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Ohrid quay
Ohrid quay. Photo: Alan Grant

On the shore of Europe's oldest lake, in Ohrid, the medieval cultural heritage of Orthodoxy and its influence in the Balkans is very visible. Before the end of communism, Ohrid was a major tourist destination, but also a blind spot at the end of the world. Until 1990 armed ships were stationed on the lake, which separated Yugoslavia from isolationist Albania. In 1991, the Balkan wars followed, and tourism has never fully recovered, despite the obvious beauty of the area.

In classical times the town that is now Ohrid was known as Lychnidos. It was situated along the Via Egnatia, the important Roman road which stretched from Dyrrachium (modern Durres) on the Adriatic coast across the Balkan Peninsula to Constantinople. After the colonisation of the region by Slavic tribes in the seventh century, the formerly Byzantine town came to be known as Ohrid. The earliest written record of the name is from the year 879.

Under the rule of the Bulgarian Tsars Ohrid emerged as a religious and academic centre in the region. The author Victoria Clark writes:

"Between the ninth and eleventh centuries Saints Cyril and Methodius, Kliment, Naum and their disciples had raised this lakeside settlement, the capital of Tsar Samuil's short-lived empire, to the vital spiritual-cum-academic centre Archbishop Mihail had boasted about. Its holy learned lights had shone bright enough to be seen as far away as Kiev. Ohrid had been the Slavic world's Oxbridge, at a time when Oxford was a bustling trading post without even a church spire to speak of."

(Victoria Clark, Why Angels Fall: A Journey Through Orthodox Europe From Byzantium to Kosovo, 2000)

The Byzantine Empire re-conquered Ohrid in 1018. Despite changing hands numerous times in the Middle Ages the town retained its religious importance as an archbishopric. It is said to have been referred to as the "Macedonian Jerusalem" on account of the large number of churches in the city. Folk stories tell of more than 300 churches, one for each holy day in the year. In the late 14th century the town of Ohrid fell to the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans converted a number of churches and monasteries into mosques but tolerated the Ohrid Archiepiscopate, even allowing it to expand its influence during the 15th and 16th centuries. The Archiepiscopate was finally abolished in 1767 by order of Sultan Mustapha III following internal disputes and conflicts with the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Ohrid remained a part of the Ottoman Empire until the first Balkan War of 1912, after which it was controlled by Serbia. It fell under Bulgarian occupation in World War I and again in World War II. The town was liberated by partisan forces in November 1944. In 1958 it regained its status as an archiepiscopate, as Tito's Communists allowed the establishment of a Macedonian Orthodox Church (which, though, was not recognised by the major Orthodox Churches). Victoria Clark describes the scene:

"There was wild rejoicing. The bells rang out all over Ohrid and Macedonia as the new Archbishop Dositej of Ohrid and Macedonia, seated on a sixteenth-century throne inlaid with mother-of-pearl, clutching the crozier of the medieval archbishops of Ohrid in one hand and a holy icon of St Kliment in the other, addressed his flock. 'Great acts', he told them, 'are not performed by great nations but by nations which have great souls, nations which are ready and willing to make great sacrifices for their liberty and will never submit to foreign rule.' Such fighting talk cannot have gone down well back in Belgrade."

Flanked by high mountains, looking out over a vast lake, and with a rich historical heritage Ohrid makes for a natural tourist destination. In the time of socialist Yugoslavia it became one of the principal tourist resorts in the Balkans. The town was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980. Events such as the Ohrid Summer Festival and swimming marathon drew further guests. After the disintegration of socialist Yugoslavia tourist visits fell dramatically. While the situation has improved over the last couple of years, Ohrid still lags far behind its touristic potential.

Today, Ohrid is also a symbol of nascent European foreign policy and of the possibility of breaking with the bloody 1990s. In 2001, this city experienced one of the great successes of European diplomacy when the Ohrid Agreement helped prevent civil war in Macedonia.

May 2008

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25 May 2008, 00:00