Durrës is one of the oldest settlements in Europe. It was founded as Epidamnos by Greek colonists from Corinth and Corcyra [Corfu] on Illyrian territory in 627 BC. Later, as a Roman city of Dyrrhachium, it was developed as a major military and naval base of the Roman Empire due to its geographical location (convenient position between the eastern colonies and Rome). During Byzantine times, Emperor Anastasius (481-518), built a strong fortification around his hometown, which successfully fended off the frequent attacks by the Bulgarians. In the Middle Ages, it was contested between Bulgarian, Norman, Venetian and Serbian dominions. In 1501, the city fell to Ottoman forces and under their rule, the importance of the city declined greatly. In the late 19th century, Durrës was an active city in the Albanian national liberation movement. During the Balkan Wars of 1912, the city became significant again due to its strategic position. Restored to Albanian sovereignty, the city became the country’s temporary capital between 1918 and 1920. It experienced an economic boom due to Italian investments and developed into a major seaport under the rule of King Zogut (the first and only King of Albania). Following the Second World War, the Communist regime of Enver Hoxha rapidly rebuilt the port and the city.
This ancient amphitheater, regarded as a monument to engineering and architectural greatness of Ancient Rome, was forgotten for time being and finally found by a mere chance. It was built in the beginning of the 2nd century AD by the Roman Emperor Trajan. The second largest amphitheaters in the Balkans (after the one in Pula, Croatia) once had an estimated seating-room for 15,000-20,000 spectators. It was used for performances until the 4th century AD.
There is no reliable information regarding the cause of interruption of its activities. This could have been caused by a devastating earthquake (345-346 AD) or an edict of the Emperor Theodosius ordering the closing of all pagan centers (391 AD). Later, the amphitheater was used for Christian religious events, as affirmed, for instance, by an early Christian chapel constructed in the amphitheater. The chapel was decorated with frescoes and mosaics of saints that are still visible. The amphitheater was covered over in the 16th century, after the Ottoman occupation, when a wall was built nearby.
The amphitheater remained unknown to the world until 1966 when a citizen of Durrës (Vangjel Toçi) started to dig up a well in his garden. He soon noticed that a fig tree in his garden had suddenly sunk into the ground. This was slowly followed by the nearby buildings and consequently 30 families had to be relocated. This lead to the discovery of the amphitheater. Historians knew that the city had one, but did not know the exact location. The hill covered with the products of modern urbanization did not seem as a particularly likely place.
Only a small proportion of the amphitheater has been uncovered so far. It poses a major challenge to ensure the conservation of the remains and a successful integration of the site into the urban fabric of the city. The construction is currently under consideration for inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
In the surrounding streets, you can find exquisite graffiti art decorating the walls of the houses.
Close to the amphitheater, great part of Emperor Anastasius’ city defenses (Muri Rrethues) still stand. According to the Byzantine historian Anna Komnene, the walls of the fortification were so thick and strong that four horsemen could ride abreast on them. Since its construction, the fortification has seen some serious action. One-third of the original wall of the city castle is still standing. At one of its corners near the port, there is a robust tower known as the Venetian Tower. It is called so because it was reinforced by the Venetians just before the town’s conquest by the Ottomans.
Other Byzantine remain in the city is the Roman forum (Shesh Tregu Bizantin), the traditional center of old Dyrrachium. It was most likely built in the time of Emperor Anastasius. Only a modest collection of Corinthian columns that made up the market square still stands nestled between modern buildings.
Close to the forum are the ruins of the Roman thermal bath that dates back to the 2nd century AD. Part of the hypocaust (system of central heating) and a pool can be seen today.
Durrës is also a home to the largest archaeological museum in the country, Muzeu Arkeologjik [Archaeological Museum]. The museum was established in 1951, however, it was seriously damaged and looted during the Albanian rebellion of 1997.
The collections cover the period from the Ancient Illyrian culture, through the Ancient Greek, Hellenistic, Ancient Roman, and Byzantine times and finally, the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Particularly intriguing items are the Ancient Roman funeral steles and stone sarcophagi and the collection of miniature busts of Artemis. She was the most important goddess in old Dyrrachium mainly worshiped by the women.
On the top of a hill above the museum stands King Zogut’s royal villa (Vila e Ahmet Zogut), a reminder of the Albanian monarchy, which became a communist reception building, welcoming such political leaders as Nikita Khrushchev or Jimmy Carter on official visits.
Durrës’ coastline stretches out for more than 10 kilometers along the city. The urban part of the waterfront is a beautiful promenade lined with cafes and restaurants while the southern part is a sandy beach lined with guesthouses and hotels. The soft sand, the water that stays warm from May to September, and the closeness to the capital, make this beach a popular tourist destination. It is preferred by families because the water is very shallow.