Macedonia: Its Races and Their Future
H. Brailsford

III. The Orthodox church

1. Attachment of the Peasants to the Churches

THERE is at a mouth of a wild glen in Northern Macedonia a little village which shelters beneath its thatched roofs and dilapidated walls more misery and more tenacity than we could meet with anywhere in modern Europe. The peasants are mere serfs, who work on their master's land at their master's caprice for seven days in every week. They are not in the fortunate case of those Christian villagers who form within the limits of the hill or valley that is their daily world, a compact and kindly community of one faith and one race. The bey's house dominates their hovels. The bey's Moslem retainers, idle, well armed, and bred up in a predatory tradition, live among them and upon them. Their existence is a monotonous round of exploitation and servitude, broken and varied only by some wanton act of malice or of mischief, for which there is no possibility either of revenge or of redress. Talking with these villagers, I remember that the question came to my lips, "Why do you stay ? Why do you not emigrate in a body ? You have no lands to lose. The railway is barely ten miles away. You can almost see the Servian hills, and to Bulgaria is only three days' tramp. Why do you not go to a land where you might be both prosperous and free ?" The answer gave me the clue to the deepest instinct in the Balkan peasant's nature. "Who," they said, "would care for the monastery, if we abandoned it ? The Turks would seize it." And then they took me to visit the "monastery." It was only a little chapel with a few rude outbuildings. Once there had been a monk or two, but now a peasant


family was in charge, who farmed the poor lands that belonged to it in the rugged, sunless valley. It boasted no architectural beauty, no rich eikons, no curious carving. But its shell of undressed stone, daubed though it was with recent plaster, had echoed for centuries the prayers, the faith, and the misery of that abandoned hamlet. Its rude inscriptions in Slavonic lettering proved that it dated from before the Conquest. It was the one link with the past, and the village was ready to endure its daily humiliation, its incessant toil, its hopeless poverty, content to fulfil the simple duty of preserving those historic stones from ruin, and keeping alight the little flames that had blackened its altar-screen with the piety of the ages. This passion for the church represented the one ideal element in the life of the village, its sole care that went beyond food and raiment, and it was strong enough to outweigh all the allurements of freedom and of ease. The more one learned of the Macedonian peasants, the more one realised that the sentiment of this village was common to them all. Going about among the devastated villages of Monastir after the insurrection, I was always led first of all to inspect the burned or looted church. Its destruction affected the people far more profoundly than the loss of their homes. Village after village besought us to set aside for the reconstruction of the churches some part at least of the relief money which we were spending to meet sheer starvation. I am convinced that the average peasant would rather that we had rebuilt his church, even at the cost of surrendering some of the food and clothing which we actually gave him. There is scarcely a village so poor or so small as to have no church, even if the peasants themselves live in hovels of mud and subsist for some weeks before harvest on a diet of roots and herbs; while the wealthier villages of the south erect splendid, if tawdry, fanes which dominate the countryside. [1]

1. The older churches in the East are indeed little more than shrines. They have little relation to population. You may find them in desert places, or, again, a town of perhaps 5,000 inhabitants will boast one hundred ancient chapels. They are not places of assembly or worship. They are rather monuments to some saint. There is room to swing a censer and chant an Alleluia, but for a congregation no one thought of providing. Pictures (eikons) commemorate the dead saint, and perhaps, a chest contains his relics. The little place, with its graceful structure and quaint domes of antique brick, fulfils a duty for the countryside by its mere existence, and doubtless counts for much in winning the favours of the glorified martyr or hermit. The modern churches, which are often large and spacious, are obviously built under the influence of a quite different conception of the Church's place in life. They have of course their altars and their eikons, but they are primarily "synagogues" assembly-rooms. The village, under Turkish rule, has come to value its Church as the centre of its social and political existence. Here alone it is permissible for the commune to gather together. Here it is free from the eyes of the tyrant and the unbeliever. Meetings to discuss secular interests are sometimes held in the nave, and the Insurgent Committee will summon a village to church in order to choose the men who are to serve in its bands. But, despite these profane uses, the Church retains its sanctity. Sometimes, though rarely, it was used during the winter of 1903-4 as a refuge by houseless families, but my suggestions that it should be turned into a hospital during an epidemic excited horror for a death would have meant desecration.

Ancient church of St. Sophia (Ochrida), now a dilapidated mosque

[Previous] [Next]
[Back to Index]