Ancient Durres Battles to Preserve its Past

TIRANA | Visitors to Durres, Albania’s oldest city, often pose in front of the bronze figure of John Lennon, sitting on a bench just outside a 15-story luxury apartment tower near the port. Few notice the unmarked remnant of a Roman wall to the side of the building, and fewer still, unless they are locals, know that an Ottoman-era building associated with the early days of Albanian independence used to stand there.

Wildcat construction has plagued Albania since the end of central economic planning 20 years ago, and the authorities have often seemed helpless to bring it under control. The country urgently required new housing and commercial space in the 1990s, after decades of underinvestment by the isolationist regime of communist leader Enver Hoxha. In many cases, builders never bothered to obtain permits. In places like Durres, with its many layers of archeological remains underlying the present street level, builders often side-slipped the lengthy procedure for legalizing construction in the old center.


Apartment buildings of various ages surround the Byzantine forum in Durres. The ancient city controlled the western end of a major Roman road; today, its port is the busiest in Albania.


“Developers can buy anybody” in Durres, says archeologist Lorenc Bejko, who when he headed the Institute of Cultural Monuments five years ago initiated one of very few lawsuits anywhere in Albania against a builder accused of damaging a historic site – though the case was ultimately unsuccessful. Here, the conflict between the demand for new housing and the need to preserve a rich architectural heritage is more visible than anywhere else in Albania.

In 2008 the government sought to cut through the tangle of overlapping authority among state agencies by establishing the Archeological Service Agency (ASHA) with the legal muscle to supervise archeological work at construction sites. Experts refer to this as “rescue archeology” because whatever is not surveyed, photographed, or taken away for preservation is likely to be lost forever.

In an interview shortly after being named to head ASHA in 2008, Roland Olli spoke of a “legal vacuum” leading to “uncontrolled construction” in Durres. Olli, a construction engineer by training, says the situation is far less dire today.

“The urban development in the second biggest city in Albania is still a potential risk which jeopardizes the archeological heritage. Even though the ancient city of Durres still remains a hot spot, we cannot speak anymore about ‘a legal vacuum,’ ” he said in an e-mail.

Bejko admits as much, while maintaining that much irreparable damage has been done, not only in Durres: Recently, listed buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries were torn down in Shkoder and in Korce, where local people demonstrated in August after the overnight demolition of the house where in 1916 nationalist guerrilla leader Themistokli Germenji raised the flag of the Autonomous Albanian Republic of Korce. The mayor pledged to consider their plea to rebuild the house, and city hall asked prosecutors to investigate the demolition, according to news reports.

Preservationists are also irate over the new apartments being built just below the medieval castle of Kruje, the seat of Albania’s 15th-century national hero, Skanderbeg.



The number of buildings in Albania grew 35 percent between 2001 and 2011, and much of the boom occurred in the two largest cities, Tirana and nearby Durres, as rural dwellers flooded to the cities in search of opportunity. State agencies charged with protecting the historical fabric of the cities struggled to keep pace, especially in Durres, where any new building in the historical center is likely to turn up a Turkish, Venetian, Byzantine, or older walls and artifacts. Construction, and the busy port – Albania’s largest with a capacity of 1.5 million passengers and 65,000 containers per year – helped the city gain population when most others have shrunk since the end of communism.

Ironically, preservation was easier under the communists, says one young archeologist. The gaping Roman amphitheater, the city’s major historical attraction, was excavated starting in the 1960s when the authorities ordered the houses on top of it to be razed. A meter or more of soil still remains to be excavated at the lowest level of the amphitheater, where gladiators fought before crowds of 15,000. The archeologist, who requested anonymity, admits that restoration done in the 1990s was inferior to the work of the communist-era archeologists, who after all enjoyed generous support as they gradually exposed one of the country’s most dramatic monuments.

In contrast, most of the discoveries of the past 20 years in Durres – mosaics, public baths, walls and foundations mostly from the Roman and Byzantine periods – are now invisible because they lie in the cellars or yards of private houses, and in most cases were re-covered with soil or concrete after being examined by experts.

The apartment tower on the site of the Ottoman palace inhabited by Prince William of Wied during his brief rule in 1914, and many other buildings erected in the past decade in the historic center of Durres, may be the last of their kind. Thanks to zoning regulations prepared by the Archeological Service Agency in collaboration with local governments and other state agencies involved in heritage preservation, new construction is now prohibited in Durres and seven other cities in the area with the highest density of archeological remains, “Zone A,” Olli says. Archeologists have proposed to extend Zone A in Durres in line with recent discoveries.


Aspects of Durres: The 15th-century Venetian Tower in the foreground with the new building on the site of Prince William of Wied’s home behind it. The cranes of the port are visible at top right.


In Zone B, areas with a lower density of historical finds, all construction projects must be approved by another agency, the National Council of Archeology, which can then request ASHA to do a “diagnostic excavation” and supervise the entire project.

Bejko says that although Albania’s cultural-preservation laws are up to European standards, implementing them is another matter. In disputed cases, the process of approving development, doing archeological work, and monitoring construction can involve a half-dozen agencies, all under the aegis of the Ministry of Tourism, Culture, Youth, and Sports. Critics of this system say its Achilles heel is the lists of protected properties. Bejko and others point to Durres as the prime example of how developers tweak the system by lobbying at the regional or national Cultural Monuments Institute for a property to be de-listed. In the end, the minister of tourism and culture has the final say, but he can always claim to have relied on expert advice from his staff, Bejko charges.

Little firm evidence exists to back up these claims, but it is suggestive that over many years of frenetic building across the country, the Cultural Monuments Institute has lodged only one legal case against a builder, in 2007, over damage to historical remains in Durres’ Zone B. Bejko, who led the institute at the time, says the case died when prosecutors came to him saying they might investigate whether the lawsuit had damaged the builder’s business. The real reason was to freeze the legal process to give the developer time to finish the project, Bejko maintains. He argues that the judicial system favors developers and construction-hungry local officials.

Albania’s much-criticized judicial system came under the spotlight again on 10 October in the European Commission’s recommendation to grant the country EU candidate status, “subject to key judicial and public administration reform measures being completed.”



While apartment construction goes on frantically in the suburbs of Durres, the pace of building in the old town has slowed, leaving many wondering how so many projects managed to get the certificates and permits needed to build here. In the case of Prince Wied’s palace, the family that owned it in pre-communist times won the property back in the restitution process before demolishing it a decade ago. Other projects that bring painful memories to preservationists were new structures, like the 10-story residential and commercial building erected in 2000-2001 over one part of a charming Byzantine forum excavated in the 1980s.

For scholars and tourists alike, Durres is a unique layer cake of much of the country’s history going back to the time of the Illyrians, an ancient people claimed as the forefathers of the modern Albanians. The important Corinthian colony of Epidamnus was founded, probably on one of the hills above the modern town, in the seventh century BC; in 431 BC, fighting between the town’s aristocratic and democratic factions set off the Peloponnesian War. Two centuries later, Romans and the forces of the Illyrian queen Teuta disputed the city, which served as a Roman beachhead for their expansion into Macedonia and Greece.

By the first or second century AD the city, by then known as Dyrrhachium, was rich and populous enough to fill the large amphitheater built at that time. Under Roman rule, and for centuries after the fall of the Western Empire, Dyrrhachium flourished as a major trading center at the western end of the main cross-Balkans trade route, the Via Egnatia. Though small, the elegant columns and imported marble of the Byzantine forum with its colonnade surrounded by the foundations of shops speak to the wealth of the early-medieval city.

The Byzantines extended the old city walls to a length of four kilometers. A century ago, the massive walls, further strengthened by Venetians and then Ottomans, were virtually all that was left of ancient Durres; the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica noted, “Few traces remain of the once celebrated Dyrrhachium.”

“Lack of professionalism” and “a wrong attitude toward heritage preservation” in state agencies convinced Bejko to move on and become a professor of archeology at the University of Tirana, he says. He hesitates when asked to name a project where developers, archeologists, and local authorities worked successfully together. Finally, he suggests a hydropower project and early stages of the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline. In these cases, though, builders are following strict rules set by the World Bank and other international donors, in addition to Albanian law.

Only the country’s nascent civil sector is capable of driving a wedge into the cozy relations among politicians, business people, and judges, he says: “We need civil society groups to protect heritage from our own institutions.”

Not far from the Byzantine forum stands a multistory apartment building that appears to be still under construction. An unpaved driveway leads down to what was probably intended as a parking garage. The entire sub-surface level, large enough to accommodate several dozen cars, is open to the elements and is now covered by a greenish pool of runoff water and leaking sewage. Somewhere below the water and floating plastic waste lie traces of a Roman floor mosaic.

The man who developed the building left town before it was finished, Sami Trimi says. Trimi, a man in late middle age, sold the property in 2003. He now runs the Internet cafe on the ground floor.

“It makes me cry to see it,” he says, looking at the pool.

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor for TOL. This article was produced for the Next in Line project, which is co-funded by the European Union. The contents of this project are the sole responsibility of Transitions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union. Homepage photo from Wikimedia Commons; forum photo by Besar Likmeta.