Giving the Past a Future: Historical Preservation at Kulla Isuf Mazrekaj – Drenoc, Kosovo

Like anything that’s been around for several centuries, the Isuf Mazrekaj kulla is finding that it needs to adapt in order to survive. These stone towers, potent symbols of traditional Islamic Kosovar culture, were particularly targeted during the recent war, and now only a couple dozen survive. The Mazrekaj family has survived warfare, regime changes, and economic instability, and so has their kulla, but now that Kosovo has found independence and relative stability, helping the kulla participate in modern tourism is the surest way to ensure the survival of the historic structure, and the prosperity of the family who have held it for three centuries. Adventures in Preservation, an American company partnering with Cultural Heritage Without Borders Kosovo, brought seven volunteers to spend two weeks working on the kulla alongside the Mazrekaj family, guided by conservation architects and local craftsmen. The result? A historically-minded rehabilitation of the 18th century building.


Our master craftsmen, Smiley and Hasan. Smiley (behind) was our plastering guru, a quick frenetic presence, while Hasan, about a foot and a half taller, was the gentle giant who led us in woodworking.

1. Reconfiguring doorways

  • One of the first orders of business has been to increase the privacy of the three bedrooms by giving each its own doorway onto the entrance hall (and thus access to the bathroom). On the first couple days this meant knocking open one door  while bricking-up another.

Our master craftsmen, Smiley and Hasan. Smiley (behind) was our plastering guru, a quick frenetic presence, while Hasan, about a foot and a half taller, was the gentle giant who led us in woodworking.

The Bunny tries out her bricklaying skills…! As far as possible, we reused the bricks from the doorway we had just knocked out.

2. Building a partition wall

  • Meanwhile, one of the bedrooms had a doorway opening directly onto the outside, so we built an entirely new wall closing off the bedroom and creating a hallway leading from that external doorway straight to the entrance hall. We built the wall of interlocking pine panels, filled with insulation and covered on the opposite side in lathe, chicken wire, and plaster.

The external side of the new wall, with lovely pine planking and a custom-made door.

And on the other side, plastering over the lathe and chicken wire.

3. Reflooring the kitchen

  • This small room with its charmingly crooked fireplace would historically have been the kitchen. A rotting framework of later flooring covered the original floorboards, still impressively intact, while in between was a packed layer of soil which aided insulation, but made for a pretty dirty uncovering process. As awesome as these old boards are, for purposes of structural integrity and to avoid a major trip hazard, they needed to be replaced. So we stripped back the original boards to the joists, laying then aside with an idea of repurposing the most, perhaps as furniture, which would preserve them while also being of continued use to the kulla. We laid some basic planking perpendicular to the joists, then built a framework over them, slotting it here and there with bits of wood to make it (mostly) level. Then, just as historically it was filled with soil, we filled the framework with sand for insulation. Over this, in an epic four-hour flooring sesh that lasted well past quitting time and was fueled by hilarity and a few beers, three of us nailed in the new tongue-and-groove pine flooring.

The original floorboards in situ, preserved under a layer of dirt.

It took quite a few trips of the bucket brigade to bring all that sand up to the second floor from the courtyard…!

Repping my college acapella group while Julia, Meris, and I power through the flooring, while Master Hassan supervises and we all, erm, “hydrate” 😅

4. Plastering the kitchen

  • Although the kitchen and second bedroom had all historically comprised one open room, at some point in the kulla’s history partition walls had been built dividing the space into two smaller rooms. Rather than tear down this wall, it was decided to keep it, but plaster over it to give the room a tidier appearance. Plastering was a story in layers: First went a splattered coat of very rough-grain mortar to give the wall better texture to which subsequent layers could adhere. Then we nailed segments of chicken wire over the bricks – and let me assure you that driving nails into crumbling old brick mortar was the most fun – to give the next coat something to adhere to. The next bit was the messiest, and therefore the funnest: in order to get the mortar to pass through the chicken wire we had to fling it at the wall, then smooth it over once we had built up a sufficient thickness. After leaving it to dry a few days, we applied a second, much smoother coat for the final layer. We sifted the sand through a screen to give the lime plaster a much finer grain and the wall surface a smoother finish. The last step, which had to be completed after we left, was painting with repeated costs of lime wash to achieve a bright, white-wash effect over the grey plaster.

Splatter stage: Master Smiley had this incredible skill for distributing the plaster evenly over the whole surface with just a flick of his wrist. Our attempts ended up mostly on the floor…

Twisting nails into the spiky wire and then tapping them into a crumbling surface – that’s my “fun face.”

More splattering was required after the chicken wire – I think we were starting to get better at it!

5. A new ceiling for the kitchen

  • The ceiling boards in the kitchen, though original and very cool looking, were not in a condition to serve the purposes of a modern guesthouse. In an ideal world, a professional wood conservator would be able to document and analyze the beams for information about their age and manufacture, and then could stabilise and consolidate them – perhaps arresting the processes of age and rot and insect damage. Unfortunately neither AiP, CHwB, nor the Mazrekajs have the funds for such a step at this stage. Until proper conservation can be done, the best solution was to install a new ceiling over the old one, this shielding the historic fabric and and also making the room more usable and appealing.

Shiny new ceiling leaving the support beams exposed. Each plank had to be custom fitted to the uneven contour of the beams.

6. Retouching the kitchen

  • As evident from the photos above, the old kitchen required the most work to rehabilitate. This included details like plastering gaps between the walls and the floor, plastering the fireplace to protect the original stones, and covering over holes in the walls, such as the one added over the mantle to vent a stovepipe sometime in the room’s later history. The mantle of the fireplace had seen some damage as well, so we applied a new layer of plaster to approximate its historic contours and give it a nicer appearance for use by the Mazrekaj family.

That detail work though…

The final product (still needing white-washing)

The Mazrekaj’s kulla presented some interesting conservation dilemmas. The aim of the project was to further its conversion to a functioning B&B so that it can remain an asset to and help maintain the livelihood of the family who built it three centuries ago and have called it home ever since. Although it would undoubtedly be awesome to see a kulla in its original state, the goal was never to restore the space to its original 18th century appearance.  It will never be a museum; it was necessary to balance concerns of historicity against the need for the space to function. Best practice does not permit the removal of features added later in the building’s history – for example, all the brick partition walls. So we did the best we could to preserve historic material while making the space habitable, the guiding principles being reversibility – almost nothing we did could not be undone at a later date if desired – and aesthetic integrity – all new additions (new wall, new ceiling, new floor) were executed in traditional materials using human muscle and elbow grease.

It would be fair to say that occasionally the details and the rationale behind some decisions suffered in translation from Albanian to English – sometimes our architect-translators weren’t on hand, so between Master Hasan’s school Italian, Master Smiley’s smattering of German, and our ability to mime various hammering and sawing actions, we got quite good at understanding one another on site. But this really only made things more fun, and enhanced our relationships with our two “Masters.” Its amazing how much you can pick up about someone’s personality, when you don’t have to worry about listening to their words.

The Rhythms of Life: Drenoc

As I write this I’m sitting in the communal living room of an 18th century kulla, a traditional Ottoman-Albanian tower-house, in the small historical village of Drenoc in the west of Kosovo. The “guest room,” as they call it, is a large elegant space in the top floor of the tower, with a perimeter of sheepskin cushions for sitting on. The floor is covered in red woven carpets, while the datk wooden beams of the ceiling add to the cozy atmosphere.

The shoes come off at the door, so we’ve all padded softly up here in socks and house slippers. Our hosts have explained that this room was the traditional cultural hub of village life – the place where disputes were settled, business deals struck, and marriages arranged – while Turkish coffee stimulated the mind and eased conversation.

This is where we’ve come to work for two weeks. The magnificent top floor was refurbished in 2006 by a USAid project, but the second floor, the less formal domain of women and children, still needs work.

Hey, those floorboards look pretty good for being almost 300 years old!

But a walk through the village yesterday afternoon showed that Drenoc’s traditions extend beyond the seven historic kullas that make the village a significant cultural site. I got a taste of how life operates in a historic village, in the foothills of the mountains, far from any public transit link, in a region still recovering from a war that touched every family less than a generation ago.

The village is wonderful. From a certain spot you can stand and see nothing in either direction that postdates the 18th century, giving you a chance to visualize, if you can, what the world looked like centuries ago when every village looked like this.

Dog: I could swear I left some sheep around here somewhere…

Our walk took us past a local mosque, which stands in the middle of the village cemetery. Overgrown with an abandoned air, the best-kept graves are of those who died in the recent wars and ethnic attacks of the late 90s. A boy of 19 stands dressed in his dugs holding his kalishnikov while an Albanian flag flutters brightly over his grave.

A husband and a wife lie next to each other, dead on the same day in 1998. The graves of the war victims generally have a more kempt appearance, local communities ways of commemorating their fallen and working through grief. As we wander quietly through the weeds, we notice that all the stones share the same half-dozen surnames. Nita, one of our hosts, stops at a worn unmarked stone to light a candle, which sits beside several others.

“She is a person who used to live in the village,” she explains. “She had no arms or legs, so she was very good.” Nita doesn’t know when she lived or died, but people from the village come regularly to light a candle and make a wish at her grave.

Once we leave that solemn place and shut the gate behind us, the village takes on more life than I’d previously noticed. Two men escort a line of five or six reluctantly obedient cows down the street and into a dirt lane.

Every spare patch of land is cultivated in its small way, with a few rows of potatoes or onions, and perhaps a few fruit trees. The courtyard of our Kulla has fig and plum trees, and stands selling fresh strawberries line the roads between the village and the capital.

We stick out – were as conspicuous as can be in our practical work clothes (everyone here seems impressively well-dressed all the time, even in the countryside), with our backpacks and our wallets (comparatively) heavy with euros, snapping photos of the most mundane sights with our iphones. But the locals seem pleasantly intrigued. They invite us into their homes for coffee even though we don’t speak a word of each other’s language, and don’t seem to mind us poking around their village taking pictures of their houses, their cows, or even them.

Everyone I see seems to be out-and-about doing something, from the woman out hoeing her garden with a tool straight from the 18th century to the man mowing his lawn with a sickle. Perhaps people with few possessions take care of them all the more diligently: boys out riding bikes stop at a roadside fountain to wash the dust off their bikes; men hand-buff the hubcaps of their ancient cars; and the living room of our host’s house – even though the entire family has been living and sleeping in this one room since we’ve put them out of their own bedrooms – is immaculately spotless.

So I’ve painted a picture of a pastoral paradise – and I hope these depictions don’t come off paternalistic or condescending: “Oh look at these charming poor people who live such simple but wholesome lives, aren’t they charming!” No, it’s obviously much more complex than that.

But there’s no doubt that a different attitude governs the speed of life here, and it’s refreshing. Because we’re here to complete a project – there is work that we must complete before we leave – it’s very tempting, particularly to some of us who are used to a more intense pace, to focus on the job – wanting the work to move efficiently, to begin on time and for breaks to be for strict lengths at specific times. But so often we show up at the time were told, to find that despite our supervisors being present and all of us being assembled, another 45 minutes might elapse before we head up to start working. Then in the middle of the day, the work might be suspended as by some unspoken agreement everyone drifts outside to spend a few minutes chatting and sitting in the sunshine. The workday ebbs and flows to a natural rhythm as people pay attention to their bodies and the weather instead to to the clock. In the evenings we all sit in the same room – Albanian-speaking family with hopelessly English-speaking guests – to pass the time however we please. Some play cards, some flick through faceook, some play around with face swap, and some try to expand their Albanian vocabulary through a combination of charades and pidgin German (which most people seem to have studied in school here).

Could the work get done more efficuently? Yes. But as someone has spent so long doing what I “ought” to do that I have trouble knowing what I actually want to do, this way of doing things is different… But nice 🙂

University of Decay – A View of Prishtina 

As anticipated, a further wander through the city yesterday refined at bit farther my views of Kosovo’s capital city. Let’s just say the realities are not as, um, nice as they appeared from the car. Unfortunately I was just on a wander about with a couple other Americans, and so don’t have the benefit of a local’s insight into what I was seeing: What’s the cultural significance of these structures? What do the local population think about their appearance? By western standards things looked pretty grim, but someone who has lived here through the growth of the city and the conflicts of twenty years ago could probably tell me a lot about how it’s evolved. Maybe things now are booming and blossoming compared to the past? Unfortunately, I don’t know. So the things I’m going to show you have little context, and that’s my disclaimer.

Our wandering took us first abouft a half mile down the high street to the University. Now I was a bit excited, because I’d actually heard about this place, how in 1971 the foundation of an Albanian-language university in the Serb-dominated region was a huge cultural triumph, acknowledging Albanian needs and legitimacy. And besides, my roommate had read that they had an absolutely extraordinary library building – like I was going to pass up a chance to see that.

So we were walking down the street, and through the telephone wires I got a glimpse of an abandoned Orthodox Church. And what’s my motto? “I love a good ruin!” So off we went to have a closer look, when we came upon this sign:

Well, it looked like we found the university’s main quad. That’s the ruined church in the background, quietly crumbling away in a park that looks more like an abandoned lot, complete with stray dogs that slunk about panting and growling.

Unfortunately, I had a growing suspicion that the building in the background was going to be the library I’d heard about. A closer look at the church showed it to be a burned-out shell of a once beautiful building. The entire porch was blackened and scorched, and what once must have been plaster and mural frescoes had been stripped back to the bare bricks. An opening in the bars of the door led me to duck inside for a moment for a peek (and now I can just see my mom putting her head in her hands). Inside was covered with graffiti and scattered with broken glass and the remains of dozens of fires. And no, I didn’t get attacked by any lurking hobos, but the thought was definitely there, so I didn’t linger.

As I’ve said, I know nothing about why this building was being treated and neglected this way in the middle of the capital. The best theory I can come up with is that because orthodox christianity is the religion associated with Serbia, the active mistreatment and desecration of an Orthodox church probably has strong political implications. But that’s just a guess.

And it turns out that that shocking building in the background was the National Library of Kosovo, doubling as the Prishtina University library. Holy. Mother. Of. God.

The underlying structure, if you can picture it, is the blocky, aggressive construction known as the Brutalist style, for obvious reasons. Then at some point, deciding they didn’t care for this ugly style any more, they added these grilles and bubble-domes to “beautify” it. I’m not kidding.

And although it looks like a falling-apart wreck, it is apparently open and functioning. That being said, we couldn’t spot anyone going in or out.

Look at that lovely Italianate campanile in the background… *sigh*

Walking back through town, we came up agains a political rally that was so loud we could hear it from our hotel.

As you can kind of see in the video, there were hundreds and hundreds of people rushing away down the street as the protest was disbanded, and the demographic is almost entirely male.

And finally we came across a statue erected in 2008 to celebrate the country’s new independence:

Ended the day with an evening editing photos while watching Eurovision in the hotel lobby.

With a foamy cappuccino 🙂

Pristina, Kosovo – Twenty minutes, a hundred first impressions

So approximately thirty minutes after picking up my bags from the airport, I find myself already sat down – armed with the foamiest cappuccino I have ever enjoyed – to write about this new place called Kosovo. Except it’s not new – but it is – but it isn’t. See, the Republic of Kosovo only declared itself in 2008, but many countries – in particular Serbia – still don’t recognize its sovereignty (much more on that later, I’m sure). But Kosovo the region has been a battleground for centuries, all the way back to the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, the definitive legendary battle of the Serbs against the Turks, which inspired myth and epic, and gave birth to Serbian national pride as, like, even a thing.

All I’ve done so far is grab my bag, send a few quick texts to let people know I’ve arrived, take a fifteen minute cab ride, and plop myself down in the restaurant of my hotel. You may think I’m exaggerating when I say that my hand way itching – literally twitching – to start recording everything I was seeing. That short ride was its own battle inside me – my brain’s desire to jot down every single thing I passed in the car, warring against the sheer unbearability of looking away. Even now my writing is all chicken scratching a because I just can’t get the words out fast enough and why oh why did I leave my laptop at home?!?!

Really the first impressions began before even landing. Flying from Istanbul had been cloudless, the sun shining down strong and uninterrupted on vast arid plains and the occasional ridge of lovely mountains. Beyween the flight map and GPS on Google Maps, I was keeping eager track of our progress, trying to pin down if this river was the Macedonian border, if that city was Skopje, and whether those mountains in the distance might actually be in Greece.

But then, as we crossed into Kosovo airspace and the pilot announced our imminent descent, I know it sounds extraordinary but the plane suddenly swooped down – no really, with a swoopy engine noise and everything! – into the only cloud bank we’d seen the entire flight. And suddenly the unrelenting sunshine gave way to a dull grey cloud through which we sank down, and down, and down, before breaking into a world of gloomy deep-green mountains below. Ominous. Omen-ous.

And really, if I could use only one word to describe Kosovo thus far, it would be green. I don’t know if it’s just that time of Spring, but from the instant I stepped out of the airport – no, even when we were flying over – which sits face-to-face with a sizable hill-slash-mountain, everything here is green, growing green. The grass is thick, velvet green, the trees are energetic and springy, and the mountains are a deep, mysterious green, entirely appropriate to their looming presence under the gloomy sky. I hadn’t expected this lush growth, this pervading impression of fertility. And actually, the earth does look sort of dry and crumbly, but you’d have to look pretty hard to notice it because it’s entirely covered in green stuff.

So Kosovo is solidly Greener Than Expected – what else? Well there’s the airport, apparently so new that it still smells faintly of construction. It’s filled with shiny, welcoming, cosmopolitan duty-free shops that are all eerily empty. It’s got that Sochi Olympics vibe of a place built to resemble the west but which ends up a ghost town. The Swarovski crystal display stands glittering hopefully and imploring passers-by, “Please, someone… Can’t anyone afford me?!” Sorry, buddy. I couldn’t afford you in Glasgow and I can’t afford you here. So I too pass on. The cab stand is populated enough though, so I check the price to the city – fifteen euros – and hop in.

And the whirlwind begins.

From the lines of cars two decades out of style, to the dude parked just outside he airport selling from the boot of his car what appear to be rusty antique landmines brightly painted with clock-faces. And the green – of empty grassy fields, cultivated plots, small groves of fruit trees, and garden centers apparently growing acres of decorative shrubbery – contrasts with the bright copper of new brick houses – new construction everywhere, it seems – topped with cheery terracotta roofs.

But sometimes it’s difficult to tell – is that house a bombed out shell, or still being built? Are things going up or coming down? Both, certaibly, but I’m thinking a bit more of the former. Kosovo is the new kid on the EU block, an up-and-comer with international sympathy on its side, trying to unshackle themselves from the specter of Serbia, which still officially claims the region as theirs. It’s just come on the euro, has a brand new “International Airport” and even a Mango going up in its new shopping mall. So it’s probably no accident that the route between the airport and the city is buzzing with construction projects of capacious, modern-style houses that any westerner would envy – I certainly do. Whether anybody actually lives in them, of course, is less certain. But they certainly look impressive, and that’s the point.

Further into the city the ghosts of communist-era housing still remain, and I’m reminded of the noxious 70s high rises that line the route into Moscow. You get the odd minaret and the Albanian flag here and there – the country is 99% Muslim and ethnically Albanian – but the people walking on the streets look like you’d find in any city in the UK (except perhaps a bit more tanned…).

And aside from the curious sites that conjure the past, like the dude selling landmines, or the “Association for Kosovan Prisoners of War” located across from my hotel, my first impressions are all of a place that is trying desperately to escape the mortifying past and catch up with the rest of Europe.

Maybe in a bit I’ll have some further thoughts, when I’ve spent more than twenty minutes in the place. But now perhaps a nice nap… Zzzzzzz.