Heritage activists alarmed as roof collapse damages 18th century monastery

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times June 9, 2017 12:49

Heritage activists alarmed as roof collapse damages 18th century monastery

TIRANA, June 9 – The roof of an 18th century monastery in the southern Albanian district of Saranda has collapsed, causing severe damage to a post-Byzantine church and its frescoes, alarming experts and cultural heritage activists over the authorities’ neglect of monuments of culture.

The St. Athanasius church is an Orthodox monastery built in 1797 in the Leshnica e Poshtme village, southernmost Albania close to the Greek border, some 50 km off the city of Saranda.

The Forum for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, a watchdog bringing together activists, was the first to denounce the collapse of the church and the damage to its frescoes, posting a picture of the church in ruins.

“The church is a domed basilica with an inscription at the entry of the temple dating back to 1797, but local residents insist the date corresponds to the second reconstruction and that the temple is much older. Inside the monastery the walls were decorated with rare icons representing priceless cultural heritage while the temple’s northern part hosted monks’ cells,” said the Forum in a statement.

Activists say the collapse is also a result of state authorities being focused on the electoral campaign for the upcoming June 25 general elections and neglecting heritage issues.

“Local residents say state institutions had been aware of the centuries-old church being in danger of collapse for several months but chose to keep it a secret because of the electoral campaign,” activists add.

Archaeologist Moikom Zeqo says he is shocked by what he calls “criminal indifference of the Albanian government toward monuments of culture.”

“The church is an 18th century building at a time when Albanian iconography was at its peak. Saranda has a big number of monuments, some of which ancient ones, but this church could be the most beautiful among late Middle Ages monuments,” says Zeqo, blaming the culture ministry and local authorities for the neglect.

Reacting to accusations, the culture ministry said the church was initially damaged last February when part of the roof and walls collapsed after an earthquake with its epicenter in Ioannina in neighbouring Greece.

Culture authorities say they have collected all damaged items so that are used in the church’s full restoration, underway since last year.

The monastery was declared a monument of culture in 1963, just four years before the country’s communist authorities banned religion and closed down all religious institutions. Authorities say the church had seen no restoration intervention for decades until 2014.

The 18th century church is one of the treasures of Saranda, an Albanian Riviera tourist destination famous for its crystal clear waters and the ancient Butrint archeological park, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times June 9, 2017 12:49