Wednesday, July 08, 2015

What do the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Venetians, Ottomans and Napoleon have in common?

On Saturday, we headed slightly south of Ksamil to the incredible ancient site of Butrint. Butrint is a microcosm of regional history - you can see buildings and ruins from Ancient Greece and Rome, the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and even the Republic of Venice. 

Legend has it that the city was founded by refugees from the sack of Troy, including Priam's son. According to this mythology, it gets its name (Buthrotum) from a wounded ox which struggled ashore and died. The Trojans took this as a good omen (why? Reasons...) and founded their new city there. 

In reality, the site has been settled since at least the 10th-8th centuries BC, and was occupied by the Chaonian Greeks. It grew in importance due to its strategic position near Corfu and as a shrine to Asclepius. It later came under Roman control, with Julius Caesar officially declaring it a Roman colony in 44 BC. 

Greek theatre, later Romanized 

The city went into a decline, partly caused by a large earthquake, in late antiquity, before becoming the seat of a Byzantine bishopric in the 6th century AD. At this time, the Byzantines built a large basilica and baptistery on the site. 

In the Basilica

The circular Baptistery has the most amazing mosaic floor

And now you have seen the mosaics exactly as well as we have, as unfortunately they are almost always kept covered by a layer of sand for preservation reasons. Here's what you actually see:

There are more beautiful, well-preserved mosaics elsewhere on the site, but they are also covered up. Luckily we knew this before visiting, so we weren't too disappointed. It's a shame they don't at least have something like high-definition photos of all the mosaics though, as from the little we saw, they are amazing, full of darling animals and birds. Apparently they are uncovered every few years, but it was difficult finding information about the current opening hours of the place, let alone a website that might reliably tell you when they will next be on display. 

The natural setting of Butrint is an attraction in itself 

The Lion Gate in the city walls

The city declined again, fending off attacks from varied offenders including the Ostrogoths and even the Normans and Angevins, until it was purchased from the Angevins by the Venetians in 1386 (I didn't know some of these people got about so much!) The Venetians built a fortress on top of the hill to defend against the Ottoman Empire. 

Venetian castle

View from the Venetian fortress

The area went back and forth under Venetian and Ottoman control over a couple of centuries, even briefly being given to Napoleon under a treaty with Venice, before finally being conquered by the locally famous Albanian-Ottoman governor Ali Pasha in 1799, remaining in the Ottoman Empire until Albanian independence in 1912, by which time the city was abandoned. 

So there you go! Very complex history, but wandering through the site and seeing all the different layers of it really made it come alive. It was baking hot and quite tiring, but really engaging over the two or so hours we were there. We thought there would be guides hanging about like at Pompeii which we could hire on the spot, but there didn't seem to be anyone. In the end though, the pamphlet and explanatory panels did a good job and there is a small museum in the Venetian fortress, so I don't think we missed too much without a guide. Definitely one of the highlights of our trip so far. 


  1. Wow - your holiday-planning skills are amazing. This trip is a mixture of everything you love to do. Mxxx

    1. Thanks, quite proud of myself too haha

  2. What an ideal way to learn about the history of a place-- go there!

    1. Yes, I've learnt a lot about Albanian history (FWIW)


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