The origins of Butrint and his geographical and strategic position
Butrint is described as a microcosm of the Albanian history. According to its strategic location Butrint has figured from the first Peloponnesuswar during the 5th century B.C. till the Napoleon wars during the 19th century. Its monuments built during different historical periods give us this long and complex history. This long history has been strongly influenced from continuous changes of the environment: in a distinct way the slow depositions in the sea bay which before went towards North at the Chaonian town ofPhoinike and in the South till the fortified town ofCuka e Ajtoit. This transition from the sea towards the marsh, consequently towards the land defined changes in the placing of the dwellings, ports, agriculture and the industry for millenniums to come.
Almost 18.000 years ago, the landscape around Butrint was very different from what we see today. Sea levels were much lower and theislandofCorfuwas joined to the mainland. After 9.000 years, maybe because of the tectonic movements, the sea rose and the hills around like, Xarra, Shendellia, Shenmitri and Kalivo became small islands. Since then rivers and rain have carried silt and clay from the mountains to the coast and what was once depositing them in the sea shore. Areas, which before were sea, were gradually turned into marshes with salty water and in a later phase, into dry land. The discovery of stone and flint tools on these former islands demonstrates that the area has been occupied since prehistoric time.
Butrint is a magical place. Its special atmosphere is created by combining archaeology with nature which is not found anywhere in theMediterranean. Butrint, the ancient Buthrotum which lays 3 km from the Corfu Straights, is located over a small hill, surrounded by theButrintiLakewaters which are connected to theIonian Seaby the Vivari Channel. In the South, Butrint is extended in a distance that nothing disturbs the eye except for some small Albanian villages. In the North and East, land and lake are surrounded by high mountains. TheislandofCorfucloses the view in the West.
Part of the history of the ancient town, are the different legends sent to us by Homer and Virgil, like the one of the founding of Butrint from the Trojan exiles during the 13th century B.C. the roman poet of the Augustinian period, Virgil, wrote about the visit of Eneas, the legendary founder of Rome, in Butrint, in his epic poem “The Aeneid”. According to him, “Enea, meets the Trojan Helenus (son of king Priam), who was married to Andromaka, the widow of Hector and from the death of Pirro Neoptelem, had become king of the region of Chaonia. The etymology of the name Buthrotos according to the legend is connected to the town that Helenus found at the place where a wounded bull fell. The history of Butrint is also connected to other legends like the one of the death of Pan, the crying of nymphs and the burial of Medea.
The earliest population of Butrint
The earliest testimony for the population of Butrint is dated the 12th century B.C., but the first dwellings flourished after the 8th century B.C. From the excavations made at the Acropolis, except for the ceramics produced locally even imported Corinthian of the 8th century B.C. was found which shows that Butrint was part of an important network of Mediterranean trade and culture.
Butrint through the ages
For the first time in the written sources Butrint is mentioned during the 6th century B.C. at the book of the Greek geographer Hekateu of Milet, “Europa”. In its early beginnings it was part of the Chaonians and later on in the state ofEpirus. During the period of Julius Cesar and Augustus it became a roman colony. Later on it was under the Venetians from which Ali Pasha Tepelena took it.. With the fall of Ali Pasha Tepelena Butrint was under the Ottoman rule until 1912.
Qiriako d’Ankona stayed in Butrint in 1435 and he described some monuments which were visible, being the first evaluating the importance of Butrint as an archeological center. It was the Italian archaeologist L..M. Ugolini, who in 1928 made the first sensational discoveries in Butrint like: Gate Skea, the well of Junia Rufina, the roman Baths, Baptistery and above all the Theatre, where he found the sculpture with the Head of “Dea of Butrint”. The Italian archaeological mission continued the works till 1943. After the Second World War the excavations in the Ancient town ofButrintcontinued under the Albanian Institutions and after 1989 in collaboration with foreign institutions.
The earliest settlement at Butrint was probably restricted to the acropolis hill, a small nucleus
of the Late Bronze Age may have occupied the slope and high eastern peak of the hill. Maybe this earliest settlement has been circulated with wall inside which the sanctuary might have been located as well.
In the mean time the city became one of the main points of a local tribe, the Chaonians (7th– 6th centuries B.C.) Their tribal centre was at Finiq (Phoinike). The foundation of a Corinthian colony inCorfu during year 600 BC provided a major stimulus to the economic and social development of Butrint. This is shown by the quantities of the Corinthian ceramics which were imported and found in the acropolis of the city.
Later, during the Hellenistic period, when Butrint and Chaonia became part ofEpirus, the city was transformed into a self governing koinon called the Prasebes. The city life took a further impetus. Butrint became the centre of the Prasebes with a number of cities and inhabited centers around (Karalibeu, Qenurio, Kalivo, Vagalat, Malathre, Cuka e Ajtoit, Katajton). The inscriptions are a rich source of information for the way of governing the city and also for the ethnic belonging of the inhabitants of Butrint. They also record some of the different gods were worshiped at Butrint, knowing that the majority of the slaves were freed from slavery in honor of these gods, Zeus Soter and Asclepius himself. They tell us the role of women in the society was markedly different from than of Classical Greece. The law inEpirusallowed the women the right of property and inheritance and release of the slaves under her property. The city had its own politics: like declaring war and peace, the administration of the income, signing treaties and agreements and making new laws. The city had also some civil institutions, beginning with a number of councils, continuing with the strategists, the military commanders, a civil leader, the protectors of the executive power and the high priest of the whole tribe. The archaeological evidence for this phase of the city shows us it’s strengthening. The temple and the theatre show us its cultural needs. The southern protecting wall, which later on also extended the towns area is dated in the same period. What is more important is the fact that this extended area coincides with the cultural center, the theatre, temple and the agora.
Significance to the history of Butrint is the third Roman-Macedonian war, dated year 168 B.C., where Philip V of Macedonia met his final defeat. After thisRomecontrolled the EasternshoreofEpirus, destroying the cities which supportedMacedoniasuch as Antigonea and turned to slave many Epirots. Butrint being an ally toRomeescaped this destruction.
Thereafter, Butrint’s history was increasingly entangled with Roman politics.Epirusbecame a favorite place of many Romans including, in the first century BC, Titus Pompenius Atticus, the friend and collaborator ofCicero. But the interest ofRomein this area came from long ago. The historian Polib in his letters describes the presence of merchants fromItalyin Butrint. What attracted theRoman Empiremore, were the natural resources of the region, the favorable position as a merchant centre where anyone could go from sea and from land and also the strategic position as a naval base where any fleet could anchor and feel secure.
However, the city became the central shaft during the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, Octavian (Augustus) and Marc Anton and Cleopatra along these shores. After the victory against Pompous, Julius Caesar in year 44 BC attempted to establish a colony at Butrint. This was a very important step in the strategy of Cesar to control eastern Greeceand in this way to control the passage from Adriatic to Aegean Sea. But this plan met opposition from Atticus and Cicero. Nevertheless, Cesar’s vision survived his death and within 15 years under the lead of Augustus and after his victory in Actiumthe colony in Butrint was created. In this way the city connected now with the winning city of Nicopolisand not under the shade of Corfuwould flourish in less than two generations. A number of colons came from Italybut the number of the locals was still dominant. A forum and aqueduct were designed and built. Later on the theatre was reconstructed; a great number of public and private baths were built, the gymnasium and three nympheums. Statues of the imperial family ornament the theatre and other public spaces. The end of the 1st century BC was a prosperous period for Butrint and its inhabitants. The citizens had a high standard of living, the glass dishes and the luxury ones were present in many houses.
The last archaeological excavations have shown that the town was extended in the field of Vrina, beyond the Vivari channel. The new neighborhood was built according to an urban plan. Butrint was connected with the new neighborhood by a bridge and an aqueduct on top of it, a truly work of architectural building which provided water to the city from Xarra. The aqueduct was used as a symbol at the coins of the period of Augustus and Neron.
A magnificent villa was built in Diaporit in the far shore of thelakeofButrint, with luxurious areas and gardens with view from the lake. We know that Titus Pompenius Atticus, a rich roman slave trader, lived in a villa just like this in Butrint. At this place a great number of amphora and table dishes were discovered, which prove the merchant connections with the eastern and westernMediterranean. The import included; oil fromSpain, dishes fromTunisiaand Little Asia, wine fromItaly, Crete andSyriaand also dishes from theAegean.
Butrint saw a new urban development during the late Roman Period, during the 3rd century it differed from the city of the 1st and 2nd centuries. Although the public areas of the roman city were losing their public function, the roman buildings suggest that a number of the inhabitants owned a considerable prosperity. Many buildings in the field of Vrina were abandoned during the 3rd century except for a house which was reconstructed partially at the end of this century but not reaching the previous greatness. While inside Butrint excavations in the Triconch Palace show a house which from the 3rd century AD became more and more magnificent. At this moment the architecture was used more often in the private area to express the social relationships.
Possibly because of the strong seismic movements during the 4th century AD around year 358 the city began to change, a part of the city centre and suburbs resulted in the abandonment, but at the end of this century and later, reconstructions were made such as the Triconch Palace. During the 5th century A.D Butrint became prey of devastating invasion. A new fortification wall was built along the bank of the channel, maybe because of the fear from the attacks of the Ostrogoths, which lead by Totila in year 551AD invadedCorfu, the Islands of Subota and Onhesmus (Saranda).
The way of living was totally changed. The houses became smaller and simpler with the upper floors made of wood. The biggest expenses were made to build churches, including the basilica in the field of Vrina, which was built on top of the villa mentioned above, where as in Butrint during the second quarter of the 6th century the baptistery and the Great basilica were built. During the 6th century A.D agriculture began to flourish between the ruins, where as the dead sometimes were buried in the middle of the fallen walls. The health of the inhabitants became deteriorated; the skeletons discovered up to now have signs of diseases like scurvy and anemia caused by not feeding well. After the construction of the important religious buildings the rapid decrease of the economy of Butrint began. Maybe because of the increasing of the taxes as a result of Justinian to unite theRoman Empire, great complaints were seen among the inhabitants and also because of the barbaric attacks and the collapse of trading.
At the beginning of the 7th century only a small village remained on top of the greek-roman city. Instead of keeping the acropolis, the castle of Butrint seemed to have been put in two towers on the western side of the lower town in front of the channel. Both towers were burnt and sealed a great number of artifacts dated the years 800. During the 9th and 10th centuries in the middle of the ruins of the ancient city only wooden houses and church complexes were found.
However, the fortifications seem to have been used and the city was attacked at least once in the beginning of the middle Ages as it is seen from the burnt remaining found inside the towers of the western defensive wall.
It seems that there have been reorganizations and rebuilding during the middle Byzantine period, a local administrative centre was built in a church complex reconstructed in the field of Vrina. A number of lead seals, used for official documents by different Byzantine officials, were found in these ruins, including the eunuch seal of the holy sleeping chambers of the imperial palaceof Constantinople. A symptom of the renaissance of Butrint is the strategic interest. During 1081-1084 the city was a scene of conflicts between the Byzantine Empire and the expansion of the Norman state of the southern Italy. In 1085 the Norman fleet, in retreat from Corfu, was annihilated at Butrint by the VenetianRepublic, which had made an alliance with the Byzantines in restraining Norman expansion in the Adriatic. This victory propelled Veniceon the path to preeminence in Mediterranean trade. Venicesteadily conspired against the Byzantines who after the first Crusade (1096-1099) had weakened a lot. Anti-western riots of 1182 in Constantinople were lead by the Venetians and this made that the fourth Crusade to be against the city and in 1204 Constantinoplewas burned and looted by the crusaders. In 1205 after the split of the Byzantine Empire, Butrint was given to the Venetians, who with the regeneration of Mediterranean trade also regenerated the life in the city of Butrint. The Venetians allowed the Despotate of Epirus under the lead of Michael Komnenos Doukas, to rule the region as their vassal in return for assurances of protection and free trade. In 1259 Butrint passed by marriage to Manfred Hohenstaufen, king of Sicily, who in 1267 subsequently forfeited his territories to the king of Naples, Charles of Anjou. From this time for almost a century the city was under the dominion of the Angevin. The last decades of the 13th century were turbulent for the history of Butrint and because of that the old fortifications were restored and new ones were built. In this context a part of the lower city fortification, the western walls and the castle were re-fortified. Following the death of Charles III of Anjou, Butrint was bought by the Venetians who kept it till the end of the 18th century.
The city had lost its might but it still had the importance of a strategic point in the Vivari channel to control the heavy fishing, and of course it became a stronghold for a resistance to the Turks who invaded the biggest part of BalkansPeninsuladuring the 15th and 16th centuries. A triangular fortress was constructed on an island in the Vivari channel followed by a substantial tower on the city side to help safeguard Lake Butrint’s fisheries. Historical sources tell us that the fortifications were repaired mostly in the middle of the 17th century when the reservoirs passed from the hands of the Venetians to the Turks.
The efforts to take Butrint were made in 1537 at the time of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (who allegedly besieged Cirfu via a bridge of boats strung across the Straits from Butrint) it is said that he attacked Corfu through a bridge of ships put in line into the straights beginning from Butrint), from Sultan Selim II in 1571 and again in 1716 at the time of Sultan Ahmed III.
Butrint was invaded by the soldiers of Napoleon in 1797 after Napoleon invaded the VenetianRepublicand its domains but fast enough the lands around Butrint became part of the Ottoman Empire and remained “Turkish” until 1912, when the Ottoman Empire was banished from Europe and the AlbanianStatewas created. At the beginning of the 19th century they were cultivated under the property of the feudal according to a plan to guard the Ottoman shores against the attacks of the corsairs fromNorthern Africa. The most important ruler of the area in this period was the famous Ali Pasha Tepelena who in 1807 built a fortress at the entrance of the Vivari channel to prevent attacks from the west.
The cult of Asclepius at Butrint
Throughout much of its ancient history, Butrint functioned as a religious center dedicated to Asclepius, the god of healing. Believers would sleep within the sanctuary, hoping for a dream or a vision that would guide them to a cure for their ailments. The Priests and physicians performed rituals to interpret the dreams and supply the medicines prescribed. The Sanctuary attracted believers from all over the region. They dedicated votive objects to the god Asclepius to hasten their recovery. Many of these votive objects were discovered during the excavations of the sanctuary, in the late of the 1920’s. Other gods were also worshipped in Butrint, including those of Apollo, Artemis, Athena, Demeter and Zeus.