In the 5 number of Year III of the Italian edition of “DRINI - Monthly magazine of Albanian Tourism"- the 1 ° May 1942 published - the archaeologist Pellegrino Claudio Sestieri dedicated a long and interesting article to Apollonia d'Illiria, an important archaeological site in southern Albania.
Apollonia d'Illiria, an ancient colony of the Corcieti and Corinzi, was founded in 588 BC in southern Albania, in a site dominating a fertile land bathed by the Aous (Vojussa) that served as a port.
It was a cultural center of late Hellenism and young Roman families flocked to do their education. Because of its position on the route of the Via Egnatia it was an important trading center, which exported cereals from the Musacchia plain and imported Greek products for southern Illyria.
At the "Egnatia" Street defined as "Via Militaris Romanorum Egnatia, here Illiricum, Macedonia et Thracia jungebantur pars occidentalis" - a great communication route that led from Durres to Byzantium - recently dedicated to Albania News a nice essay Olimpia Gargano.
The importance of Apollonia is also given by the coinage, from the middle of the fifth century BC to the third century AD
Here are some passages of the article by the archaeologist Sestieri, which remains valid even after many years from its writing, and which we have enriched with some illustrations taken from postcards of our archive, published in Albania in the 40 years by Edizioni Guljelm Luka of Tirana: «The Corinthians had founded Corcyra on the island of the same name: the Corfu of the Venetians.
In the 588 a handful of Corfiots, following the example of other comrades who had gone in search of new ports for trade, and new areas to be populated on the nearby Albanian coast, founded, consecrating it to Apollo, from which it took its name, the city of Apollonia. This rose in an elevated position, on twelve hills, from which the sea is discovered a short distance away; then the mouth of the Vojussa was very close, which the Corfiots called Aous, and which served excellently as a port for the fast and small settlers' boats.
The city grew and prospered, it was enriched with public and private buildings, temples, it became the object of the aims of those Illyrians who lived in the hinterland of present-day Albania, and a large part of its coasts, and they did not take kindly to the rising and the emergence of foreign colonies, and in the 229 BC they attacked it.
But the Apolloniats immediately asked and received help from Rome. Since then Apollonia was always a faithful friend and ally of Rome, and from this alliance it only drew advantages, and the Corfiot commercial port of call became one of the most celebrated universities in the Mediterranean.
In the 44 BC here came to study rhetoric the young Octavian in this that Cicero had called "Urbs gravis et nobilis" and here he had the news of the death of his adoptive father, Caesar.
The ascent of Apollonia continued, the buildings multiplied, new ones were added to the old ones, the city had theater, baths, odeon or "Theatrum tectum", that is covered, for concerts, poetic competitions, conferences, triumphal arches , libraries.
Greek or Italic marble statues adorned buildings and arcades, the temples raised their gables to the sky resplendent with the brightness of the sun.
Then the decadence began: the Vojussa withdrew its waters, leaving in place of its providential mouth a deadly marsh, and the earthquakes did the rest, breaking down the monuments and forcing the survivors, who escaped the scourge of malaria, to look for other seats.
The Turks, who kept these places for centuries, have made sure that no trace remains of what had not yet been buried by the earth and transported stones and columns to other places to make mosques, houses and menageries.
Only one column remained of the ancient Apollonia, testifying to the ancient greatness of this: on a hill in sight of the city they stand up straight, as if to indicate to the traveler the places that were once famous. Meanwhile, on the area of the the ancient city had formed the forest and thick scrub, where the wild boar, the hare, and the fox nestled.
Then, in the 14th century, a monastery was built, dedicated to the Madonna, on the ruins of the most important temple in the city, that of Apollo, who was its protector and eponym. Near the monastery, whose simple church is embellished by a delightful little portico, an age-old oak tree extends its sturdy branches which, with dense foliage, provide the restorative shade to the pilgrims who flock to the solemnity of 15 in August.
It was at the beginning of the last century, during the First World War, that an Austrian officer, who was a well-known archaeologist, decided to alternate his war efforts in search of the buried remains of Apollonia.
While the cannon roared, he, with his soldiers, carried out excavation essays and walked through the area of the ancient city, scrutinizing it with a watchful eye, thus giving the first news of the possibilities that opened up to the science of systematic exploration of the subsoil. in the light mosaics, columns, fragments of statues, Greek and Roman tombs, full of grave goods, and for the first time those small masterpieces of the Apollonian industrial art which are the funerary stelae were studied.
After a few years a French Mission began the excavations that lasted from the 1923 to the 1938, highlighting buildings in the central part of the city. Two Roman houses were dug, a noteworthy portico for the columns that have a capital, whose Ionic volutes are constituted by chalices of flowers, with an original and delicate decorative motif, limited by a wall that serves as a terracing to the hill of the overlooking Acropolis.
Beyond the portico is the Roman odeon, which still retains almost all its steps. Opposite the odeon, the monument of the Agoniotetes, similar to a theater surrounded by a rectangular wall, was the Senate of Roman Apollonia, erected by the agonoteta and the great priest for life Quint Villio Crispino Furio Proculo, in honor and in memory of his brother Villio Valenziano Furio Proculus, prefect of a cohort in Syria, and tribune of the legion X (or XIV) Gemina in Pannonia.
Between the two monuments are the pillars of a triumphal arch with three arches and nearby is the symbol of Apollonia itself, a kind of cylindrical obelisk terminating in a point, which is also reproduced on coins, and which probably derives from an ancient solar cult in which the God was reproduced from a betilo, in the likeness of the Egyptian obelisks.
On the right the library, and along the roadside, Roman shops.
So far the French mission had arrived, which with the beginning of the excavation of the baths had begun to thin out the veils that cover the face of the city. The center of the city had been discovered, and with the news that the ancient writers had given us, with the fortuitous discoveries that took place at all times, and from which they were able to know the results, a first idea although incomplete and still indistinct city could be had.
Other aspects that were beginning to take shape were those of art: various statues had been found in the porch, including some well-made Roman portraits, and on the Acropolis hill a bas-relief was discovered, which dates back to the time of the city's foundation and represents a battle between Greeks and Amazons: without doubt this is the oldest sculpture that has been discovered so far and one of the most valuable.
After the 1938 in Apollonia the silence had returned, until the whirlwind of war did not again disturb the secular peace of the Monastery and the cypresses and oaks that surround it.
As soon as the theater of war has moved away once again the archaeologist has sunk the pickaxe in his clods, and once again the ground of the city has not been stingy with finds and has not disappointed the hopes of those who questioned it with anxiety and with love.
The inhabitants of four villages that surround the urban territory have come to lend their work and other vestiges have been added to those that had already appeared in the light. A Hellenistic Gymnasium - later used as a house in Roman times - a Roman funerary temple and a imposing wall bastion constitute the balance of the excavations dated from the 15 of September to the 30 November 1941.
The Gymnasium built at an ancient temple, of which a wall is preserved, is characterized by a vast space, which was to be used for gymnastic exercises, it is equipped with a bathroom with hydraulic systems, and rooms that were to be used by the students to depose the clothes and get dressed.
Inside is an altar on which, written in beautiful and very clear Doric characters, it is a dedication to Aphrodite, and a list of names of pritani and magistrates, probably in charge of the institution. Four marble statuettes, one of Eros and three female, have been found: of these two represent Artemide Cacciatrice, dressed in light and fluttering clothes and the third represents a young woman standing, leaning against a pillar, dressed in a chiton and himation.
Brick constructions that divide the primitive environments, hearths and vase fragments show that in an age, on the basis of finds of coins by Antonino Pio and Geta, the building was used as a house from the middle of the second century AD to the beginning of III.
Even in the necropolis the searches have been crowned with success: in the Kryegjat valley a sumptuous sepulcher in the shape of a temple was discovered, built in rows of stones alternating with rows of bricks. It had two rooms, of which the statues of the owners of the tomb were to be built in one. The back part constituted the burial chamber, in which the urn for the ashes was found. The sumptuousness of the building suggests that the owners of the tomb belonged to one of the most conspicuous and noble families of Apollonia ».
The scholar thus concludes his essay: "Apollonia is not rich in legends like Butrint, but it also has its charm, regardless of the greater or lesser interest that the richness of its monuments can arouse. The serenity of the place where it rises, with the varied scenery that the mountains offer with the gigantic Tomori on one side and the infinite of the sea on the other, makes the traveler strongly feel the enchantment of the surrounding nature, and turns with a reverent heart the steps towards what remains of the ancient civilizations.
The results of the excavations and the traces that emerge on the ground allow us to hope that Apollonia will one day be the Pompei of Albania: then the monks of the Monastery, who are rarely disturbed in their days by the arrival of still few visitors, will see with popular wonder of tourists and scholars the streets of this city that will rise again for science and for our admiration ».
Pellegrino Claudio Sestieri is the author of an extensive and detailed preliminary report on the excavation campaign, carried out in the months of September-November 1941 in Apollonia d'Illiria by the Italian mission, on the initiative of the Directorate for Archeology of the Ministry of Education of the Kingdom of Albania. This report was published in Dossier I - Year III - March 1942 of the magazine "Albania" published by the Institute for International Political Studies in Milan.
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