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Something to gladden the atheist heart

4 December 2012

This post was inspired by another blogger, James Highham, who said nourishing obscurity | Something to gladden the atheist heart: “Never let it be said that we neglect you guys. Here’s a little treat for you to convince you you’ve finally killed off that superstition”

I thought I would post something along the same lines, and here it is.

Voskopoje is a town in Albania, which is rather derelict today. In the 17th and 18th centuries, however, it was on some of the major trade routes across the Balkans, and it was a flourishing centre of trade and culture. Someone told me that it had twelve main disticts, each with a population of 1000 or more, and each district had two churches. Now the population of the whole town is probably less than 1000, and most of the churches are in ruins.

Voskopoje in 2000

Voskopoje in 2000

In the 18th century it had the first printing press in the Balkans, and a famous school of ikonography.

The Turks, however, disliked it, and largely destroyed it.

One of the Voskopoje churces in 2000

One of the Voskopoje churches in 2000

Albania gained its independence after the Balkan Wars in 1912-1913, and then in the 1930s was invaded by the Italian Fascists. The Resistance was led by the communist Enver Hoxha, and after the Second World War they ruled Albania.

In 1967 Enver Hoxha decided to eradicate all religion, and so Albania became the first, and only, atheist state in the world. From 1967 not a single church or jammi (mosque) was open for worship. Most of the clergy were killed, and the few who remained alive were mostly either in hiding or in concentration camps.

The atheist paradise lasted from 1967 to 1991, when religious freedom was restored.

Monastery in the hills above Voskopoje

Monastery in the hills above Voskopoje

In the hills above Voskopoje there was a small monastery. In the Hoxha era no new monastics were allowed to join it, and when it was secularised after 1967 it was used for a while as an army barracks (Enver Hoxha had a war psychosis and a fear of total onslaught that made Magnus Malan look like a wimp). Then it was abandoned.

Between the monastery and the town there was also a luxury lodge/hotel for the use of high Communist Party officials. Of that, there is now hardly a trace. Not even ruins remain; it has gone as though it had never been.

During the atheist period, groups of communist youth used to come for weekend camps in the area, and they, no doubt with the encouragement of their elders and mentors, did their bit to contribute to the eradication of obscurantist superstition, as the following pictures show.

Frescos in a Voskopoje church, May 2000

Frescos in a Voskopoje church, May 2000

The period of atheist civilisation was all too short, however, and traces of the previous barbarous superstition are still visible under the enlightened atheist graffiti.

Voskopoje frescoes, May 2000

Voskopoje frescoes, May 2000

The frescoes that were low down and within easy reach suffered the most damage.


Those that were higher up and closer to the roof suffered relatively less damage.


But superstition is superstition, and must be obliterated as far as possible.


And then came 1991, and the end of the atheist paradise. Such a thing had never been seen on earth before, and now, after a brief shining in the secular firmament, it was gone.

Religious freedom was restored, and a different kind of youth camp was held at Voskopoje.

This one was for the Muslim youth, whose minds had been twisted by the atheist propaganda of the years before, and so a couple of imams came from Iran to straighten them out.

They discovered that the iconoclasm of the atheists had not gone far enough, and that some ikons had survived the atheist paradise.

So in a new upsurge of iconoclastic zeal, they made up for the deficiency thus:


The new Albanian government, which did not look with fond nostalgia on the Enver Hoxha era, deported the imams, and said they did not want them inciting Albanian youth to destroy the monuments of Albanian culture, of which so little remained after the Turks and the atheists had done thier bit.

And in general, Christians and Muslims in Albania live in peace with each other, and in some places Muslims have helped with the rebuilding of Christian churches.

But some from outside Albania deprecate this lack of hostility, and would like to come and stir things up.

And iconoclasts, whether they are militant Muslims or militant atheists, remain iconoclasts.



8 Comments leave one →
  1. 4 December 2012 1:16 pm

    But some from outside Albania deprecate this lack of hostility, and would like to come and stir things up.

    And therein lies the whole problem. They won’t leave people alone to live their lives.

  2. 4 December 2012 3:52 pm

    “The atheist paradise lasted from 1967 to 1991”

    Why would that be an atheist paradise? Just because an atheist is in charge doesn’t mean that the majority of atheists would like it. Heck, a Christian is in charge of America but a large number of American Christians don’t like it.

    • 4 December 2012 4:08 pm

      It was not an atheist paradise because an atheist was in charge. It was an atheist paradise because all religion was prohibited. It was a paradise for those militant atheists who want “freedom from religion”.

      • 4 December 2012 4:11 pm

        That doesn’t sound like an atheist paradise to me. Or to any of the atheists I know.

        An atheist paradise would be one where there is actually religious freedom but no religion gets special treatment by the government.

        A less likely one would be where everyone gave up their religion because they wanted to. But I don’t think that one is realistic.

  3. Irulan permalink
    5 December 2012 7:12 pm

    how old are the frescoes?

    • 5 December 2012 9:17 pm

      Most date from the 17th or 18th century, when the town flourished and most of the churches were built. .

  4. Jori permalink
    11 December 2012 12:21 am

    Live and let live… when will people finally get it. We are all children of father/mother God whether we want to believe it or not.


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