Thursday, July 17, 2008

Nameless Lands

Whatever one might say about studying Byzantine art, it takes you places. Following Cyprus (pics), and after a research seminar at an Orthodox Monastery near Serres which went beautifully, it was off to see the frescoed churches of Kastoria (pics). After this Denise and I met in Thessaloniki. We then journeyed back to the monastery so that she could finally meet the nuns. Everyone should know nuns.

We then headed north to places that cannot be named. One might call our first stop Macedonia (pics), but when one has Greek friends (Greeks prefer to keep the name Macedonia for themselves), it's best to say FYROM, the "Former Yugolslov Republic of Macedonia." The Macedonians retort that "Greece" should be FOPOG, the "Former Ottomon Protectorate of Greece." It's a complex issue, and I don't mean to make light of it (even if one of the Macedonian political parties is actually called VMRO-DPMNE "Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party of National Unity"). To avoid any such controversial acronyms, I'll stick to cities.

First we went to Skopje. As the slow and inefficient train pulled in, we witnessed an unusual sight that encapsulated our visit to the country. The enormous lit cross at the top of a mountain that overlooked the city was overlapped by a red crescent moon. I'm not being poetic; that's really what we saw. And lo, for the next several days we witnessed churches competing for visual prominence with mosques. Albanians, once largely Catholic, converted to Islam under Ottoman rule, and are a substantial Macedonian minority. The famous frescoes at the Church of St. Panteleimon at Nerezi (near Skopje) was the reason for our visit, and even there a brand new mosque now competes for prominence. And with a once-functioning monastery now serving as a tourist-destination and snack bar, I wouldn't be surprised which religious group gains the upper hand. Fortunately, Albanian Islam (comparable to the Turkish kind), is tolerant, so co-existence is currently the rule. Money, however (especially the 50 and 1000), sends a clear message as to what this country is all about.

After Skopje it was on to Ohrid, called the "gem of the Macedonian crown" for its beauty . It is also affectionately known as the Slavic Jerusalem. Here Cyril and Methodius first came to translate the Gospel into the Slavic alphabet that they invented, and here their greatest disciple, St. Clement, carried on the work. Having lost a baby by that name recently, Denise and I thought it fitting to visit the various churches and relics of Clement in this largely undiscovered (by Americans) lakeside town. Ohrid displays astonishing testimony to the vitality of Byzantine art beyond Byzantium. The Slavs had just enough distance from Constantinople to keep a (by this point in the trip) Byzantine-saturated art historian fascinated.

An Anti-Iraq
After this we journeyed north into to the city of Pristina in another country where even the name is a point of contention. Kosovo to most, but if you're a Serb, Kosovo-Metohija (Metoh means "church land.") Kosovo is currently the youngest country in the world, having declared independence this February. America has vigorously backed the new nation, with the 1776 analogy in mind. Serbia, backed by Russia, would no doubt prefer we had used our 1865 analogy instead. "Tourists are unheard of," trumpeted our guidebook, though we didn't feel at all out of place. While "Pretending to Be Canadian When Traveling Abroad" is among the stuff white people like (#105 in the book), in Kosovo there's no need. If anything, Denise (a Canadian) might have pretended to be American. Where else in the world does one see this?

I'm not going to indulge in my generation's tendency to claim to be an expert on complex international situations after only a brief visit. If anything, brief visits can distort one's perspective. What I can say is that things appear to have cooled off considerably from the recent conflict. For a defense of the Serbian side of the issue that is severely critical of U.S. policy, there's Andrew Cusack with extended debate in the comments. For a different perspective, there's Michael J. Totten who shows that Kosovo is no Wahhabist enclave. The pictures and text in this post of his are also illuminating.

I certainly hope my country is taking advantage of its respected status in Kosovo to push for religious freedom, and there are signals that this may be happening, even reports that Ibrahim Rugova, Kosovo's former president, converted to Catholicism towards his life's end. While the prominent Serbian Orthodox church in the center of town is not doing well, it turned out to be no problem at all for us to visit Gracanica (details here), which was the reason we came.

The youthfulness of Pristina was refreshing (as were the showers). The palpable desire for peace and stability is what leads me to call Kosovo an "anti-Iraq." Still, it is not controversial, only accurate, to point out that to be a Byzantine art historian in Kosovo means your textbooks, sadly, must include this.