The sun had already began to hang low in the sky, like a tantalizingly overripe peach provocatively flaunting its immanent fall, by the time we finished our most excellent fish soup, at Agioi Saranda, the port city of Northern Epirus and took the winding road down the rocky Northern Epirot coast, to Bouthrotum, the ancient capital of the Epirot kings.
Northern Epirots seem to have inherited their southern cousins’ driving skills. After the relative order and overabundance of caution in Australia, seeing manic Northern Epirots racing around blind corners, switching to the lane of oncoming traffic and overtaking at over 100km per hour on steep mountain bends in a race to get to Bouthrotum by sunset tends to have the effect of appreciating the harshness of the terrain, as well as lodging one’s hand in the handrail of the car door and clinging, for life’s sake. The hundreds of προσκυνητάρια along the mountainside marking other’s demise, competing with mounting piles of rubbish, punctuated by herds of pigs poking through them with their snouts in search of a meal do not exactly inspire confidence.
On our right hand side a long cigar shaped giant lolls lazily on the horizon. “Kerkyra,” Margaritis Ntais, the manic driver tells me. “In the days of Hoxha, when the persecution became too much, we would steal glances over the water and wonder what it would be like to be free, in Kerkyra. We would hatch elaborate plans of escape which we would dismiss as childhood foolishness. And then we would look away. If you looked too longingly at Kerkyra, you would be denounced as an enemy of the people.” Now at the age of thirty, Ntais knows what it was like to have been an enemy of the people. In 1985, on the day of the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha’s death, his brother was arrested for celebrating his 21st birthday, not knowing of the dictator’s demise. He was incarcerated until his release in 1991, after the fall of the tyrant’s regime. Some days later, his cousin, on a fishing expedition at Agioi Saranta, sailed north and doubled back secretly until he reached Kerkyra. As a result, Ntais’ family was harassed on a daily basis until the fall of the regime.
The stories of past bitterness accompany us to Εξαμίλια, or as it is known in Albanian, Ksamilia, the closest point to Kerkyra on the Northern Epirot coast. Small concrete domes litter the sea cliffs like oversized mushrooms. These too are reminders of the paranoid past, where Hoxha, fearing an invasion from the capitalist west, converted his country into a fortress by ordering the construction of millions of concrete bunkers and machine gun positions throughout the land, often on beach fronts or in the middle of fields. “We would come here on school excursions,” Ntais continues, “and we could see the military pulling down the last churches. They would tell us that we were Albanians and partisans and that over the waters in Greece, there was only death.
We round a cliff face and suddenly the undulating landscape slopes downward, the barren grey and brown of the terrain suddenly turning a brilliant green. Below us, the vast expanse of the salt lake of Bouthrotum, on the border of Albania and Greece massive, immense and unashamedly cobalt in its blueness, smooth like a sheet of opaque glass, with only the invasive pylons of the mussel traps to disturb its serene countenance. From here, the point where the lake tapers and becomes a long and urgent channel that cuts through the marshy conglomeration of reeds and grasses in its fervour to meet the Adriatic is clearly visible. Even the lakes of this country want to escape. Yet it is at this precise point that the ancient Molossian kings of Epirus decided to build their capital city, at a time when the kingdom of Epirus was poised to extinguish the might of Rome and assume the mantle of world power.
Bouthrotum has always been part of the Greek world. It is said to have been founded by none other than Helenos, the son of King Priam of Troy who fleeing his ruinous homeland, sought to found a new Troy, nestled in the flat plain between the mountains. Others speculate that it was founded in the 6th century BC by traders from Kerkyra opposite. Yet its heyday is said to have been in the days of King Pyrrhus who chose it as his capital city, endowed it with a good many temples, amphitheatres and other public buildings and after conquering almost all of Greece, used it as a springboard for his conquering of Sicily and Southern Italy, along with his failed onslaught on Rome. It continued to be a significant city during Roman times and still boasts the ruins of a circular baptistery and porphyry colonnaded martyrium of St Therinos, who was martyred during the persecutions of Roman Emperor Decius, only to be abandoned after the fall of Constantinople. Silence fell over the once vibrant city as it unflinchingly welcomed the onslaught of the silt and creepers that gradually reclaimed the land for mother earth. Not even the endeavours of the irrepressible Ali Pasha who fortified the area in 1791 could rouse the majestic capital from its torpidity.
The castle of Ali Pasha is in fact the first thing you see as you push through the marsh and arrive at Bouthrotum. It is a grey, squat building, much rather like contemporary representations of its builder, who like his successor, Enver Hoxha, engaged in a frenzy of fortification, convinced the western powers were bent on invading his little kingdom. It is primarily, a monument to totalitarianism. The second thing you notice is the Albanian sign that welcomes the visitor to Bouthrotum, the “Ancient Illyrian City.” The fact that all archaeologists agree that the ancient lands of the Illyrians were hundreds of kilometers to the north does not seem to perturb the curators of the site, who in the summer time engage persons to wear togas and recite poetry in “Illyrian”, a language of which no written records have survived. In these lands, the name and memory of its original Greek inhabitants are being erased. The third thing you notice is the long avenue of gum trees that lead to the ancient ruins. These trees, immensely tall among the conifers momentarily disconcert the visitor and send him into a reverie of directing the final and equally tragic Crocodile Dundee sequel. That’s not a ruin mate. My career is a ruin.
Bouthrotum, for all its anabaptism reeks of Hellenism. Ancient inscriptions are to be found on pillars, rocks and the walls that litter the unkept site. Squelching ankle deep in the mud, we reach the great amphitheatre, second to none, with acoustics akin to those of Epidaurus and with one subtle difference: The lake in its mastery of the environment has submerged the stage. It is in effect, an underwater theatre, where the fish and crabs are the ultimate heirs to the comedy of Aristophanes, as if they are the last players in a sick joke by Menander. And supposedly, this theatre is an Illyrian one. This time, the emotions rise to the surface. Spontaneously, we sing the Greek national anthem and then an old polyphonic Epirotan mourning song, our pitiful, sobbing voices translated into an angry, booming chorus by the co-operative theatre. As our voices carry over the border to free Epirus, we poke among the ruins of the Aesclepium, enlightened Pyrrhus’ medical clinic, the vast 6th century Orthodox Cathedral and then, as we become lost in the twists and turns of the forest, unexpectedly, the cyclopean walls of Molossia and the gateway to Pyrrhus’ palace. It is common knowledge that Epirots are held to be the shortest of the Greeks and this seems to be a trait inherited from our ancestors. Pyrrhus’ front door is 5ft in height, yet it is no less impressive. The conservative Epirots retained the Mycenaean tradition long after Greece moved into the classical era; the doorway is so like the Lion’s gate at Mycenae as anything I have ever seen. The representation on the lintel is a startling one: a lion, pouncing on and devouring a bull, the symbol of Epirus. Eerie in its prophecy, the doorway is empty and hollow, leading only to forest in the hearth where the king would have welcomed the visitor. The lords of old have all gone now.
As we pick among the ruins, hidden away in the jungle-like forest and see the sun set over Kerkyra, casting strange porphyry and gold hues over the ruins of the endeavours of the mightiest of kings, the border with Greece, a kilometre away is barely visible. The golden channel of Bouthrotum despondently races to meet the Adriatic and we look back to gain a last glimpse of the other palaces, lost among the undergrowth and never excavated and mutter “vanity of vanities.” Further down, as we reach Delvino, we note that the new road signs, which the albanian government promised would be in the minority language, Greek, appear only in Albanian. The following day, setting out for the capital of Northern Epirus, Argyrokastro, we come across the same sign, only the Albanian placename, Delvine, has been whited out and in its place the following have been written: «ΔΕΝ ΚΑΤΑΛΑΒΑΙΝΟΥΜΕ ΑΛΒΑΝΙΚΑ. ΕΔΩ ΕΙΝΑΙ ΒΟΡΕΙΟΣ ΗΠΕΙΡΟΣ.» Give the sign and then the countersign and wallow in the inexorable mud of infinity, sons of Pyrrhus. The fate of the works of his hands await you.