Albania is a country too often ignored, overshadowed by its more famous neighbours. However, those visitors who flock to Greece or Croatia are missing out on a region that enjoys an extensive and diverse historical heritage. What is more, its scenery is amazing – and the ghost of its Communist period, still within living memory, adds an intriguing element to any visit.
Though there is evidence of settlements here since the Neolithic period about 6000 BC, the Albania of today enters written history as Illyria in the 5th century BC. A distinctive Illyrian culture developed during the Bronze Age, which saw a synthesis of local farmers and pastoral immigrants. Contacts with the Aegean civilisations followed, and from c.600 BC the Greeks began to found colonies along the coast. The Illyrians, drawn into Greek conflicts, became an important source of wheat for Greek urban populations.
Roman expansion led to clashes and partial occupation in the 3rd century BC. Much of the area was conquered during the wars between Rome and Macedonia from 215-167 BC. Around 130 BC, the Via Egnatia was built, leading from the coast all the way to Byzantium. Illyria was a battleground during the civil wars of the 1st century BC, but thrived under the Roman peace that followed. Several emperors grew up in the province – most notably Diocletian in the 3rd century AD. Illyria survived the fall of Rome as part of the Byzantine Empire, but came under increasing pressure from barbarian attacks, and many cities were abandoned by the 6th century AD.
These cities proved to be fertile ground for archaeological exploration: modern excavation began in 1916, with Austrian-led expeditions. Work by Albanian archaeologists took off after the Second World War; and now joint Albanian–foreign expeditions, such as that at Butrint, have produced many discoveries.
Antigonea was investigated by Dhinosten Budina between 1966 and 1980. He surveyed the fortifications and the central zone. Since 2005, new excavations have uncovered more of the site. The city was founded in 295 BC by King Pyrrhus of Epirus (whose heavy losses incurred in a successful battle gave rise to the phrase ‘a pyrrhic victory’), in a strategic location controlling the Drinos Valley. As Rome developed an interest in the area, Antigonea found itself changing hands between the Romans and Macedonians. After Macedonia’s final defeat in 168 BC, the Romans destroyed much of the region: Antigonea was burnt to the ground – its destruction layer clearly visible in the archaeology – and largely abandoned, though there is evidence of early Christian churches being built within its walls up until the 6th century AD.
The first thing that strikes you when approaching the city is its dramatic location. The settlement, which covers 45ha within its outer walls, stands on a promontory high over the valley. At the north gate, the acropolis looms above the entrance to the site. Scattered among oak trees, bushes, and bracken are the remains of houses, workshops, churches, and fortifications. Antigonea was a planned city with a street grid demarcating residential insulae, the acropolis, and an agora.
Under the blazing sun, our group trekked 1km through the centre of the city, with its breathtaking views across the valley and the shimmering Drinos River below, to the South Gate, where a nearby open excavation trench showed evidence of ongoing research.
The South Gate (the main entrance) is set within the best-preserved stretch of city wall, and had two defensive towers. Further towers were placed at regular distances of 60m, and the walls themselves, built of limestone blocks, completed a 4km circuit. While the rest of the group headed off to examine a small Christian basilica, I walked through what was for me the most interesting part of the site: an excavated street near the agora. Unlike at Butrint, there are no large areas of reconstructed buildings. Only stone foundations remain – their superstructures were probably made of timber and so have not survived.
The agora itself, measuring about 60m by 8.5m, was built on an artificial terrace slightly later than the rest of the city. Fragments of a bronze statue were recovered during the excavations here of a peristyle building. These are now on display at the Archaeological Museum in Tirana, where I had seen them just a few days before my visit to the city. A stoa was also found within the agora area.
The central street evokes the memory of the city as it once was: a paved road 5m wide runs west from the agora, with the outlines of buildings on either side. The footprint of a 9th- to 10th-century church lies over the former crossroads, but turn left here and you come to a peristyle house. In the shadow of the trees are three excavated buildings: two of them, identified by the finds, were workshops. The third was a house with a colonnaded central courtyard, and possibly an upper storey, which would have made it an impressive dwelling. The street ends in a flight of steep steps, which brought me back to the main thoroughfare. A short way along, I came to a house dating to about 250 BC, with a courtyard surrounded by five rooms. Artefacts found here include bronze tokens that gave the first positive identification of the city.
There is much more to see: the basilica near the south wall; a chapel on the summit of the acropolis; three further lines of fortifications; a nymphaeum to the north; and, beyond the walls on the western side of the city, a Hellenistic tomb and a possible theatre. It is certainly worth setting aside the whole day to thoroughly explore Antigonea. This typical Illyrian city, by combining Hellenistic and local elements, sums up the country as a whole: a familiar culture with its own unique history. So I recommend you equip yourself with a good map (and a few notes from Oliver Gilkes’ excellent book Albania: an archaeological guide) and go to discover this beautiful city in the hills.
Contributor: Sarah Lindsell is a travel enthusiast and long-term subscriber to CWA.
All images: S Lindsell.