WHS: Butrint, Albania

For our first Balkan report, here’s what’s definitely one of the more intriguingly well-preserved World Heritage Sites in all of Europe, with layers upon layers that go back to the beginning of recorded history … and, we suspect, a great deal beyond. But we’ll get to our wild speculations after going over the accepted history of:

Butrint

Butrint, Albania

 

Butrint, located in the south of Albania approximately 20km from the modern city of Saranda, has a special atmosphere created by a combination of archaeology, monuments and nature in the Mediterranean. With its hinterland it constitutes an exceptional cultural landscape, which has developed organically over many centuries.

Butrint has escaped aggressive development of the type that has reduced the heritage value of most historic landscapes in the Mediterranean region. It constitutes a very rare combination of archaeology and nature. The property is a microcosm of Mediterranean history, with occupation dating from 50 000 BC, at its earliest evidence, up to the 19th century AD.

Prehistoric sites have been identified within the nucleus of Butrint, the small hill surrounded by the waters of Lake Butrint and Vivari Channel, as well as in its wider territory. From 800 BC until the arrival of the Romans, Butrint was influenced by Greek culture, bearing elements of a “polis” and being settled by Chaonian tribes. In 44 BC Butrint became a Roman colony and expanded considerably on reclaimed marshland, primarily to the south across the Vivari Channel, where an aqueduct was built. In the 5th century AD Butrint became an Episcopal centre; it was fortified and substantial early Christian structures were built. After a period of abandonment, Butrint was reconstructed under Byzantine control in the 9th century. Butrint and its territory came under Angevin and then Venetian control in the 14th century. Several attacks by despots of Epirus and then later by Ottomans led to the strengthening and extension of the defensive works of Butrint. At the beginning of the 19th century, a new fortress was added to the defensive system of Butrint at the mouth of the Vivari Channel. It was built by Ali Pasha, an Albanian Ottoman ruler who controlled Butrint and the area until its final abandonment.

The fortifications bear testimony to the different stages of their construction from the time of the Greek colony until the Middle Ages. The most interesting ancient Greek monument is the theatre which is fairly well preserved. The major ruin from the paleo-Christian era is the baptistery, an ancient Roman monument adapted to the cultural needs of Christianity. Its floor has a beautiful mosaic decoration…

That is quite the remarkable run of history, isn’t it? An eminently defensible island commanding the Straits of Corfu is a useful place for all kinds of people, indeed.

Butrint, Albania

It’s a good few hours to walk around the various showpiece ruins at least, and you can make a bigger destination visit out of it, as it’s part of nearly 100 square km of Butrint National Park:

Butrint, Albania

So definitely, a top attraction to not miss in southern Albania, no matter what.

Now, to the really fascinating bit. See, we were following the various layers of construction down, and eventually found ourselves walking along the fortified retaining walls at the very bottom of the hill, what we later found out is called the “Archaic Wall” and is built using the Cyclopean style, that is, “big rocks piled on each other,” which is not terribly unusual in pre-classical Greek constructions.

However, what stopped us in our tracks was a particular stretch where at the base of that “Archaic Wall,” the big rocks piled on each other have smoothly faceted polygonal faces, of a type we’d only seen before at the pre-Incan monumental ruins in Peru, and it was quite the alarm flash of our pattern recognition system to see something like that with the Adriatic lapping at it!

However, these rocks were only in the range of a few hundred pounds to a few tons, not the literally impossible with known technology edifices of the Andes, so we didn’t get too excited about it at the moment, just put it aside to research later just who built those bits. And, well that was very interesting indeed. This is the best academic treatment we’ve found:

Butrint Cyclopean Wall, Albania

The left there, the Archaic Wall, that’s just big rocks piled up like many known Mycenaean sites, like it says the Romans needed to repair it. However, on the right there, what the book calls “the polygonal wall”? See how closely those fit, and note that it’s solid enough that the Romans built buttresses on it, and it’s still more solidly put together than all the much later construction above and around it? That’s a bit strange, isn’t it?

So, we proceeded to dig more deeply into the history of the place. And we found that the legendary origin of Butrint is that it was founded by Helenus fleeing the sack of Troy, which fits reasonably well with the 12th century BC or so founding date mainstream archaeology will occassionally speculate as far as. All good so far…

… but why, one wonders, did Helenus pick this particular island to settle on? And the legendary answer is, because he found unknown ruins with strong walls to make defences quickly out of against whoever might be pursuing his refugee band.

Wait, what?

Butrint’s founder in the Greek legends, he did it because he found ruins to build on so old that they’d passed out of memory, and even the Trojan legends? That are still there and solid as ever today, much more so than the Mycenaean-style Archaic Wall built on them, that does fit with the likely level of Trojan wall-building technology?

Woah.

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p dir=”ltr”>Well, if the Trojans had no idea who might have built “the polygonal wall,” we’re not going to venture any guess either. We’ll content ourselves with observing that the standard historical narrative does not appear to fit the evidence on the ground, whilst the legendary origin does fit reasonably with what we see. That it so strongly resembles the foundations the Incas and so forth built atop on the other side of the world … well, that’s a puzzlement, isn’t it now?

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Alex Curylo

Alex

I go places.

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