With occupation dating from 50,000 B.C., up to the 19th century A.D., Butrint (originally called Buthrotum) is located on a small hill surrounded by the waters of Lake Butrint and the Vivari Channel (pictured here), flowing into the Ionian Sea; Butrint National Park, Sarandë, Albania
Situated in a national park in Albania, just south of the Albanian Riviera resort town of Sarandë, Butrint attracts nature lovers as well as those with an interest in archaeology and history. From Corfu, Greece, where our ship was docked, we took a commercial hydrofoil boat across the 8.7 miles (14 km) of the Ionian Sea separating Corfu from the southern coast of Albania. After clearing Albanian Immigration in Sarandë, our small group was driven south to Butrint. (Our tour organizers had noted that “Albania’s infrastructure is less developed than other European countries; transportation may not meet normal standards.” That proved to be an unnecessary warning, as we found the infrastructure to be fine – in fact better than a lot of the U.S.A.!)
Remains of the original city walls facing Lake Butrint near what is now the entrance to the historical site, Butrint National Park, Sarandë, Albania
Occupied before Greeks, the Butrint settlement was abandoned late in the Middle Ages when the region was slowly engulfed by encroaching marshland. Described by UNESCO as “a microcosm of Mediterranean history,” the archaeological site bears vestiges of its ancient Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Venetian history; it is a UNESCO World Heritage Center. We had private guides to walk us through the National Park historical core area and spent about an hour and a half exploring the peaceful site, rediscovered in 1927 by Italian archaeologists. Among the highlights: a Greek theater and Temple of Asclepius, a Roman forum and public baths, a paleo-Christian baptistery and basilica, and a museum housing numerous relics.
The National Park brochure has an interesting historical story about the founding of Butrint: “According to classical mythology, the ancient city known as Buthrotum, was founded by the exiles who left the city after the fall of Troy. In the epic poem ‘Aeneid’, the Latin poet Virgil narrates to Aeneas, who visited Butrint on his way to Italy”.
A Venetian guard tower at the city walls built in the 15th and 16th centuries, Butrint National Park, Sarandë, Albania
The UNESCO World Heritage website has an excellent summary of the history of the site: “Butrint, located in the south of Albania approximately 20 km [12 miles] from the modern city of Saranda, has a special atmosphere created by a combination of archaeology, monuments and nature in the Mediterranean. With its hinterland it constitutes an exceptional cultural landscape, which has developed organically over many centuries. Butrint has escaped aggressive development of the type that has reduced the heritage value of most historic landscapes in the Mediterranean region. It constitutes a very rare combination of archaeology and nature. The property is a microcosm of Mediterranean history, with occupation dating from 50,000 BC, at its earliest evidence, up to the 19th century AD. Prehistoric sites have been identified within the nucleus of Butrint, the small hill surrounded by the waters of Lake Butrint and Vivari Channel, as well as in its wider territory. From 800 BC until the arrival of the Romans, Butrint was influenced by Greek culture, bearing elements of a “polis” and being settled by Chaonian tribes. In 44 BC Butrint became a Roman colony and expanded considerably on reclaimed marshland, primarily to the south across the Vivari Channel, where an aqueduct was built. In the 5th century AD Butrint became an Episcopal centre; it was fortified and substantial early Christian structures were built. After a period of abandonment, Butrint was reconstructed under Byzantine control in the 9th century. Butrint and its territory came under Angevin and then Venetian control in the 14th century. Several attacks by despots of Epirus and then later by Ottomans led to the strengthening and extension of the defensive works of Butrint. At the beginning of the 19th century, a new fortress was added to the defensive system of Butrint at the mouth of the Vivari Channel. It was built by Ali Pasha, an Albanian Ottoman ruler who controlled Butrint and the area until its final abandonment.”
A drawing of what archaeologists believe Roman Butrint looked like in the late 1st century A.D., Butrint National Park, Sarandë, Albania; the late 1st century A.D. was a prosperous period for Butrint and its inhabitants – its citizens enjoyed a high standard of living with fine glass and tableware being common in many households
Roman statues of the imperial family that were displayed in the theatre and other public spaces in Butrint, Butrint National Park, Sarandë, Albania
Lonely Planet guides has a good summary of the site and visit: “The ancient ruins of Butrint, 18km south of Saranda, are famed for their size, beauty and tranquillity. They’re in a fantastic natural setting and are part of a 29-sq-km national park. The remains – Albania’s finest – are from a variety of periods, spanning 2,500 years.
“Although the site was inhabited long before, Greeks from Corfu settled on the hill in Butrint (Buthrotum) in the 6th century BC. Within a century Butrint had become a fortified trading city with an acropolis. The lower town began to develop in the 3rd century BC, and many large stone buildings had already been built by the time the Romans took over in 167 BC. Butrint’s prosperity continued throughout the Roman period, and the Byzantines made it an ecclesiastical centre. The city then went into a long decline and was abandoned until 1927, when Italian archaeologists arrived. These days Lord Rothschild’s UK-based Butrint Foundation helps maintain the site.
“As you enter the site the path leads to the right, to Butrint’s 3rd-century-BC Greek theatre, secluded in the forest below the acropolis. Also in use during the Roman period, the theatre could seat about 2,500 people. Close by are the small public baths, where geometric mosaics are buried under a layer of mesh and sand to protect them from the elements.
“Deeper in the forest is a wall covered with crisp Greek inscriptions, and the 6th-century palaeo-Christian baptistry decorated with colourful mosaics of animals and birds, again under the sand. Beyond are the impressive arches of the 6th-century basilica, built over many years. A massive Cyclopean wall dating back to the 4th century BC is further on. Over one gate is a relief of a lion killing a bull, symbolic of a protective force vanquishing assailants.
“The top of the hill is where the acropolis once was. There’s now a castle here, housing an informative museum. The views from the museum’s courtyard give you a good idea of the city’s layout, and you can see the Vivari Channel connecting Lake Butrint to the Straits of Corfu. There are community-run stalls inside the gates where you can buy locally produced souvenirs.”
Roman baths (thermae) of the 2nd century A.D., Butrint National Park, Sarandë, Albania
The ancient Greek, and later Roman, theatre, arranged according to the Roman style and equipped with a Roman scene, Butrint National Park, Sarandë, Albania
The seating area of the ancient Roman theatre, Butrint National Park, Sarandë, Albania
The Greek Agora and, later, the Roman Forum, that formed the civic and commercial epicenter of the city, Butrint National Park, Sarandë, Albania
A baptistry of the 2nd century A.D. with a well preserved mosaic floor, Butrint National Park, Sarandë, Albania; the Butrint Baptistry is one of the outstanding early Byzantine monuments of the central Mediterranean – its complex structure ranks it alongside the large free standing baptistries of late antique and medieval Italy, and its extraordinary mosaic pavement is the best preserved and by far the most elaborate of any of these
The Gymnasium, perhaps a pagan shrine, later transformed into a chruch, Butrint National Park, Sarandë, Albania
The exterior walls of the Great Basillica – a cult establishment of the early Chrisian period, built in the 6th century A.D., Butrint National Park, Sarandë, Albania
An arched exterior wall of the Great Basillica, Butrint National Park, Sarandë, Albania
The interior of the Great Basillica, Butrint National Park, Sarandë, Albania
Following our tour, we were driven back to Sarandë where we had a local-cuisine lunch at one of the tourist restaurants along the waterfront. Working with our guides, they arranged an addition to our program — a drive south to the hill that is home to Lëkurësi Castle, now in ruins and partially restored. The hill proved to be strategic. The castle on it was built in 1537 by the Ottoman Turkish Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, who had attacked Corfu and needed to control the harbor and the road connecting Sarandë to Butrint. [See our photographs from the hill in our previous blog post, “Sarandë, Albania”.] Later, back in Sarandë, we had time to walk along the promenade at the central city beach and observe local life (and try the local ice cream). Our return to Corfu was by hydrofoil; as noted earlier, the boat and engines were built many decades ago by the Russians and we hoped the tape and chewing gum that held it together lasted for our round-trip journey.
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