Ohrid: The city with a church for everyday of the year

Anjaly Thomas
Filed on June 24, 2021

The city with Europe’s deepest lake, has another unique facet to it – 365 churches

Taking a bite of the famed Ohrid trout grilled to perfection, she said, “There was a church for everyday of the year. Of the thousand churches in Macedonia (now North Macedonia), Ohrid alone had 365. And that’s what gave this city the nickname, Jerusalem of the Balkans.”

It was the last thing I expected to hear from a local woman sharing my table. Lunch forgotten; I did the mental math. How many churches could I possibly see in Ohrid?

As if reading my mind, she said. “Some are so small you can’t enter them. There are a few open-air ones too. You can average twenty a day, if not more.”

With that, she excused herself leaving me to chew on the info I’d been given. When lunch was cleared away, I decided to go on a spiritual pilgrimage. That way I could soak up some religious history.

A hill city of Churches

There are all kinds of churches in Ohrid — located on hills, along the streets, submerged or built into walls. Some are open to public and some are a secret. Some are abandoned, and few are open to everyone. Nobody knows with any certainty how many churches are left in Lake Ohrid and there is no easy way to see them all.

Observations by the 15th century Ottoman traveller Evlia Celebia maintains there were 365 of them here. While that might be stretching it, there are still too many in a city of mere 40,000 inhabitants.

Armed with a notebook, I began my quest. Walking across town admiring the medieval-esque architecture was like walking back in time. When I slipped on shiny and worn cobblestones in my haste to get around, I wondered how far I could go with this.

I chanced upon a small wayside church built into a wall. The caretaker handed me a candle and engaged in small talk. I told him of my mission. He looked heavenward and assured me of success.

The famous ones…

I began with the oldest and the most famous one — the Church of St. Sofia (Sveti Sofia, 852-889), located in the Old City Centre. This one started off as the synod church of Bulgarian Orthodox Church, then became the seat of Archbishopric of Ohrid. The Ottomans in their time turned into a mosque and following their downfall, it was turned into a church again. Filled with frescos and paintings from 10th, 11th and 12th centuries, this church is built on the foundations of the cathedral demolished in the first decade of the 6th century.

I had only just begun my spiritual exploration, but when I stumbled past smaller churches to arrive at Church of Saint John of Kaneo (St. Jovan, 1447) on a hill overlooking the lake, I knew the reason for Ohrid’s nickname. The location and the distinctive Byzantine-style architecture of this 13th century church makes it the most visited in Ohrid. Here, it is impossible to take a bad picture. Every postcard and fridge magnet carries this iconic image.

Photography is banned inside most of the churches — but forgive me lord for sneaking a few here and there!

This marvel can be seen in Before the Rain by Macedonian director Milcho Manchevski. From here, I followed the stairs that I thought would lead me to the lake, but it ended under the cliff at the small cave church of St. Bogorodica. A great spot for some quiet time, I thought, just before music blared from a pub nearby.

It was time to rest my heels before the next round of exploration. My lunch- partner had overestimated my ability to hunt down twenty churches in a day. The following morning, I was at the Church of Saints Clement and Panteleimon (originally built in 863 and renovated over the centuries) is said to be built on the site where the first students of Glagolitic alphabet (used to translate the holy Book into Church Slavonic) were taught. A statue of St. Clement (the patron of education) can be seen at the end of old Bazaar Street.

Not so far away from here is one of the few mausoleum (tomb) churches of Ohrid — Church of St. Bogorodica Perivlepta. Built in 1477, the frescos here show citizens of Ohrid from the 14th and 15th centuries and the donors of the church.

At the Church of Holy Mary Peribleptos (1295), I met Jana Poposka, an extremely knowledgeable person and authority on the city’s churches. It was she, who threw light on some of the best-preserved frescoes, including a rare one depicting the Virgin on her deathbed. Locals call this the Macedonian Sistine Chapel due to the amazing images on the domed-ceiling. This church also contains a collection of black and white photographs depicting Ohrid during the Ottoman period.

The not so famous ones…

St. Barbara is a relatively newer, family-owned small church in the yard, which a road sign with the name Lychnidos was found. I found this by chance when walking around the Roman Amphitheater on the street Ilindenska. And just above the Roman Amphitheater is another of those blink-and-miss churches dedicated to St. Bogorodica. If you don’t look for it, you can miss it, despite its little bell tower.

My quest took me to a few that were closed. I was advised that doors would open with two magic tools — a smile and greeting of klucot od crkvata? (key to the church) at the caretaker. Language is never a problem in the House of God.

Particularly pretty was the small church of St. Dimitri (St. Demetrius) sandwiched between the Upper Gate and the Church of St. Bogorodica Perivleptos. This one is reputed to contain 14th century frescoes but mostly remains closed. Sadly, there was no open sesame here. I particularly liked the St. Nikola Bolnicki, which is an older church inside a newer one with spectacularly heavy walnut doors!

Ohrid’s crowning glory

The monastery of St. Naum, I was told, was the ultimate gem. Located thirty kilometers away, it sat just one kilometer short of Albanian border overlooking spectacular landscape.

The monastic complex and church of St. Naum were built at the turn of the tenth century, by a monk named Naum (later canonized) and renewed and enlarged several times over the centuries. The icons of St. Naum are some of the best religious painting achievements in the Balkans, dating back to early 18th century. Not much is known of St. Naum but he is the patron saint of Ohrid. St. Naum’s claim to fame include location, antiquity, the number of peacocks and the fact that you can hear the saint’s heartbeat by pressing an ear to his stone coffin inside the church.

I heard it too — a rhythmic beating of the heart.

A true crowning glory of my visit to Ohrid.

A city with roots in the B.C

Today’s Ohrid was first mentioned in Greek documents (353 BCE) as Lychnidos (City of Light) and came to be called Ohrid in 879 CE, when Slavs moved to the Balkans. It meant City of hills. It is said that human beings have lived there for more than 8,000 years. Ohrid is located along the Via Egnatia — the Roman-built second century BC roads, which connected Turkey and Albania.

The lake city is known by various nicknames in the present but Balkan Pearl describes it best. City of Ohrid and Lake Ohrid were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979 and 1980, respectively.

The city abounds in beautiful natural landscapes and is home of historical and cultural places, and churches, many of which have remained untouched for centuries.

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