“Let me tell you that Buthrotum is to Corcyra (Corfu) what Antium is to Rome – the quietest, coolest, most pleasant place in the world.”
– Letter from Cicero to Atticus (56 BC)
On the southernmost edge of the Albanian coast, through millennia old ruins, we are led on a journey to antiquity…
A step into the park of Buthrotum takes you back to ancient Troy. As the exiled crowds fled a falling city searching for a new place to call home, they settled in what is now Butrint, one of Saranda’s must see sites. Here, each step is a walk into a different century.
Sanctuaries for the god of medicine Asclepius from the 4th century B.C, temples and theaters built by Julius Caesar in the 1st century B.C., and public baths encircled by fortified walls and dense wilderness blend in unison in Butrint, making it a site worthy of worship.
A sense of awe captivates you while strolling through the acropolis of 8th century B.C., admiring the mosaic floor of a baptistery or bowing to pass through the lion’s gate of the medieval period. Parts of this enchanting settlement inhabited through millennia are flooded with water every fall; hence, the mosaic floors are covered with sand for preservation and unveiled only every four years.
Traces of ruins of Hellenic, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman civilizations are spread throughout the 9,424 hectare peninsula of Butrint. Each step in the park keeps you wondering, what stories are trapped within these ruins, pleading to be unearthed?
Preserving its ancient spirit of a port city to this day, pontoon boats and floating wooden platforms wait to take visitors across the Vivari Canal (aka Butrint Lake) to one of Ali Pashë Tepelena’s famous castles in Albania.
This one, referred to as the Venetian Castle of the 14th& 16th century, was also home of the Albanian ruler who served as pasha under the Ottoman Empire’s European Territory. The castle was used for protection from the French attacks coming from Corfu during his reign.
An ancient port and an important economic center of the Mediterranean, Butrint seems to have undergone extensive construction at various times since its existence, especially during Augustus’ rule, when it was known as Colonia Augusta Buthrotum.
A walk around the villae (Roman civic house) and the agora (commercial and civic epicenter), which were nourished by elaborate aqueducts, takes you on a passage to a civilization of impressive artistic and architectural mastery.
Home to hundreds of species of birds, fish, and mammals and of a dozen of endangered plants, Butrint’s UNESCO’s National Park has been recognized for its beauty from inhabitants in the 4th century B.C. to today.
Among the ruins is a fountain inherited from the settlers of the 2nd century A.D dedicated to the nymphs, which lies at the outermost edge of the park. This nymphaeum embodies the feeling of openness and vastness of Butrint. Surrounded by water, Butrint’s settlers had a deep dependency on the port for food and supplies arriving by boats from other parts of Europe.
The top of the hill is home to the acropolis, an ancient citadel dating back to the 8th century and overlooking the town below. Here a replica sculpture head of Dea (the Goddess of Butrint), dating from the 1st century and discovered in the park ruins, stands gazing across the waters of the Vivari Canal as if safeguarding the peninsula’s inhabitants from external threats.
A full body sculpture was found in 1928 near the Butrint’s theater; it was later sent to Italy for a show where it was allegedly badly damaged during the bombings in World War II. The surviving head was returned to Albania in 1981 and the original is on view at the Historic Museum in Tirana. Butrint’s museum features other artifacts found in the acropolis.
The inhabitants’ affection for nature has been depicted on coins used for trade through engraved images of an aqueduct and a bull, which appears to have later become the symbol of Butrint. The cultural richness of Butrint indicates that it was highly prosperous in certain periods and people even owned fine glass and tableware in their households during Ceasar’s rule.
Traces of wall inscriptions and unearthed relics from various periods reveal that every civilization has left a part of its beliefs and cultural motifs on the park. At the far end of the park is the Great Basilica, a Christian cult built in the 6th century A.D. This era left a great wealth of Christian symbols engraved on various objects in the park as this was a common way at the time to ensure protection from spirits.
Manumission inscriptions on walls hint of women holding a unique place in the society of the early settlers. Among these 4th century dwellers, slave freedom was seen as a gift to the god of medicine Asclepius. They would hold various celebrations for manumission deeds and record them in writing.
What is especially intriguing is that the writings show that women were able to own slaves and could even set them free. Interestingly, writings reveal that if a woman’s husband died, the wealth of the family passed on to her and not the eldest son.
What more does Butrint, Albania’s most visited cultural site, hold within its heart is up to you to unravel…
(Photos by Rilind Latifi)