Near Saranda stood the ancient Illyrian city of Onchesmos, mentioned as a port in the 1st century B.C. In the 4th century A.d. the town was fortified with walls. Inside the walls have been excavated the remains of dwellings, water cisterns and an early Christian Basilica of the 5th and 6th century, containing a beautiful multicolored floor mosaic. Other mosaics are to be found in the district museum. The ruins are also preserved of an early Christian Monastery, of the Forty Saints, from which the modern name of the town - Saranda is derived. The amphitheater, dating from the 3rd century B.C., bears witness to the cultural riches of the city.

The stone banks of seating, of which twenty-three rows have been preserved, would have held an audience of 1,500. The theater is situated at the foot of the acropolis, close by two temples, one of which is dedicated to Asclepios, the Greek god of medicine, who was worshiped by the city's inhabitants. Approximately thirty inscriptions, almost all in ancient Greek, carved the western facade of this temple, and another hundred or so found on a tower which was rebuilt in the 1st century B.C., are the only examples of writing discovered in Butrinti. These inscriptions are mainly concerned with the liberation of slaves Christianity brought new life to Butrinti. The old-Christian period adorned the city with two basilicas and a baptistery, which is among the most beautiful in the Mediterranean region. Sixteen granite columns, forming two concentric circles, support the roof of the main hall. The floor is paved with a magnificent mosaic representing the Tree of Life and decorated with medallions embellished with animal motifs. Barbarian incursions and Norman raids in the eleventh century, a catastrophic earthquake in 1153, conquest by the Venetians in 1386, the subterranean infiltration of water and the subsequent epidemics completed the ruin of the city and forced the inhabitants to flee. Butrinti was buried in silence and oblivion. Throughout the occupation by the Ottoman Empire, from the 15th to the 20th centuries, the city remained in deep slumber. The waters covered Butrinti in mud, and abundant vegetation completely hid the remains from view.

It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that systematic excavations were carried out at Butrinti by the Italian archeologist I. Ugolini, followed by his compatriots P. Marconi and D. Mustili. Between 1928 and 1941, the ground was cleared and the ancient city gradually began to reveal its hidden treasures.

Following the liberation of Albania in 1944, Albanian archeologists undertook more ambitious excavations. In turn, the ramparts, the acropolis, the agora, the amphitheater, the temples, public baths and private residences re-emerged into the light of day. The entire city arose, almost intact, under the fascinated gaze of the archeologists. The mud and vegetation that covered Butrinti had protected it from the natural and human ravages of time.