Home of both Mother Theresa and the great 15th Century hero Skanderbeg, Albania is located in Southeastern Europe bordering the Adriatic Sea and Ionian Sea, between Montenegro and Kosovo in the north, Macedonia in the east and Greece in the south.
Albanian history and culture is fascinating. Butrint, one of the world’s archeological wonders – and a UNESCO World Heritage site – in the south of Albania provides a glimpse of Mediterranean civilization from the Bronze Age through the Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman periods – all atop a cliff overlooking Corfu.
Throughout the transition period Albania has been faced with a number of extremely complex challenges in order to establish stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law and human rights as well as to operate a functioning market economy and to cope with competition and market forces.
Albania has enjoyed a high sustained rate of economic growth over the past several years, averaging about 5–6 per cent per year, placing Albania into the group of countries with a high Human Development Index (HDI).
Albanians refer to themselves as shqiptarë—often taken to mean “sons of eagles,” though it may well refer to “those associated with the shqip (i.e., Albanian) language”—and to their country as Shqipëria.
Albania was declared independent in 1912, but the following year the demarcation of its boundaries by the great powers of Europe (Austria-Hungary, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia) assigned about half its territory and people to neighbouring states. Ruled as a monarchy between the World Wars, Albania emerged from the violence of World War II as a communist state that fiercely protected its sovereignty and in which almost all aspects of life were controlled by the ruling party. But with the collapse of other communist regimes beginning in 1989, new social forces and democratic political parties emerged in Albania. That shift reflected the country’s continuing orientation toward the West, and it accorded with the Albanian people’s long-standing appreciation of Western technology and cultural achievements—even while retaining their own ethnic identity, cultural heritage, and individuality.
Like other Mediterranean countries, Albania has characteristically warm, dry summers and mild, wet winters. Local climatic variation can occur, however, from one region to another. The western part of the country, which is under the influence of warm maritime air from the Adriatic and Ionian seas, has more-moderate temperatures than the rest of Albania. For example, Sarandë, on the southern coast, has average daily temperatures in the mid-70s F (about 24 °C) in July and in the upper 40s F (about 9 °C) in January. The eastern part of the country, on the other hand, is mainly under the influence of continental air and is characterized by mild summers (owing to the high elevations) and cold winters. Peshkopi, in the eastern mountains, has temperatures that average in the mid-70s F in July and in the lower 30s F (about −1 °C) in January.
Rainfall in Albania is abundant, but it occurs unevenly across the country and throughout the year. Average annual precipitation varies from more than 100 inches (2,500 mm) in the North Albanian Alps to less than 30 inches (760 mm) along much of the eastern border. Some 40 percent of the annual precipitation falls in the winter. The southwestern part of the country suffers from summer droughts.
Albania has one of the most homogeneous populations in Europe, with non-Albanians accounting for less than one-tenth of the total population. The largest minorities are Vlachs; Greeks, concentrated mainly in the southeast; and Macedonians, living along the eastern border.
The two main subgroups of Albanians are the Gegs (Ghegs) in the north and the Tosks in the south. Differences between the two groups were quite pronounced before World War II.
The Albanian language, called shqip or shqipe by Albanians, is of interest to linguists because, as a descendant of the extinct Illyrian tongue, it is the only surviving member of its branch of the Indo-European language family. Influenced by centuries of rule by foreigners, the Albanian vocabulary has adopted many words from the Latin, Greek, Turkish, Italian, and Slavic tongues. There are two principal dialects: Geg, spoken north of the Shkumbin River, and Tosk, spoken in the south. Geg dialects are also spoken in Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Macedonia, and Tosk dialects, though somewhat archaic as a result of centuries of separation from their place of origin in Albania, are prominent in the Albanian communities of Greece and Italy. Although there are variations even within these two dialects, Albanians can understand one another with no difficulty.
As a legacy of nearly five centuries of Ottoman rule, Albania is a predominantly Muslim country. However, as a result of the rigid enforcement of atheism during the communist regime, today most Albanians are adherents of religious groups in name only and practice largely secular lifestyles. In 1967 the communist party officially proclaimed Albania an atheistic country and commenced to close all places of worship (churches, mosques, and zāwiyahs), confiscate their property, and ban religious observances. For the whole of its 45 years of absolute rule, the party engaged in large-scale persecution of believers. Only in 1990, when freedom of worship was restored, did churches and mosques begin reopening. Mother Teresa, a Macedonian-born ethnic Albanian who served as a Roman Catholic missionary to India in the 20th century, is a folk hero in Albania.