Mariovo – the secret as a challenge

23 June, 07:41
Mariovo – the secret as a challenge

Mariovo – the secret as a challenge

Skopje, 2 June 2015

Once a year, the great Mariovo is filled with songs, laughter and noise. Once a year, people from Mariovo, former and current, are joined together. Nostalgia and memories are written all over the faces of the people from Mariovo and the sparkle in their eyes shows that life used to be great in Mariovo, whether in happiness or sadness.

The same was the case this year, too, on Pentecost, in the monastery of “Saint Elijah” near Vitolishte. People from Mariovo gathered, although not as many as they would like, but nevertheless, started evoking memories, legends and stories. The Mariovo-Meglen cultural meetings were taking place.

A permanent fixture of those meetings is Stojan Gjurovski, a pensioner and former resident of Mariovo. Aware of the irreversible flow of time, he still doesn’t give up his Mariovo.

“We are socializing and evoking memories, but also trying to do something for Mariovo in the future. We want to preserve its identity as well as its material, ecological and archaeological heritage” – Gjuroski said.

Mariovo is an area located in south-west Macedonia and covers a territory of more over 1.000 square kilometres, or 4% of the total territory of Macedonia. It has been dubbed “the largest and most sparsely populated area in Europe” for decades. It used to be the home of thousands people, now down to only several hundreds, mostly seniors. Mariovo is devided among three municipalities – Bitola, Prilep and Kavadarci.

The locals enjoy telling stories and legends about this mysterious area. Its name derives from the most famous legend. A Turkish Bey wanted to take the beautiful girl Marija (Mara) for himself. A deal was made – if she agreed, the Turks would never set foot in the area again. It was in her honour that the area was called Mariovo.

There is only one asphalt road connecting Prilep and Mariovo. The village of Shtavica, a place where director Milcho Manchevski shot many of the scenes in his movies, is first along that road and is followed by the “Sliva” mountain pass. The infinite hilly region with mountains around 1.000 metres high in average is the reason Mariovo has always been described as a rocky, mountain region. The place which once had hundreds of thousands of sheep now has only 3-4.000.

Crna River is the determinant for the entire region, dividing it in two. Many of the stories are related to its vicinity. The most mysterious story is the one about the treasures around Rasim Bey’s Bridge, according to which, was where armies or merchants passing through Mariovo, which was considered a safe passage (The “Via Egnatia Salutaris” road from Thessaloniki) buried them. There have always been illegal diggers, trying to find something, and the treasure story culminated in the 1990s when even Macedonia and Turkey got involved, sending helicopters to hover over the area.

Ethnologist Aleksandar Cvetkoski believes that it is stories which will restore the glow of the mystical Mariovo.

“Mariovo was always considered as unconquerable. It is a plateau surrounded by mountains and with few passages that were easy to defend. The “Via Egnatia Salutaris” road passed through the region and Mariovo was also connected to Heraclea, continuing to the port of Durres. They say one needs to be born in Mariovo to be able to live there in those conditions. That is why the locals have built a specific material and spiritual culture, as well as a system of villages, rules and customs, but also determined the reality of life. They even had specifically appointed women who were crying at funerals. The cult for the predecessors has always been strongly expressed. Their view of religion has always been different, as well – with many taboo places for ceremonies and witchcraft. It is a very specific culture” – Cvetkoski says.

Strangers found it very difficult to enter that inner circle and even more so being accepted by Mariovo’s locals. Throughout the centuries, all the way to the great migration to the cities in the 1970s, Mariovo has always kept its mystical aura and natural wealth.

“Mariovo is a very mystical place, and not just in Stale Popov’s texts, describing its former life. Mariovo is full of culture, history and spiritualism. It is not by chance that there are more than 60 endemic plants and even birds in this region. Mariovo is also full of ethno culture, inheriting many ceremonies throughout the centuries. It has the heaviest wedding folk dress, which is a true ethnological treasure. The bride had to serve other people for three days, wearing that dress, in order to show that she was healthy to work and give birth. Mariovo has always been isolated from all flows of modern life and in order to use its treasure, an expert approach is necessary” – ethnologist Cvetkoski says.

Archaeologists still consider Mariovo as a rich, but unexplored area. Several archaeological sites, spanning from pre-historic to the late medieval era, have been determined so far. Archaeologist Branko Risteski says that only a dozen have been researched more extensively, such as the “Saint Nicholas” church in the village of Manastir, the village itself, the site in the village of Gradeshnica, etc. One of the first churches of early Christianity in the region was in Mariovo.

“The remnants of a late-Antique settlement and a medieval monastery have been discovered at the Gradok site in the village of Manastir. The remnants of two early-Christian churches, related to the earliest stage of Christianity in this region (early V century) were discovered in the area of the acropolis of the late-Antique settlement. From IX – XIV century, the acropolis was re-organized as a monastery, with the two churches partially restored. The monastery complex “St. Nicholas” in the village of Manastir was, without doubt, the central Christian complex in the Mariovo region from X – XIV century. Certain Byzantine dignitaries had important roles, a testament to which is the high artistic level of creation of the frescos, architecture and the spatial order of the monastery objects” – Risteski explains.

To make the mystery even bigger, the remnants of a spacious Roman villa dating back to I – IV century, were discovered in the village of Gradeshnica. When Christianity was constituted in this region (late IV – early V century), part of the villa was re-modelled into a spacious early-Christian complex.

Life in Mariovo may have stopped decades ago, but the need to take a peek inside the material goods hasn’t. Ore wealth has constantly attracted attention, with marble, granite and precious stone still being dug out. There is a hint of mystery to this part, too. Just let me remind you of the “Alshar” mine, which hides the riddle of the ore’s qualities and relates to the stories about the treasure hunts in Mariovo.

Crna River remains the source of life and possibility that the former glow of Mariovo will be restored, at least to a small degree. Despite all failures, nobody gives up on the hydro plants Chebren and Galishte.

All efforts to put Mariovo back in the limelight revolve around tourism, attractiveness and selling the story about the peace and serenity that Mariovo offers.

For years, the Prilep town authorities have left the idea of a diplomatic village open. It means offering the stone houses in Mariovo, which have stood strong against time, to diplomats to stay in. Another idea is making a weekend settlement near Crna River, or cycling tours along the Mariovo “routes”, something that has been happening over the last four years. The last edition of the Mariovo cycling tour was last weekend when hundreds of mountain-bikers gathered to ride along the Mariovo routes and set camp in the village of Manastir.

We caught up with Slobodan Trajkovski from the association for promoting cycling, “Velo Evropa” from Skopje. Three races were organized for the participants this year – one road race and two mountain races that were 38 and 50 km long, respectively. The routes passed through the villages of Manastir, Beshishte, Gradeshnica, Staravina, Zovikj, Polchishte, Melnica and Vitolishte.

“The outdoor sports possibilities which Mariovo offers can’t be found anywhere else in the region. There are interesting villages, mountains, forests, rivers, etc. – places that people don’t get to see every day, which is why this region is so attractive” – Trajkovski says.

To conclude this “little” walk through the great Mariovo, we only had a glimpse of its mystery and secrecy. Mariovo has always carried a message of closed culture, life and survival, bravely facing the challenges throughout the centuries. Mariovo remains a challenge for everybody who wants to know how to get close to it and discover it inside-out. But, there is the impression that Mariovo may not want to be fully discovered and keep some of its mystery.

Elizabeta Mitreska


source: МИА

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