Hospitality and enthusiasm in the peaceful shores
When the Prussian Cavalry officer Wilhelm von Wied and his convoy entered the bay of Durrës, traveling in a yacht offered by the Austrian Admiralty, at midday of March 7, they were amazed by what they saw: in front of them on the mainland, underneath the hill, small houses with white walls and red rooftops pressed close to each other. This was an oriental landscape with a grayish-green background, with soft hills and a blue sea, peaceful and deep, this was the city of Durrës, the capital of Albania.
Where fishing boats were harbored at the square in front of the port, a colorful crowd was waiting. Cannons from the old Venetian fortress roared, showing gratitude for the arrival of the new prince. Right after, the rhythms of tambourines and harmonicas, and professional dancers greeted the festive ceremony.
It was 1914 and it was a celebration day for the city, which resembled more of a village, inhabited by six or seven thousand people.
Signals coming from the underground
One hundred years is a short time for Dyrrachium, which is thousands of years old, but today the city has changed tremendously! The old one has remained only in pictures. Or buried underground!
The Europeans coming from across the shores find a polluted bay and a shocking landscape: towers pressed deep in land, their heights hiding the hills in the background. The wooden rigs of small fishing boats of the past have been replaced by the tall steel cranes of the present. The port has expanded and the color of the water changed to gray. The city inhabited by two hundred thousand people is using its energies toward a chaotic and aggressive development.
So naturally, the beautiful past sleeps under the ruins and no one makes any effort to awaken it… but there comes a time that also the conscience of the people awakens!
The blow of hammers and the clatter of construction machines that work incessantly on the square before the port of the city stopped this Saturday. The archeologists intervened and brought everything to a halt. The ruins that came to the surface were unusual. It had been some time that the citizens of the city had blown the horn for possible discoveries, exactly in the area where there was construction work. Their concerns were real and caused a public commotion, and rightly so.
The width of the walls under the ruins and the full profile of a medieval cannon, just one meter under the surface of the road, inside the protected zone, was a surprise.
“We weren’t expecting them there but somehow deeper inside the protected area,” says Ledion Lako, the director of the Region’s National Culture.
“This shows that the city around the 18th century could have already been developed beyond our expectations. We are working to document everything and later we will pass on our results to the National Council of Archeology for an interpretation,” added Mr. Lako.
The construction work that is going on is to build a square in front of the port entrance or Vela, as it known from the general public. It is an urban project that is worth millions of euros and according to its clients it plans to build a walking platform in the square in front of the Venetian tower. It aims to better organize the traffic by leading it underground and constructing a sail of concrete over the square. The mayor of the city, Vangjush Dako, wants to make this concrete object in the shape of a sail, the new image of the city.
The public has not been sufficiently swayed by neither the metaphor of the imaginary wooden boat with steel rigs, nor the class of Bianco Carrara C, white marble tiles that are expected to be laid in the square before the port.
Critical voices speak of the unjustifiedly high expenses of the project: spending an overcharge of six million euro is not necessary.
A friend in need is a good friend indeed
Under a name similar to the urban plan in Tirana, “Tirana 2030,” of the Italian architect Boeri, “Durrësi 2020” sums up the renewal projects of the city, the Vela (or Veliera) project that is part of it. Its desginer is another Italian architect, the clamorous Marco Casamonti.
This architect has a career painted in chiaroscuro. He was in the brink of bankruptcy in December 2008, he was arrested, incarcerated and charged with corruption and bribery in Florence, Italy. But thanks to his friends, luck didn’t desert him! One of them became the Prime Minister of Albania in 2013, after having served as a mayor. Work was not lacking for him either!
After building a 85 m tall tower in Tirana (Tirana 4Evergreen Tower), Marco Casamonti embarked on a new job: the project for the new stadium, the National Arena, an investment worth 50 million euro.
Right at the same time, the mayor of Durrës presented the plan for building the new square at the port entrance. And surprisingly, the architect of the project is: Marco Casamonti. The bad days are behind for Marco Casamonti, but the projects he is managing are met with fresh noise and protest.
For the Italian architect this concrete sail, in the city once famous, can shift the focus from the gigantic and horrendous buildings that line up along the coast, at the entrance, by the port. Maybe the Veliera project can serve as a maneuver to capture the curiosity of the visitor that will arrive from the sea. This is better left for the future! But what the sail is revealing to us right now, is not what it could hide, but what it could cover and bury forever!
Bureaucracy that buries
“The National Council of Archeology will come to a decision today or tomorrow,” says the Director of the Institute of Archeology, Professor Luan Përzhita.
“We believe that we have discovered the foundations of a building belonging to the Ottoman administration. There are many of these around the area. Close to it we found the residence of Prince Wied as well. But the earthquake destroyed almost everything in 1926. If objects of value are discovered they will be sent to the museum. A final evaluation is not ready yet! The situation is under control! No one can damage them!,” Mr. Përzhita assures us.
The sea wind of the coastal city may not move the concrete sail that will strongly anchored in the ground, but the word of the archeologists will travel. What is expected to happen holds another concern: the byzantine wall on its east, whose traces will meander under the future walking platform. Rising like a nose over the earth’s surface, where the foundations of “Fly Tower” end, it hides, not very deep underneath the ground delimited by the foundation of the Venetian Tower.
Earlier the media published pictures of possible findings that were suspected to be in the protected area. It didn’t take much time and the speculations were confirmed! Under pressure, thanks to civil initiatives, the Regional Directory of National Culture came in action. It asked the National Council of Archeology for an approval of their proposal. Decision no. 1 of the National Council of Archeology dated January 24, 2017, demanded from the investor, in this case the mayor of Durrës, not to dig along the length of the fortification and to fix the plot of the wall with rubble instead of concrete.
“The Institute of Archeology has confirmed that the wall is found under the plot for construction and will not be touched,” the Minister of Culture said, reaffirming that the wall will be protected.
“We have signed an agreement with the Municipality of Durrës and have come to an agreement that the wall under the ruins will not be touched. We envision an intervention in May or June… There are several possibilities to display it,” says Professor Përzhita.
Will it be uncovered?
No! Unfortunately, the wall won’t be uncovered! No one denies it! Even though the square is being reconsidered, if it is financed properly, this old Byzantine fortress, like fifteen centuries ago, has the chance to see the light of the sun and to stand glorified before the numerous visitors, but no! It will be covered again!
If we look at the technical drawings of the Veliera Project, there is no indication showing that it is being built inside a protected area! No line, mark or convention showing that we are dealing with specific archeological layers! It is hard for some to believe that the project is being applied in an area that holds underneath objects of significant value.
No extra cost is accounted for possible dangers or deviations or a possible withdrawal of the project in order to protect the layers. From the looks of it, the millions spent until now are not enough.
Here it is important that we raise some questions. What value does all the struggle have, the formalities and bureaucracy, actions and teams, when the results are known since the beginning? What play is the Ministry of Culture putting on stage with all these official decisions that do not affect anyone? Or, are they simply protocol numbers in the archive?
Among urban archeologists, urban planners, and architects there is always a dilemma: can we sustain an object that holds touristic interest? The experience shows that in Durrës the answer is negative.
The common crime
“The debate for public work and archeological areas is interesting for researchers, but we build water supply and sewer systems,” says the mayor of the city, Mr. Dako. Naturally, from the perspective of a businessman heritage cannot put a halt to the development of a city. With a feverish desire, in the name of this development, since the first hour of the discoveries, he sent a group of workers to help the archeologists working at the site. It is clear that for him the procedure of filing is only a temporary drag that cannot stop the continuation of the work.
Mayor Dako, though maybe the last, is not the only one. Drafting a list of advantages and disadvantages is a difficult mission.
Through decades, since the fall of communism, the city has opened its doors to everything but the doors of heritage were closed forever! The list of mayors is ugly in the historical city of Durrës. For 26 years in a row, many objects and monuments were ruined, damaged, and transformed: The amphitheater was surrounded with illegal buildings, the mosaic close to the Palace of Sports was damaged and the roman neighborhood disappeared…
Tens of private house foundations have buried evidence of past history forever. And now the wall is in danger of being left under ruins…
Electoral campaign flags will soon be erected all over the city. The urban renaissance, a superficial program, has offset everything in the name of the rehabilitation of public areas but has given zero money to expropriate archeological parcels.
But what if all this struggle is in vain! Every new day makes the city bigger, more noisy, more aggressive and insensitive. Thousands of young people of Durrës sleep undisturbed on top of the extraordinary archeological heritage.
If Wilhelm von Wied comes from the sea, today, followed by its convoy, a hundred years ago in the square before the port, wooden boats anchored, a crowd dressed in folkloric costumes waiting for them, now this view has changed… People are cold and indifferent!
And different from the past, portraits that were dark, they are now pale and frozen, like the concrete sail that apparently will serve as the symbol of the new Durrës.