Twelve km away from Fier is situated Apollonia, one of the two most important ancient Ilyrians colonial settlements in present day Albania.
It was founded in 600 BC on a hill near the sea, and near what was then the course of Vjosë river by settlers from Corfu and Corinth. At the time before the changes in land formation and the Adriatic coastline caused by an earthquake in the 3rd century AD, the harbour af Apollonia could accommodate as many as 100 ships. The site is thought to be on the southern boundary of a native Illyrian settlement, being mentioned in Periplus, a sailor’s account of the Adriatic written in the middle of the 4th century BC by a Greek writer. It was near the territory occupied by the Illyrian tribes and close to the Greek tribe of the Chaonians. The colony was said to have been named Gylaceia after its Corinthian founder, Gylax, and later changed its name to that of city of the God Apollo. According to archaeological investigations for 100 years Greek and Illyrian have lived in separate communities.
The economic prosperity of Apolonia grew on the basis of trade in slaves, and the local rich pastoral agricultural. In the middle of the 5th century BC, a workshop for minting coins was set up here. Through trade and commercial transactions these coins spread throughout Illyria and beyond its boundaries. In the years 214 BC onwards, the city was involved in the war between the Illyrian Taulanti and Cassander, the king of Macedonia, and in 229 BC came under Roman control. In 168 BC, its loyalty to Rome was rewarded. For 200 years, it was of central importance in the Roman effort to colonize the east and may have been an original terminus of the Egnatian Way. It was a vital stronghold for Caesar in the civil war between Pompey and Julius Caesar. In 45 and 44 BC, Octavian, later to become the Emperor Augustus, studied for 6 months in Apolonia, which had established a high reputation as a center of Greek learning, especially the art of rhetoric. It was noted by Cicero, in the Philippics, as ‘magna urbs et gravis’ a great and important city.
Under the Empire, Apolonia remained a prosperous center, but begun to decline as the Vjosë silted up and the coastline changed after the earthquake.
The Excavations and the Monuments of Apolonia
The first attempts to conduct excavations in Apolonia were made during the first World War, by Austrian archaeologists who unearthed and explored mainly the walls that encircled the city. Systematic excavations began in 1824 by a French archaeological mission directed by Leon Rey, who brought to light a complex of monuments at the center of the city. A lot of excavations have been made by Albanian archaeologists during the last 40 years. Many objects are exhibited in the museum which has been the monastery of St. Mary.
The Monument of Agonothetes
This monument decorated the center of the city. The structure had the form of a semicircle and served as an assembly place of the council of the city – the Bule. The front part of the structure was decorated in a special manner: there are 6 pillars crowned with capitals of the Corinthian style. An inscription dating from the middle of the 2nd century AD tells that the building was constructed by high-ranking officers of the city, a monument with the purpose of commemorating the death of his soldier brother. On the day of the inauguration of the monument, a show was staged in the city with the participation of 25 couples of gladiators. On the western side, from the top of the monumental structure, the tourists can see the ruins of the small temple of Artemis (Diana). At the eastern side there is a street which passes under a triumphal arch. On the opposite side of the monument of the Agonothetes, there is a colonnade decorated with marble statues.
The Library and the Odeon
This structure rises behind the colonnade. Opposite the monument of Aganothetes stands an Odeon or ‘small theatre’ for 200 spectators. The building had a stage, an orchestra and tiers. There they gave musical shows, recitals, and held oratorical and philosophical discussions.
The House with Mosaics
A couple of meters away was cavated a rich Apolonian dwelling house of the 3rd century AD: The mosaics are of all types. There are mosaics where the main decorative motives are simple geometric figures, others have ornamental mythological figures like : hypocamposes (seahorses), accompanied by Nereids and Erotes. One of the mosaics represents a scene where Archiles holds the wounded Penthesilea, the beautiful queen of Amazones, in his arms.
The Fontana represents in itself a complex structure; it had a wall which collected all the waters that sprang from the earth, and four other aqueducts.
The Museum of Apolonia
The Museum of Apollina has 7 pavilions, a gallery and 2 porticos. Here are exhibited different objects that testify to the history of Apolonia.
The Church of St. Mary at the Ardenica Monastery is the most important part of the monastery. It is situated between the museum and the refectory. The church is of Byzantine style. The interiors of the church had once been painted, but today very few fragments from the mural paintings have remained. started to be built on 1282 by Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos of Byzantium after the victory on the Angevins in Berat. The wall painting represents the Emperor as the builder of the church. The refectory of the monastery was built at the same time as the church.