The World’s Largest Mosaic Floor

Where: Butrint, Albania

Who: Oma and Opa

When: August 4, 2013

[Today’s guest post is by Jason’s father, Dr. Fred Jewell a.k.a. “Opa” at our house. Fred and his wife, Alice, are spending a month in Albania teaching English using the Bible. As you will read below, they have also found a little time to do some sightseeing. Enjoy!]

Well off the beaten path of European tourism is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Butrint National Park in southwestern Albania, within sight of the Greek island of Corfu and just a few miles from the Greek border. Not only is this important archeological site off the beaten path because it is in Albania, hardly on Americans’ list of “must visit” countries, but because it is difficult to reach even from within the country. Albania’s transportation infrastructure is still woefully underdeveloped, especially by European standards. Reaching Butrint requires a torturous drive on scenic mountain roads, which frequently offer panoramas of the Adriatic and Ionian coastline, through numerous villages with passages so narrow that cars going in opposite directions cannot pass simultaneously. The highway must also frequently be shared with a horse-drawn cart, an unattended cow, or flock of sheep or goats attended only by a dog. The trip from the capital Tirana is c. 200 miles, but takes about 6 hours. There is no other way to get to Butrint except by automobile.

ButrintRuins.jpgThose who endure the inconvenience of making the trip will be rewarded with a worthwhile cultural/historical experience, although I will admit that if one has visited several Greco-Roman sites, this one may not seem sufficiently large (it takes only an hour to tour the entire site), developed (excavations began only in 1928 and have been sporadically pursued since), or different to justify the difficulty of making the trip.

Some students of the site claim that the earliest period of settlement can be fixed in the late Bronze Age or beginning of the Greek Dark Ages of the 12th century B.C. A more noncontroversial date for the earliest settlement is the 8th century B.C. From the tourists’ viewpoint, it is a moot question since there is no evidence of these earliest settlements. What the visitor sees are primarily the ruins of a late Hellenistic community known as Bouthroton (Buthrotum in Latin after it became a Roman colony in 167 B.C.) featuring an amphitheater, sanctuary to Asclepius, and an agora, and a long section of wall with a Mycenean-style Lion Gate (although much smaller than the original).ButrintAmphitheater.jpg Ironically, much less survives (or has been excavated) from the Roman period than from the Greek period. This may be because under the Romans, Buthrotum was primarily a settlement for veterans of Julius Caesar’s campaign against Pompey and Augustus Caesar’s campaign against Mark Antony. The most impressive survival from the Roman period is the meager ruins of the Forum, a bathhouse, and the a palace of a local official, but the latter dates only from the early 5th century A.D.

Aside from the amphitheater, the most impressive structures on the site are the remains of a 6th century A.D. Byzantine church building in the basilica style and a nearby baptistery featuring the largest intact mosaic floor excavated anywhere. This one structure may be enough to justify the effort involved in getting to Butrint. The other most significant surviving structures at the site come from the Venetian period of occupation (mid-14th to early 18th centuries). A tower and fortress (reconstructed in the 1930s and now housing a museum of artifacts from the site) sit atop the acropolis; a large square blockhouse, and a triangular fortress at the base of the acropolis are visible reminders of the prolonged conflict between the Venetians and the Turks for control of the Adriatic and Ionian seas. All of these structures date from the late 15th– early 16th centuries. Other civilizations which have occupied Butrint, but failed to leave surviving footprints, include the Angevins (13th century), French (briefly during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period), and the Turks (intermittently from the 15th century to 1912 and the achievement of Albanian independence).

ButrintBaptistery.jpgButrint’s successive occupations and rising and falling fortunes are a microcosm of the turbulent history of the Balkan Peninsula from the Greek Archaic period to the early 19th century. It has not only suffered from a succession of human-imposed disasters, but has been plunged into successive periods of decline by earthquakes and invasions of the sea resulting from them. The visitor will be well-rewarded with an overview of this past . . . if only it were easier to get to it.


One Response to “The World’s Largest Mosaic Floor”

  1. Melek says:

    I must say that the Albanian Riviera is a secret paiadrse.We did enjoy it there last summer with my family and will definitely visit this amazing place next year to come and also plan to stay longer as before.My wife and I also consider maybe to invest in same real estate for a vacation home as prices seem to be low for now.All the bestJohn CarrrosCalifornia USA

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