Saranda: The ancient city of Butrinti
The city of Butrinti (Bothrota) is one of the fragments which form the fabric of Albania's ancient cultural landscape. Nestling in the highlands in the far south of the country and surrounded by dense vegetation, Butrinti was doubly protected by nature and by the fortifications which its inhabitants built in ancient times. However, this was not sufficient to isolate the city from the rest of the world. Less than ten kilometers from the island of Corfu, Butrinti was linked to the Mediterranean by the Vivari canal, which ran from the Butrinti Lake to the Ionian Sea.

The amphitheater of Butrinti and its surroundings (Photo by Petrit Omeri)

The proximity of the sea and the lake, the gentle climate and the beauty of the surrounding countryside provided a splendid environment for the foundation of a city. In taking advantage of this site, the architects of the past constructed what was to become one of the major maritime and commercial centers of the Ancient World. Butrinti reached the height of its glory in the 4th century B.C., at which time the city numbered 10,000 inhabitants.

The sight of the fortifications alone, which date from the 6th century B.C., evokes the military and economic potential of the city at that time. The hill on which the acropolis stands is encircled by a wall built of huge stone blocks. In places this wall is two meters high and 3.5 meters wide.

The amphitheater, dating from the 3rd century B.C., bears witness to the cultural riches of the city. The stone banks of seating, of which twenty-three rows have been preserved, would have held an audience of 1,500. The theater is situated at the foot of the acropolis, close by two temples, one of which is dedicated to Asclepios, the Greek god of medicine, who was worshiped by the city's inhabitants. Approximately thirty inscriptions, almost all in ancient Greek, carved the western facade of this temple, and another hundred or so found on a tower which was rebuilt in the 1st century B.C., are the only examples of writing discovered in Butrinti. These inscriptions are mainly concerned with the liberation of slaves.

Excavations have brought to light many objects - plates, vases, ceramic candle sticks - as well as sculptures, including a remarkable "Goddess of Butrinti," which seems to completely embody, in the perfection of its features, the Greek ideal of physical beauty.

For centuries, the walls faithfully defended Butrinti, but no wall is invincible, and these huge blocks of stone finally ceded to the assault of the Roman legions which landed on the Adriatic and Ionian shores in the 2nd century B.C. Under the rule of the occupiers, Butrinti was to fall slowly into decadence. In spite of this, three monumental fountains, three public baths, a gymnasium decorated with mosaics, and especially the aqueduct constructed during the reign of Augustus, prove that the site was not completely abandoned. Augustus also oversaw the reconstruction of all the ancient city walls and the erection of new fortifications.

Christianity brought new life to Butrinti. The palaeo-Christian period adorned the city with two basilicas and a baptistry, which is among the most beautiful in the Mediterranean region. Sixteen granite columns, forming two concentric circles, support the roof of the main hall. The floor is paved with a magnificent mosaic representing the Tree of Life and decorated with medallions embellished with animal motifs.

Barbarian incursions and Norman raids in the eleventh century, a catastrophic earthquake in 1153, conquest by the Venetians in 1386, the subterranean infiltration of water and the subsequent epidemics completed the ruin of the city and forced the inhabitants to flee. Butrinti was buried in silence and oblivion. Throughout the occupation by the Ottoman Empire, from the 15th to the 20th centuries, the city remained in deep slumber. The waters covered Butrinti in mud, and abundant vegetation completely hid the remains from view.

It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that systematic excavations were carried out at Butrinti by the Italian archeologist I. Ugolini, followed by his compatriots P. Marconi and D. Mustili. Between 1928 and 1941, the ground was cleared and the ancient city gradually began to reveal its hidden treasures.

Following the liberation of Albania in 1944, Albanian archeologists undertook more ambitious excavations. In turn, the ramparts, the acropolis, the agora, the amphitheater, the temples, public baths and private residences re-emerged into the light of day. The entire city arose, almost intact, under the fascinated gaze of the archeologists. The mud and vegetation that covered Butrinti had protected it from the natural and human ravages of time.

Today, this rediscovered city represents a unique cultural treasure whose value far surpasses national frontiers. The importance of Butrinti can be gauged from its inclusion in 1992 on UNESCO's World Heritage List

Source: World66 &
Last Updated ( Sunday, 17 April 2005 )