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Archaeology vacations in Albania
For a diminutive Balkan country, forgotten by much of the outside world, Albania punches well above its weight when it comes to impressive archaeological sites. This land was fought over for millennia by Illyrians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans, and each left its imperial mark, in sweeping amphitheatres, imposing castles, royal tombs and bath houses. These ancient civilisations had an eye for a prime location. As most of the sites were defensive strongholds, they can be found in strategic positions atop hills and cliffs, on riverbanks, or overlooking the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. Orikum sits above the turquoise Bay of Vlore, Kruje Castle stands over the city of the same name, while Butrint tumbles across a compact peninsula, reaching out into a protected lake. This means that the sites often offer glorious views and dramatic landscapes, as well as opportunities for bird watching, botanical excursions or scenic hikes. Here are a few of our top Albanian archaeology picks.
Our Archaeology Vacations
Described by UNESCO as a ‘microcosm of Mediterranean history’, Butrint has been occupied for at least 3,000 years. The earliest remaining structures here date back to the Illyrians and Greeks in the 4th century BCE, followed by Romans, who conquered ‘Buthrotum’ in 30 BCE, and the Byzantines in the 5th and 6th centuries AD. The Venetians arrived in the 1300s, spending over four centuries here, until it was ceded to Napoleon in 1798. Along with the rest of Albania, Butrint was then swallowed up by the Ottoman Empire. This peninsula holds a highly strategic position, as it is tucked beside the Strait of Corfu; Greece is a mere 3km away.
Today, remains from all of these eras can be found in Butrint, packed into 200 hectares. One of the most notable features is the fortification wall which almost surrounds the site. The earliest sections were built in the Hellenistic period, around the 4th century BCE, using large pieces of rock cut so precisely that no cement was needed. This was later built up by the Romans and Byzantines; the distinctive styles are layered upon each other.
Nothing remains today of the Roman aqueduct, but the baths can still be seen, now teeming with tiny turtles. The 4th century agora is one of Butrint’s most impressive sites, along with the 6th century baptistery with its concentric colonnades. Its mosaic floor remains buried under sand for protection; however, it is periodically revealed for viewings. It’s well worth timing a visit to coincide with the uncovering; this is one of the most complex and beautiful mosaic floors in existence. The hilltop castle, now a museum, contains more historical information and fragile artifacts from the site.
Durrës Roman amphitheatre
Durrës Roman amphitheatre
You’d imagine it would be rather hard to lose an amphitheatre that could seat 20,000 people, and virtually impossible in the middle of a large city, but that’s exactly what happened in Durrës. A 130m-wide arena was built here by the Romans early in the 2nd century AD, and is the largest such structure in the Balkans. It was used for over 200 years, before being damaged by an earthquake. A Christian chapel was built on the site in the 4th century, with a medieval chapel added some 900 years later. However, with the arrival of the Ottomans in the 1500s, the amphitheatre was covered over, and it remained hidden until the 1960s. The chapel, with its 6th century mosaic walls dedicated to Catholic saints, still stands; today’s visitors will also encounter modern apartments perched precariously on the edge of the amphitheatre.
While in town, visit the Durrës Archaeological Museum. This the largest of its kind in Albania, with over 3,000 artifacts from various eras, including stone sarcophagi, mosaics, Greek terracotta figures and Roman stelae.
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As the name suggests, this riverside city was founded by the ancient Greeks in 588 BCE. Originally named Gylakeia, the settlement was also home to Illyrian tribes, and it flourished thanks to its vast harbour, fertile agricultural land and, unfortunately, a thriving slave trade. It minted its own coins and was home to a renowned school of philosophy.
By the 3rd century BCE, Apollonia came under the control of the Romans, formally becoming part of the empire in 148 BCE. It continued to grow in size and wealth – with up to 70,000 inhabitants – until the 2rd century AD, when an earthquake altered the course of the Vjosë River, turning much of the city into a swamp. As the residents departed, Apollonia virtually vanished. Its remains were rediscovered in the 1700s, with excavations finally taking place in the 20th century.
A great deal of the site remains buried, and sadly many of the artifacts were stolen during the communist era. However, there are still some impressive sights within Apollonias’s 4km of walls, with pillars, a small theatre and a recently renovated Byzantine monastery. With few interpretative panels, the site is best visited in the company of an expert guide; the museum, on the site of the 13th century monastery, offers up plenty of history and additional artifacts, too.
Albania’s national hero, Skanderbeg, used this 1,500-year-old castle as a base for his rebellion against the advancing Ottoman Empire. This small and rather pretty fortress withstood powerful sieges throughout the 1440s to the 1460s. Despite having conquered cities and vast swathes of land elsewhere, the Turks were unable to advance on Krujë thanks to Skanderbeg’s skill as a military commander, and the little castle’s defenses were not broken until 1478, a decade after his death.
‘Skanderbeg’ in fact comes from an Ottoman nickname, ‘Iskender bey’, meaning ‘Leader Alexander’, in reference to Alexander the Great. Today, the castle contains a museum dedicated to Skanderbeg’s impressive military achievements, while a 19th century house within the castle complex is now an ethnographic museum, detailing daily Ottoman life here in the 1800s.
Phoenice Archaeological Park
The city of Phoenice was founded by the Chaonians in the 6th century BCE in the historic region of Epirus. This important trade hub and political center was one of the wealthiest cities in the region, boasting an acropolis, amphitheatre and imposing walls over 3.5m thick. The Chaonians were an ancient Greek tribe, and these fortifications were constructed to defend Phoenice against rival Illyrian tribes.
Thanks to its strategic position close to Northern Greece and the Strait of Corfu, Phoenice became a stage for many battles between Illyrians, Greeks and even Gauls. The city saw occupations, murders, and the signing of peace treaties, and despite the Roman conquest in 167 AD, it retained a certain amount of independence. In the 6th century the Byzantines declared the city a see (area) of a bishopric, and religious buildings sprang up, including a basilica and a baptistery. However, shortly after this, the city seemed to vanish.
Excavation work began on the site in the 1920s. Today, the Phoenice Archaeological Park sprawls across several hilltops overlooking the modern town of Finiq, named after the ancient city. Its vantage point meant it was used during the communist era as a military base; visitors will find the ancient ruins dotted with concrete bunkers, and overgrown with wildflowers. Be prepared for some steep climbs, plenty of walking and rugged trails.
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