It was just a few years ago. 1966 in fact. An Albanian (Vangjel Toçi) living in Durrës (the country’s largest port and site of the ancient Roman city of Dyrrachium), noticed that a fig tree in his garden had suddenly sunk a few feet into the ground. All very weird.
So he naturally started investigating. Lo and behold, beneath his plot of land, was an ancient Roman Amphitheatre. Historians knew that the city had one, but didn’t know where. And it seemed improbable that they would ever discover it – over the centuries the area has had numerous earthquakes and, more recently, Durrës has been sprawled with the inevitable concrete of modern urbanisation. But having found it, they’d discovered an ancient wonder – a theatre that could seat around 18,000 spectators!
Well, I was very fortunate both to have a bit of time before my returning flight and that my awesome Albanian colleague, Zef, had time to show a couple of us around. It was a huge treat. Inevitably I took a few pics, and equally inevitably, a panorama.
The place is steeped in religious history. Its Roman origins seem to comply with usual stereotypes – it was the scene of brutal persecution of Christians (and of course, many others). Apparently, even by AD53, Dyrrachium already had 70 Christian families living in the city. An extraordinary number after such a short time (i.e. within perhaps only 2 decades of Jesus’ Crucifixion). But Roman Catholic historical tradition has it (and I don’t know whether or not this is more legend than history – but it’s not impossible) that this very amphitheatre was the site of the martyrdom of Paul’s great gospel partner, Titus (to whom the great NT pastoral epistle was written).
But then, by the 4th Century, and then with the later influence of Byzantine Christianity, this became a place of Christian worship, with this small chapel built into the side (immediately below – fortuitously captured at just the moment that the setting sun shone on it!). Within thenow excavated corridors beneath the tiered seating, there are all kinds of evidences of this usage – see the Christian cross carved out of the stone, the mosaics of saints, and below, the baptismal font.
Of course, centuries later, after earthquakes, invasions and political turmoil, Albania was swallowed up by the Ottoman Empire, under whose sway the country remained for 500 years until 1911. Hence the imposing mosque at the head of one of the city’s main streets. Then they suffered under Hoxha’s brutal atheist regime until 1991. Hence the fact that it was only recently renovated.
Only a small proportion of the amphitheatre has been uncovered – there’s the small problem of a few homeowners reluctant to sell up and the lack of financial resources to relocate them.
But even so – from what is visible, it is clearly amazing site. But just imagine the initial shock of digging that up in your back garden!