The city’s name has either legendary or more mundane origins.  Legend claims that during the final siege of the city by the Turks, Princess Argyro, the sister of the feudal lord of the town, despairing for her people, threw herself from the battlements together with her young son rather than be taken alive by the enemy.  The name ‘the fortress of Argyro’ comes from this (but since the first mention of the town’s name is in Byzantine records well before the Ottoman conquest, this seems unlikely).  Another explanation is that the city takes its name from the Greek word for silver, argyrókastron – a reference to the grey stone walls, streets and roofs which shimmer like silver when it rains.  Argjyri is also the name of a clan native to the Gjirokastra region, from whom the town’s name could also have been taken.

The modern city of Gjirokastra comprises the old town, a fortress (the original focus of the settlement), the Ottoman districts situated on the ridges leading away from the fortress and the new town on the valley floor where most modern buildings and the university complex are concentrated.  The traditional quarters of the city radiate around the fortress:  Cfakë, Dunavat, Palorto, Varosh, Meçite, Hazmurat, Pazari i Vjetër. 

The early history of Gjirokastra is relatively unknown.  Due to the proximity of the Hellenistic settlement Antigonea (near Jermë) and the Roman city of Hadrianopolis (close to the village of Sofratike) it has frequently been assumed that the medieval fortress represents the first occupation of the site.  However this has now been challenged by the results of excavations within the fortress that have revealed ceramics from four different phases of occupation before the Ottoman period: 5th -2nd-centuries BC, 5th -7th-centuries AD, 9th -10th-centuries and 12th -13th-centuries.  The earliest of these phases also produced evidence of substantial block-built walls suggesting that there was a significant fortification on this side of the Drino valley in the pre-Roman period (before about 168 BC).

The first historic reference to the settlement was in 1336 when the Byzantine chronicler John Cantacuzene referred to the city, recording it as Argyrókastron.  Under the Despotate of Epirus the city and surrounding region was controlled by

Lithography by Edward Lear

the Zenebishi family.  As the Ottoman Empire expanded into Europe in the late 14th century, Gjirokastra fell under their dominion and its lords were for a time vassals of the Sultans.  One member of the Zenebishi family led a body of men from the region under the Sultan Beyazid I (1389-1402) who was defeated by the Mongol Lord Tamerlane at the battle of Ankara in 1402.  By 1419 the city was fully controlled by the Turks with 163 dwelling houses recorded in the tax records of 1431-32. 

The fortress has always had a primary military function.  Even though there were houses within the walls, these were for the garrison and important political leaders.   The township first developed outside the walls during the medieval period.  Evidence of the early settlement is lacking, though a fine 13th-century carved crutch capital was found on the site of the former bishop’s residence underneath the now vanished Enver Hoxha memorial.  In the 16th and 17th-centuries the city’s role as the main centre of the Sanjak of Albania (Sanjaks were the main administrative units of the early Ottoman Empire) resulted in increased prosperity and, as a result, an expansion of the urban quarters.  With 434 dwelling houses recorded in 1583, the city had more than doubled in size in the course of a century.  This dramatic increase was also due to a general movement of population from the countryside to towns, and the growth continued even after the regional seat of government was moved to Delvinë at the time of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566). Gjirokastra was still an administrative centre as the seat of a kadi (judge), and many of the dwelling houses and mosques that survive today date to this later period.  The city’s population appears to have remained stable in the 18th and 19th-centuries.

Ruins of the aqueduct in the early years of the 20th century

In 1811, the city fell into the hands of Ali Pasha of Tepelenë.  He enlarged the fortress and constructed a 12-km aqueduct, which brought drinking water from Sopot Mountain.  The stone aqueduct was the subject of a painting by the famous British artist Edward Lear (see photo above) who travelled widely in the region.  The, by now derelict, aqueduct was almost totally demolished in 1932, but in the Manalat Quarter a small section still stands, known locally as Ali Pasha’s Bridge or Manalat Bridge.  After Ali Pasha was killed by the forces of the Sublime Porte (the Ottoman Sultan and his court), the city continued as an Ottoman administrative centre and as a trading centre for local products including: livestock, wool, flannel, dairy products, silk, and embroidery.

Gjirokastra has always been a patriotic city and it was at the forefront of efforts to promote Albanian national identity during the 19th-century.  In 1880, the Assembly of Gjirokastra actively promoted the cause of self-government and resistance to Ottoman rule.  In 1908, Girokastra’s first Albanian language school, named Liria, was opened in the city followed by a series of patriotic clubs and societies.

During the early 20th-century Gjirokastra occupied an important location as the frontiers of modern Albania were being defined.  For a period following the collapse of Ottoman power and the declaration of Albanian Independence in 1912, it was part of the Autonomous Republic of Epirus under General Zographos who agitated for union with Greece, but after World War I the Entente powers (Britain, France and Russia) persuaded Greece to drop its claim to this majority ethnic Albanian area.  The present frontier was ratified internationally in 1921.

During King Zog's reign (1928-1939), Gjirokastra established itself as one of the most important cultural and economic centres in the country, although it was also known for the large prison constructed in the castle during Zog’s reign.  The city fell under Italian occupation after their invasion of Albania in 1939, but it remained a centre of resistance to the Italian and later German occupation.  Much of the region was liberated in 1944 by the partisans and was used as a base for the liberation of the rest of the country in November 1944. 

The years under communism saw extensive industrialisation as well as substantial efforts to conserve the unique cultural heritage of the town (see separate section for more details).  When the communist regime fell at the end of 1990, Gjirokastra’s economy was already declining rapidly.  To achieve full employment, the communists assigned far more people to work in the already outdated and inefficient industrial complexes than were actually needed, and the collapse of the communist system resulted in the catastrophic loss of thousands of jobs in Gjirokastra.  Thousands in turn migrated either to Tirana or abroad in search of work.  In the civil unrest that followed the fall of the regime the National Armaments Museum was looted and the city’s enormous statue of Enver Hoxha was pulled down.  The site is now the car park of a coffee bar and restaurant.

Gjirokastra began a slow climb out of the initial chaos of the communist collapse, only to fall again during the 1997 crisis that revolved around electoral fraud and the collapse of pyramid savings schemes where thousands lost their life savings.  A significant part of the Bazaar was burned or otherwise damaged during this time, and the town suffered a state of siege as people struggled to survive in a violent and lawless environment.  The crisis triggered another mass emigration, abandoning many historic buildings to decay and collapse.  The days of the Museum City were long gone and the state was no longer able to exercise its legal obligation to fund the maintenance and conservation of Gjirokastra’s historic buildings.

Today the future of Gjirokastra looks a little brighter.  The base of the economy is agricultural, and food processing businesses have grown up in the region to take advantage of the high quality fruit, vegetable and dairy products.  The town has a university and is the central administrative hub for the region.  Tourism is proving to be one of the best hopes for economic development in Gjirokastra, building on the town’s unique cultural, historical and architectural heritage.