Butrint / Βουθρωτόν / Βουθρώτιος / Buthrotum / Butrinti – it’s an ancient port city situated on a hill surrounded by water from three sides and between Lake Butrint (its ancient name was Pelodes) and the Vivari Channel. It’s one of the most interesting archaeological excavation sites in the Adriatic Sea area confirmed by the entry on the World List of UNESCO in 1992.
According to antique legends Butrint was founded by Trojans, who left their beloved city after being defeated by Achaeans. Probably during his wandering, Aeneas visited the city, where he met Helenus (the son of king Priam) and his wife Andromache (Hector’s widow), which was presented in the 3rd book of ‘Aeneid’ by Vergil (sorry for the long excerpt, but I couldn’t stop the temptation!):
„The sight of high Phaeacia soon we lost, And skimm'd along Epirus' rocky coast. "Then to Chaonia's port our course we bend, And, landed, to Buthrotus' heights ascend. Here wondrous things were loudly blaz'd fame: How Helenus reviv'd the Trojan name, And reign'd in Greece; that Priam's captive son Succeeded Pyrrhus in his bed and throne; And fair Andromache, restor'd by fate, Once more was happy in a Trojan mate. I leave my galleys riding in the port, And long to see the new Dardanian court. By chance, the mournful queen, before the gate, Then solemniz'd her former husband's fate. Green altars, rais'd of turf, with gifts she crown'd, And sacred priests in order stand around, And thrice the name of hapless Hector sound. The grove itself resembles Ida's wood; And Simois seem'd the well-dissembled flood. But when at nearer distance she beheld My shining armor and my Trojan shield, Astonish'd at the sight, the vital heat Forsakes her limbs; her veins no longer beat: She faints, she falls, and scarce recov'ring strength, Thus, with a falt'ring tongue, she speaks at length: "'Are you alive, O goddess-born ?' she said, 'Or if a ghost, then where is Hector's shade?' At this, she cast a loud and frightful cry. With broken words I made this brief reply: 'All of me that remains appears in sight; I live, if living be to loathe the light. No phantom; but I drag a wretched life, My fate resembling that of Hector's wife. What have you suffer'd since you lost your lord? By what strange blessing are you now restor'd? Still are you Hector's? or is Hector fled, And his remembrance lost in Pyrrhus' bed?' With eyes dejected, in a lowly tone, After a modest pause she thus begun: "'O only happy maid of Priam's race, Whom death deliver'd from the foes' embrace! Commanded on Achilles' tomb to die, Not forc'd, like us, to hard captivity, Or in a haughty master's arms to lie. In Grecian ships unhappy we were borne, Endur'd the victor's lust, sustain'd the scorn: Thus I submitted to the lawless pride Of Pyrrhus, more a handmaid than a bride. Cloy'd with possession, he forsook my bed, And Helen's lovely daughter sought to wed; Then me to Trojan Helenus resign'd, And his two slaves in equal marriage join'd; Till young Orestes, pierc'd with deep despair, And longing to redeem the promis'd fair, Before Apollo's altar slew the ravisher. By Pyrrhus' death the kingdom we regain'd: At least one half with Helenus remain'd. Our part, from Chaon, he Chaonia calls, And names from Pergamus his rising walls.”transl. by John Dryden)
Protinus aerias Phaeacum abscondimus arces litoraque Epiri legimus portuque subimus Chaonio et celsam Buthroti accedimus urbem. Hic incredibilis rerum fama occupat auris, Priamiden Helenum Graias regnare per urbis coniugio Aeacidae Pyrrhi sceptrisque potitum, et patrio Andromachen iterum cessisse marito. obstipui, miroque incensum pectus amore compellare uirum et casus cognoscere tantos. progredior portu classis et litora linquens, sollemnis cum forte dapes et tristia dona ante urbem in luco falsi Simoentis ad undam libabat cineri Andromache manisque uocabat Hectoreum ad tumulum, uiridi quem caespite inanem et geminas, causam lacrimis, sacrauerat aras. ut me conspexit uenientem et Troia circum arma amens uidit, magnis exterrita monstris deriguit uisu in medio, calor ossa reliquit, labitur, et longo uix tandem tempore fatur: 'uerane te facies, uerus mihi nuntius adfers, nate dea? uiuisne? aut, si lux alma recessit, Hector ubi est?' dixit, lacrimasque effudit et omnem impleuit clamore locum. uix pauca furenti subicio et raris turbatus uocibus hisco: 'uiuo equidem uitamque extrema per omnia duco; ne dubita, nam uera uides. heu! quis te casus deiectam coniuge tanto excipit, aut quae digna satis fortuna reuisit, Hectoris Andromache? Pyrrhin conubia seruas?' deiecit uultum et demissa uoce locuta est: 'o felix una ante alias Priameia virgo, hostilem ad tumulum Troiae sub moenibus altis iussa mori, quae sortitus non pertulit ullos nec uictoris heri tetigit captiua cubile! nos patria incensa diuersa per aequora uectae stirpis Achilleae fastus iuuenemque superbum seruitio enixae tulimus; qui deinde secutus Ledaeam Hermionen Lacedaemoniosque hymenaeos me famulo famulamque Heleno transmisit habendam. ast illum ereptae magno flammatus amore coniugis et scelerum furiis agitatus Orestes excipit incautum patriasque obtruncat ad aras. morte Neoptolemi regnorum reddita cessit pars Heleno, qui Chaonios cognomine campos Chaoniamque omnem Troiano a Chaone dixit, Pergamaque Iliacamque iugis hanc addidit arcem.'
According to archaeological researches carried out in the region, there was probably a small fishing settlement of the Chaonians tribe (instead of the remains of the acropolis) at the top of the hill in the 12th c. BC ( i.e. at the end of Bronze Age). On those days it wasn’t surrounded by the walls described later by Virgil. The sudden prosperity of Buthrotum - as the colony was called by Helenians - was initiated in c. the 7th c. BC, and in the 4th c. BC the geographer, Hecataeus of Miletus, described Buthrotum as an important port and commercial centre on the main sea route to the Adriatic Sea.
The city was becoming more and more important; in the 4th c. BC the theatre and the Asclepius sanctuary were built (Buthrotum was becoming a significant centre of his cult), and c. 380 BC the city was surrounded by the wall 870 m long.
In 228 BC Butrint became a Roman protectorate, which was visited by Julius Caesar in 48 BC. He noticed the potential of the place, which resulted in creation of a Roman colony there - Colonia Iulia Buthrotrum.
Ides of March in 44 BC were not happy for Caesar, but it didn’t influence prosperous Butrint. Many investments sponsored largely by Augustus (the adopted son of Julius Caesar) and his family were made. At the beginning of the 1st c. AD the aqueduct, thermae and nymphaeum were built; the colony surrounded by thick walls 1400m long covered an area of 5 hectares. The effigy of Augustus apeeared on minted coins of the city and his name was included in the freshened name – Colonia Augusta Buthrotum.
In the 3rd c. Butrint experienced earthquake, but its inhabitants repaired damages The city was, by and large, still an important Roman port till the end of Ancient history.
At the beginning of the 4th c., after creating the seat of bishopric in Butrint, the basilica and baptistery were built. After that the city was plundered several times and his significance started to decline. Butrint was incorporated to newly created Bulgaria and later, in the 9th c., to the Byzantine Empire. In the 14th c. Butrint and Corfu were bought by the Venice Republic. In the 15th c., the Venetians built the characteristic triangular stronghold on the other side of the Vivari Channel, before long the old town was abandoned totally. What’s more, damages were complemented by other wars between the Venetians and the Byzantine Empire in the 16th c.
We can get to the ruins of the ancient city of Butrint for example by bus from Sarande which is located 15 km away from them. You can sightsee the settlement from 8 a.m. till the sunset, but the museum is opened till 4 p.m. In 2009 the cost of tickets for tourists from abroad was 500 Leks (700 Leks if we wanted to see the museum) and free admission for all children :). You should plan to spend some time there (it took us exactly five hours), unless somebody likes sightseeing on the run like Japanese tourists. In 2009 last buses from Burtint to Sarande departed at 4 and 6 p.m. The city is quite extensive, that’s why it is better to stick to marked trails in order not to omit anything.
Just after crossing the gate the sight of the tower meets our eyes. In front of it there are the remains of thermae, i.e. a Roman bath complex. In the northern part of it there was a frigidarium, i.e. a room with cold water, whereas in the southern - a calidarium, i.e. a room with central heating (hypocaustum) where a pool with hot water was placed.
The well-preserved Venetian tower overlooks the thermae, it is also called the tower of Ali Pasha of Tepelena. It is two-stored tower built on a triangular plan. Therefore, it was possible to control the Vivari Channel situated next to it.
On the other side of the channel there is a well-preserved fortified castle built on a triangular plan. In antiquity it was probably a rather small harbour, in the 15th c. the Venetians built a stronghold there, which enabled control over the channel and eventually, defence against ships of an enemy.
Nearby the tower, 2.5 m thick defensive city walls of huge limestone blocks have their beginning. We don’t go this way. We move back to the front of the tower and go to the north to the agora. At the beginning of our alley there are two columns.
Agora (ἀγορά) – it is the Greek equivalent of Roman forum, it’s a main square of Hellenic cities. In the beginning it was only the central part of a city, where its inhabitants gathered to listen to somebody’s speech or to march off on a war. With time it became a place for commerce, public or religious buildings, monuments.
The most characteristic place of the agora is the well-preserved amphitheatre. Theatron (i.e. the place for audience) dated on the 3rd c. BC. In the 2nd c. AD the theatre was thoroughly rebuilt by Romans, the theatron was extended to the capacity of 1500, proscenium and skene (a room for actors) were added. What’s interesting, since 2000 International Festival of Theatre has taken place there. In 2004 Teatr Współczesny from Wrocław staged there their play The History of Jacob.
Looking from the auditorium we can notice the remains of Asclepius’ Temple on the right. It was built at the beginning of the 2nd c. AD. Asclepius was the son of Apollo and the mortal woman - Coronis. He skilled himself in medicine and he could resurrect dead people. It alarmed Zeus, who killed him and later changed him into Ophiuchus.
Behind the temple there was a small square and further - Prytaneion (Πρυτανεῖον), i.e. the seat of municipality, where Prytaneis gathered. The building measured 6 m by 5 m and was built in the 1st c. BC.
On the left side of the theatre we can find the 12 m long and 3.5 m wide ceremonial alley (so called Sacred Way) leading to it. On the other side, there is the thermae built by Romans c. 2nd c. AD.
To the north of the Sacred Way, there was a big house built probably in the 2nd c. AD. According to some specialists it was a hotel for important guests and actors. Further to the north, there was Stoa - a covered walkway open at the entrance with columns lining the side of the building. It provided people with protection against sun and rain in public places. It is hard to specify its function, because not many elements inside it survived. It could serve for example pilgrims visiting Asclepius’ Temple. To the left, behind Stoa there is Minerva’s Temple dated on the 3rd c. BC. Between Stoa and Minerva’s Temple we can notice the sacred spring lined with the wall by Romans.
After leaving the agora, the path leads to the building dated on the 2nd c., with the remains of a fountain in its central part. Its function remains unknown, but some people suppose that it could be a gymnasium or a private house. Eventually, it was converted into a church.
Walking to the south we can find a building complex (with the area of more than 3,000 m2) named by the group of Italian archaeologists bishops’ palace. It is dated at the beginning of the 5th c. AD, when Butrint became a bishopric. The palace was destroyed probably in the second half of the 6th c. during the invasion of Slavic tribes.
We need to come back walking the same path and later turn right in front of the gymnasium. After a while we get to the baptistery, i.e. a building where christening ceremony took place. The baptistery in Butrint was the second largest building of this type in the Byzantine Empire. It was built at the beginning of the 6th c. on the thermae’s foundations. The central room was built on a circular plan of 13.5 m diameter. Inside the room there was a baptismal font in shape of cross lined with two rows of columns - eight granite columns in each row. Their number was not accidental - in Christianity the number eight symbolises salvation and eternal life to which baptism leads.
The floor was decorated with colourful mosaic, which is considered to be the most complex and well-preserved mosaic ever created in a baptistery of that period. It consists of seven rings, in the eighth one the baptismal font was placed. Every architectural element has its symbolic meaning.
Walking further we pass by the nymphaeum - a fountain built for the water nymphs in form of a temple with apses. It was built in the 1st or 2nd c. when the aqueduct was erected. After looking around we can notice its remains - foundations and abutments.
Nearby, there is the well-preserved basilica built in the same period as the baptistery, i.e. at the beginning of the 6th c. It had three naves and transept (i.e. the area set crosswise to the nave), was richly ornamented and its floor was covered with a mosaic created probably by the same craftsmen, who laid the mosaic in the baptistery.
Just next to the basilica we can notice the foundations of so called the Gate with Towers. The rectangular tower was joined to the city walls which were built of big calcareous blocks fitted without mortar. This part of the walls and towers were erected c. the 3rd c. BC when Illyrian tribes dominated this area. Walking along the walls we can get to the well-preserved 5 m high Scaean Gate dated on c. the 4th c. BC, which Aeneas couldn’t see, but Vergil ascribed the following words to him:
Proceeding on, another Troy I see, Or, in less compass, Troy's epitome. A riv'let by the name of Xanthus ran, And I embrace the Scaean gate again.
procedo et paruam Troiam simulataque magnis Pergama et arentem Xanthi cognomine riuum agnosco, Scaeaeque amplector limina portae; nec non et Teucri socia simul urbe fruuntur.
Walking further along the walls we can get to the next gate with a distinctive relief of a lion devouring a bull head. The gate took its name from the relief - the Lion Gate. It is 3.5 m high and ideally preserved. It is dated on 380-350 BC, but the block with the relief on it wasn’t its part since the beginning - it was added in c. the 5th c. in order to make the passage smaller and to ease defence. After passing the gate, we can notice on the right side in an alcove the modest nymphaeum. It was funded in the 2nd c. by Junia Rufina - a friend of nymphs, which is proved in the inscription: ΙΟΥΝΙΑ ΡΟΥΦΕΙΝΑ ΝΥΜΦΩΝ ΦΙΛΗ.
In the highest part of the hill there is the acropolis, surrounded by the walls built of big calcareous blocks in c. 7-5th c. BC. Standing there we can notice Butrint Lake, the Vivari Channel and the agora. In the highest part of the acropolis, foundations of another basilica can be found. It was a 25 m long and 16 m wide Byzantine church erected in the second half of the 6th c. It includes a characteristic narthex (vestibule) and three naves. Below it, there is the museum - worth seeing.
The Museum was opened after reconstructing the castle in the acropolis in 2005. It presents the history of Butrint over the centuries. There are also everyday tools and statues found during many years of archaeological surveys. All information are translated into English.
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