Macedonia, deep in the heart of the Balkan Peninsula, is simply a small country with extraordinary beauty. This ancient and biblical land is probably one of the last visited and least known countries in Europe, which in a way makes it even more mysterious and attractive. Finally, this Terra Incognita is now ready to be discovered. And without any doubt, its most precious jewels, shining one next to the other, are the City of Ohrid and the Lake Ohrid.
This is not just another story about some attractive tourist destination in Europe. Unfortunately, not many people in European Union are still aware about at least 7 remarkable universal achievements connected with this unique city, that are so important to the entire human civilization
According to famous television game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” (2007), Ohrid is declared as the oldest city in the world, with continuous civilization advancement! Indeed, according to many historians, Lychnidos -The City of Light (the ancient name of Ohrid) was built in the 4th century B.C., but humans have lived there for more than 8.000 years. There are for sure older settlements on many other places around the Globe, but somehow and sometimes they were turned into abandoned and lifeless ruins. Reasons were different: earthquakes, floods, volcano eruptions, diseases, wars… Here in Ohrid, from its beginning until today, life still goes on without downtime, without ending. That is why it is also called “The Kingdom of Archeologists”.
This small city seemed to be irresistible for great ancient rulers and kings, such as the legendary Phoenician prince Cadmus who built it, Fillip II of Macedon who once conquered and reconstructed it, Alexander the Great who enjoyed in it, Czar Samuel who ruled from it and many more. However, Ohrid is the only place in the world where 2 recognized saints actually lived in the same time -St. Kliment of Ohrid (840 -916) and St. Naum of Ohrid (830 -910), putting an extremely strong stamp of their existence. These 2 exceptional persons, the very best students of Cyril and Methodius, were in fact the most educated people in the world in their time. Among other achievements, they will always be remembered as establishers of the First University in Europe (893), located in Ohrid Old Town, long before the University in Bologna (1088)!
Besides that, St. Kliment and St. Naum of Ohrid were inventors of the Cyrillic Alphabet. As a result of their creativity and incredible work, today more than 200 million people still use this alphabet, mostly in Southeast and Eastern Europe.
Ancient ruins, beautiful amphitheater, 3 citadel walls, St. Sofia Cathedral, many churches and monasteries, gallery of exclusive icons, museums, workshops for hand-made paper, woodcarving and famous Ohrid pearls, are among hundreds sites for tourists worth to visit. There is also a strong Roman connection to the city, since Lychnidos was along the famous route Via Egnatia, built in the 2nd century B.C., connecting the Adriatic and Aegean seas. Considering the number of churches located in the Old Town (365 churches, according to the immemorial legend, for local people to celebrate every single day by honoring another saint), Ohrid is called “The Balkan Jerusalem”, successfully playing the role as the biggest pilgrimage spot for all Orthodox Christians in the world.
One of the most extraordinary churches in Ohrid is The Mother of God Theotokos Peribleptos – “The Most Holy Who Can Take a Look Everywhere”. Built in the year 1295, this church is a pure masterpiece of the medieval sacred architecture. But more than that, the most incredible elements are the frescos inside this church, painted in the same year by Michail and Eutychios. Actually, at the end of the 13th century, before any similar artistic movement on Italian soil, exactly 10 years before the first fresco-painting of Giotto in Padua’s Arena Chapel (1305), the name of God will be glorified in Ohrid with frescos containing exclusive elements of the earliest start of the Renaissance: saints with different expressions on their faces, strong, even stout bodies full of life, colorful clothes, fine movements, defined muscles, distorted toes, aerodynamic clouds, three-headed angels, torn socks, personification of the world shown with 4 different races (?!?) (Christopher Columbus discovers America and red-skin people much later, in 1492), and many more unbelievable compositions and fragments without precedent.
During the long medieval era this city was the strongest religious, artistic and cultural center of the Balkans. And that was a time for another miracle: entire Europe in the Middle Ages was suffering from Plague, Cholera and other terrible deceases. For example, during the Second Pandemic (mid 14th century) approximately 1/3 of the total European population was exterminated by the Black Death, killing millions of people even in the most prominent cities like Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan etc. Nevertheless, people of Ohrid, using the secret knowledge written by their patrons and protectors St. Kliment and Naum long time before, were able to protect themselves, establishing the first quarantine in Europe! The city was surrounded by three citadel walls, protecting people from enemies but also from these kinds of terrible deceases that could destroy the entire population. Therefore, after the first alert all gates would be sealed, except the main gate, right near the lake. And anybody from outside, who wanted to enter the city, had to stay for at least 4 weeks in two different buildings, two hospital facilities (one for mails, one for females) – in the meantime turned into churches – St. Nicholas the Hospital and St. Mary the Hospital. Today they still stand on the same place right behind the Lower Gate, as a great symbol of the glory of Ohrid and the immense wisdom of its people.
Ohrid is built at the shores of one of the oldest fresh water lakes in the world, so no wonder it has been affected from its longevity. As a natural tectonic body of water, Lake Ohrid is at least 4 million years old, but possibly even formed as long ago as 10 million years, when the Earth’s crust was still cooling. The clear blue color of Lake Ohrid is certainly unusual, a result of many underground springs that make its water extremely transparent. The lake covers approx. 350 square kilometers and it is the deepest lake in Europe (286 meters). It needs just one last step forward (completion of sewage water collecting system from the Albanian side) to proclaim this aquatorium as the biggest drinkable natural basin in the world!
In 1979, the Committee of UNESCO decided to inscribe the Lake Ohrid on the World Heritage List of outstanding universal values, under natural criteria. In 1980, this protected area was extended to include the cultural and historical area of Ohrid City, regarding the international cultural criteria. It’s worth mentioning that from 810 places in 138 states of the UNESCO list, only 24 places in the world are designated as both natural and cultural heritage sites.
Ohrid is a true pearl, one of the most remarkably well preserved historic sites in entire Europe. It offers countless points of interest to tourists who want to travel to the Balkans and explore Macedonia. Nice hotels, respectful private accommodation facilities, traditional restaurants with divine food and wine, fancy beaches, protected nature and eons of history and culture can be found here, less expensive and more intriguing than any other European top destination.
Ohrid is lovely and serene and yet lively and colorful in the same time. It is a place where God, people and nature are all connected in a strange harmony, creating the anatomy of power ready to cast a spell on your soul and intellect the first moment you step on this holy land. It gives you an illusion of something lost long time ago. It is a place that will stay in your hearth forever.
Zoran TUNTEV, Ph.D