From: Geri Emiri
Durrës, Two Public Projects Threaten Ancient Roman Ruins

The Durrës municipality project foreseeing the construction of an underpass as well as the construction of the Palace of Justice on the site of the Martyrs’ Mausoleum threatens to annihilate what has survived of an antique Roman neighborhood, and, along with it, according to archaeologists, a historical era in which the coastal city peaked.

In the early ‘80s, archeologist Fatos Tartari discovered, in a dig near the Martyrs’ Mausoleum, several mosaics and a fresco preserved as part of a lavish Roman villa. Tartari remembers how his find was conserved and covered again, while today over it lies one of the city’s main streets and a few small parks.

After the find, the archeological dig was surrounded by high buildings that buried in their foundations a part of Durrës’s Roman neighborhood, while the rest, lying underneath the park around the Mausoleum, was spared.

Not for long, however, as, today, this archeological heritage is threatened by two infrastructural projects greenlighted by the municipality.

Since 2016, the Durrës municipality has been planning the construction of a 950 million lekë underground tunnel on top of the ancient ruins. At the same time, a new building with a €1.6 million price tag, intended to house the Durrës Court and Prosecution office will be built on top of the park near the Mausoleum.

Both projects are vocally opposed by archeologists, who claim that they threaten to destroy what parts are left of the Roman neighborhood, an especially important element of the city’s history.

“All the findings indicate to be lavish villas, which implies that this was once the neighborhood of the Roman senators. The dig is rich in art, mosaics, and frescoes.” Tartari told BIRN. “This site represents Durrës ’s peak. If you take this era from Durrës, then the city is done for.”

Since 1961, Durrës’s underground has been declared a monument and is legally protected via special Decision of the Council of Ministers (VKM) 172, dated June 2, 1961. However, this protected status has been repeatedly ignored by authorities who have prioritized construction projects over the city’s archeological heritage.

According to BIRN, the Durrës municipality carried out infrastructural projects without launching an archeological survey, by contracting a studio to draft a project and undertake environmental impact assessments.

The environmental impact assessment drafted by the studio Gjeokonsult & CO shpk paints a contradictory picture regarding the area’s archaeological and historical value.

“The site is distinguished by its special architectural and historical objects and archeological finds” the EIA states. ”According to the geological study of the area, its geomorphological and architectonic features are common, and do not merit any special legal protection.”

After BIRN contacted them, the municipality of Durrës and the Agency of Archaeological Services (AShA) responded stating that they had planned for an archaeological survey to be carried out before the construction started. The construction plan, however, seems to have advanced much faster than the survey documenting the areas archaeological and historical assets.

Without a survey, the Durrës municipality has allocated around 199 million lekë of its budget to the primary construction lots. Meanwhile, as approved by a 2015 Municipal Council decision, the Mausoleum park will be transformed into a construction site for the Palace of Justice.

Concrete over archeology

The Roman neighborhood unearthed near former park, today under the foundations of 3 apartment buildings, with only a fraction of it preserved.

This isn’t the first time the Durrës municipality plans public works that infringe on the city’s archaeological heritage. The Veliera project, a concrete structure that cost 6 million euros, has been suspended since the beginning of last year following protests and lawsuits from the civil society.

The Durrës municipality, that won the case in the Administrative Court of First Instance was earlier forced to modify the project in order to preserve some of the archaeological finds however, the civil society found these tweaks insufficient. Meanwhile, building permits issued for archaeological sites over the years have caused irreparable damages to the city’s history.

Similarly, the Durrës municipality project for an underground tunnel and the construction of a “palace of justice” in the same area, will be, according to archaeologists, a “new crime” against the city’s history.

Archeologist Moikom Zeqo, who, like Tartari, began his career in the Durrës underground digs, told BIRN that the area where the new construction will be taking place is one of primary importance for the city’s history.

“This project is a mistake, because in that place is located the Roman neighborhood. We know this to be absolutely true after the discovery of the Roman neighborhood near the former 1 Maj park. That neighborhood couldn’t have been isolated. Going by the Hippodamian Plan of the city’s layout, this whole space, starting from the former park to the Martyrs’ Mausoleum, is rich in archaeological finds.” Zeqo told BIRN.

Zeqo is convinced that the construction of this tunnel will destroy large layers of the ancient city’s culture. “It means a very important part of Durrës will be buried in concrete.”

Tartari and Zeqo are not the only ones insisting on the preservation of the Roman neighborhood. For the last three years, Albanian and French archaeologists are working on the site as part of the “Topography of Epidamn–Dyrrachium” project. In 2017, during exploratory excavations at the park of the Martyrs’ Mausoleum, they encountered therms from the Roman period.

The head of the project, archaeologist Eduart Shehi, told BIRN that this area is different from previous archaeological digs, stating “We have dug in the area of the park, and it is an entirely new territory [from what we’ve seen in previous digs], but it may be part of the same building.”

New construction projects are of concern to the tourism industry as well, as archaeology remains one of the city’s main attractions. Rigels Lenja, a tourist guide for Southeastern Europe, told BIRN that new buildings make an area less attractive: “The reason why Durrës is secondary, or even tertiary, when it comes to tourism is because there is no place you can take a tourist to, so they can understand the city’s history.”

“These days, a tourist cannot spend more than two hours in Durrës” he added, regretfully.

The project, in areas A and B

A rendering of the underpass, the public square and the Palace of Justice”. Source: Durrës municipality.

According to the Durrës municipality the underground tunnel will be 1.2 km long and will connect the area near the Martyrs’ Mausoleum with the coastal area of Currila. The project begins near Pranvera Square and will include an underpass that continues to the square in front of the Martyrs’ Mausoleum with two ramps extending to the left and right along Aleksandër Goga street.

At the end of the square, a building meant to house the Durrës Court and Prosecution will be constructed.

In a written response to BIRN, the municipality claimed that the underpass was necessary in order to make movement from one side of the city to the other easier, adding that, to finance the project, it is looking towards the local government, the EU and foreign donors.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Justice told BIRN that the Durrës Municipal Council has approved the construction of the “palace of justice” on the square since 2015, adding that the project will be financed by the Administration Bureau of the Judicial Budget.

“The construction of a new Court and a new building for the Prosecution comes as a result of the current, inappropriate conditions in which trials take place” stats the Ministry of Justice. This building is going to take up 2500 square meters.

Upon inquiry on the archaeological assets found on the site of construction, the Durrës municipality initially responded by stating that this appraisal belongs to a later stage.

“Regarding the archaeological issues, based on the current legislation, reaching out to the appropriate archaeological institutions, as well as any agreement and cooperation will be done at a later date.”

However, the studio contracted by the municipality to do the environmental impact assessment, Gjeokonsult & Co, told BIRN that the projects it inspected intersect with archaeological area B, stating “The area where the institutional building is projected to be constructed near the Martyrs’ Mausoleum in Durrës falls within area B. You can get this answer from Durrës municipality.”

The Agency of Archaeological Services (AShA), an agency under the Ministry of Culture that has decided to carry out an archeological survey in the project area takes a different position. In response to BIRN’s inquiry about the location of the project, AShA stated that it “lies in part on [archeological] areas B and A of the city of Durrës.”

ASHA stated that the municipality of Durrës has contracted AD-Star shpk to carry out archaeological surveys in the area since October 26 2017.

In a second response to BIRN, the municipality confirmed this agreement with the licensed studio and stated that archaeological surveys of the area are already underway. Upon inquiry by BIRN, AD-Star stated that it hadn’t begun surveying yet.

The destruction of Durrës

Artur Kacani, lecturer in urban planning. Photo by Geri Emiri

While archeologists ring the alarm to save the area’s archeological heritage, citizens of Durrës are undecided and uninformed. Though the municipality claims it has had public hearings with citizens about this investment during the drafting of the budget last year, citizens living on the side of the road where the tunnel will be built, told BIRN that they weren’t asked and didn’t even know what the project included.

Indrit Rexhepi, the administrator of a local cafe, told BIRN that he had no information and didn’t even know whether he should clear the space in front of his cafe or not. Other cafe owners also shrugged at the mention of the project.

The height of the new square that will be parallel to the first floor of the surrounding buildings is of particular concern for the citizens.

“Vangjush has made Durrës into concrete. They should be putting in benches for retirees like us to sit on.” Suzana Karagjozi, an inhabitant of the area, spoke, referring to the mayor of Durrës, Vangjush Dako.

Artan Kacani, a lecturer in urban planning, who analyzed the partial renderings of the project acquired by BIRN from the Durrës municipality, said that the planned square is a large concrete platform that will lie on top of the underground tunnel at 8 meters.

“This space can’t be used as a parking lot, nor can it serve any other function. It will primarily leave in the shade the two pre-90s buildings and will marginalize the few squares there are in the city,.” Kacani stated.

He also expressed doubt with regards to whether this development will lighten the traffic in the area. “On the aspect of vehicle circulation nothing will change because the shape will remain as is, while on the aspect of pedestrian circulation, it is entirely fragmented.”

Kacani and the two archaeologists that spoke to BIRN stated that new developments should be taking place in “Durrës II” – the recently urbanized area that used to be a wetland, rather than in the old city center.

“I think the next investments should be entirely diverted. I don’t understand why, in the recent years, this perverse return to the city center has emerged, entirely neglecting the historical areas. It is nonsensical” Kacani spoke.

Zeqo agrees with Kacani, while stating that a moratorium preventing all new developments in archaeological areas is needed urgently.

Whereas, Tartari mournfully adds that the damage done throughout the years is so large that the city no longer has a point of reference.

“Durrës has left its content. Durrës represents the ugliest center in the world, with no point of reference, no historical center. Mediterranean civilization is supposed to have a physiognomy, not concrete buildings 20-floors high.”