BYLLIS, A SECRET ARCHEOLOGICAL SITE IN ALBANIA

On our trip to Albania, in June, we planned to visit the archeological site of Byllis. It was not easy to discover this place on the map of Albania. However, gathering internet data about cultural monuments in Albania, we succeeded in finding some information about this ancient city, whose remains are situated north-east of Vlore, 25 kilometers from the sea.


Coming from Vlora, we took the new highway to Tepelene and Gjirokaster and then turned left to Ballsh. The road was bad, full of potholes and landslides. Finally we succeeded in finding the road to Byllis, turning left to the village of Helak. There were no signposts and we had to ask several times where we could find the famous “archeological park”. What a surprise to discover a new narrow asphalt road in Helak that lead us uphill to ancient Hellenic walls we could hardly pass with our camper. We arrived in Byllis!

The road stopped at the top of the hill. We found the guard and paid him the entrance fee of 600 lek. He showed us a place where we could park our camper on the very edge of the hilltop. A magnificent place to spend the night! The site itself appeared to be huge: in former times, the walls of Byllis were 2,200m long, with 6 gates, enclosing 30 hectares of a plain on a hill 524m above sea level.

From an altitude of around 500 meters we had a breathtaking view of the surrounding Mallakastra hills and the Vjosa river. It was very quiet up here. The guard showed us the remnants of a huge cathedral built in the 5th century. We did not believe our eyes, as this place is hardly mentioned in the tourist guides about Albania! Byllis Cathedral covers an area of more than 1 ha and is the largest monument in the city. The floor of the Basilica, decorated with precious mosaics, showing everyday life scenes of shepherds and fishermen, remains the largest territory covered with mosaics ever discovered in Albania.

It was great to enjoy the sunset behind the surrounding hills. The peaceful environment was only disturbed by the sudden appearance of a man on a mule, coming from a narrow donkey path from the village downhill. He greeted us cordially and disappeared in the dark.

For the Albanians, the city of Byllis, dating back to the 4th century B.C, is one of the most important archeological sites in Albania. It has been the largest city of Southern Illyria at the time. Due to its dominating position over the Vjosa river, every movement through the valley and surrounding hills could be checked from Byllis city. Bronze coins of the city, dating back to year 270 B.C., prove the prosperity of Bylis in antiquity.

After the relaxing evening spent on the hilltop, we had a wonderful night. The silence was absolute and the stars above shined brightly above the wonderful environment.

Next morning we visited the theatre which is, of course, the most important monument of the ancient city. In harmony with the large stoa and the stadium, it forms the “agora” (the main square), dating back to the 3th century B.C.  The vista on the Vjosa river was magnificent from this point.

Despite of the fact that the city was rebuilt and fortified from the second half of the 6th century A.D., it had a period of decline. A second destruction by the Slavs in 586 led to Byllis being abandoned permanently.

Nowadays, there are still a lot of opportunities for archeologists to discover new buildings, objects and materials. Until then, sheep are grazing through the ruins and the open surfaces only show beautiful plants and smelling flowers. The mosaics are covered with gravel in order to protect them. We did not see a single tourist up there, only some locals visiting the restaurant on the panorama point.

When will foreign tourists start to discover this amazing place? How long will it remain authentic? I am curious when this archeological site will be promoted more intensively by the Albanian tourism organization. As far as we are concerned: we will always remember Byllis as a magical place, visited only by shepherds from the nearby village.

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