The Illyrian, Greek and Roman past can be felt in Albania and archaeological traces of ancient cities, roads and infrastructure are visible. Not for nothing did one of the most important roads in the Balkans, the Via Egnatia, built by the Romans between 146 BC and 120 BC, pass through Albania
Map of the Via Egnatia as it passes through Albania and the Balkans
Little known until now, Albania’s archaeological heritage has been making itself known to the world. The territory of present-day Albania, which straddles the Helad and Rome, is geographically located in an area of expansion of the Greek and Roman civilisations. As a result of this wealth, Albania has become a novel tourist destination for those in search of history as well as beaches.
The country has a rich heritage of sites dating back to the Illyrian, Greek, Roman and Ottoman periods, some of which are on the UNESCO World Heritage list .
Archaeological Parks of Albania
Some of the most important Greek sites are Amantia, Antigonia (Chaonia), Apollonia, Berat, Byllis, Chrysondyon, Durrës, Epidamnos, Gorna Goricë, Himara, Lezhë, Nymphaeum, Oricum, Pelion (Chaonia), Phoenice, Thronion (Illyria), Vlorë.
While from the Roman period we can highlight remains in Durrës, Epidamnos, Komani-Kruja, Phoenice and part of the Via Egnatia, with roads and bridges.
Royal Tombs of Selca and Poshtme
On top of a mountain besides the Shkumbin River are the remains of an ancient Illyrian settlement from the Iron Age . The city was almost destroyed in antiquity, however, the site is now best known for the associated necropolis. A series of rock-cut tombs were excavated in the bedrock of the mountainside during the 4th and 3rd centuries BC and were used by the kings of Illyria. Some of the tombs were reused by the Romans during the 2nd century. The royal tombs of Selca e Poshtme have been included in the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites .
Royal Tombs of Selca e Poshtme
Apollonia is one of the richest archaeological centres in Albania. Set in a landscape that has not been damaged by human development as it has been abandoned, the hilltop complex surprises visitors with the way its monuments blend into the landscape. The city of Apollonia was first established in the 6th century BC as a colony of Corinth and Corfu. Since then and for a millennium it was one of the most important and prosperous cities of Illyria and the Ionian coast. One of the reasons for this was its consolidation as a school of philosophy, the first Roman emperor Octavian Augustus having carried out his youthful studies in Apollonia at the time when his uncle Julius Caesar was assassinated in Rome.
The site of Apollonia
Apollonia’s most iconic monument is the ” bouleuterion “, built during the 2nd century C.E., with its impressive façade of Corinthian columns still standing. The location of the Apollonia Archaeological Park is easily accessible, as it is situated on a mountainous plateau not far from the town of Fier.
In addition to the site we can visit the adjacent 13th century monastery and the museum with artefacts that came to light during the excavations at Apollonia.
Remains of columns next to the theatre of Apollonia
The Butrinto National Park is located in southwestern Albania, opposite the Greek island of Corfu. Since ancient times, the site served as a safe anchorage for many ships due to its position at the entrance to a lagoon. It thus provided a stopover on a naval route connecting southern Italy with the island of Corfu.
Legend suggests that Butrintum ( Buthrotum ) was built by Trojans who escaped the fall of Troy. This “Second Troy” continued to prosper in the Hellenistic and Roman periods as a wealthy and secure settlement. It was at this time that its iconic theatre took shape, a unique site where plays can still be performed. Later, other monuments, such as impressive basilicas, Venetian fortresses and Ottoman towers, spread across the small island, captivating visitors at every turn.
Theatre of Butrinto – Photo: Aleksandar Todorovic/Shutterstock
The ancient city is located on a hill overlooking the Vivari Canal and now in the Butrinto National Park, and visitors can enjoy a site listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site .
Antigonea is the site that best illustrates the architecture of the Hellenistic period. The city was founded in the early 3rd century BC by Pyrrhus of Epirus, ruler of Epirus, who named it after his wife Antigonea. The city itself covers an area of 45 ha, while the entire archaeological complex extends over a total of about 90 ha. The city had a complex road network within its still visible city walls, designed in the then popular Hippodamian style.
The easiest route to the archaeological site of Antigonea is the road from Gjirokastër to Saraqinishtë, a distance of only about 14 kilometres. The most important and striking enclave in the Drino Valley served as a city for little more than a century after it was completely destroyed by the Romans in 168 BC.
The Finiq Archaeological Park is a popular tourist destination near the coastal town of Saranda , in southern Albania. The site is located on top of a hill two hundred and eighty-three metres above sea level and can be easily reached via the Sarandë-Gjirokastër road. The ruins of Finiq are those of the ancient city of Fenice, the capital of the Chaeones tribe that flourished in the southwestern region of present-day Albania and, later, the capital of the entire state of Epirus.
Theatre at the site of Finiq (Phoinike)
The most spectacular monument in this area is the hilltop theatre, built sometime in the 4th century BC. It could once have held some 17,000 people, making it the largest of its kind in Albania.
The city’s importance continued into the Byzantine period when it became the site of a bishopric, but it was abandoned in the 6th century. There have been many excavations at the site over the past 100 years, beginning with the Italians in 1924. Today, the site is in the centre of an archaeological park.
Due to the destruction and damage caused by the war, only the ruins of the lower part have survived. In addition to its historical and cultural values, those who come to Finiq can experience the natural landscapes that lie at its foot, such as the Bistrica river plain, the Butrint lake and the entire Delvina region.
Amantia is an ancient city that sits atop a rocky hill on the left bank of the Vjosan River in the Vlora region. On the plateau of the hill, the ancient city protected by an acropolis covers an area of 13 ha. The ancient stadium is the best preserved monument of this ancient complex.
Former stadium of Amantia
Bylis (or Byllys) is one of the most important archaeological centres in Albania, often compared for its monumental values with Apollonia and Butrinto. The complex occupies a dominant position on the Mallakastra hills and the Vjosa River. Thus, the ancient Illyrian city offers a view unlike any other settlement of Classical Antiquity.
The theatre is the most important ancient site in the Byllis Archaeological Park. An estimated 7,500 people could be seated in its 40 semicircular rows that rise some 16 metres. Other important ruins include multiple stoas, gates, houses, basilicas adorned with mosaics and towers. Bylis was inhabited for about a millennium until it was destroyed by the Slavs in the 6th century C.E. It was discovered by the British in 1815, but was not excavated until a hundred years later.
Zgërdhesh is an archaeological site near the city of Krujë, only 30 kilometres by car from Tirana. This site is believed to be the location of the ancient Albanopolis mentioned by Ptolemy in the 1st century AD, home to the small Illyrian tribe of Albanoi. Its toponymy is particularly significant because it appears as the origin of the name “Albania” by which the country is known throughout the world. It also places the Albanians as direct descendants of the Illyrians, one of the oldest populations in the Balkans.
In reality, only a few ruins remain at the site today. These limited but important features include a 90-metre long wall, the remains of three rectangular watchtowers dating from the 3rd century AD, and the foundations of an early Christian chapel.
The whole town of Durrës is, in a way, an archaeological park full of cultural treasures from all ages. Ruins of new monuments are continually being discovered in this coastal town despite the congestion of modern urban districts. Durrës is the Rome of Albania, one of the oldest cities in the country. It has played an important role as a naval, religious, commercial and political centre in the history of the Adriatic over the centuries.
Mosaici called “The beauty of Dürres”, today in the archaeological museum of Tirana.
From its foundation, cyclopean walls surrounded the original city, with the traditional date of foundation in 627 BC. Called Epidamnus and later Dyrrachium , the city expanded to the walls that are visible today and were built by Emperor Anastasius I Dicorus (he himself was born here and reigned over the Byzantine Empire during the years 491-515 C.E.).C.). He built them after the earthquake that damaged the area in 345 C.E.
Another must-see highlight is the amphitheatre, built during Roman rule. It is one of the largest ancient amphitheatres in the world and is considered a masterpiece of engineering. Other wonders to see include ancient churches, ancient mosques, markets, basilicas and countless mosaics (prompting some to call Durrës “the city of mosaics”).
As a centre of geostrategic importance, the city was the starting point of the Via Egnatia along which trade flourished. In a sense, the city still serves as the shortest route connecting Italy with the eastern Balkans. Another important part of your sightseeing must be the city’s Archaeological Museum.
Amphitheatre of Dürres
The Roman amphitheatre in Durrës, Albania is the largest structure of its kind on the Balkan peninsula, seating some 20,000 people. It was built in the 2nd century BC and was in use until the 5th century AD. A 6th-century chapel dedicated to the first bishop of Durrës, St Astius, is preserved within the ruins of the amphitheatre. As very little conservation work was carried out until 2004, the popular tourist attraction is now on a list of Europe’s endangered heritage sites.
The ancient town of Oricum is rather unusual among Albania’s national parks, as it lies within the boundaries of the Pasha Liman naval base, south of Vlora. A special permit is required to visit this site.
Monumental fountain of the ancient city of Orikum
To get to the Orikum Archaeological Park, follow the road leading to the naval base. Approximately 1 km after the Pashaliman checkpoint, turn left on the path at the sign for the archaeological site. It is easily accessible by car. The town is in an excellent location on a small hill overlooking the bay of Vlora to the north and a sheltered lagoon to the south.
A misconception of the site is that it had an amphitheatre. It is in fact a monumental fountain or public place that also served as a water reservoir. A large part of the city found is still under water, as a helicopter ride can show the outlines of the houses under water, indicating that the coast around the port of Oricum had slowly submerged into the sea.
Located about 13 km southeast of Gjirokastër , the emperor Hadrian founded a new city here and named it after a Hellenistic-era settlement, .
Roman Theatre of Adrianople
Adrianople quickly developed into a prosperous city and became the new centre of the Drinos Valley a few centuries after the demise of Antigonea. Arriving at the site, visitors first walk through the ruins of the ancient Roman baths. Added in the 3rd century AD, they were later converted into living quarters in Byzantine times.
The most outstanding and truly unique feature of Adrianople is its theatre, with wonderful views of the surrounding area. The city was later refurbished and enlarged during the Byzantine era under the reign of Emperor Justinian, and as such was renamed Justiniapolis. However, for some reason, the city was largely abandoned in the 7th century AD. And it would be several centuries before Gjirokastër Castle and the surrounding suburbs were developed during the Middle Ages.