Butrint: When Worlds Collide

In July 2015, I visited Butrint in Albania, a historic site spanning over 27 centuries. At Butrint the visitor can witness first-hand the historical development of ancient societies and the relationship between the historic and modern worlds, in the particular context of post-communist Europe.

Butrint is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It contains artefacts and structures dating from the prehistoric to the nineteenth century. In Butrint the ancient past collides with the raw emotions of a modern country still emerging from communism. In Butrint - known as Bouthrōtios in Ancient Greek and Buthrotum in Latin - archaeological remains reveal the site’s many different stages. Circa 800-300BC, it was a Greek colony of the Chaonians, and had close contacts with the Corinthian colony of Corcyra (Corfu). Its founding mythology, told by Virgil, is that it was founded by the seer Helenus, son of king Priam of Troy, who came to Butrint after the fall of Troy. Both Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Virgil tell that Aeneas visited Butrint after escaping from Troy. Over time, Butrint grew from a simple polis to include by the fourth century BC an agora, and a sanctuary to Asclepius. The settlement was fortified c. 380BC with an 870m long wall and five gates, including the impressive Lion Gate.

In 228BC, Buthrotum became a Roman protectorate and later was absorbed into the province of Macedonia. In 44BC, Caesar named Buthrotum as a colony, a reward for soldiers that had fought with him against Pompey. However, a local landholder, Titus Pomponius Atticus, wrote to Cicero complaining about the situation, and Cicero lobbied against Caesar's plan in the Senate. Consequently, Buthrotum received few colonists. In 31BC, after Emperor Augustus' victory over Mark Anthony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium, he strengthened Buthrotum's position as a veterans' colony by doubling the size of the town, and constructing more houses, a forum, aqueduct, Roman baths, and a nymphaeum (a monument dedicated to nymphs of a natural spring, probably originally a sacred natural site).

In the fifth century AD, several early Christian structures were constructed, and Buthrotum became the seat of a bishop. Buildings included a basilica and an impressive baptistery, which is one of the largest Paleo-Christian buildings of its type. In the Byzantine period of the ninth century, Butrint and its surroundings came under Angevin control, followed by Venetian control in the 14th century. As a response to several attacks by Epirus and the later Ottomans, Butrint extended its walls. A fortress was added at the start of the nineteenth century, built by the Albanian Ottoman ruler, Ali Pasha, who controlled Butrint until it was finally abandoned.

Archaeological excavations began in 1928 under the Fascist Italian government of Benito Mussolini. Its aim was geopolitical, intending to extend Italian hegemony in the area. Excavations revealed the Hellenistic and Roman parts of the city, including the impressive Lion Gate. In 1944, Albania came under control of the USSR and foreign archaeological missions were banned. Since 1993 and the fall of communism, foreign excavations have been permitted again, and major excavations are now being supported by the Butrint Foundation.

Visitors can see the excavated Greek amphitheatre and temple of Asclepios, Roman Forum, Triconch Palace, gymnasium, Roman villa, aqueduct and the late antiquity baptistry, as well as the impressive walls, Lion Gate and Venetian fortress. Of particular interest are the Roman mosaics and stones bearing manumission inscriptions.

The Butrint Foundation offers grants for individuals and organisations working on excavated material from Butrint, in particular in academic research, conservation and training. In addition, the Butrint Foundation stores data from excavations comprising over 40,000 records, providing a plethora of information on this under-appreciated archaeological treasure.

Image: SarahTz