30 April 2012

The Oldest Place You've Never Heard Of

Lake Ohrid is one of the oldest lakes in the world, right up there with Lake Titicaca.  Most lakes come and go in the span of about 100,000 years, filling up with sediments or drying out from some other cause.  Its depth and the plethora of natural springs that feed into it have kept Ohrid from such a fate.  Plenty of water for a long life, that's what they always say, right?.  Lake Ohrid's birth is estimated to have taken place around 5 million years ago and it has never once dried up. It is beautiful and vast with water that is incredibly clear.
Basically an enormous drinking well and seafood buffet, Lake Ohrid attracted seaside residents pretty early on.  Prehistoric times.  With at least 7,000 years of continuous human habitation, the town of Ohrid is considered one of the oldest ongoing settlements on earth.  Exploring the town feels like finding a memory box in an attic, a collection of heirlooms and evidence of the past that were deemed special and important enough to be saved.  Rifling through such a collection, you can't help but feel like what you're really doing is getting to know the person who owned the box and marveling at how long and full their life seems.
The residents of Ohrid didn't really want to save the Ancient Theatre of Ohrid at first.  Built in the Hellenistic period as a dramatic theater, it was utilized during the Roman era as a gladiator ring.  Once that empire fell, Ohridians (I've made that up) wanted to get rid of this massacre ring in which Christians had been executed.  So, they buried it.  This wound up being fortuitous, as it preserved the bottom level of the theater incredibly well.  Dug up in the 1980s, it was put to use once more - though, seasons ticket holders no longer get their names carved into the seats like the ancient theatergoer whose signature you can kind of make out above.
Legend has it that, as recently as the 15th century, there were 365 churches in Ohrid.  Supposedly, it was one for each day of the year, which probably made it extremely difficult to nab a seat for mass.  They have not all remained, although you see small white crosses lit up amongst the stars and street lights when night falls.  Above, Sv Jovan Kaneo sits in one the prettiest look-out points on the lake.  Built in the 13th century, it's just a baby compared with the ancient body of water it looks down over. Many of the churches were turned into mosques during the Ottoman era and then destroyed after that empire's fall. 
Such was the case with Sv Kliment at Plaošnik, near the castle.  This monastery had so much historic significance, though, that it was completely rebuilt in the 21st century.  The building only dates back to 2002, but the excavated foundations in its front lawn are from a 5th century Basilica.  It is also the site of what could very possibly have been the first university in the Western world.  St. Clement started the school himself, in 893AD, and it rivals only the University of Salerno in Italy for the crown. 
During those same Ottoman years, a Turkish neighborhood was built in the lower part of Ohrid, below the fortified walls in which the Christians were kept.  Their community, in Mesokastro, grew up around this plane tree, which is now 900 years old.  The trunk must have split ages ago.  People say that a barber shop was once housed in the crevice, which is possibly the most Turkish thing I've ever heard.  (See: Things Turkish People Like).  Later, it became a cafe.  Now, it simply sits at the center of the town square, bolstered by support slabs which give it a monumental look.
The old Robevi family mansion, they were one of the richest families in all Macedonia, is now the Archeology Museum.  Findings from Plaošnik and the Ancient Theatre are housed here and the house itself is a lovely site.  We visited with the hope of seeing one of the Golden Masks.  Near Ohrid, in Trebenište, five golden masks from the 1st millenium BC were found in 1918.  They are said to be worth around 20million euros each and are housed in Belgrade, Serbia and Sofia, Bulgaria.  A 6th was found in Ohrid in 2002, by a man named Pasko Kuzman who simply put the relic in a cigar box on his mantle and called it a day.  We read in an outdated guidebook that it was to become the first mask to be exhibited in Macedonia in 2008 - in this museum - but this doesn't seem to have happened.  Maybe he's moved onto using it as an ashtray?
At the center of it all is still the lake, sitting pretty and watching the views around it change hands, change faces, change centuries.  Beneath its surface are sunken jewels, a treasure chest for a history buff.  There are the remains of a Bronze Age stilt village, still sticking up from the sand.  The lake has grown up and over it in the 3,500 or so years since it was built.  There are sunken World War I tugboats and a coastguard boat and airplane from World War II.  Of course, there are also living species rare in this world covering the deep, lake floor. 
But for Albanians,  Lake Ohrid is simply the seaside.  Families come here to swim, tan, dine and stroll.  Through the old cobbled streets they walk in colorful summer clothing, even in the late Spring.  Some things haven't really changed since prehistoric times.  The shores of Lake Ohrid are still prime real estate.  Unfortunately, some of the oldest residents of the lake are being fished out of existence - but more on that later.  After all these years, the deep, clear water of Lake Ohrid is still providing humans with life-giving sustenance - beauty and relaxation. 

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