Gjon Buzuku’s ‘Meshari’ in Tirana

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There is much to discuss on the subject of the “Meshari” by Gjon Buzuku.  Leaving history to the historians and language to the linguists, we will try to give a summary of the first time, the first Albanian book came to its linguistic home.

In short, “Meshari” is a 188 page Catholic text published in Venice in 1555, and is considered the first book written Albanian.  Nearly 200 years later it was discovered  in the Apostolic Library at the Vatican in 1740, only to be lost again and rediscovered 170 years later in 1909. It has since become an important piece of national identity and discussion and several copies have been reproduced.   It uses the Gheg Albanian dialect, the Latin alphabet in addition to five Slavic/Cyrillic language characters, and is generally considered to be based on an existing written Albanian language.

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Page from ‘Meshari”

From November 11-December 5, 2012*, the original book from the Vatican was on loan to the National Library, for the first time ever in Albania. This event fell under the umbrella of celebrations for 100 years of Independence.

The exhibit was made possible through an agreement between the Vatican, Diplomats and both Ministries of Culture, along with a Council of Ministers’ reserve fund of 10 million Lek, but old and new Lek have been both reported in various media, so the number is either roughly 7,100 euros, or 71,000 euros.  Either way, that money came directly from the highest reserve fund at the request of the council of ministers, through diplomatic negotiations and adhering to official standards, clearly means that having the book for 25 days in November was a top Government priority – in terms of time, protocol, budget and other resources to say the least.

The exhibition proved popular, with a constant crowd shuffling through the room, looking into glass cases containing centuries of Albanian literary heritage and religious texts, a reminder of the effort of the clergy of 16th century Venice to conduct their affairs in the Albanian language.  Staff were present, mainly to remind visitors not to use cameras, and an agreement with the Vatican required 24 hour state police presence, though it was not obstructive unless there were delegations present. Information was scant, and left some visitors wondering what they were looking at and why it was on display.

An article quoted the Director of the Department of Albano-Balkan Venus Sharxhi, stating “The influx of visitors has been great! Visited in a day 600-700 people, visiting dignitaries, scholars, schoolchildren and students.  One media outlet reported that 25,000 visitors came in the 25 days of exhibition, while others reported 19,000, and one even stated 450-500 visitors per day (which adds up to 12,500).  Another site reported 3,000 visitors in one day!  Here we encounter a major difference in numbers – ranging from 12,000-25,000!  Which is it?!!  Was it 500 a day, 1,000, 3,000?  Who has the official numbers, and why is the public given numbers varying by 13,000 people?

*UPDATE* An interview with the Library Director in late January, 2013, states there were precisely 19,160 visitors to see Meshari in Tirana.   

It will take time to be seen if, and how this experience effected those who went to see the small exhibition room at the entrance to the library, where a collection of  original and photocopied reproductions of religious writings of Buzuku, Pjetër Bogdani, Jul Variboba, Pjetër Budi, Frang Bardhi, Lekë Matrënga and others, lay under glass cases.  By the public seeing these texts, we may soon see the rise of a new literary tradition, increased readership and an atmosphere more conducive to reading and writing, or we may well see an increase in the strength of the Catholic faith in Albania.  These effects, however, will not be felt right away, if at all.

Director of the Library Aurel Plasari: “I call it historic, because for nearly two centuries since Albanians have discovered it, they could not have it. Even our greatest scholars like Zamputi, Riza, Çabej have not been able to hold it in one hand, but just browsing its reproduction.”  Unlike Cabej, however, visitors were not even shown a reproduction they could browse, only the original under climate controlled glass, opened at a predetermined page, and out of reach.  Needless to say, this was not a highly interactive exhibit, but more like some kind of strange, unclear pilgrimage. The director also thanked the government and the Prime Minister who supported and facilitated the event.

We aren’t yet sure of the financial details, but the exhibition hall did get new lighting, air conditioning and other display materials, as required by Vatican officials.  (PM notes that the Vatican has stored ‘Meshari’ very well)

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Books under glass
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Original ‘Meshari’ at National Library

That being said, we can only make our immediate evaluations based on the numbers, but of course, the numbers do not match.  To simplify things, we could look to the number of visitors that continued in to the library to borrow a book, or get a membership? So far we don’t have an answer.

How did the library as an institution use this opportunity to enhance not only its status as an exhibition place (which it did), but also its sustainability through membership?  According to Instat’s release on Library numbers from 2007, there was a total of 22,739 registered readers, and the trend was increasing at a rate of around 2,000 readers per year.

Will this activity lead to an increase in registered readers for 2012?  (As of December 2012, Instat does not have online data more current than 2007. This statistical summary from 2011 serves as a numbers background on the library in Albania.)  

Using the above statistical summary, we can estimate, that in 2012 the library hosts no less than to 100 activities per year.

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Alongside the exhibition of “Meshari” itself, was a conference entitled “Studies on the Missal of John Buzuku” presented by Italian Albanologist Lucia Nadin. In the conference, Nadin presented facts in favor of the argument that the first book written in the Albanian language was printed in Venice, a thesis put forth earlier by Simon Rrota, Rrok Zojsi, Eqrem Çabej and others. The most likely publisher would have been Bernardino de Vitali, who is said to have published works of Marin Barleti as well.

Legacy

Indeed this activity will go into the history books, but mainly just because it happened.  Indeed through the conference, it has surely raised the interest in Albania’s literary past, which continues to be explored by both Albanian and International linguists and academics. Of the thousands of regular people who viewed the book in the exhibition, very few would likely walk away with a meaningful experience.  One tourist compared it to visiting Lenin’s tomb in Moscow, only much less interesting.

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