Ulpiana, A Wealthy Ancient City Destroyed by Greed
Kosovo is a relatively new nation, having declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, but its territory certainly has a rich history. The remarkable Roman and Byzantine site of Ulpiana, which was coveted by various nations in the Balkans, is located not far from the city of Pristina.
The abandoned city of Ulpiana was one of the most important in the region in Classical times with recent research showing that it was continuously occupied from the Bronze Age to the Byzantine period. While the city is being carefully excavated and revealing its many treasures, it is gradually being opened to the public.
The Turbulent History of Ulpiana
The ancient city is located in fertile land that is bordered by a river on one side. There is evidence that the site was inhabited during the Neolithic period, about 9000 BC, and that the area was inhabited by the Dardanians and Illyrian tribe during the Classical period.
When the area was conquered by the Romans, they created the province of Dardanian, which was later added to the Roman province of Lower Moesia. The city grew in importance mainly due to its strategic location, as it was situated on the road that linked the Western and the Eastern parts of the Roman Empire. Ulpiana became wealthy and cultured with its population and prosperity peaking in the 3 rd to 4 th century AD when it was granted the status of a self-governing municipality.
Part of the Roman ruins that have been excavated in Ulpiana. (nyiragongo / Adobe Stock)
The city suffered greatly during the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Ulpiana once again enjoyed a measure of prosperity when it was briefly occupied by the Ostrogoths of Theodoric the Great and the area became part of the Byzantine Empire.
Theodoric The Great, King of the Ostrogoths (AD - 526 AD). (Public Domain)
In the mid 6 th century, the city was badly damaged by an earthquake. It was rebuilt by the Emperor Justinian and renamed in his honor. Ulpiana fell into decline as the Avars and Slavs invaded the Balkans. The Slavs sacked and burned the city in the mid 7th century.
The abandoned city was first excavated in the 1950s. Sadly the area was badly damaged by looters in recent decades, especially during the Kosovo War from 1998 to 1999, and its aftermath.
The Sights at Ulpiana
At its peak, the ancient city was surrounded by strong walls, with towers protecting the population of 20,000 people who were supplied with water by a system of water pipes. The northern gate and its towers are still standing. There was a castrum, or Roman legionary base, located near the city and some if its remains can still be seen. The city at its fullest extent covered about 120 hectares in area and only its northern portion has been investigated.
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Archaeologists have found the remains of a Byzantine basilica that was built, according to inscriptions, by the Emperor Justinian in the 6 th century. Here they also discovered a memoriumi room where the dead were kept before burial.
Not far from the basilica, the archaeologists discovered a baptisterium, a large basin installed in private or public baths where bathers could plunge or swim. The Christian church adjacent to it has yet to be excavated, but several impressive heads from Classical statues have been discovered during digs.
In the south of the city, a villa that dates to the Roman period with fine mosaics has been uncovered. Archaeologists have also unearthed two Roman era burial grounds at the site, one in the north and the other to the west, which has not been investigated. Many sarcophagi, stele, and graves have been found in the northern burial grounds. Archaeologists have also found evidence of ancient burials that pre-date the Romans. The burial mounds, possibly of Illyrian origin, have contained valuable burial goods.
Sarcophagi found in Ulpiana. (Marco / Adobe Stock)
One of the most remarkable remains at the location is the layer of ash and charcoal that dates from the destruction of the city by Slavs in the 7 th century AD.
Visiting Ulpiana in Remarkable Kosovo
Although the site is not far from the city of Pristina, where accommodation is plentiful, there is no public transport to the site. Anyone is welcome to visit the ruined city and there is no entry fee. The location, however, is in a state of disrepair because of a lack of investment.
Top image: Ulpiana, the archaeological site in Kosovo. Source: Jove / Adobe Stock
By Ed Whelan
Berisha, M. (2012). Archaeological guide of Kosovo. Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport: Archaeological Institute of Kosovo
Çetinkaya, H. (2016). To Excavate or not? Case of Discovery of an Early Christian Baptistery and Church at Ulpiana, Kosovo. Актуальные проблемы теории и истории искусства, (6), 111-118
Çetinkaya, H. (2017). Early Christianity in the Balkans and an unknown monastery from Harilaq/Kosovo. Studia Academica Šumenensia, 4(4), 237-246
Available at: https://www.ceeol.com/search/article-detail?id=712617
Hajdari, A., & Buqinca, A. (2018). A New Unpublished Inscription Dedicated to Jupiter, Discovered in Ulpiana (Kosovo). Human and Social Studies, 7(3), 80-87