Now and Then

Posted on Friday, September 14, 2012, under , , , , , , ,

Quintus Curtius Rufus, a Roman historian (1st c. AD) wrote on Alexander the Great and his troubled, at least initially, founding of the city of Alexandria in Egypt: ‘There is a report, that after the king had completed the Macedonian custom of marking out the circular boundary for the future city-walls with barley-meal, flocks of birds flew down and fed on the barley’. Driving through the Republic of Macedonia this summer I wondered if the road builders of the recently-fledged country followed in the great man’s footsteps. Because the long stretches along the ‘Aleksandar Makedonski’ motorway are completely unmarked: no lines of any kind or colour. Have the birds gobbled up the barley?

Driving along the ‘motorway’, dotted with bumps and holes of all shape and size, can be a pretty scary experience, especially at night, the road being unlit save for your car’s headlights and, if lucky, moonlight. That was on the way to Greece, north-south direction. On the way back some nine days later, south-to-north, we knew better and drove in broad daylight. But the persistence of bumps and holes proved too much and eventually steered us off the main highway and onto the local ‘E-roads’, which proved to be – surprise, surprise – in no better state. Only when we got on the very local, virtually vehicle-less 125a, leading through beautiful landscapes along the Pčinja river, only then did we finally open all four windows and let in the warm summer air, scented by sundry wild flowers.

On the Macedonia-Serbian border crossing we were the only customers. Which must be why it took ages both for the Macedonian and the Serbian boys in blue to let us through after giving our passports some seriously close scrutiny. The Pelince border crossing must be one of the most romantic (if that is a suitable word for a border crossing): right in the gully, surrounded by lush forests and so, so quiet, only birdsong and the humming of river is heard.

A ten-minute drive past the border takes you to the St Prohor Pčinjski Orthodox monastery, it being the real clincher behind our original detour. The monastic complex is beautifully arranged, comprised of the St Prohor Church and the magnificent konak, the imposing residential building, sporting a unique architectural style. The place was abuzz with workers, busy with all sorts of repairs and adjustments – you could see something positive was taking place. A further proof for the care and concern for its surroundings was this wooden notice board (see if you can figure out what all the symbols stand for). Click to enlarge.

St Prohor’s life story is a story of a devout and a dedicated anchorite. According to the apparently extensive and well-preserved hagiography, Prohor was born in the first half of the 11th century, into a wealthy and educated family. One day, elated upon hearing Matthew’s ‘He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me’, Prohor abandoned what remaining shreds of secularity were still fettering him, and left for the high hills, never to return. The next thirty two years (some sources say much longer) he spent living in a small cave with the mountain beasts, sleeping on the bare rock, feeding on wild fruits and grass, drinking water from the mountain spring, never setting eyes on a living human soul.

Well, almost never. The legend goes that one day a hunter hard on the heels of an injured doe, which has just found a shelter with Prohor, comes across the old man, is immediately startled and starts backing off. Prohor calls out to him and the two begin conversing. The hunter turns out to be a Byzantine military aristocrat Diogenes (which Prohor somehow already knew) and eventually Prohor prophesies Diogenes is to become the future emperor of Byzantium. Prohor also pledges Diogenes that once he becomes a king, he should duly remember the old hermit’s prophesy.
Decades later, Romanos IV Diogenes (1068-1071) has a dream in which the old prophet admonishes him with words: ‘Why, great Diogenes, have you forgotten your old garb and me the old hermit? Make an effort and build me at least a small temple where I could pray to God until my final days’. The Emperor, frightened, immediately sets off to the north Macedonian mountains to try and find Prohor. After many days of fruitless search, Prohor reappears in Diogenes’ dream and tells him to go to Mount Kozjak and look for a cave above which a white eagle soars, after which Diogenes finally finds the cave and in it the old man’s remains, lying intact and quite unspoiled. On the spot Diogenes builds a small church dedicated to St Luke and further down, at the Pčinja riverbank, another, a more imposing one, where St Prohor’s relics remain to this day.

                             From left to right: Diogenes IV, St Prohor, King Milutin (click to enlarge)
Incidentally, Diogenes’ own fate as an emperor turned out to be a sort of royal martyrdom in its own right. This from Wikipedia:

During his reign [Diogenes] was determined to halt the decline of the Byzantine military and stop Turkish incursions into the Byzantine Empire, but in 1071 he was captured and his army routed at the Battle of Manzikert, lead by the Sultan Alp Arslan.
[…] According to a number of Byzantine historians… Arslan at first had difficulty believing the dusty and tattered warrior brought before him was the Roman Emperor. He then stepped down from his seat and placed his foot on Romanos' neck. But after this sign of ritual humiliation, Arslan raised Romanos from the ground, and ordered him to be treated like a king. From then on he treated him with extreme kindness, never saying a cruel word to him in the Emperor's eight-day stay in his camp, and then released him in exchange for a treaty and the promise of a hefty ransom.
[…]In the meantime, the opposition faction scheming against Romanos IV decided to exploit the situation. While still captive [Romanos] was overthrown in a palace coup, and when released he was quickly defeated by the army led by one Andronikos Doukas. Pursued by Andronikos, [Romanos IV] was eventually forced to surrender by the garrison at Adana upon receiving assurances of his personal safety. Before leaving the fortress, he collected all the money he could lay his hands on and sent it to the Sultan as proof of his good faith, along with a message: "As emperor, I promised you a ransom of a million and a half. Dethroned, and about to become dependent upon others, I send you all I possess as proof of my gratitude".
Andronikos stipulated that Diogenes’ life would be spared if he resigned the purple and retired into a monastery. Romanos agreed, and this agreement was ratified at Constantinople. However, John Doukas reneged on the agreement, and sent men to have Romanos cruelly blinded on June 29, 1072, before sending him into exile to Prote in the Sea of Marmara. Without medical assistance, his wound became infected, and he soon endured a painfully lingering death. The final insult was given a few days before his death, when Romanos received a letter from Michael Psellos, congratulating him on the loss of his eyes. He finally died, praying for the forgiveness of his sins, and his wife Eudokia was permitted to honour his remains with a magnificent funeral.

Now, all these machinations have a familiar ring to it. Have the successive governments on the Balkan peninsula in recent history not been their own worst enemies? Have they not been vying for power under any excuse and at any price? Have they not been pursuing their own fat interests instead of ensuring the prosperity of their own citizens? Has this blatant disregard not led many Balkan countries to an economic as well as spiritual cesspit?

As for the spirituality and the church, well, look at Prohor’s shining example and then look at the Orthodox elite in Greece, Serbia, Russia today. In Russia, the Church has acted as Putin’s bodyguard, to paraphrase Hitchens. The highly privileged orders of Greek and Serbian monks are exempt from tax, drive expensive cars, talk on mobiles, and bicker over property and funds. One recent example:

The around 2,600 monks residing at the Vatopaidi monastery in Mount Athos defied the Greek Ministry of Finance last year when it required the so-called autonomous territory pay property taxes on its commercial property.
Mount Athos, a 300 km2 peninsula in Greece, is off limits to women and is exempt from paying VAT. Its mandate prohibits “heterodox or schismatics to live on the Holy Mountain” and states its elected Abbot “must not have been convicted of malversation of monastic property.”
Its chief operator, Abbot Ephraim, is charged with money laundering and embezzlement in a land swap that saw valuable state land traded for less valuable property held by Vatopaidi.
The Hellenic court handed him a six-month suspended sentence in February 2012.
Another monk also took the blame, as well as a former judge from the area in northern Greece where the land swaps took place.
Ephraim, who posted €300,000 bail, was released after four months of detention in Korydallos prison. The former abbot is now residing at the monastery and is not allowed to leave Mount Athos.
The Greek edition of the International Herald Tribune reported that Ephraim called his conditional release "a miracle of the Virgin."

 Talk about dignity and sainthood.

edit post

Places, Destinations

Posted on Friday, September 14, 2012, under


  1. Spello, Italy

  3. Kyoto, Japan

  5. Cancun, Mexico



edit post