Albanian rituals performed at burials thousands of years ago differ from the customs of today. Learn how 12th century grave mounds or grave circles were created and decorated as well as what kind of items were buried with the deceased.
Historic Albanian Burial Practices
Archeologists have performed significant studies on the findings of ancient Albanian burial practices. In 1876, German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered ancient tombs in the region; while these tombs have long-been attributed to the Mycenaeans, also known as the Achaeans, many of these burial walls could have been constructed by ancient Greeks. These graves include the following.
Grave Circles or Grave Mounds
Dated 1650-1400 BCE, these were pits dug into rock. These were the first circles. On their floors, small stones were placed. Then the corpse was put on top of the stones. Timbers, clay, and slabs of material were created to form walls and then dirt was poured to fill the rest of the rectangular shaft. In addition to the bodies, jewelry, hair pins, bronze weapons and other possessions were also buried in these graves. The outside walls, forming a second circle, were elaborate with etched designs.
Tholoi or Beehive Chambers
These were sunk into the edge of a mountain with a long passage lined with large stones. The stones were arranged precisely to look like a beehive formation. There was a doorway with a small door leading to a side chamber. The doors were often overlaid with metals. An open triangle was built over the doorway. Often in this ancient culture, triangles pointing upward were a sign of the Holy Trinity and could have been an indication of a spiritual site.
A Typical Albanian Funeral
The ancient ruins can still be viewed in the country today. However, now when there is a death in Tirana, the capital of Albania, a secular funeral is held since Albania doesn't have a national religion. It is simple and often held at the family home or at a central gathering place. Someone will present a speech of condolence. Then the body, placed in a casket, is buried in the graveyard. The Muslim tradition allows for the mourners to accompany the body to the grave. Cremation is not practiced. Outside of the capital in the rural regions, some traditional customs associated with mourning a loss still prevail. Usually these rituals are performed largely by females. It is rare for men to follow in these behaviors. At times, professional female mourners are hired. These rituals most likely came from the Jewish or Greek Orthodox traditions since at Muslim funerals, excessive crying and a loud demonstration of emotions is forbidden. Types of these outward displays of grief include:
- Heavy wailing
- Cutting or tearing out one's hair
- Scratching one's face
- Donning clothes inside out
Polyphonic Music Played
The traditional folk Albanian polyphonic music is sometimes played at funerals as well as at weddings in the northern and southern regions of the country. This iso-polyphony is usually performed by men and is regionally specific to either members of the Ghegs of the north or members of the Tosks and Labs of the south.
Where Is Albania?
Albania, or as it's officially known - the Republic of Albania, is a European nation that is west of Greece and borders the Adriatic Sea. Albania has been populated since prehistoric times and was settled by the Illyrians. Due to its location, the country has suffered numerous violent battles. Ottomans, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Venetians left their marks on this small land.
Religions of Albania
The major religions of Albania are Sunni and Bektashi Muslim, which make up 70 percent of the population, Albanian Orthodox at 20 percent, and Roman Catholicism at 10 percent. In the post-war period, Albania became a communist country, and in 1966 they announced to the world that they were outlawing religion in an attempt to mitigate the lasting effects of the country's feudalistic history. At that time, all the churches were taken over by the government, and the priests were forced to stop practicing. The fundamental Islamic rituals ceased, including the banning of eating pork. Unfortunately, religious funerary rights were discouraged at this time, until religious freedom was reinstated following the fall of the USSR in 1991.
Albanian Ruins Offer Cultural Beauty
Albania's ancient burial ruins are now globally valued as historically significant, and they help bolster the tourist populations there in the 21st century. If you visit, you can marvel at the skilled craftsmanship of the structures and learn about the ways that the ancient civilizations honored their dead while recognizing how these traditional practices influenced the country's contemporary burial customs.