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Ohrid Remains on UNESCO List; Strumica Sites to Follow?

December 3, 2004

By Christopher Deliso

Macedonia’s most well-known historical and natural treasure, Ohrid, will remain on the list of UNESCO world heritage sites, says Macedonian Information Agency quoting the national committee for UNESCO Chairman Blagoja Stefanovski.

Since 2002 Stefanovski, a former longtime theater director in Bitola, has been Minister of Culture. Although rumors had circulated that he may at some point step down in order to run for mayor of that city, Dnevnik reports that he will remain at his post under the new government of Vlade Buckovski.

Given Ohrid’s overwhelming combination of natural beauty and archaeological treasures, it came as no surprise that the UNESCO expert mission, which visited Macedonia in November, chose to keep Ohrid on the list. According to MIA, Stefanovski is intent on preserving the historic character of the town, and plans to do so through a new law which will require his ministry to approve future construction projects, especially in Ohrid’s old town of winding cobblestoned streets.

However, other parts of Macedonia have also piqued the curiosity of the world cultural protection body, Dnevnikreported last week. The sunny southeast, Macedonia’s agricultural heartland, was also visited by the foreign experts, who were apparently quite amazed by the diverse architectural landmarks to be found there. According to the newspaper, Strumica’s old Ottoman post office – the last remaining example of classic Macedonian architecture – as well as the nearby Sveti Bogorodica Eleusa Monastery may well be added to the list sometime in the future.

The sublime monastery, set amongst flowering trees above the village of Veljusa, was founded in the year 1080 and as such is a classic example of real Byzantine construction. In those days, Strumica was known as Tiberiopolis and the episcopal authority was Byzantine Greek. According to the Strumica diocese, the church has a special importance for the history of Orthodox monasticism:

“…About the church construction and its founder, Bishop Manuel, as well as about the order of the spiritual life and generally about the daily catholic life of the first monks, we find original historical data also in the Rule (Typikon) written personally by him between 1085 and 1106. This is one of the oldest known typikons in the history of Orthodox monasticism, which is a witness to the thousand years old monastic tradition in Macedonia. It is stated in it that the abbess (hegoumeni) of the monastery is the Most Holy Mother of God, whereas the superior (kathegoumenos)is given sovereign authority in the management of the property and the organisation of life.

Protected with chrysobulls issued by Byzantine emperors, for [a] rather long time the monastery had an independent status, entitled to autonomous right to: all its possessions, election of its superior and no interference in its internal affairs either by the Tiberiopolitan hierarchs, or by the local secular authorities, or even by the Ecumenical Patriarch, which is an exceptionally rare case in the history of Orthodox monasticism.”

The rural area in which the monastery is set has plenty of potential for tourists, as it is like something out of another time. Here one still finds traditional, crumbling houses, horse-drawn carts, bonneted village women patiently stringing leaves of tobacco together to bake in the sun. With only agriculture as a means of survival, and chronic problems with water, life here is difficult. But the tourism industry has potential and the locals would surely welcome a chance to sell their goods and cater to visitors from abroad.

This positive new attention from UNESCO comes at a time when Macedonian tourism is making small but noticeable gains. The government announced through MIA on 2 December a 29 percent increase in tourism income (amounting to almost $47 million) during the period January-August 2004, “…which is a 29.8 percent increase from 2003.”

In addition, the reported net tourism take through August alone was up 28.3 percent over the entire 2003 take. If there is peace and quiet in 2005, and the situation in neighboring Kosovo does not come to a head, there is no reason why these gains should not increase further.

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