Skupi: Digging Up Skopje’s Ancestor

On the western edge of Skopje, we came across an archaeological dig in full swing, with dozens of laborers hard at work dusting off rocks, writing in notebooks, and carting away earth-laden wheelbarrows. This was the site of the ancient Roman city of Skupi, and the archaeologists were in the process of exposing its massive theater.

Much of Skupi’s history remains clouded in mystery, but it’s believed to have originally been home to the Dardanians: a Balkan tribe who joined the Roman Empire in the 1st century BC. The town eventually developed into a settlement of retired Roman legionnaires. With its location on the outskirts of the empire, Skupi was subject to frequent barbarian raids and, after an earthquake in 513, the Romans abandoned it completely.

Excavations began on Skupi in the 1930s. The outline of an early Christian basilica was discovered underneath the soil, as well as an original road and a set of baths. In 2008, archaeologists unearthed a well-preserved and mostly nude marble Venus, which can now be seen in the City Museum.

There are paths which wind through the already-excavated parts of Skupi, but we were most interested by the work currently going on within the theater. We talked with an archaeologist, who was certain that this would prove to be the largest Roman theater in all Macedonia. But he complained that the excavation was proceeding at a snail’s pace, hindered by obstacles like fickle state funding and the presence of ancient graves in the layers of earth above the theater.

The archaeologists didn’t want us taking pictures, but they had no problem with our presence, and were quite talkative about their work. For anyone with an interest in the ancient world, a quick visit to Skupi is well worth the minimal effort and cost. A taxi from downtown costs a couple bucks and the site itself is free. I have a feeling that there are still some amazing discoveries to be made here.

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