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Ohrid Through the Ages

July 17, 2004

By Christopher Deliso

It was known as Lychnidos – ‘City of Light’ – to the ancient Greeks, and any visitor can appreciate the appellation. Ohrid, with its varying colors and climes, remains the inscrutable soul of southwestern Macedonia, its surface sometimes stained glass, other times carved into foam-flecked waves of steely grey.

And the lake’s unfathomable, brooding depths seem to encompass within all the secrets of its millennia of history, from the meditations of its ascetics, the clamor of life in its brightly-lit empires, the emotional ruin of its tragic theatre and tragic wars, the meandering discourses of its peripatetics and their students. And deepest of all, three million years below the surface, the glacial contours of a lake bed that has spawned living relics from the most distant times, Ohrid’s trout and its eel and sea monsters murkier still.

Nowadays, Ohrid is a modern town set over and alongside the old. Its major attractions are all located within a concentrated, cobblestoned Old Town, filled with narrow, winding streets and lined with restaurants and cafes that overflow onto the street on summer evenings. Visitors and locals still dine on the incomparable trout that has been lurking the lake depths for millennia, just as they did in ancient and medieval times.

Here, in the balmy summer months, an annual festival characterized by high-intensity musical and dramatic productions restores the town’s ancient theater to its former glory. Other ancient buildings no longer with us included the ancient Lychnidos’ agora, gymnasium and temples to the gods of Greek Antiquity.

The myriad of Byzantine churches (Ohrid was famous in Byzantine times for its 365 churches, one for each day of the year) are found throughout the town and the hills of the lake. Some of the most important include St. Sofia, the restored Plaosnik with its origins in the 5th century, the clifftop Sveti John Caneo, and the distant Sveti Naum, located on the far southern tip of the lake a stone’s throw from the Albanian border.

Many, like Plaoshnik, have been built on or near the sites of far older structures; in its case, a 5th century Christian shrine was built over the remains of an Antique building containing a cistern and mosaics decorated with waves and images of animals and birds.

Not only have its attractions always been evident, but Ohrid and its life-giving waters have sustained civilizations through the long ages. The town is one of the oldest human settlements in all of Europe, the lake itself over three million years old. Ohrid town is first mentioned in Greek documents from 353 B.C.E. Only some 1,232 years later was it renamed Ohrid by the Slavic ancestors of the modern Macedonians. In fact, the town’s name may well derive from the Macedonian phrase “Vo Hrid” – “the town on the hill.”

Today’s Ohrid was built mostly between the 7th and 19th centuries. During the Byzantine period, it assumed great cultural and economic importance, serving as an episcopal center of the Orthodox Church and as the site of the 9th century Slavic literary school run by St. Clement and St. Naum.

At the beginning of the 10th century, Ohrid briefly became the capital of Tsar Samoil, whose fortress still dominates the skyline today. Gazing down from there onto the lake and town, one indeed experiences the feeling of serenity and peace that drew to Ohrid ascetics and artists, textual masters and philosophers alike throughout the ages.

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