What's in a Name?

Friday, May 11, 2018 Road Junkies 0 Comments


Balkans & Beyond, Days 46-47:  Berat, Albania to Ohrid, Macedonia.  The first two things we learned about Macedonia were:  1) that we didn't know how to pronounce it correctly (it's mah-kay-DOAN-yuh); and 2) that its name isn't really Macedonia.  Or it is.  Except it isn't.  Well, it all depends on who's talking.

In 1991, when the old Yugoslavian federation disintegrated, Macedonia, which had been one of its republics, declared its independence under the logical name Republic of Macedonia.  "Hold on just a minute!" Greece objected.  "You can't call yourself Macedonia.  Macedonia is the northern part of Greece, and you're stealing our name and identity."  This dispute has continued brewing since 1991, and feelings still run high.  As recently as February of this year, more than 100,000 Greeks rallied in Athens to protest the use of the word Macedonia in the name of the independent country on their northern border.
Greeks protest Republic of Macedonia's name  (photo by Reuters)
For almost three decades, Greek antipathy toward their neighbor's name has pushed the much larger nation to stand in the way of attempts by the Republic of Macedonia to join the UN, NATO, and the European Union.  The official Greek position has been to insist that the country be called the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), though many who live in the Macedonian region of Greece object to any use of the name whatsoever.

And that's just the last 30 years.  Macedonian history goes back another 2,800 years.  (No, that is not a typo.)  The kingdom of Macedonia was established in 808 BC.  That's well after ancient Egypt and China but some time before Greece and Rome.  By 330 BC, Macedonia had become the greatest European power under Philip II, setting the stage for his son Alexander to expand on his father's accomplishments when he ascended to the throne at age 20.
Under the ruler renowned as Alexander the Great, Macedonia conquered the Persians and expanded its borders from Europe to India to north Africa, making it the world's largest empire.  It was quite a run but it didn't last long.  By 300 BC, Alexander was dead at age 32, leaving no apparent heir.  The kingdom fell into civil war and Alexander's great empire was carved up.  Pieces of the once glorious Macedonia subsequently fell under Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Slav, and Turkish rule.

After gaining their independence from the Ottomans in 1878, three countries—Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia—competed for dominance over Macedonia.  None was successful, and when the Balkan Wars finally ended five centuries of Ottoman rule in 1913, the three countries split up Macedonia like they were sharing a pizza for lunch.  What is today the Republic of Macedonia was Serbia's piece.  Bulgaria and Greece have kept grips on their shares.

So there you have it—almost three thousand years of history in three paragraphs.  (That should put all the drama in today's American politics in perspective.)  Since we're in their country for a week, we're calling it what they do, the Republic of Macedonia.  We may try to drive into Greece for a day trip while here.  Then what?

Before dealing with that question, we must tell you about Ohrid (OAK-rid), the lovely Macedonian city by the lake.  We drove to Ohrid from Albania yesterday, arriving in a pouring rain.  Our Airbnb host met us in front of the apartment building, and showed us to the underground parking garage, a terrific piece of luck we weren't expecting.  After unpacking the car, we unfurled our umbrellas and set out to see some of this historic city.
Once a religious center reputed to have 365 churches—one for each day of the year—Ohrid (pop. 42,000) today is better known as a vacation spot than an ecclesiastical destination.  Descending downhill from the 10th century Samuil's Fortress, Ohrid's old town ends at the shore of the large lake of the same name.
Old town is still filled with historic churches and other ancient sites, including a Greek amphitheater built in 200 BC.  During Roman times, the theater was used for gladiator fights and executions of Christians.  Later the locals covered the theater to bury the memory of those tortures.  Not until the 1980s, during renovations to some houses in the old city, was the theater rediscovered and uncovered.  So thoroughly had early residents buried the hated institution, archaeologists found it quite well preserved.  After some restoration and the installation of a modern bandshell, the theater is once again in use—for concerts and other performances, no impalements permitted.
Many of the city's surviving churches—primarily Eastern Orthodox—have been restored to their original Byzantine design.  Frescoes from as early as the 11th century have undergone painstaking restoration with dazzling results.  The local Orthodox churches prohibit photographs inside, so we are unable to share the transformation.
St. Sophia Church, returned to its original purpose after serving as a mosque during the Ottoman period
Without question, Ohrid's most photographed church (exterior only) is the Church of St. John at Kaneo.  Perched dramatically on a cliff overlooking Kaneo Beach and the blue waters of Lake Ohrid, the church was built in the early 1400s.
Church of St. John
Yesterday was our 45th wedding anniversary and we celebrated with dinner at a small cafe near St. Sophia Church, near which we had just planted a letterbox.  Ken made the mistake of mentioning our marital benchmark to our waiter, who proudly returned with a gift from the restaurant manager—tiny goblets filled to the brim with the fire water known in the Balkans as rakia.
The deceptively innocuous looking beverage is synonymous with hospitality and celebration here, so refusing it was not an option.  We smiled, gritted our teeth, and downed as much as we were able, expressing our appreciation for the good wishes.
Down at shore level, Ohrid wraps around the lake with numerous waterfront cafes and a lengthy pedestrian only shopping street leading away from the lake.  In addition to souvenirs, clothing, groceries, and the usual shops, Ohrid has more than its share of jewelry stores selling baubles made with "Ohrid pearls."  Though it's difficult to ascertain the "real" story, legend has it that in the early 1900s, a Russian visiting Ohrid discovered that Lake Ohrid was home to a type of fish whose scales could be made into pearls through a very special, very secret process, which he sold for a nice price to a couple of local merchants.
We're no experts, but can the oyster be wrong about the authenticity of these baubles?
Of course, they can't disclose the process (more closely guarded than KFC's secret recipe), but ground shells and fish scales and some kind of liquid in a mysterious Russian bottle seem to be involved.  Two families are said to be the keepers of the secret and claim that all "the other" shops are selling cheap fake pearls from China and Turkey, not the "real" Ohrid pearls, which must seem pretty bogus from the oyster's perspective.

Though we've enjoyed a couple of days in Ohrid, even without purchasing any "pearls," tomorrow we'll leave Lake Ohrid and pass Lake Prespa on the way to the town of Bitola.

Two-Day Stats
    •  Started in:  Berat, Albania
    •  Ended in:  Ohrid, Macedonia
    •  Miles driven:  112
    •  Miles walked: 10.87
    •  Weather:  53° to 72°, rain, sunny, partly cloudy
    •  Years of wedded bliss:  45
    •  Swans on the lake:  24
    •  Street cats:  35
    •  Street dogs: 34
    •  Oldest frescoes:  11th century
    •  Shops selling "genuine Ohrid pearls":  63

Loved:  The Albania-Macedonia border runs down the middle of Lake Ohrid, so many people of Albanian heritage live in Ohrid.  Not that we don't think Macedonians are friendly, but we had numerous positive interactions, which led us to assume those persons were ethnic Albanians.

Thankfully, Ohrid is missing the large tourist groups we've seen in some places.  Most locals we chatted with said they see just small groups and most tourists come from Turkey and the Netherlands, both of which feature direct flights to Ohrid.

Learned:  We've certainly learned a lot about Macedonian history, and we're pretty puzzled about why Greece is putting up such a fuss.  No doubt we'll learn more in the upcoming days.

More Photos from Ohrid
Our practice with the Cyrillic alphabet helped us find UniBank to withdraw local currency.
What is it about swans that makes them so romantic?  Or was it just because it was our anniversary? 
A wonderful lakeside boardwalk 
Shopping in the rain 
Better weather today for visiting Samuil's Fortress
Ohrid's small marina
Several parks in cities we've visited have these electric cars for youngsters to drive.  
Memorial to Sts. Cyril and Methodius, brothers who invented the Cyrillic alphabet,
influenced the cultural development of Slavs, and
were declared equivalent to apostles in the Eastern Orthodox church.