The Balkan Peninsula is a region of immense historical and cultural value. The abundance of ruins and ancient structures and thousands of artifacts from the ancient times are only part of the rich cultural heritage that for centuries has been found in the region. The southeastern edge of Europe is an archaeological oasis.
Note: We will continuously update this post as we come across more archaeological sites in the region.
1. The Archaeological Site of Ulpiana
Just a few minutes drive from Kosovo’s capital Prishtina is the ancient settlement of Ulpiana, which dates back to the 1st century and thrived during the Roman times and during the early Byzantine period as an episcopal seat of the Byzantine emperors. Rich in natural resources and fertile land, the settlement grew into one of the most prosperous hubs of political, cultural and economic activity in the region until a devastating earthquake hit and largely destroyed the settlement. It was then rebuilt by Emperor Justinian I and renamed Justiniana Secunda.
The settlement was eventually abandoned due to constant attacks throughout the centuries by migrating tribes and another great destruction coming from a devastating earthquake, which not only has destroyed Ulpiana, but also tens of fortresses throughout the Roman province of Dardania, including Scupi.
While walking over the ruins, we got the feeling that the excavation has only scratched the surface and that there may be enormous ruins buried beneath all that farmland.
2. The Archaeological Site of Stobi
We went for a day trip to the ancient settlement of Stobi, in North Macedonia, to check out the ruins, mosaics and history behind this fascinating archaeological site, which dates back to the 7th century. The settlement was first founded by Paeonia, overtaken by Macedon and later by the Romans and the early Byzantines. Located in a strategic position along an ancient trading route, Stobi grew into an important trading hub.
We found basilicas adorned with mosaics of peacocks and deer and wonderful fresco paintings of sumptuous marsh birds. Other Roman remnants we saw include the amphitheater, the forum and luxurious buildings in honor of Emperor Theodosius I.
3. The Ancient Aqueduct near Skopje
Just a few-minutes drive from Skopje’s Old Bazaar is one of the three largest and well-preserved aqueducts in southeast Europe. The aqueduct is an impressive brick-and-stone structure that is greatly preserved and it is a thing to visit if you are looking for a piece of ancient history that is conveniently located near the city.
No one has a definitive clue on the true story of the origins of the Skopje Aqueduct. Some say that it dates back to the Roman Empire, others say it was built by the Byzantines, and there are some who say that the Ottomans built it for supplying water to the city’s hammams.
The aqueduct was open to the public at the time we visited it. No signs and directions were placed around the site, so we had to drive following a dirt road. But the sight of this archaeological marvel was well worth it. Sadly, much of the structure is seriously neglected and how the authorities are not paying proper attention to it still puzzles us.
4. Ohrid’s Ancient Theater
The ancient theater of Ohrid, in North Macedonia, was constructed during the Hellenistic period, with the capacity of four-thousand spectators. It is an impressive structure. In the Roman times, this theater was used to host gladiatorial battles. However, since the theater was also a site of executions of Christians by the Romans, it rapidly turned to a highly disliked site by the locals in Ohrid. The structure was abandoned once the Roman Empire ceased to exist.
The structure was well preserved, only to be uncovered accidentally in the 1980s. Ever since, the theater has been a site of public performances such as concerts, operas and ballet performances.
5. The Roman Amphitheater in Durrës
Having been built in the Roman times and damaged by two davastating earthquakes, forgotten during the Ottoman period, and then somewhat hemmed in by residential buildings, what is left today is more than enough to convey a sense of its once epic scale. The amphitheater in Durrës, in Albania, was the largest ever built in southeast Europe with once having a capacity of twenty-thousand spectators.
6. The Open-Air Museum of Roman Sofia
In Bulgaria‘s capital Sofia, next to the Banya Bashi Mosque is an open-air museum of the ancient Roman city of Serdica, and exhibits lots of archaeological structures. Sofia was originally called Serdica after a Thracian tribe Serdi that populated the area. From the 12th to the 14th century, Sofia was a thriving commercial center in the region. It was renamed Sofia in the 14th century after the Church of St. Sophia.