Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, A Journey through Yugoslavia, Rebecca West

Macedonia (South Serbia)

Skoplje I

I BEHAVED like a professional guide as we hurried out of the station, waving my hand to indicate the wealth that lay behind the darkness. The station lies in the new part of Skoplje, at the end of the main street, which resembles some hundred yards cut out of a secondary shopping centre in an English industrial town, saving the dimness of its lighting, the cobbles, and the lack of automobiles, and gives the same impression that the scalp of the years has become dandruffed with undistinguished manufactured goods. But behind the station a tableland was Atlas to a sky marbled with moonlit clouds, and about us there was warm air and the scent of lilacs, and the sound of playing and singing, the astringent sound of Macedonian playing and singing, from the little cafes hidden away in side streets and courtyards. And an event was imposing on the city a rhythm, an excitement. Little fiacres with two horses were clattering over the cobbles, people were hurrying along on clattering heels, all in the same direction. "Look, they are all going to the church for the Easter ceremony," said Constantine; "we must just deposit our luggage in the hotel and start out again, if we are not to miss it, for it is nearly midnight." "I am afraid that I will have to get some other shoes," I said, for one heel of the pair I was wearing had come off as I got out of the train. "But meantime you can tell them to get us a fiacre."

But when we came downstairs again they had done nothing. In the lounge Gerda was sitting quite still, dazed in contemplation of my inconsiderateness as an antique monk of Mount Athos in contemplation of his navel, and Constantine was nervously agreeing with the strictures she had made before she passed into full ecstasy. The boy who might have fetched us a fiacre was now doing something else, so we had to go back to the station, and there we found only one, which was falling to pieces. It would have been just possible for three, but for four it was dangerous misery. We rattled down the main street to the square leading to the bridge over the Vardar, and my husband turned to crane his neck in wonder at the unique architectural horror which defiled that spot. It regrettably happened that the Yugoslavs, in their joy at turning out the Turks and becoming the masters of Macedonia, pulled down the beautiful mosque that had stood for three centuries in this commanding position, and replaced it by an Officers' Club which is one of the most hideous buildings in the whole of Europe. It is built of turnip-coloured cement and looks like a cross between a fish-kettle and a mausoleum, say the tomb of a very large cod. As my husband received the shock of this building's outline he nearly fell out on the cobbles, and I cried out, "This is a horrible fiacre!" "We might have got a better one," said Gerda, "if we had been a little earlier."

It seemed to me for a minute that there was going to be no Easter, that Gerda had annulled it, and that we were to be left with nothing but a scramble and fuss on our hands. But now we were on the bridge, in the cold air that blows off the Vardar, which carries with it the snakelike chill of those rivers which grow big quite soon after they leave the snow mountains. On the black waters the embankment lamps made shuddering pools of golden oil; behind them the new houses, simple and artless yet shaped by a good tradition of living, made un-Western shapes against the darkness; very high above the town the bright windows of a fortress shone where one had expected the stars. We turned off the bridge on to the embankment. The river rushed beside us, above us the flocks of silver clouds rushed over the black firmament, on the pavement shuffled a crowd, so close-set that they could no longer hurry, the night making their clothes darker and their faces lighter than they would be by day, before them going the happy sound of festival chatter, pressing towards the church with the sightseeing greed that is the peculiar charm of an Eastern congregation. They might have been going to see the elephants. We stepped from our fiacre and joined them, shuffled with them down a side street, and found ourselves facing a church that looked like neither a church nor a circus, but an opulent two-storied farm building.

Even within it had its oddities. It was built about a hundred years ago, when the sultans were showing a certain indulgence to the Christians and were letting them put up churches, though usually this permission was useless unless they bribed the local pashas; and its builders were four brothers who had learned their craft working as stonemasons all over the Balkans and in Italy. The chief of them was said to have been unable to read or write, and their work has indeed a strange air of combined culture and illiteracy. There was here a competent yet childish handling of highly developed forms which, profoundly disparate, were forcibly unified by a mind that knew nothing of their origins and therefore not all of their essences. A Byzantine dome suddenly hollowed the flat roof of an immensely high Italian basilica; in its upper shadows Asian galleries guarded their secrets with pierced screens; on the right and the left of the church were two great carved chairs, one for the king and one for the bishop, suggesting a rude Ravenna; a pulpit had been perched at a great height, because the eye of the Balkan builder had been accustomed to the mimbar, the pulpit in the mosque, which is always at the top of a long stairway, steep as a ladder; and here and there were forthright and sensible hinged windows of clear glass set in iron frames, such as one might have seen in a farmhouse.

In this strange building, now full of a deep twilight, stood many people, waiting, holding unlit tapers in their hands. The iconostasis, which is the characteristic architectural feature of the Eastern Church, the screen before the altar, is here a wall surmounted by a cross, a fortification defending the ever-threatened holy things; its height, made gorgeous by icons and gilt carvings, was in this dusk a shadowy richness. The silver plates that are laid over the haloes and hands of the people represented in the icons glimmered like moonlight. Here and there a lamp burned dimly in the chandeliers that hung low from the roof; and a weak light came from the candles on the table in the middle of the church, where the dead Christ lay in the likeness of an embroidered cloth. Most of the people had already paid their respects to this symbol, and were standing still in their places, the men to the right, the women to the left, so far as the elders were concerned, though the younger people often broke this rule. There is a step running round the edge of the church, so that there was a line of people behind the others and raised above them, which gave a handsomeness to the scene, a superfluity of grace; it might have been so ordered in the chapel of a great palace, by an emperor. But even now many people still pressed about the table to greet the body of Christ. The holy table was painted blue-green with some flowers here and there, and it had a canopy rising to a battered trellis canopy; some eighteenth-century bedsteads look so. It was curtained with machine-made lace, and on the embroidered cloth lay a heavy volume of the Gospels and some coins, none of them of great value, which the congregation had left there. Old men whose faces were scored by hard work and poverty as by actual wounds; young men sleek as seals in Western clothes; old women with grey plaits hanging to their waist, in white serge coats covered with black embroideries which were beginning to break away from the stuff, because they had stitched them when they were young and it was too long ago; young girls, who had flowers in the hair yet were rolled into the wintry thickness of sheepskins, and others who were dressed as they are in Palmers Green or Rochester, New York: all these came and looked down on the embroidered cloth, and were tranced in sorrow. They stooped and kissed it with that unquestioning worship which every woman wants to feel for the man whom she loves, but which, should she be able to feel it for him, is more likely to bring their relationship to a painful end than any disagreeable action she might commit against him. It was strange to recognize this kind of worship performed by men as well as women, and not to have to fear that it would arouse resentment and caprice in its object.

There passed to the table a young woman with a round face almost stupid with sweetness. who was wearing the Debar head-dress, which I think one of the most beautiful garments in the world: a handkerchief of fine linen, scattered with a few circles of solid red or rose embroidery, in which there is inscribed, as if to hide it from the public note, a cross, often of crimson or purple. Every woman sews it according to her own vision, but it is always a masterpiece, a sublime symbol of a persecuted but gorgeous religion. As she bent over the table I twitched at my husband's sleeve and said, "Look, she is from Debar," and he repeated, nodding his head, "Yes, she is from Debar," and I marvelled at his amiability, for I had never told him anything about Debar. Then, suddenly, the full crash of the Easter ritual was upon us. In an instant the procession of priests came through the door in the iconostasis, there was the gentle lion roar of hymns sung by men of a faith which has never exacted celibacy from its priests nor pacifism from its congregations, and flames had run from wick to wick of the tapers in our hands, till the whole church was a field of gentle primrose fires.

This is the supreme moment of Easter, when the priests lift up the embroidered cloth from the table, take it out into the open air, and walk round the church three times at the head of the congregation, all carrying their lighted tapers and singing a hymn proclaiming that Christ has risen. Constantine and I had walked in this procession when we had come to Skoplje the year before, and I had wanted to do it again. It is the very consummation of the picturesque, with the Rowerlike yellow brightness of the tapers, the coldness of the starlight and moonlight, the glittering crosses and vestments of the priests, the dark people leaning from the lit windows of the houses in the square, which seem themselves to waver with the pulse of the advancing and receding lights and shadows. But there is here more than that, there is true Easter, the recognition of the difference between winter and summer, between cold and heat, between darkness and light, between death and life, between minus and plus. Something important which passes unnoticed because it is continually experienced is felt again in its real importance. But now we could not join the procession, for we had been at the iconostasis end of the church when it started, and it had accomplished its three circuits before we reached the door. When the Metropolitan who was at the head of the priests halted in the doorway to make his sermon, we were in the antechamber, called the narthex, which runs across the front of any Byzantine church, which here was specially large and secular, because the architects were accustomed to the great porches of mosses, where Moslems are accustomed to sit and gossip and settle business and talk politics.

I was extremely frightened as we stood there, for I thought it possible that a number of people, packed together and constantly stirring in their discomfort and all holding lighted tapers, might set themselves on fire. But I forgot my alarm, because I was standing opposite a peasant woman sitting on a window ledge who was the very essence of Macedonia, who was exactly what I had come back to see. She was the age that all Macedonian women seem to become as soon as they cease to be girls: a weather-beaten fifty. There was a dark cloth about her hair and shoulders, and in its folds, and in her noble bones and pain-grooved flesh, she was like many Byzantine Madonnas to be seen in frescoes and mosaics. In her rough hand she mothered her taper, looking down on its flame as if it were a young living thing; and on the sleeve of her russet sheepskin jacket there showed an embroidery of stylized red and black trees which derived recognizably from a pattern designed for elegant Persian women two thousand years before. There was the miracle of Macedonia, made visible before our eyes.

This woman had suffered more than most other human beings, she and her forebears. A competent observer of this countryside has said that every single person born in it before the Great War (and quite a number who were born after it) has faced the prospect of violent death at least once in his or her life. She had been born during the calamitous end of Turkish maladministration, with its cycles of insurrection and massacre, and its social chaos. If her own village had not been murdered, she had certainly heard of many that had, and had never had any guarantee that hers would not some day share the same fate. Then, in her maturity, had come the Balkan wars and the Great War, with a cholera and typhus epidemic in between. Later had come I.M.R.O.; and there was always extreme poverty. She had had far less of anything, of personal possessions, of security, of care in childbirth, than any Western woman can imagine. But she had two possessions which any Western woman might envy. She had strength, the terrible stony strength of Macedonia; she was begotten and born of stocks who could mock all bullets save those which went through the heart, who could outlive the winters when they were driven into the mountains, who could survive malaria and plague, who could reach old age on a diet of bread and paprika. And cupped in her destitution as in the hollow of a boulder there are the last drops of the Byzantine tradition.

With our minds we all know what Byzantium was. We are aware that the Easter continuance of the Roman Empire was a supremely beautiful civilization. It was imperfect because it was almost totally ignorant of economics, and the people were distraught with hungry discontents which they could not name. We know that by the Golden Horn the waning empire developed a court ceremonial, which the earlier emperors had borrowed from Asia, until it made all those who watched it wise about the symbols of spiritual things that can be expressed by sight and sound. The Church itself learned from its partner the State, and raised the Mass to a supreme masterpiece of communal art; and the people, saturated with ritual impressions of the idea of God and of the Emperor, who was by theory the Viceroy of God, produced an art that is unique in its nobility, that in its architecture and painting and mosaics and metal-work and textiles found a calligraphy for the expression of man's graver experiences which makes all other arts seem a little naive or gross. We know that these achievements were not technical tricks but were signs of a real spiritual process, for the Byzantines were able to live in dignity and decency for four centuries in the knowledge that they were doomed, that one day they would be destroyed root and branch by the merciless Turks. They were not merely stoical in that shadow; they continued to live in the fullness of life, to create, even, in the very last phase of their doom, to the point of pushing out the shoots of a new school of painting.

All this we know with our minds, and with our minds only. But this woman knew it with all her being, because she knew nothing else. It was the medium in which she existed. Turkish misrule had deprived her of all benefit from Western culture; all she had had to feed on was the sweetness spilled from the overturned cup of Constantinople. Therefore she was Byzantine in all her ways, and in her substance. When she took up her needle it instinctively pricked the linen in Byzantine designs, and she had the Byzantine idea that one must decorate, always decorate, richly decorate. As she sat there she was stiff, it might almost be said carpeted, in the work of her own hands. The stiffness was not an accidental effect of her materials, it was a symbol of her beliefs about society. She believed that people who are to be respected practise a more stately bearing than those who are of no account; her own back was straight, she did not smile too easily. Therefore she found nothing tedious in the ritual of her Church. She could have sat for long hours as she was then, nursing her taper in quiet contentment, watching grave and slow-moving priests evoke the idea of magnificence, and induce the mood of adoration which is due to the supremely magnificent. She was not gaping at a peepshow, she was not merely passing the time. She was possessed by the same passion that had often astounded the relief workers who came here at the beginning of the century to fight the famine that always followed the suppression of the Christian revolts. Again and again, in villages which had fallen under Turkish disfavour and were therefore subject without cease to murder and arson and pillage, they urged inhabitants to emigrate to Serbia and Bulgaria; and the peasants always answered that that might be the wisest course, but that they could not desert their churches. This was not superstition. Before the altars, the offshoot of Byzantinism had passed the same test as its parent; it had prevented doom from becoming degradation. This woman's face was unresentful, exalted, sensitive to her sorrows yet preoccupied by that which she perceived to be more important, magnificence and its adoration.

Now the Metropolitan was at the door, a gorgeous figure, not only because his vestments were bright with gold thread, and his high mitre and pastoral staff and the cross on his breast glittered with jewels. There is inherent dignity in the lines of a costume that has incorporated the philosopher's mantle of the ancients, the Roman consul's scarf, and the tunic and gauntlets of the Byzantine Emperor. In a rich voice the Metropolitan announced that Christ had risen, and from the faces above the primrose flames came sharp cries of belief. Then he uttered a prayer or repeated a passage from the Gospels, I was not sure which, and went on to deliver an address which compared the resurrection of Christ and the liberation of Christian Macedonia from the Turks by Serbia twenty-five years before. It was, in fact, straight Yugoslavian propaganda, and most of it could have easily been delivered from a political platform.

It was only our modernity that was shocked. This was not an innovation, but a continuance of the ancient tradition of the Church. "As the body politic, like the human body, is composed of parts and members, so the most important and the most vital parts are the Emperor and the Patriarch," wrote a Byzantine theologian; "in the same way that the peace and happiness of the human being depends on the harmony of body and soul, so in the polity there must be perfect agreement between the Emperor and the priesthood." Since the Orthodox Church does not pretend to be anything but a religion, since it does not claim to be in possession of the final truth about philosophy and ethics and political science, this does not raise such difficulties as it would in the West. The Orthodox Church conceived, and still conceives, that its chief business is magic, the evocation by ritual of the spiritual experiences most necessary to man. It has also the duty of laying down a general pattern of moral behaviour. If the civil authority assists at the ritual and accepts this pattern it has a right to demand the support of the ecclesiastical authority, and the ecclesiastical authority has a right to give it, save when its own sphere is invaded. It will, in fact, support the civil authority politically if the civil authority does not meddle in theology. This is an attitude that is bound to be adopted by any state church, and that involves no difficulties in the case of a church which does not claim final wisdom on profane subjects as well as divine.

The Orthodox Church did not renounce that claim by choice. The renunciation was forced on it by the troubled character of Byzantine history. One can claim final wisdom on a subject to the degree that life as regards that subject is predictable. Now life in Europe has never been orderly for more than a few years at a time and in a limited area; but in the West it has been orderly enough, if only in the homogeneity of its disorder, to allow clever men to lay down principles that they could safely claim to be eternal, since they afforded useful bases for action and thought during some considerable period of time. In the East of Europe it has not been so. Continual and astonishing were its historical convulsions. The Byzantine Empire, which suffered invasion by bloodthirsty and pitiless fellow-Christians who had come to redeem the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem and stopped to taste the more immediately delectable pleasure of looting Constantinople, and which knew itself certain to be invaded by Asiatics as inaccessible to appeal as the personages in a nightmare, could not prophesy. Hence its genius turned away from speculative thought to art, and its Church preserved its dogma without developing it and concentrated its forces on the glory of the Mass, which gave a magic protection against evils that were unknown as well as those that were known. Thereby it brought on itself the criticisms that it was sterile and archaic in teaching and an arcanum of superstition; but it could not have served its people better in their special tribulation.

For these historical reasons nobody in the congregation was shocked because the Metropolitan's sermon was a speech in support of the Government; and I am sure also, since the circumstances of Balkan life have forbidden any intertwining of religious and pacifist sentiment, that nobody was shocked because the Metropolitan had in his young days been a comitadji. The comitadji who waged guerrilla warfare against the Turks in Macedonia before the war covered a wide range of character. Some were highly disciplined, courageous, and ascetic men, often from good families in the freed Slav countries, who harried the Turkish troops, particularly those sent to punish Christian villages, and who held unofficial courts to correct the collapse of the legal system in the Turkish provinces. Others were fanatics who were happy in massacring the Turks but even happier when they were purging the movement of suspected traitors. Others were robust nationalists, to whom the proceedings seemed a natural way of spirited living. Others were black-guards who were in the business because they enjoyed murder and banditry. All intermediate shades of character were fully represented. This made it difficult for the Western student to form a clear opinion about Near Eastern politics; it also made it difficult, very difficult, for a Macedonian peasant who saw a band of armed men approaching his village.

The Metropolitan had, in point of fact, belonged to one of the most admirable among these bands; but if he had been careless about the choice of his companions it would not have troubled the peasant woman who was nursing her taper and gazing at him in thankfulness over its glow. He was a good magician. He knew how to wear the garments, how to speak the words, how to make the obeisances, that gave her the beautiful experience of loving a flawless being. He was a magician, and, what was a great marvel to her, he was not her enemy. For two centuries her people had been under the horrible necessity of seeking this magic, which was their sole consolation, from agents who, in the intervals of dispensing it to them, contrived their ruin and death. In the eighteenth century the Church fell into the power of the phanariots, the wealthy Greeks, who established themselves in Constantinople and worked hand in glove with the Turks; not least joyfully when their Moslem masters set them on the Slavs though they themselves retained their Christianity. They persuaded the Sultan to put the whole of the Balkan Church under the power of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, an institution which they kept in their pocket. They then turned the Church into an elaborate fiscal system for fleecing the Slavs, by exacting enormous fees for the performance of all religious functions, even stripping the peasants of their last farthing as a charge for saying prayers for the dead. They not only robbed their congregations of their material possessions, they strove to deprive them of their most treasured immaterial possession, their racial identity. There were always a number of Slavs so devout that they insisted upon becoming priests; if these were not prepared to forget that they were Serb or Bulgar, and play traitor to their own blood, they were enlisted as the servants of the Greek clergy, and if they displeased their masters they were beaten during divine service before silent congregations of their own people. There was also a ruthless campaign against the speaking of the Serbian and Bulgarian languages, and an attempt to enforce the use of Greek over the whole of Macedonia, instead of the small Southern district to which it had long been limited.

But as the nineteenth century progressed the Ottoman Turks began to conceive a great fear of the Greeks, some of whom had already achieved independence in the kingdom of Greece; and the unrest of the Serbs and Bulgars grew with every decade. So the Sultan worked out a new application of the fiendish rule Divide et impera, and in 1870 he appointed a Bulgarian exarch to rule over the churches of Bulgaria and Macedonia. The term exarch shows the curious persistence of the Byzantine tradition in these parts. It was originally used by the Eastern emperors to denote a viceroy; the Exarch of Ravenna was the governor who represented their power in Italy. But it exemplifies the degradation which the Byzantine tradition had suffered in Turkish hands that it is hard to define the ecclesiastical office to which the name was given in modern times, and it seems indeed to have held a different meaning at different times. In this case it meant the patriarch of this province, appointed to fulfil a political mission but with uncertain guarantee or support against the opponents of his mission. The situation can be grasped if we imagine the British Government sending out an archbishop to Australia to carry on his ecclesiastical duties, and also to compel the Irish and the Scottish to lose their identities and become English patriots, while at the same time doing nothing to prevent the existing Scottish and Irish religions and political organizations from opposing him. The Sultan did not recall the Greek priests who were already in Macedonia, and they fought savagely to retain their power. As the Serbs naturally found Bulgar control of their Church no more admirable than Greek they too were up in arms. Thus, at the cost of all peace and gentleness in a community of over half a million people, the Ottoman Empire preserved itself from the risks arising out of a union between its Greek and Serb and Bulgar subjects.

This horrible confusion of religion and bloodshed persisted till the end of the Balkan wars. The woman sitting on the window ledge was certainly not too young to remember a certain Greek Archbishop of a Macedonian diocese to the south of Skoplje, whose hatred of the Slavs in his spiritual care was indeed spiritual, since it could hardly be satisfied by anything he could do to their bodies. Once he commissioned a band of assassins to murder a Bulgarian leader who was lying wounded in a hideaway. They were successful. As proof they cut of his head and took it back to the Archiepiscopal Palace, where the Archbishop received it and paid them well. It offered an unpleasing appearance, as a bullet had smashed the jaw. Nevertheless he had it photographed and hung an enlargement on the wall of the room where he received his flock, so that they might take a lesson. Many a woman, such as this one, sensitive and exalted, could never hear the proclamation that Christ had risen except from the lips of this atrocious enemy of her kind. The Archbishop was a man of extreme personal beauty and the graduate of a Western university. At the thought of this unpleasing incongruity, one of a million omens that the world is not simple, not consistent, and often not agreeable, my hand shook and my taper shivered.

The Metropolitan was still speaking, it was becoming enormously hot, and the heat was laden with the smell of honey, for it is ordained that all tapers used in churches must be made of beeswax. There came back to me the fear of fire which I had felt earlier in the service, and this was accompanied by a revulsion from the horror of history, and a dread that it might really be witless enough to repeat itself. Fire spreads, and the substances it inflames put up no defence, burn, and become ashes. Human beings love to inflict pain on their fellow-creatures, and the species yields to its perverse appetite, allowing vast tragedies to happen and endure for centuries, people to agonize and become extinct. The pleasantness of life which is so strong when it manifests itself that it is tempting to regard it as the characteristic and even determinant quality of the universe, is of no real avail. I could be burnt to death in this church, though the air smelt of honey. In moonlight, by fountains where roses grew and nightingales sang, all less tangible and superior beauty could be beaten down into earth, not to emerge itself again until freed by another Creation. I let myself feel these fears to their extreme, with a certain sense of luxury, for facing me was this Macedonian woman, who could, better than anybody else I had ever met, give me an assurance on these points. There was nothing over-positive in her statement. One can shout at the top of one's voice the information that the 11.15 for Brighton leaves from platform 6, but subtler news has to be whispered, for the reason that to drag knowledge of reality over the threshold of consciousness is an exhausting task, whether it is performed by art or by experience. She made no spectacular declaration that man is to be saved; simply her attitude assumed that this Easter would end with no more fatality than any other Easter she had known, and her body, wasted yet proud in its coarse and magnificent clothes, proclaimed that death may last five hundred years yet not be death.

[Previous] [Next]
[Back to Index]