The Butrinto (or Butrint) National Park is one of the most impressive places in Albania. Located just 25 kilometres from Saranda , very close to the southern border with Greece , it consists of a natural site with archaeological sites and habitat of 2,500 hectares of lagoons of incalculable value in terms of biodiversity.
View of the ancient city of Butrint. Photo: A Daily Odyssey/Shutterstock
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1992, it is home to one of the largest archaeological sites in Albania, if not the Balkans. The Butrint National Park encompasses Lake Butrint and the Vivari Canal, which connects the lake to the Ionian Sea, discharging fresh water from the lake into the sea. This network of canals, rivers, lagoons and lakes makes it an important habitat for birds. In fact, the wetland is internationally protected under the Ramsar Convention, making it a true bird-watching paradise.
Another part of Butrint National Park are the
rocky islands of Ksamil , which can only be reached by private boat or with an excursion.
HISTORY OF BUTRINTO
The archaeological trace of Butrint dates the first settlements to the 8th century BC, although the myths associated with its origins tell of the founding of the town by Trojan exiles. The classical poet Virgil called Butrintus in his Aeneid, the ” Troy of the Mediterranean “. According to his interpretation it was founded by exiles fleeing the fall of Troy. Upon arrival, Priamus’ son, Hélenus, fought with an ox, which, wounded, crossed the river and died on the beach. The omen led to the choice of this location for the city to be called Buthrotum, meaning “wounded ox”. Another version of the legend attributes the founding of the city to Aeneas.
In the 4th century BC, the enclosure was walled and the city became a destination for the cult of the god of medicine and healing, Asclepius.
Reconstruction of the ancient city of Butrint
The place name comes from the ancient port of Butroto, Buthrotum in Latin. In 48 BC Julius Caesar, who visited Butrint, granted it the title of colony with the idea of rewarding veteran soldiers who had supported him in the Battle of Pharsalus against Pompey. Eventually it was his adopted son, Emperor Octavian Augustus, who attracted former legionaries who had participated in the Battle of Actium in which Augustus had defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Under his rule he continued to encourage its development, the city expanded to reach the opposite bank of the Vivari Canal, and new facilities such as the aqueduct, the Roman baths, a forum and a nymphaeum were created.
In the 3rd century, an earthquake destroyed a large part of Butrint, but it seems to have remained a Roman port until the 6th century AD. The great Palace of Triconch, the home of a distinguished citizen, dates from the 5th century. Around 550 the Ostrogoths under King Totila sacked the town. Little else is known of the site between the 7th and 9th centuries, except that Christianity took hold and Butrint became the seat of a bishopric. Eight churches, a basilica and a baptistery of impressive proportions, second only to Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, remain from this period.
Its later medieval history was turbulent as the city was involved firstly in the power struggles between Byzantium and successive states: Despot of Epirus, Normans, Angevins and Venetians, and secondly in the conflict between Venice and the Ottoman Turks. For the Venetians, the navigation of the channel between the mainland coast and the island of Corfu was of vital importance to control trade across the Ionian Sea. At the beginning of the 19th century Butrint was just a small fishing village around the remains of the triangular-shaped Venetian castle, adapted to the morphology of the terrain.
Venetian tower beside the canal
The marshy waters of the marshes were a perfect breeding ground for malaria, which meant that they were progressively abandoned during the first decades of the 20th century.
The archaeological campaign was initiated by an Italian mission in the 1920s, promoted by Mussolini’s fascist government, which had occupied Albania. The dictator was thus appropriating the history of Magna Roma for his expansionist interests. Luigi Maria Ugolini was the archaeologist in charge of the excavations, which began in 1928 and were interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. Thanks to his work, the early Christian baptistery, the Greek theatre, and the two Hellenistic gates, the Lion Gate and the Lake Gate, were recovered.
After the war, in 1948, Butrint was declared a Cultural Monument. In 1959, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev visited the Greek and Roman site. The Albanian president, the dictator Enver Hoxha, prepared the trip by building a road from Saranda, and even the fear that he might suffer a mishap during his tour of Albania led to mass snake poisoning at Butrint. Despite the host’s visit to showcase the site’s millennia-old history, Khrushchev’s plans were more concerned with the construction of a submarine base to counter the pro-Western bloc’s control of the Mediterranean Sea. Coincidentally, or not, six months later, Hoxha broke off relations with the Soviet Union, entering a period of total international isolation.
In the 1970s, the Albanian Institute of Archaeology initiated an excavation project, but unfortunately, the collapse of the country after the fall of the regime led to the looting and trafficking of artefacts. Some, such as the marble head of the god Asclepius, were successfully recovered and can be seen in the National Historical Museum in Tirana, but others remain unaccounted for.
Theatre of Butrint- Photo: Aleksandar Todorovic/Shutterstock
After the fall of the dictatorship, Unesco moved quickly to list Butrint as a World Heritage Site. Aware of the potential for tourism, the Albanian government created the National Park between 1998 and 1999. The establishment of the Butrinto Foundation in collaboration with the Albanian Institutes of Archaeology and Monuments, foreign universities and international specialists and consultants has served to lay the foundations for an ambitious project that will serve as a model for other sites in Albania.
Since 1994, the Albanian Institute of Archaeology and the Institute of World Archaeology at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, have carried out excavations under the direction of the Butrint Foundation of Lord Rothschild and Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover, based in the United Kingdom, which is responsible for its conservation.
Excavation areas include the Roman Forum, an extensive Roman house known as the Triconch Palace, a baptistery, a Roman villa, an ancient church on the shore of Lake Butrint at Diaporit and an important suburb of the Roman city located on the plain in front of the walled city.
WHAT TO SEE IN BUTRINTO
The whole of the national park has different tourist motivations. On the one hand there are the ruins of the ancient city of Butrint, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, on the other hand the lake is considered a top ecotourism destination, while Ksamil is a beach and relaxation holiday resort.
Map of the monuments of Butrint
SITE AND HISTORICAL REMAINS
In different parts of Butrint there are ruins, structures and traces of human settlements dating from the Iron Age to the Middle Ages such as a Roman theatre, an ancient baptistery, a large basilica, the city walls and two castles. Only a small part of the ancient Roman city has been excavated and archaeological campaigns are bringing new parts of the city to light.
The Lion Gate is one of the six entrances of the Hellenistic (4th century BC) city walls. This gate, with its carved image of a lion biting the throat of a bull, symbolised the defence of the city. Its narrow entrance meant that in the event of an attack many attackers could not enter at the same time, so that they could be easily shot down.
Lion’s Gate at Butrint
Theatre of Butrint
The Greek theatre of Butrint is sometimes mentioned as Roman but its construction dates back to the 4th century BC. before the Romans arrived. As was the tradition in Greek theatres and amphitheatres, the hillside of one of the hills of the acropolis was used as the site for the building. The theatre served to entertain the inhabitants. It continued to be used in Roman times, and in fact important alterations were carried out in the 3rd century BC, enlarging the cavea with a capacity for 2,500 people. The area of the “orchesta” was filled with water with communicating vessels with the lake, and sometimes it is still flooded, full of frogs that are the “echo” of the representations. The niches of the “scaenae frons” had statues. The Balkan Theatre Festival is held every July in the Butrint amphitheatre.
Roman Theatre in Butrint
Temple of Asclepius
Next to the theatre is the temple of Asclepius, the ancient god of health and defender of the city. It was built in the 4th century BC. Pilgrims flocked to the sanctuary to be healed, leaving symbolic objects and money to the god and his attendant priests. The nymphs, to whom several well monuments were dedicated, were believed to be nature goddesses particularly linked to water.
In the 5th century AD, Christianity was flourishing in Butrint and the town had its own bishop. The circular baptistery was built in the second quarter of the 6th century AD on the site of an ancient Roman bath and may have been the work of craftsmen based in nearby Nicopolis. It is the second largest baptistery in the Eastern Roman Empire. Every aspect of the architecture and decoration (such as the mosaic floor) of the baptistery is strongly symbolic of the baptismal rite. The peacocks symbolise paradise and immortality, while the vase and grapes symbolise the Eucharist and the blood of Christ. In the centre is the baptismal font, surrounded by a concentric colonnade that supported the roof of the enclosure. In medieval times, the building was substantially modified with stone pillars and a new semicircular apse.
Ruins of the Baptistery of Butrint
A Byzantine basilica from the period of Emperor Justinian I, dating from the second half of the 6th century AD, as well as other churches scattered throughout Butrint, have survived.
Like the Baptistery, the Great Basilica also dates from the 6th century AD.C. and has an early Christian mosaic on the floor, the only one of its kind. The basilica was rebuilt in the 9th century and the ruins are well preserved to reveal its three-nave structure with a transept and an exterior polygonal apse.
The museum is located at the top of the acropolis. The castle-shaped building is actually a reconstruction of an ancient medieval Venetian building, built by the Italians who carried out the excavation in the 1930s.
On the other side of the canal is the triangular perimeter of the Venetian castle. Two other towers served as watchtowers and control posts. You can cross to the other side of the canal with the ferry that connects the two banks.
The Ottoman ruler Ali Pasha of Tepelenë was commissioned to build a fortress on Ksamil Island at the mouth of the lagoon to control the Vivari Canal. The ruins of the castle structure and a few towers remain. It can only be reached by boat with the fishermen’s boats (usually from June to September). It is possible to view the castle from the platform near a car park located less than a mile west of the entrance to the Butrint archaeological site (not to be confused with the archaeological site’s car park).
Ali Pasha Castle on Ksamil Island
NATURE – AN OASIS IN THE MEDITERRANEAN
Butrinto’s importance also comes from the natural spectrum. This Mediterranean “oasis” is one of the most important coastal habitats in southern Europe. A large number of species have been counted in Butrinto, exceeding 1,200. Of these, around 900 are a range of flora, almost a third of the total number of plant species in the whole of Albania. Forests of native varieties of elm, holly, laurel, ash and oak trees; a large number of lichens typical of marine wetland areas, and even oceanic posidonia on the seabed from Cap Stillo to the Cuka Channel.
In terms of fauna, at least 39 species of mammals (including dolphins), 246 species of birds, 25 species of reptiles, 10 species of amphibians and 105 species of fish are known to be found within the park’s boundaries.
If we add to the variety the fact that 16 species of flora and 14 species of fauna are in danger of extinction worldwide, we can understand why it is necessary to protect the natural park.
HOW TO GET TO BUTRINTO NATIONAL PARK
Butrinto National Park is located in the south of Albania, in the Vivari Channel, on the coast of the Greek island of Corfu.
Public buses depart from Saranda every hour from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. from outside the ZIT Information Centre and return from Butrint every hour.
Butrint’s opening hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Please note that midday is the busiest time. Also, if you visit during the summer, it can also be very hot, so early morning or late afternoon is recommended.
EXCURSIONS AND TOURS
Tours with English speaking guide are available on request, so please contact us. Other tours in Albania include these, some from Corfu, some from the port of Sarande. Don’t forget to try the local mussels, not very well known but really tasty.
ACCOMMODATION NEAR BUTRINTO
It is usual to stay in the modern town of Ksamil where there is a wide variety of hotels and flats, being a holiday area in the summer.