Located at the crossroads of the eastern Adriatic, Albania, known as Illyria and Epirus throughout the classical era, played a strategic role in ancient times and was a point of contact between Illyrian, Greek and Roman civilisations. While still very much off the mainstream tourist trail, the country is now emerging as one of the most enchanting corners of the continent.
More and more tourists visit Albania, drawn to its spectacular and unspoiled natural wonders, its rich history and extraordinary archaeological heritage. Dubbed the “Pearl of the Balkans”, Albania offers a captivating journey through time with three thousand years of untouched archaeological heritage. Archaeological sites such as Apollonia, Antigoneia and Byllis hide a wealth of great archaeological value while the Butrint National Park, famed for its ruins and beauty, was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1992.
If you travel to the lands of South Illyria and Northern Epirus, make sure you do not miss the following ancient places. Epidamnos/Dyrrachium (Durrës)Situated on the eastern coast of the Adriatic, Durrës was the first Greek settlement established in Illyria. It was colonised at the end of the 7th century BC by settlers from Corinth and Corcyra (modern-day Corfu). The ancient polis (city-state), known at the time as Epidamnos, flourished during the 4th and 2nd centuries BC and became a very important port, perpetuating this tradition until today.
Due to its strategic location as a harbour, the city played a part in the origins of the Peloponnesian War in the 430s BC and became the theatre of military operations during the civil war fought between Julius Caesar and the army led by Pompey in the 1st century BC. The city came under Roman protection in 229 BC and its name was latinised to Dyrrachium. It served as the point of departure of the Via Egnatia, the roadway built in the second half of the 2nd century BC that connected Rome with the Eastern provinces of Illyricum, Macedonia, and Thrace. The Roman orator Cicero, who stayed there in 58 BC, referred to Dyrrachium as an “admirable city” (admirabilis urbs) for its temples, statues and other monuments, while the poet Catullus called it “the tavern of the Adriatic” (Dyrrachium Hadriae tabernam).Dyrrachium received the status of a colony under Augustus and thrived on commerce. The city continued to flourish during the Byzantine period but in the Middle Ages, Dyrrachium was attacked by Bulgars, Normans, Crusaders, Venetians and Serbs. The remains of the ancient city include the Roman amphitheatre, the Byzantine forum and various fortifications. The amphitheatre of Durres, built in the 2nd century AD during the reign of Emperor Hadrian and discovered only in 1966, is amongst the largest monuments of antiquity to have survived on Albanian territory and is believed to have had a capacity of 15,000 to 20,000 people.
Used for performances until the 4th Century AD, the monument was later the site of an early Christian chapel, beautifully decorated with rare wall mosaics.The city’s Archaeological Museum displays a large number of valuable archaeological findings and is well worth a visit. A 100m-long portion of the Via Egnatia can be seen near the provincial town of Peqin between Durrës and Elbasan. The pavement is about 6m wide but what we see there is an Ottoman surface, a later repair of the earlier Byzantine and Roman pavements. A single-arched Roman Bridge that supported the Via Egnatia can also be seen.
Further east, just outside the town of Elbasan are the ruins of Ad Quintum, an ancient road station (mutatio) listed in the Bordeaux Itinerary which developped near the junction of the Apollonia and Dyrrachium branch of the Via Egnatia. This mutatio was intended to provide accommodation for people travelling along the road and had elaborate facilities. The remains we see today are those of a bathhouse with fine paintings and frescoes on its walls, the facade of a 26 m long nymphaeum as well as shops. The constructions of the monuments have been dated to the second half of the 2nd century AD, while the site appears to have been abandoned at the beginning of the 4th century AD. ApolloniaLying 60 km to the South of Durrës in the Fier County is another Corcyraean colony, Apollonia.
Taking its name from the god Apollo, Apollonia was the second Greek settlement founded on the Illyrian mainland after Epidamnos. Here the Greek settlers coexisted over the centuries with the Taulantii, the Illyrian tribe who inhabited the area. Apollonia stood on a hilly plateau overlooking the Aoös River (????) just a few kilometres from the sea. This adventurous position commanding the surrounding fertile plain enabled communication with the coastal part of the territory. The city grew rich on the slave trade and local agriculture and raised into one of the most important economic, political and cultural centres.With its rival Dyrrachium, it was also one of the starting points of the famous Via Egnatia. Cicero described Apollonia as ‘a great and important city’ (magna urbs et gravis) and it was while studying rhetoric in the city that Octavian heard of the death of his adopted father, Caesar, on the Ides of March in 44 BC.
Archaeological excavations have shown that the town achieved its zenith around the 4th-3rd centuries BC with about 60.000 inhabitants living inside the city gates. At the beginning of the 3rd century AD, Apollonia was largely destroyed by a powerful earthquake and the city was slowly abandoned when its harbour began silting up due to the shift of the course of the Aoös River. By the late antiquity, the city had largely been depopulated, hosting only a small Christian community. Although only about 10% of the city has been excavated to date, the remains of Apollonia are considerable, covering an area of 2 square kilometres.Today, visitors can roam around a variety of impressive monuments including a Bouleuterion (also known as the Monument of the Agonothetes) which served as an assembly place of the council of the city, an Odeon which would have hosted cultural and musical events, a theatre built in the 3rd century BC that could accommodate an audience of 10,000, a large Stoa built in the 4th century BC as well as a rectangular nymphaeum built in the middle of the 3rd century BC, the biggest and best-preserved monument of Apollonia.The museum of Apollonia located inside the Shen Meri Eastern Orthodox monastery displays artefacts found at the site and is full of well-presented information about the history of the ancient city and its excavations.
ByllisFurther south of Apollonia lie the ruins of the Illyrian settlement of Byllis, one of the most important archaeological sites in Albania. Founded by the Bylliones, a Hellenized Illyrian tribe, in the middle of the 4th century BC, Byllis was the largest city in Southern Illyria. It occupied a dominant position on the summit of a hill 520 meters above sea level, over the road from Apollonia to Epirus and into Macedonia. The Bylliones had a sophisticated system of government, minted their own bronze coins and controlled an area of about 20km². They made Byllis their capital and fortified it with a circuit wall around 2 km long, 3.50m thick and 8m to 9m high.
Byllis adopted a fully Hellenised regular street-plan with buildings including a theatre, stoas, stadium, gymnasium and temples.The state of the Bylliones flourished until 229 BC when the Romans landed in Apollonia and their territory became a field of battle between the Roman and Macedonian armies for the control of Apollonia. In 49-48 BC, during the Caesar’s Civil War, Byllis surrendered to Julius Caesar and became a supply base for his army.
The city was later turned into a Roman colony as is shown by several Latin inscriptions found there referring to the city as Colonia Iulia Augusta. The city walls were rebuilt, the theatre and stoas were reconstructed and other monuments were erected.Byllis was attacked and sacked by the Visigoths towards the end of the 4th century AD but the city was reconstructed under Theodosius II (408-450 AD). It suffered another attack and was again reconstructed under Emperor Justinian I (483-565).
During Justinian’s reign, Byllis became an important religious centre and the seat of a bishopric. Several large Palaeo-Christian basilicas werebuilt, all of them featuring lavishly decorated mosaics. Sadly for the visitors, all the mosaics are kept covered with protective layers of sand and are not visible.
In 586 AD, Byllis was abandoned and seat of the bishopric was moved to Ballsh, preserving the name of the old city.With its fascinating ruins amid stunning views over the Vjosa valley, the ancient city of Byllis is one of the numerous hidden treasures of Albania. The remains include an impressive theatre, several Byzantine basilicas paved with outstanding mosaics, Illyrian private houses and Roman public buildings. AmantiaFrom Byllis, crossing the Aoös river leads you to the ruins of the ancient city of Amantia located 32 km northeast of the town of Vlorë, Albania’s first capital and the administrative centre of the Vlorë County. Founded around the middle of the 5th century BC, Amantia was the historical capital of the ancient Greek tribe of the Amantes. It occupied an important defensive position above the Aoös River valley, along the road leading to the coast and to the Bay of Aulon (today’s Bay of Vlorë).Amantia was built on the slope of a high hill covering an area of 13 hectares. The city was protected by a 2,100 m long walled enclosure equipped with three monumental gates.
The settlement extended along the sides of the steep hill.The best-preserved monument of Amantia is the stadium constructed on a natural terrace in the first half of the 3rd century BC and which could originally accommodate about 4,000 people. On the southern side of the city, outside the walls, stood a religious complex with a platform for a colonnaded Doric-style temple dedicated to Aphrodite. A series of monumental tombs are also to be found in the vicinity.Amantia remained a small urban centre and was the seat of a bishop in early Christian times.
The temple of Aphrodite was demolished and a Christian basilica was built near the ruins using its materials. It is thought that the city may have been abandoned by the end of the 6 century AD. AntigoneiaOn top of a hill overlooking the beautiful Drinos Valley that connected Illyria to the north and the Kingdom of Epirus to the south, stand the ruins of the ancient city of Antigoneia. In 295 BC the king of the Molossians, one of the three main tribes of Epirus, founded a city and named it after his wife Antigone, daughter of Berenice I and step-daughter of Ptolemy I of Egypt. The Molossian king was the famed Pyrrhus whose later battles against the Romans would come to be known as «Pyrrhic victories» (a victory gained at too great a cost).
With such a strategic position, Antigoneia became an important economic, political and administrative centre for more than a hundred years until its destruction in 167 BC at the end of the Third Macedonian War which devastated Epirus. The thick layer of burning found throughout the excavated areas shows that the city was destroyed violently. Under the Roman consul Aemilius Paullus, 70 cities in Epirus were sacked and lit on fire. This probably included the city of Antigoneia which was never rebuilt.The significance of the site was still largely unknown until the ancient town was excavated and identified by the Albanian archaeologist Dhimosten Budina and the discovery of bronze tesserae bearing the inscription “ANTI??NE?N” (of the citizen of Antigoneia) in 1968.The city was built on the Hippodamian grid system and covered an area of almost 45 hectares.
It flourished on trade with the other Hellenistic cities, and with Illyria and Macedonia. The remaining structures of this short-lived city include the city’s fortification walls which encircled the hill on its north, west and east sides, the Agora, Prytaneum, residential houses with peristyle courtyards, workshops as well as a paleochristian church with mosaic floors (sadly kept covered). The city’s main street that ran north-south from the acropolis to the main gain can also be seen. Since 2005 Antigoneia has been organised as a National Archaeological Park with informative panels placed at various areas of the park to inform visitors of the various monuments to see.
Excavations are still underway and most of the finds are displayed in the National Historical Museum and National Archaeological Museum in Tirana. ButrintAs Albanian’s first designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, Butrint (ancient Buthrotum) is the most famous and most visited archaeological site in the country. Located directly opposite the Greek island of Corfu, Butrint offers a beautiful combination of historic ruins and pure nature. Its well-preserved ruins are nestled in a marshy landscape of exceptional beauty and tranquillity between an inland lagoon and the Ionian Sea and surrounded by densely forested hills. The remains of the ancient city span 2,500 years, from the Greek, Hellenistic, Roman, Christian and even Venetian periods. The earliest archaeological evidence of settled occupation dates to between the 10th and 8th centuries BC, although the legend associated with its origins speak of the city’s foundation by Trojan exiles. The Roman writer Virgil describes Butrint as founded by the Trojan prince Helenus, a son of King Priam of Troy, and as appearing to the hero Aeneas who stayed there after his own escape from the destruction of Troy, as a «Troy in miniature» (parva Troia).
However, no specific evidence has been produced in support of this legend.Buthrotum appears for the time in the written sources during the 6th century BC when the city was a small acropolis under Corcyrean control. The city grew in importance and developed its trade thanks to its access to the Straits of Corfu. The situation changed radically at the turn of the 4th century BC when the Molossians invaded the coast opposite Corcyra. The city was fortified with a new 870m-long wall and numerous gates. By the late mid-3rd century BC, the settlement included a theatre that could accommodate about 2,500 people, an agora, as well as a sanctuary dedicated to the god of healing, Asclepius. Due to its favourable location, Buthrotum played an important role in the Roman civil war in 49-48 BC and served as a base for Caesar’s army. In 31 BC Augustus, fresh from his victory at Actium, established a Roman colony and the city expanded considerably and remained an important road-station on the way to Nicopolis, the capital city of the Roman province of Epirus Vetus.
The Roman Forum was constructed in the Augustan period while the city witnessed its greatest period of prosperity in the 2nd century AD when numerous bathhouses, fountains, and public buildings were constructed and the theatre was renovated. The town suffered much damage from an earthquake sometime in the 4th century AD but survived into the late antique era, becoming the seat of a bishopric with Christian buildings including a large basilica and a Baptistery, one of the largest such paleochristian buildings of its type. The city then went into a long decline and was abandoned until 1928 when the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini’s Italy sent an expedition to Buthrotum.
The archaeological site is the heart of the Butrint National Park which established in 2000 in order to preserve the natural ecosystems and woodlands. A network of walking trails passes through this rich Mediterranean habitat and leads visitors to the many historical buildings. The finds from the site are on display in the small museum located on the top of the hill where the acropolis of Buthrotum once was. Many of the country’s archaeological treasures are housed in the largest museum in Albania, the National Historical Museum in Tirana, where photography is sadly not permitted.
Make sure you do not miss the late 4th century BC mosaic known as «The Beauty of Durrës» which is the best example of the Hellenistic art of this period in Albania. Other archaeological finds can be seen in the National Archaeological Museum, also located in Tirana.