Even though my originally-planned booklaunch on the Friday of my trip had to be cancelled, Marija from my Macedonian publisher, Vermilion, had already set up a second reading for Saturday with a Roma organization, the NGO Sumnal. The visit with the children at Sumnal thus became the official launch of Тори и пиратската кралица. That was a really enjoyable morning, which I wrote about in my previous post. I’m really glad I had a chance to meet and talk with these kids,. After my visit to Sumnal, I joined David Chariandy and the others for an Albanian-language event introducing the Albanian translation of his book Soucouyant at the bookstore/coffeehouse Libraria e çarshisë in the Old Bazaar. After a long Macedonian outdoor lunch — more about food another time — Dejan, Nikola of Ikona, David and I met up with several others, including Dr. Elizabeta Seleva and Dr. Aleksandar Prokopiev, to see the Old City. Aleksandar, by the way, is a great champion of the Torrie books in Macedonian and spoke about them very passionately at the reception I wasn’t able to attend. (Thanks, it can’t be said often enough, to Air Canada deciding for no unavoidable reason at all to delay the first of my chain of three connecting flights for hours, so that I only reached Toronto as my flight to Istanbul was leaving without me.)
The river Vardar cuts through Skopje; most of the modern city lies to the south, while to the north is the Old City, which still shows the influence of many centuries of Ottoman rule in its architecture. In the oldest part, you walk through a web of narrow, crooked streets; it’s very much an evolved rather than a planned layout. Some of the cobbled lanes go up and down flights of steps. Cafes and bars spill outdoors; in the fine weather, everyone gathers outside to eat, drink, and socialize. None of the shops, with flats over them, are very large, and some are lower than modern street level.It’s very much how I imagine the neighbourhoods of Marakand, the city where the eastern and western caravan roads meet in Blackdog, give or take the motorcycles. Like Marakand, Skopje has a history of earthquakes as well. The most recent bad one was in 1963, which destroyed much of the city and resulted in a lot of Eastern Bloc concrete going up in the modern sections. Many historic buildings were badly damaged then and have since been restored as well. However, you don’t get the feeling that the Old City is a fossil, a carefully-preserved display for tourists, the way some old places (downtown St. Andrew’s-By-the-Sea, for instance — very pretty, but the locals all shop in the neighbouring town of St. Stephen) can become; it’s still very much a living neighbourhood, concerned with its own affairs. The danger in that, of course, is that as the republic becomes more prosperous, there will be a rush to modernize and many of the oldest everyday buildings, some of which are now in very poor repair or abandoned, will be torn down rather than restored and kept in use.
Dejan and Nikola were taking us to the Čifte Amam National Art Gallery, Чифте-амам, located in a hammam or Turkish bathhouse.My Bradt guidebook says it is early sixteenth century, commissioned by Isa Bey, but Wikipedia and other online sources date it to the mid fifteenth century. The mid fifteenth-century date makes more sense, since Isa Bey is İshakoğlu İsa Bey or Isa-Beg Isaković, who governed the Sanjak of Üsküb/Skopje from 1454-1463, right after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. This is one of two hammams in the Old City that are now art galleries. Before we went in, though, Aleksandar beckoned me aside and we went off for a private excursion. He wanted me to see the Suli An.
When I was in Skopje in 2010, I visited the City Museum in the old train station, with its Roman sarcophagi outside and its clock stopped at the moment of the 1963 earthquake, and the National Museum with its fascinating overview of the history of the area from the Neolithic onwards. I also saw the Ottoman fortress, built on a site, the strategic location of which has been utilized since at least the 2nd century B.C. and probably before. (Unfortunately, the site of Kale is now (2013) caught up in an ethnic/religious dispute and is closed to visitors.) On that trip, I also visited the Kuršumli An, a sixteenth-century Ottoman trading inn — a caravanserai — which is part of the National Museum. At that time, I was just about to submit Blackdog to Pyr; it was on my list of “things to do when I get home”, in fact. (Good thing I did stick to my list. Blackdog, with its caravanserais, its gods, goddessess, devils, and demons, was published by Pyr in 2011.)Seeing the reality of something I had only researched was a thrill; it confirmed some details I had made up because they seemed logical. I had written about it on my website at the time and now Aleksandar wanted to make sure I had a chance to see another of Skopje’s caravanserais.
The Suli An, Сули ан, (“an” is the Turkish “han”, an inn), which like the nearby hammam was also built on the orders of Isa Bey, houses part of a university’s fine arts space and a museum about the bazaar, but the gatehouse and courtyard still preserve the look of the original architecture, though it was severely damaged in the 1963 earthquake and restored thereafter. (Just ignore the big glassed-in windows in the archways.)After that, he took me to an antique shop in the Old Bazaar, full of all sorts of interesting oddments. Later, on a second visit, I would buy an old brass coffee mill there, which we find grinds much more nicely than our electric one.
Back at the hammam, we rejoined the others.There were a couple of interesting exhibitions in the galleries, but what interested me most was when Aleksandar showed me into a room that had been restored more to what it would have been, with some original artefacts, the fountains that were along the walls, sections of clay water-pipe and the like, rather than turned into gallery space. One thing that struck me (luckily not literally, though it’s a hazard for us tall people), is how very low and narrow many of the original doorways are. The quality of the sound under the large domes changes quite dramatically depending on your position. It’s details like that that you don’t pick up from reading.
Our next visit was to the nearby Monastery of Sveti Spas. The site has had a monastery on it since before the Ottoman conquest, but the church within the courtyard is built partially underground, like a Grubenhaus, because during the Ottoman era a Christian church was not allowed to be higher than a mosque; they excavated and built down, to allow for the height of a bell-tower. The current church is said to date from the 16th century, although it was apparently renovated extensively during the 19th and 20th centuries. There’s a very beautiful carved wooden iconostasis (which separates the nave from the sanctuary) made in the early nineteenth century. No photography is allowed in churches, so you’ll just have to imagine what it’s like, in the low light: an entire wall of small, densely-packed figures in high relief, worked in some polished dark wood (walnut, maybe?), depicting scenes from the Bible and from eastern hagiography, with coiling vines, flowers, and trees binding it all together.
Further posts are to come, talking about Macedonian food and Matka!