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Last Updated: Saturday, 7 July 2007, 11:22 GMT 12:22 UK
Albania's long-lost Roman city
By Malcolm Billings
BBC News, Albania

Malcolm Billings visits Butrint on Albania's southern coast opposite the Greek island of Corfu - one of the best-kept secrets of the ancient Roman world until it was designated a national park with foreign help.

The remains of a Roman theatre could be seen in the 1950s

Enver Hoxha, the Stalinist communist dictator of Albania until 1985, was proud of Butrint.

At the height of the Cold War in the 1960s he showed Nikita Khrushchev around. But only after the sites in the forest were sprayed with DDT and purged of snakes, wild animals and insects.

Khrushchev was more interested in establishing a secret submarine base in the lake of Butrint - an idea that Hoxha did not follow up.

Forest on the march

After the fall of communism, the site was plundered and the ruins reclaimed by the dense forest. Then, there were no planning or building regulations and a rash of half-finished houses and apartment buildings were creeping towards the archaeological site.

Lord Rothschild, banker and philanthropist, could see what was happening from his villa on the Greek Island of Corfu, little more than a mile across the water.

"When the communist regime ended," he told me, "I sailed over to Butrint which I thought was one of the most beautiful and unspoilt places in the Mediterranean world."

Interview with professor Oliver Gilkes
Professor Gilkes is training Albanian archeologists

Another peer, Lord Sainsbury, who also took his holidays on Corfu, became interested. Together they set up the Butrint Foundation to protect the site and excavate more of its ruins.

The Albanian government welcomed the help at a time when Mafia style racketeering was rife and the country's reputation could not have been worse.

Richard Hodges, Professor of World Archaeology at the University of East Anglia, directed the first excavations in 1994.

"Food was scarce," he said. "There was nowhere to stay and the roads were almost impassable. The country was full of old stolen cars that took forever to travel just a few miles."

Thirteen years on, the English lords still support the work at Butrint, along with another multi-millionaire, David Packard of the Hewlett Packard computer fortune.

Between them about 500,000 is being spent on Butrint every year.

Ruined city

From the top of the unexcavated acropolis, I had a bird's eye view of the whole city. In places I could see sections of the wall almost hidden by the forest.

At the foot of the acropolis there is a well-preserved Greek temple with Roman additions.

And alongside the massive walls of an early Christian church, I could make out the double circle of pillars of a Baptistery in the centre of a perfectly preserved intricate mosaic floor.

Beyond the walls, Butrint spills out onto the plain where archaeologists have found the remains of a palatial villa.

Map of Albania showing Butrint
"One of the most important things that we do is to train young Albanian archaeologists," Oliver Gilkes of the University of East Anglia explained, as we walked along forest paths that weave through the ruined city.

We stopped at a deep trench where a section of the Roman forum was poking out from under three metres of earth and rubble.

"I suspect there could still be statues under all that," Oliver told me, "but getting them out," he said, "is another matter. Some might weigh as much as one of our Land Rovers."

Cultural tourism

In 1997, the Butrint Foundation, along with Unesco, encouraged the Albanian government to declare the whole site, and 30 square miles around it, as a national park.

Tourists began to arrive. Now there are about 80,000 a year, most of them coming for the day on ferries from Corfu.

More parks, modelled on Butrint, are being planned to boost cultural tourism.

Because the park has preserved an almost pristine landscape, there is some remarkable historical continuity.

There is a Venetian fort on the waterfront and another one closer to the sea that dates from Ottoman times in the 19th Century.

Prison state

Oliver Gilkes took me to a cluster of gun emplacements just outside the site. They looked like huge grey concrete mushrooms.

Hoxha surrounded Albania with 750,000 of them and like Butrint's ancient defences, the mushrooms are a part of Albania's cultural heritage.

But Oliver Gilkes explained: "All over the country they are just being broken up. No-one in Albania wants to be reminded of the prison state in which they were incarcerated."

Albanians do not want to be reminded of the grim past
"They used to try to swim across there," he said pointing to the headland closest to Corfu, "under the guns and searchlights of the army. A lot never made it."

But the national park is a new concept. For some emergent Albanian oligarchs, the boundaries are just another challenge on the path to riches.

In the Butrint National Park, an entrepreneur has tried three times to build a discotheque on the coast facing Corfu. The so-called "construction police" have twice disabled it by demolishing the staircases. On their last visit they pushed the structure over on its side.

But perhaps this story is not over yet. There are those who think that the thudding beat of so-called Albanian Turbo rock may yet be wafted on the sea breeze across the water to the terraces of Jacob Rothschild's villa on Corfu.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 7 July, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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