Sunday, April 17, we visited the ruins of the ancient city of Apollonia near the coast and close to the town of Fier. Carly was initially nervous about the possibility of eating in Fier but we only drove in Fier.
After a two hour drive (provided by friends Niles and Rebecca), the rough and always-under-construction roads of Albania yielded to the plain around Apollonia. Covered with green grass and newly-sprouted grape vines growing on trellises around small houses, we also saw flocks of sheep, a few goats and some horses as we drove through the rural area. Chickens were a common sight and, if you paid close enough attention, you would see the occasional turkey foraging along with the chickens or by itself.
The website from the Albanian Canadian League Information Service ( http://albca.com/albania/apollonia.html )provides a good quick history of Apollonia: “ Apollonia in Illyria (modern Albania), known as Apollonia, was located on the right bank of the Aous, the ruins of which are situated in the Fier region, near the village of Pojan, geographically located at 40*43’N 19*28’E. It was founded 588 BCE by Greek colonists from Kerkyra (Corfu) and Corinth, and was perhaps the most important of the several classical towns known as Apollonia. The site was already used by Corinthian traders and the Taulantii, an Illyrian tribe, who remained closely involved with the settlement for centuries and lived alongside the Greek colonists. The city was said to have been named Gylaceia after Glyax, its founder, but the name was later changed to honor the god Apollo. The city quickly grew to 50,000 residents by the second century BCE. Apollonia later became a free Roman city after it sided with Julius Caesar during the war against Pompey. It developed into a cultural center of the arts until the 3rd century CE when an earthquake rerouted” the Aous (or Vjosa?) river, turning the area into a malaria-infested swamp “and leading to the city’s decline.”
Surprisingly, a great deal of this site is still unexcavated. That’s probably a good thing, for the site has been looted as recently as during the unrest of 1997 when people chopped the heads off some of the statues to sell them on the black antiquities market. As you walk the area, you can see fragments of walls poking up above the grounds and, where the ground has been dug up or has fallen away on a hillside, you can easily pick pottery shards from the ground. Another thing that has probably precluded excavation in the past was dictator Enver Hoxha’s unique brand of paranoia. On the top of the acropolis, Hoxha built concrete bunkers and artillery emplacements. Who knows what sorts of buidings those emplacements might have destroyed or be still hiding?
The visible buidlings, though, are quite evident after you pay for your ticket (not at the little guardhouse that advertises tickets but from the man who comes down from the cafe and asks you to pay) and enter the gate. The columns and architrave of the bouleuterion and the odeon beyond it are visible and breathtaking at first glance. We walked up to them and I tried not to dash up to the old Greek/Roman building like a kid at Disney.
Here’s what that Canadian site says about the buildings:
“The bouleuterion [is] an elegant and compact building from the Hellenism [Hellenistic?] period whose façade with six marble Corinthian columns was restored in the 1960’s. Most of the marble architrave is original. The building measures 15m by 20m and the columns stand 9m high. The interior behind the columns is a U-shaped room surrounded by marble-faced brick walls. A Greek inscription on the architrave states that the building was constructed by Quintus Villius Crispinius Furius Proculus, in honour of his deceased brother. His identity is unknown. Excavation in the interior of the building has revealed that it was used as the office of the imperial administration in the city, in particular of the official concerned with administration of the imperial cult ceremonies. The date of the
inscription is also unknown, but the building as a whole is thought to date from the second quarter of the 2nd century CE. Immediately beyond the bouleuterion is the odeon, a small Roman building dating from the 2nd century CE. It seats about 600 spectators, and the steps have been restored to allow it to be used for modern concert performances. The two buildings are thought to have formed the edges of a small square.”
While we were there, I climbed into the seats of the odeon to see what it might have been like to sit there and watch a Greek play, Roman orator or some sort of religious ceremony being performed. Surprisingly, a modern orator took the ancient stage and began to expound upon how greater allowances for eleven-year-olds would cause the empire prosper and how the gods–and god of music Apollo himself–would look favorably upon those giving young musicans new and expensive cellos. While she seemed rather an impassioned speaker, I ultimately found myself unmoved by her arguments and suggested that she follow the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius and be happy with what she has.
After a while of exploring the area near the odeon and the bouleuterion, we walked up the hill to the site of the acropolis. Along the way, we came upon fragments of walls that suggested the buildings lying below and one wall of massive stones probably from the earliest Greek settlement. Carly and Shawna were especially thrilled to find flocks of sheep jingling along with their little bells and accompanied by Albanian shepherds and their sheepdogs. The sheep were enthusiastically munching on the greenery of the mountain (grass, sedge, flowers–didn’t matter) and I could see how they could easily keep the grass down for an area like that.
At the summit of the acropolis hill, we weren’t greeted with the majestic sight of the bouleuterion as we were down below, but instead the stark concrete of Hoxha’s gun emplacements. Originally an adherent of Stalinist communism, Hoxha moved Albania
further away from that version of Communism in his search for “pure” Communism. At one point he allied Albania with the Chinese. Eventually, though, a combination of his paranoia and socialist vision caused him to close Albania to the outside world. While the social cost of his vision was a closed society, the physical remnants of that vision are apparent throughout Albania in the thousands of bunkers that were built during this period. The bunkers on the acropolis are tied to the central gun emplacement by tunnels and some of the instructions to the original occupants are still visible on the walls there, as are pro-Hoxha slogans such as “Parti Hoxha” which we assumed was not a phrase meaning “this way to Hoxha’s party.”
MORE OF THIS POST TO COME