Albania: Durres history


With a history as old as Europe, Durres is Albania’s most ancient city. The fame of Durres rose with the Greek Colony. It was here by the Adriatic Sea, on the land of the Illyrian tribe of the Taulanti, that they would settle in the 627 BC. They came from Corinth and Corcyra and would stay for over 300 years; until the city was captured in 312 BC by the Illyrian King Glaucus. Appian Alexandrinius, a writer of the 2nd century BC tells us the founder of Durres was called Epidamnos and named the town after himself. His nephew was called Dyrrachion and built a pier on a bay near the city which he named after himself. Later Strabo, the Greek geographer, writes Dyrrachion took its name from the peninsula on which Durres was founded.

The Greeks set a foundation for a city that would stand the test of time. For several centuries, when part of the Roman Empire, Durres became the greatest city on the Adriatic. In the first two centuries of Roman power, an amphitheater, a library, public baths, an aqueduct, and many luxurious villas were built. It was at its port that the Via Ignatia, the Military Highway of the Balkans, began and led to the east past other major cities of the time like Manscio Scampa (Elbasan) and Thessaloniki to Byzantium. Durres’ ancient port, the largest of Illyricum, has survived over 2000 years, and is still Albania’s largest port today. The city became a center of trade and gave and took goods from other major cities of the Adriatic, the Mediterranean, and the Italian Peninsula.


Durres like the rest of Albania has been invaded often through the ages. Perhaps, even more so, owing to the fact it is susceptible to invasion by sea. Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Goths, Bulgars, Serbs, Normans, Achaeans (Greeks), Venetians, Sicilians, Turks, Nazi Germans, Italians, and the like have all passed through Durres. Some stayed a very long time. The ancient Greeks spent over 300 years here; the Romans over 400; the Byzantine Empire held Durres for 800 years, the longest of all, with periodic interruptions from Albanian families or invaders, which lasted for years to decades to even centuries. After the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire held Durres for over 400 years.


Of all eras, a little to a lot of evidence can still be found today. Greek artifacts abound. Numerous historical sights worthy of recognition stand today. The Romans built the 1500 seat amphitheater, the second largest in the Balkans. The Roman era also gave Durres a castle, a small part of which still stands. The Byzantine Empire which held Durres the longest time, built a church in the 9th Century. The Venetians built a tower in the 1500’s, which still stands and in good shape, although as a cafe. While the Turks who would hold Durres for four centuries converted the population to Islam and built mosques. Later in the early 20th century, the Italians built roads and government buildings.


Important personages have noted Durres. Aristotle wrote of its constitution. Cicero wrote “I came to Durres because this is a free city and loyal to me,” and may well have lectured here, perhaps at the amphitheater itself. Julius Caesar came here probably during Rome’s fight with Pompey, which happened on the Adriatic coast. Durres captures the imagination for its ancient storied past, in particular for its classic Greco Roman civilization. While today it has been outshined by Tirana, it was in fact declared modern Albania’s first capital in 1912, and remains Albania’s second largest city. Though Durres may be thought of as second best, and a “has been,” its history is old as Europe itself.


Sources:


Hoti, Afrim. Epidamnos-Dyrrhachion Durres. Cetis. Tirana, 2006.


http://www.britannica.com/place/Durres


http://albania.al/destinations/durres/

Photo:

Venetian Tower https://wherefoodtakesus.com/tirana-day-trip-what-to-do-in-durres/

Albania: Invasions of the Middle Ages


In 395, after the division of the Roman Empire into East and West, the Illyrian lands of Moesia (Serbia) Dardania (Kosovo) and Epirus (Albania) fell to the east. The east, the Byzantine Empire, called their political units themes, large states led by a deputy to the emperor, with several provences such as Vlora, and Lezha, in central Albania or Praevlitania, in the northern Albania, or Moesia in modern Serbia; each were ruled by nobles. On a larger level, there were four prateorian prefectures, which were divided into dioceses.


Emperor Justinian, 527 to 565, built many fortifications to defend the Empire. Eventually, the invaders would come, and great as defence was, the wave could not be stopped. Though he built 26 forts in Illyria, his home, IIlyria itself would be most affected by invasion. The first invaders came from central Europe from the Germanic peoples. The Goths, and the Iranian Sarmatians, swept through Balkan regions such as Thrace (Bulgaria), Macedonia, Dardania, Epirus. etc. Though they wrought great violence and suffering, they left no trace on the people and place. The Huns came from the east in 441 followed by the Avars, to further ruin Dardania and Macedonia. Ostragoths from the north would follow in 459.


These periodic invasions however would only increase in the 500s and 600s. The new wave would begin from the East where the Bulgars, a Turkic people, would defeat an Illyrian army in Thrace and settle the land. Constant wars would weaken the Byzantine army and its capacity to defend the empire, which only led to further invasion, and finally permanent settlement. The waves of settlers would come from the north and east, from the Slavic peoples; these people, who were numerous and particularly ruthless, would ravage the empire, killing, expelling or assimilating the natives. So bold and unstoppable were these invaders that they attempted to capture Constantinople itself; in this ambitious campaign, however, they were defeated. But they would forever change the ethnic composition of the Balkans. Today their descendants live in the modern countries of Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia and Bulgaria.


Illyria would loose Moesia to the Serbs and all territory north of modern Albania; though today there exists an Albanian minority in neighboring Slavic countries, like Monte Negro, as well as Macedonia, which is 25 percent Albanian. Ancient Dardania, modern Kosovo, would have centuries of conflict with the Serbs, until it gained independence as its own country in 1999.


From the east came further invasion into central Albania, this time from the Bulgars, who themselves now had been overrun by the more numerous Slavs. The Bulgarian Slavs were to build a kingdom in 851 whose zenith would be in the 10th century, and whose reach would extend through Macedonia, northern Greece, and central Albania. Though it would last for close to two centuries, until 1018, it would have no permanent impact on Albania, other than some Slavic place names or words.


From the west, Albania and the Balkans would have yet more invasion, this time from the Normans, an adventurous Viking people, who are most known for conquering England in the year 1066. In 1081, the Normans invaded Vlora and proceeded to Durres without much resistance. Meanwhile Emperor Alexius called on Venice for support. On the sea, the Normans would loose to the Venetian force, but not on land; all of Albania and Thessaly (Northern Greece) would be occupied until 1085, when Alexius raised another army and routed the invaders. Yet the Normans would return once more in 1107, this time without success. So weak was their campaign in Durres that their leader Bohemond instead of conquering, joined the Empire as a governor in Asia Minor.


Sources:
Zavalani, Tajar. (1903-1966) Histori e Shqipnis, 1957, Tirana. History of Albania. London, 1963. Reprinted, 2015 Robert Elsie and Bejtullah Destani, editors.


Elsie, Robert. (1950-2017) Albania in a Nutshell, 2015.

Painting by Viktor Vasnetsov 1881

History: The Illyrians

Why must one be interested in the land he comes from? Perhaps, it is self-evident. The place you come from holds secrets to your identity. I think this is what draws people to learn about their roots, the discovery of themselves. In life, we are born without identity and as we grow, we seek to discover it; the ultimate discovery is that of the self. Thus an expat is drawn to visit his homeland or at least to learn of its history. What has happened to his ancestors, one thinks, must have some impact on his own destiny. Thus, here I am, teaching myself Albanian history, to learn about my roots and thus myself.

The illyrians, the predecessors to modern Albanians, first footsteps in the Balkans dates back to 1000 BC. Their neighbors to the north were the Celts, who at this time, had yet to migrate to the outer fringe of Europe. To the south, lay Macedon and Greece. Thrace lay to the East, where Romania, and Bulgaria is today. The Slavs were still in North eastern Europe and would not arrive in the Balkans for over 1600 years. Today, of these ancient people, only the Illyrians-now we are called Albanians-and the Greeks have survived. The Macedonians and Thracians have been assimilated.

The first evidence is archaeological. We do not have any written texts in Illyrian. If they had great thinkers, or writers, they probably wrote in Greek or Latin. The Illyrians did not rise into an early civilization. No Parthenon, or Colosseum was on their lands. Moreover, they had problems with a lack of unity, factionalism and even civil war between the various tribes. But owing to a fortuitous location, neighboring Greece and Rome, they must have benefited in culture and trade. Indeed they played a sometimes major role in the Roman Empire.

They had their little settlements, tribes and small kingdoms, such as those of Kings Bardhylis, Clitus, and Glaucus in the 4th century BCE along the eastern coast of the Adriatic sea. But they were not a military power beyond their own kind, other than winning or losing land to their immediate neighbors.  They won Durres from the Greeks and lost land near Lake Ohrid in the east to Macedon under Phillip II, Alexander’s the Great’s father, and later to Alexander himself. However, oppression was accompanied by opportunity; many Illyrian leaders and soldiers joined Alexander’s army on his conquest of the east, a major event in world history. 

After 700 years of independent self-rule, the Illyrians were conquered by Rome something they provoked by attacking settlements on both coasts of the Adriatic and Greek colonies as far as Sicily.  Rome sent a large fleet and took over the coastal Illyrian settlements of Queen Teuta in 228 BC. 11 years later a second Roman expedition was sent to capture the interior. The Illyrians became allied with the Macedonians and the war between the two sides lasted 51 long years. Genthius, the last Illyrian king surrendered in 168 BCE. 

At the end of the war, the whole Balkan Peninsula became Roman territory. The Romans called Illyria the provence of Illyricum; it stretched all the way to Istria, modern Slovenia in the North down to the river Drin, in central Albania in the south; its capital city, Salona, was in modern Croatia, near today’s Split. Dalmatia and Pannonia were its two states.

The Romans held Illyria for four centuries. While there they brought much civilization such as the construction of the Via Ignatia, the army road, aqueducts and an ampitheatre, still standing today. They heavily influenced the population, by colonizing the coast. I myself am half Arumunian, (Vlach) of the very people descended from the Roman colonists. Today. the Arumunians are a large Balkan minority whose language is derived from Latin.

Many Illyrian soldiers joined the Roman legion and distinguished themselves reaching the high ranks of the Praetorian guard and a few even entered history as Roman emperors, such as Claudius II, Aurelian, Diocletian, and Constantine the  Great, the first Christian emperor and founder of Byzantium, and later Byzantine emperor Justinian who built the Hagia Sophia, the model for all Greek Orthodox churches. St Paul himself preached in Illyricum, and though Albania today is thought of as predominantly Muslim, historically, it was Christian for over 1000 years.

Selected Sources:

  • The Albanians: A Country Study, Robert Elsie / Walter Iskaw
  • Encyclopedia Brittanica: Illyria
  • Wikipedia: Illyria