Sunday, 20 August 2017

Byllis, Albania: Ancient City in the Sky

With its fascinating ruins amid breathtaking views, the ancient city of Byllis is one of the numerous hidden treasures of south-central Albania. Founded by the Illyrians, then conquered and eventually abandoned by the Romans in 586AD, now it remains an underdeveloped and little known archaeological site.

During his trip there, contributor Bruce Macphail braves the area’s almost non-existent infrastructure and even goes hitch-hiking, to be awarded by a third-century BC Illyrian theatre and multiple early Christian churches’ remains on the backdrop of stunning natural landscapes.

This article is part of a series of travelogues by Bruce Macphail as his makes his way from Istanbul to Durrës, Albania, along Via Egnatia, the Roman road that cut through the Balkans.

Text and photographs by Bruce Macphail

Set in the middle of the Mallakastra mountain range, the landscape around the ancient city of Byllis is as impressive as the archaeological remains. The city’s ruins stand out against the background of the surrounding, gently rolling hills and over the winding Vjosa River.

The city’s origins date back to the fourth century BC, when it was founded by the Illyrians. The original set of walls, whose foundations remain to this day, were built by them during the third century BC. They run around a vast area, in a triangular shape, for about two kilometres. Though they are in varying states around the site, with some parts having been renovated, the structure includes some of the original stones.

The third-century BC theatre, with its 7,500 spectator capacity, however, is the site’s most impressive structure remaining from the Illyrians’ times. It is not particularly well preserved but there are enough stones remaining to get an idea of what the structure looked like. As it was built by using the slope of the mountain, the theatre remains overlook the stunning landscape of the Vjosa River, embedded in a dramatic valley.

The theatre’s stage had two stories during Illyrian rule but the Romans remodelled it during their domination of the city.

They invaded the region in the third century during the Illyrian wars, carried out as retaliation against the Illyrian kingdom’s disruption of trade along the Adriatic. The years following the Illyrian wars of 229 BC and 219 BC marked the end of Illyrian self rule over the region, replaced by a millennium of Roman and Byzantine rule.

After the Roman conquest, Byllis turned into a Roman colony and is said to have been a supply base for the Roman legions of Julius Cesar. The city was mentioned in one of Cicero’s orations, in a fiery speech damning Marcus Brutus for occupying the city.

During Roman rule the city was sacked twice by foreign invaders. The first was an attack by the Visigoths at the end of the fourth century AD, who reached the region after their siege of Adrianople (modern day Edirne in Turkey).

The attack led the Romans to pursue serious renovation work on the city, from which date some of the city’s best preserved sites. It was following the sacking that another set of walls was constructed, which made the fortified area much smaller. The construction, called Vicotrinus’s wall, was named after the Roman general that carried out the project at the request of Emperor Justinian.

Byllis reached its heyday after the Visigoth invasion, as testified by the establishment of a bishopric during Justinian’s rule. Having its own Bishop shows the importance the city held in the region and explains why the site had a remarkably large number of churches in a small area, making it one of the most important archaeological sites for early Christian churches.

From them, the most impressive is the Cathedral, whose foundations were laid down in the fourth century. The original structure was expanded in the fifth century, when an atrium and galleries were added. An Episcopal complex was supplemented to the cathedral under the rule of Justinian, between 482 and 565, as Eastern Roman Emperor.

All in all, the best maintained ruins are within the city’s second set of walls. There is a café on the site located within Victorinus’s wall but it is closed, somewhat surprising at the peak of tourist season but reflects on the lack of visitors to the site.

In 586 AD, Byllis was sacked again, which led its inhabitants to leave the city which then remained uninhabited to this day. After the attack, the Bishopric was moved to nearby town of Ballsh, a transformation of the name Byllis, and unlike other fortified cities in Albania it did not remain inhabited.

Today it is preserved as an isolated archaeological site, with the odd horse grazing and a peasant woman herding turkeys.

There is a sign post announcing an entry fee to the sight but there were no guards to collect the fee when I visited. Security around the site is very sparse – there are fences around some of the best preserved excavations but their gates are left unlocked, leaving full access to walk across sensitive areas.

A number of scattered boards explain the history of the site and its various remains in Albanian and English. Strangely the location of the panels doesn’t always match the accompanying ruins, which can be somewhat confusing and made even more so by the fact that some of the ruins overlap each other in parts. Nonetheless, the boards offer valuable information on the ruins which include four other churches, the different gates of the Illyrian walls, a bath house, a single track stadium, the agora, and Victorinus’s wall.

The infrastructure around the site is almost non-existent, making access difficult but at the same time adding to the experience for more adventurous travellers. Byllis is not on the typical tourist trail for foreign visitors to Albania and even many Albanians seem to have never heard of it.

Given Albania’s rich history and the limited development of its archaeological sites, this is not unusual or unique to Byllis. In coming years, however, it will undoubtedly receive more attention as the country’s tourism industry develops.

Practical Information:

How to get there: Getting to the actual site is somewhat of a challenge, but part of the fun for the adventure-minded. The nearest town is Ballsh which is located on the main mountain road, 150 kilometres south of Tirana, so it can be accessed from several buses from the capital heading to the southern mountain destinations. The trip from the capital to Ballsch takes about 3 hours. From Ballsh, it is another 7 kilometres uphill – it is possible to walk, through hitchhiking is a lot easier. Albania is probably one of the most hitchhiking-friendly countries. The practice is very common and the drivers very friendly to foreign visitors. It is often to best way to access the sites, as few of them are linked with public transport.

What to bring: While in Ballsh, which is not a town worth spending much time in, it is recommended to stock up on some supplies for the excursion as there are no shops in or near the site and its hilltop location makes it a rather dehydrating place. The views are on the surrounding mountains and valleys make it an ideal place for a picnic.

Where to stay: For accomodation, it is best to continue on to Gjirokastër or do a day trip from Tirana, as Ballsh is not a place worth spending the night in.

Read more about Albania on

Albania: Monastery at Mesopotam, Photographed by Massimiliano Fusari
Gjirokastër: Albania’s Town of the Stones
Albania: Four Reasons to Visit Europe's Least Known Country
The Blue Eye Water Spring in Southern Albania Beckons with Coolness
Byllis, Albania: Ancient City in the Sky

Towns of Note: Berat, Albania




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