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The hidden region Mariovo

Mariovo is one of the most legendary, mysterious and admirable places in Macedonia. Everyone knows its natural beauty, its deserted villages, its impressive canyons, small bridges, ancient relics and medieval monuments. Many are familiar with its folk traditions if only from the recent movies promoting Macedonia inspired by the outstanding images of this region. Yet, the region is not overrun by visitors and adventure seekers. Actually it is still barren and deserted land with only 800 inhabitants living in an area of 1400 square kilometres.

Mariovo lies in the southern most part of Macedonia, bordering on Greece, and has a rather unique geography, elevated at 1050 meters and surrounded by Selecka in the west, Nidze and Kozuf in the south, Kozjak in the east and Dren in the north, all these peaks ranging from 1500 to 2500 meters.  It is, in a way, also defined by the river Crna (pronounced tsrna) that flows through the whole area creating a 100 km long canyon. The larger area on the right side of the river was called Old Mariovo, while the left side was called Small Mariovo. Its morphological features include barren and dry hills, deep stone river gorges, but also magnificent woodland areas in the higher regions of the mountains. Three climate zones meet here thanks to the landscape. Continental climate comes from the Pelagonia Plains. The Crna opens the way to the Mediterranean influences from south east, while the northern mountains partially block cold continental winds.

The Brave Sultanija Mara

Mariovo has a long history as a distinct region in its present borders. It had a special status of has during the Ottoman Empire, which gave a certain degree of autonomy to the local people. It is associated with the legend and figure which actually gave name to the region. According to the legend, the formal ruler of the land after the Ottoman conquest, a mighty pasha, fell in love with a local girl called Mara. She was more or less forced to join his harem, but before doing that she asked him to promise a special status for her people and the freedom to keep their Christian faith. The promise held for decades making the local population proud and rebellious when extra taxes were imposed. Twice, in the sixteenth and in the seventeenth centuries, glorious resistance was given to attempts to retract the privileges the area had since Sultanija Mara’s time.

In the modern times, the people living in Mariovo villages began to identify with different towns. The new affinities have divided the region into Bitola Mariovo, with the village centre of Staravina, Prilep Mariovo, with Vitoliste as a centre, and Tikves Mariovo inclining to Kavadarci, with the centre in Konopiste that until recently had a municipality of its own comprising the villages of Rozden, Majdan, Rzanovo and Klinovo. There are subtle cultural and micro-linguistic differences among the three areas. Staravina was an old municipal centre in the first half of the twentieth century. Prilep has kept the oral heritage of Itar Pejo, the ludicrous Mariovo peasant who became popular in the town’s market. Mariovo used to have more than twenty-eight villages. Just after World War Two it was a region with the highest birth rate in the country. But with the arrival of urbanization the population migrated first to the surrounding towns and then even abroad. So that today most common image is the one of ancient villages with rustic stone houses standing almost empty, keeping the century-old appearance. There are asphalt roads connecting the main villages like Staravina or Vitoliste. But very often they end abruptly, and one has to continue the bumpy ride in dirt and dust. Mountain huts in this region, like the one close to Staravina, can be offered free of charge. Weekend houses can offer support and logistical assistance to the wanderers. If someone establishes a good rapport with the locals they can taste the famous Mariovo lamb, honey and beaten cheese (bieno sirenje).

Legends, Relics and Remains

Abandoned Mariovo offers many legends, potential discoveries and unexpectedly beautiful sights. One of the most striking edifices in the area is the stone bridge spanning the Gradeska river near Zovik village. In the foundation of the bridge there are huge rocks in which the cold and clear river waters have cut a little canyon. One of the highest rocks under the bridge has a fresco of Saint George, the only trace of the church that used to stand here. During the First World War the area was a battle ground, and one can still see remains of trenches and bunkers around here. A unique war memorial is a tiny church dedicated to Saint Elijah and made of weapons and shells and fenced with barbed wire – a crypt for the soldiers who died in battle and a plea for eternal peace.

With the rise in popularity of Ancient history, there appeared new legends about the old Macedonian Kingdom. One of them is associated with the archaeological site in the vicinity of Polcista. Remains of a fortress outline the horizon, and ancient shields and other artefacts dating back to the fourth century were unearthed here. The villagers consider that it was exactly here that the Macedonian king Phillip was born. As historical records say, he descended from the mountains and built Pela, in present-day Greece, and they consider the mountains of Mariovo to be the closest to Pela, so they believe that he came from this location.

Old and forgotten monasteries are another feature of Mariovo. The monastery of Saint George lies on the border between Mariovo and Tikves (pronounced tikvesh) and can be reached only by boat across the artificial Tikves Lake. It is now situated in an inaccessible area, but in the past the monastery rose high above the canyon of the river Crna in the foothills of Visesnica. The church, as a lonely representative of its time, solemnly watches over the invaluable medieval art from the time of Tsar Dusan. According to the latest research, the building of the monastery dates back to before 1340, and the frescoes were painted in 1343-1345. In the sixteenth century it had an active monastic brotherhood and was an influential spiritual centre. The large gold-plated wooden cross was carved in this period (1584). At the beginning of the nineteenth century the lodgings on the eastern and on the southern sides, the bell tower and several other service buildings were built. Fragments of iconostasis, wood-carved chandelier and double doors from the seventeenth century remain from the period of prosperity and religious importance of the monastery.

The Cebren Monastery with the Church of St. Demetrios and a smaller church of the Holy Saviour located near the village Zovik, are centres of exceptional spiritual and archaeological value. The Monastery is situated on the eastern bank of the river Crna, where it merges with the picturesque landscape of meadows, trees and rocks. The church of St. Demetrios is a three-nave basilica with marble columns. Its iconostasis dates from the fifteenth century, but was renovated in the nineteenth century. To the southeast of the monastery, on the hill that rises over the river stands the small Church of the Holy Saviour probably built in the fourteenth century. It is a single-nave stone church with a wooden roof structure covered with stone tiles (preserved only on the apse and eastern wall). The massive stone iconostasis separates the altar area. The interior was completely covered with frescoes many of which can still be seen. The different styles of painting can be discerned in the frescoes in the central part and in the iconostasis on the one hand and those in the altar apse on the other.

The Sun Mineral

Another local legend that has received even some international exposure is connected to the ancient mine of Alsar. According to some, the mine has existed for over 5000 years. It has eight entrances, two of which lead through corridors of up to 6 kilometres and have cobbled pathways placed there by the Ottomans. The mine has been closed for decades. It is said that it contains the rarest mineral, lorandite, a crystal form of thallium, which can be found in very few places on the planet. The lorandite is thought to have the potential to unravel the so-called neutrino puzzle. Apparently lorandite can register in a chemical and physical way the so-called neutrino flux coming from the Sun, and it is the only known substance that has this property. If the neutrino could be further explored with the help of lorandite, science could better understand the processes that go on inside the Sun. Some add that it could lead to an understanding of the past but also of the future of our galaxy. According to rough estimates, the mine could have the reserves of up to 40 tonnes of lorandite. A few grams of lorandite for lab research are said to cost five to six Euros.