Albania: Exploring The Archaeology Of Ancient Illyria – Book Review


Apollon Baçe is among the top European historians and archaeologists focused on the Illyrian Civilization of Southeast Europe, Balkan Peninsula.  In Professor Baçe’s recent book “Illyrian World: Architecture, Rituals, Gods and Religion” published in 2022; is epitomized the candid research and genuine interpretation of archaeological and cultural facts in the ground.

In his volume Professor Baçe has not used the standard lens of a single discipline but the interdisciplinary analysis of architectural, archaeological, historical, and epigraphic data. Considering them not goals but tools for discovery of the “psyche”: soul, mind and spirit all together. Nor has Prof. Baçe treated the monuments and artefacts merely as physical objects, but as a dual physical- metaphysical connection, beyond physics. In the sense that a monument perceived by the senses as a physical occurrence (phenomenon), is a derivative of extrasensory preconditions (noumenon): of the economic, technological, and aesthetic level. In dependence of the financial resources, construction dexterity, and subjective appreciation of beauty.  Vice-versa, in ancient Illyria (eastern shores of the Adriatic Sea) the architectural objects reflect these preambles through the impression of power, wealth and aesthetic refinement. 

Concluding, in order to escape the Shakespearean trap: “your wish was the father of this thought (King Henry IV, Part 2, Act 4)”, Prof. Baçe sharply separated the facts from the analysis of facts. In the sense that analysis is only from him, but the facts encountered are taboo. Ultimately, in order to avoid ethnocentrism, he always had in mind the advice “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s (Mark. 12. 17). Acknowledging to others what belongs to others and arguing what belongs to his ancestors. 

The prominent representative of Greek architecture is the temple, which is tectonic based on the “lego assembly” of the column-entablement modules. It reached its zenith with the Parthenon (447-432 BC), after which began the serial production of eternally magnificent, admired and cloned Parthenons. The sad epilogue of Dinsmoor’s vademecum: “The Architecture of Ancient Greece” is that “Greek architecture began its decline from the end of the 5th century BC, a time after which it could no longer offer anything new and better, compromising the ideals of strength and dignity of the structure.” 

Immediately after erection of Parthenon the Peloponnesian War broke out (431-404 BC) and started the polis-crisis which ultimately flung Greece off the state-building chessboard, paving the way for new political systems. According to Justin, in 334 BC, “Alexander, the king of Epirus, having been invited into Italy had gone as eagerly as if, in a division of the world, the east had fallen by a lot to Alexander, the son of his sister Olympia, and the west to himself (Justin. 12. 2).” Alexander Molossus was killed without expanding westwards” (Liv. 8. 24.3) still, Alexander the Great stretched his imperia from the Adriatic to the Indian River Ganges. Throws into the cauldron dozens of civilizations and cultures, from Egyptian and Greek to Babylonian and Persian, concocted them with a sword and produced the cosmopolitan amalgam which Johann Gustav B. Droysen speculatively christened the Hellenistic period (323-31 BC). 

The architecture of this blending was not a result of an evolutionary process but of a violent intrusion which cut all classical totems and taboos: Rigid classical structures were replaced with flexible structures and the coldness of the heroic was replaced with human warmth. 

All this created an atmosphere that Germans classify “Experimentierfreude” experimenting because of the curiosity and joy of the successful attempt. Hence, Hellenistic architecture is by no means the decadence of “ideals and dignity”, but the next gem of the architectural world heritage. 

Dinsmoor’s point of view and the scattering of monuments in all directions of the wind rose, holds back the scholars, preferring the savant discussions about the “corner conflict” of pantheons corner.   Professor Baçe’s book will help fill this gap for the Illyrian territories, particularly courageous and visionary in the 3rd century BC, the finest of Hellenistic architecture.

In “Grosso modo,” roughly speaking, Professor Apollon Baçe examines the following: “Illyrian architecture can be divided into a pragmatic-utilitarian component (houses, tombs) whose original patterns belong to the distant past, and an acculturation component, borrowed from Greek monumental architecture. From the latter were picked up the genres that did not contradict the tradition: theater, stoa, and stadia but not temples. This process was particularly reinforced by the Molossian king Tharypa (430-385 BC), who was “sent to study in Athens” (Justin 17.3.11) and “was the first to introduce the docks and the Greek script and to regulate by law the cities (Plut. Pyrrh. 1,4).” 

In this process, the Illyrian architecture was not just duplicative: it did not blindly follow the principles of the Greek architecture. On the contrary, it was free of inferiority complexes on architecture that dared to recall the forgotten Mycenaean elements, as the Enchelean necropolis of Trebenishte region which after eight centuries in oblivion brought back the forgotten Mycenaean rituals and death masks. Among them the late 5th/early 4th century BC theater avoided the irrationality of the Greek Ω theatron, suitable for the early performances in orchestra, but not for the scenic performances where the side spectator could see nothing. Instead, the polygonal or fan-shaped theatron was chosen, which allowed every spectator to follow the performances unhindered. 

In this area for the first time the city walls were built entirely of baked bricks, appeared the basic elements of the building industry (arch, cupola, undulated series) and the illusory flat architecture (Blendarchitektur) intervenes more boldly, achieving at very little cost the same effects of 3 D buildings.  Herein the rectangular agorae gave way to free-shaped agorae, breaking the classical rigidity; the meditative human patterns replaced the archetype of cold heroic tombs and the Greek thyromata stage grafted with the Italic paraskenia scene, giving birth to the Roman perspective stage.

Additionally, Prof. Baçe argues that: “the good preservation of architectural elements, without subsequent Roman interventions, allows a convincing hypothetical reconstruction. Among them, the secure reconstruction of the 5th century BC scene as a two-story stone stage puts an end to the “amok” debate about the number of stage floors.

In the meantime, the pronounced lack of written sources turns these vestiges into trustworthy witnesses of an elevated economic, technical and aesthetic levels of life. That is because historians can also invent, hide or distort the reality, but the stones cannot learn these skills.

Additionally, the good preservation of architectural elements, without subsequent Roman interventions, allows a convincing hypothetical reconstruction. Among them, the secure reconstruction of the 5th century BC exhibition as a two-story stone stage, puts an end to the “amok’ debate about the number of stage floors.” Prof. Apollon Baçe has provided the community of international scholars with a monumental scientific work that will profuse and shape new levels of research about the Illyrian tribes that were stretching from today’s lands of Croatia all the way to the shores of the Aegean Sea.

The archaeological discoveries of Prof. Baçe provide compelling evidence that in the Bronze and Early Iron Ages the spiritual and material culture of Molossians, Thesprotians, Chaonians, and  Kassopaeans, did not differ from other Illyrian ethnicities.   The same tumular burial ritual was preserved; while in today’s Greece this ritual had stopped by the middle of 15th century BC; the same inventory of weapons, ornaments and pottery; the same hearth room where all family and guests gathered, were conceptually different from the Greek house where there was a sharp divide into men’s (andronitis) and women’s (gynaikeion) parts.  All these fascinating, enlightening details can be discovered in Prof. Baçe’s magnificent book, that is a rare jewel of European ancient archeology and history. 

Peter Tase

Peter Tase is a freelance writer and journalist of International Relations, Latin American and Southern Caucasus current affairs. He is the author of America's first book published on the historical and archeological treasures of the Autonomous Republic of Nakhchivan (Republic of Azerbaijan); has authored and published four books on the Foreign Policy and current economic – political events of the Government of Azerbaijan. Tase has written about International Relations for Eurasia Review Journal since June 2012.

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