Nymphaeum at Apollonia, Albania

Nymphaeum at Apollonia, Albania


Vandals Smash Ancient Greek City of Apollonia During Lockdown

The Covid-19 pandemic has not only been one of the most feared diseases of the 21st century, it has been followed by recession, civil unrest, and lately, by a rash of acts of vandalism around the world. Due to the lack of travel and mandatory closures of historic sites and museums, these locations have suffered from understaffing. While most people around the world have stayed home for large portions of the lockdowns, vandals in various areas have been out and about- damaging precious sites that house relics from throughout history. One of the sites recently damaged is located in Albania and contains the remains of an ancient Greek city.

Sometime in April, amidst the lockdown in Europe, vandals knocked down and smashed two columns from the Nymphaeum of Apollonia. Nymphaeumae were constructed as monuments to nymphs, most notably those that were believed to govern springs and water. These grand structures were often highly decorated and could contain halls, gardens, fountains, or other features. They served the dual purpose of being both reservoirs and sanctuaries. They were built as tribute to the mythological creatures and the one at Apollonia contains ruins of steps and pillars that were part of a 16,000 foot homage to the water nymphs.

Apollonia was founded in 588 BC and later became a center of philosophy, as well as a bustling trade city that benefitted from a busy port. However, when silt deposits made water travel more difficult the city withered and was eventually abandoned.

The ruins of Apollonia are fairly well-preserved, with parts of dozens of structures still standing. The area of the ruins today is the Archaeological Museum of Apollonia National Park. While the years of Communist rule saw the park and museum flourish as a tourist area, it was looted and subsequently closed down for a period of 20 years following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Apollonia was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 and reopened in 2011.

Vandals have caused irreparable damage to the ancient #Nymphaeum (monumental fountain) of ancient #Apollonia (#Ἀπολλωνία) near #Fieri (#Φίερι) has caused outrage in the #Greek community of Northern #Epirus, in S #Albanian @HeldisMatja @CarolynPPerry https://t.co/I6K2xLd6Nw pic.twitter.com/WfZLQSpxWc

&mdash Sarah (@Sarah404BC) June 14, 2020

After being open for less than a decade, the park is once again prey to senseless crime. The news of the vandalism has hit hard for the Greek community within Albania, as the area sits on the border between the two countries, in the Epirus region. The damage went unnoticed for more than a month as closures and furloughs meant that the site was not being visited or monitored as it would have been normally.

The park’s director said in a statement that the damage is “irreversible”, however the go ahead has been granted to try and restore the pillars as best as they can be.

The pillars of the Nymphaeum of Apollonia are not the only casualties of lockdown-related theft and vandalism. Near Amsterdam at the Singer Laren Museum a valuable early Van Gogh painting was stolen in March 2020. And, in Idaho the historic City of Rocks, which contains the names of settlers traveling the overland Oregon Trail written in wagon axle grease on the porous granite, was recently baldy defaced with spray paint in April. Let’s hope that these historic sites can be better protected in future.


Apollonia (Gylakea), Albania of Great Greek colonization

Apolonia which lived for 11 centuries between 620 BC and 479 was a city-state that originated as a product of the process of “Great ‘Greek colonization” VIII-VI centuries BC, on the shores of Illyria, which were populated by the community of Taulantia tribal. Stefan Bizantini, one of ancient authors say that: ”it was the largest city and most important of the 30-to colonies that were established across the Mediterranean with the name of god Apollo”.

Apollonia was founded in 588 B.C. jointly by the Greek settlers from Corinth and Kerkyra (today Corfu), N.B. colonised by Corinthians in about 8th century B.C.1 The settlers were led by a man called Gylax and it was his name after which the city was given its first name was Gylakea in honor of its founder Gylak of Corinth. Later, the name was changed to honour the god Apollo. Thirty other cities in Macedonia, Thrace, Crete or Italia honoured the god in the similar way2. For a change, we also have Aπολλωνία κατ’ Επίδαμνον, i.e. Apollonia near Epidamnos – the city which was founded a bit earlier, in 627 B.C., also by the settlers from Corinth and Kerkyra. These days, the ruins of the city lie in Albania, close to Pojani village, 7 km from Fier.

The settlers founded the city in a very convenient location. Apollonia was built on a gentle hill over the Aoos River (Αώος), just a few kilometres from the sea. When it comes to the trade, the new Corinthian colony was perfectly located and, what is more, it was situated on very fertile soil, so it is not surprising that soon it became one of the richest harbours of the Adriatic Sea.


Drachm, Antalkes Anikatou (Magistrate), ANTALKHS

It is mentioned by Strabo in his Geographica as “an exceedingly well-governed city”. Aristotle considered Apollonia an important example of an oligarchic system, as the descendants of the Greek colonists controlled the city and prevailed over a large serf population of mostly Illyrian origin. The city grew rich on the slave trade and local agriculture, as well as its large harbour, said to have been able to hold a hundred ships at a time. The city also benefited from the local supply of asphalt which was a valuable commodity in ancient times, for example for caulking ships. The remains of a late sixth-century temple, located just outside the city.

At the turn of the 4th and 3rd century B.C., the city was flourishing ramparts were rebuilt and a new coin was being issued. In 282 B.C. Apollonia was seized by the king of Epirus – Pyrrhus. After his death, the city strengthened its relationships with Rome which stationed its permanent garrison here since 229 B.C.

Roman army stayed in the city until 168 B.C. Roman proconsul Gnaeus Egnatius began the construction of a road which inherited its name after its designer, i.e. Via Egnatia (Ἐγνατία Ὁδός) in n 146 B. It led from Dyrrachium through Thessaloniki up to Bizancjum, 746 Roman miles3 in total, i.e. about 1103 km. Apollonia had become the second, after Dyrrachium, western end of this road, which had an impact on the city’s growing importance.


Kapital of Monument of Agonothetes

Regrettably, at the beginning of the 3rd century, Apollonia was largely destroyed by a strong earthquake. What is more, due to this earthquake, the bed of the Aoos River (now Vjosës) moved away from the city and the crop fields turned into marsh. The total destruction of the city was sealed by the invasions of people from the north. In the end, the city of Apollonia perished.

Apollonia represents one of the most important cities of the Mediterranean world and Adriatic basin, preserved in an exceptionally intact condition. Numerous monuments inside its original borders comprise an outstanding evidence of Greco – Roman culture of the city. Strabo has noted that the city was founded by Greek colonists from Corfu and Corinth, who found in its territory an earlier local settlement with its own unique cultural elements. The presence of this local culture is determined by the discovery of archeological artifacts from the Iron Age, tracts from an existing archaic fortification, the temple of Artemis as well as the tumular necropolis near the territory of the ancient city of Apollonia. The coexistence between two different cultures and their inevitable fusion produced a unique physiognomy of apollonian culture, which turned Apollonia to one of the most important economic centers of ancient Mediterranean world. The urban structure of the city lay on the hilly plateau, with an expanded view towards the fertile plain of Musacchia and the Adriatic Sea. The communication with the coast was enabled by the Aoos River, which flowed nearby. Inside its original borders in the 4th century BC Apollonia raised into one of the most important economic, political and cultural centers beside Epidamnos – Dyrrachion.

Temenos, or sacred area of the city, has been organized around the Temple of Apollo. In this part of the city, was build a number of monuments dating in the same period (6th century BC) with the temple of Apollo. There are preserved traces of a Doric temple with a east – west orientation, storehouses and cisterns (3d century B.C.), two small sanctuaries, noted by archaeologist as A and B (1st century BC).

Agora or social space was extended in the area between two hilltops, including the most important monuments discovered in the territory of Apollonia, consisting in different building phases.

Their study has contributed to the creation of a complete panorama on the development of the city.

During 4th and 3d centuries BC were added the retaining wallsofthe sacred area of Temenos, two Stoas (walkways or porticos), a Greek theater and a Nymphaeum (a monument consecrated to nymphs). During the Roman period, these area was increased with other social buildings like the Buleterion (the seat of the city council) an imitation of the Roman temple architecture the Odeon, a combination of Greek and Roman construction techniques the Library the Arch of Triumph the Temple of Diana and Prytaneion (the seat of government). Besides these specific monuments, archaeological excavations in the residential area have discovered a number of buildings from Hellenistic and Roman periods paved with well-preserved mosaics.

Different factors, as the earthquake of the year 234 AD which changed the riverbed of Aoos, the failure of the existent social structure and the gothic invasions caused the gradual decline and the loss of the status of Apollonia as a “port city”. The documentary sources of the 4th century AD refer to Apollonia as an important Episcopal residence, which during the 5th century AD was transferred in the neighboring city of Byllis. The successive period of its history remains unknown due to the restricted documentary data. The monastery complex comprises a unique testimony of the later history of the city. Although the preserved structure of the katholikon has been dated in the 13th century AD, different studies on the subject have argued that it belongs to an earlier date, maybe of 9th century AD. The medieval monastery at Apollonia preserves several structures belonging to different building periods. In addition to the katholikon dedicated to the Virgin (?) or to the Koimesis (?) (Dormition of the Virgin) with its lateral chapel of St. Demetrius, the complex includes the lower portion of a tower, the refectory (trapeza), and, evidently, portions of a building housing the original living quarters for the monks.

The katholikon of St. Mary dates in the second half of the thirteenth century, and possibly to the reign of Michael VIII Palaiologos, which issued a chrysobull granting the reconfirmation of privileges for the monastery. It belongs to the group of the churches of cross-in-square plan and the links with Constantinopolitan architecture have long been claimed on the basis of its structural system. Despite its irregularities, the whole arrangement of the church planning is simple and clear, with a domed nave, a narthex and an exonarthex. The handling of the walls is simple, but the external appearance is emphasized by the colonnade along the exonarthex which is crowned by capitals with a diversity of sculptural decorations (sirens, animals, and monsters), distinctly Romanesque in character and reminiscent to Romano gothic art which flourished in Ragusa and Tivar during the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries. From the painting program of the katholikon may be distinguished the fresco depicting several members of the Byzantine imperial family of the Palaiologi on the east wall of the exonarthex and the Deposition or the Archangel Gabriel portrait in the eastern part of the nave of the church.

The refectory stands in the western part of the monastery with a Nord – South orientation. It is triconch architecture, with its eastern, southern and western walls terminating with apses. The southern apse is rectangle and amplified during the restoration works of the year 1962, while the others trilateral. The interior of the building was decorated with fresco painting, very interesting in point of view of the organization the iconographic cycle and its artistic and technical qualities. It belongs to the roman – byzantine group of paintings, from which very few examples survive. The partially preserved cycle of frescoes reveals scenes like the Wedding at Cana, Washing of the Feet, Deisis, Prophet Elijah in the Cave, figures of apostles and prophets and scenes from the Cycle of Miracles of Christ. The realistic rendering of the landscapes is reminiscent of the painting of the Italian Renaissance. However, the execution may be considered a work of an anonymous artist native to the general area.

The mingling of eastern and western building traditions in the Monastery of St. Mary is not an uncommon phenomenon in the Balkan area, a long-disputed border between the eastern and western spheres of influence. This rivalry between the two spheres, for all its negative side effects on the political and religious life in this area, has also colored the Balkan cultures with their unique individualism.
Site Monuments



Temple ruins (Monument of Agonothetes)

Odeon Theater of Apollonia


Apollonia’s Bouleuterion

In the middle of the ruins of the Monumental Center is the 2nd century AD Bouleuterion, the city council building , with a portico facade made of six Doric columns and a Corinthian top that still stands. Not much else has survived of the building other than its facade.

This is the most impressive of the constructions, with a temple-like look, it used to be big enough to host 160 people for local authority meetings. You can also see the stairs that led to its entrance and the building is unique in its back wall horseshoe shape.

Because only the facade stands, the archeologists have recreated it in a computer-generated image of what it must have looked like which can be found near the facade in the display exhibits. The facade was rebuilt between 1974 and 1978 from the excavated rocks found by Leon Rey.


Ancient City of Apollonia Vandalized during Lockdown

The Nymphaeum of the ancient city of Apollonia, in Southern Albania, has suffered ‘irreversible damage’ during the coronavirus lockdown.

In April, while Albania was under quarantine, unidentified persons knocked down two of the columns of the monumental fountain in the National Archaeological Park of Apollonia near Fier.

The director of the park told Fax News that during the following week work to reconstruct the object will begin. She said that a report had been filed with the prosecution office since April.

On June 12, President Ilir Meta called on authorities to investigate the event and to begin restoration immediately.

The Nymphaeum was a decorative drinking fountain fed by underground water sources. It is the biggest and best preserved monument in Apollonia.


Albanians Vandalize Ancient Greek Temple to Terrorize the Greek Minority

The destruction of ancient Nymphaeum (monumental fountain) of ancient Apollonia (Ἀπολλωνία) near Fieri (Φίερι) has caused outrage in the Greek community of Northern Epirus, in southern Albania.

Vandals have caused irreparable damage to one of the most important cities in the history of the region, which is a World Heritage Site included in the UNESCO list, Himara.gr reported.

The director of the archaeological park commented about the incident, while the whole issue was reported to the prosecutor’s office.

Referring to the vandalism, the director said the damage was irreparable and involved breaking of columns to the point that the monument was completely destroyed.

As for when the incident occurred, he noted that everything was done during the imposed mass lockdown because of the COVID-19 virus.

Approval has been made by the Albanian Ministry of Culture to try and restore the Ancient Greek monument.

Albanian archaeologist Neritan Cheka has publicly condemned the act, blaming the vandalism on Albania’s Minister of Culture, Elva Margariti.

The city of Apollonia in in Northern Epirus was founded by Corinthian and Corfiot colonisers about 2,600 years ago and was dedicated to the god Apollo.

For thousands of years Greeks have lived in the Epirus region and built many ancient cities, some which are inhabited to this day, and some which have become ancient ruins, such as Apollonia.

However, historical revisionism is strong in Albania as Albanians attempt to link themselves to the ancient Illyrians with quasi-theories that are mostly rejected by the academic and historical world.

As part of this historical revisionism, Albanian historians attempt to claim that many of the Ancient Greek settlements in Northern Epirus, were in fact Illyrian, and therefore Albanian. This is despite the fact that it is well known many of these settlements were Greek and no strong evidence that today’s Albanians are linked to the ancient Illyrians.

Vittorio Sgarbi, an Italian Member of the Chamber of Deputies (Parliament), cultural commentator and historian with over 70 publications, is the latest of many well-renowned personalities to confirm the Hellenism of some of these ancient ruins in Northern Epirus, as reported by Greek City Times.

“In the past when I have come to Albania, I have seen amazing places. But I have never been to Byllis (Βύλλις), a Greek city with a big theatre from which we can see Avlonas (Αυλώνας, Albanian: Vlorë),” he was filmed saying just last week.


The Monastery of Ardenica near Fier

The Monastery of Ardenica is about 15 kilometers from Fier and is one of the most visited places in the area . Located in the hills, at a height of about 200 meters above sea level, near the village of Kolonjë, this sacred place conveys a feeling of tranquility, surrounded by cypresses, pines and lush vegetation.

History of the Ardenica Monastery

The monastery was built in the 12th century by the Byzantine emperor, Andronicus II Palaiologos after the victory against the Angevins in the Siege of Berat in the place where once there was the chapel of San Triadhe. The chapel had been elected centuries earlier on an ancient pagan temple dedicated to the goddess Artemis and near the building ruins of an ancient Roman road that connected to the Via Egnatia were discovered.

Forced to close and abandonment during the Communist Regime which had proclaimed Albania an atheist state, today it is the destination of many tourists who visit it to see its frescoes and the view from the top. But it is also a very famous destination among the Albanians because here, in the Trinity Chapel, the marriage between the national hero Giorgio Castriota Skanderbeg and Andronika Arianiti was celebrated in 1451.

What to see in the Ardenica Monastery

The monastery is located on the top of a hill and has a characteristic arrowhead shape, defended by high walls. Over the centuries it has been a seminary for the training of Orthodox popes, a place of education and home to a large eighteenth-century Renaissance library and art gallery. Inside you will find the Maria Theotòkos Church (Mother of God), the chapel of San Triadhe (the Chapel of the Trinity) but also service buildings with the oil mill and stables for the animals. In addition to being a tourist attraction, the Monastery of Ardenica is in fact a place of worship where some monks still live.

The walls are all covered with frescoes made in 1744 by the brothers Kostandin and Athanas Zografi which describe scenes from the Old and New Testament. The scenes of the “Dormition of Mary”, of “Archangel Michael fighting with the dragon” and “The marriage of Scanderbeg” stand out, but there are also preserved ancient astronomical maps. Precisely in the monastery, the abbot Nektarios Terpos da Moscopole (i.e. coming from Moscopoli, near Korça) in 1731 painted a fresco with a prayer written in four languages: Latin, Greek, Roman and Albanian, in the first text in Albanian in a greek orthodox church.

From the top of the monastery hill you can enjoy a wonderful view over the territory of Myzeqe to the Karavasta lagoon and the Adriatic sea, with the centuries-old pines of the city of Divjakë while at the foot of the monastery there are the ruins of the ancient city inhabited since antiquity.

For an in- depth study on the history of Skanderbeg, hero of the Albanian people and “king without a crown” I suggest you read this book dedicated to him and to the Albanian national identity.

The ruins of the archaeological park of Bylis


Museum

The Archaeological Museum was opened in 1958, located in the converted monastery of Saint Mary in order to house the impressive collection of finds that were being excavated at Apollonia, even though only 5% of the site has been excavated to date. The museum was a major public attraction during the period of the communist regime. It included the archaeological material gathered both before and after the Second World War. Further excavations during 1958-1960 led to the reorganisation of the exhibition in 1961. The further reorganization of the museum was undertaken in 1985 after the systematic archaeological researches done over the last decades. This created possibilities for the complete representation of the culture and history of the city since its beginning up to its decline.

The organisation and exhibition of the archaeological material was arranged both chronologically and thematically, showing the different aspects of the city: its beginning,relations with Illyrians, political organizations, trade, wine and drinking, children and woman, culture and education, art, wars, cemeteries etc. This has added value to the museum and the visitor gets full information on the thousand year history of the city.

At the beginning of the 1990s the museum was closed for security reasons. As a result of two major thefts and the disturbed political situation the most important moveable objects were removed for safety to the stores in the Institute of Archaeology in Tirana.

Nowadays the Apollonia museum, with collections from nature to art, from crafts to ethnology,from archaic to religious, from material to spiritual, remains an attractive museum. On 07/12/2011 the Archaeological Museum has reopened the doors after 20 years. 688 important objects, and the large number of ancient coins make it among the richest museums in the country.

The museum consists of three elements:

1. The six rooms of the archaeological collection, containing finds from prehistory to the late Roman period.

2. The statuary portico, housing large marble sculptures

3. The refectory, containing in situ frescoes, archaeological remains and a mosaic.


NYMPHAEUM OF THE ANNIBALDIS – UNDERGROUND ROME TOUR

This Roman underground nymphaeum is rich with history and beautifully decorated.

With the Nymphaeum of Annibaldis underground Rome tour you will see a beautiful ancient underground building dedicated to the “nymphs”, nature deities of ancient Roman and Greek folklore. The “nymphs” were said to live near bodies of water, so this underground site is beautifully decorated with seashells and mother-of-pearl, and during your visit of the “Nymphaeum of Annibaldis” you will feel the unique atmosphere of this place dedicated to the mysterious and beautiful “nymphs”.

You can enter the “nymphaeum” by going through a small door in the wall of “Via degli Annibaldi”, which is right behind the beautiful “Colosseum”. This underground site was discovered in 1895 during some construction work on the street. It was built during the reign of “Emperor Augustus”, who reigned between the first century BC and the first century AD. “Emperor Augustus” was the first roman emperor, as he came to power right after the fall of the “Roman Republic”. He marked the beginning of a period of peace called “the Pax Romana”, a golden age of the Roman Empire that lasted two hundred years.

The “nymphaeums” were places dedicated to the “nymphs”, mythological creatures that looked like beautiful young women and lived near streams, rivers, lakes, and the sea. In a “nymphaeum” one could always find a basin filled with water. In ancient Rome people came here to rest, eat, and relax. These monuments could either be artificial buildings or natural grottoes and were found in the territory of the Roman Empire and Ancient Greece.

With the Nymphaeum of Annibaldis underground Rome tour you will be able to see all the beauty that this underground “nymphaeum has to offer. On the main curved wall there is a beautiful and unique “mosaic made of seashells, that is the main attraction of this underground site. The rest of the “Nymphaeum of Annibaldis” is decorated with mother-of-pearl and pumice stone. In the “nymphaeum” there is also, of course, a beautifully decorated basin where water could be collected. The richness of the decorations on the walls and the basin tells us that the “Nymphaeum of Annibaldis” likely belonged to a noble family of Ancient Rome.

In 1986 the city of Rome decided to restore this beautiful monument, and the decorations of the “Nymphaeum of Annibaldis” were restored to their former glory.

In the “Nymphaeum of Annibaldis” you will not find precious marbles like you would in a “Domus”, but the simple seashells, enamel, and mother-of-pearl are masterfully used to create unique decorations. During the Nymphaeum of Annibaldis underground Rome tour you will feel the unique atmosphere of this place and walk into a place dedicated to ancient mythological creatures that have fascinated people for millennia: the “nymphs”.

After this visit, you can also go see the nearby “Colosseum”, definitely the most famous monument in Rome, where people and Emperors came to see gladiatorial fights and animals from all over the ancient Roman Empire. Go to the private tours section on our website and let us take you on an adventure that will take you back in time!


Walking the Via Egnatia with Walter

Last year I was continuously inspired as I attended Marianne Goodfellow’s course “Issues in Classics: Travel and Sightseeing in the Ancient World.” Our text was rich and worthy, Travel in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson. Some of the early content that fascinated me was a mention of the ancient ‘rut roads’ to Greek sanctuaries and the trail of mythological repute from Corinth to Megara above the Scironic Rocks that can still be seen today.Then one day she mentioned the Via Egnatia. It is a Roman road, about 1000 kilometers in length, six meters in width and “paved” with stones, that stretched from the Adriatic coast of what is now Albania across the Balkans, past Lake Ohrid, Heraclea Lyncestis, Pella, Thessalonica, Amphipolis, and Philippi, all the way to Constantinople.

The Roman Via re-surfaced and upgraded by the Italian military in 1940 after their invasion of Albania using the timeless technology of the then impoverished southern Europe

On my “bucket list” has always been the desire to visit southern Europe and so Marianne’s mere mention of this Roman road led me to fantasize about tramping along its stone surface – if parts of it could be found. I read that the road was built in the second century BC as the continuation of the Via Appia, and that it has a long history and purpose that continues to this day. Its importance for military forces, economies, and communication is well documented in the book The Egnatian Way by Firmin O’Sullivan (1972). Madam Google led me to the Via Egnatia Foundation which has published a guide book for travelers today to follow the route. I realized that there was no going back. With my experience of having twice walked the “El Camino,” that Medieval pilgrimage route across northern Spain, and a tablet in my backpack with both a good translation app and mapping app, I left Ottawa in late March 2017.

I began my walk in Durrës or Dyrrachium, as it was known in ancient Illyria, a terminus of the Via Egnatia on the Albanian coast, the other being Apollonia a little further south. Albania is very poor unemployment, organized crime and corruption are high, and there is no trust in the politicians. Locals described their country to me as “broken,” comparable to North Korea, as a vast prison with most young people wanting to emigrate or at least get a legal work permit for somewhere, anywhere. I do not think, however, that you would find a more hospitable people. I believe it related to their cultural sense of honour. Just ask for directions along the road and you will be offered a glass of homemade raki, a meal, and even a sleepover! (I was given a free meal in a restaurant, a collective taxi ride, and small items in a corner store as presents.) Albania is extremely safe for travellers and it has the least tourist infrastructure of any European country. That is a good thing. You can visit the sites such as Apollonia or the World Heritage site at Butrint tourist-free when the daily tour bus leaves…silence, peace and presence, hours of it, unlike sites in Greece where I ended my journey four months later.

The legacy of the Roman road continues in Albania today with the Rruga Autostrada Egnatia, reconstruction of which has exposed Roman Durrës near the Venetian Tower. (While I was there French archaeologists found a human skeleton just beneath the tarmac.) I found the city’s archaeological museum very Zen, very Roman. From Durrës on my first day along the Roman road itself, I walked as far as Pequin (pronounced Peh-cheen) and I saw ten to twelve donkeys. My first sighting was a donkey saddled with a large load and accompanied by a man who was talking on his cell phone. Later on I took a rest by the roadside and heard two peasant women chatting. As I looked over, I realized it was one woman talking on her cell phone. Globalization!

An Albanian and his donkey on the Roman road

Before I continued eastwards from Pequin toward Lake Ohrid, my goal for this stage of my pilgrimage, I made a detour and stopped in Apollonia, a Greek colony founded in 588 BC, once home to about 60,000 people but abandoned in the Middle Ages. It took me a few hours to find the ancient acropolis since there was no signage. I found out that it had been ruthlessly tunneled and bunkered when, under communist dictator Enver Hoxha, the country was mobilized for a defensive war. Pillboxes and bunkers, a minimum of 200,000 of them, were built all over the country including the Apollonian acropolis and in strategic places along the route of the Via Egnatia.

Some of Hoxha’s bunkers where sheep graze along the road

The nymphaeum just below the acropolis at Apollonia was discovered during construction of the bunkers and excavation followed. But again, I had trouble finding the site due to the absence of signs. The ruins made me realize that the nymphaeum, sacred to Pan and described by Strabo, must have once been magnificent to see. Today the ubiquitous Albanian sheep graze happily among the ruins. I walked around a Roman-era street corner in the Apollonian agora, only 5% excavated to date, with its shops, the bouleuterion, and theatre. I also saw the Apollo Agyieus obelisk as patron of public places, streets, houses, and colonists, he was worshipped in this form and not in a temple.

The Roman Nymphaeum at Apollonia

Over the next few weeks I continued along the way to places like Elbasan, identified with Mansio Scampa, a Roman “stopping place” along the road, and Ad Quintum (at Five Miles), a mutatio or “changing place”. Few mutationes and mansiones have been identified archaeologically though they are listed in the Roman imperial Antonine Itinerary, as well as the Bordeaux Itinerary written by a Christian pilgrim in 333 AD. The remains of Ad Quintum, which include a Roman bath, were discovered accidentally when exposed after a landslide in 1968. On the steep slopes along the Shkumbin River (ancient Genusus), which the road follows for some distance, these landslides are common and must have made road maintenance a labour intensive challenge for the Romans – and for the Byzantine and Ottoman administrations that followed.

The Via Egnatia along the steep slopes high above the Shkumbin River with two bunkers just visible

I reached my destination of Lin with its 5 th century AD basilica above Lake Ohrid after four weeks on the road. I took my time. I watched the locals walk to their fields every day at 7:30 am and return late afternoon. Not a machine or motor to be heard. I loved it. I rested here a while and reflected on my journey which at times was physically demanding and very difficult but two aspects of it made it quite special. One was the landscape itself, wild in places with rugged mountains and the river below. In some villages there were no cars, just the sound of roosters, the odd cow, and birds. I came across a number of Moslem cemeteries in some beautiful spots along the road, the burials facing northeast looking towards Mecca.

A Moslem cemetery along the Via Egnatia

The second aspect of my journey that made it memorable was the kindness of strangers. I never met a more hospitable people. They fed me cheese, lamb, bread and butter, veggies, from their sweat and toil. They gave me a bed for the night and 500 ml of their homemade raki for the road. I learned of the hard life of these people one young man I met, a heavy equipment mechanic, earns $1.00 per hour, 6 days per week, no sick leave or vacation pay. He feels fortunate to even have found work. He learned English by working illegally in Greece, as most Albanian males have done. Immigration authorities discovered and deported him.

The kindness of strangers

I left the Via Egnatia at Lake Ohrid (with Albania to the west and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) to the east), and I headed east to the hot spring resort of Sandanski, Roman Parthicopolis, in Bulgaria where I spent three weeks on an archaeological excavation with the summer program of the American Research Center in Sofia (ARCS) Foundation at the site of a 6 th century basilica. The final leg of my pilgrimage was a three-week tour through Greece with the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. It was an honour to experience it through this gold standard of archaeological institutions. I finally returned to Ottawa more than four months later.

I never anticipated that passing mention of one Roman road in Marianne’s classroom in Paterson Hall could have ever had such consequences for me (nor, for that matter, did she). And it was not just that delightful road. One day early in the course, she had mentioned Sounion. So one of the last acts of my pilgrimage was to see Lord Byron’s signature where he carved it himself in 1810 on the marble of Poseidon’s temple. To quote from his poem:

Place me on Sunium’s marbled steep,

Where nothing, save the waves and I,

May hear our mutual murmurs sweep

There, swan-like, let me sing and die:

— (Don Juan, Canto III “The Isles of Greece”, Section 86, stanza 16)


Watch the video: Apollonia, Albania 2016