Durrës is situated at one of the narrower points of the Adriatic Sea, opposite the Italian ports of Bari ( away) and Brindisi ( away). Durrës is home to Albania's main port, the Port of Durrës, and to the newest public university, the Aleksandër Moisiu University. It has a population of 115,550, while the metropolitan area has a population of 265,330. Moreover, it is the meeting point of national roads SH2 and SH4.
Founded in the 7th century BC by Greek colonists from Corinth and Corcyra under the name Epidamnos, it has been continuously inhabited for 2,700 years and is one of the oldest cities in Albania. Durrës served as Albania's national capital from 7 March 1914 until 11 February 1920 during the reign of William of Albania in Principality of Albania.
Though surviving remains are minimal, as one of the oldest cities in Albania, the city was founded as Epidamnos in the ancient region of Illyria in 627 BC by ancient Greek colonists from Corinth and Corcyra, modern-day Corfu. The general vicinity of Epidamnos was called Epidamnia. The city's geographical position was highly advantageous, as it was situated around a natural rocky harbour which was surrounded by inland swamps and high cliffs on the seaward side, making the city very difficult to attack from either land or sea.
Epidamnos was noted for being a politically advanced society, prompting Aristotle to praise its political system in controlling trade between the Greek colonists and the local population. However, Corinth and Corcyra, each with a claim to be "mother city" (metropolis), quarreled over the city, helping to precipitate the Peloponnesian War in 431 BC as one of the most significant battles took place on Epidamnos' seaside. Epidamnos was seized by Glaukias, an Illyrian king, in 312 BC with the help of the local Greek oligarchy. Later Queen Teuta attacked Epidamnos but withdrew when the Romans arrived the same year (229 BC) and expelled the Illyrian garrison from the city, including it thereafter in their protectorate. The Romans replaced the rule of Teuta with that of Demetrius of Pharos, one of her generals. He lost his kingdom, including Epidamnus, to the Romans in 219 BC at the Second Illyrian War. In the Third Illyrian War Epidamnus was attacked by Gentius but he was defeated by the Romans at the same year.
For Catullus, the city was Durrachium Hadriae tabernam, "the taberna of the Adriatic", one of the stopping places for a Roman traveling up the Adriatic, as Catullus had done himself in the sailing season of 56.
Roman and Byzantine rule
After the Illyrian Wars with the Roman Republic in 229 BC ended in a decisive defeat for the Illyrians, the city passed to Roman rule, under which it was developed as a major military and naval base. The Romans renamed it Dyrrachium (Greek: Δυρράχιον / Dyrrhachion). They considered the name Epidamnos to be inauspicious because of its wholly coincidental similarities with the Latin word damnum, meaning "loss" or "harm". The meaning of Dyrrachium ("bad spine" or "difficult ridge" in Greek) is unclear, but it has been suggested that it refers to the imposing cliffs near the city. Julius Caesar's rival Pompey made a stand there in 48 BC before fleeing south to Greece. Under Roman rule, Dyrrachium prospered; it became the western end of the Via Egnatia, the great Roman road that led to Thessalonica and on to Constantinople. Another lesser road led south to the city of Buthrotum, the modern Butrint. The Roman emperor Caesar Augustus made the city a colony for veterans of his legions following the Battle of Actium, proclaiming it a civitas libera (free town).
In the 4th century, Dyrrachium was made the capital of the Roman province of Epirus nova. It was the birthplace of the emperor Anastasius I in c. 430. Some time later that century, Dyrrachium was struck by a powerful earthquake which destroyed the city's defences. Anastasius I rebuilt and strengthened the city walls, thus creating the strongest fortifications in the western Balkans. The 12 m (36 ft)-high walls were so thick that, according to the Byzantine historian Anna Komnene, four horsemen could ride abreast on them. Significant portions of the ancient city defences still remain, although they have been much reduced over the centuries.
Like much of the rest of the Balkans, Dyrrachium and the surrounding Dyrraciensis provinciae suffered considerably from barbarian incursions during the Migrations Period. It was besieged in 481 by Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths, and in subsequent centuries had to fend off frequent attacks by the Bulgarians. Unaffected by the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the city continued under the Byzantine Empire as an important port and a major link between the Empire and western Europe.
The city and the surrounding coast became a Byzantine province (the Theme of Dyrrhachium) in the early 9th century. Byzantine rule was contested by the Bulgarians under Simeon the Great, but it remained in Byzantine hands until the late 10th century, when Samuel of Bulgaria conquered the city and held it until c. 1005.
Dyrrachium was lost in February 1082 by the emperor Alexios I Komnenos to the Normans under Robert Guiscard and his son Bohemund in the Battle of Dyrrhachium. Byzantine control was restored a few years later but the city was lost again in 1185, this time to the Norman King William II of Sicily. In 1205, after the Fourth Crusade, the city was transferred to the rule of the Republic of Venice, which formed the "Duchy of Durazzo". This Duchy was conquered in 1213 and the city taken by the Despotate of Epirus. In 1257, Durrës was briefly occupied by the King of Sicily, Manfred of Hohenstaufen. It was re-occupied by the Despote of Epirus Michael II until 1259 when the Despotate was defeated by the Byzantine Empire of Nicaea in the Battle of Pelagonia. In the 1270s, Durrës was again controlled by Nikephoros I Angelos, the son of Despot Michael II, who in 1278 was forced to yield the city to Charles d' Anjou (Charles I of Sicily).
In c. 1273, it was wrecked by a devastating earthquake (according to George Pachymeres; R. Elsie, Early Albania (2003), p. 12) but soon recovered. It was briefly occupied by King Milutin of Serbia in 1296.
In the early 14th century, the city was ruled by a coalition of Anjous, Hungarians, and Albanians of the Thopia family. In 1317 or 1318, the area was taken by the Serbs and remained under their rule until the 1350s. At that time the Popes, supported by the Anjous, increased their diplomatic and political activity in the area, by using the Latin bishops, including the archbishop of Durrës. The city had been a religious center of Catholicism after the Anjou were installed in Durrës. In 1272, a Catholic archbishop was installed, and until the mid-14th century there were both Catholic and Orthodox archbishops of Durrës.
Two Irish pilgrims who visited Albania on their way to Jerusalem in 1322, reported that Durrës was “inhabited by Latins, Greeks, perfidious Jews and barbaric Albanians”.
When the Serbian King (Tsar) Dušan died in 1355, the city passed into the hands of the Albanian family of Thopias. In 1376 the Navarrese Company Louis of Évreux, Duke of Durazzo, who had gained the rights on the Kingdom of Albania from his second wife, attacked and conquered the city, but in 1383 Karl Topia regained control of the city. The Republic of Venice regained control in 1392 and retained the city, known as Durazzo in those years, as part of the Albania Veneta. It fended off a siege by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in 1466 but fell to Ottoman forces in 1501.
Durrës became a Christian city quite early on; its bishopric was created around 58 and was raised to the status of an archbishopric in 449. It was also the seat of a Greek Orthodox metropolitan bishop. Under Turkish rule, many of its inhabitants converted to Islam and many mosques were erected. This city was renamed as Dıraç but did not prosper under the Ottomans and its importance declined greatly. By the mid-19th century, its population was said to have been only about 1,000 people living in some 200 households. Its decrepitude was noted by foreign observers in the early 20th century: "The walls are dilapidated; plane-trees grow on the gigantic ruins of its old Byzantine citadel; and its harbour, once equally commodious and safe, is gradually becoming silted up." It was a main centre in İşkodra Vilayet before 1912.
Durrës was an active city in the Albanian national liberation movement in the periods 1878-1881 and 1910-1912. Ismail Qemali raised the Albanian flag on November 26, 1912 but the city was occupied by the Kingdom of Serbia three days later during the First Balkan War. On November 29, 1912, Durrës became the county town of the Durrës County one of the counties of the Kingdom of Serbia established on the part of the territory of Albania occupied from Ottoman Empire. The Durrës County had four districts: Durrës, Lezha, Elbasan and Tirana. The army of the Kingdom of Serbia retreated from Durrës in April 1913. The city became Albania's second national capital (after Vlora) on March 7, 1914 under the brief rule of Prince William of Wied. It remained Albania's capital until February 11, 1920 when the Congress of Lushnjë made Tirana the new capital.
During the First World War, the city was occupied by Italy in 1915 and by Austria-Hungary in 1916-1918. It was captured by the Allies in October 1918. Restored to Albanian sovereignty, Durrës became the country's temporary capital between 1918 and March 1920. It experienced an economic boom due to Italian investments and developed into a major seaport under the rule of King Zog, with a modern harbour being constructed in 1927.
An earthquake in 1926 damaged some of the city and the rebuilding that followed gave the city its more modern appearance. During the 1930s, the Bank of Athens had a branch in the city.
The Second World War saw Durrës (called Durazzo again in Italian) and the rest of Albania being annexed to the Kingdom of Italy between 1939–1943, then occupied by Nazi Germany until 1944. Durrës's strategic value as a seaport made it a high-profile military target for both sides. It was the site of the initial Italian landings on 7 April 1939 (and was fiercely defended by Mujo Ulqinaku) as well as the launch point for the ill-fated Italian invasion of Greece. The city was heavily damaged by Allied bombing during the war and the port installations were blown up by the retreating Germans in 1944.
The Communist regime of Enver Hoxha rapidly rebuilt the city following the war, establishing a variety of heavy industries in the area and expanding the port. It became the terminus of Albania's first railway, begun in 1947. In the late 1980s, the city was briefly renamed Durrës-Enver Hoxha. The city was and continuous to remain the center of Albanian mass beach tourism.
Following the collapse of communist rule in 1990, Durrës became the focus of mass emigrations from Albania with ships being hijacked in the harbour and sailed at gunpoint to Italy. In one month alone, August 1991, over 20,000 people migrated to Italy in this fashion. Italy intervened militarily, putting the port area under its control, and the city became the center of the European Community's "Operation Pelican", a food-aid program.
In 1997, Albania slid into anarchy following the collapse of a massive pyramid scheme which devastated the national economy. An Italian-led peacekeeping force was controversially deployed to Durrës and other Albanian cities to restore order, although there were widespread suggestions that the real purpose of "Operation Alba" was to prevent economic refugees continuing to use Albania's ports as a route to migrate to Italy.
Following the start of the 21st century, Durrës has been revitalized as many streets were repaved, while parks and façades experienced a face lift.