Amphitheatre of Durrës (Dyrrachium)

Amphitheatre of Durrës (Dyrrachium)


A Tour of Durrës' Archaeological Landmarks

Durrës is the second largest city in Albania, after the capital Tirana, and is one of the oldest settlements in the Mediterranean. Inhabited since ancient times by Illyrians, Greeks and then Romans, Durrës is home to some of Albania’s most important archaeological sites. Here are some of the best sites to visit.


Table o contents

In the past few decades, the Albanie name o the ceety, Durrës (Durrësi), haes gradually replaced the widespread uise o the Italian name Durazzo.

The ceety haes been kent bi mony ither names in different leids due tae its varied colorful history, includin the Greek names Epidamnos (Επίδαμνος) an Dyrrhachion (Δυρράχιον), the Laitin Dyrr(h)achium, the Slavonic Drač (Драч), the Ottoman Turkis Dıraç an the Italian Durazzo.

Auncient Edit

Tho survivin remains are minimal, as ane o the auldest ceeties in Europe, the ceety wis foondit as Epidamnos in the auncient region o Illyrie in 627 BC bi auncient Greek colonists frae Corinth an Corcyra. The general vicinity o Epidamus wis cried Epidamnia. The ceety's geographical poseetion wis heichlie advantageous, as it wis situatit aroond a naitural rocky harbour which wis surroondit bi inland swamps an heich cliffs on the seaward side, makin the ceety vera difficult tae attack frae aither land or sea.

Epidamnos wis notit for bein a poleetically advanced society, promptin Aristotle tae praise its poleetical seestem in controllin tred atween the Greek colonists an the local barbarians. Housomeivver, Corinth an Corcyra, each wi a claim tae be "mither ceety" (metropolis), quarrelled ower the ceety, helpin tae precipitate the Peloponnesian War in 431 BC. Epidamnos wis seized bi Glaukias, an Illyrian keeng, in 312 BC wi the help o the local Greek oligarchy. Later Teuta o IllyrieQueen Teuta attacked Epidamnos but athdrew when the Romans arrived the same year (229 BC) an expelled the Illyrian garrison frae the ceety, includin it thereefter in thair protectorate. The Romans set up replaced the rule o Teuta wi that o Demetrius o Pharos, ane o her generals. He lost his kinrick, includin Epidamnus, tae the Romans in 219 BC at the Seicont Illyrian War. In the Third Illyrian War Epidamnus wis attacked bi Gentius but he wis defeatit bi the Romans at the same year.

For Catullus, the ceety wis Durrachium Hadriae tabernam, "the taberna o the Adriatic", ane o the stoppin places for a Roman travelin up the Adriatic, as Catullus haed done hissel in the sailin saison o 56.

Roman an Byzantine rule Edit

Efter the Illyrian Wars wi the Roman Republic in 229 BC endit in a decisive defeat for the Illyrians, the ceety passed tae Roman rule, unner which it wis developed as a major military an naval base. The Romans renamed it Dyrrachium (Greek: Δυρράχιον / Dyrrhachion). Thay considered the name Epidamnos tae be inauspicious acause o its wholly coincidental similarities wi the Laitin wird damnum, meanin "loss" or "harm". The meanin o Dyrrachium ("bad spine" or "difficult ridge" in Greek) is unclear, but it haes been suggestit that it refers tae the imposin cliffs near the ceety. Julius Caesar's rival Pompey made a staund thare in 48 BC afore fleein sooth tae Greece. Unner Roman rule, Dyrrachium prospered it became the wastren end o the Via Egnatia, the great Roman road that led tae Thessalonica an on tae Constantinople. Anither lesser road led sooth tae the ceety o Buthrotum, the modren Butrint. The Roman emperor Caesar Augustus made the ceety a colony for veterans o his legions follaein the Battle o Actium, proclaimin it a civitas libera (free toun).

In the 4t century AD, Dyrrachium wis made the caipital o the Roman province o Epirus nova. It wis the birthplace o the emperor Anastasius I in circa 430. Some time later that century, Dyrrachium wis struck bi a pouerful yirdquauk which destroyed the ceety's defences. Anastasius I rebuilt an strengthened the ceety waws, sicweys creatin the strangest fortifications in the wastren Balkans. The 12 m (36 ft)-heich waws wur sae thick that, accordin tae the Byzantine historian Anna Komnene, fower horsemen coud ride abreast on them. Significant portions o the auncient ceety defences still remain, awtho thay hae been muckle reduced ower the centuries.

Lik muckle o the rest o the Balkans, Dyrrachium an the surroondin Dyrraciensis provinciae suffered considerably frae barbarian incursions during the Migrations Period. It wis besieged in 481 bi Theodoric the Great, keeng of the Ostrogoths, an in subsequent centuries haed tae fend off frequent attacks bi the Bulgarians. Unaffected bi the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the ceety continued unner the Byzantine Empire as an important port an a major link atween the Empire an wastren Europe.

Middle Ages Edit

The ceety an the surroondin coast became a Byzantine province (the Theme o Dyrrhachium) in the early 9t century. Byzantine rule wis contestit bi the Bulgarians unner Simeon the Great, but it remained in Byzantine haunds till the late 10t century, when Samuel o Bulgarie conquered the ceety an held it till ca. 1005.

Dyrrachium wis lost in Februar 1082 bi the emperor Alexios I Komnenos tae the Normans unner Robert Guiscard an his son Bohemund in the Battle o Dyrrhachium. Byzantine control wis restored a few years later but the ceety wis lost again in 1185, this time tae the Norman Keeng William II o Sicily. In 1205, efter the Fowert Crusade, the ceety wis transferred tae the rule o the Republic o Venice. It passed intae the haunds o Manfred o Sicily an then Charles I o Sicily (Charles o Anjou) in 1268.

Five years later, in ca. 1273, it wis wrecked bi a devastatin yirdquauk (accordin tae George Pachymeres R. Elsie, Early Albania (2003), p. 12), but suin recovered an became an independent duchy unner the rule o Charles' grandson John o Anjou. It later came unner the rule o Philip I o Taranto. In 1333 it wis annexed tae the Frankish Principality o Achaea afore fawin tae the Serbian Tsar Stefan Dušan in 1336. When Dušan dee'd in 1355, the ceety passed intae the haunds o the Albanian faimily o Thopias.

The Republic o Venice regained control in 1392 an retained the ceety, kent as Durazzo in those years, as pairt o the Venetaian Albanie. It fendit aff a siege bi the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in 1466 but fell tae Ottoman forces in 1501.

Durrës became a Christian ceety quite early on its bishopric wis creatit aroound AD 58 an wis raised tae the status o an airchbishopric in 449. It is an aa the seat o a Greek Orthodox metropolitan bishop. Unner Turkis rule, mony o its indwallers convertit tae Islam an mony mosques wur erectit. This ceety wis renamed as Dıraç, the ceety did no prosper unner the Ottomans an its importance declined greatly. Bi the mid-19t century, its population wis said tae hae been anerlie aboot 1,000 fowk livin in some 200 hoosehaulds. Its decrepitude wis notit bi foreign observers in the early 20t century: "The walls are dilapidated plane-trees grow on the gigantic ruins of its old Byzantine citadel and its harbour, ance equally commodious and safe, is gradually becoming silted up." It wis a sanjak centre in İşkodra Vilayet afore 1912.

20t century Edit

Durrës wis an active ceety in the Albanian naitional leeberation movement in the periods 1878-1881 an 1910-1912. Ismail Qemali raised the Albanian banner on November 26, 1912. The ceety became Albanie's seicont naitional caipital (efter Vlora) on 7 Mairch 1913 unner the brief rule o Prince William o Wied.

Durin the First Warld War, the ceety wis occupee'd bi Italy in 1915 an bi Austrick-Hungary in 1916-1918. It wis captured bi the Allies in October 1918. Restored tae Albanian sovereignty, Durrës became the kintra's temporary caipital atween 1918 an Mairch 1920. It experienced an economic buim due tae Italian investments an developed intae a major seaport unner the rule o Keeng Zog, wi a modren harbour bein constructit in 1927.

An yirdquauk in 1926 damaged some o the ceety an the rebiggin that follaed gae the ceety its mair modren appearance. Durin the 1930s, the Bank of Athens haed a branch in the ceety.

The Seicont Warld War saw Durrës (cried Durazzo again in Italian) an the rest o Albanie bein annexed tae the Kinrick o Italy atween 1939–1943, then occupee'd bi Nazi Germany till 1944. Durrës's strategic value as a seaport made it a heich-profile military target for baith sides. It wis the site o the initial Italian landins on 7 Aprile 1939 as well as the launch pynt for the ill-fatit Italian invasion o Greece. The ceety wis hivily damaged bi Allied bombin durin the war an the port installations wur blown up bi the retreatin Germans in 1944.

The Communist regime o Enver Hoxha rapidly rebuilt the ceety follaein the war, establishin a variety o hivy industries in the aurie an expandin the port. It became the terminus o Albanie's first railwey, begun in 1947. In the late 1980s the ceety wis briefly renamed Durrës-Enver Hoxha.

Follaein the collapse o communist rule in 1990, Durrës became the focus o mass emigrations frae Albanie wi ships bein hijacked in the harbour an sailed at gunpoint tae Italy. In ane month alane, August 1991, ower 20,000 fowk migratit tae Italy in this fashion. Italy intervened militarily, puttin the port aurie unner its control, an the ceety became the centre o the European Community's "Operation Pelican", a fuid-aid programme.

In 1997, Albanie slid intae anarchy follaein the collapse o a massive pyramid scheme which devastatit the naitional economy. An Italian-led peacekeepin force wis controversially deployed tae Durrës an ither Albanian ceeties tae restore order, awtho thare wur widespread suggestions that the real purpose o "Operation Alba" wis tae prevent economic refugees continuin tae uise Albanie's ports as a route tae migrate tae Italy.

Follaein the turn o the 20t tae 21st century, Durres haes been revitalisit as mony streets wur repavit, while pairks an facades experiencit a face lift.

Durrës is still an important link tae Wastren Europe due tae its port an its proximity tae the Italian port ceeties, notably Bari, tae which daily ferries run. As well as the dockyard, it an aa possess an important shipyard an manufacturin industries, notably producin leather, plastic an tobacco products. The neebourin destrict an aa produces wine an a variety o fuidstuffs.

Durrës haes a teepical Mediterranean climate wi het, dry simmers an ceul winters. The average o watter temperatur in Durrës is frae 14 °C (57 °F) in Februar tae 26 °C (79 °F) in August. The simmer in Durrës stairts frae Mey tae middle o October .

The soothren pairt o the coastal plain is characterisit bi a relatively dry Mediterranean climate, het simmers wi an average temperatur o 26 °C. Winter is mild an wet wi an average temperatur o 9.8 °C. The average annual rainfaw amoonts tae 800-1 300 mm, but anerlie 12 percent o the tot faws in the period Juin–September. In this aurie mony crops are grown (cereals, industrial crops, vegetables, forages etc.), citrus an olive trees an aw.

Climate data for Durrës
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record heich °C (°F) 19
(66)
23
(73)
23
(73)
28
(82)
34
(93)
37
(99)
39
(102)
38
(100)
33
(91)
28
(82)
26
(79)
20
(68)
39
(102)
Average heich °C (°F) 11
(52)
12
(54)
15
(59)
18
(64)
23
(73)
28
(82)
30
(86)
30
(86)
26
(79)
22
(72)
17
(63)
12
(54)
20
(69)
Average law °C (°F) 6
(43)
7
(45)
9
(48)
12
(54)
17
(63)
20
(68)
22
(72)
22
(72)
20
(68)
16
(61)
11
(52)
8
(46)
14
(58)
Record law °C (°F) −3
(27)
−3
(27)
−3
(27)
2
(36)
7
(45)
12
(54)
15
(59)
15
(59)
10
(50)
0
(32)
−2
(28)
−1
(30)
−3
(27)
Average precipitation mm (inches) 91
(3.6)
103
(4.1)
99
(3.9)
83
(3.3)
63
(2.5)
50
(2.0)
31
(1.2)
43
(1.7)
118
(4.6)
80
(3.1)
146
(5.7)
140
(5.5)
1,047
(41.2)
[ citation needit ]

Some important biggins in Durrës include the main leebrar, the cultural centre wi the Aleksandër Moisiu Theatre, the Estrada Theatre, the puppet theatre, an the philharmonic orchestra. Thare are several museums sic as the Durrës Archaeological Museum, Ryal Villa o Durrës an the Museum o History (the hoose o Aleksandër Moisiu) an aw.

The ceety hosts the Durres Auncient Ceety Waw cried Durrës Castle an aw while the lairgest amphitheatre in the Balkans is locatit in the ceety close tae the harbour. This first-century construction is currently unner consideration for inscription as a UNESCO Warld Heritage Steid. [3] [4]


Are you not entertained?! Durrës Roman Amphitheatre unearthed

It was just a few years ago. 1966 in fact. An Albanian (Vangjel Toçi) living in Durrës (the country’s largest port and site of the ancient Roman city of Dyrrachium), noticed that a fig tree in his garden had suddenly sunk a few feet into the ground. All very weird.

So he naturally started investigating. Lo and behold, beneath his plot of land, was an ancient Roman Amphitheatre. Historians knew that the city had one, but didn’t know where. And it seemed improbable that they would ever discover it – over the centuries the area has had numerous earthquakes and, more recently, Durrës has been sprawled with the inevitable concrete of modern urbanisation. But having found it, they’d discovered an ancient wonder – a theatre that could seat around 18,000 spectators!

Well, I was very fortunate both to have a bit of time before my returning flight and that my awesome Albanian colleague, Zef, had time to show a couple of us around. It was a huge treat. Inevitably I took a few pics, and equally inevitably, a panorama.

The place is steeped in religious history. Its Roman origins seem to comply with usual stereotypes – it was the scene of brutal persecution of Christians (and of course, many others). Apparently, even by AD53, Dyrrachium already had 70 Christian families living in the city. An extraordinary number after such a short time (i.e. within perhaps only 2 decades of Jesus’ Crucifixion). But Roman Catholic historical tradition has it (and I don’t know whether or not this is more legend than history – but it’s not impossible) that this very amphitheatre was the site of the martyrdom of Paul’s great gospel partner, Titus (to whom the great NT pastoral epistle was written).

But then, by the 4th Century, and then with the later influence of Byzantine Christianity, this became a place of Christian worship, with this small chapel built into the side (immediately below – fortuitously captured at just the moment that the setting sun shone on it!). Within the now excavated corridors beneath the tiered seating, there are all kinds of evidences of this usage – see the Christian cross carved out of the stone, the mosaics of saints, and below, the baptismal font.

Of course, centuries later, after earthquakes, invasions and political turmoil, Albania was swallowed up by the Ottoman Empire, under whose sway the country remained for 500 years until 1911. Hence the imposing mosque at the head of one of the city’s main streets. Then they suffered under Hoxha’s brutal atheist regime until 1991. Hence the fact that it was only recently renovated.

Only a small proportion of the amphitheatre has been uncovered – there’s the small problem of a few homeowners reluctant to sell up and the lack of financial resources to relocate them.

But even so – from what is visible, it is clearly amazing site. But just imagine the initial shock of digging that up in your back garden!


Royal Villa of Durres

From 1928 to 1939 Albania had a royal family. In this short period, they constructed a royal villa in Durres. As you would expect from a royal villa, the sea views are majestic. After the fall of the Albanian royal family, the villa was used by the communist party. As a result, Enver Hoxha has visited here several times. Former US president, Jimmy Carter visited the Royal Villa of Durres in 1992, he was in this part of the world to discuss the unrest in neighboring Kosovo. During the brief Albanian civil war of 1997 the building was looted. Today, it remains a derelict building. It reminded me of the former residence of Pablo Escobar in Hacienda Napoles near Medellin.


Dyrrachium: Port & Gateway between West & East

Dyrrachium (or Dyrrhachium) refers to the ancient city that flourished on the territory of the current coastal city of Durrës in Albania. The name is formed by the root “Dyrrach” followed either by the typical Latin suffix “ium”. Before appearing in Latin sources it appeared in ancient Greek literature as “Dyrrachion” (“Dyrrach” + the typical ancient Greek suffix “ion”). In the Albanian language, it appeared as “Dyrrah” and then, since the Middle Ages, as “Durrës”. During the Middle Ages, the city was ruled for a long time by the Venetians who referred to it as Durazzo.

Early History

Appian tells us the tale of Dyrrachium’s foundation. According to him, a barbarian king of the region with the name Epidamnus founded the city. Dyrrachus, his nephew and son of Neptune, added a dockyard to the city, and named this after himself, Dyrrachium.

Dyrrachium was established from colons coming mainly from Corcyra and some from Corinth. Rather than a proper foundation it was a seizure of an already present Liburnian/Illyrian settlement. The traditional date of this foundation is the year 627 B.C.E. According to Thucydides, a certain Phalius, son of Eratocleides from Corinth of the family of the Heraclids, was the first leader of the new colony.

Illustration: Corinthian Ship.

The new colony was named Epidamnus and developed on top of an already present Illyrian/Liburnian settlement called by ancient Greeks Dyrrachion/Dyrrhachion. Eventually, the name Dyrrachion continued to be used for the upper part or the dockyard of the colony while early literal evidence referred to the colony in general with another name, Epidamnos or Epidamnus. Numismatic evidence shows the name Dyrrachium since the IV-th century B.C.E. Thus, the names “Epidamnus” and “Dyrrachium” must have been used interchangeably to refer to the same settlement, at least during the period before the Roman invasion. When the Romans entered the scene they abandoned the name “Epidamnos” as a sign of bad omen (damnus meant “doomed” in Latin) keeping “Dyrrachium” as a sole name.

The population of Dyrrachium (and nearby Apollonia) experienced a substantial population increase sometime around 575. This was because of other colons/migrants coming from the destroyed Dyspontion, in Peloponnesian Elis. Usually, newcomers into an established colony were not awarded the same rights and honors as the families of older colons. Yet, this was more the case with Apollonia rather than with Dyrrachium. The latter hosted a somewhat heterogeneous population made up of Corinthians, Corcyraeans, other Doric tribes, and Illyrians.

It quickly became an important port and commercial town. The colons initially established an oligarchic constitution significantly dependent on its direct metropolis Corcyra and indirect metropolis Corinth. Trade with the neighbouring Illyrian tribe, mainly with those occupying the immediate hinterland, the Taulantii and the Parthini, brought economic prosperity to the city. The colony could even afford to erect a treasury at Olympias (Pausanias, VI. IXX. VIII).

Map showing the ancient city of Dyrrachium and the nearby salty lagoon or salinas. Published by Praschniker & Schober in 1919.

The period from VI-th century to the second half of the V-th century was a period of economic prosperity. It’s interesting to mention that during this period, the city did not find the need to mint its own coins. Rather, its traders made use of coins from the metropolis of Corcyra and Corinth, where most of the commerce was already focused.

Civil War & Peloponnesian War

The colony initially established institutions similar to those of other Hellenic colonies. It consisted of an oligarchic system ruled by a phylarch (elected commander from the collective tribes of the colony). According to Thucydides this system was not preferred by the heterogeneous population of the city. Thus, in 446/445, the people expelled the oligarchs from the colony, an action that sparked a civil war. The inner conflicts then involved the Illyrians of the hinterland, as well as Corcyra, Corinth, and Athens, becoming one of the main triggers of the Peloponnesian War.

The Corcyraeans eventually came up on the winning side in a long war that concluded in 411. This reestablished the oligarchs into Dyrrachium but now the city had lost its prosperity. During the Peloponnesian War, Dyrrachium remained paralized, blocked from the sea by the Corinthian colony and by land from the Illyrians and the expelled oligarchs that had found refuge among these Illyrians. At the epilogue of the war the Corinthians “forced the surrender of Epidamnus”, executed all the captives “except the Corinthians, whom they cast in chains and imprisoned”. (Diod. XII. XXXI).

Recovery & New Constitution According to Aristotle

In the next century there is a lack of Dyrrachium in literal evidence. It appears that the city went through a slow recovery by relying again on sea-borne commerce. In the IV-th century, the city issued its own autonomous coins breaking its monetary ties with Corcyra and Corinth. Moreover, the coins bear the anagram “DYP” for “Dyrrachium”. This shows the presence of the name Dyrrachium among the locals some three hundred years before it comes up again in literal evidence.

Reconstruction of the ancient lighthouse of Dyrrachium. Illustration by Jean-Claude Golvin.

Aristotle (384-322) tells us of important changes made in the constitution of Dyrrachium either in the period following the Peloponnesian War or in Aristotle’s own period. The oligarchic institutions of the pylarch were replaced by a more representative body, the “boule” or the city council/parliament. Also, it seems that during this same time, the governance from an archon (sole ruler) was abandoned/abolished. Aristotle further adds that in the collective meetings of the people it “is still compulsory for the magistrates alone of the class that has political power to come to the popular assembly when an appointment to a magistracy is put to the vote” (Aristotle, Politics, V, section 1301, b). The author also suggests Dyrrachium (which he calls Epidamnus) as an ideal model when it comes to using slaves for constructing major public works. In Aristotle’s time it seems that the city was inhabited roughly as much from Illyrians as from Hellenes. The difference seems to have been in that the Illyrians had no right to hold governing offices.

Macedonian & Illyrian Threats to its Autonomy.

In the early Hellenistic era, notably in 314, the Macedonian king Cassander defeated an Illyrian force of king Glaucias somewhere near Dyrrachium. He then captured the city by a stratagem. Cassanders’ rule here was brief. Only two years later, the Illyrians in cooperation with the Corcyraeans and the citizens of Dyrrachium drove out the Macedonian garrison of Cassander. After the liberation, Corcyra awarded the dominion of Dyrrachium to Glaucias.

Dyrrachium continued to remain under the control of the Illyrian state of the Taulantii/Parthini in the Hellenistic era. Illyrian kings Monunius (r. 300-272) and Mytilus (272-260) seem to have had control over Dyrrachium. This period corresponds with a large increase in the Illyrian element on the demographic composition of the colony. Archaeological evidence supports this claim. Moreover, the penetration of Illyrian elements was so significant that it affected the political institutions of the colony. These institutions, although evolving in a Hellenic fashion, also “developed in response to the internal social evolution of the Illyrian peoples”. (N.G.L. Hammond, The Kingdoms in Illyria Circa 400-167).

The autonomy of Dyrrachium was threatened by the expansion of the Illyrian state of the Ardiaei. Their queen Teuta was close to capturing the city in 229, but the interventions of the Romans prevented her success. After the First Illyrian War, the Romans established their rule over the city. Yet, Roman Republicans allowed the citizens a significant degree of autonomy designating it as a “civitas libera” (free city).

War Between Caesar and Pompey at Dyrrachium

The city was of strategic and economic importance to Rome it was the most convenient port for ships coming from Italy, usually from Brundisium. Also, here started the main route that connected the Adriatic and Aegean Sea. On this route the Roman constructed an important road network during the first century C.E., the famous Via Egnatia. It started from Dyrrachium, received a branch coming from Apollonia, and then arrived into Thessalonica and then into Byzantium. It was for its strategic position that Dyrrachium played an important role during the civil war between Caesar and Pompey.

On march 59, at the height of the civil war, Pompey and his followers (including many Roman senators) left Italy and arrived in Dyrrachium. The Adriatic turned into a division line between the Caesareans and the Pompeians. Caesar followed his enemy with half of his projected army (five legions) by landing somewhere south of Dyrrachium, near Oricum. Without waiting the rest of his army commanded by Marc Antony, Caesar took fast the cities of south Adriatic, Oricum, Apollonia, and Bylis. However, his forces could not arrive in time to capture Dyrrachium.

Pompeian forces blocked Caesar’s advance in the Apsus (Seman) River. Dyrrachium was a key objective for ensuring a continuous supply line for each army. Thus, both armies continued for months building blockades against one another near and round Dyrrachium in attempts to force the other into surrender due to famine. Eventually, Caesar tried to enclose Pompey in Petra but failed to do so. Instead, the walls of Caesar were breached near the coast and his side fled into retreat.

Caesar would eventually triumph over Pompey in Pharsalus but Dyrrachium had to pay the price for the anti-Caesarian role during the civil war. The Roman dictator ordered the citizens of Dyrrachium to pay heavy taxes, otherwise non-applicable to it as “free city”. The assassination of Caesar in 44 must have come to a relief to the Dyrrachians. During the reign of Octavian Augustus the city gained the status of a colonia.

Roman Rule

Cicero remains the first author to use only the name Dyrrachium to refer to the city (whom he visited himself), abandoning the name Epidamnus. Thus, from the civil wars of Pompey and Caesar onwards, the name Dyrrachium prevails as the sole name for the whole city.

Dyrrachium turned the main entrance into the Via Egnatia, earning important revenues from customs on cargo transports. During the first century C.E., an elaborate network of roads developed in and around Egnatia, allowing for increased trade and improved communication in the region. Quickly, Dyrrachium turned into the main port of the Adriatic. Along with Salona north, it served as the main catalysts of the early expansion of Christianity on both sides of the sea.

Map of Via Egnatia from Thessaloniki to ancient Epidamnus. Sketch by Edward Daniel Clarke in 1816.

The early imperial period marked another period of prosperity for the city. Its infrastructure was further improved in typical Roman fashion. During the reign of Trajan (r. 98-117), a large oval amphitheater with a capacity of 15,000-20,000 spectators was built. It served the taste of a large Roman population. Once completed it revealed a sophisticated complex with arches, colonnades, tiered stairs, subterranean galleries, gates for gladiators, and the mighty arena. Little is known about the details of the fights that took place here. An inscription tells that twelve gladiator fights were held in the amphitheater to celebrate a new construction in the city, that of its library.

Current view of the amphitheater of Durrës.

Trajan’s successor, Hadrian (r. 117-138) built a major aqueduct for the city, 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) long. It appears that emperor Hardian visited Dyrrachium himself, sometime in 126 C.E. It seems that during his visit, the emperor himself observed the initial works on the aqueduct. The proportion of this project reveals the large population that inhabited the city.

This was one of the most complex works of Late Antiquity in the Mediterranean including tunnels cutting though hill areas (longest: 2,700 meters or 8,858 feet) and supporting bridges stretching into lowlands. The source of the aqueduct was in the Ululeus (Erzen) River. Its waterway’s height was equal to that of Athens built around the same time, at 1.35 meters (4.43 feet), with a width of 0.99 meters (3.25 feet), only 11 centimeters (about 4 inches) less than that of Athens.

Illustration: the Romans building a bridge for the aquaduct.

Emperor Severus Alexander (ruled 222-235) continued to invest in Dyrrachium. He financed a major reconstruction of the aqueduct built by his grandfather Hadrian. Also, Severus reconstructed at a length of four miles the road that started at Dyrrachium and continued into its hinterland, in the direction of Tirana’s plain. This road, which has not received proper attention, was a branch of the Via Egnatia, convenient for communication with current central Albania.

Byzantian Rule & Invasions

An important change occurred in 394-395 when emperor Theodosius I ordered the closure of all gladiator schools across the empire, including those in Dyrrachium. It was the same year when the Roman Empire divided into its two parts: the Western (Latin) and Eastern (Byzantine) part. The Byzantine Empire with its capital at Constantinople, included within its territories all the Balkans including Dyrrachium.

From a city at the empire’s core, it became, geographically, a peripheral city. In 404, emperor Honorius sealed Theodosius’ initiative by prohibiting any fighting from taking place in amphitheatres. This clearly diminished the role of the amphitheatre as an entertaining centre and economic stimulant. The ruins of a chapel dated to the second half of the VI-th century have been discovered in the western part of the amphitheatre.

From the IV-th century to the VI- century, Dyrrachium had to endure destabilizing invasions from the Visigoths and then Ostrogoths. The latter even invaded the city briefly in 480/481. They used it as a base to invade Italy and establish their kingdom there. Moreover, in 345, a powerful earthquake hit the region causing severe damage to the magnificent infrastructure of Dyrrachium. Yet, life in the city went on. Churches were built and bishops were installed. The city became the episcopal center and capital of the Byzantine province of Epirus Nova.

The largest efforts to improve the infrastructure in Dyrrachium after the devastating earthquake and Gothic invasion was taken by emperor Anastasius I Dicorus (491-518). The emperor, from Dyrrachium himself, founded the new Byzantine fortress of the city. It was surrounded by strong walls, with three protective layers, made with fine brick material. The fortress included the fortification with a one meter thick wall of the narrow isthmus just north of the main city. Yet again, after Anastasius, the city was hit by another earthquake, in 522. Justinian (r. 526-565) took care of the damages, completed the walls of Anastasius, and made other reconstructions.

In the early ninth century, the Byzantines established the theme of Dyrrachium, a military province focused round the city. Yet, a hundred years later, the city fell to the Bulgarian empire. It was recaptured by the Byzantines only around 1018.

Wars in Dyrrachium Between the Byzantines and the Normans

In 1081, another invasion targeted Dyrrachium, this time from the Normans of southern Italy. A large army under Robert Guiscard landed south and then reached Dyrrachium. Anna Komnene (Comnena) daughter of the then emperor of Byzantium Alexius I Comnenus, describes the event in detail in her “Alexiad”. On October 15 of that year, Alexius himself arrived in Dyrrachium with a large army and three days later began the battle against the Normans known as the battle of Dyrrachium.

Battle of Dyrrachium: Robert Guiscard led the Normans to victory against the Byzantines of Alexius I Comnenus.

The Byzantine side was eventually crushed by the Normans thanks, in part, to a decisive cavalry shock charge made by the Norman cavalry. Their cavalry men assaulted holding their lances up and ahead rather than throwing them against the enemy. The innovation was still new when introduced in Dyrrachium. It was tested before at the Battle of Hastings, but would gain more importance and weight 15 years later during the First Crusade.

Battle of Dyrrachium: Alexius I Comnenus was assaulted with lances on one side by three Norman knights. Layers of padding and iron lamellar saved the emperor from harm. The emperor managed to stay on his horse with difficulty. The emperor received a wound on his forehead.

After the defeat in open battle, the city continued to resist but fell to the Normans in February 1082 after a determined resistance. The fall of Dyrrachium marked the beginning of Norman conquest of the remaining part of the coast, complete in a year.

Alexius would push back against the Normans in the following years but had to enter into an alliance with the Venetians who were interested in the coastal areas of Dyrrachium and Corfu. The alliance allowed Byzantium to regain control of most Balkan territories by a 1083 including Dyrrachium.

Coat of arms of Comnenus dynasty.

In 1107, Bohemond I of Antioch, oldest son of Guiscard, launched another Norman expedition against Dyrrachium. This time the emperor was prepared. The Venetian fleet blocked the port while Alexius with the main army kept the enemy in check through land. The Norman camp would also suffer from a spread of typhus disease which forced them to sail away. Dyrrachium was safe.

The Destabilizing Role of the Crusades

In between two Norman invasions the city was flooded by soldiers of the First Crusade (1096). These large but undisciplined armies would put a strain on the local stability and economy. Again, Alexius took measures to protect the locals from the “trespassers” by placing food reserves and army patrols from Dyrrachium and all along the Via Egnatia. When compared to other Balkan lands, these measures helped the city and its hinterland from excessive robberies and disturbances. For the remaining years of the Comnenus dynasty, Dyrrachium was relatively safe from external threats.

In 1204, the Fourth Crusade captured Costantinople. For the next a hundred years Byzantium was run by Latin emperors. During that period also, various independent states emerged in the European possessions of Byzantium. One of those states was the Despotate of Epirus. It was established immediately after the fall of Costantinople by Michael I Comnenus Ducas, illegitimate grandson of Alexius I Comnenus. Michael established its capital in Arta (ancient Ambracia) but included within it Dyrrachium. His successor and illegitimate son Michael II Comnenus Ducas (despot of Epirus during 1237-1271) used the Despotate to fight for the imperial throne. From 1256, Michael II left his state to fight east for the possession of Costantinople. His absence was used by prince Manfred of Sicily (r. 1258-1266) who, two years later, captured Vlora, Butrint, and Dyrrachium.

The fortress of Durrës. Giovanni Francesco Camocio. c. 1574.

In 1266, Manfred Hohenstaufen of Sicily fell in battle against the crusaders of Charles of Anjou, younger brother of king Louis of France. The Angevines took under formal jurisdiction the lands conquered by Manfred, but they still lacked military presence in eastern Adriatic. The Byzantines used the event to recapture their lands along southern Adriatic and its hinterland. The lands went back and forth between the Byzantines and Angevines. Moreover, a powerful earthquake in about 1273 caused destruction to the city. In about 1280, Charls of Anjou dispatched 8,000 troops across Albania. A rapid response from the Byzantines recaptured all Albanian lands in the following year. Yet, in 1307, the Angevines recaptured Dyrrachium.

In the next decades, the Serbs entered the scene: their king Stefan Dusan invaded Albania and conquered Dyrrachium in 1343. The Serbian invasion lacked the administrative body to control the new lands. Instead, semi-independent small states emerged across Albania, governed by local/Albanian families.

Local Governance of Karl Topia

After the demise of Dusan in 1355, the Albanian families remained as the only functional authority in the region. One of these families was the Topiaj family led by Karl Topia. His territorial authority included Dyrrachium with its hinterland. The rule of Karl Topia from 1367 to 1392 seems to have been a prosperous one. In about 1380, the theological university (Studium Generale) of Dyrrachium was created, one the the oldest in the Balkans. The university helped educate many notable figures, among them “Gjoni i Dyrrahut” (John of Dyrrachium). At the same time, the city maintained a high degree of autonomy as a “comuna civitas” and its own laws through its own statute.

Part of the coat of arms of Karl Topia.

Under the threat of the Ottomans, Karl Topia surrendered the city of Dyrrachium to the Venetians, in 1392. Several natural disasters, invasions, and centuries of rapid dynamics had taken their toll on the city. By this time, the Byzantine fortress was in ruins, the aqueduct vanished, and the amphitheater just an old relic. The city, once a splendid settlement, entered into its Medieval period. The Albanian name Durrës replaced that of the old Dyrrachium.

Bibliography

Cabanes, P. (2001). Historia e Adriatikut.

Hammond, N.G.L. The Kingdoms in Illyria Circa 400-167.

Heher, D. Dyrrhachion / Durrës – an Adriatic Sea Gateway between East and West.

Forsén, B, Mika Hakkarainen, M, & Brikena Shkodra-Rrugia, B. (2015). Blood and Salt: Some ThoughtsEvolving from the Topography of the Battle at Dyrrachium in 1081. ACTA BYZANTINA FENNICA VOL. 4 N. s.).

Gloyer, G. (2008). Albania: The Bradt Travel Guide.

Kasa, A. (2015). The History of Roman Durrës (I-IV E.S.). Academic Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies MCSER Publishing, Rome-Italy.

Miraj, F. (1982). Ujësjellësi i Dyrrahut / L’aqueduc de Dyrrachium. Iliria, Nr. I.

Stephenson, P. (2004). Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900-1204. Cambridge University Press.

Shufaj, M. (2014). Historia e Durrësit të Vjetër.

Wilson, N. G. (2006). Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece.

Zheku, K. (1997). Epidamni dhe Dyrrahu në lashtësi ishin dy qytete të veçanta apo një qytet i vetëm me dy emra ? / Waren Epidamnos und Dyrrah im Altertum zwei einzelne Städte oder eine einzige Stadt mit zwei namen ? Iliria, Nr. I-II.


Book Your Trip

The Amphitheater of Durrës remains one of the most majestic of the ancient world and one of ten most beautiful Roman amphitheaters. Widely recognized among enthusiasts of Antiquity, it is a pearl of the Balkans that is slowly making its way out of the shell. Discovered relatively recently, in 1966, its unearthing occurred in a slightly comical way by Vangjel Toçi. Legend has it that Vangjel, an archaeologist and resident of Durrës, happened upon a fig tree which had fallen a few meters below ground level. Curious and inquisitive, he insisted that the area undergo excavations. Rightly so, for underneath was lying the long sought-after Amphitheater.

Built after the 2 nd century B.C., this Amphitheater of Durrës endures as one of the greatest Roman constructions in the region and one of the miracles erected under Roman emperor Trajan. To spare you curious readers the jump to Wikipedia, suffice it to say that Trajan is considered to be the second of the Five Good Emperors. With Trajan as the leader of the Empire for 19 years (98-117 A.D.), Rome flourished and, with it, the constructions of that time. A part of the Durrës Amphitheater remains unexcavated, adding a certain flair of charm and mystery, akin to the sculptures “The Winged Victory of Samothrace” in the Louvre or the Torso of Apollo in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Thus, though some elements are absent, the Amphitheater’s function throughout the years remains clear to this day.

The arena, the site that saw the spectacles of the gladiators and other events held for the viewing pleasure of Emperor Trajan and spectators, is surrounded by the tiered staircases where approximately 15 000 to 20 000 spectators enjoyed the show. Constructed by the local masters, boasting the arena, tiered stairs, galleries and two maenianums (balcony or theatre boxes, for those of us who are not experts of architecture), at the time the Amphitheater was considered a colossus of ancient architecture. Made of a structure of bricks and stones, the Amphitheater is composed of a two-story façade decorated with arches and colonnades overlooking the city center. Walking under the tunnels in the interior of the Amphitheater will remind you of the scene in “Gladiator,” where Maximus enters the arena amid the chants of the spectators, along with all the emotions that the scene evokes. Should you find yourself in the western part of the Amphitheater, you will be only a few steps away from the Adriatic coast.

As with the Roman Coliseum, the equally entertaining and deathly games, represented the moment of culmination for the Amphitheater of Durrës. Following their termination by Emperor Honorius (393-423 A.D.), around the 4 th century, whose power coincided with the beginnings of the fall of the Roman Empire, the ancient arena of the gladiators was turned into a cemetery. During this time, a church was built in the amphitheater, for the religious ceremonies of the Christians of Durrës. Initially, its walls were adorned with beautiful frescoes which were later permanently transformed into mosaic panels of St. Stephen, the martyr of Durrës, as well as other saints: St. Stephen, St. Mary, St. Irin, St. Sophia and St. Gabriel. Thus, it seems that the Amphitheater had the fate of going through its phase of excessive entertainment to that of repentance. But, let me stop here, as a personal guide will be waiting for you inside the Amphitheater with an entertaining commentary on more of the site’s historical background!

After this journey through the centuries, you may choose to talk a walk along the beautiful narrow streets of the old city of Durrës and as the sun sets, relax in one of the many seaside cafes and restaurants. A special experience, as old as it is new, awaits the history, art, architecture, archeology…as well as sea and seafood enthusiast in the city of Durrës. The visit, nowadays less dangerous and cheaper than in Antiquity – as the gladiators are long gone and the entrance fee costs only 3 Euros – remains cultural, entertaining and tasty.


The coordinates shown for all tentative sites were produced as a community effort. They are not official and may change on inscription.

In preparation of my ‘Balkan Tour 2015’ I had looked into Albania’s TWHS for ones that would be interesting enough to add to my itinerary. The country currently has a T List of 4, but none of these sites look very promising except the easy extension of the Ohrid WHS into the Albanian side of the lake. The Ancienty City of Apollonia is the most recent addition to the T List, but it is yet another Greek-Roman site. So I had decided to skip them all. But unexpectedly I had half a day to spare on my last day in Albania, due to a late departure of my bus from Tirana to Struga in Macedonia. I used it to get to Durrës and visit the T listed Amphitheatre there.

Durrës is a port and Albania’s second city, only a 40 minute bus ride away from Tirana. Its amphitheatre lies in the city center, but isn’t as easy to find as many others of its kind. There are one or two signs, but mostly you’re up to yourself discovering the fairly sizeable structure between the houses. Coming from the bus station, there’s a flight of stairs that looks brand new which will take you to a view point above the amphitheatre. From there you can walk around it and get to the entrance. The site is fenced off nowadays, and there’s a small entrance fee of 300 Lek (2 EUR).

In Roman times this city was called Dyrrachium. It was an important place in Late Antiquity for its location on a road linking Rome to Constantinople. This amphitheatre, dating from the 2nd century AD, was only rediscovered in 1966 after centuries of oblivion. It still has been excavated only partly – the floor is covered by grass and there are houses on what must be the missing half of the ring. In February 2015, the municipality of Durrës seems to have decided to go forward in evicting the home owners from the site and demolish those houses.

Performances in the amphitheatre such as gladiator fights stopped in the 5th century. The location was then taken over by Christians who used it for religious events. They built two or three chapels into the innermost galleries, which first were decorated with mural paintings and later mosaics. The Byzantine style mosaics of the Main Chapel I found the most interesting part of a visit here. The one on the rear wall has suffered a lot from decay, but the two other panels (depicting Mary with angels, and the local martyr St. Stephen) are pretty intact. They are protected by a fence, probably rightly so because of the numbers of schoolchildren passing through this site.

Some 230 Roman amphitheatres have been found across the area of the Roman Empire. On the WH list we already have counted 19 of them. The Durrës Amphitheatre itself was rejected for WH status in 1991, for having importance in the cultural heritage of Albania but not meeting the criteria for inscription. Still the Albanians cling on to it, and it has featured on its T List since 1996. I can see why they do so: Durrës is an important city in Albania’s history. It was its first capital after independence, and still is the most important port and second city of the country. Maybe with a different angle, focusing more on the mosaics and the trade route aspects it will have a better chance than as an amphitheatre as such.


Are you not entertained?! Durrës Roman Amphitheatre unearthed

It was just a few years ago. 1966 in fact. An Albanian (Vangjel Toçi) living in Durrës (the country’s largest port and site of the ancient Roman city of Dyrrachium), noticed that a fig tree in his garden had suddenly sunk a few feet into the ground. All very weird.

So he naturally started investigating. Lo and behold, beneath his plot of land, was an ancient Roman Amphitheatre. Historians knew that the city had one, but didn’t know where. And it seemed improbable that they would ever discover it – over the centuries the area has had numerous earthquakes and, more recently, Durrës has been sprawled with the inevitable concrete of modern urbanisation. But having found it, they’d discovered an ancient wonder – a theatre that could seat around 18,000 spectators!

Well, I was very fortunate both to have a bit of time before my returning flight and that my awesome Albanian colleague, Zef, had time to show a couple of us around. It was a huge treat. Inevitably I took a few pics, and equally inevitably, a panorama.

The place is steeped in religious history. Its Roman origins seem to comply with usual stereotypes – it was the scene of brutal persecution of Christians (and of course, many others). Apparently, even by AD53, Dyrrachium already had 70 Christian families living in the city. An extraordinary number after such a short time (i.e. within perhaps only 2 decades of Jesus’ Crucifixion). But Roman Catholic historical tradition has it (and I don’t know whether or not this is more legend than history – but it’s not impossible) that this very amphitheatre was the site of the martyrdom of Paul’s great gospel partner, Titus (to whom the great NT pastoral epistle was written).

But then, by the 4th Century, and then with the later influence of Byzantine Christianity, this became a place of Christian worship, with this small chapel built into the side (immediately below – fortuitously captured at just the moment that the setting sun shone on it!). Within thenow excavated corridors beneath the tiered seating, there are all kinds of evidences of this usage – see the Christian cross carved out of the stone, the mosaics of saints, and below, the baptismal font.

Of course, centuries later, after earthquakes, invasions and political turmoil, Albania was swallowed up by the Ottoman Empire, under whose sway the country remained for 500 years until 1911. Hence the imposing mosque at the head of one of the city’s main streets. Then they suffered under Hoxha’s brutal atheist regime until 1991. Hence the fact that it was only recently renovated.

Only a small proportion of the amphitheatre has been uncovered – there’s the small problem of a few homeowners reluctant to sell up and the lack of financial resources to relocate them.

But even so – from what is visible, it is clearly amazing site. But just imagine the initial shock of digging that up in your back garden!


Chapel

The historically most significant chapel was built directly under the honorary box ( pulvinar ) in the western part of the amphitheater. It is adorned with ornate frescoes and rare wall mosaics . It is in a small room that has hardly been changed it is around six meters long and - narrowing to the east - three to two meters wide. An apse with two tall, narrow windows was added to the east, jutting out into the arena. In this converted area, the room was significantly higher than in the rear area with the mosaics. Opus mixtum made of reused stones and bricks was used as building material for new walls and the floor .

The chapel is mostly dated to the 6th century, but more recent research refers to the 11th century. It was used until the beginning of the 13th century According to other sources, however, there is only archaeological evidence of use until the 11th century. Probably because of the rising groundwater level, a higher ground was drawn in later and a new altar was erected. A basin was found in the adjacent room to the north, possibly a baptismal font . Access was through the nearest vomitorium in the north, the stone steps of which show much more signs of wear than the others.

The heavily damaged mosaics on the back wall show Maria , Sophia (wisdom) and Eirene (peace) , among others , and testify to a sometimes pagan world of ideas. The mosaics on the south wall are in good condition and show angels, saints, Mary and donors as well as inscriptions. The mosaics were later placed over older wall paintings. A ceiling painting showed the pantocrator .

"These three mosaic figures state outwards in such a way that the oberserver can make contact with their eyes and the figures themselves seems less remote."

"These three mosaic figures stand out due to their design, so that the viewer can make eye contact with them and the figures appear closer."


Watch the video: What to See in Durrës, Albania