Sunday, June 30, 2013

Stone Churches of Lake Matka, Macedonia

Lake Matka was not on our radar when we visited Skopje. It was a German guest at our hotel who suggested we go there as we were asking about St. Panteleimon Church. 

Lake Matka was formed by damming the Treska River in narrow Matka Canyon in 1937. The water is a beautiful greenish blue. 
Lake Matka near Skopje, Macdeonia
The dam on the Treska River which created the lake.
There are ten caves in Matka Canyon with Vrelo Cave listed as one of the top 77 natural sites in the world by the New7Wonders of Nature initiative. It has stalactites and two inner lakes and is home to many bats. There are also a number of stone churches in the canyon and the mountains surrounding it. St. Andrew, just above the water, next to a restaurant and boating dock, is by far the easiest to get to. 
Judy with St. Andrew Church behind her.
The other churches are at various hiking distances. We had to limit our stay as we had a taxi waiting for us and also wanted to spend some time in Skopje later that day. So we did a short visit to St. Andrew Church and then chose to hike up to St. Nicholas Church, across the lake and a 20 to 30 minute walk up the side of a mountain. 

St. Andrew's Monastery was built in 1389 by Andreas, second son of King Volkasin and Queen Elena, who ruled from 1365 to 1371 over an area which included what is now Prizren, Kosovo, Skopje and Prilep, Macedonia. The church is dedicated to St. Andrew, the first apostle. It has fabulous medieval frescoes that are some of the best remaining from that era. It is apparently still a functioning monastery, part of the Diocese of Skopje in the Macedonian Orthodox Church. 
St. Andrew, view from near the boat dock.
St. Andrew from the other side, near the restaurant.
Corner view of St. Andrew's.
It looks like the construction, at least of the top part, is limestone blocks from the surrounding mountains with small bricks and mortar in between them.
Construction of the lower portion has less uniform rock and intermittent bricks. 
A fresco of Michael the Archangel
A fresco of St. Demetrius
A fresco of Peter and Matthew around a window.
St. Nicholas Monastery is across the canyon (which now means across the lake) on a saddle between two peaks. We hired a boat for the short trip across the lake 
St. Nicholas is located on the saddle between the mountains above. 
A lake level view as we cross on a small boat.
The boat leaves us and we really hope they will respond when we get back so that we can get back across without swimming.
We took a winding trip up the side of the canyon which was a warm walk, even on a very nice temperate day. On the way up we found a beautiful lizard called a Dalmatian algyroides or blue throated keeled lizard. 
Dalmatian algyroides
A rock wall at the saddle let us know we were close. St. Nicholas was behind across a little grass meadow. The church is in a bad state of disrepair and was locked, so we were not able to get inside. It apparently only opens on weekends, or if you hire a local guide with access to a key. It is not known when St. Nicholas was built, but some of the inner work (the iconostasis and some of the frescoes) was done in the early 1600s. It was deserted in the 1700s, found roofless in 1816 and revived, then abandoned again in 1897.
Rock wall at top of canyon with St. Nicholas behind. 
St. Nicholas partially shaded by a tree.
Judy at the back end of St. Nicholas.
View of St. Nicholas from the other side. Note the disrepair and particularly poor state of the roof.
Construction of the upper dome is similar to that of St. Andrew below, with limestone blocks separated by small bricks.
A closer look from a different angle.
A decorative arch.
Detail shows dragons and other fanciful creatures.
The mountain on the other side of the canyon (St. Andrew is at the bottom of it - out of view)
After hiking back down the mountain we alerted the boat by banging on a bong on the side of a tree with a metal bar  there for that purpose. The boat responded quite quickly and got us back across. This is a circumstance where if we had a do over, we would spend an entire day at Lake Matka, visit some caves and visit more of the rock churches. 
St. Andrew, the restaurant and the boat dock across the lake.
The bong and metal bar we used to alert the boat we needed a ride.
Judy rests while we wait for the boat.
Happiness - he comes!

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Dalmatian Algyroides (Blue Throated Keeled Lizard)

The Dalmatian algyroides, also known as the blue throated keeled lizard is found along the eastern Adriatic coastal region, a little into coastal Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina, southern Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, western Greece and two isolated populations in Macedonia (see map). One of those isolated populations in Macedonia, near Skopje, is where we saw this beautiful lizard. It was near Lake Matka, while hiking up the side of the mountain to St. Nicholas Church. One of the prettiest lizards I've ever seen. 
From the top, the orange sides are barely visible and the head has a hint of blue.
From the side, the orange and blue jump out at you. 
Close up you can see the keeled scales which give it part of its name. 

Friday, June 28, 2013

Church of St. John the Theologian at Kaneo - Ohrid, Macedonia

The Church of St. John the Theologian is located on a cliff overlooking Kaneo Beach on Lake Ohrid, in Ohrid, Macedonia. It is part of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, which is an unrecognized break-off from the Serbian Orthodox Church. It has to have one of the most beautiful settings for a church in the world.
The entrance to the little promontory and the Church of St. John.
This view is further back and shows Lake Ohrid in the background. The entrance gate above is in the right foreground of this picture. 
Looking up at the church near the edge of the cliff over the water. 
The hill above the church. 
Photo taken from a cafe on the beach to the side of the promontory the church is on.
The date the church was initially completed is unknown. However, by analyzing iconography and architecture, the date has been narrowed down to a time between the end of the 1200s and the middle of the 1300s. The wall paintings provide a more narrow timeline of 1270 to 1280. The church is rectangular with an inserted cross. The church has a rectangular shape with an inserted cross. It is extremely small and dark inside. The door is locked, but for a fee a person lets you inside. 
More detailed look at the roof and the Greek cross architectural element is evident. 
Rock foundation followed by alternating sizes of brick. 
View of brickwork

Fresco of Christ inside the dome.
Fresco of communion of the Apostles.
Fresco of worship of the bishops.

St. John the Theologian

St. John the theologian, also known as John of Patmos, is the John that wrote the Book of Revelation. At the time the church was built, and until relatively recently, that John was thought to be the same John that wrote the Gospel of John, but many modern scholars now believe Revelation was written by a different author than the Gospel of John.
Fresco of St. John inside the church
Saints Cyril and Methodius
Saints Cyril and Methodius were brothers born in Thessalonica in the 800s who became missionaries to the Slavic people. They are saints in both the Orthodox church "equal to the apostles" and in the Catholic church (patron saints of Europe along with Benedict of Nursia). They translated portions of the Bible (the New Testament and portions of the Old Testament) into Old Church Slavonic, devising the Glagolitic alphabet which was the ancestor to Cyrillic. They played a great role in Christianizing the Slavic people.
Fresco of St. Cyril inside the church
Saint Clement of Ohrid
A disciple of Cyril and Methodius who helped popularize the Glagothic and Cyrillic scripts among the Christianized Slavs. He established the Ohrid Literary School and was the first bishop of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the patron saint of the Republic of Macedonia and the city of Ohrid. When the people of Bulgaria were Christianized clergy from the Byzantine Empire were sent in and the political leaders feared their influence and the weakening of the state. Adoption of the Old Slavonic language was a way to preserve the political independence of Bulgaria. Sofic University in Bulgaria, the Macedonian National and University Library and the University in Bitola are all named after Clement. The fresco of St. Clement in the church is one of the oldest in the area.
Fresco of St. Clement inside the church
Saint Erasmus
When the persecution of Christians began under the Eastern Augustus, Diocletian, Erasmus was "beaten with leaden mauls until his veins broke and burst" then thrown into a pit of snakes and worms, and boiling oil and sulfur were poured on him, then thunder and lightning electrocuted everyone except Erasmus. The the Western Augustus Maximian had a "pan seething with rosin, pitch, brimstone lead and oil" poured into his mouth, had a searing hot cloak and metal coat put on him and an angel eventually carried him away to safety. Later his teeth were plucked from his head and he was roasted upon a gridiron, put out his eyes, and stretched him bound to horses. One incredibly malleable dude! He was apparently in the Ohrid area from 293 to 303 and legend has it that after he brought a young boy back to life (in Ohrid), 40,000 people were converted to Christianity in one day. 
Fresco of St. Erasmus inside the church
Ohrid, Macedonia
Ohrid itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was a town during the lifetime of King Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. It was mentioned at the time of the Roman conquests at the end of the 3rd century and beginning of the 2nd century B.C. and was known as Lychnidos. In the Greek myth of the Phoenician prince Cadmus, after he was banished from Thebes he founded Lychnidos. Ohrid was the capital of the Bulgarian Empire from 990 to 1015 and the seat of the Bulgarian Patriarchate of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. When the Byzantine emperor, Basil II, took the city in 1018, he downgraded it to an Archbishopric and put it under the authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople. It was captured and changed hands many times thereafter, with captors including the Normans, the Bulgarians, the Byzantines, the Serbians, the Ottomans and the Venetians. It was under Ottoman rule until 1912 when it was captured by the Serbian army. 

Religion in Ohrid
As of 2002, Ohrid's 42,000 residents were 80.9% Orthodox Christian, 18.1% Muslim and 1.1% other. The Orthodox Ohrid Archbishopric, unlike the Macedonian Orthodox Church (because it unilaterally broke away from the Serbian Orthodox Church in 1967), is in full communion with the other Orthodox churches. It claims inheritance from the archbishopric founded by Basil II in 1019 and was able to agree with the Serbian Orthodox Church as to its autocephaly. Both churches have dioceses throughout Macedonia and I don't find anything that talks about the relative number of members of each. The Orthodox Ohrid Archbishopric has been persecuted by the Macedonian government and the situation is on various watch-lists for religious freedom abuses. 

Lake Orhid
Lake Orhid is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the deepest lake in the Balkans (940 feet), with a mean depth of 508 feet. It covers an area of 138 square miles and is 18.9 miles long by 9.2 miles wide. It straddles the border between Macedonia and Albania. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Church of Mary the Queen on Bled Island - Slovenia

The Church of Mary the Queen, also known as the Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Mary, or Our Lady of the Lake, is located on a small island in Lake Bled, known as Blejski Otok, in the picturesque Julian Alps of northwestern Slovenia. It has such a beautiful setting that photographs of it are regularly found in travel magazines and it is surely the most recognizable place in Slovenia. Bled was the summer residence of Marshal Tito, back when Yugoslavia was a country and Slovenia was just a province, along with the other Yugoslavian provinces of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia (and Serbia's  autonomous provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina).
Church of Mary the Queen on Bled Island
Bell tower viewed from the row boat.
View from the island.
Bled Castle and the Julian Alps from the island.
The usual way to reach the island is by pletna, a large gondola-like row boat with a canopy. The rower typically waits for about 10 people before leaving for the island and gives you about 30 minutes on the island. Another option, the one we chose, was to rent a rowboat. It is about half the price for two people and you get the pleasure of meandering back and forth through the lake while you learn how to row the boat and also watching your companion gets splashed by in-artfully placed paddle strokes.
Row boat with church in background.
One of the docks on the island. A pletna in the background.
Back steps up to the church.
There has been a church on the island since the 10th century (which replaced a temple to the Slavic goddess Ziva), but the present building was completed in 1698. It has two sections of wood pews, a chandelier over the main aisle, and an altar of wood, carved and gilded, dating from 1747. The central altarpiece is of the Virgin Mary, seated, with the donor of the Bled estate, Henry II, and his wife, Kunigunda, at her side. There is also a lectern on the left side, three side altars (consecrated to St. Sebastian, St. Magdalena and St. Anna) made at the end of the 17th century, and most important, a rope in front of the altar attached to a bell, known as the "wishing bell." The bell tower was built in the 15th century, but has been renovated several times due to earthquakes and a lightning strike in 1688. It currently has three bells. The Provost's house and a smaller building behind the church were used as guesthouses. The church was originally Catholic. Property in Slovenia was nationalized between 1945 and 1963. In 1991, a Denationalization Act allowed citizens to apply for return of property that was nationalized. The Catholic Church made a claim for restoration of the island on Lake Bled and it was not until October 2008 that an agreement was reached that allowed the island to remain state-owned, while the church was given to the Bled parish of the Ljubljana Archdiocese. I have not been able to determine if regular church services are held there, or just weddings. 
Door to the church.
View of altar from the back door.
Gilded altarpiece of the Virgin Mary.

Paintings on back wall of church.
Paintings on back wall of church.
From back wall of church.
Baptismal font.
Carved portion of wood door.
Carved wood.
Provost and guest house.
We were told that if we rang the bell three times with one pull our wish would be granted. This adds an element of skill and luck or both to the process. I'm not sure if the wish works if you practice the bell-ringing multiple times and pick the best pull. At any rate, I'm not sure we were ever successful in the one pull, three ring ideal before we had to turn the rope over to a group of Japanese tourists. The literature ties the bell ringing tradition back to the legend of a young widow Poliksena who lived at Bled Castle, whose husband was killed by brigands. She paid for a bell to be cast and taken to the chapel on Bled Island, but while the bell was being transported by boat, the boat overturned and the bell sank to the bottom of the lake. The distraught widow moved to Rome and entered a convent where she spent the rest of her life. After her death, the pope donated a bell for the church. Now those who make a wish and then ring the bell to honor the Virgin (presumably Mary and not the young widow) will have their wish come true. The literature makes no mention of three rings with one pull, so maybe our wishes still have a chance.
Judy ringing the bell.
Bell tower.
There is another tradition that if a groom carries his bride (in Slovenia a legal civil marriage must be conducted by a government official before a ceremonious one in the church can be performed) up the 99 steps (built in 1653) from the lake to the church, and if she remains silent while he does so, they will have a happy marriage. I suspect that the happiness part may be due to the exhaustion of the groom and the silence of the bride.  A site with some great pictures of the island and church, including the pletnas and the 99 steps, is here.
A look down the 99 steps toward the main dock.
Religion in Slovenia

The 2011 census reveals that 57.5% of Slovenes are Catholic, 5.1% are Muslim, 4.1% are Orthodox, .8% are Lutheran, .3% are other Christian, 21.1% are atheists and the balance are either believers without religion or didn't want to answer. The Roman Catholics have six dioceses, including two archdioceses in Slovenia and it appears that the primary Orthodox Church in Slovenia is the Serbian Orthodox Church. The Muslims in Slovenia are ethnically 74% Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and 11% Albanians. 

The LDS church was established as a legal entity in Yugoslavia in 1975 and in 1999 the Slovenia Ljubljana Mission was created out of the Austria Vienna South Mission. A report (I don't know the time frame) showed LDS church membership in Slovenia at a meager 411 with four congregations. Slovenia is now covered by the Adriatic North Mission, located in Zagreb, Croatia, which has missionaries in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Serbia.