Butrint national park

Butrint national park

Nature and Archaeology

Butrint national park, Albania

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The area around the antique town of Butrint in southern Albania is not only home to several globally threatened species, but has also a rich cultural history, justifying its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The National Park comprises a high diversity of natural, semi-natural and artificial habitats, such as freshwater marshes, reed beds, Mediterranean forests and maquis, arable lands and fruit-tree terraces, as well as coastal waters with rocky and sandy coast, open halophytic lands, etc. These habitats shelter a high diversity of animals and plants, including species of global and regional concern, which make the Butrint area one of the most important areas for biodiversity in Albania.
Butrint, Archaeological site   
The ancient town of Butrint was first proclaimed Cultural Monument in 1948; in 1999 it was registered in the World Heritage list of UNESCO; in 2003 the wetland complex, including a part of the lagoon and the coastal area of Butrint – Stillo Cape – was proclaimed a Ramsar Site and a National Park (Category II of the IUCN Protected Area Management Categories). Due to its importance for the preservation of archaeological and historical heritage, Butrint was designated in 1992 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The cultural importance of the landscape and archaeological setting was recognized by the enlargement of the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation to incorporate an area of 2900 ha.

The Butrint Natural Park

The Park is of great importance for the conservation of global biodiversity as it is the site of 16 endangered species of flora and 14 globally endangered species of fauna. The wetlands area is shaped by a tectonic lagoon of 1600 ha, known as Lake Butrint, surrounded by forested hills, mountains, freshwater and brackish marshes and connected to the straits of Corfu by the Vivari canal. The “Lake” has an average depth of 14 m (maximum 22 m), while the natural channel of Vivari is up to 100 m wide. The archaeological remains of Butrint are part of the natural woodland with a complex ecosystem which depends on the nearby freshwater Lake Butrint and Vivari Channel which drain the lake into the Ionian. It is this combination of historic monuments and natural environment that makes Butrint such a unique place, a landscape with monuments beloved of the Grand Tourists of the 18th and 19th centuries. 
The Butrint area supports 16 endangered species of flora including Agrimonia eupatoria, Capparis spinosa and Laurus nobilis. The area also holds 12 rare species such as Alkano corcyrensis SE and Limonium anfracium and 4 insufficiently known species such as Scabiosa epirota. The park supports globally endangered species (two critically endangered species, two endangered and ten vulnerable) such as the Rhinolophus and the Myotis. Butrint supports 17% of Albania’s species; the park is particularly impressive for its amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals (including the wolf) and is the only site in Albania to support the Epirote frog, tortoise, sand boa and the Balkan wall lizard. Butrint Bay and the Vrina Marshes are important feeding and roosting grounds for birds. During the winter, flocks of waders use the shallow waters, including European curlew, redshank, grey plover and dunlin. In 2003 it became a Ramsar Wetlands Site of International Importance.

Myths and history of Butrint

Butrint is a microcosm of Mediterranean history, representing the rise and fall of the great empires that dominated the region. Today it is an amalgam of monuments representing a span of over two thousand years from the Hellenistic temple buildings of the 4th century B.C. to the Ottoman defenses created in the early 19th century. According to classical mythology, Buthrotum was founded by exiles fleeing the fall of Troy. On arrival, Priam’s son Helenus sacrificed an ox, which struggled ashore wounded and died on the beach. Taking this as a good omen, the place was named Buthrotum meaning “wounded ox”. 

Butrint, Theatre   
Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid, recounts Aeneas visiting Butrint on his way to Italy. Butrint owes its growth and early fame to a sanctuary dedicated to Asclepius, the god of medicine, founded in the 4th century B.C. The sanctuary was located on the south slope of the acropolis hill. Worshippers came to the sanctuary in order to be healed, leaving symbolic objects and money to the god and his attendant priests. The Sanctuary was the making of Butrint and the sacred power of Butrint’s water was to be revered as long as the town lasted. The nymphs, to whom several well monuments were dedicated, were believed to be nature goddesses particularly linked to water. Their worship seems to have been popular around Butrint – appropriately enough, given its proximity to water. A cave with several votive figurines was discovered near Konispoli, south of Butrint. By the 4th century B.C. Buthrotum had grown in importance and around 380 B.C. the settlement was fortified with a new long wall with five gates, enclosing an area of 4 hectares. 
  In 228 B.C. it came under Roman rule, and in the 1st century B.C. it became part of the province of Macedonia. Julius Caesar founded a colony and settled his veterans around 45 B.C., whereas Augustus doubled the size of the town and of Roman settlers. New buildings included an aqueduct, a bath, several houses, the forum, and a nymphaeum. In the 3rd century A.D. an earthquake destroyed a large part of the town, after which it slowly but steadily declined. In the early 6th century, Buthrotum became the seat of a bishop and new constructions included a large baptistery (one of the largest Paleochristian buildings of its type) and a basilica. It was ruled by the Byzantines until the 12th century, after which it changed hands many times, being positioned as it was on a strategic spot on the Adriatic – Ionian sea route. It was especially contested between the Venetians (until 1796) and the Ottomans until the Albanian independence in 1912. 
Butrint, Bapistery   

Helenistic Butrint – The Theatre

The theatre at Butrint has been built against the slope of the acropolis hill facing out over the Vivari Channel. The use of the natural slope of the hill offered a practical solution for the seating area and is a common feature in ancient Greek theatres. The earliest theatre is likely to have been quite small. It was enlarged in the 3rd century B.C. and the seating area (cavea) extended right up to the treasury building. Seating arrangements were organized hierarchically, with the seats closest to the stage reserved for the most prominent townsmen. The first real row of seats has footrests and is decorated with handsome lion’s feet, whereas further back the seats are plain blocks. Performances would have taken place not in the flat circular area (orchestra)
but on a raised stage (scaenae frons). The stage building was heavily remodelled sometime during the Roman period, making it deeper and at least two storeys high. The three large openings seen today were entrances and exits for the performers, and in the niches there would have been a wealth of statuary. Also, the auditorium was enlarged in the Roman period to accommodate the town’s growing population. The passageways into the theatre from either side of the stage building were covered with barrel vaulting. It is still uncertain when the theatre fell out of use, but it seems likely that this happened in late antiquity as was the case elsewhere in the Mediterranean world. Certainly the demolition of the structure and its reuse for other purposes seems to have been a long, drawn-out process.
Butrint, Defensive tower   

Early Christian Butrint – The Baptistery

By the 5th century A.D. Christianity was flourishing at Butrint and the town had its own bishop. The baptistery was constructed in the second quarter of the 6th century A.D., and may have been the work of craftsmen based at nearby Nicopolis. It was discovered in 1928 by the Italian Archaeological Mission. It is the second largest baptistery in the Eastern Roman Empire, the largest being that of Hagia Sofia in Istanbul. Every aspect of the architecture and decoration (such as the mosaic floor) of the baptistery is symbolic of the baptismal rite, with the fountain on its far side representing the fountain of eternal life. The extraordinary polychrome mosaic floor of the Butrint Baptistery is 


the most complete and complex mosaic pavement of all surviving baptisteries of the period. The overall design of the floor consists of seven bands encircling the baptismal font at the centre, thus making it eight – the Christian number of salvation and eternity. The attention of the visitor crossing the threshold of the main entrance is held by two large peacocks in a vine growing from a great vase. The peacocks symbolise paradise and immortality; the vase and grapes, the Eucharist and the blood of Christ. In the medieval period the building was substantially modified with stone piers and a new semi-circular apse; a flagstone floor was placed over the mosaic pavement. Elsewhere in town, eight more churches have been found so far – the most significant among them is located on the plain opposite of the Vivari Channel.


Early Modern Butrint – The Venetian Fortress

The fortress was built in the 14th century by the Venetians on top of the hill, at the western end of the wide flat space of the ancient acropolis. Butrint’s premier medieval building – the Acropolis Castle – is largely a reconstruction from the 1930s: a substantial tower within a pentagonal enclosure, with battlemented walls. However, fragments of the original masonry are visible in a sketch made by Edward Lear in 1857 as well as in photographs taken by Italian archaeologist Luigi Maria Ugolini in the 1920s and 1930s: the two combine to convey the powerful original form of the fortress, with its high towers and adjoining baileys. The fortress provided clear views of the Straits of Corfu and the Vivari Channel. Earlier buildings were cleared to make way for the new castle, which began as a fortified enclosure with projecting towers and a single inner keep with two floors. A second tower (known only from Ugolini’s records) was subsequently added within the keep enclosure: perhaps it was the castellan’s residence. In the 1930s Italians turned it into a home for the archeologists that worked on the site, including a small museum: the Butrint Museum, located within the reconstructed castle on the acropolis hill in modern, elegant surroundings, was refurbished and reopened in 2005 to provide a showcase for the rich and complex history of the site. The museum charts the history of Butrint as a microcosm of Mediterranean history, intimately connected to its location within a lagoonal micro-region and landscape, with valuable illustrations showing the specially commissioned reconstruction drawings, as well as important archive material.