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Butrint's Byzantine Heritage

Archaeological wonders in the Mediterranean

Of all the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe, that in Albania has a reputation for having been the most fearful. Under Enver Hoxhe the country remained isolated from 1945 until the regime was toppled in 1991. Yet it is a country of great resources: chrome, gas and oil; a country which boasts a largely unspoilt landscape from its Mediterranean corniche to ragged, snow-capped Balkan mountains; a country which possesses a rich archaeological heritage.

The archaeological heritage was first systematically explored by French and Italian missions in the 1920s and 30s. At the classical sites of Apollonia, Butrint and Phoenike, these missions made great discoveries and simultaneously set in motion a school of Albanian archaeology based in Tirana. Throughout the Communist years, archaeology was pursued with vigour. Hence, when Krushchev proposed building a submarine pen in Lake Butrint that would have necessitated the obliteration of ancient Butrint, Hoxhe would have none of it.

Today, Butrint is menaced by an altogether different threat: tourist development. Such is the exquisite setting of this site, said to have been founded by Aeneas, that Western tourist developers are eyeing it up as the hub of a network of marinas and hotels.

Butrint lies on a bend beside the narrow channel that leads out of Lake Butrint in southern Albania. From the Venetian castle on the ancient acropolis of Butrint there is a commanding view of the straits of Corfu to the west, and the mountainous frontier with Greece to the south. Besides its Greek and Roman remains, the site boasts a rich and long Byzantine history. There is a large well-preserved baptistry with a mosaic floor worthy of Ravenna; a great basilica, and a canal-side palace.

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