Mesopotam and Butrint, Albania

I’m not a huge fan of archaeological ruins. I have friends who rave about Roman ruins and Megalithic temples but they don’t really get my blood racing. I’m partial to ruined churches and castles, though, and the more abandoned the better. 

Butrint was on my list of things to see in southern Albania, only because I’d seen a picture of a fabulous mosaic floor. It’s touted as THE place to see when you’re in this part of the world and not seeing it might be a little like leaving Rome without seeing the Colosseum.

Perhaps sensing my reluctance and balancing it against himself’s obvious enthusiasm, our intrepid guides at We Love Saranda sweetened the pot by adding a monastery to the mix and making arrangements to open it so we could have a look.

Mesopotam

The village of Mesopotam gets its name from the Greek, meaning between rivers. It’s famous for its eleventh-century monastery dedicated to Saint Nikolas. The church itself is built on the site of an older complex; archaeologists have found some third-century BC Hellenic stones which they say show a connection to the ancient Epirote capital of Phoenice.

The inside is beautiful. Some of the old icons are missing, replaced with photos of what they would have looked like. 1960s Albania was not kind to religion. Valbona Bezati has written for Balkan Insight on how the country became the world’s first Athiest state.

Article 37 of the constitution declared: “The state recognises no religion and supports and develops atheistic propaganda to engage people in the materialistic scientific worldview.”

Bezati gives an example that is gobsmacking in terms of the weight of the punishment meted out for saying mass.

Father Ernest Simoni Troshani, an Albanian Catholic priest […] held a mass in memory of US President John Kennedy when he was assassinated in November 1963, he was arrested on Christmas Eve and went on to spend 28 years in prison.

Given that so much was destroyed, we’re blessed to be able to see what we could of what remains.

According to the Memory Museum, an online project by the Albanian Institute of Political Studies, 2,169 religious institutions were closed, including 740 mosques, 608 Orthodox churches, 157 Catholic churches, and 530 turbe (Ottoman mausoleums) and teke (Sufi religious sites). Cultural and historical heritage was destroyed along with them.

If you’re interested in this sort of stuff, the Phoenice Archaeological Park is in the nearby village of Finiq. I figured Butrint would be enough old stones for me for one day.

As we drove, Péter and Ilcsi of We Love Saranda pointed to this and that, telling us stories and sharing with us the history of their adopted home.

I had no idea that oranges were a thing in Albania, in particular mandarins. The Xarra mandarin cooperative is a major success story. Konispol, too, has lots of growers.

The only commercial citrus production in Albania is mandarin production in Saranda district, in particular in the area around Xarre, Mursi, and Konispol at the Albanian-Greek border.

And capitalising on the production, you can pick your own mandarins at harvest time or join in the festivities at the annual Mandarina Fest – I’ve made a note in my diary to come back for that one!

Butrint

To get to Butrint, we had to take a cable ferry, powered by Hungarian technology from the days of communism. Top Gear fans might recognise the photo.

Inhabited since prehistoric times, Butrint has been the site of a Greek colony, a Roman city and a bishopric. Following a period of prosperity under Byzantine administration, then a brief occupation by the Venetians, the city was abandoned in the late Middle Ages after marshes formed in the area. The present archaeological site is a repository of ruins representing each period in the city’s development.

My mosaic floor was covered up. It’s only unveiled every few years or so, to protect it from the elements. This year wasn’t my year but it’s an excuse to come back.

I was surprised by the detailed explanations offered at each site and even more surprised that I found them interesting. As I said, I’m not one for archaeological ruins. As always, though, when confronted with ruins that are centuries old and still standing, I wonder what twenty-first-century builds will be around in 200 years. And will people find them interesting?

The views across the bay are spectacular. I used to associate turquoise with Arizona and New Mexico but now I suspect the blue of the Albanian water will come to mind.

You’re looking at at least a couple of hours to see what has to be seen; longer if you take your time and read everything. You could bring a picnic lunch but watch for the heat – late afternoon is a good time to visit if you’re travelling in the summer months.

For more details on how to get to Butrint and what to expect, check out An Adventurous World. Yes, it can be done by public transport, but I’d heartily recommend a guided tour. Cue: We Love Saranda

 

 

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