Butrint, Albania: The Fall of Troy, The Founding of Rome, & A Load of Old Bull

At Butrint, in southwestern Albania, we discovered tranquillity, jewel colours, fecund nature, and a sense of history that rustled through the trees like a whisper from the past.

The 2,500-year-old city of Butrint spirals around a domed, forested hill on an oval promontory. This juts into the glistening turquoise waters of the deep-water Butrint Lagoon, which is connected to the Ionian Sea via the navigable Vivari Channel. From the summit, the views over the Vrina Plain and across the straits to the nearby island of Corfu are both strategic and spectacular. The much larger Butrint national park: a Ramasar wetland of international importance surrounds the settlement.

A view across the Vrina Plain

Since it was originally occupied in prehistory, Butrint has been the backdrop to the changing fortunes of major ancient civilisations. The Greeks, the Romans under Caesar and Augustus, the Byzantines, Venetians, and Ottomans have all left their mark. Their influence and architecture make it one of the most important archaeological sites in the Balkans, and, in 1992, the first in Albania to be granted UNESCO World Heritage status.

Butrint is founded on a legend.

Classic mythology states that seer Helenus built the city after fleeing Troy as it burned in 1200 B.C. The story goes that Helenus, son of Priam, Troy’s last king, reached Corfu and decided to sacrifice a bull. The animal escaped, injured, and swam back to the mainland. Helenus deemed this such a good omen that he founded a settlement at the exact location where the bull struggled ashore and died. He named his new Troy Buthrōtum, a Latinised derivation of buthrotos, which means ‘wounded bull’ or ‘bull crossing’, depending on who you ask.

In Virgil’s epic poem Aeneid, Helenus’ second cousin, the hero Aeneas, visited Butrint en route to Italy where, as an ancestor of Romulus and Remus, Aeneas eventually begat Rome. Author and naturalist Gerald Durrell, who wrote My Family and Other Animals about his childhood on Corfu, also messed about in Butrint’s marshes.

The city had a healing spring, and was founded around the cult of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine. Such healing powers were just what we wanted for our poor little injured pup, Kai, who still had open wounds from the dog attack in Vlorë.

The Romans came to Butrint, and in 44 B.C., it became a retirement colony for the soldiers who fought for Julius Caesar against Pompey. Caesar’s successor, Augustus, doubled the size of the city on reclaimed marshland, and added an aqueduct, bathhouse, and forum.

The Expansion of Butrint

Despite our early start to miss the heat and crowds, we didn’t avoid the coach parties. By chance, we visited on a Saturday, which was also not the best strategy for crowd avoidance. As we did in Pompeii, we opted to walk the ‘wrong’ way round (anticlockwise) so we dodged most of the organised tour groups, and enjoyed a beautiful, peaceful stroll through the whispering trees.

We started at the Venetian Tower and walked backwards through history.  

The 15th Century Venetian Tower

For seven hundred years, between the 11th to the 18th centuries, the Republic of Venice used its naval might to dominate trade in the Mediterranean. In 1387, the Venetians purchased Butrint and the island of Corfu from the Angevins. This gave them control of commerce and shipping along the Adriatic coast, plus rich natural resources such as fisheries, timber, olives, pasture, and a safe harbour. Some commentators referred to Butrint as ‘Corfu’s protector and right eye.’

From the 15th century onwards, in response to repeated assaults by the aggressively expansionist Ottoman Empire, the Venetians re-fortified Butrint. The substantial square Venetian tower and the Triangular Fortress we could see on an island controlling the entrance to the Vivari Channel were built during this period.

The Triangular Fortress controlled access to the Vivari Channel

In 1797, when Venice capitulated to Napoleon Bonaparte, Butrint fell into the hands of our Ottoman friend, Ali Pasha of Tepelenë, who we met at Gjirokastra. He made the Triangular Fortress one of his primary residences, and it is still known as the Ali Pasha Castle. (The cover photo shows The Fab Four with the Ali Pasha Castle in the background.)

As we turned inland through the dappled woodland, we reached our first major monument, the Baptistery. Impressive, even in ruins, its jagged grey stone walls encircled a forest of truncated columns.

The Baptistery as we saw it

The Baptistery is brought to you by the promise of everlasting life and the number 8: the number of salvation to the early Christians.

Viewed from above, it’s easy to see how the pillars are arranged in two circles of eight, and the ornate mosaic floor comprises seven concentric rings around the central baptismal font. This was to promote the idea that by early Christian reckoning, Seven + Font = Eternal Life in Paradise – so it paid to get yourself baptised.

The Baptistery mosaic is a particular treasure. It is the largest and most complete of any discovered in the entire Roman world. Its pattern of interlocking designs, featuring animals and plants, symbolises salvation, resurrection, and accession to Heaven. We did not see the floor ‘in person’, since it is covered with a protective layer of sand, and is revealed only occasionally for viewing and study.

Baptistery mosaic floor by Albinfo, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

We passed through the Channel Side City Walls to reach the Great Basilica, the grandest and most imposing of the nine Christian churches discovered in Butrint. From 500 A.D., Butrint had its own bishop, and this was his church. Built at the same time as the Baptistery, its mosaic floor was created by the same craftspeople, although it was paved over in the middle-ages. We savoured the soaring pillars of the two rows of arches which flanked the nave.

The Great Basilica

As we strolled along between the banks of the Vivari Channel and the original circuit wall, we passed several of the ancient city gates. The wall itself was constructed from large stone blocks which fit together so perfectly that, without mortar, they have stood firm since 400 B.C.!

The Scaean Gate, as mentioned in Virgil’s Aeneid
You can see how the stone blocks fit perfectly without mortar

The first gate we found was the Scaean Gate, apparently mentioned in Virgil’s Aeneid (Book III).

I saw before me Troy in miniature

A slender copy of our massive tower

A dry brooklet named Xanthus…and I pressed

My body against a Scaean Gate. Those with me

Feasted their eyes on this, our kinsmen’s town.

Virgil Aeneid (Book III)

I absolutely loved that I could still see a plumb line cut into a corner of the gate by Hellenic stone masons in the 4th century B.C., either as drainage or to build the wall straight.

Several times, we stopped in shady spots for quiet contemplation and to drink in the views and atmosphere. I took photos of Mark with Kai at the Liqueni (Lake) Gate, then proceeded to the Lion Gate, so called because its lintel bears a carved stone relief of a lion devouring a bull’s head. The sculpture was not originally part of the wall, but was placed there in the 5th century A.D. to reduce the height and make it easier to defend. It was re-purposed from a temple and is perhaps as old as 600 B.C., making it some old bull, but not quite such an old bull as the founding myth!

Mark with Kai rest at the Liqueni Gate while Rosie has a cooling dip in the Vivari Channel

After ducking beneath the Lion Gate, we discovered stone steps in deep shade, which led to the only natural well on the north side of Butrint. The Romans associated the spring with the cult of nymphs. An inscription in the surrounding stonework recorded a particularly personal piece of history. In the 2nd century A.D., a Roman lady, Junia Rufina, ‘friend of nymphs’, paid for it to be refurbished.

The Lion Gate – ancient relief of a lion devouring a bull’s head
Image by Scorullon, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

At the top of the hill, the magnificently reconstructed 14th century Venetian castle greeted us. It houses the Butrint museum, and offered bejewelled views from the walls surrounding its shady courtyard, and the battlements atop its square, red brick tower. Yet, despite this breath-taking beauty, our choice to walk in this contrary way had undoubtedly saved the best ‘til last.

As we descended through woodland on a rocky dirt path, suddenly, the beating heart of Butrint’s civic buildings opened out before us. The huge semi-circle of stepped stone seats built into the Acropolis hill surrounding the central stage could accommodate two-and-a-half thousand bums. Besides plays and entertainment, the theatre hosted religious ceremonies and political debates. It is still in use today.

The theatre was funded by donations from the temple of Asclepius, the god of healing mentioned earlier. He was the son of Apollo, born in Epidaurus, and next to the theatre, a small sanctuary dedicated to him is engraved with the symbol of a snake wrapped around his staff.

Thousands of years later, the image of the serpent of Epidaurus on the staff wielded by Asclepius is associated with pharmacy and medicine. This ‘Rod of Ascelpius’ appears on the crest of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Britain and is the centrepiece of the World Health Organisation’s logo.

Thousands of years later, the Rod of Asclepius is associated with medicine & pharmacy.
The logo of the World Health Organization (English) Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

While serpents don’t immediately slither into your mind as anything but a mortal threat, many ancient civilisations from the Mayans to the Egyptians venerated snakes. The Greeks viewed the way they shed their skin as a symbol of regeneration and rebirth. They believed snake venom had medicinal properties, and used snakes in healing rituals to honour Ascelpius.

As I descended the steps through the magnificent Greek theatre into Emperor Augustus’ Roman forum, I could almost feel the bustle of life that had taken place there.

Augustus had built the aqueduct, which conveyed water into the Roman baths. Although in ruin, we could still make out the flooded remains of the hypocaust – the underfloor heating, now home to colonies of frogs.

We finished our tour overlooking Ali Pasha’s Castle. Had we not been bent on keeping Kai’s wounds dry, we might have taken the SUPs (Stand Up Paddleboards) over, since it is accessible only by boat.

The Venetian Fortress now known as Ali Pasha’s Castle, is accessible only by boat
The cover photo shows the Fab Four with this castle in the background.

It was an exquisite stroll in the footsteps of the ancients. The site is forested, so we were in deep shade for much of the time and our pups had access to water to cool down – although the day was ‘cool’: only 30°C! Entry cost 1,000 lekë each (about £8), and although the pamphlet suggested we allowed an hour to see the site, we spent four and could have lingered for many more.

That evening, we set out for Ksamil Beach, Sarandë ’s quiet neighbour.

I knew it was going to be an interesting drive when Mark said,

“It’s down an unmade road. I don’t know where it is, and I didn’t have internet at Butrint to look it up. I can’t remember what it’s called, but I’ll know it when I see it.”

Join us next time to see how we got on…

Come Truckin’ With Us – Get Outdoors Through Your Inbox!

Published by Jacqueline Lambert @WorldWideWalkies

AD (After Dogs) - We retired early to tour Europe in a caravan with four dogs. "To boldly go where no van has gone before". Since 2021, we've been at large in a 24.5-tonne self-converted ex-army truck called The Beast. BC (Before Canines) - we had adventures on every continent other than Antarctica!

12 thoughts on “Butrint, Albania: The Fall of Troy, The Founding of Rome, & A Load of Old Bull

  1. Such a long and rich history. What a great place to explore. It looks like you were the only ones there, or at least not many others. The lintel is so fascinating and the WHO logo story really shows the importance of this place that I haven’t heard of!! Thanks for all of this information and adding Albania to our list! Maggie

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’d never heard of Butrint until this morning, when I received your blog post and at the same time saw a friend post on FB that she was in Butrint! Weird! Must be a sign that I need to go there!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. What a fascinating read! Loved the references to the Aeneid, I had to study some of that text for Latin O level! You have such a great way with words, you make history so interesting, and that was a subject I really struggled with!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hmmm, I studied the ‘very modern’ Cambridge Latin Course for O level. As my teacher, Miss Moss said, “They seem to be very aware of the differences between men and women.” My main memories are a rather amorous coquis called Grumio, and lots of black-and-white line-drawings of naked people in the Roman baths! I suppose as a teenager, it grabbed me more than the Aeneid!
      I struggled with history, but for O level, we studied the Industrial Revolution. I suppose that should have been interesting, but my teacher couldn’t have succeeded in making it more tedious.
      However, ancient history in particular absolutely fascinates me!
      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, Wendy! xx


  3. Oh, I was so excited to notice this in my inbox today! (I’m slowly catching up on the six weeks of emails I couldn’t keep up with while travelling). Butrint is wonderful, and I had one of my favourite travel experiences while there on a day trip from Corfu: discovering quite by chance that I was in one of the settings of a book I was reading. I’ve written about the experience, and it was lovely to see that some of the same things that caught at my imagination were also memorable for you 🙂 Thank you for stirring some wonderful memories.

    Liked by 1 person

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