Berati - A view from our expert author

Ottoman houses berati Albania by Ppictures, ShutterstockOttoman houses in the Mangalemi district of Berati © Ppictures, Shutterstock

Berati is one of the oldest and most attractive cities in the country; the view of its white houses climbing up the hillside to the citadel is one of the best-known images of Albania.

The citadel walls themselves encircle the whole of the top of the hill. Within them are eight medieval churches, one of which houses an outstanding collection of icons painted by the 16th-century master Onufri. Berati also has an excellent Ethnographic Museum and several other interesting buildings, including two of the oldest mosques in Albania. Thanks to their historical value, the religious buildings in the citadel were protected from the worst ravages of the atheism campaign, and in 1976 the government designated Berati as a ‘museum city’, which saved the town centre from communist urban planning.

Berati has been inhabited since the Bronze Age, over 4,000 years ago. The great Tomorri Massif, which rises behind it, was a sacred mountain from very early times and it still hosts a huge Bektashi festival every August. The first traces of building on the citadel date from the second half of the 4th century bc, when the Illyrian Parthini controlled the area.

Berati thrived in the Middle Ages, thanks to its strategic location at the point where the trading routes from the south met the lowland plain. This made it an appetising conquest for successive invaders. The Bulgarian Empire took the city in ad860 and held it – barring a 40-year period during which it was reconquered by Byzantium – until 1018. Berati’s second return to the Byzantine fold lasted longer, despite a determined attack by the Angevins, who besieged the citadel for seven months in 1280–81. By the mid-14th century, however, as Byzantium's power waned, Berati and much of the rest of Albania became part of Stefan Dušan’s 'Empire of the Serbs and the Greeks'. 

After Stefan Dušan’s death in 1355, the whole of what is now southeast Albania, reaching as far as Kastoria (now in northern Greece) came under the control of the Muzakaj family of Berati, one of the powerful Albanian clans which emerged as the only functioning authorities in the period before the Ottoman conquest. The citadel of Berati fell to the Ottomans in 1417 and, despite an attempt to retake it, led by Skanderbeg in 1455, it remained in their hands for nearly 500 years. The mountains of the Berati region were a hotbed of partisan activity during World War II, and the city was the first seat of the Interim Government which came to power in October 1944, under the leadership of Enver Hoxha.

The name of the city may come from the Turkish word berat, meaning an order conferring a decoration, a sort of royal warrant; or it might derive from ‘Beligrad’, the name the Slavs gave the town, although there is debate about whether this is philologically possible. Berati won recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2008.

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