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Byzantine Basilica in Byllis, Albania

Byzantine Basilica in Byllis, Albania

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Ardenica Monastery

The Monastery of the Nativity of the Theotokos in Ardenica [1] (Albanian: Manastiri Lindja e Hyjlindëses Mari, [2] [3] Greek: Μονή Γεννήσεως της Θεοτόκου [4] ) or simply Ardenica Monastery (Albanian: Manastiri i Ardenices) is an Eastern Orthodox monastery, located 18 kilometers south of Lushnjë, Albania, along the national road that links Lushnjë to Fier. [5]

Built by Byzantine Emperor, Andronikos II Palaiologos in 1282 after the victory against the Angevins in the siege of Berat, the monastery is famous as the place where, in 1451, was celebrated the marriage of Skanderbeg, the national hero of Albania, with Andronika Arianiti. In 1780 the Monastery started a theological school to prepare clerics in Greek Orthodoxy. It had an important library with 32,000 volumes that got completely burned by a fire in 1932. The Church of Saint Mary within the monastery contains frescos from brothers Kostandin and Athanas Zografi, notably one of saint John Kukuzelis, born in Durrës, Albania.


Albania is a Mediterranean country, lying to the east of Italy, across the Adriatic Sea. Although the country occupies the southwestern portion of the Balkan Peninsula, bordered by Montenegro to the northwest, Kosovo [a] to the northeast, North Macedonia to the east and Greece to the south and southeast. It has a varied and contrasting topography with high mountains, rocky shores, coastal wetlands, sandy beaches, steep canyons and gorges and islands of various shapes and sizes.

In terms of topography, the country encompasses coastal plains in the west to the Albanian Alps in the north, the Sharr Mountains in the northeast, Skanderbeg Mountains in the center, Korab Mountains in the east, Pindus Mountains in the southeast and Ceraunian Mountains in the southwest along the Albanian Riviera and Ionian Sea Coast.

The country experiences mostly mediterranean climate with continental influences. [8] That means that the climate is characterised by mild winters and hot, dry summers. The warmest areas of the country are along the west, where climate is profoundly impacted by the Mediterranean Sea. The coldest parts of the country are at the north and east, where snowy forested climate is prevalent.

During the Iron Age, Albania was originally home to the Illyrians and Ancient Greeks. Following the centuries, it was subsequently conquered and occupied by the Byzantines, Venetians and Ottomans. The emergence of a unified Albanian state dates back to the establishment of the Principality of Arbër in 1190 AD.

Antiquity Edit

The beginnings of architecture in Albania dates back to the middle Neolithic Age with the discovery of prehistoric dwellings in Dunavec and Maliq. [9] They were built on a wooden platform that rested on stakes stuck vertically into the soil. [9] Prehistoric dwellings in Albania consist of three types such as houses enclosed either completely on the ground or half underground, both found in Cakran near Fier and houses constructed above ground.

During the Bronze Age, the Illyrians and Ancient Greeks started to organize itself in the territory of Albania. The Illyrians were an ethnic group with distinct culture and art, while it is believed that Albanians are the descendants of the Illyrians but no enough evidence is left to get a conclusion. Cities within Illyria were mainly built on the tops of high mountains surrounded by heavily fortified walls. Further, the history of Albania has not been kind to the Illyrian architectural monuments. Few monuments from the Illyrians are still preserved such as in Amantia, Antigonia, Byllis, Scodra, Lissus and Selca e Poshtme. [10]

Following the Illyrian Wars, the architecture in Albania developed significantly in the 2nd century BC with the arrival of the Romans. The conquered settlements and villages such as Apollonia, Butrint, Byllis, Dyrrachium and Hadrianopolis were notably modernised following Roman models, with the building of a forum, roads, theatres, promenades, temples, aqueducts and other social buildings. The period also marks the construction of stadiums and thermal baths that were of social importance as places of gathering.

Previously populated by various Illyrian and Ancient Greek tribes, Butrint became a protectorate and subsequently a colony. [12] [13] Nowadays, it demonstrates a high level of Roman urbanisation, while it is among the best preserved remains of Roman heritage in Albania. They left its legacy in form of city walls, an aqueduct, the forum, basilicas, baptisteries, baths, an amphitheatre and houses for the middle classes, as well as mansions with central courtyards which were decorated with various mosaics and murals.

Dyrrachium thrived during the Roman period and became a protectorate after the Illyrian Wars. The Amphitheatre of Durrës, which the Romans built, was at that time the largest amphitheatre in the Balkan Peninsula. [14] It is the only Roman monument that survived up to the present.

The Via Egnatia, built by Roman Senator Gnaeus Egnatius, functioned for two millennia as a multi-purpose highway, which once connected the cities of Durrës on the Adriatic Sea in the west to Constantinople on the Marmara Sea in the east. [15] Further, the route gave the Roman colonies of the Balkans a direct connection to Rome.

Middle Ages Edit

Medieval cities in Albania are classified according to two criteria:

  • Cities associated with fortifications, such as Berat and Gjirokastra
  • Cities that lie in flat or steep terrains such as Tirana, Kavaja, and Elbasan.

During the Middle Ages, a variety of architecture styles developed in the form of dwelling, defence, worship and engineering structures. When the Roman Empire divided into east and west, Albania remained under the Eastern Roman Empire. In behalf to that, the architecture was strongly influenced by the Byzantines. Many extensive churches and monasteries were built during that period mainly in the centre and south of the country. [ citation needed ]

However, some inherited historic structures were damaged by invading Ottoman forces. In the 13th and 14th centuries, the consolidation of the Albanian feudal principalities gave rise to Varosha, or neighbourhoods outside city walls. Examples of such developments are the Arberesh principalities centred in Petrele, Kruje and Gjirokastra originating from the feudal castle. In the 15th century, close attention was given to protective structures such as the castle fortifications of Lezha, Petrela, Devoll, Butrint, and Shkodra. More reconstructions took place in strategic points such as the Castle of Elbasan, Preza, Tepelena, and Vlora, the latter being the most important on the coast. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the great Pashaliks of the period such as the Bushati Family, Ahmet Kurt Pasha, and Ali Pashe Tepelena reconstructed several fortifications such as the Castle of Shkodra, Berat, and Tepelena respectively. It is important to note that Ali Pashe Tepelena embarked on a major castle building campaign throughout Epirus.

During the medieval period, mosques in Albania fell into two categories: those covered with a dome, and those with a roof covered hall. The latter were immediately adopted following the Ottoman invasion, by transforming the existing churches of Shkodra, Kruje, Berat, Elbasan and Kanina. For instance, the Lead Mosque built by Mustafa Pasha Bushati in Shkodra resembles a typical Istanbul mosque.

On the other hand, Christian religious structures inherited many features from their palaeo-Christian predecessors. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, a series of small structures for Christian with simple layouts were built like the Voskopoja basilica, Ardenica Monastery, and Church of St. Nicholas in Voskopoja. The latter is one of the most valuable architectonic monuments in Albania. Its interior walls are covered with paintings by the renowned painter David Selenica, and by brothers Constantine and Athanasios Zografi.

Modern Edit

During the 18th century, the city silhouette in Albania began to include places of worship and the Clock Tower. These, together with other social structures such as thermal baths, fountains, and medrese further enriched the city centre and its neighbourhoods.

In the 17th century, the bazaar emerges as a production and exchange centre, while the city expands beyond the castle, which completely loses its function and inhabitants. During this period, Shkodra and Korca become important commerce and skilled crafts centres.

The first half of the 20th century begins with the Austro-Hungarian occupation, continues with Fan Noli's government, King Zog's kingdom, and ends with the Italian invasion. During this time, Albanian medieval towns underwent urban transformations by Austro-Hungarian architects, giving them the appearance of European cities.

The centre of Tirana was the project of Florestano Di Fausto and Armando Brasini, well known architects of the Benito Mussolini period in Italy. Brasini laid the basis for the modern-day arrangement of the ministerial buildings in the city centre.

The plan underwent revisions by the Albanian architect Eshref Frashëri, the Italian architect Castellani, and the Austrian architects Weiss and Kohler. The rectangular parallel road system of Tirana e Re district took shape, while the northern portion of the main Boulevard was opened. These urban plans formed the basis of future developments in Albania after the second World War.

From 1944 to 1991, cities experienced an ordered development with a decline in architectural quality. Massive socialist-styled apartment complexes, wide roads, and factories were constructed, while town squares were redesigned and a number of historic buildings demolished.

The period after the fall of communism is often described negatively in terms of urban development. Kiosks and apartment buildings started to occupy former public areas without planning, while informal districts formed around cities from internal migrants leaving remote rural areas for the western lowland. Decreasing urban space and increased traffic congestion have become major problems as a result of lack of planning. As part of the 2014 Administrative Division Reform, all town centres in Albania are being physically redesigned and façades painted to reflect a more Mediterranean look. [16] [17]

Although much has been achieved, critics argue that there is no clear vision on Tirana's future. Some of the pressing issues facing Tirana are loss of public space due to illegal and chaotic construction, unpaved roads in suburban areas, degradation of Tirana's Artificial Lake, rehabilitation of Skanderbeg Square, an ever-present smog, the construction of a central bus station and lack of public parking space. Future plans include the construction of the Multimodal Station of Tirana and the tram line, rehabilitation of the Tiranë River area, construction of a new boulevard along the former Tirana Railway Station and the finishing of the Big Ring Road.

Berat Edit

Berat, otherwise known as the city of a thousand windows, is a small city in Southern Albania. The architecture of Berat is diverse and enfolds the inheritance of the Illyrians and Ancient Greeks but also of various peoples and empires that have previously ruled the city among others the Byzantines and Ottomans. Nevertheless, the cityscape is notably embossed by the architectural style of the Ottomans and boasts a wealth of structures of exceptional historical and architectural interest. This led the city to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The city is separated intro three parts such as the residential quarter within the fortress or known as Kalaja, Mangalem and Gorica. The Kalaja is believed to have been found in antiquity as it was the settlement of the Illyrian tribe of the Desaretes. [18] Subsequently, it was known as Antipatrea when the Romans conquered the city and called it Albanorum Oppidum. [18] Over the centuries it has been subject to numerous conquest by the Byzantines and Ottomans.

Kalaja is well-preserved and consists of numerous houses, most of which are built of stone. Numerous churches with extraordinary decorated icons and murals still survives including the Holy Trinity Church and St. Mary of Blachernae Church. Islamic architecture is represented with the ruins of the Red Mosque and White Mosque. Worth seeing is the cistern that was constructed by the Romans. The prominent Onufri Museum of Icons is also located within the castle and displays works of Onufri and other important Albanian painter.

Houses within the Mangalem quarter were built along a steep hill towards the Gorica quarter. The facades that faces the valley have characteristically overhanging windows. Therefore, Berat owes its title to the district, the "city of a thousand windows". There are three Ottoman mosques that include the King Mosque, Lead Mosque and notably the Bachelors Mosque. The Halveti Teqe stands behind the King Mosque and enclose an impressive carved ceiling.

Gorica was for a long time only connected through the Gorica Bridge to the rest of Berat. It is among the most popular Ottoman bridges in Albania that was built in 1780 by Ahmed Kurt Pasha. The Saint Spyridon Monastery is another prominent attraction due to its admirable Post-Byzantine style.

Korçë Edit

The architecture in Korçë is characterised by mansions and residential buildings, cobbled streets and wide boulevards with many cafés and restaurants. There is an architectural mix, due to the turbulent history, of Art Nouveau, Neoclassicism and Ottoman styles. Italian and French influences increased after the beginning of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In modernising its infrastructure through the centuries, the city has preserved some of its history in its streets and facades.

The city was an important trade and economic centre during the eighteenth century. [19] During the Ottoman rule, the Old Bazaar developed rapidly to become the city's main centre of commerce. Although bazaars were typical Ottoman trading complexes developed in the towns of Albania and elsewhere in the Balkans. The Ottoman architecture is predominant within the bazaar, while recent reconstructions have led to the application of elements specific to modern architecture.

The Resurrection Cathedral is located in the center north of Bulevardi Republika. It is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in Albania, as well as one of the city's symbols and primary tourist attractions. The cathedral is a three-nave structure and belongs to Byzantine style. It stands slightly elevated on an estrade and consists mainly of cream-white to ivory-colored stones and red bricks. The interior walls and domes are decorated with icons and frescoes.

The Mirahori Mosque was built in 1484 and founded by Iljaz Bey Mirahor. The minaret and dome of the building was damaged by an earthquake and was recently restored. It consists of white limestone blocks that lie on layers of red bricks. It is only one of the few monuments of the Ottoman period in the city and the surrounding county.

Churches Edit

Christianity has a long and continuous history in Albania and was introduced as early as the time of the Apostles. [20] [21] Sacred structures, such as churches, basilicas, baptisteries, started to appear consequently after the Roman invasion of Illyria. An Early Christian architecture style developed in Albania between the 4th and 6th century. [1] As the Roman Empire fell into east and west, the Eastern Roman Empire kept Roman architectural elements alive and became popular for its slightly flatter domes and the richer usage of murals and icons rather than statues.

The Baptistery with the Basilica of Butrint, built in the 6th century, are among the most important Early Christian buildings in the Balkan Peninsula. [22] It is besides the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, one of the largest baptisteries in the Mediterranean world. [23] The most remarkable feature is its impressive mosaic floor, illustrating iconography relating both to Christianity and to Aristocratic life. [24]

The Dormition of the Theotokos Church in Labovë e Kryqit is one of the greatest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture in the country. Its interior is decorated with various mosaics and frescoes and coverings of great artistic value. It is a typically Byzantine church with a high central dome with nave and aisles arranged in a cruciform plan.

The St. Anthony Church of Durrës is another important example of Byzantine architecture. It was built in the Cape of Rodon, owning a direct proximity to the Adriatic Sea. The structure was built in the 14th century and stands close to the Rodoni Castle, which was built by Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg.

The Ardenica Monastery was built in 1282 following the victory against the Angevins in the Siege of Berat. It the place where, in 1451, was celebrated the marriage of Skanderbeg with Andronika Arianiti. The monastery is an impressive representative of Byzantine architecture with many romanesque features.

The history of Albania has not been kind to Early Christian architectural monuments. Scattered throughout the country, there are still structures and remains of churches and monasteries from that period such as the Holy Trinity Church of Berat, St. Nicholas Monastery Church in Mesopotam, St. Mary's Church of Maligrad, St. Mary of Blachernae Church of Berat, Paleochristian and Byzantine Church of Lin.

Mosques Edit

By the late fifteenth century, the Ottoman Empire expanded its territory and conquered most of the Balkan Peninsula. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, Islam had become the predominant religion in Albania. As with Christianity before it, the new religion were introduced subsequently the Ottoman occupation of Albania. [26] The foreign influences that accompanied Albania, were absorbed and reinterpreted with an extensive construction of mosques throughout the country. [27]

The combinations of brick and stone were very frequent in Ottoman architecture, while brick was used mainly for arches, domes and vaults. Further, the most characteristic feature of those mosques is the dominance of a dome, having a semi-circular flat profile, that covered the significant part of the prayer hall within the mosque. The elegance of various Islamic elements is blended in and adapted into buildings and interior designs such as the use of tiling, geometric designs, floral motifs and murals.

In contrast to the long presence of the Ottomans in Albania and Balkans, only few significant mosques from this period have survived, scattered particularly in the center and south of Albania. One of those mosques include the Mirahori Mosque built in 1495 by Imrahor Ilyas Bey in Korçë. [28] It is the only existing Ottoman mosque in the city and surrounding county. [27]

The Et'hem Bey Mosque in Tirana is an important representative of the Ottoman heritage in the country. The construction of the mosque began in the end of the 18th century and has been completed in the 19th century. [29] Its most noted features are the frescoes within the mosque with depict trees, waterfalls and bridges.

The Bachelors' Mosque is located at the lower part of Mangalem quarter of Berat, which is inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As most of other mosques in the city, the Bachelors' Mosque was declared a Cultural Monument of Albania in 1961. [30]

Built by Pasha Mehmed Bushati in 1773, the Lead Mosque of Shkodër is the only building left in the city that was built by the Ottomans. [27] It takes the name because all of its cupolas were covered with lead. The mosque stands in the foothills of Mount Rozafa in a meadow along the Drin. It fell into disuse after a massive flood in 1865, which swept away that part of the city.

In Berat, the Lead Mosque, whose most characteristic feature is the lead dome, is among the best preserved Ottoman buildings in Albania. [27] It was built during the 16th century, when Berat became an important administrative and religious center within the Ottoman Empire.

The Bazaar Mosque in Gjirokastër was built in the 18th century on a hill side close to the commercial neighbourhood of the city during that period, the bazaar, close to the Gjirokastër Fortress. Although most of the city and the mosque were constructed with portico.

Tekkes Edit

As the Ottoman Empire introduced Islam, the Bektashi Order spread across the Balkans and became particularly strong in Albania. Tekkes were centers of Islamic mysticism and theological provided a popular alternative to normative Islam. [31] The architecture of tekkes is usually simple and articulated by a dome, arch, courtyard, portal, tomb and a central hall.

The Halveti Teqe was built by Albanian Ahmet Kurt Pasha in the 18th century in Berat. It is a quadratic building, that consists of a rectangular prayer room, a smaller room for special religious services, an impressive portal that precedes the entrance and a türbe. The walls within the structure are decorated with various frescoes and murals.

Built in 1770, the Dollma Teqe stands within the fortification of Krujë and includes a türbe and hamam. The flat dome rests on a low octagonal tholobate. Its interior walls are richly decorated and painted with murals and writings.

Castles Edit

The scenic landscapes of Albania are dotted with castles, forts and citadels in all shapes and sizes. Previously they was mostly defined by their practical use to repel invasions and often serve as a royal residence for noble families. Those structures constitute treasures and legacy of the historic past of Albania. The first castles in the Albanian lands were built by Illyrians and Romans and later by Venetians and Ottomans. The majority have been renovated throughout history and different epoches with changing rule and adaptations to war technology development.

The Castle of Berat has a long history, which can be traced back to the 4th century. [32] After being burned down by the Romans, the walls were strengthened again in the 5th century under the Byzantines and later in the 15th century by the Ottomans. [32] The fortress was often damaged, particularly during the Communism in Albania, and reconstructed. It possesses several Byzantine churches dotted with impressive frescoes, murals and icons, whereas the Ottoman heritage is demonstrated in forms of mosques and traditional houses.

The Castle of Krujë is a typical medieval fortress built upon a rocky hill in Krujë that resisted the advance of the Ottomans several times under the reign of Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu. It was constructed during the 5th and 6th centuries and the surrounding walls are reinforced by nine towers, which served as an observation and signaling post. [33] There can still be found the remains of houses and mansions.

The Fortress of Bashtovë was built over an existing former structure by the Venetians in the Middle Ages. It stands in a very strategic point near the mouth of Shkumbin River close to the Adriatic Sea. The castle is a typical Venetian structure that combined the Gothic lancet arch with Byzantine and Ottoman influences.

Petrelë Castle is a medieval castle located on a hilltop overlooking Petrelë and Erzen Valley. The castle has a triangular structure with two observation towers. The early fortifications probably dates from the 3rd century, while in the 9th century it was expanded and served as a base for Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu during its revolt against the Ottoman Empire.

Rozafa Castle is an ancient castle in Shkodër. The castle is associated with a famous legend about a woman who was buried in the foundation of the castle. It stretches on a rocky hill and is trapped on three sides by the rivers of Buna, Kir and Drin. Its current name, Rozafa, appeared for the first time in the early Middle Ages. Later when the Ottomans conquered the Balkans the castle than was turned into a mosque.

The Citadel of Gjirokastër, a hilltop fortress, dominates the cityscape of Gjirokastër and overlooks the strategically important route along the Drino river valley. There are five towers and houses, a clock tower, a church, a cistern and many other structures within the fortification.

Ali Pasha Castle was built on a small island along the mouth of the Vivari Channel in Butrint. The castle is named after the Albanian Ali Pasha of Ioannina, who ruled over the Pashalik of Yanina and even attempted to rival the Dey of Algiers in the seas. It is a small rectangular structure with battered walls, while along the corners, there are two battered round towers with cannons on its seaward side and two irregularly sized battered square towers equipped with firing loops or windows.

The Rodoni Castle stand within the Cape of Rodon with a proximity to the Adriatic Sea. Its name is derived from the Illyrian god of Rodon. After the First Siege of Krujë and League of Lezhë, the Kastriotis decided to increase the fortifications for the use against the Ottomans. Skanderbeg chose the Cape of Rodon as the location of the castle and construction began in 1450.

Although other prominent and impressive castles with different architectural styles in Albania include the Durrës Castle, Kaninë Castle, Lezhë Castle, Lëkurësi Castle, Prezë Castle and Fortress of Justinian.

Kullas Edit

Kulla were fortified tower houses that flourished between the 17th and 19th centuries as a result of resistance to the Ottoman conquest, national renaissance and emergence of capitalism. In most cases, they take the form of an extended family house. However, a house for two brothers can also be found.

According to their spatial and planning composition, Albanian houses are classified and separated into four major groups: [35]

  • Houses with vater zjarri, or fireplace/hearth: These type of houses are primarily found in Tirana County and characterized by the house of fire (Shtëpia e Zjarrit), which takes up the height of two floors, with surrounding areas interacting around it.
  • Houses with hajat, or porch: A distinguishing feature of this style is the relationship of the house with the backyard and natural environment. Oftentimes, these houses are built on flat grounds, with the ground floor used by inhabitants for agricultural purposes. For example, the Shijaku House in Tirana is surrounded by adobe walls with a large gate entrance, and almost always covered with a simple roof.
  • Houses with çardak, a type of balcony found on the top floor reserved for guests or relaxation: They are mostly found in Berat, and less so in Kruje and Lezha. The cardak is a dominant element of the building's outer composition being on the main facade of the house, originally designed to be open. The cardak is extensively used by dwellers in the warm season by exploiting the natural sunlight. It also serves as liaison with other areas of the house. These houses are divided into several sub types: houses with cardak on the front area, on one side, or at the center. An example of such structures is Hajdar Sejdini House in Elbasan.
  • Urban or civic kulla: They are found in Gjirokaster (see Zekate House), Berat, Kruje, and Shkoder used for defensive and warehouse purposes. The interior showed the extent of family's wealth, while the ground floor served as a safe place for cattle in the winter, and to keep water reserves for the dry summer months.

The southern urban or civic Kullas are found in the cities and surroundings of Berat, Gjirokastër, Himara and Këlcyrë. [36] [37] Tower-houses in Gjirokastër were built in the 13th century predating Ottoman conquest. [38] The northern Kullas are a heavily fortified residential building built in the north of Albania and Dukagjin region of Kosovo. They contain small windows and shooting holes because their main purpose was to offer security from attack. Further they have been initially built from wood and stone and eventually only from stone.

The first Kullas were built in the 17th century, a time when there was continuous fighting in the Dukagjini region, although most of the ones that still remain are from the 18th or 19th century. They have been almost always built within a complex of buildings with various functions but Kullas in villages exists mostly as standalone structures. They are also positioned within the complex of buildings so that the inhabitants can look out over the surrounding area. Kullas in towns are usually built as standalone structures, while in villages they are more commonly found as a part of a larger ensemble of Kullas and stone houses, usually grouped together for the family clan they belonged to.

Certain Kullas were used as places of isolation and safe havens or "locked towers" (Kulla Ngujimi) intended for the use of persons targeted by blood feuds an example can be found in Theth. [39]

Most of the Kullas are three-story buildings. A characteristic unit of its architectural structure in "Oda e Burrave" (Chamber of Men or Gathering Room of Men), which was usually placed in the second floor of the Kulla, called Divanhane, while the ground floor served as a barn for cattle and the first floor was where the family quarters were located. The material from which the Divanhane is constructed, either wood or stone, is sometimes used to classify Kullas. [40] [41]

Albania’s ancient history surfaces

I was sipping an espresso at the Piazza bookstore, a trendy Tirana cafe where artists, writers and politicians hang out, listening to Neritan Ceka, Albania’s leading archeological scholar. He was talking about a “spectacular” site under excavation in central Albania. “Byllis,” Ceka said. “You must go to Byllis.”

The Illyrian, Greek, Roman and Byzantine site, he said, is one of the most impressive recent discoveries, with a 20-row Greco-Roman amphitheater dating from the 2nd century, and 6th century Byzantine churches with mosaics rivaling any found in Greece or Turkey.

I had asked Ceka to help plan my visits to archeological sites, and his list blew me away. I’d had no clue of the scope and richness of the sites. Greek and Roman ruins in Apollonia. Modern Durres, built on top of Greek, Roman and Byzantine cities. Tombs belonging to (3rd and 4th century BC) Illyrian kings. Even in Tirana, a bustling modern metropolis, I saw a 4th century Roman house, uncovered recently at a construction site, its mosaic floors still intact.

Who knew Albania was such a treasure-trove? The Albanians I knew told me about the Balkan nation’s mild Mediterranean climate, majestic Alps, pristine forests, untouched rivers and lakes, its magnificent vistas and miles of sandy beaches along the Adriatic. But archeological sites? No mention.

Albania, in the southeastern corner of Europe, was settled by the Illyrians, ancestors of present-day Albanians, in Paleolithic times. Situated where it is and surrounded by powerful, warring empires, Albania has seen a lot of violence throughout its history. Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians and Ottomans swept through, leaving their mark and their ruins.

For decades, the country’s archeological treasures were virtually lost to the world. Communists took over in 1944, and dictator Enver Hoxha’s iron grip kept the country isolated until the end of communism in the early 1990s.

That’s when Albanian archeology captured the attention of experts around the world. The fledgling Albanian parliamentary democracy began a systematic program of excavation and conservation, in partnership with the Butrint Foundation, a British charitable trust, and other foreign organizations and colleges.

I came to Albania’s capital last January to teach journalism at the University of Tirana under a Fulbright grant. After the semester’s end in May -- a good time to travel in Albania -- I would have time to explore some sites around the country.

In the 15 years since the end of communism, Tirana has grown from a sleepy town of a few hundred thousand to a hopping metropolis, close to 1 million. The place, with garishly painted buildings, is crawling with cheerful sidewalk cafes overflowing with young people, Internet cafes, fitness centers, restaurants and clubs blaring rock and rap through the night. There’s plenty to see and do here, if you can put up with the fumes and dust kicked up by the frenzied construction everywhere.

The capital was a great launch pad for most of my day trips to archeological sites. Albania is a tiny country, with a land area of 11,100 square miles and about 3 million people.

On Ceka’s recommendation, I put Byllis on my list and planned my trip, leaving plenty of time for travel because, except for an 80-mile superhighway from Tirana to Lushnje, Albanian roads are a challenge, particularly at night.

(I advise traveling with a tour group or a guide, unless you are an adventurous, seasoned traveler. I made it a point to travel with an Albanian-speaking guide who could deal with unexpected police checkpoints, plus street vendors, beggars and hotel and restaurant staff. Although the country is safe for the most part, it’s also wise to check with the State Department for travel advisories, www.travel.state.gov, before you visit.)

In May, the weather was balmy, the spring rains had finally stopped, and roads were clear to travel south, where most of the Greco-Roman sites are: Durres, Apollonia and extraordinary Butrint, which has been declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO. I’d leave Byllis for last.

I started with Durres and Apollonia, because I could get there and return to Tirana in time for an “American Idol"-type songfest that Albanians love to watch on “telly” almost nightly.

THE city, only 24 miles from Tirana, was the ideal place to combine a bit of archeology with a nice seaside supper before heading back to the capital.

Albanians regard the dreary, industrial seaport as a hot spot because of its white sandy beaches, resorts and great fish restaurants. If you close your eyes to the mad, untamed construction on the coastline and the rubbish on the beach, Durres is an amazing repository of ruins from various historical eras, one layered over another.

You can see the marks left by Illyrians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans simply by driving around town.

A 14th century Venetian rotunda looks out to the harbor. Roman baths are behind the Aleksander Moisiu Theater in the central square. A 15th century mosque is built onto a former church from the Byzantine era. In the center of town, a Roman, 2nd century amphitheater, the largest in the Balkans, was discovered when a man dug into his backyard in 1966. It stands neglected and only partially excavated.

We approached the entrance. Soon, an old attendant hobbled to the rickety gate and opened the lock with a huge key. Inside, the amphitheater became oddly magical. Here, gladiators felled starved lions, and chariots rushed through the tunnel to an open arena as thousands of spectators roared with excitement. Here too is an early Christian chapel with broken mosaic images of St. Stephen, St. Mary and the archangels Gabriel and Michael.

On the way to the amphitheater, I had spotted the Archaeological Museum, where most of the artifacts found during excavations are exhibited, and had planned to stop there on my return. But it was closed, and this served as a good warning: Don’t expect hours and schedules to be precise. Telephone numbers are also risky -- many change without notice or disconnect altogether. And often you won’t find street names posted, so rely on your taxi driver for directions.

About that time, dinner sounded good, so I headed to the tavernas along the Durres seaside, which are renowned for their grilled fish -- the best in Albania. I ended the day among locals, feasting on a plate of fish and crisp potatoes fried in olive oil, accompanied by an icy Albanian Pilsener.

In contrast to Durres, Apollonia was everything a tourist expects of the perfect Hellenic-Roman archeological site. The Greeks settled themselves in the midst of an Illyrian city in 588 BC.

Apollonia’s breathtaking location -- on a promontory overlooking the shimmering Adriatic and aquamarine Vjosa River -- is worth the 77-mile drive from Tirana.

The open plan makes it easy to stroll about the grassy knolls, imagining Julius Caesar planning his campaign against Pompey in the magnificent six-columned Monument of Agonothetes. Or by the Odeon, built when Apollonia was a center of learning and the future Roman Emperor Augustus was a student there.

I sat on an overturned column along the path listening to the sudden burst of what sounded like a Mozart concerto echoing from the beautiful 14th century Church of St. Mary -- a rehearsal, I later learned, for an afternoon performance at the amphitheater. I gazed at the ruins of a small temple to the Greek goddess Artemis (to the Romans, Diana) and a triumphal arch and wandered past the 2nd century outlines of what were once homes of wealthy Apollonians. Beyond were the Roman baths and finally, a small, 2nd century amphitheater facing the Adriatic.

Back in Tirana that evening, I remembered Ceka’s words. “You won’t forget Byllis, will you?” But Byllis would have to wait. My next stop was Butrint.

AFTER driving 170 miles in a torrential rain, my driver and I arrived in Saranda in early evening, too late for a visit to Butrint, a few miles down the road.

Although there are hotels and restaurants around the site, most tourists make the resort city of Saranda their headquarters because it is filled with hopping seaside cafes, bars and luxury hotels and restaurants along the palm-fringed seaside promenade.

Saranda is an archeological city in its own right. It was fortified with walls in the 4th century by Romans. An early Christian basilica is decorated with exquisite mosaics. The Monastery of the 40 Saints (from which Saranda derives its name) is also a tourist stop.

It drizzled the following day too.

“What can you see in the rain? No one will be there,” said my driver, Robert, who picked me up under an umbrella outside my hotel. But I insisted we drive to Butrint.

Robert was right. No one was around, except for a few archeologists from the Butrint Foundation making their way to the excavations, which include a palace and the foundations of a Roman villa thought to have belonged to Cicero’s correspondent, Atticus.

Butrint is magically situated on Lake Butrint, where such writers as Virgil, Racine and Baudelaire found inspiration.

I breathed in the fragrant, moist air along the woodsy glades and muddy paths. I passed ancient baths, thick mossy walls, an amphitheater and fallen columns. I almost expected Lord Byron to rise from the ruins it has that languorous quality of the 19th century grand tour about it.

The rediscovered city of Butrint is probably more significant today than it was when Caesar used it as a provisions depot for his troops during his campaigns in the 1st century BC. It was considered an unimportant outpost, Ceka said, overshadowed by the likes of Apollonia and Durres. I felt transported to another time and space.

In 2000, the Albanian government established Butrint National Park, which draws about 50,000 visitors annually. Cultural performances are held in the huge amphitheater.

Next on my tour was Byllis, Ceka’s favorite site, about halfway between Butrint and Tirana.

But I never did get there. Robert thought the muddy roads would be dangerous. “The rain could be a problem,” he said again.

So I threw up my hands and called it a day. We headed toward Vlora via the Logora Pass to pick up the coastal road back to Tirana. We climbed limestone cliffs overlooking the aquamarine waters where the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet. We passed quaint villages, plush pine forests, groves of oranges and olives and medieval churches.

For dinner, we munched on spit-roasted lamb at a roadside restaurant, mesmerized by the beauty of the forest against the blue sea miles away. It’s a good thing, I thought, that the construction barons had not yet tapped into this beautiful segment of Albania. I hope they never will.

10 Days Albanian Crossroads of Antiquity

It may seem a backwater now, but Albania’s importance in the ancient world is written large in the historical sources. Why was Albania so important? One look at its geography will tell you. This is a country blessed with natural harbors, and a short sea crossing to the Italian port of Brindisi.

It is also the start of the most direct overland route from the Adriatic to Istanbul, which in Roman times was traced by the Via Egnatia. A natural staging post between the eastern and western Mediterranean, Albania flourished under Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans.

Day 1: Tirana

Transfer from Tirana International Airport to the hotel. Dinner and overnight in Tirana.

Day 2: Durrës, Apollonia

Durres was a key port for both the Greeks and the Romans, and a vital link on the route from Europe to Asia. We visit its amphitheatre, the largest in the Balkans, as well as the Roman forum, the ancient city walls and the archaeological museum. Then it’s time for Apollonia. Founded by colonists from Corinth around 600 BC, it was later home to a famous Academy, where Octavian was studying in 44 BC. Finds are displayed in the cloisters of a 13th-century Byzantine monastery. First of two nights in Berat.

Day 3: Berat

Berat. A UNESCO world heritage site, Berat is one of Albania’s oldest and most attractive cities, with many Ottoman houses scattered across the hills above the river. A walking tour of the lower town includes the 15th-century mosque and the 18th-century Halvati Teqe. Meanwhile, the Byzantine citadel above shelters the Church of St Mary – home to the dazzling Onufri Icon Museum where 16th- and 17th-century Christian art and a beautiful iconostasis are displayed. Overnight in Berat.

Day 4: Byllis, Vlora

Once the largest city in southern Illyria, Byllis is a vast and atmospheric archaeological site, perched on a hilltop and commanding spectacular views. In Late Antiquity Byllis became an important Christian centre, and several basilicas were built. Vlora is the country’s second port the first parliament convened here following the declaration of independence in 1912. Here, we see the Muradie Mosque built in 1537 by the greatest of Ottoman architects, Mimar Sinan. Overnight in Vlora.

Day 5: Himara, Saranda

The day is spent travelling through Llogara National Park and along the breathtaking Ionic coast. The journey is broken in the bay of Porto Palermo, a few kilometres from the small town of Himara, where we visit a Venetian fort and castle. Arrive in Saranda for a panoramic view of the bay before continuing to the hotel for a one-night stay.

Day 6: Butrint, Gjirokastra

Situated by a lake close to the Greek border, Butrint (Buthrotum) was settled by Greeks from nearby Corfu in the 6th century BC. It became an important Roman colony, declined in Late Antiquity and was abandoned in the Middle Ages. Lords Sainsbury and Rothschild set up the Butrint Foundation in 1991 to protect and examine the site. Excavation has revealed substantial elements of the late Roman and Byzantine town including a basilica, baptistery and a palace. First of two nights in Gjirokastra.

Day 7: Gjirokastra, Labova e Kryqit

The steep cobbled streets and stone-roofed Ottoman houses of Gjirokastra are best appreciated from the castle. We visit the Old Bazaar, a traditional Ottoman house and the former home of dictator Enver Hoxha, now an ethnographic museum. In the afternoon, the remote village of Labova e Kryqit (Labova of the Cross) is our destination – to see one of the oldest Byzantine churches in Albania, dating back to the 6th century. Overnight in Gjirokastra.

Day 8: Ardenica, Tirana

Drive north to the Monastery of Ardenica, built in 1282 by Byzantine Emperor, Andronikos II Palaiologos and famous as the site of the wedding in 1451 of Albania’s national hero, Skanderbeg. From here, we continue to the capital, Tirana. The afternoon is spent in the vast National Historical Museum where displays span from antiquity to the Communist regime of Enver Hoxha. First of two nights in Tirana.

Day 9: Lezha, Kruja

Drive to Lezha to see the Skanderbeg memorial, built on the site of the ruined cathedral where the hero is buried. Next stop is Kruja, Albania’s medieval capital, clustered around its restored bazaar, above which sits a ruined citadel and castle. It is also home to an excellent Ethnographic Museum and a modern museum dedicated to the life of Gjergj Kastrioti (aka Skanderbeg). After some free time, we return to Tirana for the final night.

Day 10: Tirana

Depending on your departure time, morning tour of Tirana includes some of the city’s grand central boulevards, lined with relics of its Ottoman, Italian and Communist past. There is also a visit to the National Art Gallery. Transfer to Tirana International Airport.

Albania Culture and Heritage

Arrival and meeting with our guide. Departure to Tirana, capital of Albania.

Visit of the city Scanderbeg Square, National Museum, clock Tower, Tabaku Bridge, the Pyramid once housing the Museum of ex Dictator Enver Hoxha, the Palace of Congress, the Ministry Buildings, the Bunker symbol of communist Area. Visit Blloku area once forbidden area for the people now the most frequented area with fancy bars, nice restaurants and clubs.

Breakfast in the hotel and departure towards the UNESSO town of Berat known as the “city of thousand windows”.

Berat is a city on the Osum River, in central Albania. It’s known for its white Ottoman houses. On a hilltop, Berat Castle is a huge compound now inhabited by townspeople. Within its walls are Byzantine churches, the Red Mosque and the Onufri National Museum, with Christian icons. East is the Ethnographic Museum, in an 18th-century house, displaying traditional crafts and part of a reconstructed medieval bazaar.

In Berat will visit the citadel, the Iconographic Museum of Onufri, the Ethnographic Museum which is housed in an 18th-century Ottoman house that’s as interesting as the exhibits. Visit Mangalemi and Gorica quartiers, the Bachelor’s Mosque and several churches.

Breakfast in the hotel and departure towards the archeological park of Apollonia.

On the way will stop for visit at Ardenica Monastery of Theotokos Mary, built by Byzantine Emperor, Andronikos II Palaiologos in 1282 after the victory against the Angevins in the Siege of Berat, the monastery is famous as the place where, in 1451, was celebrated the marriage of Skanderbeg, the national hero of Albania, with Andronika Arianiti.

The ancient city of Apollonia of Illyria was founded at the beginning of the VII century BC. By Greek colons coming by the cities of Corinth and Corcyra. Apollonia became an emporium of merchandising between Greeks an Illyrians and prospered very much in both Greeks and roman times. It was considered to be one of the most prominent cities at the time, selected from over twenty other cities throughout the Mediterranean, to receive the glorious name of Apollo, the god of music and poetry. Within its walls, you will find the Monastery and the Church of St. Mary, which, along with the Archaeological Museum located inside the monastery, add yet another layer of history, architecture, and culture to the Park.

Lunch at the local restaurant Leon Rey names after the French archaeologist.

Afterwards continue to Vlora the city of Indolence. Upon arrival visit the Independence Square and Marudie Mosque, cultural monument of Albania was once a Byzantine Church.

Breakfast in the hotel and drive along the Albanian Riviera. This is the most beautiful part of the coast in Albania and also one of the most beautiful areas in the whole Ionian Sea. The road goes through breathtaking scenery, with mountains rising dramatically up from the coast. Caesar’s Pass (Qafa e Cezarit) named after Julius Caesar who set foot in the area in pursuit of Pompey is also located near Llogara Pass. The stretch of coast where Caesar landed his troops is today a long, white almost deserted beach of Palase, and it looks pretty much as it would have done two thousand years ago.

Stop in Llogara to admire the view and enjoy the delicious sheep yogurt with honey. Then proceed to Porto Palermo bay to visit the Castle of Ali Pasha, built by Ali Pasha of Ioannina in the early nineteenth century. It’s still in excellent condition. The

castle was built on the site of an existing monastery described by British traveler Leake, and an older castle. Porto Palermo bay used to be naval base during communist time.

South of Saranda, within striking distance of the Greek border, Ksamil has an excellent location. The three small islands in its turquoise bay are an easy swim or boat ride away.

Breakfast in the hotel and departure towards the UNESCO site of Butrinti.

Butrinti is a National Park that includes a very well preserved archaeological area, an uncontaminated vegetation area of Mediterranean maquis and has also a lake that is connected to the Ionian Sea by a natural channel. The excavations and studies have proved that during the VII and the VI centuries BC. Butrint was a protourban centre. By the V century BC Butrint has got the full form of an ancient city. During the VI century the city was equipped with new buildings such as the theatre, the agora, the small, temple and the stoa. The main importance and magnificence of the Site was in the Roman period when the City was proclaimed a Roman Colony and used by the roman aristocracy as a holiday destination. Even during late antiquity Butrint maintained its importance. The construction of the Great Basilica and of the baptistery dates to this period. The baptistery has the floor surface covered by a mosaic decoration of a very fine processing, which is very well preserved.

After the visit proceed to Gjirokastra, also known as the city of Stones.

Gjirokastra is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and comprises hundreds of Ottoman-style tower houses with distinctive stone roofs, wooden balconies and whitewashed stone walls. The most important structure of the city is the castle, which is the biggest castle in Albania. Inside the castle, you can visit the Museum of Weapons, opened in 1971. Weapons from the prehistoric times up to the World War II are exhibited on here. The National Folk Festival has taken place in this castle during the years.

A walk around the network of cobbled streets will transport you back in time.

Breakfast in the hotel and departure towards the archeological Park of Bylis.

Byllis was the largest city in Southern Illyria, but despite this fact, it was mentioned relatively late by historians and ancient geographers. In 49-48 BC the city surrendered to the forces of Caesar and served as the basis for his great army. Stephen Byzantine wrote that Byllis was established by Neoptolemus, son of Achilles. Despite this consideration, the construction techniques date the site no earlier than 370-350 BC. Byllis became a Roman colony, during the early years of the dominium of Augustus, and its name became Colonia Julia Augusta. During the period of late antiquity Byllis became an important center and several large early Christian basilicas were built, all wearing ornate mosaics.

After the visits and lunch in local restaurant continue to Durres where will visit the Amphitheatre and Archeological Museum.

Some important archeological monuments that testify the glorious past of the city during different periods of history are: The ancient city walls, the roman amphitheater and baths, the byzantine forum, the Venetian tower, the ottoman hamam. The most renowned archaeological structure found in Durrës is “Bukuroshja e Durrësit,” a mosaic from the 4thcentury B.C. Today, it is exhibited in the National Historic Museum in Tirana.

Breakfast in the hotel and departure towards Shkodra.

Shkodra is very rich in cultural heritage, the city itself as well as the people bear pride in the large number of artists, musicians, painters, photographers, poets, and writers born here. In Shkodra you can visit Rozafa Castle. Rising majestically upon a rocky hill west of the city, the outcroppings and battlements paint a blazing picture against the setting sun.

The renewed Marubi National Museum of Photography famous for its big and rare collection of photos over Albanian history. Take a tour at Pedonalja so called Kole Idromeno street that is the old center of Shkodra, very Mediterranean taste passing through mosques and churches. Lunch in local restaurant the Shkodra Lake and then proceed to Kruja.

Kruja is a tourist attraction alongside a panoramic mountainside location. “Kruja is a strange town, all clustered around its bazaar.” Some of the main points of interests include the restored Castle and Citadel that it is tied to the legend of the hero who fought against the Turks for about 25 years. The Skanderbeg Museum

situated inside the castle was constructed in memory of the Albanian National Hero. Within the Castle you will find also the Ethnograhic Museum and Dollma Tekke. The Old Restored Bazaar has a truly oriental look, multi-colored and overflowing with goods of every description.

Farewell dinner in local restaurant with vies of the Castle and delicious with traditional food.

Breakfast in the hotel and if time available, will drive up to Sari Salltik to visit Bektashi tekke inside a Cave. Sarisalltik was a renowned figure in the Balkan region as a symbol of religious tolerance. As such, he has historically been the main figure among the Bektashi believers and one they have relied upon when spreading their beliefs. Thousands of pilgrims visit the Sarisalltik Masjid during holidays but many of them visit daily.

From up there you can enjoy the wild and beautiful nature of the mountain.

Afterwards transfer to the airport.


Note: Please notice that program can be adopted as per clients’ request

Renowned Italian historian confirms Byllis was a Greek city despite Albanian revisionism

The Epirus region is today divided in two – liberated Epirus in Greece and Northern Epirus that falls into the borders of modern Albania and still has a 125,000-strong Greek minority in the region.

For thousands of years Greeks have lived in Epirus and built many ancient cities, some which are inhabited to this day, and some which have become ancient ruins.

However, historical revisionism is strong in Albania as Albanians attempt to link themselves to the ancient Illyrians with quasi-theories that are mostly rejected by the academic and historical world.

As part of this historical revisionism, Albanian historians attempt to claim that many of the Ancient Greek settlements in Northern Epirus, were in fact Illyrian, and therefore Albanian.

This is despite the fact that it is well known many of these settlements were Greek and no strong evidence that today’s Albanians are linked to the ancient Illyrians.

Vittorio Sgarbi, an Italian Member of the Chamber of Deputies (Parliament), cultural commentator and historian with over 70 publications, is the latest of many well-renowned personalities to confirm the Hellenism of some of these ancient ruins in Northern Epirus.

“In the past when I have come to Albania, I have seen amazing places. But I have never been to Byllis (Βύλλις), a Greek city with a big theatre from which we can see Avlonas (Αυλώνας, Albanian: Vlorë),” he was filmed saying just days ago.

Byllis was an ancient Greek city located in the region of ancient Illyria. The remains of Byllis are situated northeast of Vlore, 25 kilometres from the sea.

Byllis being a Greek-speaking city on the borders of Illyria and Epirus, had its own stadium and theatre during the Hellenistic era.

The city had its own coinage which was different from that of the tribe of Bylliones.

Many historians believe that Byllis is the northernmost non-colonial Greek city in the region.

Despite international consensus that Byllis was a Greek city, some quasi-Albanian historians insist that the city was built and inhabited by the ancient Illyrians despite the records, spoken language, institutions, officials, city-planning and fortifications all being in Greek.

Angelokastro is a Byzantine castle on the island of Corfu. It is located at the top of the highest peak of the island"s shoreline in the northwest coast near Palaiokastritsa and built on particularly precipitous and rocky terrain. It stands 305 m on a steep cliff above the sea and surveys the City of Corfu and the mountains of mainland Greece to the southeast and a wide area of Corfu toward the northeast and northwest.

Angelokastro is one of the most important fortified complexes of Corfu. It was an acropolis which surveyed the region all the way to the southern Adriatic and presented a formidable strategic vantage point to the occupant of the castle.

Angelokastro formed a defensive triangle with the castles of Gardiki and Kassiopi, which covered Corfu"s defences to the south, northwest and northeast.

The castle never fell, despite frequent sieges and attempts at conquering it through the centuries, and played a decisive role in defending the island against pirate incursions and during three sieges of Corfu by the Ottomans, significantly contributing to their defeat.

During invasions it helped shelter the local peasant population. The villagers also fought against the invaders playing an active role in the defence of the castle.

The exact period of the building of the castle is not known, but it has often been attributed to the reigns of Michael I Komnenos and his son Michael II Komnenos. The first documentary evidence for the fortress dates to 1272, when Giordano di San Felice took possession of it for Charles of Anjou, who had seized Corfu from Manfred, King of Sicily in 1267.

From 1387 to the end of the 16th century, Angelokastro was the official capital of Corfu and the seat of the Provveditore Generale del Levante, governor of the Ionian islands and commander of the Venetian fleet, which was stationed in Corfu.

The governor of the castle (the castellan) was normally appointed by the City council of Corfu and was chosen amongst the noblemen of the island.

Angelokastro is considered one of the most imposing architectural remains in the Ionian Islands.

Angelokastro is a Byzantine castle on the island of Corfu. It is located at the top of the highest peak of the island"s shoreline in the northwest coast near Palaiokastritsa and built on particularly precipitous and rocky terrain. It stands 305 m on a steep cliff above the sea and surveys the City of Corfu and the mountains of mainland Greece to the southeast and a wide area of Corfu toward the northeast and northwest.

Angelokastro is one of the most important fortified complexes of Corfu. It was an acropolis which surveyed the region all the way to the southern Adriatic and presented a formidable strategic vantage point to the occupant of the castle.

Angelokastro formed a defensive triangle with the castles of Gardiki and Kassiopi, which covered Corfu"s defences to the south, northwest and northeast.

The castle never fell, despite frequent sieges and attempts at conquering it through the centuries, and played a decisive role in defending the island against pirate incursions and during three sieges of Corfu by the Ottomans, significantly contributing to their defeat.

During invasions it helped shelter the local peasant population. The villagers also fought against the invaders playing an active role in the defence of the castle.

The exact period of the building of the castle is not known, but it has often been attributed to the reigns of Michael I Komnenos and his son Michael II Komnenos. The first documentary evidence for the fortress dates to 1272, when Giordano di San Felice took possession of it for Charles of Anjou, who had seized Corfu from Manfred, King of Sicily in 1267.

From 1387 to the end of the 16th century, Angelokastro was the official capital of Corfu and the seat of the Provveditore Generale del Levante, governor of the Ionian islands and commander of the Venetian fleet, which was stationed in Corfu.

The governor of the castle (the castellan) was normally appointed by the City council of Corfu and was chosen amongst the noblemen of the island.

Angelokastro is considered one of the most imposing architectural remains in the Ionian Islands.

About the chronological periods of the Byzantine Empire

This essay is intended to introduce the periods of Byzantine history, with attention to developments in art and architecture.

The Colossus of Constantine, c. 312–15 (Palazzo dei Conservatori, Musei Capitolini, Rome) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

From Rome to Constantinople

In 313, the Roman Empire legalized Christianity, beginning a process that would eventually dismantle its centuries-old pagan tradition. Not long after, emperor Constantine transferred the empire’s capital from Rome to the ancient Greek city of Byzantion (modern Istanbul). Constantine renamed the new capital city “Constantinople” (“the city of Constantine”) after himself and dedicated it in the year 330. With these events, the Byzantine Empire was born—or was it?

Map with Rome and Constantinople (underlying map © Google).

The term “Byzantine Empire” is a bit of a misnomer. The Byzantines understood their empire to be a continuation of the ancient Roman Empire and referred to themselves as “Romans.” The use of the term “Byzantine” only became widespread in Europe after Constantinople finally fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. For this reason, some scholars refer to Byzantium as the “Eastern Roman Empire.”

Byzantine History

The history of Byzantium is remarkably long. If we reckon the history of the Eastern Roman Empire from the dedication of Constantinople in 330 until its fall to the Ottomans in 1453, the empire endured for some 1,123 years.

Scholars typically divide Byzantine history into three major periods: Early Byzantium, Middle Byzantium, and Late Byzantium. But it is important to note that these historical designations are the invention of modern scholars rather than the Byzantines themselves. Nevertheless, these periods can be helpful for marking significant events, contextualizing art and architecture, and understanding larger cultural trends in Byzantium’s history.

Early Byzantium: c. 330–843

Scholars often disagree about the parameters of the Early Byzantine period. On the one hand, this period saw a continuation of Roman society and culture—so, is it really correct to say it began in 330? On the other, the empire’s acceptance of Christianity and geographical shift to the east inaugurated a new era.

Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna (Italy), c. 533–49 (apse mosaic, 6th century, triumphal arch mosaics, likely c. 7th–12th centuries) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Following Constantine’s embrace of Christianity, the church enjoyed imperial patronage, constructing monumental churches in centers such as Rome, Constantinople, and Jerusalem. In the west, the empire faced numerous attacks by Germanic nomads from the north, and Rome was sacked by the Goths in 410 and by the Vandals in 455. The city of Ravenna in northeastern Italy rose to prominence in the 5th and 6th centuries when it functioned as an imperial capital for the western half of the empire. Several churches adorned with opulent mosaics, such as San Vitale and the nearby Sant’Apollinare in Classe, testify to the importance of Ravenna during this time.

Approximate boundaries of the Byzantine Empire under emperor Justinian I, c. 555 (Tataryn, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Under the sixth-century emperor Justinian I, who reigned 527–565, the Byzantine Empire expanded to its largest geographical area: encompassing the Balkans to the north, Egypt and other parts of north Africa to the south, Anatolia (what is now Turkey) and the Levant (including including modern Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan) to the east, and Italy and the southern Iberian Peninsula (now Spain and Portugal) to the west. Many of Byzantium’s greatest architectural monuments, such as the innovative domed basilica of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, were also built during Justinian’s reign.

Isidore of Miletus & Anthemius of Tralles for Emperor Justinian, Hagia Sophia, Constantinople (Istanbul), 532–37 (photo: © Robert G. Ousterhout)

Constantinople (map: Carolyn Connor and Tom Elliot, Ancient World Mapping Center, CC BY-NC 3.0)

Following the example of Rome, Constantinople featured a number of outdoor public spaces—including major streets, fora, as well as a hippodrome (a course for horse or chariot racing with public seating)—in which emperors and church officials often participated in showy public ceremonies such as processions.

Christian monasticism, which began to thrive in the 4th century, received imperial patronage at sites like Mount Sinai in Egypt.

Monastery of Saint Catherine, Sinai, Egypt (photo: Joonas Plaan, CC BY 2.0)

Apse mosaic with Virgin and Child, c. 867, Hagia Sophia, Constantinople (Istanbul) (photo: Evan Freeman, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Yet the mid-7th century began what some scholars call the “dark ages” or the “transitional period” in Byzantine history. Following the rise of Islam in Arabia and subsequent attacks by Arab invaders, Byzantium lost substantial territories, including Syria and Egypt, as well as the symbolically important city of Jerusalem with its sacred pilgrimage sites. The empire experienced a decline in trade and an economic downturn.

Against this backdrop, and perhaps fueled by anxieties about the fate of the empire, the so-called “Iconoclastic Controversy” erupted in Constantinople in the 8th and 9th centuries. Church leaders and emperors debated the use of religious images that depicted Christ and the saints, some honoring them as holy images, or “icons,” and others condemning them as idols (like the images of deities in ancient Rome) and apparently destroying some. Finally, in 843, Church and imperial authorities definitively affirmed the use of religious images and ended the Iconoclastic Controversy, an event subsequently celebrated by the Byzantines as the “Triumph of Orthodoxy .”

Middle Byzantium: c. 843–1204

In the period following Iconoclasm, the Byzantine empire enjoyed a growing economy and reclaimed some of the territories it lost earlier. With the affirmation of images in 843, art and architecture once again flourished. But Byzantine culture also underwent several changes.

Middle Byzantine churches elaborated on the innovations of Justinian’s reign, but were often constructed by private patrons and tended to be smaller than the large imperial monuments of Early Byzantium. The smaller scale of Middle Byzantine churches also coincided with a reduction of large, public ceremonies.

Katholikon church, 11th century, Hosios Loukas, Boeotia (photo: Evan Freeman, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Monumental depictions of Christ and the Virgin, biblical events, and an array of various saints adorned church interiors in both mosaics and frescoes. But Middle Byzantine churches largely exclude depictions of the flora and fauna of the natural world that often appeared in Early Byzantine mosaics, perhaps in response to accusations of idolatry during the Iconoclastic Controversy. In addition to these developments in architecture and monumental art, exquisite examples of manuscripts, cloisonné enamels, stonework, and ivory carving survive from this period as well.

The Middle Byzantine period also saw increased tensions between the Byzantines and western Europeans (whom the Byzantines often referred to as “Latins” or “Franks”). The so-called “Great Schism” of 1054 signaled growing divisions between Orthodox Christians in Byzantium and Roman Catholics in western Europe.

The Fourth Crusade and the Latin Empire: 1204–1261

In 1204, the Fourth Crusade—undertaken by western Europeans loyal to the pope in Rome—veered from its path to Jerusalem and sacked the Christian city of Constantinople. Many of Constantinople’s artistic treasures were destroyed or carried back to western Europe as booty. The crusaders occupied Constantinople and established a “Latin Empire” in Byzantine territory. Exiled Byzantine leaders established three successor states: the Empire of Nicaea in northwestern Anatolia, the Empire of Trebizond in northeastern Anatolia, and the Despotate of Epirus in northwestern Greece and Albania. In 1261, the Empire of Nicaea retook Constantinople and crowned Michael VIII Palaiologos as emperor, establishing the Palaiologan dynasty that would reign until the end of the Byzantine Empire.

The route and results of the Fourth Crusade (Kandi, CC BY-SA 4.0)

While the Fourth Crusade fueled animosity between eastern and western Christians, the crusades nevertheless encouraged cross-cultural exchange that is apparent in the arts of Byzantium and western Europe, and particularly in Italian paintings of the late medieval and early Renaissance periods, exemplified by new depictions of St. Francis painted in the so-called Italo-Byzantine style.

Late Byzantium: 1261–1453

Artistic patronage again flourished after the Byzantines re-established their capital in 1261. Some scholars refer to this cultural flowering as the “Palaiologan Renaissance” (after the ruling Palaiologan dynasty). Several existing churches—such as the Chora Monastery in Constantinople—were renovated, expanded, and lavishly decorated with mosaics and frescoes. Byzantine artists were also active outside Constantinople, both in Byzantine centers such as Thessaloniki, as well as in neighboring lands, such as the Kingdom of Serbia, where the signatures of the painters named Michael Astrapas and Eutychios have been preserved in frescos from the late 13th and early 14th centuries.

Mosaic of Theodore Metochites offering the Chora church to Christ, Chora monastery, Constantinople (Istanbul) c. 1315–21 (photo: Evan Freeman, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Yet the Byzantine Empire never fully recovered from the blow of the Fourth Crusade, and its territory continued to shrink. Byzantium’s calls for military aid from western Europeans in the face of the growing threat of the Ottoman Turks in the east remained unanswered. In 1453, the Ottomans finally conquered Constantinople, converting many of Byzantium’s great churches into mosques, and ending the long history of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire.

Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul—designed by Mimar Sinan and inaugurated 1557—was influenced by Byzantine architecture (photo: Evan Freeman, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Andrei Rublev, The Trinity, c. 1410, tempera on wood, 142 × 114 cm (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

Post-Byzantium: after 1453

Despite the ultimate demise of the Byzantine Empire, the legacy of Byzantium continued. This is evident in formerly Byzantine territories like Crete, where the so-called “Cretan School” of iconography flourished under Venetian rule (a famous product of the Cretan School being Domenikos Theotokopoulos, better known as El Greco).

But Byzantium’s influence also continued to spread beyond its former cultural and geographic boundaries, in the architecture of the Ottomans, the icons of Russia, the paintings of Italy, and elsewhere.

Watch the video: Byzantine Chant Albanian-Agni Parthene (June 2022).


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