Durrës is the second largest city of Albania. It is the most ancient and one of the most economically important cities of Albania. It is located on the central Albanian coast, about 33 km (21 mi) west of the capital Tirana. It is situated at one of the narrower points of the Adriatic Sea, opposite the Italian ports of Bari (300 km/186 mi away) and Brindisi (200 km/124 mi away). It has a population of around 202,000 (as of 2009[update] estimate). The city of Durrës is home to Albania's newest public university, the Aleksander Moisiu University. In addition, it is the meeting point of national roads SH2 and SH4.
The First Bulgarian Empire under Simeon the Great captured the city, together with most of what is today Albania, in the early 10th century, but the Byzantines reconquered it around the middle of the century, when Bulgaria was under Peter I. The very end of the century saw another period of Bulgarian control, when under Samuel the empire conquered the city and held it until 1018. Dyrrachium (then known as Драч, Drach in Bulgarian) remained as one of the last Bulgarian fortresses as the Byzantine Empire subjugated Bulgaria.
Dyrrachium was lost in February 1082 by the emperor Alexios I Komnenos, who was defeated at the hands of the Normans (Robert Guiscard and his son Bohemund (see Battle of Dyrrhachium (1081)). Byzantine control was restored the following century following the defeat of Bohemund in 1107 but the city was lost again in 1185, this time to the Norman King William II of Sicily. In 1202, during the Fourth Crusade, the city was transferred to the rule of the Republic of Venice. It passed into the hands of Manfred of Sicily and then Charles I of Sicily (Charles of Anjou) in 1268.
Five years later, in ca. 1273, it was wrecked by a devastating earthquake (according to George Pachymeres; R. Elsie, Early Albania (2003), p. 12), but soon recovered and became an independent duchy under the rule of Charles' grandson John of Anjou. It later came under the rule of Philip I of Taranto. In 1333 it was annexed to the Frankish Principality of Achaea before falling to the Serbian Tsar Stefan Dušan in 1336. When Dušan died in 1355, the city passed into the hands of the Albanian family of Thopias.
The Republic of Venice regained control in 1392 and retained the city, known as Durazzo in those years, as part of the Albania Veneta. It fended off a siege by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in 1466 but fell to Ottoman forces in 1501.
Durrës became a Christian city quite early on; its bishopric was created around AD 58 and was raised to the status of an archbishopric in 449. It is also the seat of a Greek Orthodox metropolitan bishop. Under Turkish rule, many of its inhabitants converted to Islam and many mosques were erected. This city was renamed as Dıraç, the city did not prosper under the Ottomans and its importance declined greatly. By the mid-19th century, its population was said to have been only about 1,000 people living in some 200 households. Its decrepitude was noted by foreign observers in the early 20th century: "The walls are dilapidated; plane-trees grow on the gigantic ruins of its old Byzantine citadel; and its harbour, once equally commodious and safe, is gradually becoming silted up." It was a sanjak centre in İşkodra Vilayet before 1912.
Durrës was an active city in the Albanian national liberation movement in the periods 1878-1881 and 1910-1912. Ismail Qemali raised the Albanian flag on November 26, 1912 but the city was captured by the Serbs three days later during the First Balkan War. The city became Albania's first national capital on March 7, 1913 under the brief rule of Prince William of Wied.
During the First World War, the city was occupied by Italy in 1915 and by Austria-Hungary in 1916-1918. It was captured by the Allies in October 1918. Restored to Albanian sovereignty, Durrës became the country's temporary capital between 1918 and March 1920. It experienced an economic boom due to Italian investments and developed into a major seaport under the rule of King Zog, with a modern harbour being constructed in 1927.
An earthquake in 1926 damaged some of the city and the rebuilding that followed gave the city its more modern appearance. During the 1930s, the Bank of Athens had a branch in the city.
The Second World War saw Durrës (called Durazzo again in Italian) and the rest of Albania being annexed to the Kingdom of Italy between 1939–1943, then occupied by Nazi Germany until 1944. Durrës's strategic value as a seaport made it a high-profile military target for both sides. It was the site of the initial Italian landings on 7 April 1939 as well as the launch point for the ill-fated Italian invasion of Greece. The city was heavily damaged by Allied bombing during the war and the port installations were blown up by the retreating Germans in 1944.
The Communist regime of Enver Hoxha rapidly rebuilt the city following the war, establishing a variety of heavy industries in the area and expanding the port. It became the terminus of Albania's first railway, begun in 1947. In the late 1980s the city was briefly renamed Durrës-Enver Hoxha.
Following the collapse of communist rule in 1990, Durrës became the focus of mass emigrations from Albania with ships being hijacked in the harbour and sailed at gunpoint to Italy. In one month alone, August 1991, over 20,000 people migrated to Italy in this fashion. Italy intervened militarily, putting the port area under its control, and the city became the centre of the European Community's "Operation Pelican", a food-aid programme.
In 1997, Albania slid into anarchy following the collapse of a massive pyramid scheme which devastated the national economy. An Italian-led peacekeeping force was controversially deployed to Durrës and other Albanian cities to restore order, although there were widespread suggestions that the real purpose of "Operation Alba" was to prevent economic refugees continuing to use Albania's ports as a route to migrate to Italy.
During the 1999 Kosovo War the city hosted some 110,000 Deportees from Kosovo and became a base of operations for much of the refugee response by aid agencies in Albania.
Durrës is still an important link to Western Europe due to its port and its proximity to the Italian port cities, notably Bari, to which daily ferries run. As well as the dockyard, it also possess an important shipyard and manufacturing industries, notably producing leather, plastic and tobacco products. The neighbouring district also produces wine and a variety of foodstuffs.
Some important buildings in Durrës include the main library, the cultural center with the Aleksander Moisiu theater, the Estrada Theater, the puppet theater, and the philharmonic orchestra. There are also several museums such as the Archaeological Museum, Ahmet Zogu's Villa of Durrës and the Museum of History.
The city's beaches are also a popular destination for many foreign and local tourists, with an estimated 600,000 tourists visiting annually. Many Albanians from Tirana and elsewhere spend their summer vacations on the beaches of Durrës.The largest amphitheatre in the Balkans is located in the city close to the harbour. This first-century construction is currently under consideration for inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage site.