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Along the Via Egnatia: from Ohrid to Elbasan in Albania

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Along the Via Egnatia: from Ohrid to Elbasan in Albania

The Ancient Roman Via Egnatia enters Albania, which at that time was called Illyricum, from Ohrid in the east, then ran through Elbasan from where one arm directly connected to Dyrrhachion (todays Durres).

Another one diverged to Apollonia and Antipatrea (Berat) to end in Dyrrhachion on the Adriatic coast too where ships ferried people and goods to Brundisium (Brindisi) on the Italian side. As mentioned earlier the Via Egnatia was built by the Romans in the 2nd century AD and served as a major connection between Byzantium and Rome.

Philipp II, father of Alexander the Great, came to Lychnidos

b_450_450_16777215_00_images_griechenland_aigai-koenigsgraeber.JPGThe first traces of Ohrid go back to the conquest by Philip II of Macedonia, Alexander’s father, when the city was still called Lychnidos. After a first truce with the Illyrian King Bardylis that was sealed in 360 BC by marrying his grand-daughter Audata, Philip attacked in force in 357 BC, killing some 7,000 Illyrians. The outcome was that Philip extended the power of Macedonia all the way to Lake Ohrid, a territory that Alexander inherited. After the tumultuous and unstable centuries after Alexander’s death, the Romans arrived in 148 BC. By the end of the 3rd century AD most classical and Hellenistic temples were torn down by the early Christians who built their colossal churches right on top. The very name Ohrid, however, appears for the first time in 879 AD.

Today Ohrid is part of the Republic Macedonia (FYROM) and a pilgrimage site because of its many early Christian churches. The city counts as many as 365 of them and the monastery of Saint Naum (established in 905) may well be the oldest.

Churches and Roman theatre in Lychnidos

b_450_450_16777215_00_images_mazedonien_ohridsee-ohrid.jpgWell, this takes us too far away from Alexander’s days, of which close to nothing remains. There is however the ancient theatre, built in 200 BC which is the only one from Hellenistic times, since all others in FYROM are Roman. The location of this theatre is as always, sublime, gently nestled between two hills with a breathtaking view over Lake Ohrid. Unfortunately only the lower section of this theatre has been preserved and we have no estimate about its seating capacity. It was initially used for gladiator fights but soon served as execution place for the early Christians. The locals resented these practices and after the demise of the Roman Empire, they buried the theatre under a thick layer of soil. This is actually the part we are seeing today which was discovered by accident in the 1980’s during construction works.

However, we have not seen any traces of the Via Egnatia here at Ohrid. It is almost impossible to enter the city without passing through one of the two gates in the defensive walls from the 10th century which the Ottomans continued to use, so this may be a place to look for this famous road?

We had more luck at Elbasan, where the route of the Via Egnatia has been clearly picked up and is even signposted as “The Rehabilitation of the Egnatia Road”, which was funded by the European Union. It runs right through the centre of the city and I wonder whether someone did search for its original pavement. It now blends in with the neighbouring streets although it has been established that it matches the Roman Decumanus of Elbasan. Well, exciting anyway to find some traces!

The fortification of Elbasan - roman Castrum

b_450_450_16777215_00_images_albania_elbasan-roemisch.jpgLuckily Elbasan has more to offer. Outside the city walls, one cannot miss the remains of a Byzantine Basilica from the 5th-6th century where mosaic floors and painted walls were found. Today it is a park where the locals linger in the shade of the trees and drink from the adjacent well decorated with slabs recuperated from the basilica. The city walls here are quite impressive and in a good state of conservation. The first to protect the city were obviously the Romans, who in the 3rd or 4th century built a substantial fortress with towers. Later Emperor Justinian improved the fortifications which were however of no use against the repeated attacks of the Huns and other invaders from the north. Reconstruction started under Sultan Mehmet II in 1466 and Elbasan remained a main Ottoman centre for the next 450 years or so. This means that these sturdy walls were maintained till early 20th century and it shows.
So, in the end, there is still a lot of work to do in order to map this famous Via Egnatia. I hope that in time more of its itinerary and pavement will surface.

Please read as well:

Ohrid - lovely city hike with Marta and Luis
The ancient Roman Elbasan - once Scampa at Via Egnatia
Durres on the Via Egnatia - city tour and Roman history

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