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Vevchani’s Magical Mystery Church Continues to Puzzle

October 25, 2005

By Christopher Deliso

Could an enigma of the “Da Vinci Code’ variety be unfolding in the Macedonian wilds?

In Vevchani, that loveably eccentric southwestern hamlet where last month was discovered the ruins of an old church, archaeologists already knew that they had a significant find. But they are still trying to figure out exactly how a strange story that may include Ottoman vengeance, Bulgar-Serbian rivalry, Communist demolitions and even the cryptic rituals of secret societies all fit together.While digging has paused now due to lack of funds, and probably will not resume until March or April, excavators have found numerous clues that point to a fairly recent construction, but perhaps one that was built over a much larger foundation – maybe even a 4th-6th century Christian basilica. But whether or not such a structure lurks further underground will remain unclear until the excavation resumes next year.

What is known is that the present major church structure, measuring 24 meters long by 18 meters wide, was constructed in 1895, during the twilight years of the Ottoman Empire in Macedonia. An inscribed obsidian stone found 2 meters below the surface and written in Old Church Slavonic (Macedonian dialect) identifies the church as Sveti Bogorodica, built “in the time of Sultan Abdul Hamid and Archimandrite Grigory.”

This revelation resulted in disappointment locally. “The Vevchani people were really hoping that it was much older, even perhaps a 10th century Byzantine church,” recounts Pasko Kuzman of the National Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments in Ohrid. According to Mr. Kuzman, who spoke with us on Sunday in Ohrid, “we couldn’t get our work done- they were all hanging over us and eagerly staring every second.”

Indeed, a local resident intimated darkly to us that villagers are hoping to try their luck clandestinely, armed with rudimentary farm tools, in search of hidden gold and silver and whatever other moveable treasures they might find.

Although in the first days of the excavation a protective perimeter fence served to deter trespassers, the fence has inexplicably disappeared, leaving the site – a half-dug series of trenches hugging elliptical church walls – exposed to the elements and whoever should choose to enter.

However, any treasure seekers are likely to be disappointed. “There’s no gold in Vevchani!” vociferates Kuzman, citing its distance from the ancient Via Egnatia and the lack of any major discoveries there. With his flowing white hair, multiple diving watches and wire-rimmed glasses, the jovial archaeologist who says he “turns 33 again every year” strikes one as a combination between Indiana Jones and Father Christmas.

“Anyway,” he says, “I trust that the villagers won’t steal anything from the site, because they are proud of their Vevchani and will protect it. They’re just very curious about what they may have there, and that’s understandable.”

So far, what’s most interesting for Kuzman is that though the church structure was found so far beneath the ground, the site is only 110 years old. “This is very “new’ archaeology for the Balkans,” he says. “For me and my colleagues from Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece etc., it is very unusual to chance up on such a recent though unknown site.”

Construction and Demise: Some Hypotheses

Vevchani’s buried church was born into a very turbulent time. At the turn of the 20th century, the Ottomans were steadily losing control of their Balkan possessions and, as a motley assortment of rebel groups and terrorist societies provoked the authorities, the Turks cracked down with unprecedented barbarity. The short-lived Ilinden Uprising of 1903 and resulting scorched-earth campaign against the Macedonians by the government is just one of the possible catalysts for the destruction, or at least non-completion, of the church.

It’s also possible that the church suffered due to the general chaos of the Balkan Wars in 1912-13. An unusual blocking wall preventing access to the church’s apsides may have been caused by the “everlasting feuds” between pro-Serb and pro-Bulgar factions in the village, or even between the villagers of upper and lower Vevchani (an endearing distinction that continues to this day), says Kuzman.

Like many other villages in the area, Vevchani’s economy always relied on sending the local men to work abroad. They were well known for their stonework, and Belgrade was a common labor destination. Thus it is believed that following the First World War some rich Vevchanites working in Belgrade, in association with a certain “Priest Zoran,” funded the rebuilding of Sveti Bogorodica.

While the work went originally according to the priest’s plan, apparently around 1928 unspecified problems were encountered and work was halted. Not too much later came the assassination of Serbian King Aleksander by a VMRO man, then the Second World War with Bulgarian and German/Albanian occupation, and ultimately, the victory of Tito’s Partisan forces.

This time, there would be no resurrection- the church, which had been constructed only up to window levels, was unceremoniously toppled and left for dead under huge heaps of earth in 1948. But the atheists did construct nearby a statue dedicated to Vevchani’s Ilinden-era war heroes, perhaps as a means of recompense.

These few details seem tentatively accurate, though as Kuzman notes, “I’ve heard about 60 different stories from the old villagers” about the structure’s legacy. It is remarkable that the house of worship apparently never entered the history books- although, according to one local resident, the perennially wrecked church left villagers with an ample supply of thick stone blocks, which still exist in the foundations of their own homes.

Enter the Masons!

If that were all, the story would be fascinating enough; however, things took a decisive turn for the weird last weekend, when it was disclosed that a buried triangular stone containing a glass circle – or is it an eye? – might well really be a secret Masonic symbol, cryptically placed under the church’s floor, in its inner recesses by wealthy donors and patrons of the legendary order who wished to remain unknown.

According to Pasko Kuzman, “I have found no other explanation for this symbol. It’s possible that a few rich Vevchani men who were living in Belgrade were Masons, and funded the church.”

However, the theory goes, because the Masons were viewed “almost like the anti-Christ,” their esoteric symbol could not be placed in the open. Therefore it was buried deep underground, beneath the floor where only priests could enter. The glass apparently did not break because there were a few inches of open space between it and the next layer of stone above it.

The Masonic connection might not be as strange as it may seem. Chochorovic and Jovanovski are two known family names of Belgrade-dwelling Vevchani Masons, according to Kuzman. It is also believed that Macedonian revolutionary leader Jane Sandanski was a Mason, as was activist Kiril Prlichev from nearby Ohrid. And according to Wikipedia, Yugoslav king Alexander I Karagorgevic (1888-1934) too was an initiate in the esoteric rites.

Further, a remarkable long text by an anti-Masonic Turk details Sultan Abdul Hamid’s great fear of Freemasonry- and especially in Thessaloniki and “Rumelia’ (the then-Ottoman administered Macedonia). The e-book contends that the Young Turks in their battle against the sultans enjoyed strong support for the masons, and for this reason the government sought to shut down the lodges.

Another odd temporal conjunction here was the somewhat later solidification of Masonry in the first Yugoslavia. According to a British site, “the Grand Lodge of Yugoslavia was established in 1919 and waited an entire twenty years for British recognition. Confronting the rising powers of Nazism and totalitarianism, the Grand Lodge of Yugoslavia was put to sleep at its own request in 1940.” Considering the close ties between Vevchani villagers and Belgrade at the time, and the known facts regarding the post-war rebuilding of Sveti Bogorodica, is it just possible that the archaeologist’s hunch might be right?

As catastrophic war descended again on Europe, right-wing groups across the continent, including in Serbia, presented the Masons as a suspicious, Communist-sympathizing and often Jewish cabal out to create a leftist one-world government – a conspiracy theory kept alive today by thousands of anti-Masonic groups and websites. Despite the obviously ludicrous nature of many of their claims and associations, it is true that Masonic members over the past 300 years have included numerous important figures, from presidents and scientists to entertainers and sports stars.

Until just two years ago, Macedonian initiates into the secret society had to belong to either the Serbian or Bulgarian lodges. However, the country has acquired its own Masonic center, as Skopje’s Channel 5 documented a few weeks ago. According to the station, a ranking member from Great Britain came to Skopje to give official recognition to his Macedonian peers.

If the Vevchani church association turns out to be accurate, would it put the little Balkan country on the map? Will key events from local history now be revisited by the conspiracy theorists international, to imbue them with new significance and import? Will the ongoing school textbook furor over how to properly represent Macedonian and Albanian historiography require further revision?

It could also mean a tourism boon, at least for a certain “niche market.’ Just think- Macedonian could act as a magnet for conspiracy-loving, illuminati-hunting visionaries delving into the murky past for the keys that could unlock their own suppositions. It would certainly make for a novel variety of tourism in a region long revered for its willful obfuscation of events.

Funding Falls Short

We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves, however. Whatever other mysteries the site has to offer will have to wait until at least next spring. According to Pasko Kuzman, the discovery came too late in the year to be included in the Ministry of Culture’s 2005 budget. “We only received 70,000 denars (around 1,170 euros), which covered about a week’s worth of work,” he says. “The current minister [Blagoja Stefanovski] is a good and decent man, but archaeology is not his field, so it’s not a surprise that isn’t their first priority.”

However, when the excavations resume, if it is discovered that in fact an early Byzantine basilica lies beneath the modern structure, it’s likely that far more attention – and perhaps money – will be devoted to the project.

Until then, we can only wait and see whether the government will support the project. Of course, as has happened elsewhere, for example with Skopje Mayor Trifun Kostovoski’s financial support for the renovation of the Sveti Jovan Bigorski monastery near Debar, private donations could conceivably move things along faster.

That said, is it not impossible to imagine some wealthy Macedonian(s) from the diaspora stepping forward to finance the speedy excavation of a long-forgotten village church? After all, it’s certainly not as unlikely as the idea of an ancient and worldwide secret society having surreptitiously financed its construction in the first place.

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