Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Drangiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria on the Indus - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Friday, May 15, 2015

Revealing Byllis in ancient Illyria

Before my trip to Albania in search of Illyrian remains (see: A closer look at Illyria), I had never heard of Byllis for even on the internet the information is pretty scant and vague. Yet the site of Byllis is one of those where you feel at home and where every ruin is exactly as it should be – a very strange awareness!

The location of Byllis has nothing to envy to any antique city and certainly not to any Greek or Roman city situated at the border between Illyria and Epirus. Had I studied the life and conquests of Pyrrhus of Epirus more closely (which I’ll do pretty soon) I would inevitably have come to this remarkable city, but at this stage, it is a blank page. The origins of Byllis are still obscure but according to one theory, it may well have been founded by this very King Pyrrhus who is still held in high esteem today. Another theory, confirmed by numismatics, pretends however that the city was built by Myrmidons returning from the Trojan War.

Byllis is perched high on top of a hill some 520 meters above sea level, overlooking the Vjosa River and definitely occupying a strong strategic position. The city is surrounded by sturdy Hellenistic walls over a distance of more than two kilometres, 3.5 meters thick and reaching a height of eight to nine meters; it is interrupted by six fortified entrance gates. No less than four inscriptions testify of the reconstruction by the Byzantine engineer Victorinus, who worked upon instructions of Emperor Justinian (end 5th-early 6th century AD).  Enough of this wall has survived to underscore the sense of security the inhabitants must have felt. To me, it looks like an eagle’s nest overlooking and commanding the entire valley below.

It is however very difficult to label Byllis as Illyrian since the vehicular language was Greek (although most people were bilingual) and all the institutions, officials, fortifications and the city planning were clearly Greek also. The ancient road to Apollonia ran right through Byllis connecting the city with Macedonia at one end and with Antigonea in Epirus on the other side. Buildings like the stadium and theater, for instance, are pure Hellenistic.

I first walk through so-called storage rooms, but it is unclear why they were built here and who could profit of this storage area. Huge earthen jars and pots, now in shards, remind me of Minoan pottery and were definitely well-secured by the maze of thick-walled rooms.

Pretty soon I arrive at the recognizable Forum – no doubt built on top of the Hellenistic Agora - surrounded by an L-shaped Stoa, two stories high. The earliest agora has been dated to the second quarter of the 3rd century BC and the 11.4 meters wide Stoa ran over a total length of 144 meters: the eastern wing (partially cut out of the rock) was 37 meters long and the southern wing 73 meters. The supporting columns were of Doric order with hexagonal columns on the ground floor while Ionic columns on the upper floor supported the roof. The set-up of this Stoa is inspired by the one at Apollonia (see: Along the Via Egnatia: Apollonia). Later the Byzantines built their basilicas inside and in between these remains, meaning that one has to be alert when looking at stones and walls, but the typical Byzantine crosses on column capitals and altar slabs are very helpful.

Comfortably nestled against the hillside, most of the theater has survived although it has been used as a quarry by the Byzantines.  The original Greek theater was built in the middle of the 3rd century BC and counted 40 tiers, providing seating for as many as 7,500 spectators, which based on the size of Byllis means that visitors from neighbouring towns attended the performances. It is said to resemble the theater of Dodona in neighbouring Epirus, but I am not in a position to compare. Clearly this theater has been “updated” by the Romans who added the skena of which only the foundations remain. A corner of the seating area has been reconstructed to give a better feel of the building, and it is interesting to look around for the many details of decorations for the walls, seats and the trimmings of the skena. I find it striking that the VIP seats are still present around the orchestra in the Greek fashion, meaning that this theater was never adapted to be used for animal fights as the Romans generally loved to organize. The view from up here is, as always, breathtaking!

Turning away from the steep edge on which the theater stands, are the remains of the arsenal also from the 3rd century BC and reconstructed during the 1st century AD using the so-called opus reticulatum technique (square diamond-shaped tufa blocks positioned with their corners downwards). It lays about three meters below the adjacent prytaneion (sacred meeting place) and measures 18.2x6.2 meters. This prytaneion, dedicated to Artemis, in turn, is 20 meters long by 6 meters wide and may well be one of the earliest buildings in the Agora.

Byllis also had a stadium from the end of the third century BC, one of the strangest constructions I have ever seen. Only one side of this stadium has been preserved. From the original length of 190 meters, the bottom seating stairs have survived over 134 meters. Near the theater, we can find as many as 19 steps still in place, but overall there are no more than three or four. But what makes this track so unique is that it runs alongside a huge public water cistern of 51 meters and 4.2 meters wide. This means that this vaulted cistern with a capacity of about 1,200 m3 was constructed underneath the stadium itself. The water was collected from the roofs of the Stoa and from the stairs on the south side of the stadium. In Byzantine times, Emperor Justinian built his baths right next to this cistern and the facilities were used till around 550 AD.

Remarkably, some remains of private houses have been excavated as well, both Hellenistic and Roman, which I think is rather unusual. Hellenistic houses are rare and I’m glad to find a clear layout for one of them. It dates from the third century BC and measures 30x25 meters. It is built around a central courtyards of approximately 10x10m surrounded by colonnades behind which we find the various rooms; typically it had its own well (see also: Olynthus and its houses).

All in all, I find it strange that neither here at Byllis nor at any of the other ancient cities in the area (Apollonia, Brundisium, Buthrotum, Dyrrhachium) so little remains from the Macedonian occupation of Alexander and his father, Philip II, before him. Obviously, neither king was there to build a city as their only purpose was to submit the Illyrians as a whole, but since it were the Greeks who colonized this region in the first place it is awkward to find only sporadic remains of that period – unless the Romans have thoroughly destroyed the buildings that existed previously in those settlements.

[Click here to see all pictures of Byllis]

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