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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Preserving an Ancient Treasure

Air Date: Week of

Producer David Chanatry takes us to Butrint in Albania. This ancient city was declared a World Heritage Site because it represents thousands of years of the history of the country. Lack of money and infrastructure are the challenges that preservationists and tourism officials face as they try to develop the area for tourism and preserve the archeological riches of the area.


CURWOOD: For centuries, the nation of Albania has been isolated from other European countries by geography and culture. And it’s still trying to recover from the poor economy it had when it was part of the Soviet Empire. Now, as Albania seeks to emerge as part of modern Europe, it’s looking to tourism as a way to bring in much needed revenue. But as David Chanatry reports, in one ancient site, the desire for tourists is colliding with the realities of a place not yet equipped to handle them.


CHANATRY: On a gently sloping hillside in southern Albania, two dozen archeologists are digging back in time. Hired hands swing pickaxes, then haul away the dirt. The professionals do the detail work, unearthing the remnants of ancient civilizations, brushing away mud and grit from the bones of a body buried nearby. All toil under a relentless Mediterranean sun. This is Riley Thorne’s fourth season digging.

THORNE: This part here we’ve got five different phases, starting from the Hellenistic, which is the larger wall down the bottom, going right up through to about sixth, seventh century sort of material.

CHANATRY: The site is called Diaporit—it’s mostly a major Roman villa, and it’s part of the ancient city of Butrint—one of the least spoiled and most vulnerable cultural and natural heritage sites in the Mediterranean. In 1992, the United Nations declared Butrint a World Heritage Site because of its unique cultural history. Five years ago, that designation was extended to the surrounding floodplains and lakes.

Located on the coast just across from the present-day Greek island of Corfu, the city was a crossroads of the ancient world. Will Bowden directs this dig for the Butrint Foundation, a nonprofit group started by British philanthropists to preserve the ancient city:

BOWDEN: Everyone who’s done anything in the Mediterranean has passed by Butrint at some stage or another and left their mark. So what you have in Butrint is really 3,000 years of continuous occupation, layer upon layer upon layer.

TARE [GIVING GUIDED TOUR]: Here you can see, where we’re sitting here, it’s a matter of ten meters from each other, the history of Butrint, why Butrint is so important.

CHANATRY: Ani Tare is the director of Butrint National Park. Today he leads a group of American college students on a guided tour. They first walk through a Greek theater with 23 rows of limestone seats flanked by the remains of Roman temples. Then onto a footpath which winds past a lineup of Roman baths. Nearby is a sixth century baptistery with a stunning tile mosaic floor, next to a basilica laid out like a cross. A tower stands across from a triangular fort, both built by Venetians in the Middle Ages to protect the city from invaders. An Ottoman fortress guards the entrance to the channel linking the city to the sea. One of the American students, Veronica Donohue, says Butrint feels alive. .

DONOHUE: The whole site is awe inspiring. It’s almost like the place has a soul. You can imagine like the Roman soldiers marching through the walls of the city, or the Romans in the baths, or just the normal farm people walking around. The place radiates with energy, I think.

CHANATRY: Much of the excavation so far was done in the 1920s and ‘30s by Italians sent by Mussolini. War stopped that work. Then came more than 40 years of communist tyranny. Only in the last decade have outsiders been allowed back in, and full scale archeology resumed. So Butrint is an unpolished jewel of the classical world, set in the middle of a roadless wilderness.


TARE: The declaration of the national park of Butrint, 29 kilometers square, is a very good start to preserve what we call the Homeric landscape, to preserve the archaeology, but also the landscape and also other archeological satellites which are connected to the main city.


CHANATRY: Ani Tare leans against the cabin of an old boat that motors him from the main city to a floodplain settled by Caesar’s soldiers. Butrint was set aside as a National Park four years ago. Tare says even as the park was being created by the Albanian government, other officials were granting concessions to build resort hotels and a golf course on the same land.

TARE: It has taken a long time, and long lobbying, and a long explanation and many other things to convince people the value of long term future of this area is going to be to preserve it and not develop it and ruin it completely.

CHANATRY: But the tension between developing the area along the mass tourism model of the island of Corfu, or choosing a more sustainable path, has not completely faded.


CHANATRY: Just a few miles up the only road out of Butrint lies the port of Saranda. People young and old stroll arm in arm on a fashionable boardwalk. Along the coast and up into the hills, new construction is everywhere. Dozens of hotels are going up within feet of each other, the city now a landscape of concrete pillars with protruding rods of reinforced steel. Foundations have been blasted into the bedrock, the debris dumped wherever there was room, often marring the very views that might attract tourists.

Kayla Qendro grew up here, and enjoys walking that boardwalk. But today’s town saddens her, and she’s concerned about the development pressures creeping down the coast.

QENDRO: You can see from Saranda to Butrint is going like a disaster with all the buildings. And they are all going to be hotels. They have no parking, they have nothing. Sometimes I think they are building all the hotels but in the end no one will come over there. So it seems like they are just build and build and build, but nothing for the future.

CHANATRY: This building boom has been fueled by money from abroad and an intense desire to bring in tourist dollars. The prize? The thousands of Europeans who vacation in Corfu, just 45 minutes away by ferry. In this post-Communist era the spigots of capitalism have opened up, but Saranda’s director of tourism, Matilda Andoni, says enough is enough.

ANDONI: It’s about time to say, you know, that these are the limits of development, or try to find way to better integrate these, the developments, and nature. So, in a way, it’s about time to be speaking more seriously about sustainability.

CHANATRY: Even so, she acknowledges the problem is not establishing some kind of zoning. It’s enforcing it.

ANDONI: There are certainly regulations everywhere. The issue is everywhere the same. It’s to trying to make these regulations work.

CHANATRY: The problem is made worse by a newfound freedom of movement. During the Communist period few people were allowed to live near Butrint for fear they might escape to Greece. Since then, says Ani Tare, Albanians have headed south by the thousands.

TARE: A vast number of people have arrived and they’re building with no plans, with no permissions, with no clear vision what is going to happen in this area.


CHANATRY: But Butrint is protected. By law, no one can build within the park boundaries. But the tourists are coming, and the park is not protected from them. People, not buildings, may be the greatest threat –54,000 visitors, mostly Albanian, came last year, up from just 3,000 five years ago.


CHANATRY: On weekends, the crowds overwhelm the park’s staff of six rangers. School groups storm the site like an invading army, treating the priceless ruins like monkey bars at the playground. A favorite spot for pictures is the fragile arch at the temple of Asclepious, perilous for both the model and the monument.


CHANATRY: On this day, a group of teens climb on what’s known as the Venetian House for their photo sessions, just 24 hours after that same structure was repaired by British masonry experts funded by the Getty foundation. John Ashurst teaches building conservation at West Dean College in England. He says tourism brings in money and it encourages people to cherish their past, but he warns that Butrint may soon reach a tipping point.

ASHURST: I would just say that in some parts of the world, the management of tourism has become more important than the care of the fabric. And, of course, at that stage it’s got out of balance. We must care for the fabric, otherwise there will be nothing to visit.

TARE: We are very vulnerable. I mean, anything can go wrong any time if we’re not careful.

CHANATRY: Ani Tare feels a deep affinity for Butrint and the undeveloped land surrounding it.


CHANATRY: He takes an active role teaching Albanians about the significance of the park. He knows the tourists, especially the younger ones, are touching too much, not treating the ancient sites with the same care and respect that he does. He’s running the risk they’ll damage Butrint. But for now, with only about $15,000 in funding from the Albanian government, he needs these tourists to pursue his dream.

TARE: That’s the goal, Butrint to become a major tool for economical development of the region. There’s no point of having a dead museum here where just you buy a ticket, go walk in and walk out. This should be a living place where people can live and they can profit from the heritage without destroying it.

CHANATRY: More tourists bring more money; and for Ani Tare, that’s what’s needed to develop the infrastructure for sustainable tourism, to serve this ancient site and the present day inhabitants of the region. For Living on Earth, I’m David Chanatry in Butrint, Albania.

CURWOOD: As always, we welcome your comments on our program. But today we want to encourage you to take advantage of the opportunity to step in front of an open microphone, right here on Living on Earth. Maybe you’ve always wanted to tell a special story about experiences, concerns and feelings about the natural world we all share. Well, we’re all ears.

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Now, this is not a contest. There are no winners or losers. This is simply an invitation to you to get involved. What do we want to hear? Your opinions count, of course, but even better are stories, tales from your life on this planet. So, it’s Living on Earth dot org for complete directions and some sample stories. And if you’re not online, send us a card, and we’ll send you some instructions. The address is Stories, Living on Earth, 20 Holland Street, Somerville Massachusetts, 02144.

[MUSIC: Pat Matheny Group “The Search” AMERICAN GARAGE (ECM – 1979)]



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