|Albania, in the southeastern corner of Europe, has been populated since prehistoric times and was settled by the Illyrians, possible ancestors of present-day Albanians.Situated as it was, surrounded by powerful, warring empires, Albania has experienced a considerable amount of violence throughout its history. Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians and Ottomans swept through, leaving their cultural mark as well as their ruins.
Archaeological research shows that the lands that are today inhabited by Albanians were first populated in the Paleolithic Age (Stone Age). The first areas settled were those with favourable climatic and geographic conditions. In Albania, the earliest settlements have been discovered in the Gajtan cavern (Shkodra), in Konispol, at Mount Dajti, and at Saranda. Fragments of Cyclopean structures, of the Cyclopean-Pelasgian period, were discovered at Kretsunitsa, Arinishta, and other sites in the district of Gjirokastra. The walls, partly Cyclopean, of an ancient city (perhaps Byllis) are visible at Gradishti on the picturesque Viosa River. Few traces remain of the once celebrated Dyrrhachium (today Durrës). The rediscovered city of Butrint is probably more significant today than it was when Julius Caesar used it as a provisions depot for his troops during his campaigns in the 1st century BC. At that time, it was considered to be an unimportant outpost, overshadowed by the likes of Apollonia and Durrës.
Albania's rich archaeological record has been explored for nearly two centuries. Ali Pasha, the Ottoman viceroy who governed this region, encouraged early archaeological excavations at Nikopolis in Albania around 1812. His excavations, ordered after his friend Peter Oluf Brøndsted pointed out a place where he thought a temple might be buried, was not academic in nature. Pasha simply wished to have any treasures that were found in the area. Eventually, excavated marble was transported to his palace. Pasha also pocketed one of the coins that was found. Formal investigation and recording of Albania's archaeological monuments began with Francois Pouqueville who was Napolean's consul-general to Ali Pasha's court, and Martin Leake, who was the British agent there. A French mission, led by Len Rey, worked throughout Albania from 1924 to 1938 and published its results in Cahiers d'Archéologie, d'art et d'Histoire en Albanie et dans les Balkans (Notes of Archaeology, Art, and History in Albania and in the Balkans). Archaeologists today are finding remains from all periods, from the Stone Age to the early Christian era. Another project that produced prehistoric finds, though unexpectedly, was done in the valley of Kryegjata, close to the present-day city of Fier and in the area of Apollonia. This excavation, a collaboration between the University of Cincinnati and archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology in Albania, was originally a mission to learn about the colony of Apollonia. Instead, they found evidence of a settlement much older than that.
In 2000, the Albanian government established Butrint National Park, which draws about 70,000 visitors annually and is Albania's second World Heritage site. In 2003, a synagogue dating from the 5th or 6th century AD was uncovered in Saranda, a coastal town opposite Corfu. It was the first time remains of an early synagogue have been found in that area, and the history of its excavation is also noteworthy. The team found exceptional mosaics depicting items associated with Jewish holidays, including a menorah, ram's horn, and citron tree. Mosaics in the basilica of the synagogue show the facade of what resembles a Torah, animals, trees, and other biblical symbols. The structure measures 20 by 24 metres and was probably last used in the 6th century AD as a church.