Ruins of the Roman city of Ulpiana, with the plains and hills of Kosovo beyond. The site was only discovered in the early 20th century, and today excavations are unearthing Ulpiana’s secrets. (Image: OSCE summer school)

Excavations in a once-forgotten city are bringing its inhabitants’ stories to light, as Oliver Gilkes reveals.

The wide, high, rolling plains and hills of Kosovo are a sudden change from the soaring peaks and rugged hills of the Balkan Mountains. This region of fertile soils and mineral-rich highlands has made Kosovo the target of ambitious empires throughout the ages. It was a centre of Illyrian cultural power, a focal point of Roman influence in the northern Balkans, one of the powerhouses that gave rise to the short-lived but glorious story of the medieval Serbian Empire, and a centrepiece of Ottoman hegemony in Europe. Its majority ethnic Albanian population declared independence in 2008 following a troubling struggle with the Serbs; an independence, it must be noted, not universally recognised.

Since then, the Kosovo Institute of Archaeology and the National Museum of Prishtina have been undertaking extensive surveys and excavations, giving the new state a sense of its past. Roman sites are not the focus, but one example has been examined in depth: Ulpiana, which lies a few kilometres outside the capital of Prishtina. It was a vital link in a chain of cities that ran along the road from Nis, now in Serbia and the birthplace of emperor Constantine the Great, across the Kosovo plains and the mountains, to Lissus (modern Lezhe), now in Albania.

Unearthing Ulpiana

A visit to Ulpiana is revealing. The city was only discovered in the early 20th century and is concealed below a featureless plain. I was shown round by the excavators, old friends and colleagues of mine. What had they discovered?

This 5th-century baptistery formed part of a complex including a fine church, which was founded on the site of a former house within Ulpiana.

The city was founded under the emperor Trajan as a consequence of his wars north of the Danube in Dacia. In the following centuries Ulpiana occasionally featured in the wider events shaping or buffeting the empire. An imperial visit by emperor Theodosius I in the 4th century was followed by an attack by Theoderic, the Ostrogothic king of Italy, in 479. There were bishops too, though the city lost its status in 545 when Justinian reconstructed his home town some 50km to the north-east. He renamed it Justiniana Prima, leaving the lesser title of Justiniana Secunda for Ulpiana, which subsequently declined and was definitely abandoned by 618.

In recent years, archaeological teams have been working on geophysical survey, excavations, training, and consolidation. The site has been beautifully laid out for visitors and provides a wonderful introduction to the adoption of Roman culture in the northern Balkans.

There was little activity at the site prior to Trajan’s decision to create a new municipium, inspired by the presence of rich mines in the nearby hills. Thanks to geophysics work undertaken by Franco-German teams, we now have an idea of the extent of the city, which stretches over 120ha. It only received a city wall during its last phases, though it gained some of the attributes of a Roman city, such as a forum.

A 16th-century Orthodox icon showing Florus and Laurus as the patron saints of horses. These stonemasons worked at Ulpiana in the 2nd century, but were executed for their faith.

In the city centre, there is a substantial temple and precinct, of Trajan’s time. By the 3rd century, a set of baths had been inserted into the northern portico of the temple, perhaps for the use of pilgrims. But this temple may have a larger significance as later developments led to it being replaced by a substantial fortified 6th-century church.

Martyred masons

Here we turn to the legend of two Balkan saints: Laurus and Florus, stonemasons (and the patron saints of horses in Orthodox tradition) who came to Ulpiana in the 2nd century. While building a temple they healed the blinded son of the master mason, and turned the temple into a church. The governor condemned them as Christians and had them executed. The temple was later demolished and its remains were used to build the adjacent church and other buildings in a martyr shrine. This act neatly divided the temple in half, leaving a part of the ruin accessible next to the church. Is this the temple on which Florus and Laurus are supposed to have worked, left visible as a relic?

In 1322, a monastery was founded at Gracanica, to the east of Ulpiana.

The Danubian provinces flourished in the later Roman world. Ulpiana benefited to the degree that it was provided with a brand-new city wall around the site, kept up to date with semi-circular bastions. A cathedral church was added to the cityscape in the 5th century when a pre-existing house was taken over, and partly reused for a new and impressive basilican church and baptistery. We have already mentioned the later church and temple, perhaps a shrine to the holy stonemasons. All through the Balkans and the Danube area one can see the old Roman structures surviving in a much-changed way, as the empire clung on to the area in the face of huge challenges. Ultimately they failed, having lost almost all of their territory by the 7th century, when new peoples arrive on the scene.

Within the dome of the church at Gracania lies a magnificent fresco of Christ pantocrator. This is one of the most impressive medieval representations of the relentless and triumphant Christ; the eyes are made of inset gemstones.

A spectacular reminder of this change can be seen a few kilometres to the east of Ulpiana. There, in 1322, the Serbian king Stefan Milutin constructed a brand-new monastery to the east of Ulpiana at the Serbian enclave of Gracanica – perhaps over an earlier funerary church – as a symbol of the rising power of his kingdom. The Serbian dynast contracted state-of-the-art architects to create a Byzantine-style masterpiece. An exquisite frescoed interior was overseen by the artists Michael and Eutihije, from Byzantine Thessalonika, who are also noted for working at the equally stunning churches in the city of Ochrid, now in North Macedonia. The new monastery was one of a number of foundations that were intended to cement the successors of Rome in power, but in the ever-changing world of the Balkans things are not so simple. By 1459, Serbia had been vanquished by the Turks and the scene was set for the advent of the modern world.

This is an extract from an article featured in issue 98 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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