Heraclea Lyncestis is an ancient town founded by Philip II of Macedon, during the middle of the 4th century BC. It is currently one of the most visited attractions in Macedonia, narrating the history of the Hellenistic, Roman and early Christian era. Displaying some truly remarkable remains, this archeological site is on par with Stobi, and it is certainly one of the most impressive excavation sites in this part of Europe.
Easily accessible, at what is only 2 kilometers to the south of Bitola, Heraclea will captivate your imagination. There is a monumental amphitheater waiting to take your breath away, a number of well preserved foundations, and some of the most impressive mosaic scenes.
As a tourist attraction, Heraclea Lyncestis will provide a setting that teleports you many centuries back. Here you will imagine a magnificent town at its peak during the Hellenistic period. Economy, politics, religion, commerce, ordinary life and warfare all left their mark as this strategically important settlement witnessed a number of transitions from one era to another.
If you are into historical discovery, Macedonia has a lot of cultural heritage to offer. Heraclea, near modern day Bitola, is one of the best representatives from the antique, Roman and early Christian period, with a garden variety of impressive architecture and artifacts on display.
History of Heraclea Lyncestis
While some of the other settlements from the period were captured and brought under the rule of Macedon, Haraclea was founded within the kingdom. Philip II, a member of the Argead dynasty and later most commonly known as the father of Alexander the Great, gave this town its name after the Greek mythological hero Heracles (Hercules). Then he added “Lunkestis” which represents the land of the lynx.
The lynx is a Macedonian wild cat that was quite prevalent during this period. Nowadays, they are very rare and you can only find them in the National Park of Mavrovo. Macedonians commemorate the lynx by including it on the back of the 5 Denar coin.
The name is often spelled differently including Heraklea, or Heracleia, and mistaken for other ancient cities that were similarly named. One such example is the Roman town of Heraclea Lukania, often searched as Heraclea Policoro, which is located in modern day south Italy where the famous battle of Heraclea took place.
Heraclea Lyncestis, near Bitola Macedonia, to be specific, was a strategically important location during the Hellenistic period. It was at the very edge of the border with Epirus to the west of Macedon, and Paeonia to the north. You will easily trace the settlement by looking for Bitola, Macedonia, on the modern map, and going just 2 kilometers south.
As the kingdom of Macedon fell under the Romans in the 2nd century BC, after they’ve destroyed much of its political power, the territory was divided into four districts. Heraclea was the administrative center for the fourth district Lynkestis and still an important strategic point for the Roman Empire.
Via Egnatia, one of the most significant trading routes from this period passed directly through the city, giving Heraclea the role of a major supply depot. This was during the reign of Julius Cesar, when the citizens of Heraclea witnessed prosperity, cultural, economic, and infrastructural growth.
Much of the remains that can be observed today originate from the Roman era, as well as the early Christian and Byzantine period. Such is the case with the glorious amphitheater built by the Roman emperor Hadrian, featuring 20 rows, animal cages and a tunnel to the west.
The religion in Heraclea evolved throughout the centuries – from Greek mythology and Roman gods to Christianity in its early years. Some of the buildings accurately narrate this transition, changing their motifs, art and form.
It was during the third and fourth century AD when Heraclea became one of the most important Episcopal centers. The basilicas, the small one and the great, were constructed during this period, along with the grave basilica with a necropolis located to the east of the monumental theater.
The appointed bishops were mentioned in the synods in Serdica and other nearby towns, testifying to the religious importance of Heraclea within the Lynkestis region and beyond.
The fall of Heraclea
Heraclea and Stobi, due to their locational proximity, shared the same historical arc. Sacked by the Ostrogothic King Theodoric, Heraclea started a slow decline. This took place in 472, and once again in 479 despite the generous gifts from the citizens of Heraklea during the first raid.
But unlike Stobi, Heraclea was rebuilt during the end of the 5th century, and most of the mosaics date from around this period.
Nevertheless, a strong earthquake damaged the city in the 6th century, and it was the last prelude before the numerous Slavic invasions that were about to follow. The last issued coins were circa 585 suggesting the final fall of Heraclea and the beginning of the Slavic era throughout the region.
Things to see in Heraclea Lyncestis
The first excavations took place before World War I, but the true wealth of archeological findings were discovered much later. Among these are the Roman baths, the Episcopal Church, the baptistery, the portico, Jewish temple, and of course the Roman amphitheater. Preserved enough to spark your imagination wild, they decorate this ancient city like it was a surreal movie setting.
The Basilicas, apart from the Roman amphitheater, are definitely among the main attractions in Heraclea Bitola. They feature impeccable mosaics with scenes from the Garden of Eden, the fight of good versus evil, as well as some depiction of flora and fauna on its own, irrespective of larger historical or mythological motifs.
You will find birds, fish, jellyfish and other intricate details across all mosaics in the Large and Small basilicas.
The Roman Amphitheater, on the other hand, draws its magnificence from sheer size as opposed to detail. It commands attention right away, and that is irrespective of its central placement. Found on a hill, in the center of the town, it was one of the many buildings constructed during the second century, when a number of restoration campaigns were initiated by the Romans.
The first clue of the theater dates back to 1931, when a small bone ticked was discovered. It was a reservation for a seat in the 14th row, and the earliest evidence of a theater stage in Heraclea. It wasn’t until 1968 that the actual theater was discovered. With 3 animal cages and a tunnel to the west, it was obviously a place for gladiator fights during the early days. Later, with the spread of Christianity, the fights were seen as a barbaric form of entertainment and were therefore banned everywhere, including Heraclea Macedonia.
Today, you can listen to concerts and attend theater plays during the summer season as people arrive to Heraclea Bitola to blend together the past and present.
Getting to Heraclea, Bitola
Considering the proximity to the center of Bitola, you can definitely take a walk and arrive in Heraclea after about 15 minutes. Another option would be calling a taxi which will cost less than $2 in one direction.
There is an entrance desk with very welcoming staff, and they can help you around if you need to ask questions, call a taxi, or struggle with anything else. The entrance fee is 100 denars which translates into 2 dollars.
There is bus station nearby as well, taking you back to the center of Bitola. But even if you are passing through town the main railway and bus station are both within a 15 minute walk, so it is easy to pay a visit without planning for a longer stay. Heraclea is very well maintained, and the mosaics alone are worth your time. You will also find a small museum on the site, with several artifacts and a model representation of the city during its prime.
Trains and busses commute from Skopje to Bitola several times per day, so you won’t have to worry about getting to Bitola if you are staying in the capital.
The open hours for visiting Heraclea Lyncestis are as follows:
- April to October: 9AM – 6PM
- October to March: 9AM – 4PM
Considering how many attractions are close to one another when you are discovering Macedonia, there is a garden variety of interesting places dotting the map. Most of them, believe it or not, are within your reach at what is arguably one or two hours’ drive.
If you want to find interesting locations near to Heraclea Bitola, you can definitely head west to Ohrid. There, amidst religious heritage aplenty, you’ll discover the Bay of Bones, the Saint Naun Monastery complex and a number of attractive beaches along the lake shore. Close nearby are the town of Struga and the village of Vevcani, both of them rich with beautiful scenery aplenty. If you are an outdoor aficionado, exploring the mountain of Galicica is also a must.
If you go to the east, you can pass through Prilep before visiting Stobi which is another ancient town from the same period. The outskirts of Prilep offer a number of adventure opportunities including the Marble Lake, and the monumental Treskavec monastery complex.
Heading north, you can visit the wine valley of central Macedonia along the river Vardar, have a glass of Vranec and return back to the capital Skopje. But regardless of your location, and regardless of your planning, Heraclea Lyncestis is one of those places that warrant a visit.