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The ancient city of Apollonia is situated in southwestern Albania, about 13 miles from the city of Fier. The fascinating landscape of the archeological park, which has been preserved in an exceptionally intact condition, comprises a successful combination between the beauty of monuments and nature, attractive through its long history, in an atmosphere of relaxation and meditation. Its foundation took place immediately after the foundation of Epidamnus – Dyrrachium and quickly became one of the most eminent cities of the Adriatic basin, which was mentioned more frequently from the other 30 (thirty) cities bearing the same name during Antiquity. The city lay in the territory of the political communion of the Taulantii and was broadly known as Apollonia of Illyria. According to the tradition it was founded during the first half of the 6th century BC by Greek colonist from Corfu and Corinth, led by Gylax, which named the city after his name (Gylakeia). After its quick establishment the city changed its name to Apollonia, according to the powerful divinity Apollo. It stands on a hilly plateau from where expands the fertile plain of Musacchia with the Adriatic Sea and the hills of Mallakastra. The ruins of Apollonia are discovered in the beginning of the 19th century.
The city flourished during the 4th century AD as an important economic and trade center. Over time it was expanded over the whole hilly slope including an area of ca. 81 ha, surrounded by a large wall of 3 km of length and 3 m of width. Although Apollonia was situated few kilometers away from the Adriatic Sea, its position on the right bank of the Aoos River (modern Vjosë) enabled its communication with the coastal part of the territory. In the two hilltops dominating the city stands the temenos area (the sacred area around the temple of Apollo) and the Arx (military citadel). Between the two hilltops were situated the public buildings of the ancient city, which continued to experience a period of grandeur and splendor under the successive roman rule (since 229 BC). The fame of the city attracted many personalities of the largest empire of the ancient world as the eminent roman philosopher and orator Cicero, which noted Apollonia in his Philippics as magna urbs et gravis (a great and important city). During this period the city became one of the most important gateways of the transballkanic Via Egnatia, while in its famous Academy has studied and underwent military training Octavianus, accompanied by Agrippas, the eminent general and statesman of the Roman Empire. After a long period of continuous economic and cultural development, Apollonia fell into decline until its total abandonment during the medieval period. The culture and the general development of the city maintained a clear Greek character throughout its existence. However, the independent economic and politic activity as well as the close relationships with the Illyrian hinterland determined a distinctive physiognomy of the apollonian culture.
Apollonia represents one of the most important cities of the Mediterranean world and Adriatic basin, preserved in an exceptionally intact condition. Numerous monuments inside its original borders comprise an outstanding evidence of Greco - Roman culture of the city. Strabo has noted that the city was founded by Greek colonists from Corfu and Corinth, who found in its territory an earlier local settlement with its own unique cultural elements. The presence of this local culture is determined by the discovery of archeological artifacts from the Iron Age, tracts from an existing archaic fortification, the temple of Artemis as well as the tumular necropolis near the territory of the ancient city of Apollonia. The coexistence between two different cultures and their inevitable fusion produced a unique physiognomy of apollonian culture, which turned Apollonia to one of the most important economic centers of ancient Mediterranean world. The urban structure of the city lay on the hilly plateau, with an expanded view towards the fertile plain of Musacchia and the Adriatic Sea. The communication with the coast was enabled by the Aoos River, which flowed nearby. Inside its original borders in the 4th century BC Apollonia raised into one of the most important economic, political and cultural centers beside Epidamnos - Dyrrachion.
Temenos, or sacred area of the city, has been organized around the Temple of Apollo. In this part of the city, was build a number of monuments dating in the same period (6th century BC) with the temple of Apollo. There are preserved traces of a Doric temple with a east – west orientation, storehouses and cisterns (3d century B.C.), two small sanctuaries, noted by archaeologist as A and B (1st century BC).
Agora or social space was extended in the area between two hilltops, including the most important monuments discovered in the territory of Apollonia, consisting in different building phases.
Their study has contributed to the creation of a complete panorama on the development of the city.
During 4th and 3d centuries BC were added the retaining wallsofthe sacred area of Temenos, two Stoas (walkways or porticos), a Greek theater and a Nymphaeum (a monument consecrated to nymphs). During the Roman period, these area was increased with other social buildings like the Buleterion (the seat of the city council) an imitation of the Roman temple architecture; the Odeon, a combination of Greek and Roman construction techniques; the Library; the Arch of Triumph; the Temple of Diana and Prytaneion (the seat of government). Besides these specific monuments, archaeological excavations in the residential area have discovered a number of buildings from Hellenistic and Roman periods paved with well-preserved mosaics.
Different factors, as the earthquake of the year 234 AD which changed the riverbed of Aoos, the failure of the existent social structure and the gothic invasions caused the gradual decline and the loss of the status of Apollonia as a “port city”. The documentary sources of the 4th century AD refer to Apollonia as an important Episcopal residence, which during the 5th century AD was transferred in the neighboring city of Byllis. The successive period of its history remains unknown due to the restricted documentary data. The monastery complex comprises a unique testimony of the later history of the city. Although the preserved structure of the katholikon has been dated in the 13th century AD, different studies on the subject have argued that it belongs to an earlier date, maybe of 9th century AD. The medieval monastery at Apollonia preserves several structures belonging to different building periods. In addition to the katholikon dedicated to the Virgin (?) or to the Koimesis (?) (Dormition of the Virgin) with its lateral chapel of St. Demetrius, the complex includes the lower portion of a tower, the refectory (trapeza), and, evidently, portions of a building housing the original living quarters for the monks.
The katholikon of St. Mary dates in the second half of the thirteenth century, and possibly to the reign of Michael VIII Palaiologos, which issued a chrysobull granting the reconfirmation of privileges for the monastery. It belongs to the group of the churches of cross-in-square plan and the links with Constantinopolitan architecture have long been claimed on the basis of its structural system. Despite its irregularities, the whole arrangement of the church planning is simple and clear, with a domed nave, a narthex and an exonarthex. The handling of the walls is simple, but the external appearance is emphasized by the colonnade along the exonarthex which is crowned by capitals with a diversity of sculptural decorations (sirens, animals, and monsters), distinctly Romanesque in character and reminiscent to Romano gothic art which flourished in Ragusa and Tivar during the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries. From the painting program of the katholikon may be distinguished the fresco depicting several members of the Byzantine imperial family of the Palaiologi on the east wall of the exonarthex and the Deposition or the Archangel Gabriel portrait in the eastern part of the nave of the church.
The refectory stands in the western part of the monastery with a Nord – South orientation. It is triconch architecture, with its eastern, southern and western walls terminating with apses. The southern apse is rectangle and amplified during the restoration works of the year 1962, while the others trilateral. The interior of the building was decorated with fresco painting, very interesting in point of view of the organization the iconographic cycle and its artistic and technical qualities. It belongs to the roman – byzantine group of paintings, from which very few examples survive. The partially preserved cycle of frescoes reveals scenes like the Wedding at Cana, Washing of the Feet, Deisis, Prophet Elijah in the Cave, figures of apostles and prophets and scenes from the Cycle of Miracles of Christ. The realistic rendering of the landscapes is reminiscent of the painting of the Italian Renaissance. However, the execution may be considered a work of an anonymous artist native to the general area.
The mingling of eastern and western building traditions in the Monastery of St. Mary is not an uncommon phenomenon in the Balkan area, a long-disputed border between the eastern and western spheres of influence. This rivalry between the two spheres, for all its negative side effects on the political and religious life in this area, has also colored the Balkan cultures with their unique individualism.
Criterion (ii): Apollonia monastery complex shows architectural idiosyncrasies that suggest the mingling of western and eastern building traditions, coloring this monument with unique individualism. The interchange and rivalry between the two spheres is reflected in its architectural formulation, the sculpture and the pictorial execution of the frescoes. Notwithstanding the fact that the architecture of the building is byzantine in concept, some features like the “exonarthex”, the sculpture and features of the fresco painting reveals a work of masters versed in Romanesque building and painting practice.
Criterion (iii): The ancient city of Apollonia was one of the largest cities of the Adriatic basin, mentioned very frequently in the documentary sources from the other classical cities bearing the same name . It is preserved in an exceptional condition intact by the modern developments, bearing extraordinary data on the ancient culture and the coexistence between Greeks and Illyrians.
Criterion (x): Hermann's tortoise (Testudo hermanni) is a Globally Threatened Species, listed as Near Threatened due to it's significant decline (probably at a rate of less than 30% over ten years). The main factor responsible for its decline is the widespread habitat loss through uch of its distribution range.
The site includes inside its original borders building structures, bearing all the necessary elements to express its outstanding universal value. The archaeological area is preserved in exceptionally intact conditions, unchanged by the modern developments. The city was founded as a Greek colony, which coexisted over the centuries with the former local culture, testified by the numerous buildings of different periods. The largest part of the still remains undiscovered until the present days, representing an interesting and attractive site for different scholars.
The city is characterized by a high level of authenticity. The building structures discovered inside its borders have been excavated, documented and studied in accordance with the scientific principles of this process, offering important data on the history of the city and making Apollonia of Illyria popular among the international scientific community.
In its actual condition Apollonia may be considered a unique testimony of the combination of the natural beauty of the landscape of the Musacchia plain and Adriatic Sea with the Mallakastra hills and the elements of cultural heritage.
The city of Apollonia shares close geographical, historical and cultural parallels with the archaeological site of Agrigento in Southern Italy. Both cities are founded by Greek colonists during the 6th century BC. However, the archaeological excavations of the sites have determined the presence of former living communities in these areas, bearing their own unique cultural features. The cultural development of Apollonia and Agrigento and their status as leading cities of ancient Mediterranean world is testified by the outstanding monuments preserved inside their original borders, like the Doric temples, different public buildings and a number of houses with well – preserved mosaic pavements. The importance of Apollonia is emphasized by the fact that the city was dedicated to Apollo, one of the most important divinities of the Greek pantheon. During the Early Christian times, Apollonia and Agrigento experienced the gradual cultural and economic decline, accompanied by the shrank of their original size, the abandonment of the living quarters and demographic depression; but while the reduced settlement of Agrigento continued its existence after its occupation by successive rulers (Arabs, Normans) who called it Kerkent or Girgent, Apollonia did not survive to the invasion of the Danubian populations, which lead to the gradual abandonment of the city. The documentary sources on the later history of Apollonia are restricted. The expansion of the archaeological excavations and further studies on the history of the city will enable the filling of this historical gap and in the same time will contribute to the creation of a clear panorama on the economic, cultural and social potential of the city from the very beginning of its foundation. The thirteenth century monastery complex consist the only evidence on the later history of the city. Its architecture shows similarities to other analogous structure found in places included inside the byzantine political and cultural sphere. The handling of the walls of the katholikon of St. Mary at Apollonia witness closest parallels from the point of view of the conceptual realm in the handling of the building form and in terms of the reliance on stone as the principal building material among the provincial churches of the Mani peninsula. The apparent idiosyncrasies of the Apollonia church may, possibly, also have their explanation within a similarly provincial, local framework. Regarding the placement of the exonarthex and the general proportions of its plan, it resembles such structures found in a number of Middle byzantine monastic churches. Even its open façade is not without parallels, particularly in the realm of Palaiologan architecture as is witnessed in the church of H. Apostoloi in Thessaloniki, Kilise Camii in Istanbul, Fatih Camii in Enez and H. Sophia in Ohrid. What is striking about this "exonarthex" is that it was accessible only laterally, from the north and from the south side. Such a planning arrangement is essentially unknown in Byzantine church architecture, leaving some doubt whether this space was actually planned as an exonarthex. Its architectural effect is more reminiscent of passageways flanking cloister courts in western monasteries. Its placement in front of the church, instead of alongside of the church, however, distinguishes it from arcaded facades of western cloister passageways.