Butrint Things to Do Tips by illumina Top 5 Page for this destination
Butrint Things to Do: 77 reviews and 151 photos
The floor of the baptistery is decorated with a splendid mosaic pavement. This pavement is well-preserved and is probably the largest and most complex pavement to survive in a late antique baptistery. The design consists of seven circling bands filled with various motifs; a continuous ivy scroll in the first and fifth bands; chains of interlocked medallions inhabited by animals, birds, fish and plants in the second and fourth; geometric ring interlace in the third and sixth; and in the seventh and thus framing the font, a carpet of interlocking medallions containing chequerboard designs. The princpal themes of the mosaic are the water of baptism, the water of life, and the salvation which water brings to believers. These themes are further associated with the sacramental blood of Christ and the wine of the Eucharist, being depicted in two spectacular panels which lie between the main west door and the font. The first panel shows a large vessel from which vines shoot forth, symbolising the Eucharist, flanked by two peacocks, birds which are associated with paradise and immortality. The second panel has two stags, the animal that characterises Christian baptism, drinking from a stream beneath a cross, with a tree on either side. The beasts that inhabit the medallions represent the three orders of living beings that make up creation: earth-bound animals, birds of the air, and the fish of the sea. The birds depicted are mainly aquatic species such as waders. The fish also invoke the role of Christ and his disciples as fishers of men.
Sadly the mosaics are almost entirely covered by sand normally, to protect them from the elements, although apparently they are talking about other ways to protect them that will allow them to be viewed.
This gate was named the 'Scaean' gate by the Italian Archaeological Mission after Virgil's description of Aeneas's entrance into Butrint:
'I saw before me Troy in miniture
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.
In spacious colonnades the king received them,
And offering mid-court their cups of wine
They made libation, while on plates of gold
A feast was brought before them.'
It is one of the best preserved ancient gateways in Butrint and seems to have remained in use throughout the city's history with very little modification. The gate was built in the 4th century BC and it was 5 metres high and 5.25 metres long; the paving visible today is Byzantine. The dog-leg in the city wall provided protection for the gate, which was none the less visible from the lake.
Very little survives of the original castle, thought to have been built by Michael II, Despot of Epirus. Much of the castle whch no dominates the hill was built by the Italian Archaeological Mission to provide an excavation headquarters, store-room and laboratory. However, many elements of the original castle were retained, including the tower.
Looking south from the spectacular viewpoint outside the castle, the piers of the Roman aqueduct can be seen, leading off towards Xarra, as well as cisterns which would have collected excess water from the aqueduct
I was lucky enough to spend a whole day in the castle, doing potwashing after a spectacular storm had made the site too wet for everyone to work on it. One of my favourite things was the orange tree growing just outside the castle wall!
To the north of the city, outside the city wall by the lion gate, in an area thought to be the original port of Butrint, several large funerary monuments of the late Roman period have been found. There are at least two buildings, one of which survives to eaves height. The original function of these buildings is not clear, but by the 5th century AD they had been sub-divided to allow for the insertion of a large number of tombs. Single tombs have been found further round the bay, on the north side of the city.
The lion gate is named after the large relief depicting a lion attacking a bull which was placed on the lintel some time in the 6th century AD. It has been rebuilt several times. The original gate (the entrance of which can still be seen behind the lion relief) was simple in plan, like the Scaean gate. However, unlike the Scaean gate, the lion gate was constructed between two parallel walls and was thus invisible from the lake. In the late antique period the gate was refortified and a lion relief was added. The lion relief was originally from a temple, possibly from the acropolis. The insertion of the relief greatly reduced the size of the gateway. Later still, access to the city became even more restricted when a tower was constructed on the external side of the gateway.
This unusual structure is located close to a sharp turn in the ancient city wall overlooking Lake Butrint. The building is constructed out of large blocks, with a technique similar to that used for the city walls, and has been dated to the 2nd century BC. The structure abuts the city wall (which is underneath the present pathway) and comprises a rectangular room placed against the city wall, entered through two rooms to the west. It may have been a shop or workshop, with the entrance from an alleyway. In front of the building is a large terrace wall, constructed of polygonal blocks, which could be part of a ramp for a roadway running up the side of the hill.
Throughout the Roman period the wall became less important and the city expanded beyond it, down to the edge of the Vivari Channel, with suburbs growing up on the Butrint plain. Even on the north side of the city, where the wall was virtually on the lake shore, traces of Roman building can be seen outside the wall.
In the late 5th or early 6th century AD, a new city wall was built around the shore line of the lower city (it is not known if the acropolis was fortified at this time). The wall survives more or less intact (although it includes some later repairs and additions). This was part of a programme of fortification, continued by Emperor Justinian, in which all the towns of eastern Illyricum were fortified in the face of the continual threat posed by incursions of tribes from north of the Danube.
Later rebuilding of the city walls was undertaken, according to documentary sources, by Michael II, Despot of Epirus, in 1236. The original castle on the acropolis may date to this period. The struggle for control of Corfu and Butrint between the Despotate, the Byzantines, the Angevins and the Venetians resulted in further investment in fortifications. By 1572 the city was abandoned in favour of the triangular fortress because of the poor state of the existing fortifications.
The city walls incorporate many centuries of fortification. The earliest walls have been dated by the Albanian Institute of Archaeology to the 7th century BC, with repairs in the 6th century BC. Little remains of this early phase. The second major phase of construction dates to the 4th century BC. This wall encircled the base of the acropolis. Six gates, positioned at regular intervals, allowed entrance to the city. The walls were 3.5 metres wide and were constructed of two rows of large hewn limestone blocks, with a rubble core between. The blocks were fitted tightly together although no mortar was used. The plumb lines used by the engineers to ensure that the walls stood straight can still be seen on some sections. Many of the large blocks were reused in later rebuilds of the city walls, but a good example of the early walling can be seen next to the Scaean gate (see that tip).
In the later 3rd century BC the wall was modified and new elements were introduced. The tower gate was added, the gateway opposite the sanctuary of Asclepius was modified and a section of walling near the lion gate was rebuilt. The building work in this phase is characterised by relatively small, roughly hewn, rectangular blocks, again fitted together without mortar. The wall between the tower gate and the tower of the inscriptions may date to this period.
The second phase of construction involved a major rebuilding of the basilica. Piers replaced the columns in the aisles of the basilica, the apse was rebuilt, and a slab floor was placed over the remains of the mosaic pavement. In the third phase two small apsidal rooms were added (one in each transept), effectively blocking off access to the transepts from the side aisles.
The basilica was originally a three-aisled structure with a singe polygonal apse and a tripartite transept. Its builders took advantage of the earlier Roman structure to provide foundations, and sections of it are preserved in the outer aisle walls of the basilica. The basilica was built in three distinct phases; the first dated to the 6th century AD, the second possibly to the late 9th/early 10th century, and the third to the later medieval period.
The 6th-century basilica was constructed of rough-hewn limestone blocks, laid in regular courses interspaced with regular courses of brickwork. The transepts, much of the apse and parts of the facade of this early Christian structure survive. The aisles of the basilica were originally divided by colonnades constructed of reused Roman columns and Corinthian style capitals (two of which are preserved in the apse of the basilica, with sections of columns and capitals visible in later piers). A fine mosaic pavement, contemporary with that of the baptistery and probably produced by the same workshop, decorated the floor (part of it can be seen close to the apse). What may be the foundations of a pulpit can be seen in the middle of the nave, on the central axis of the church. On the external face of the apse the plasterwork is scored, a form of decoration typical of the early Byzantine period in the area.
Of particular interest is the tripartite transept, a device by which the sanctuary of the church was divided into three bays by the continuation of the aisle colonnades. This was a plan known from the 4th century in Milan, and, it seems, later exported to Epirus to become a characteristic feature of Epirote churches in the late 5th and 6th centuries.
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