Ohrid: Rise and Fall
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]