Answering the Macedonian Question

The Orthodox Church forges a ‘Macedonia for the Macedonians’

text and photographs by Sean Sprague

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Clinging to the eastern bank of Lake Ohrid, tucked away in the Balkan Mountains, the sleepy town of Ohrid hardly appears to be the object of so much strife.

But in the last 100 years, three wars, scores of border clashes, ecclesial schisms and a nervous peace have yet to settle the twin questions symbolized by this seemingly remote town of some 40,000 people: What is Macedonia and who are the Macedonians?

Except for a brief 34-year period 1,000 years ago, when Ohrid served as the political and spiritual center of an independent kingdom, what today is known as Macedonia has always been subjugated by its neighbors – Bulgarian, Greek, Serb or Turkish – and its people assimilated. The disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1991, however, reignited the smoldering flames of Macedonian national and spiritual identity.

“The Archbishopric of Ohrid, and later the memory of it,” stated Archbishop Dositei, who was named the first head of the restored Orthodox Archbishopric of Ohrid and Macedonia in 1958, “was the only source of Macedonian national awareness.”

Though its allegiances would shift with the tides of rising and falling regional empires, the Church of Ohrid, established as an autocephalous, or independent, church in the late 10th century, remained an unmoving bulwark for the area’s Orthodox Christians and a center for the evolution and development of southern Slavic culture and spirituality.

Slavic tribes began settling in the area in the seventh century and came into increasing contact with Byzantium and its distinct church and culture. In the ninth century, Emperor Michael III summoned two brothers from eastern Macedonia, Cyril and Methodius, to evangelize the Slavs in their native tongue, which led the two to devise the Glagolitic script.

Their disciples, Clement and Naum, would expand their linguistic, cultural and educational work in monasteries they established in Ohrid. All four have become important saints, particularly in the Christian East.

Naum established the first Slavic university, the Ohrid Literary School, while Clement, who became the first Slav bishop with his seat in Ohrid, reformed Cyril’s alphabet and renamed it Cyrillic in honor of his teacher. This alphabet is the precursor of the modern alphabet Macedonians share with Belarussians, Bulgarians, Montenegrins, Russians, Serbs and Ukrainians.

The Church of Ohrid’s schools and monasteries played a defining role in the development of southern Slavic culture, education and ecclesiastical organization.

Its cultural importance survived the rise and fall of Bulgarian and Serbian kingdoms in the 13th and 14th centuries, Greek ecclesial tutelage and the advance of the Ottoman Turks into southern Europe. Although the Ottomans abolished the Church of Ohrid in 1767 and placed its eparchies under the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople, the educational and cultural institutions that had been built up by the Church of Ohrid continued to thrive.

These institutions played a central role in the 19th century in propagating a Macedonian national identity separate from the histories and cultures of Ohrid’s powerful neighbors.

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