The city of Kukës was originally situated on in a valley between the Black and White Drin (trans-border rivers shared between Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania) that has since been flooded by the waters of the Fierza Lake. A series of archaeological discoveries demonstrate evidence of continuous inhabitance of the Kukës area beginning in the Stone Age(roughly 100,000 years ago) until today. Though not much is known about intervening time periods, it is thought that the Illyrian tribe ‘Sikuliotet’ inhabited the territory of Kukes. Albanian historian Bep Jubani went so far as to call the residents of Kukës the"Alpine Illyrians".
Kukës was first mentioned in recorded history as the ‘Luma Nahijes’ village in 1571, with 9 Christian homes and 3 Muslim homes, reflecting the overall diversity of the region and its position at the crossroads of large world powers. In 1591 it is written that there were 11 Christian homes and 6 Muslim homes in Kukës.
In 1610, the Archbishop of Bar marked ‘Coccus’ as the Villa di Cocus, with about 50 houses, five of them Muslim and the rest Christian (Catholic. The town was listed as a fishing center due to its location near rivers and as an advanced Turkish garrison. In 1633, P. Mazreku, the Archbishop of Bar also mentions ‘Vau of Kuku.’ Thirty years later the town was listed with 50 houses, a ruined church and with most residents converted to Islam, reflecting larger geographic trends in the region.
An outbreak of disease in 1689 caused a large-scale abandonment of Kukës, though it was later repopulated by residents from the Osmanaj village from the nearby Bicaj commune. Though the settlement was called Drinabardh, in 1869 the name was changed to Kukusa, the forerunner of the modern name of Kukes.
From 1912-1921 Kukës (like all of Albania) was occupied by Serbs, Bulgarians and Austrians. Redsident of Kukës played an active role in the war against Serb forces from 1912-1913, where many residents were massacred by Serbs.
In August 1925, Kukës was declared the center prefecture (an administrative region), replacing the town of Kruma from the nearby Has region. After its appointment as the center of the prefecture, the population of Kukes surged due to the arrival of hundreds of families from the nearby municipalities of Gjakova and Prizren, located in what is now Kosovo. The new residents of Kukës brought with them new avenues for trade, new traditions of craftwork and manufacturing, and a rich cultural history. During this time many families also migrated into the region from small villages and towns like neighboring Gora. In the early 1930s Kukës was announced as an official municipality.
By 1935 Kukës had emerged from the Balkan Wars revitalized thanks to investments from state institutions, new schools, Kosovar cultural imports, the Albanian culture-focused ‘Djelmnia’ performing arts group, a network of public services and a booming Sunday bazaar. With the rise of the prefecture buildings and a bust of King Zog (later replaced by a bust of Skanderbeg), the urban scenery of the city began to take shape.
In the period before the country’s liberation from occupying forces in 1944, it was decided that the city of Kukes would be the new site of the regional prefecture. This period also saw the rebuilding of a bridge over the Black Drin river and the reopening of the city market. Other significant developments included the opening of the first Youth House and civilian hospital.
In 1946, the city was supplied with electric light using an adapted tank engine and was connected with the city of Peshkopi by road. The city continued to expand with the establishment of schools, new commercial enterprises, and handicraft cooperatives. In 1949, the State Bank opened a branch in Kukes.
From 1950 to 1962 the population increased significantly due to increased rural emigration. This period also saw the opening of the House of Culture while the first cinema opened in 1954. The area’s High school opened in 1956, an aqueduct to shuttle fresh spring water from the mountains was completed in 1958, and in 1959, a theater troupe opened for business.
The period also saw the establishment of Radio Kukes (in 1960) as well as a pedagogical school. Other notable event s in 1960 include the opening of the city library and the establishment of a local museum and puppet theatre.
On March 31st, 1962, the decision was made to flood Old Kukes in order to construct a hydroelectric dam that would produce electricity for the entire region. Instead of abandoning the region, the decision was made to construct an entirely new city, which would also be called Kukes and which would have the same institutions and residents as old Kukes.
On July 22, 1962, construction began on a new city to house those displaced by the flooding of Old Kukes. In April of 1965, the city’s residents began to abandon their old homes to move to the site of the new city, which was also named Kukes. In 1978 Old Kukes was flooded by the newly created Lake Fierza, which was created with the construction of the Fierza dam.
On March 27, 1999, Kukes accepted approximately 450,000 Kosovar Albanians expelled from Kosova by the Serbian army and various paramilitaries. During this period of conflict the hills surrounding Kukes also faced bombings by the Serbian army. Despite the hardship, Kukes faithfully housed, fed, and provided assistance to the refugees. In recognition of the generosity and hospitality of the residents of Kukes, the city itself was nominated for a Nobel Prize in 2000, becoming the first municipality to be nominated for such an honor.
The incidents of 1999 proved the end for more infrastructure in Kukes, culminating in the opening of a small airport in 2004.
In June of 2009 the construction of the Durres-Kukes highway connecting Kukes to Tirana, Durres, and Kosovo was finally completed, cutting travel time from Tirana to Kukes from six hours to two. At the time of its completion the highway was the single largest infrastructure project in Albanian history, and it was inaugurated with hopes of bringing newfound prosperity and growth to the entire region.