With over 150,000 inhabitants, Durres is the second largest city in Albania. It is located 33 km west of the capital on the Adriatic coast. The Italian name Durazzo has gradually been supplanted by the Albanian Durrës or Durrësi.
Durres is one of the oldest towns in Albania, founded in 627 BC. The city prospered in Roman times, becoming the capital of the province of Epirus Nova. Some of its ancient fortifications, which withstood numerous attacks by barbarian armies, are still visible today. After the fall of Rome, it became part of the Byzantine Empire. It changed hands numerous times during the middle ages, eventually coming under the control of the Venetians as the city of Durazzo.
In 1501, the city fell to the Ottomans. Ottoman rule saw the conversion of part of the population to Islam and the construction of numerous mosques, but did not bring greater prosperity.
Durres briefly became Albania's capital in 1913, and then again after World War I from 1918 to 1920. Over the following decades, the development of a major seaport brought prosperity to the city. The port was an important target in the Second World War, and Durres suffered heavily from Allied bombardment. After the war, the city became an important industrial centre for the communist state. Its port, shipyard and manufacturing industries are still important today. The port handles 90% of Albania's international maritime trade.
After the fall of communism, hundreds of thousands of desperate people sought to leave the country by any means available. The harbour at Durres was an important stage for this unfolding drama, with crowds of refugees fighting to board any ship that could take them out of Albania. When would-be escapees tried in desperation to commandeer ships, there were violent clashes with the police and army. The fisherman Besim Troplini recalls the scene:
"In the harbour there was great chaos. I was a fisherman and every time when one of the ships cast off from the pier, I observed many people trying to climb up the ropes, trying to get on to the ship at the last moment. There was complete chaos. The situation was dire, a real catastrophe and a serious blow for all those disappointed people."
In recent years, Durres has become a tourist destination. The beach resort of Durres Plazh attracts 600,000 foreign and Albanian visitors annually. This promising development is, however, threatened by environmental problems. In 2005, a series of skin infections among swimmers raised concerns about water quality. A 2006 report by the Regional Environment Center listed biodegradation, soil erosion as a result of deforestation, earth and water pollution, and maladministration of urban waste among a list of serious environmental concerns. Many of these result from Durres' rapid development in recent years, and are made worse by a low level of "environmental and institutional public awareness".
Lorenc Bejko, an archaeologist in Durres, has encountered similar problems when it comes to maintaining Durres' historical heritage:
"The last 15 years of development in Durres have been disastrous for the protection of cultural heritage, mostly for the archaeological heritage of this city.
Up until now we did not have this huge stress, this huge pressure from development but the growing economy has brought us to the point when we need to face the problem.
It is not easy to explain to normal people, to people that have to face the every day challenges of their life, that it is exactly the cultural heritage and the archaeological heritage underneath their city that is going to spur the economic development of the city itself."
In its bid to become a modern city and an attractive centre for tourism in Albania, Durres will need to reconcile the demands of its growing economy with its archaeological and environmental concerns.