Poverty-stricken Albanians hunt for gold
According to legend, the gold treasure of the Ottoman Turks is stashed away in the ruins of Drisht Castle, in a remote region of Albania.Drischt -- Abandoned, jobless and miserable, people in this remote region of Albania have turned hunters for a treasure that legend holds was hidden in a citadel here almost a century ago.
"Legend says it's all hidden here," Dyl Buhaj, a local elder, says of the gold treasure Ottoman Turks are thought to have stashed away in the ruins of Drisht Castle, atop a limestone hill.
To prove his point, Buhaj digs out some old plans and manuscripts, according to which the Turks abandoned the treasure in the citadel as they fled in 1912 following the collapse of their empire.
The hope of finding the treasure is what "keeps us on this land, despite our extreme misery," explains Buhaj.
"Men, women, children -- we are all into the search for gold," his wife Ismete adds.
Drisht village, in Albania's north, features only a handful of poor hovels that are home to about 10 families whose only income is from malnourished cattle that graze on parched land.
Its poverty reflects the drawn-out social and economic upheaval that the Balkan country has endured since the fall of its communist regime in the early 1990s.
In search of the gold, villagers dig everywhere, even under the castle's dilapidated walls, putting themselves at risk from falling rocks despite laws meant to protect archaeological sites from looters.
Even graves are not spared in the search for a ring or a necklace buried with a deceased in accordance with ancient traditions.
Anthropologist Aferdita Onuzi said the quest for gold in Drisht is motivated by the excitement seen in previous archaeological excavations.
"They just stimulated legends among the inhabitants about the gold that was hidden by the Turkish army while leaving Albania," she said.
Such quests for buried and forgotten treasures also occur in other Albanian regions.
Sociologist Gent Celi explains it was common for well-to-do Albanian families to hide their wealth when faced with tumultuous times.
"Merchants or major land-owners ... hid money, gold or ingots in their gardens, walls or under the trees" during conflicts as well as after the communists took power in 1945, Celi tells AFP.
"Fearing communists' persecution, many died while keeping the secret spot for family treasures from everyone, not even trusting their loved ones," he says.
Celi says he found three bags of money in 1985, among them many golden coins, during the reconstruction of his house in the central Albanian town of Elbasan.
After the fall of the communist regime in the 1990s, many families began searching for valuables hidden by their predecessors.
The phenomenon was particularly prevalent in certain urban areas where rich and prominent families once lived.
Celi speaks of a real "gold rush" currently underway in Elbasan, the northern port Durres and Gjirokastra in the south of the country.
"It is widely known that many families are seeking (family treasures). Some of them have found something, but no one speaks about it," he says.
But far from the legends, rumours and hope of finding a way out of misery, a real-life cache of 370 kilograms (815 pounds) of gold -- which had been hidden by the Albanian state in the underground tunnels of southern Krabe -- was stolen in 1997 during an armed rebellion that shook the country.
That gold has never been found.