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Ohrid: Rise and Fall

Ohrid Ohrid - Copyright © by Alan Grant
Old city of Ohrid - Church of Sv Jovan, Kaneo

For a full understanding of the Balkan world today you need to take into account the history and politics of Orthodoxy. In English there are few easily accessible books on the subject. Luckily we have one, published in 2000, by the British journalist and author Victoria Clark. It is part travel book, part history and it takes in the broad sweep of the Balkans and Russia. She starts with Mount Athos (or as close to it as she can get, because women are banned from this finger of land studded with monasteries,) she then travels among the Serbs, Macedonians and Greeks before taking on Romania, Russia and Cyprus before ending in Istanbul. This is an extract about Ohrid in Macedonia.

It was getting too dark to see much but everywhere there were the rounded outlines of Byzantine church roofs like the ones I had seen in Serbia's Kosovo region, less than a hundred miles away across a national border. Set on stubby round towers, their shallow red-tiled roofs were fetching. Workaday structures, those low stone churches were as solid and serviceable as English pubs, and they seemed almost as plentiful as houses in that oldest part of the town. Such a thing was not impossible. 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.

Thereafter, the place declined for a good nine centuries – at least as the cradle of an independent Macedonia – until, in 1958, the see of Ohrid was elevated to an archbishopric. For Yugoslav Macedonians this was a first step towards the re-establishment of their national Church. The Serbian Orthodox Church meanwhile was dead set against the move. But the Macedonians had atheist Communist Tito's blessing, which then counted for everything. Tito had owed them a favour because thousands of them, churchmen included, had swelled the ranks of his Communist partisans in the Second World War. Delighted by the great leader's clemency, Macedonians had tactfully stopped short of declaring an outright schism with the Serbian Church, and instead confirmed the Serbian patriarch as their highest authority. It was a compromise, they said, “made for the sake of the interest of brotherly peoples with whom the Macedonians were allied in one community” – Tito's officially atheist Communist Yugoslavia.

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. Nevertheless, nine years later when the final schism between the Serbian and Macedonian Churches took place, it also had Tito's blessing. The Serbian Church could only grumble about a canonical coup and fume in private.

Why Angels Fall: A Journey Through Orthodox Europe From Byzantium to Kosovo. Victoria Clark. 2000.
[pp. 124-5 / MacMillan]

April 2007
Tim Judah

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  1. Istanbul: Pamuk's City
  2. Istanbul: Swimming across the Bosphorus
  3. Salonika and the Jews
  4. Salonica: Slaves and Trade
  5. Thessalonika: 1923
  6. Ohrid: Rise and Fall
  7. Tornado of Dust - 1944
  8. Awake Romania - 1989
  9. Novi Sad: Nest of the Serbian nation
  10. Nis: War Capital, 1915
  11. Belgrade and the Selenites
  12. 1996: Serbia Calling
  13. Belgrade Train Station - 1964
  14. Srebrenica: Vengeance
  15. Srebrenica: Blood
  16. Srebrenica: July 1995
  17. Mealtime - Interwar years in Travnik
  18. Dayton: The Napkin Shuttle
  19. London Buses in Sarajevo
  20. The Museum and Bosnian Identity
  21. Foča: The Bosniak
  22. Kosovo: The Swiss Front
  23. Mitrovica: 1908
  24. Pristina: Kosovo like Namibia?
  25. City without traffic - Pristina 1966
  26. Durham in Pristina - 1908
  27. Tirana: 1962
  28. Zog's Tirana
  29. The Kotor - Constantinople Express
  30. Kotor and the Montenegrins
  31. The Rabbi of Stolac
  32. Dubrovnik: England, Wine and Wool
  33. Cetinje: Nikola Under the Elm
  34. Cetinje: 1858
  35. Dalmatia: Ships & Grapes
  36. Prophet of Yugoslavism
  37. The head of the world
  38. 1919: Mushrooms and Lies
  39. Sofia: Bulgaria's Jews during WWII
  40. Zamfirovo: Rural livelihoods in the mid-1990s
  41. Kosovo
  42. Romania: 1914
  43. Istanbul: Food and the frugal Turks
  44. Micklagard: Surprising, cosmopolitan Constantinople
  45. Sukhumi: The history of the region became ashes
  46. Black Sea: The coming of steam and rail
  47. Mestrovic: Motherhood and the Victor
  48. Rizvanovici, Bosnia: Gnashing
  49. Down the Danube with Magris: Ruse
  50. From Pristina to Tskhinvali
  51. Serbia, Historians and Hitler's War
  52. Balkan Strongmen: Bulgaria's Zhivkov
  53. Sarajevo: The Siege Within
  54. Turkey: Osman's Dream
  55. Durres 1961: Beijing on Sea
  56. Cetinje: Eggs for the Ladies
  57. Bosnia: Land of Immigrants
  58. Ottoman Croatia
  59. Harem: All the Sultan's Women
  60. Sibiu: Regime Change, European Style
  61. 1929: The Balkans and the Great Crash
  62. Rumeli and how the Balkans became the Balkans
  63. 1948: Stalin, Kosovo and Swallowing Albania
  64. Transforming Turkey: the 1950s
  65. McMafia and the Balkans
  66. 1916: Serbia in Corfu
  67. Princes Amongst Men
  68. Limp Shevardnadze
  69. Knin: War and Suburbia
  70. In the Mountains of Poetry
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