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Albania dusts off ancient treasures

By Brian Ayers
Director of Butrint Foundation

Just 20 years ago, when communism was starting to crumble across Eastern Europe, the idea of isolated, totalitarian Albania embracing Western project management would have been fanciful.

Butrint Baptistery mosaic (pic: Butrint Foundation)
Butrint's early Christian Baptistery has fine mosaics

But it has happened - at Butrint, a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Just 5km (three miles) from the vibrant Greek holiday island of Corfu, Butrint preserves the tranquil, classical atmosphere beloved of 19th Century tourists such as Lord Byron.

Ancient ruins are lapped by water and shrouded by foliage. Massive Hellenistic walls share the site with precise Roman structures, Byzantine mosaics and two Venetian castles. The local ferry is still a raft, the views are sublime and the sunsets magical.

How has Albania managed to safeguard Butrint, when so much of its recent history has been turbulent, with communist dictatorship giving way to freewheeling capitalism?

The answer lies in partnership between local, national and international bodies, and the careful nurturing of systems new to the country.

The creation of a national park, and modern legislation to control it, led to a protected zone, which is now backed by international bodies including the World Bank.

A UK-based charity, the Butrint Foundation, is working with Albanian officials to develop the heritage site in a way that is sustainable and attractive to tourists. Archaeology, conservation and museum management are all areas where Albania is benefiting from Western expertise.

Pioneering project

Diana Ndrenika, director of Albanian heritage, says the national park "is not only a story of success in its own right, but it has set the pace within the Albanian context of how such a resource should be run".

Butrint map

She says it has had a big impact on other sites in Albania and has become "the model, the standard to which everyone working in this sector refers".

The site occupies a low wooded hill, with vistas of the Ionian Sea to one side and the expanse of Lake Butrint to the other.

Its mythical foundation was by refugee Trojans, with archaeology indicating that Butrint has been occupied since at least the 8th Century BC.

It was a local tribal centre by the 4th Century BC, part of the Kingdom of Pyrrhus, the inveterate enemy of the Romans. Then it was a Roman colony founded by Emperor Augustus a few years after his great victory over Anthony and Cleopatra, which occurred at Actium, only a few miles to the south.

Butrint's later history was turbulent, amid power struggles between Byzantium and its Western enemies - Normans led by Robert Guiscard, Angevin French under their dour King Charles of Anjou, scheming Venetian politicians and the banner of Islam borne by the victorious Ottoman Empire. Since 1912 it has been part of independent Albania.

Continuing challenges

The collapse of communism in 1992 caused much damage. Then civil unrest in 1997 led to looting of the museum at Butrint, though many artefacts have now been returned thanks to international co-operation.

Butrint scene with boat (pic: Butrint Foundation)
Butrint's tranquillity allows visitors to step back in time

The breakdown of old organisational structures has inevitably brought problems as well as opportunities for Albania, impacting on Butrint. Development pressure, often illegal, remains an issue.

There remains much to do at the site itself. Car parking, given rising visitor numbers, is inadequate, toilet facilities need considerable improvement, conservation of both the natural and historic environment is an ongoing challenge, and rising water levels threaten mosaics and walls. But investment in the local community should help tackle these issues.

International donations are paying for the training of young Albanian professionals. Some are already working in other parts of the country. The projects include an archaeological training school at Butrint, run by Albanian archaeologists for both domestic and foreign students.



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