Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Historic Durresi

Part of the remaining Byzantine Wall that once surrounded the city
On the coast of the Adriatic Sea, the city of Durres is the largest port in Albania.  While we have travelled to all corners of Albania, after living here for seventeen months I had only visited the port area of the city in order to take the dreaded ferry to Italy.  And like any port area around the world, the area is less than impressive.  Albanian colleagues had assured me that Durres was a beautiful city with historic buildings, archaeological ruins, and a lot to offer but I had remained skeptical. That is until this past weekend when I attended an Embassy sponsored tour of what turns out to be an amazingly historic city.

We were fortunate to have a dynamic English speaking guide whose knowledge of the history of Albania was both amazing and mind boggling.  Not only could Lida rattle off facts, dates, and historical names as though they were second nature, she wasn't fazed by a single question that was thrown her way.  (As an American history major I couldn't even begin to recite a fraction of the facts of my own country).  And our group of Americans was full of questions pertaining to both Durres and Albania. 

The remains of the Roman Baths and the
exterior of the Communist-era building
that was constructed on top of the ruins.

As is the case with many of Albania's historic sites, their level of preservation is minimal at best, non-existent and tragic at worst.  This was evident at each of the sites we visited during the day.  Like many ancient ruins (those in Rome come to mind) modern cities have popped on all sides of these historic relics.  Often the spaces encroach upon one another but never to the extent that I saw in Durres.  In so many respects, nothing exemplifies the contrast between old and new more than these sights.  After peering over the fence and into the partially excavated Byzantine era Forum, Lida used her magic key (she is so well known in both Durres and Albanian historical circles that she is given unfettered access to many sites) to escort us down into the old Roman Baths dating to the early 2nd Century AD.  The baths were first discovered several decades ago during the construction of an unfortunate concrete, Communist-Era building.  To Albania's credit the ruins were not completely destroyed.  To Albania's discredit, they continued to construct the building which now sits on  concrete pillars over the top of the baths.  It was an interesting experience to clamber through the old bath, walk along one of the main roads of the ancient city and explore the old aqua duct all while standing in what should be the basement of a concrete apartment building. Somehow I feel like the entire experience (for better or for worse) was uniquely Albanian.
Inside the Roman Baths and under the building;
an interesting take on historic preservation
to say the least.

Lida lead us through the narrow cobblestone streets to the entrance to the ancient amphitheater.  Some of the streets were remarkably well preserved while others were comprised of stamped concrete which I think was an attempt to replicate the original pavers.  During the 2nd-century AD this amphitheater was the largest one in the Balkans with an arena that measured approximately 60 meters by 40 meters and had a seating capacity for 15,000 spectators.  This is about one-third of the capacity of the Colosseum in Rome.  Today the site is only partially excavated since modern houses and roads sit atop this once historic site.  Again, this demonstrated the stark contrast between old and new and exemplified how Albania has not undertaken historic preservation in a serious manner.  As Lida led us through the narrow passageways and out into the open arena, she casually pointed out sites that she had personally excavated.  How often is it that one gets a personal tour of a site by the very person who had unearthed its treasures?  We were escorted through the Byzantine chapel complete with a baptismal and home to the only wall mosaics ever found in Albania.  The chapel was used for funeral services after gladiatorial combat had been banned in the 5th century.  Evidence of burial chambers- one holding 40 bodies- was evident and it is speculated that the un-excavated portion of the arena floor contains even more graves waiting to be discovered.

Inside the amphitheater
The advantage of having such a knowledgeable guide was obvious throughout the entire day. Not only could she point out minute details that would have otherwise been lost on us, she was able to show us what was original to the sites, what was preserved, and what was reconstructed.  Some of it was readily apparent even to the untrained eye but others were less so.  It is sad that the opportunity for the preservation of so many of these important and historic artifacts has been lost. While it is small consolidation that some preservation has taken place, much of it appears to have been poorly done or not done at all.  I guess it is half a dozen of one and half a dozen of the other. While so much has been lost there is still time to save what is left.  I hope that is in the future for this surprisingly historic city.

No comments:

Post a Comment