The first time I ever heard of Butrint, Albania, our ship was nearly there, and I realized I hadn't been paying enough attention to our schedule. Where did you say we're going next? Our cruise featured Athens and Istanbul but included several lesser sights, of which Butrint was the most obscure. At the ramshackle little port of Sarandė, just across the water from the Greek island of Corfu, we left the ship. In an asthmatic school bus we bumped down a one-track road, dulling my expectations. It felt like a sympathy call on a nation that has Fourth World status. But then we arrived at Butrint National Park, which turned out to be a revelation, then became a series of revelations.
The ideas ruins evoke in me are grand. Everything comes to nothing, everything perishes, everything passes, only the world remains, only time endures.
-- Denis Diderot, 1767
In the park an archaeological dig has been proceeding, off and on, since the 1920s. That was when Albania was a kind of Italian dependency, and the fascist government sent an archaeologist, Luigi Ugolini, to find out what was left of ancient Butrint and what part it might play, if any, in the tourist industry of the region and in Italy's plans for Albania.
Ugolini, to his delight, dug up evidence of a Greek amphitheatre, much statuary, and a Christian baptistery.
Over the centuries Butrint has been a busy site. The Greeks had settled there and had eventually been replaced by the Romans, who were later replaced by Venetians, who were followed by the Ottomans. In the eighteenth century it was nearly deserted, but Venice still hoped to claim it. For the sake of a potential sovereignty, Venice showed the flag by sending teams of galley slaves to cut down timber. In 1745 the soldiers guarding the slaves included the 20-year-old Giacomo Casanova, briefly an ensign in a Venetian regiment. By 1900 Butrint was a tiny village, and most of the significant structures were sleeping under the ground, seldom noted anywhere except in dusty volumes.
The discoveries that began with Ugolini have multiplied, so that this one site has turned into an anthology of ruins, a compendium of ancient building forms. There's a major Roman house being put together, and in the church there are floor mosaics that wouldn't disgrace Ravenna.
And not far away there are remnants of the reign from 1944 to 1985 of Enver Hoxha, the Stalinist dictator. He encouraged tourism in Butrint, but only foreigners were invited; he feared that Albanians, allowed this close to Greece, might swim to freedom. But he did make a memorable contribution to the landscape. In his madness he expected that Albania might be invaded by troops from the Greek mainland. He built 7,000 steel and concrete pillboxes, each big enough to hold a soldier and his gun. It is said this took more than three times as much concrete as the French used when building the Maginot Line. Now the government can't afford to remove the bunkers, so they wait silently on the sands, used now and then by teenagers making love or by the homeless seeking shelter. One day they too will be ruins, prepared to inform the future about the nature of the twentieth century.
Ruins on a site like Butrint have the power to rescue us from the provincialism of our own time. This is a fact of modern life that we appreciate inadequately, perhaps because we give relatively little thought to the constant uncovering of the distant past. The vast armies of archaeologists spread across the planet are divided into so many categories, so many regional and technical specialties, that we have trouble understanding the results of their work. Being mostly anonymous, they are seldom ranked among the creative figures of our time. Yet their work changes not only landscapes but also human memory.
Each of us carries a mental idea about the past, half-conscious, unreliable, and waiting to be altered. The effect of archaeology is to lengthen this global memory, pushing back the horizon of meaning, restructuring our sense of time. Whenever we encounter another of archaeology's accomplishments, on a dig site or in print, we are subtly changed. The effect resembles the experience of art; intellectually we are enlarged. The archaeologist is an artist of disclosure.
Archaeologists treat the passing of time in their unique way. As they do their work they think routinely of time as it passed in antiquity, but they also create their own kind of time. An archaeological site is more than a crumbly version of something built ages ago; it also lives in our own period and in many past periods. The bunkers of Albania were set in place during my own adult years, but already they are remnants of a vanished age, the Cold War and the dome of tyranny that enclosed much of Europe.
An archaeological excavation is almost always a work in progress. It's usually the most protracted of scientific research projects and requires from specialists a sense of the future as well as the past. There are projects started in the middle of the nineteenth century that are still under way. An archaeologist, designing a major dig, requires as much patience as the designer of a space ship intended for a flight to Mars.
Visiting a site, we try to absorb something titanic that happened here long ago and at the same time begin to understand that what we can see now is only the latest in a long chain of events. We learn that a river altered its course and left a once prosperous port stranded and useless. Or that barbarians swept down, killing the occupants, burning their buildings. Agents of more prosperous cities took away the best objects for their own museums in Berlin or London. Just as the Elgin Marbles are in London rather than Athens, you can find in Vienna the Ephesos Museum, filled with nothing but material taken from Ephesus in Turkey.
"These speaking ruins have filled my spirit with images ..." Giovanni Battista Piranesi wrote in the eighteenth century. Ruins, speaking to him, filled his spirit with vast neo-Gothic spaces that he carefully turned into an art form of his own. His fantasy versions of impossibly high-ceilinged castles and impossibly forbidding dungeons have ever since populated the minds of designers, influential to this moment in the computer-generated settings of movies. No living reader or viewer of dramatic art can altogether escape Piranesi's imagination.
Drawing inspiration from ruins was one of the excitements of his time, the Enlightenment. Sitting in the ruins of the Roman Forum one day in 1764, Edward Gibbon wondered how a society as great as Rome had fallen to nearly nothing. His attempt to learn the answer led to the writing of his masterpiece, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and to a clear opinion: what destroyed Rome was the decline of civic virtue. A generation later the Romantics saw the ruins of proud ancient monuments as a personal lesson for everyone. In 1818 Shelley wrote "Ozymandias" with its unforgettable lines of warning from a long dead monarch: "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:/Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
In the twenty-first century ruins can still remind us of the past's tragic lessons, but when we visit we also carry with us different experience and different expectations. Recent history has taught us as much about the rise and fall of empires as we can assimilate. What we look for in ruins is a larger and deeper sense of humanity, an enlargement of imagination rather than an expansion of our literal knowledge. Rose Macaulay's famous book, Pleasure of Ruins, published in 1953, says the effect of ruins on modern humans is to send the imagination into a higher realm where episodes from history are tangled with myths and dreams, producing "the stunning impact of world history on its amazed heirs." It is this largely sensory impression that makes archaeological sites among the most desirable attractions in the world.
Ephesus, the ancient metropolis of Anatolia, now on Turkish soil, is such a place. It contains, or once contained, the Temple of Artemis, a Greek deity worshipped by the Romans as Diana the huntress. Her temple was listed among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, but all that we can see of it now is one rather shaky-looking column, put together from stones revealed during a British archaeological excavation that began in the 1870s. It is "restored" in a sense; it is also clearly a ruin.
The Greeks lived in Ephesus, also the Romans, also (for long or short periods) the Goths, the Arabs, the Christians. In the first six decades of the Christian era Ephesus played a large part in the new religion.
When St Paul, the first great Christian intellectual, was defining the shape of Christian belief, he lived in Ephesus, spoke in the Greek amphitheatre, and wrote some of his most important letters. Artisans who lived by selling statuettes of Artemis in her Temple staged a demonstration against Paul, expressing anger at his introduction of an attractive competing faith and its monotheistic obsession, likely to destroy their business.
Ephesus fell silent a millennium ago. A river changed its course and ruined the port. The population, which had risen to the hundreds of thousands in the greatest days, fell into the hundreds. Sculpture, neglected, vanished beneath the earth and waited for the invention of aggressive archaeology in the nineteenth century.
Today most of ancient Ephesus remains under the ground. A vast number of Roman ruins were buried there, and only 15 percent of them have been uncovered so far. Yet it's already an enormously compelling site. The elegant facade of the Library of Celsus, which held some 12,000 scrolls two millennia ago, has been rebuilt from the original pieces -- it looks grander, but it still looks like a ruin. The theatre, which once accommodated audiences of 25,000 or so, is still there. Once it held Greek drama, and for a period it was used for gladiatorial combat; in 2007, archaeologists discovered the evidence of a graveyard for gladiators.
Ephesus now reveals more every year, and the revelations of the twenty-first century will be the most important in centuries. The excitement of a visit lies in the feeling that our contemporaries are involved in a process that discloses one secret after another. No one now living will ever see the work finished; perhaps it never will be finished.
Years ago, while my wife and I were on vacation in the south of France, friends took us to La Turbie, a village perched high in the Alpes-Maritimes, above Monaco. There we found ourselves transfixed by one of the most ruined of all ancient ruins, the Trophy of Augustus, erected in 5 BCE.
It was ordered by the Roman senate to honour Caesar Augustus for his conquest, through three military campaigns, of the 44 Alpine tribes that had traditionally occupied this region. On top of this huge marble-faced monument the architect placed an equestrian statue of the emperor with lesser statues of his generals in niches below him. A Latin inscription on the west face praised him for subduing the tribes and then listed all of them: the Trumpilini, the Camunni, the Vennonetes, the Isarci, etc.
It was an expression of unembarrassed power, placed on the hill so that it appeared to alter the very landscape in which these tribes had lived.
It still dominates the district; it's a truncated fragment of the original but still big enough to be visible from far off.
Ruination began about 15 centuries ago, as the Roman Empire declined. In early 400 CE, Visigoths arrived and developed the habit of taking materials from the Trophy for their own use. In the Middle Ages the Trophy became the basis for a fortress, and eventually King Louis XIV ordered it blown up. Explosives were duly set off, but the Trophy remained standing. Dante mentioned La Turbie in the Divine Comedy, using the slope toward it as a measure of difficulty for climbers.
Eventually the citizens began using the Trophy as a quarry, taking away broken stones to build their houses. Marble pried off the Trophy can be found forming the floors of the cathedral in Nice. In 1860 France finally recognized that the Trophy might be important and ordered the looting stopped. Archaeology began 110 years ago, and now visitors can see not only the surviving stump of the Trophy but also drawings of what it looked like when it was put in place, a tribute to an emperor and a permanent threat to everyone who dared defy him. It's haunted me ever since I saw it. A photo of it sits above my desk.
To learn something about the battles of Caesar Augustus and his private life, I can read The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, by Suetonius, a work written within a century after his death. There we also learn about his Clintonian capacity for adultery and about the way his friends excused his promiscuity, insisting that he seduced so many women "not from passion but from policy, in order to discover more easily the designs of his adversaries through the women of their households." Suetonius took it for granted that pursuing sex for the purposes of political espionage was morally superior to pursuing sex out of passion.
Still, if I want to grasp the meaning of his life as his contemporaries saw it, if I want to sense the aura that surrounded an emperor at the height of Rome's expansive and merciless period, then I'll go back to La Turbie, squint my eyes just a little, and grasp once again what it once meant to be the unquestioned ruler of "the known world."