Earlier this year I read an article about a man in Spain who had devoted his life’s work to build a cathedral. It was a fascinating story – worthy of media attention! Though, it got me thinking that I knew of someone in a remote village in northern Albania who had single-handedly built a church which had gone largely unnoticed even within Albania.
So I decided that on my next trip to Kryezi, in the district of Puka, I will try to meet the man who single-handedly built a church. I was curious to find out a bit about what had driven him to do this.
And so I did. Ylli Rrapi, a vivacious man of 86 years, showed up on a hot autumn day, I must say he was dressed very dapper. He sports a moustache and a hat. He’s all buttoned up but no tie. So much for the formal clothing, you can but sense there is a lot of strength in him, not least from his handshake. He is a stone mason, a master by all means, who has built more than 100 homes over a career spanning about 70 years. He was 82 years of age when he built the church. One would expect to meet a tired man, Ylli is quite the contrary.
He showed me around the detail of his work on the chappell. It’s very respecting to the rather unique traditions of stone masonry of High Albania, but a bit peculiar too. For instance, I noticed the church’s windows are gothic on the outside, yet bearing roman arches on the inside. Ylli provides a tour of his work with absolute delight.
“There was once a church here which was sacred to both Muslims and Catholics of this area, ” he explains, “the communist regime destroyed it, and with it they destroyed some centuries old oak trees that once stood on its grounds”.
According to local legend the church is more than 800 years old. Written records which exist confirm it was there in 1657, same for the oak trees.
Ylli shows where he had to compromise with the old and where he tried his best to stick to the original church even though no blueprints of the original church exist. For instance the church had been oriented north/south previously – with the entrance to the south. It was no longer possible to build it that way as most of the land, once seized by the communist dictatorship to turn into farming, is still used for this purpose by the locals. So Ylli had to turn the new church to face west.
The windows are no compromise – Ylli located the ancient stones and re-built them to reflect the old church as much as possible. His attention to historical detail is evident from the corner stones which hold an arch over their shoulders. These are most peculiar: one bearing the cross, one bearing an “X” sign. Ylli was grateful to have located those ensigned stones as most were either thrown away or used for support walls to the arable land. He says “they clearly demonstrate the ancient origins of the church.” As I found later online, the “X” sign was indeed used by early Christians along with the sign of the cross. The two ensigned stones now proudly support the beatiful arched entrance to the church – a testament to the old, which unfortunately has not found much respect in Albania’s recent troubled history.
Ylli further explains that the church is rather special, something already confirmed by its rare symbols really. “As the church is dedicated to St Venera (Shen Prenda / Veneranda in Albanian), people, especially women, with fertility problems came here to pray and their problems would go away. For as long as I can remember, locals have not allowed burials on the grounds of this church”. Now, the St Venera connection helps me to make sense why the chappel is of importance to both Muslims and Christians alike.
Ylli’s village, Kryezi, has three churches and two mosques. As is the case all over Albania, Muslims and Christians live in complete harmony. But very few Albanians take religion very seriously and whilst I can see that Ylli himself is about as religious as the average person in Albania, religion is clearly not what he lives and breathes.
To get to the point, I ask Ylli about his motivation. He replies “I built this for the generations to come. The dictatorship took this [church] away from us, I wanted to re-build this monument so that it can be enjoyed for another 800 years”.
I can sense he wanted some retribution against the communist regime but more than that his motivation is purely one of contributing to the community, it’s clearly much less to do with religion per se. This really is a temple intended to bring people together, in its mystic charms and obscure history.
And as to the generations to come? I learn later that Ylli’s only family have emigrated to Italy in search of a better life, as have many Albanians – his grand-children will not enjoy the fruits of his work. His wife passed away recently and he lives alone in a beatiful stone house which he built himself and which, I must say, is very stately. If it’s not about him, then it must be all selfless really.
I was informed that his family opened the doors of their home to be used as the village’s only school in the 1930’s when it didn’t have one. A community spirit runs in Ylli’s blood. I wish more Albanians were like that.
After a photoshoot and saying my goodbyes I ask him whether he would like to change anything to this art-piece (he would not agree to call it his masterpiece!). He replies with a bright spark in his eyes that he wants to plant some cypress trees – he will pay for these himself too, as he has done for much of everything else with this object.
I once again shake his strong hand – I am in awe of this man who built a monument to the re-gained freedom, a temple to the community – at the age of 82. A genuine selfless act for others. I wish more people around the world were like him.
(this article featured previously in the Tirana Times)