The Forgotten Medieval Town of Balleza
Balleza (Ballezio) was a medieval Albanian town located near Rrjoll town under Maranaj peak. Rrjoll creek and Gura e Pishkazit creek flow near the site. The only ruins left are rare traces of surrounding walls and a church. Balleza was likely the origin of the famous Albanian noble family of the Balshas. Indeed, the founder of the medieval principality of Balsha, Balsha I, may have been chief of that town before ruling a larger domain.
A short but compelling history of Balleza
The settlement of Balleza appears for the first time in medieval sources as a castle in 1062. However, its genesis may go back further in time. According to the historian Milan Šufflay, the event that triggered the formation of Balleza was the destructive earthquake of 518 that hit and destroyed the Roman colony of Dioclea in Illyria. By the VII century, surrounding populations plundered the remains of Dioclea (current Duklja near Podgorica) and, with those, formed other communities elsewhere. It marked the rise of regional medieval towns of Suacium (Shasi), Drivastum (Drishti), Danium (Danja – Vau i Dejës), and Balleza.
Balleza appears again in the documents of the years 1067, 1200, and 1347. In the Venetian documents of 1416-1417, the location is labeled as Villa Clamanda Riola, likely referring to the castle. According to this Venetian source, Villa Clamanda Riola had only 11 houses (with some inhabitants possibly being monks). However, by 1450, the population had increased to 350 farmers. We believe it became a prosperous town amid a network connecting it with Shkodra, Drivastum, and Danium.
A base of Albanian resistance
Gergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu (1405-1468) reconstructed the castle of Balleza and used it as a base against the Ottomans. That castle likely served such a purpose in the Great Battle of Kir on 17 January 1468, led by the other Albanian and anti-Ottoman warlord, Lekë Dukagjini. The Balleza base kept its military function in the later decades, maybe serving as a treasury and a gunpowder production base. After conquering Albania, the Ottomans destroyed the castle of Balleza. Its community dissolved almost entirely (with only 4-5 families remaining at the village’s lowest point).
Nowadays deserted site
After the Ottoman destruction, Balleza was abandoned, never to be inhabited. Most of the inhabitants fled to the Venetian-controlled coast. They established the Baks-Rrjoll coastal settlement, a testimony of their origin in the toponymy. Recent discoveries in the Balleza site have revealed traces of gunpowder, a clue to the militant nature of the medieval fortress.
* This article was based on a piece by Ndue Bacaj published at Gazeta Dielli.