Durrës is among the oldest settlements in Europe, established in 627 BC by Greek colonists from Corinth and Corcyra [Corfu] as Epidamnos on Illyrian land. Later, it became a significant military and naval base of the Roman Empire, known as Dyrrhachium, due to its strategic position between eastern colonies and Rome. Emperor Anastasius (481-518) constructed robust fortifications around his hometown, during the Byzantine era, which successfully fended off frequent Bulgarian attacks. In the Middle Ages, the city was a battleground for Bulgarian, Norman, Venetian, and Serbian control until it fell to Ottoman forces in 1501, leading to a sharp decline in its significance.
During the late 19th century, Durrës played an active role in the Albanian national liberation movement. Its strategic importance was revived during the Balkan Wars of 1912. After regaining Albanian sovereignty, the city served as the country’s interim capital from 1918 to 1920. Italian investments in the city led to an economic boom, and it developed into a significant seaport during the reign of King Zogut I (reign: 1928-1939), Albania’s first and only king.
Following World War II, the Communist regime of Enver Hoxha quickly rebuilt the damaged port and city. Enver Hoxha was the leader of Albania from 1944 until his death in 1985. He was a staunch communist and implemented a harsh regime that was heavily influenced by the ideology of Joseph Stalin.
Durrës is a city rich in history and culture, with a charming mix of ancient ruins and modern amenities. From the impressive amphitheater to the sandy beaches, there is something for everyone to enjoy. Its proximity to Tiranë makes it an easy day trip or weekend getaway, and its charm and character make it a must-visit destination in Albania.
This ancient amphitheater, regarded as a testament to the engineering and architectural prowess of Ancient Rome, was lost to time until it was stumbled upon by chance. Roman Emperor Trajan constructed the amphitheater at the beginning of the 2nd century AD, and it was once the second largest in the Balkans (after the one in Pula, Croatia), with an estimated seating capacity of 15,000-20,000 spectators. However, its use for performances ended in the 4th century AD for unknown reasons, possibly due to a devastating earthquake in 345-346 AD or an edict from Emperor Theodosius ordering the closure of all pagan centers in 391 AD. The amphitheater was later repurposed for Christian religious events, as evidenced by the construction of an early Christian chapel inside it. The chapel’s frescoes and mosaics depicting saints are still visible today. However, during the Ottoman occupation in the 16th century, the amphitheater was covered over when a wall was built nearby.
The amphitheater remained unknown to the world until 1966, when a resident of Durrës (Vangjel Toçi) started digging a well in his garden. He soon noticed that a fig tree in his garden had sunk suddenly into the ground. This was followed by nearby buildings slowly sinking as well, and as a result, 30 families had to be relocated. This led to the discovery of the amphitheater. Historians were aware that the city had one, but its exact location was unknown to them. The hill, which had been covered with the products of modern urbanization, did not appear to be a particularly likely location.
Although only a small portion of the amphitheater has been uncovered thus far, it poses a significant challenge to ensure the conservation of the remains and a successful integration of the site into the urban fabric of the city. The site is currently under consideration for inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
In the streets surrounding the amphitheater, visitors can also find exquisite graffiti art that adorns the walls of many buildings.
In close proximity to the amphitheater, a significant portion of Emperor Anastasius’ city defenses [Muri Rrethues] still remains standing. Emperor Anastasius (reign: 492-518) was a Byzantine emperor who managed to maintain the stability of the empire and left a legacy as one of its most capable rulers. One of his notable achievements was the construction of a massive defensive wall around the city of Durrës, which was an important port city on the Adriatic Sea. The wall was designed to protect the city from attacks by land and sea, and it featured numerous towers and gates. The wall also served as a symbol of the emperor’s commitment to strengthening the defenses of the Byzantine Empire. According to the Byzantine historian Anna Komnene, the fortification walls were so thick and strong that four horsemen could ride abreast on them. The fortification has endured significant conflicts since its construction, with only one-third of the original wall of the city castle remaining. At one corner of the fortification, near the port, stands a robust tower known as the Venetian Tower [Kulla Veneciane]. Its name derives from the fact that it was reinforced by the Venetians just before the town’s conquest by the Ottomans.
Other remnants of the Byzantine era in the city include the Roman forum (Shesh Tregu Bizantin), which served as the traditional center of old Dyrrachium.the forum is believed to have been constructed during the time of Emperor Anastasius. Today, only a modest collection of Corinthian columns that made up the market square can be seen, nestled between modern buildings. The ruins of the Roman thermal bath, dating back to the 2nd century AD, are located close to the forum. Today, visitors can only see part of the hypocaust (central heating system) and a small pool.
Durrës is also home to the largest archaeological museum in the country, the Muzeu Arkeologjik [Archaeological Museum] which was established in 1951. However, it suffered significant damage and looting during the Albanian rebellion of 1997.
The museum’s collections encompass artifacts from the Ancient Illyrian culture, Ancient Greek and Hellenistic periods, Ancient Roman and Byzantine eras, and the Ottoman Empire rule. Among the most intriguing items on display are the Ancient Roman funeral steles and stone sarcophagi, as well as the collection of miniature busts depicting Artemis. She was the most important goddess in ancient Dyrrachium, predominantly worshiped by women.
Atop a hill above the museum stands the royal villa of King Zogut (Vila e Ahmet Zogut), serving as a reminder of the Albanian monarchy. It was later repurposed as a communist reception building, hosting political leaders, such as Nikita Khrushchev and Jimmy Carter on official visits.
The coastline of Durrës extends for over 10 kilometers along the city. The urban section of the waterfront is a lovely promenade lined with cafes and restaurants, while the southern part is a sandy beach lined with guesthouses and hotels. The beach is a popular tourist destination due to its soft sand, water that stays warm from May to September, and proximity to the capital. Families often choose this beach because the water is shallow. Unfortunately, too shallow.