Pictures at a Transboundary Basilica

Laurie Hart
QP Hart fig-1
Fieldnote, August 1995, Prespa, Macedonia, Greece
I wake to the sounds of my landlady, Irini, and her husband Markos talking quietly in the kitchen. She’s boiling maize that Markos will use as bait on his fish hooks and preparing to bake an enormous carp (grivadi) that he fished this morning, for family expected to arrive today—Markos’s sister Anna and her husband Pandelis on their annual summer visit from Hungary. We have planned an outing, a little ekdromi, tomorrow, to the island of Aghios Akhillios and its medieval basilica; but today Anna and Pandelis will want to rest, and as I don’t want to trouble my hosts as they welcome family I will spend the day elsewhere. The morning light begins to filter in through the lace curtain of the small window in my dark cool room; apart from the kitchen and bathroom, there is only one other room in this house– really more of an apartment than a house; but it doesn’t feel cramped, because most of the time we sit on the porch, enclosed by rooms on three sides, where there is a large table, and crates of fishing gear, and firewood neatly stacked. In the old days, these rooms were part of the much larger complex to which they are attached; there were thirty or forty people living in an extended kin household. Now, the building is split up among the male heirs of the founding grandfather, into separate households, attached like rowhouses, with different fates. Most of the other heirs have gone to live in regional towns or cities or in America or Canada, and they visit their modernized portions only sporadically. They park their shiny new cars in the courtyard and protect them from the dirt and chickens with dust covers. Only Markos resolutely stays, twelve months of the year, fishing, feeding his wood stove in the winter, maintaining his absolute independence of livelihood and spirit. Nonetheless, his years as a child political refugee in eastern Europe after the Greek Civil War (1946-49), and his years of laboring in a tire factory in Germany, and his quietly searing political experience at the post-war, cold-war, boundaries of Greece, are also part of his formation, and he is the least provincial, the most cosmopolitan, of all of his neighbors.
I drive inland to a farming village to visit a farmer friend and catch up on her news since my last visit. Thomai is tired; she has been watering her bean fields and gardens from 11p.m. last evening to 3a.m this morning; she says she takes these hours so as not to fight over the water, which has to be rationed and scheduled among all of the villagers. The water comes from the river, and it flows through a series of channels downhill and is diverted by each user in turn. You have to jam a heavy stone against the current and then stuff rags into the gaps and water each row just enough without drowning the stalks. The water is crystal cold, and it burns your hands. Thomai says that the beans grown with river water are good, but the beans from the lake water (irrigated with a mechanical pump system courtesy of dictatorship public works in the late 1960s) are tasteless. She wants to know if I have seen the Amazon or the Mississippi, and tells me that only a city with a river through it is worth its salt.
The beans have had a disease that makes their roots dry out, so it hasn’t been a good year. However, this morning, of greater concern is the news that Thomai’s son and his wife have separated, and her son is badly affected. Men are weaker in these things, she says, and they take everything hard; it’s better to have daughters, she says. This is a debate I hear almost daily in one form or another. Yesterday, another woman told me it was daughters who are the problem: they just go and take care of their husband’s family, so what’s the point in having them? At least with a son, you’ll have a daughter in law who’ll help you out. But Thomai’s nyphe, she told me last year, doesn’t do a stroke of work and just lies about the house. All she wants is mommy and daddy, Thomai said, while it should be her husband she wants. In any case Thomai is certain that sons are more hazardous. A man, she says, can turn into a thief, a drunkard, a card player, any number of things; while a girl, the only thing she can do is get pregnant before marriage. Normally tough as nails, Thomai had been crying; she says now everyone is cross with her. Some neighbors come by, a woman and two daughters, looking for fish; but Thomai’s husband, who has a truck and sometimes brings fish to sell in the village, didn’t have any as he too has been in the fields. So we continue to talk about the divorce, and the talk moves on to inheritance, and to houses and history.
Thomai’s house was built by her husband’s father in 1932. The family was from a fishing village but bought land inland near the streams for fields, and they had a mill and did well enough for themselves to build quite a grand house, which required hiring some laborers to haul river stone and a few craftsmen to cut cornerstones and make the windows and doors. The two other brothers went to Canada and Australia; but Thomai’s husband stayed. Thomai, like so many others, was evacuated to Eastern Europe as a child during the civil war, and grew up and was educated in Poland. As a young girl, she dreamed of being a nurse; she had begun her training when she was obliged by her mother, against her will, to come back ‘home’ and be married off to her farmer husband. Her natal family was from a nearby village but her village had been emptied and resettled by the government with people from Vlach communities outside the area in the 1950s and 1960s, and by now she had no close relatives left nearby. Thomai works intensely to maintain her homestead and is exceedingly good at what she does; but in the late 20th century this always grueling ‘traditional’ mode of life is, for her, also a relentlessly isolated enterprise, and she judges it in light of ruined expectations and closed possibilities.
In something of a non-sequitur in the middle of this family history, Thomai tells me two things: she tells me that the name Prespa comes from the Slavic (ta Slavika, she called it) ‘to lie down, rest, sleep,’ because there was an earthquake, and everyone was sleeping, and thus it got its name. She then tells me, with particular emphasis, that the bell in the basilica on the island of Aghios Akhillios in the Little Prespa Lake was from Tsar Samuil’s bride, a gift from her father in Russia. This is the first time I hear about the bell, and about Samuil. For Thomai, the gift of the bell has a meaning I don’t quite understand.
The lake called Little Prespa is actually slightly bigger than Big Prespa, though it is shallower, and also higher, so that the current flows from the little to the big lake, and then through underground channels to the lakes Maliki and Ochrid in Albania and Yugoslavia Macedonia, respectively. The lakes are fed by rivers that flow down from the foothills of mountain ranges whose names are seared in Greek history for their strategic significance in the bloody occupations and wars of the 20th century, and they lie at the intersection of the boundaries, drawn in 1912, separating the states of Albania, Greece and (formerly Yugoslav) Macedonia. More accurately, the imagined intersections of the three states, quite invisible and ignored by birds but dangerous to humans, trisect the Little lake, and bisect the Big one. The lakes are famous for their beauty, treasured for their (relative) purity, and valued by ornithologists for their ecological importance as nesting grounds for migratory pelicans and storks. In 1974, the lake zone was recognized as a national park and it remains so, a national park of people as well as animals, plants, and water; of small wild animals; diminishing fish life; and, since the 1960s, intensive mono-cropping. Bean farmers who wish to extend their fields in the wetlands are engaged in a contest with other stakeholders–ecologists and others (local, metropolitan, and international)– concerned about the survival of the lakes, water birds, and fish. The fishermen are poised in between, on the side of local control but concerned about the health of the lake. There have been a lot of debates about who is a better steward of the land and a lot of slanders. People are also worried about water levels in the lakes; sometimes this concern is expressed in indirect or apocalyptic ways, as when Thomai recounted to me a story she had gleaned from a TV program about Stephen Hawking, black holes, the demise of the world, and the disappearance of water. Everything here, as elsewhere, is dependent on water.
The prefecture of Florina to which Prespa belongs has a long but somewhat elusive history. For pre-Byzantine times the archaeological record is scant but sporadically improving, and excavations have been concentrated in the eastern plains of the district. According to Herodotus, the Big lake was in early times called ‘Vrygiis’ and was occupied by the eponymous Vryges. Whether or not the Bryges then moved to Asia Minor before the Trojan War and became the Phrygians, as the folklorist Mellios and others report, is in dispute. There’s something of a gap here; but we know from Herodotus and Thuycydides that in the second half of the 5th C BC the area belonged to the powerful tribe of the Lyngestae, and that the royal houses of Corinth, Macedonia, and Sparta competed for it; by 358 BC, Philip II, trumping the Illyrians, had incorporated “Upper Macedonia,” as it was then called, into his new and grand Macedonian state. [1] The first politically forced transfer of populations of many in the prefecture appears to have taken place then, as Philip brought inhabitants of Lower Macedonia north to break up tribal solidarities and stabilize his borders. The Romans absorbed the area in the second century BC after the Battle of Pydna and their conquest of Greece. It was called Illyrica, and then Justiniana, it was Christianized, it was invaded by the typical assortment of Euro- and Eurasian ‘barbarians’ in what Western Europe calls the dark ages, and by the ninth century CE, part of the “theme” (as administrative divisions were then called) of Thessaloniki, it was a flourishing center of Byzantine ecclesiastical building and painting. By the early tenth century, after a series of dizzying contests and treaties between Byzantines and Bulgars, it had fallen to the charismatic Bulgar Tsar, Simeon. Educated at Constantinople, a translator of ancient Greek philosophy, trained in Greek monasteries, Simeon was called the “half-Greek.” Perhaps we can imagine him as a kind of western inversion of his near-contemporary, the famous half-Byzantine, half-Arab hero of the epic of the eastern Syrian frontier, Digenes Akritas. It was Simeon’s grandson, Roman, who was responsible for Thomai’s bell, because it was Roman (castrated by the Byzantines and thus without heirs) who brought Samuil, his general, to power, and Samuil was tsar of the First Bulgarian Empire at the turn of the 10th century, and it was Samuil who made Prespa, at least briefly, his capital; and hence the bell. After his conquest of Thessaly, Samuil, it is said, brought the relics of one St. Akhillios from the decimated city of Larissa to Prespa, and built his palace and basilica there (Samuil, typically, also forcibly deported Larissa’s non-Bulgar population to his northern territories). Samuil was defeated in 1014 by the Byzantine Basil II, called the “Bulgar-Slayer” for the terrible carnage and for his horrific blinding of the surviving Bulgar troops in retreat. Basil swiftly retook Thessaly and, in turn, “exchanged back” its recently imported Bulgar population. Samuil died two days after the maiming of his soldiers and was buried on Aghios Akhillios; his descendants became both Byzantine royals and governors, and Bulgar contenders and generals. Prespa was retaken by the Byzantines, occupied by Franks and Serbs, and then finally the Ottomans began a five hundred year dominion at the end of the 14th century, though Prespa remained a hub of monastic development for centuries thereafter. Despite the gradual reduction of centralized control it was officially part of the Ottoman Empire until the Balkan Wars: after 1870 it was effectively a battleground between Greeks and Bulgarians, with intermittent massacres of both by the Turks. In 1913 the southeastern sector of the lakes, including Aghios Akhillios and the grazing lands called “little Egypt” in Turkish, and the finger of territory to the north called “Africa” much later by partisans during the Civil War, was incorporated into the Greek state. [2]
Prespa, August 1994:
We set off for Aghios Akhillios, Irini, Anna, Pandelis and I, for a reunion among cousins. We catch a ride on a small fishing boat — flat-bottomed, square sterned, and driven by an outboard motor that is turned off, raised out of the water, and exchanged for oars as we near the edge of the dock nested in the high reeds. A boy, one of the younger generation of cousins, greets us at the dock and leads us up the hill to the house. The compound the extended family lives in is well kept, with many out-buildings, summer kitchens, storerooms, chicken coops and stables. Here live Markos’s other sister, widowed, and her two sons, and his cousin and his cousin’s wife. Kosta, the patriarch, is a tall handsome man with heavy eyebrows and light blue eyes like his wife Sophia. We settle down in the kitchen in the large stone and mud brick house for a lunch of carp, the prized white baked beans called “giants”, and roasted red peppers from the pantry, put away for the long winter at the end of each summer. Almost everything we eat was harvested within a kilometer from our table. There are twelve of us. Everyone laments the passing of the commensality and community of former times, before the war, and before the massive emigrations to other western countries in the 1960s. We speak Greek as usual at the table, the normal lingua franca of the Greek sector of Prespa; Pandelis anyway doesn’t know Macedonian, and people rarely speak it in a mixed group, and most of the younger generation have only spoken it with their grandmothers if at all. Now and again a Hungarian phrase will pop up in the talk, as people relocate the strands of their shared past years abroad. Pandelis is a native speaker of Pontiaka, his mother tongue, but no one else at the table knows it.
The children of this extended family are mostly scattered far and wide in provincial Greek cities, as well as in Germany and ‘Serbia’—a term covering a broad swath of what was formerly Yugoslavia. Kosta was a political refugee in Czechoslovakia and speaks, reads and writes Czech, Macedonian, Greek, and Russian. Exceptionally, his daughter did not leave but married a Pontios from one of the other Prespa towns (such “mixed” marriages, between “refugee” families and dopii locals, were unheard of before WWII; now intermarriage among locals, Vlachs, and Pontii are not uncommon) and they stayed close to home because of the bean fields her husband cultivates; they also run a store to make ends meet. Marriages are quite likely to be international as well: young people leave to study abroad wherever they can, in Albania, in the Czech Republic, and bring their spouses back if they return, so the tiny population of the tiny island is astonishingly multinational and multilingual. The children of those marriages might end up anywhere, really. At lunch we turn on the TV. No Greek programs come through as they flip channels, only a program from Skopje about China, dubbed from English into Macedonian.
We have a round, however, of Pontian jokes in Pandelis’s honor, prefaced by Kosta’s declaration that Pontii are “really very smart.”
Pontian jokes are like the jokes people everywhere in the world tell about country people, immigrants, ethnic groups they want to mock, and sometimes, with a touch of what Michael Herzfeld calls “cultural intimacy,” themselves. Pontian jokes usually involve an appealingly naïve character from the Pontos (bordering the Black Sea, in what is now Turkey) in Asia Minor who is flummoxed by the world of the comparatively “modern”, and distinctly “poniros” (in this case best translated as “sly,” more poetically as “cunning”) Greece-born Greek. This “Pontian” is thoroughly mystified by trains, airplanes, the money economy and the bureaucratic state. The Pontians these jokes refer to immigrated to this area of Greece in 1922-23, when during what Greeks refer to as the “Catastrophe,” Greece and the new state of Turkey “exchanged” their minority populations after a bloody war, in a project of modernist ethnic cleansing. Orthodox Christians were forced to leave Asia Minor, and Muslims were expelled from Greece.
The joke everyone likes the best today is the one about the Pontian policeman. He is sent by his captain one evening to apprehend some little scamps (pitsirikia) who are stealing from shops. Sure enough, he catches the boys in the act, and rounds them up to walk toward the police station. On their way, they pass a pizza restaurant. One kid begins to wail. The policeman asks him what is the matter, and the boy says: I am dying of hunger. It’s only because I was so hungry that I was stealing. I am too weak to walk. Please, please, will you buy me a little slice of pizza and then I will come with you just as you ask. So the policeman is very moved by this sad story, and says ok, here’s a drachma, go and get your pizza and come right back, while I wait with the others. The boy disappears into the restaurant, the policeman waits and waits, but the boy doesn’t come back; he searches the restaurant, and no sign of the boy. The policeman returns to the station and the captain is furious. Such a simple task and you blow it!, the captain fumes. A few days later new complaints are made to the police about a boy stealing. The captain calls for the Pontian policeman, and he says to him, Ok this time, no stupidities, just bring the boy in, and the Pontian policeman assures him he can’t possibly fail and sets off into town. Sure enough, later that evening, he nabs the same boy and, berating him, begins to march him back to the station. Again they pass the pizza restaurant. The boy again begins to wail that again he has not eaten a thing in 24 hours and will surely faint; he is very sorry about running away the last time, but he wouldn’t do it again, he promises. The policeman, though moved, smiles knowingly, and laughs: Oh no, he says, I wasn’t born yesterday; you can’t try that trick again! No! This time, he says, you wait here in the street and I’ll get the pizza.
The camaraderie of the joking session has everything to do, as Keith Basso showed in his account of Apache jokes about the Whiteman, with who is telling the joke to whom. The Macedonian speakers, in relation to the national minority of monolingual Greek speakers who ruled over them in the second half of the twentieth century, also speak of themselves as unschooled and naïve in the ways and means of advancing themselves in the dog-eat-dog world of the broader national network.
Jokes aside, the Pontian speaker and the Macedonian speakers found themselves together on the losing side of a civil war in the late 1940s, fellow travellers who ended up transported as youth conscripts, volunteers and child political refugees on the other side of this lake, “inside” (mesa), as they call it, cold-war style, of the Eastern Bloc; and this is why they are here, the visitors from the now neo-liberally ‘liberated’ yperoria, the “beyond the boundaries,” together with their local (dopii) in-laws, some 50 years later.
After lunch, four of us set off for a tour of the island and to visit the basilica. I am curious to know how people born in Prespa see the things that occupy their landscape. I had been to Aghios Akhillios once before, but I was there on my own, so my exploration was limited to the obvious paths. Even then, the basilica was not hard to locate; it was already becoming something of a local logo. The ruins were both massive and fragmentary; they seemed to hold the space they embraced in a spell of stillness, like early Romanesque churches in France. The walls of the apse were intact, and its trio of windows framed the view of lake water in a blaze of light. The forecourt was a riot of broken stone, fragments of antique marble slabs, paving, and columns overrun by gorse and dry weed. The marble tombs—I did not know then how significant were their former occupants– lay half broken and long empty. The north walls looked dangerously close to collapse. I tried to read the eroded inscriptions and to decipher the faded remnants of the saints in the frescoes, but I could capture very little. A shepherdess came by with her flock and we talked for a while as she leaned on her stave and regarded me with curiosity.
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Now, however, I have Irini as a guide, and she knows where she is going. We plan to climb to the top of the island by way of a small chapel to the Virgin that is particularly admired for its paintings. Irini leads us through the maze of chestnuts and wild oaks and blackberries and mulberries; we are followed by clusters of mosquitoes that seemed to live on the ubiquitous cow dung dropped by the cows whose paths these are. A small dog runs up to us– apparently he belongs to a goat he seems to have lost track of. Below us in the marshy fringe of the island cows nudge a narrow wake through the water lilies. Anna tells us a tale about a snake with horns and a mustache who lives in the marshes on the north side. He’s guarding some gold, but he doesn’t bother anyone.
QP Hart fig-3 We reach the small chapel and monastery. The chapel has a decorated narthex, single nave, and trefoil apse. Christ, the Virgin, the apostles, look down on us in frescoes that are surprisingly intact. The iconography is modeled, not flat, with a great subtlety of expression. By the window, the light falls on a delicate painting of flowers, like those cheerful pan-Mediterranean decorations one sees on the wooden wardrobe panels of 18th and 19th century provincial Greek houses. This was a working monastery with quite a few resident nuns before the war. Anna’s mother took her to sleep in the church when she was ill as a small child (she was cured). Now only the foundations of the cells are visible above ground.
We climb further up, toward the cross at the summit of the island. The Bishop of Florina, Augustinos, erected, or rather imposed, the monument during the rule of the junta in 1971. It is an enormously out of scale, tall white angular cross with an inscription on a marble plaque below it. The inscription, as was conventional until the 1980s, is in formal, not demotic, Greek, katharevousa. Anna teaches Greek abroad, so she can read the inscription better than the rest of us, but we all get the gist of the lesson: ‘this gift to the island from Augustinos is a symbol of the sacrifices of the martyred people of Greece for the nation (ethnos).’ This message is received with some irony by our little group of former political refugees who were indeed delivered up to the altar of nationalism as small children.
QP Hart fig-4 In 1990, Florina’s bishop generated international controversy by ex-communicating the esteemed director Angelopoulos and his actors in the film, The Suspended Step of the Stork, shot in the streets of the town. The Bishop insisted it was a communist film and that he would not allow it in his diocese, and he stirred up a frenzy of xenophobia. In an interview in a small magazine, the actor Marcello Mastroianni, suffering from the very cold winter conditions and waiting for the furor to die down so that the work could proceed, objected: “This film has serious meaning. It has to do with all of humanity, all people who have hard lives and who do not have the means to resist unjust power. What is the problem, then, with that scenario?… I think the bishop has gotten bad advice. I assure you this film is Christian. The people in the film have their little histories, their drama, their loves. The characters fall in love, love surpasses everything. The main theme is the power of young people to live free. What is more Christian than that? In this film when we speak of borders, we mean something universal, symbolic. It’s not about the frontier with Yugoslavia, or Albania, or Turkey, or any other country. It’s the idea that someone might wish, one day to remove all the borders and for human beings to be free, to have a place to live freely, and so, if they haven’t understood that, what have they understood. The question is not if someone is Greek, another one Albanian, another Turk, Kurd. We are not dealing with ethnic borders.” [3]
Near the site of the cross we find the remains of two more small churches, marble columns scattered on the ground. But Augustinos’s neoclassical fascist-style cross irritates me profoundly. The cross seems to stake out the island in a blatant confrontation, like those patriot earthworks of flags and slogans that political prisoners after the civil war (perhaps some from this prefecture) were obliged to carve on the hillsides of their Aegean detention camps. My friends tell me that it is, anyway, useful as a lightning rod.
We set off back towards the house, but we stop on the way to visit Samuil’s basilica. The forecourt is considerably neater, the brick of the walls more secure, than when I first saw the basilica. I photograph Anna and Pandelis taking a rest on a stone in the old narthex of the church: here they are, resting.
QP Hart fig-5 Anna and Pandelis also tell me the story of the Tsar Samuil and the bell. I wonder where the bell has gone, or if there ever was a bell. Some of the men in our lunch party have worked on the crews that rebuilt the basilica walls out of the debris of a millennium of marble, stone and brick. The preserved building, rough and eclectic, looks heroic in scale, like the Roman and Byzantine bridges that Greek rural legends attribute to a race of giant ancestors.
Prespa, Greece, 1998
Most of the time when I stop by to visit Maria, I find her in her summer kitchen in the long stone summer kitchen/storehouse (apothiki) in the garden, rolling out pita dough or stewing fruit or tsipouro or otherwise stocking the larder for the string of friends, travelers, workers, itinerant laborers, neighbors abandoned and alone, who are welcomed indiscriminately at her table. Today Maria gives me a tour of her herb garden. She introduces me to her “honeygreens” (melissohorta) and explains that when the queen of the hive dies and another is being born, the bees swarm, and to gather them you put this herb in a pot where they are hovering and they will all go into the pot (so you, presumably, can grab the honeycomb). She points out the sage that she grows not only for tea but also for cooking because in Italy, where she studied architecture, she learned to cook white meats, like pork, with it. With her rose geranium, barbarosa or redbeard, she makes the sweet you eat on a spoon dipped in water, glyko koutaliou. She picks and chews a leaf of the herb called “telegraph”—she tells me that it is excellent in salad—but cannot remember its formal name. Maria has pursued and absorbed all of the practical knowledge of all of the ethnic and historical sedimentations of this tri-state, tri-angle of the southern Balkans. Her father was born in Monastir in what is now the DR of Macedonia; her mother was born in southern Albania. She seems to speak everything, or enough of everything.
We get ready for our trip to the basilica: we are going on an excursion with her brother and sister-in-law who will come for the day from Florina. Before they arrive we have a few errands to do to take care of some loose ends. First we have to take food to a certain Giorgos who is in the jail in the police station in the next village. We find him gazing mournfully out the small window of the cell that looks out onto the main square. Maria scolds him and says he has been a kako paidi, a badly behaved guy. A policeman comes out from the station and asks suspiciously what relation she has to Giorgos. “None in particular,” Maria says, “I just know him.” Maria knows everyone, but she especially cares about anyone who is struggling to survive at the bottom of the tough ladder of rural labor hierarchies. Giorgos is an Albanian laborer who has walked up over the mountain paths separating Albania from Greece in search of work. He has done this many times and been thrown out many times. He’s not the ‘worthy poor’: he does a bit of work, gets drunk and spends all his money and beats someone up. Maria says he won’t understand that this time he really can’t come back to Greece. They have to send him back, she sighs, what can they do? But he won’t understand that he really can’t come back. At the same time, she says, a man has to eat. So she brings him food.
We drive to another old church, in the formerly malarial swamplands of the Little lake. It must be a decade since they initiated the project, but only now is it nearing completion. Funds are scarce, and skilled labor time is erratically available; increasingly, it is only a few of the older locals and the Albanian immigrants, illegal workers, who know how to work stone. Maria is bringing the mason a recipe for a cement-sand mix that will match the existing centuries-old mortar. She sends samples to Thessaloniki for analysis and they try to approximate it; but as the available materials vary so much from the past it always becomes an ad hoc kind of experimentation. The basilica is very fragmentary, without a roof; they have copied the brick patterns they are aiming for from a photo of the site at the turn of the 20th century. The lintels, like those at Aghios Akhillios, are made of light pumice stone.
Maria talks construction with the mastoros as the others gaze on, smoking, taking a break in the shade. The mood is serious. They are engaged in a common task from positions at slight odds, and there is the feeling of a kind of stand-off of people long familiar to each other, dependent on one another to get things done, respectful, with different kinds of capital to bring into play.
We have one more errand, to see what Maria can do for a small house in semi-repair that has been eaten by bees. The mud brick walls have been deeply and pervasively pitted by wild bees. Mud brick properly taken care of will last nearly forever if a house has a proper roof; it only melts if the rain comes in at the top. In this case the builders have made the mistake of putting cement lintels and a ceramic pitched roof at the top of the walls: Maria says this cement belt too heavy for the walls, and bad for earthquake as the rest of the house is flexible but this part is not. Wood would have been cheaper and better, but people can’t imagine, she says, that the old ways are better. Maria decides the best they can do is to put chicken wire around the pitted brick walls to tie them together and then plaster over that.
With Maria’s brother and sister in law and two friends we make our way to Aghios Akhillios. We are going to eat lunch before our walk in the new hotel just launched by a young couple on the island. The couple radiates expectation for the possibilities of this new venture. On the way across to the lake, their seven year old daughter, who has spectacular green eyes, sits in the prow of the boat, hair streaming. She is good in school and already speaks three languages: she is another beacon of the future. After lunch, we drink a coffee and set off for the basilica. The fondness between the siblings makes all of us lighthearted. Maria explains the conservation of the basilica, and then the group poses for pictures, framed in the windows of the apse:
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One evening an archaeologist on the team of volunteers working in Prespa for the summer shows his slides of the local churches under reconstruction to a gathering of local young people who have worked as laborers on the excavations with him. He shows a picture of the icon of the dog-headed St. Christopher from the chapel at Aghios Akhillios:
QP Hart fig-7 Sadly, he tells us that the dog head has now been ripped out of the stone by treasure hunters looking for gold. I hear a lot of tales of gold hidden in chests, gold hidden behind the dog-faced Christophers, gold hidden in corner stones. The stories are not entirely fantastical. People did hide their gold; and then they were forced to leave their properties and their imagined or real gold behind. When they moved to properties others had been in turn forced to leave, perhaps they hoped for some cosmic reciprocity for these disposessions. The archaeologist is telling this story as a plea, for people to honor the beautiful paintings and stones as valuable in themselves.
The archaeologist moves on to happier subjects: he talks about the progress in the renovation of the basilica at Aghios Akhillios, which he declares a success and an example for the future. The future of Prespa, he says with conviction, is in its history. Of course, Prespa is already financially dependent on the past: with its cave sanctuaries, its early Christian churches and its unexcavated pre-Christian buried antiquities, not only archaeologists but busloads of pilgrim tourists under the tutelage of priests come to eat fish at the tavernas and to cross the lake in the fishermen’s square-sterned boats to visit the hermitages hidden in the rocks. Since two of the villages around the lake are also under architectural preservation regulations that affect domestic buildings, however, these issues of preservation are not a one sided issue. Locals mostly would like to be free to build what they want in their hometowns. They find half-ruined mud-brick houses depressing. But they are at the same time proud of the churches and the fragments of antiquity.
The archaeologist ventures into controversial territory. “People ask me,” he says, “is this basilica a Bulgarian or a Greek ruin?” For archaeologists, he continues, that question does not make any sense. Aghios Akhillios, he says, is a Byzantine basilica; and the Byzantines were above (yper) all that kind of distinction: they took whatever was useful from the ancients and from all the other traditions, and they used whatever they liked.
Implicitly, Samuil’s church occupies the unlabeled place some Greeks also occupy. The gift of the bell reflects the esteem in which the great Russian Empire and the world of superpowers beyond the lake held this “periphery” that was the center of its own great empire. But the bell is a cypher, a key, for sure, but equally a thing “of no weight, or worth, or influence”, as the dictionary defines the term– nothing at all in the world of modern states.
One girl in the audience objects to all this interest in the past:
“The Byzantines,” she protests, “destroyed what the ancients left. People destroy things for their own interest and move on: the monks cut their caves into the rocks, and we blast the rocks; the Byzantines destroyed the classical temples and used the stones for the churches they wanted to build, and we raze the old houses and put up what is good in our eyes.”
There are various stories about how the basilica fell into ruin. According to legend, there was a great city on Aghios Akhillios, governed by a king. The king had a dream in which he fell in love with a nereid living in a cave where he had taken shelter from the rain while out hunting. Despite her warnings that such a match between a mortal and a spirit would only bring disaster, the kind insisted on marrying her; and indeed as the wedding party made its way back to the palace after the festivities, a terrific storm broke out, and the city and its inhabitants were engulfed and destroyed. [4]
But the lake is more than a cosmic Fury. It is also, the folklorist Lazaros Mellios tells us, a political barometer. He describes how the level of the lakes reacts, above all, to the threat of war, and predicts its severity:

I didn’t write about this earlier, that is before the autumn of 1956. That was because of my own doubt and disbelief. Now however that I have seen it and verified it myself, because I have lived through it, I feel I am obliged to report it. From conversations with inhabitants, and later by my own observation, I determined that the level of the water of the lakes–beginning in the autumn of 1956–began to rise to the extent that the levels of the two lakes were in harmony. The Little lake, with no other egress, spills its water through the isthmus of Kouli to the Big lake; that lake in turn feeds Lake Ochrid, which then empties into the Adriatic Sea. The amount of water in the big lake depends on blockages in the underground tunnels through which it communicates with Ochrid, and to a lesser extent on weather conditions. If this balance is disturbed, the damage is incalculable and the consequences immense. Fields, birds, and people die. In Prespa it is recognized that the balance of the water levels is most powerfully affected by one cause above all: war. [5]

As Mellios recounts, he saw this with his own eyes in 1956, or he would not have believed it. In the midst of what was until then the worst season of the Cold War –the Suez Crisis combined with the brutal Soviet assault on Hungary’s national uprising—as he was resigning himself to a global catastrophe, a renewed outbreak of world war, Prespans told him that what they saw in the lake predicted this: an outbreak of conflict, a great panic, and then a sudden, more or less immediate, resolution. They had read the future in the lake in 1870 with the French–German war, and again in 1914 -1918 with WWI, and again with 1939-1942 with WWII. Mellios, writing in 1976, two years after the fall of the right wing dictatorship, does not say anything about what was said about the levels of the lakes during the civil war from 1946 to 1949. He declares that the lakes are now in balance, and by this we can understand that he means that there is peace for the time being.

Footnote, Prespa, 2012
The political instability in Greece precipitated by the Euro “Crisis” and the imposition by the European “troika” [6] of “structural adjustment” is manifesting itself, as local folklore might have predicted, in the biopolitics of the lakes in 2012. In 2009 the center left party of George Papandreou initiated a tri-state international agreement with (former Yugoslav) Macedonia and Albania for cooperative management of the lake resources; but in August 2012, two months after the installation of the coalition government led by the conservative New Democracy party, only Greece had failed to ratify the transboundary agreement. A coalition of transboundary organizations continued to push the agenda forward with support from the United Nations Development Program and met in Bitola, Macedonia through the initiative of the Ministry of the Environment and Physical Planning of the FYR of Macedonia “with the aim of rekindling collaboration in the Prespa Park after a long period of institutional inactivity.”

Most of the members of the envisaged Prespa Park Management Committee (PPMC) participated in the meeting. All the participants stressed the deep commitment of their respective organisations to transboundary collaboration in the Prespa basin and their desire for the bureaucratic processes of ratification of the Agreement to be accelerated so that the PPMC might formally begin its work. [7]

The main Greek eco-NGO, the Society for the Protection of Prespa, calls Prespa “an ecosystem that still resists,” that still “defends itself.” The lakes are the embattled breeding ground of ‘heroic’ migrant species, crossing boundaries despite global threats to their survival and political barriers to cooperation across old Cold War boundaries and new neo-liberal nationalist and pan-nationalist blocs. Some Eastern European news bulletins report a hazardous increase in water levels and average temperatures in the lakes as a result of global warming; others report that the Big lake, blighted by pesticide, is drying up. The local population worries: its survival is predicated now on a delicate balance of agriculture dependent on abundant water and cheap Albanian labor, shrinking government pensions and dwindling civil service employment, sporadic tourism, fragile family enterprises, remittances from globalized kin. The twelve year old daughter of my friend Olga tells me they don’t teach local Prespa history in school, and anyway only the old people talk about the past anymore; her grandmother, she notes, used to talk about nothing else, and never forgave anyone. The equation of history and ‘ruin’ here is strong (as Olga asked me, honestly perplexed and somewhat irritated, “What is it with you foreigners and the ruins?”). A new generation seeks resolution in the aftermath of so many centuries of war by rejecting (perhaps like the generation whose trajectory Homer described) “problems of justice…right vs wrong…truth vs lies.” [8]

QP Hart fig-8


[ back ] 1. Adam-Veleni, Polyxeni. 1998. Petres of Florina. Thessaloniki: Adam-Veleni, Polyxeni.
[ back ] 2. See also: Etairia Prostasias Prespon. Ta Keimena Tou Kentrou Plirofories tis Prespas. 1995. Aghios Germanos, 1995; Culi, Maria and Dimitra Babalis 1980. Prespa Nella Macedonia Grece. L’Uso delle risorse locali nella prospettiva della riconstituzione del rapporto uomo-ambiente. Universita degli studi di Firenze, Facolta di Architettura.
[ back ] 3. Mikri-mikri synenteyxi me ton Martselo Mastroigianni,” 1991. Etairia 7, vol 7 august 1991. Pp. 31-33.
[ back ] 4. Mellios, Lazaros, 1976. Op.cit.
[ back ] 5. Ibid.
[ back ] 6. The International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank (ECB) who designed and enforce the austerity package of “debt relief” for Greece.
[ back ] 7. Society for the Protection of Prespa Website. Wetland Monitoring. Accessed August 15, 2012.
[ back ] 8. “Generally, Homeric poetry does not address the problems of justice, that is, right vs. wrong, which is also, truth vs. lies.” Gregory Nagy (lecture notes, The Concept of the Hero in Greek Civilization, n.d.).