Throughout its history Albania has been ruled by foreign powers, beginning with the Romans, and later the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. It did not become an independent nation until 1912, when Turkish rule ended. From 1944 to 1990, the Albanian government was completely controlled by the Communist Party, known locally as the Albanian Party of Labor (APL). In 1991 Albania began its transition to a democratic state and in 1998 it became a multiparty parliamentary republic. Having ended 46 years of Communist rule, the transition has proven difficult as successive governments have had to deal with high unemployment, widespread corruption, an infrastructure in shambles, and powerful organized crime networks with links to high government officials. The president is the head of state and shares control of the armed forces with the prime minister. The president is elected by the People’s Assembly (Kuvendi Popullor) for a five-year term and appoints the prime minister with the approval of the nominated party.

Albania is situated on the eastern shore of the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, along the western edge of the Balkan Peninsula, with Serbia and Montenegro to the north, Macedonia to the east, and Greece to the south.
Albania is a mountainous country with 70 percent of the land lying above 1,000 feet; its lowest point (sea level) is the coast along the Adriatic Sea, while its highest point is Mount Korab (Maja e Korabit) at 6,562 feet. Rising from the coastal plains, its mountains run northwest to southeast. The coast is less mountainous and is a densely populated area. The region experiences destructive earthquakes and tsunamis along the southwestern coast, as well as floods and drought.
Albania’s longest river is the Drin, which is 175 miles in length. Other major rivers are the Seman, Shkumbin, and Vijose, but they are virtually unnavigable. The rivers have cut deep gorges with vertical walls as high as 300 feet in the mountains. These deep gorges make irrigation difficult, but they are well suited for enormous dams that enable Albania to generate cheap hydroelectricity.
Albania has a reputation as a land of great natural beauty and romantic remoteness. The country has been referred to as the “Switzerland of the Balkans” and as “the rock garden” of southeastern Europe. On the other hand the country’s isolation from the world, arising generally from its rugged mountains, has also led foreigners to speak of it as the “Tibet of Europe.”

Compared to other European nations, Albania is quite poor, with a low-performing economy.
The country has mineral resources such as chromium, copper, nickel, iron, coal, phosphates, crude oil, and natural gas. It is the world’s third largest producer of chromium. Electrification of the country was completed only in the early 1970s, and within two decades Albania was exporting electricity. But the system of a collective economy that prevailed until late 1990 did not lead to economic growth. In 1992 the new government introduced a program of economic reform with an emphasis on privatizing economic sectors, and the economy rebounded in 1993–95. Between 1997 and 2000 the country achieved a 7 to 8 percent annual growth rate. Albania is increasingly active in the movement of Southwest Asian opiates, hashish, and cannabis into Europe but engages to a limited extent in the production of opium and locally grown cannabis. The government’s current priorities are energy (more can be exported) and improvement of the national road network for maintaining sustained economic growth.

The official language is Albanian, a member of the Thraco-Illyrian group of languages. There are two ethnic groups in Albania—Tosks and Ghegs—identified by which dialect they speak. Most of the Tosks live south of the Shkumbin River, while most of the Ghegs live north of the river. Tosk is the official dialect of Albanian.
The traditional Albanian dress consists of colorfully embroidered shirts and dresses and, in some regions, loose-fitting pants for women. Traditional costumes are still worn in many rural and highland areas, particularly by women.
Today, traditional dances are also widely practiced in rural areas. Traditional dances in the south are accompanied by songs and music played on the flute, bagpipes, drums, and lehute. In the north the common instrument is the ciftelia, a small mandolin with a long, thin neck and two strings. Due to Islamic influences, especially in the south, men and women generally do not dance together in public. Albanian music is deeply rooted in ancient Illyria. However there is a marked difference between the northern and southern musical traditions. In the north songs are usually sung by a single individual on themes of honor, loyalty, courage, and heroic struggle against the Turks. In the south, music and songs are presented by several performers on varied themes.
In spite of the Communist government’s rigorous efforts to suppress religious observance (religious leaders have estimated that 95 percent of all mosques and churches were razed or gutted during Communist rule), Albanians held onto their religious identities, marrying within their faiths and covertly observing religious holidays. Since the end of Communist rule, the practice of Islam and of Orthodox Christianity has begun to reemerge in Albania. In addition to recognizing the major Muslim and Christian holidays, the Albanian Parliament declared October 19 Mother Teresa Day in 2003. Mother Teresa (1950–97), who was born to Albanian parents, was beatified by Pope John Paul II on October 19, 2003. Albanians observe the Persian spring festival of Navruz on March 21, a remnant of the country’s period under Ottoman rule. Following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, Albania adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1912.

The staples of the Albanian diet include milk, cheese, vegetables, and bread. A coarse white cheese called djathe I bardhe is common, and so is feta cheese. Eggplants, peppers, olives, tomatoes, and meat are frequently used in Albanian dishes as well. Albanian cooking has been influenced by Turkish cuisine. Shish kebab, quofte (meatballs), romstek (beef patties), pilaf, and faszle (white bean soup) are popular foods. Hoshaf, a dessert made of figs, is also popular. The midday meal is the main meal for Albanians, and it usually includes soup, salad, meat, and vegetables. People will normally finish the meal with fresh fruits or nuts, instead of a sweet dessert. Akullore (“ice cream”) is quite popular in the summer. Citizens of the city of Kruja like boza, a thick drink made of cornmeal, sugar, and water. A guest in an Albanian home may be offered Turkish coffee and raki, a brandy made from grapes.

In Albania marriages are usually arranged by the boy’s parents, with the help of a matchmaker, sometimes when the boy and girl are still children. The most popular time for weddings is August, when immigrants working abroad return on vacation. Engagement parties and weddings are important social events in Albania.
A wedding is an occasion for families and friends to eat and drink together, play music, tell stories, and dance, and they are typically very noisy. Every weekend wedding celebrations go on far into the night, and Sunday church services are punctuated by blowing car horns as wedding processions move down the main streets. Marriage feasts are prepared using recipes handed down from generation to generation.
At weddings, people may wear the traditional Albanian dress, which varies according to region. In the northern region women’s traditional dress is a black dress and a short jacket with fringe on the shoulders. Because the color red has traditionally been believed to protect against evil influences, Albanian brides still wear a red veil occasionally. A wide apron is worn over the skirt, and black or winecolored velvet, gold thread, or black beads decorate the outfit. Men’s traditional dress includes a white kilt called a fustan. It is worn with a full-sleeved shirt and a white felt hat. A red and white scarf may be tied around the forehead.