The Butrint National Park
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 marquis, arable lands and fruit-tree terraces, as well as coastal waters with rocky and sandy coast, open saprophytic 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.
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 euphoria, Capparis Spinoza 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.
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 remodeled 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.
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”.
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.