Aromanian, also known as Macedo-Romanian or Vlach, an Eastern Romance language, centred mainly in Macedonia. There were also Greek merchants; Greek was used in commercial contracts and the Aromanian language was written in the Greek alphabet. The wealth of the city aroused the jealousy of the Turkish beys in the surrounding areas and between 1769 and 1789 various military expeditions were mounted against the city. Many Christians were murdered or expelled and their houses burnt down. The town declined rapidly as Korçë grew as the regional capital. It suffered further serious damage to its buildings during vicious inter-communal fighting in the region during the Balkan wars in 1911-12, in the conflicts over control of Korçë during and after the First World War and most of all in the battles between the Axis troops and partisans in 1943-44. As a result it is now just a small village and centre of pastoral agriculture, largely inhabited by Vlach shepherds.

There are still reminders of the old days, with well-paved streets running between farm buildings. Only five Orthodox churches survive in poorly maintained state. During the prohibition of religion in communist Albania in 1948, they were declared "Cultural Monuments" and in 2002 they were put on the World Monuments Fund's Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites. Most churches resemble barns from the outside: in the Ottoman days churches were tolerated here as long as they didn't look too much like churches from the outside. The best preserved of these is the Church of Shën Kollë (St. Nicholas' Church, Kisha e Shën Kollit), built in 1721, in the centre of the village, and the only one that can be visited if the caretaker with the key can be found. It has icons and frescoes, in great need of restoration. St. Michael's Church (Kisha e Shën Mëhillit or Kisha Kryeengjëjt Mihail dhe Gavriil, Church of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel) on the north west side of town was built in 1722 and is locked up and empty, but an idea of its former glory can be seen through a hole in the wall. In 1996 the church was vandalised and 23 paintings of Saints were severely damaged; it seems restoration work is in progress. St. Athanasius Church (Kisha e Shën Thanasit) was built in 1721 and now serves as a cemetery church in the old Moscopole. It also has frescoes but has also suffered from theft of its church icons.