Ancient city made for enjoyable day trip

Trip Start May 30, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Thursday, July 8, 2010

Butrint is 14 kms south of Sarande, close to the Greek border, along a road first built in 1959 for a visit by the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. According to Wikipedia this road is being upgraded during summer 2010 (vast understatement since they've torn up the old road and seem to be starting all over!). The construction project is something of an environmental catastrophe and may yet threaten Butrint's UNESCO World Heritage Site status. I can see why given the scope of the work and the lack of environmental considerations.

To better understand the ancient city of Butrint here is an excerpt from Wikipedia:

Butrint is located on a hill overlooking the Vivari Channel and is part of the Butrint National Park. Inhabited since prehistoric times, Butrint has been the site of an Epirote city, a Roman colony and a bishopric. According to the Roman writer Virgil its legendary founder was the seer Helenus, a son of the king Priam of Troy, who had married Andromache and moved West after the fall of Troy. The Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus, as does the Latin poet Virgil, wrote that Aeneas visited Butrint after his own escape from the destruction of Troy.

First archaeological evidence of settled occupation dates to between 10th and 8th centuries BC, although there is earlier evidence of habitation in the 12th century BC. The original settlement probably sold food to Corfu and had a fort and sanctuary. Butrint was in a strategically important position due to its access to the Straits of Corfu. By the 4th century BC it had grown in importance and included a theatre, a sanctuary to Asclepius and an agora. Around 380 BC, the settlement was fortified with a new 870 metres long wall, with five gates, enclosing an area of four hectares.

In 228 BC Butrint became a Roman protectorate alongside Corfu and Romans increasingly dominated Butrint after 167 BC. In the next century, it became a part of a province of Macedonia. In 44 BC, Caesar designated Butrint as a colony to reward soldiers that had fought on his side against Pompey. The local landholder Titus Pomponius Atticus objected to his correspondent Cicero who lobbied against the plan in the Senate. As a result, Butrint received only small numbers of colonists.

In 31 BC, Emperor Augustus fresh from his victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the nearby battle of Actium renewed the plan to make Butrint a veterans' colony. New residents expanded the city and the construction included an aqueduct, a Roman bath, houses, a forum complex, and a nymphaeum.

In the 3rd century AD, an earthquake destroyed a large part of the town, leveling buildings in the suburbs on the Vrina Plain and in the forum of the city center. Excavations have revealed that the city had already been in decline. However, the settlement survived into the late antique era, becoming a major port in the province of Old Epirus. The town of late antiquity included the grand Triconch Palace, the house of a major local notable that was built around 425.

In the early 6th century AD, Butrint became the seat of a bishop and new construction included a large baptistery, one of the largest such Paleochristian buildings of its type, and a basilica. The walls of the city were extensively rebuilt, most probably at the end of the 5th century AD, perhaps by Emperor Anastasius. The Ostrogoths under King Totila raided the Ionian coast in 550 and may have attacked Butrint. Evidence from the excavations shows that importation of commodities, wine and oil from the Eastern Mediterranean continued into the early years of the 7th century when the early Byzantine Empire lost these provinces. In this, it follows the historical pattern seen in other Balkan cities, with the 6th to 7th century being a watershed for the transformation of the Roman World into the Early Middle Ages.

By the 7th century, following the model of classical cities throughout the Mediterranean, Butrint had shrunk to a much smaller fortified post and with the collapse of Roman power was briefly controlled by First Bulgarian Empire before being regained by the Byzantine Empire in the 9th century. Recent excavations in the western defenses of the city have revealed evidence of the continued use of the walls, implying the continuation of life in the town. The walls themselves certainly seem to have burnt down in the 9th century (how do limestone walls burn down?), but were subsequently repaired. It remained an outpost of the empire fending off assaults from the Normans until 1204 when following the Fourth Crusade, the Byzantine Empire fragmented, Butrint falling to the breakaway Despotate of Epirus. In the following centuries, the area was a site of conflict between the Byzantines, the Angevins of southern Italy, and the Venetians, and the city changed hands many times. In 1267, Charles of Anjou took control of both Butrint  and Corfu leading to further restorations of the walls and the Great Basilica.

The Republic of Venice purchased the area including Corfu from the Angevins in 1386; however, the Venetian merchants were principally interested in Corfu and Butrint once again declined. By 1572 the wars between Venice and the Ottoman Empire had left Butrint ruinous and at the order of Domenico Foscarini, the Venetian commander of Corfu, the administration of Butrint and its environs was shifted to a small triangular fortress associated with the extensive fish weirs. The area was lightly settled afterwords, occasionally being seized by the Ottoman Turks, in 1655 and 1718, before being recaptured by the Venetians. Its fisheries were a vital contributor to the supply of Corfu, and olive growing together with cattle and timber were the principal economic activities.

In 1797, Butrint came under French control when Venice ceded it to Napoleon as a part of the Treaty of Campo Formio. In 1799, the local Ottoman governor Ali Pasha Tepelena conquered it, and it became a part of the empire until Albanian independence in 1912. By that time, the site of the original city had been unoccupied for centuries and was surrounded by malarial marshes.

The first modern archaeological excavations began in 1928 when the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini's Italy sent an expedition to Butrint. The aim was geopolitical rather than scientific, aiming to extend Italian hegemony in the area. The leader was an Italian archaeologist, Luigi Maria Ugolini who despite the political aims of his mission was a good archaeologist. Ugolini died in 1936, but the excavations continued until 1943 and the Second World War. They uncovered the Hellenistic and Roman part of the city including the "Lion Gate" and the "Scaean Gate" (named by Ugolini for the famous gate at Troy mentioned in the Homeric Iliad).

After the communist government of Enver Hoxha took Albania over in 1944, foreign archaeological missions were banned. Albanian archaeologists including Hasan Ceka continued the work. Nikita Khrushchev visited the ruins in 1959 and suggested that Hoxha should turn the area into a submarine base. The Albanian Institute of Archaeology began larger scale excavations in the 1970s. Since 1993 further major excavations have taken place led by the Butrint Foundation in collaboration with the Albanian Institute of Archaeology.

After the collapse of the communist regime in 1992, the new democratic government planned various major developments at the site. The same year remains of Butrint were included in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. A major political and economic crisis in 1997 and lobbying stopped the airport plan and UNESCO reclassified it as a "Site in Danger" because of looting, lack of protection, management and conservation.

The Albanian Government established the Butrint National Park in 2000. With the support of Albanian institutions, UNESCO and the Butrint Foundation, the situation was improved to the point that UNESCO removed the site from the danger list by 2005. The National Park was also made a UNESCO World Heritage Site during these years as well as a Ramsar Site.

Butrint may yet provide a model of how local communities in developing countries can be empowered through the sustainable exploitation of cultural heritage. The Park Directorate ensured that the Park was able to establish an international position. In 2005 the Butrint Foundation reopened the Museum which had been destroyed in 1997. The Butrint National Park has become an important educational resource.

I thoroughly enjoyed the guided tour through Butrint which was much larger than I expected.  It was quite amazing to think that Julius Caesar was in the same place 2000 years ago and I wondered what it looked like then.  I hope excavations continue so we can learn more about this historic place and that the Albanian government can put in place some strict environmental safeguards to protect the area.
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Bob & David on

Good to hear from you again. The lack of recent blogs had us wondering where you were.

Thanks for the history lesson from Butrint. It was quite interesting.

How are the Power Bars holding up? Do we need to send more?

ardion on

I am sorry to see that whomever wrote this piece has left out the ijmportant work done by the albanians themself. Also the guy who run butrint in 2000 -2005 Auron Tare was very important in protecting the Park and making it a model in managing the cultural heritage in Albania

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