Tag Archives: Vardar

Macedonia: Sveti Jovan Bigorski

4 May




The Monastery of Sveti Jovan Bigorski, high up in a pass in the Šar Mountains that separate western Macedonia from Albania, was on our road from Ochrid to Tetovo in the northern plains of Macedonia.  This is really the way to drive through the country if you want mountain scenery as gorgeous as any in the Balkans, as opposed to down the central Vardar valley.  The monastery is dedicated to St. John the Baptist and though the Macedonian Orthodox Church is led by the Archbishop of the church-glutted lakeside town of Ochrid and has its seat in Skopje, this monastery is so important that it’s sort of the heart of Orthodox Macedonia.  Unfortunately, we arrived just as vespers were starting, so we couldn’t talk to anybody about the monastery, and our schedule didn’t allow us to stay through vespers, which is also unfortunate because the interior of the main church is stunning as well.  No pictures allowed though.

If looking at the pictures below, it appears that the monastery complex is in super good condition, that’s because it is.  Most of the complex, except for the church itself, burnt down in 2009 and has since been rebuilt (like the administrative buildings of the Patriarchate in Istanbul, which burnt down in the 40s and for which permission to rebuild was only granted by the Turkish Republic in the 1990s).  This is a kind of Ottoman tradition: build in wood, suffer repeated fires like the kind that wiped out whole districts of Istanbul throughout its history and killed tens of thousands.  Then rebuild in wood again.  It’s not known who said that the definition of neurosis is repeating the same action over and over and expecting a different result, but it also might be the definition of stupidity.  Only after a fire destroyed two thirds of Pera in 1870 in just six hours did people in those predominantly Christian and Jewish areas start building in masonry, which is why those neighborhoods are architecturally far older today than those of the now ugly two-thousand-year-old city on the original peninsula, where there is almost no old domestic architecture left (except, again, in former minority neighborhoods, for some reason, like Fanari or Balata or Samatya).  The fires also did create the famous Istanbul tradition of the tulumbacı (the “tube” or “hose” men? like the name of the dessert?) volunteer firefighters who were supposedly the great pallikaria of their mahallades, but just as often engaged in looting and robbing while doing their heroic duty.  NONE of this is a swipe at the Ottomans, Turks or Muslims.  Apparently the late Byzantines built domestic structures in wood as well — as did and do the Japanese, a culture I’d have no reason to mock.

And speaking of the Japanese…  The thought occurred to me at Sveti Jovan that just rebuilding things when they get too shabby or structurally rotted and dangerous is not such a bad thing.  The Japanese, for example, have a completely different concept of authenticity than we do.  If the Katsura, the Imperial Villa complex in Kyoto (below) seems to be in great shape even though it dates from the seventeenth century, it’s because, as with other ancient structures in Japan, the Japanese have no problem with just replacing old or rotting wooden structures with new ones piece by piece as necessary.  So the Katsura is — materially speaking or in our terms — really not that old at all; parts of it might be what we would consider brand new, in fact.

katsura_imperial_palace5katsura_imperial_palaceKatsuraShokin-teiKatsuradsc03371s(click on bottom two)

So what’s wrong with rebuilding the monastery structures of a complex like Sveti Jovan?  The stone is usually immune.  And if the rest is just wood and çatma and plaster anyway, why not replace it when it starts to go?

Back to Macedonia…  Sveti Jovan is the most impressive Orthodox monastery I’ve been in outside of Athos.  Nothing in Greece, Kosovo, or even Russia compares.  In fact, I would say that if any Orthodox — or any — woman wants to get an impression of what the great, sprawling monastic palace-fortresses of the Holy Mountain are like, then a visit to Sveti Jovan is mandatory.  Here are some pics; the last two of the church’s famous iconostasis were lifted from on-line.  (Click on all.)


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“A falcon drinks water from the Vardar” — good-bye to Macedonia

27 Apr

Left Macedonia this morning and crossed into Kosovo; in Gračanica now, where we found the most amazing place to stay right by the famous monastery, and a world away from the horrible mess of Priština.

The six simple lines of this beautiful Macedonian song:

A falcon drinks water from the Vardar.
Oh Jana, white-throated Jana.
O falcon, hero’s bird, Have you not seen a hero go past?
A hero go past with nine heavy wounds?
Nine heavy wounds, all from bullets.
And a tenth wound, stabbed with a knife.

…encapsulate all you need to know about the Balkan cult of blood and tragic masculinity, which is the root of everything horrific you’ve read and heard about the region, yet, fortunately — or unfortunate, at least,  for those who, as they say, can’t hold two contradictory ideas in their heads at the same time — the foundation for everything so stunningly beautiful about it.  This is what Rebecca West understood so profoundly and in her soul and why she loved and defended the region’s peoples with such unapologetic passion.  This is what Milovan Djilas accepts with such love and intelligence, when he describes his Homeric people as capable of the most profound sweetness and tenderness in the midst of the grossest violence and destitution — again, with no apologies and no judgements, just true understanding of the their humanity.  The Macedonian transliteration is below.  You get it or you don’t.

The photographs are extraordinary.  Balkan female dress — which all over the southern Balkans is an entire civilization in itself — reaches the apogee of richness and complexity across this swath of southern Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo and the rest of Old Serbia.  More about Macedonia to come.

More sokol pie,
Voda na Vardaro,
More sokol pie,
Voda na Vardaro.

Jane, Jane le belo grlo
Jane, Jane le krotko jagne.

More oj sokole,
Ti junacko pile.
More neli vide,
Junak da pomine,

Jane, Jane le belo grlo
Jane, Jane le krotko jagne.

Junak da pomine,
S’devet luti rani
S’devet luti rani,
Site kursumlii

Jane, Jane le belo grlo
Jane, Jane le krotko jagne.

A desetta rana,
So noz probodena.
A desetta rana,
So noz probodena.

Jane, Jane le belo grlo
Jane, Jane le krotko jagne.

And another beautiful Macedonian song, “Jovano, Jovanke.”  “Mor’ Gianno, mor’ Giannoula” closest translation into Greek.  Jovana, Gianna…Joan, more exact translation is, again,  impossible with English’ lack of diminutives.

Only translation — from my half-assed Russian, which actually served me in good stead in all these countries — of transliterated lyrics I can make out from the one verse given:

“Jovano, Jovanke
Kraj Vardarot sedish, mori
Belo platno belish
Belo platno belish dusho
Se na gore gledash”


“Gianno, mor’ Giannoula, You sit on the banks of the Vardar,

“Washing your white linen, and glancing off into the mountains.”

(I think – can anybody help us with the rest of the translation)

The “Jovano” video is also beautiful, and has some interesting photos: the first shot is of a gathering at the monastery of Sveti Jovan Bigorski, the defending mountain fortress of  Macedonian Orthodoxy (more on that later), and the third photo — all of them really —  is pretty amazing in showing how little male body language in “our parts” has changed over the centuries.  That’s the connection of the two pics on the blog’s homepage, but nobody got it.  Here are some more boys from my village at Easter; maybe that’ll make it more obvious.


Notes: I don’t know if these two songs above are composed “folk” songs, analogous to “Gerakina” or “Xekinaei mia psaropoula” in Greek, but the lyrics are stark enough to seem authentic.  In those Greek “folk” songs I’m talking about, their “composed” status is made obvious by not only the melody but the conspicuously over-folksy content of the lyrics.  The “folk” did not sing about the mundane details of their everyday life — going to get water from the well or mending fishing nets.  They sang about nature, about love, about the pain of emigration, about death,  and about the heroic exploits of their men and often their women.  A friend of mine from Naousa in Greek Macedonia, the town just south of Vodena that is famous for its carnival celebrations, says both “More Sokol” and “Jovano” are played as instrumentals in that region, the gypsy musicians who play them usually being the carriers of songs and musical forms from country to country and region to region.

Also surprising: “more,” a word, like “bre,” used all across the southern Balkans, means “hey you” or “yo” or “oh, listen”…I dunno, a vocative case pronoun basically — does that sound right Philopomeon?  In Macedonian it has Greek gender endings: “more” and “mori.”  How did that happen?  That was the only way I knew that Jovano was a female and not a male name.

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