The ancient city where once upon a time East and West collided, today is witnessing a stand off between concrete and ancient remains.
Picture a port city where hundreds of ships arrive every day carrying goods from as far away as Alexandria, Egypt, where trade and commerce is flourishing, and where emperors are entertained watching plays in the amphitheater seating some 20,000 spectators.
Durrës was a glorious city.
Some 35 kilometers away from the capital city of Tirana, Durrës is nowadays more of a beach-and-sun destination. But the archaeological finds tell us this city is a living treasure.
The archaeological remains in the city date back as far as 627 B.C. But all this treasure trove of history is not threatened so much by the oblivion of dust and dirt of millennia, but has been buried in concrete in a few short years.
One may spend hours in the Roman amphitheater and not meet a single tourist. Likewise, at the site of the ruins of the antique market, not only are there no tourists in sight, but the whole area is under lock and key.
The amphitheater and the Durrës Archaeological Museum are the only well known archaeological sites in Durrës.Other ruins and sites have been dug up, but are not accessible by the public or are largely ignored.
Renowned archaeologist and former general manager of the Institute of Monuments of Culture, Apollon Baçe, tells PSE that what sets Durrës apart from other cities in Europe is the uninterrupted inhabitation and the overlapping of civilizations.
“This town is very important not only to the history of Albania. Durrës is a place where west battled east, there is a continuity of civilization to the city, and that sets it apart. It was a military, economic and cultural gateway to the east,” says Baçe.
The sea and the beach abound in Durrës and Albania, but “the ruins” could be a magnet to attract tourists to Durrës all year long, like in other countries in the region.
However, the city has recently witnessed a wave of massive construction and reckless development, and citizens of Durrës and archeologists accuse the local government, of being more concerned about the wellbeing of the construction industry than the preservation of the city’s cultural identity.
Baçe says that monuments are not looked after and maintained, and after the collapse of the communist regime in the 1990s, some sites have been damaged and even destroyed for the sake of development.
“This is the worst possible time for archaeology in Durrës; it’s a disgrace. Monuments of huge importance to mankind are being damaged, and as a result tourists have no reason to visit, if all you’re showing them is concrete,” says Baçe.
There is a passage in a Durrës tourist guide: “Durrës, the city where the sea washes the shores of antiquity. Durrës has been built on top of the ruins of ancient Epidamnus. There is a saying among the children in the city: If you dig deep enough, you may unearth temples.”
Are these “temples” opened to visitors?
Tourism expert Brunilda Liçaj, professor at the University of Durrës, says that sites and monuments should be much better promoted and advertized. The problem is that there is no strategy on tourism, and there has been little effort to establish a distinct identity for the city, Liçaj says.
Even the residents of Durrës have very little knowledge on the history of their city, she says, and her interaction with students has showed her their poor level of knowledge of the city.
“The Durrës main attraction, or slogan, is the smell of the sea, but it shouldn’t be just the smell of the sea, because there is so much more potential for tourism. Monuments and ruins should be more accessible to the public. There should be more services offered to visitors, and there should be more people involved with tourism,” says Liçaj.
Liçaj recalls several instances of scathing criticism by tourism operators directed at this city with a glorious past, during meetings and conferences on tourism.
“Two years ago I was attending a meeting of European tourism operators on sea cruises, and a manager of one of the biggest companies told me: ‘In Durrës we sit down and look at the sea, but while at sea we look at the city, and it is an urban massacre,’” she recalls.
Hysni, a resident of Durrës who sells books in the Volga Boulevard, says that construction has drastically changed this city.
“Tourists come only in the summer time,” says Hysni. “There is so much construction and so many empty flats! In my apartment building of 60 flats, only my family and four others live there all year long. We need a better system of tourism, and we need it much more than we need apartment buildings.”
The city has many riches, but it is also in dire need for other tourists, beyond the Balkans. Most of the tourists visiting Durrës are “patriotic tourists” from neighboring Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro.
Zenepe, a young Albanian fromform Montenegro, is visiting Durrës for a break of several days, even though the summer season is several months away.
“I come here quite often, I like it, and it is similar to my own town, Ulcinj. Yep, I visited the archaeological sites last year. The sites and ruins are wonderful, it is our history, we are Albanian,” says Zenepe.
How expensive is urbanization and what are we paying for it?
Archaeologist Apollon Baçe says that building and development in the city amount to a crime. According to him, corruption practices have allowed the issuing of construction permits in protected sites. He recalls the huge sums of money thrown at him in exchange for approval by the Institute of Monuments, while he was at the helm of that institute.
“I was the general manager of the Institute of Monuments of Culture. I was offered 60,000 to 150,000 Euros to approve construction permits on top of archaeological sites. I turned them down, but others have accepted such bribes,” he claims. But Baçe didn’t provide any names of officials or specific projects participating in corruption practices.
Baçe, who has spent much of his archeology career in Durrës, tells of a Byzantine archaeological site which was mercilessly bulldozed on the sides to make more room for the construction of a 14-story building. The building of this apartment block started in 2001 near the Durrës port, even though governing institutions knew very well that it was being built on top of an archaeological site, Baçe says.
Work on the building was allowed to go ahead with the requirement that during the course of the construction the Byzantine wall would be unearthed, according to a document granting permission for the construction.
Today, this archaeological site cloaked with modernity can only be visited by the customers of the restaurant built on top of the ruins, designated as historical assets. This is a clash between private and public property, treasure and concrete.
Ledion Lako, the manager of the regional culture department in Durrës, says the private business is taking care of the ruins.
But he admits to PSE that many sites have been damaged over these last years.
“Tourists flock to the city and enjoy it, even though mistakes have been committed in the past,” says Lako. “There has been a constant silent battle, and archaeologists have worked hard to preserve our rich patrimony and heritage. The law ‘On cultural heritage,’ categorically forbids building in the A zone (the old town section), and not a single construction permit has been granted in that area.”
Article 30 of the national law “On cultural heritage” says that any building activity in the A zone is prohibited.
But Veliera (the Sail), the controversial development project of a square near the port, is in direct violation of this law, as well as the 2011 urban planning strategy for Durrës, according to civil society activists. During the construction work for Veliera, Byzantine ruins were unearthed, but they are now threatened by the steel and concrete of this 5.5 million Euro project.
The archaeologist and historian, Neritan Ceka, said in a TV interview in March 2017 that only five percent of the archaeological wealth of Durrës has been unearthed, and because of this we should be more careful on how we proceed with development projects and pay much more attention to archaeological sites.
The local government in Durrës has a ready answer to counter the criticism from the media and the civil society. The mayor of Durrës, Vangjush Dako, said in that same TV show that “all these supposed violations have been carried out to better serve the community.”
However, must we sacrifice the past for the present?
Durrës has so much more to offer than just the smell of the sea. However, the stench of concrete is becoming overwhelming, and concrete is apparently winning the fight with terracotta.
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