Tuesday, June 18, 2013

An Under Appreciated Albanian Treasure

A cornerstone captured in
black and white
One of the things I love the most about Albania is the ability to get out and explore areas that are remote and off the beaten path.  Sometimes this means just getting in the car and driving to where ever the "road" takes us but other times it involves participating in an organized tour to visit some of Albania's hidden gems.  This past weekend I had the opportunity to do just this when, along with a group of others from our Embassy, I participated in a tour of the Bylis Archaeological Park in the southern part of Albania.

The ancient Greek speaking city of Bylis dates back to the mid 4th Century BC.  Located on 30 hectares 524 meters above sea level, the walled city was at various times controlled by the Roman and Illyrian empires and for a brief period of time the city had its own form of currency.  As is evidenced by the ruins of five separate basilicas (coined A,B,C,D, and E by archaeologists since the ruins did not reveal with certainty the true names of each church) found within the city walls, religion played a pivotal role in daily Bylis life.  Much to the delight of archaeologists, numerous intact mosaics have been discovered amongst the basilica ruins.  Other finds at the site include the remnants of the old arsenal, numerous cisterns that provided this hilltop city with their source of water, the thermal baths, and a vast amphitheater that could seat thousands of people and the houses of ordinary citizens.  As was characteristic for cities of this time, fortress like gates (six in the case of Bylis) were the only means of egress into the walled city.

Ruins, ruins, and more ruins sitting atop the mountain

A mosaic in the ruins of one of the five basilicas
that were in Bylis.  It is normally protected by sand but
they uncovered it for our group.

An intricate archway; I can only imagine how impressive all of
Bylis must have been in its hey-day.
Our extremely knowledgeable English speaking tour guide provided us with an impressive overview of the history of Bylis.  My immediate thought upon arriving was that the ruins of Bylis reminded me of the ruins of Pompeii.  The layout of the city was similar as were the explanations of the significance of each excavated ruin.  As we scrambled over rocks and explored the ancient ruins he explained the history and purpose of each spot we stopped at.  His explanation provided us with insight into how the ancient Illyrians --both the well off and the peasants--residing at Bylis actually lived.  (This is a reason I am a huge proponent of hiring a tour guide whenever possible.  To the untrained eye a ruin is a ruin, a rock is a rock, but when the story behind each detail is revealed, the site takes on a whole new meaning).  At each step the guide warned us to be careful since we never knew what we might step on.  From uncovered cistern holes that extended down farther than the eye could see to unstable rocks, and the thousands of small snails that crunched when you stepped on them (really), each step had the potential for an adventure.  Earning his fee, our guide even led our group out of the main ruins and down a thorny path that was once an ancient road leading into the city.  Here he showed us the caverns from which most of the rock that built the city came from and an engraved stone etched with the name of one of the area's earliest explorers.  And being a good guide, he scared away any potential snakes by beating the bushes and pounding the path with a metal pole as we went!

Ruins of the Roman (thermal) bath.  They took bathing
seriously in this part of the ancient world.

Looking west from Bylis, the sweeping view of the river below.
Last year we had the opportunity to visit Apollonia, another national Albanian archaeological site, which while relatively close to Bylis, has a much more robust and developed tourism footprint. Whereas Apollonia was buzzing with visitors during our March visit, with the exception of a handful of workers preparing for next week's Miss Albania contest, we had the entire site of Bylis to ourselves.  Our guide informed us that Apollonia averages 100 visitors a day while Bylis receives a total of 500 visitors a year.  The lack of a well developed tourism industry at Bylis was evident but in my opinion, that is what made this site even more special.  There was something awe inspiring about walking in the footsteps of such an ancient civilization and yet I am surprised that more people haven't sought the site out.  It is with mixed feelings that I wish more people would visit Bylis.  Since the first dig in 1978, a lot of work has already been done to preserve and restore the site but more still needs to be done.  (And at roughly two dollars per admission, the park has a long way to go in even covering their expenses solely through visitor fees).  Increased interest in the site could generate more revenue but an influx of visitors could potentially take away from the pristine and wild feel of the place.  I guess you can't have it both ways but with that said, I am still advocating that more people get out and visit Bylis if the opportunity arises. You won't be disappointed.

No comments:

Post a Comment