Treasures stolen, then hidden

Scattered heritage


At present, Macedonian scholars and Macedonian institutions responsible for the care for our cultural heritage don't have information on everything that's been destroyed or carried away from the territory of Macedonia. It's impossible to obtain a complete account as well, since often the destroyers' and the robbers' traces have been erased.

Furthermore, even those pieces that are today in foreign treasuries aren't very accessible to the public or to Macedonian researchers. Even when there are Macedonian items being exhibited their origin is concealed; that is, only the title (the name of the item) is cited, and possibly the location where it was found (if it is an archaeological object), but the country of origin is never stated, even if the archaeological site is mentioned.

Great difficulties notwithstanding, Macedonian researchers have gathered a solid amount of data about the looted movable cultural heritage, and the information shows that the greatest damage has been done to the written heritage, i.e. the medieval manuscripts.

What does this information reveal?

And why were handwritten materials being stolen most often?

Old books and manuscripts are an important part of Macedonia's cultural heritage because of the country's ecclesiastic literary and scriptorial traditions, as well as Macedonia's significant role in the history of pan-Slavic literacy. In the Middle Ages, there were several large literary centres and scriptoriums (mainly in monasteries) where—particularly during foreign, non-Christian rule—spirituality, enlightenment and culture were concentrated. Cultural heritage originating in the Middle Ages is predominantly religious (starting with the work of St. Clement and his so-called Ohrid Literary School, there were gospels, epistles, triodions, octoechoses, books of hours, prayerbooks, and hagiographies being translated, as well as many other texts intended for Christian service.) Despite the religious nature of the manuscripts (of course, literary writing was also progressing), the handwritten texts are especially important because of their earliest usage of the first Slavic alphabet – the Glagolitic alphabet (which was used in Macedonia ever since its creation at the end of the 9th to the end of the 11th century). These works are also important for studying the development of the Slavic literary languages, which have historically been differentiated from the church-Slavic language that was the vernacular in Macedonia. Later, these manuscripts became especially interesting to devotees of Slavic romanticism and to pioneers of Slavistics.

Precisely because Macedonia was the keystone regarding the beginnings of literacy and the tradition of Enlightenment, when Slavistics as a science began to develop in Europe in the middle of the 19th century many collectors and experts in handwritten cultural and historical records set out towards Macedonia to collect manuscripts and books. Most of those collected manuscripts and books are to be found today in several European cities (in Belgrade, Zagreb, Moscow, Odessa, St. Petersburg, Sofia, Plovdiv, Krakow, Istanbul, Vatican, Bologna, Munich, Paris, London…), while only a small number of them are saved in the Republic of Macedonia (chiefly manuscripts and old books that were discovered after World War II). Despite the merciless ravage and plunder of manuscripts that went on for centuries, there are still some left in Macedonia. This evidence points to the fact that there used to be a rich literary heritage here and the whirlwind of history could not destroy everything and could not take away everything that the Macedonian people created.

According to research done by Macedonian archaeographists and science institutes, around 700 manuscripts and books created from the end of the 10th century to the beginning of the 18th century are today in the possession of foreign libraries and museums. They have been directly or indirectly recorded – via catalogues and descriptions or references in literature. Thus, we have grounds to assume that in libraries, museums and archives throughout Europe there are even many more manuscripts and old books kept in secrecy. Even so, there are more than 400 manuscripts and books in Macedonia today – most of which were discovered and catalogued during the last two decades of the 20th century.

As a country with the oldest written evidence of Slavic language, i.e. of the oldest Glagolitic epigraphs, Macedonia has none of the oldest Glagolitic manuscripts, although seven of the nine oldest have been created in Macedonia: The Zographian, Mariian and the Aseman gospels, the Sinai psalter, the Sinai prayerbook, the Bitola gospel, and the Macedonian Glagolitic papers. They have been discovered at Mt. Sinai, Mt. Athos, Jerusalem, or in Ohrid, but all are today outside of Macedonia's borders. Some of the oldest literary (Glagolitic) records are the Ohrid Glagolitic papers and the Bojanic palimpsest. Furthermore, letters, words or texts written in the Glagolitic alphabet were recorded on some of the oldest Cyrillic texts (manuscripts): the Macedonian Cyrillic paper, the Resen fragment of a triodion, the Ohrid epistle, the Bitola triodion, the Grigorovič parable book, the Šafaric triodion, the Orbel triodion, the Argir triodion, the Bolognese psalter, the Bitola selective octoechos etc.

The oldest and most valuable manuscripts are to be found outside of Macedonia, however. According to their dates of origin, the following manuscripts have been saved: Nine Glagolitic manuscripts and four fragments in Cyrillics from the end of the 10th century and from the 11th century (all of them are in foreign libraries today!); around fifteen manuscripts dating from the 12th century, more than a hundred from the 13th century; around 220 from the 14th century; around 120 from the 15th century, and around 170 old Macedonian manuscripts from the 16th century. Macedonian scholars have collected all of these manuscripts' signature numbers by which they are catalogued in libraries and museums. Even so, these works represent only a small part of Macedonian manuscripts taken away to other countries.

When one takes into account the data about the damage done to Macedonian cultural heritage, including the handwritten heritage, one will get the impression that in the past everyone who could do so destroyed and robbed – from conquerors to passers-by: collectors, researchers, adventurers and other interested persons. After such crusades of collecting and destruction, it can be concluded that the pieces left behind in Macedonia have been saved from ruin largely by chance.

Destruction of Macedonian manuscripts began ever since the downfall of Samoil's state, during the two centuries of Byzantine rule, when the Byzantine government and church wrought havoc on anything that was Slavic in Macedonia, i.e. when via the Hellenic assimilation of Slavic culture and learning, the manuscripts were destroyed. The raiding continued even during the Bogomilism period, and then later during Ottoman rule when Moslem religion was established on the territory of Macedonia. Christian educational, literary and spiritual activities were again suppressed, forcing learned people to withdraw and continue their work inside monastery walls. Precisely during those long, dark Middle Ages of Macedonia's history, in some Macedonian monasteries and churches, as a result of the active and abundant religious, edifying and literary activities, rich handwritten monastery collections were created. Among them, historic literature references the collections of the Lesnovo, Markov, Slepče, Bigorski, and the Lešok monasteries as some of the greatest examples. Between the Ottoman rule and then, there was more destruction than theft. But after the creation of the first independent Balkan states, especially the Serbian and the Bulgarian ones, when no-one prevented stealing of heritage, the biggest theft of manuscripts and other Macedonian antiques occurred.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly during the period when the first shoots of Macedonian Renaissance emerged, many esteemed Macedonian citizens (among which was J. H. Konstantinov – Džinot) began developing collections of their own. The Macedonian monastery and church collections, in particular, were the main target of manuscript collectors coming from other countries, predominantly from Russia. The most prominent collectors were Victor I. Grigorovič, Stefan I. Verković, Antun Mihanović¸ G. Ilinsky, A. Gilferding, Polichronius A. Sirku, Rudolph Gutovsky, A. K'nčev.

In addition to collectors who were coming from other countries, some esteemed Macedonian inhabitants, too, collected (and, unfortunately, sold) manuscripts. Jordan Hadži Konstantinov – Džinot dispatched manuscripts to the Bulgarian Exarchy in Istanbul and Sofia, and later to the Serbian Learned Society in Belgrade. Near the end of his life, he sold a collection of 36 valuable manuscripts to the National Library in Belgrade. During the 19th century, Dimitar Miladinov also collected manuscripts, dispatching them to the Istanbul "St. Stefan" church and to the Society of Slavic Literature in Belgrade. Information on some manuscripts in foreign libraries and museums gives us the names of several suppliers. Among them, the most frequently mentioned are Janoš Aleksievik from Veles (who in 1867 alone dispatched 26 parchment manuscripts to Belgrade), the professor Lazar Duma from Bitola (who collected for the Serbian Learned Society), whereas the National Library in Sofia has recorded as the most frequent suppliers (i.e. traders) Vasil Ikonomov from Lazaropole and Eftim Sprostranov from Ohrid.

Throughout Macedonia's past there have been more destroyers than collectors of handwritten and other types of movable cultural heritage. A part of what was gathered by the collectors was afterwards given away or sold to libraries in the neighbouring countries and in Europe. Some of it is still in their possession, but a large part of Macedonia's heritage has been irretrievably destroyed.

The history of the treatment of manuscripts in mid-19th century Macedonia is staggering. We have insight into it from data recorded by Jordan Hadži Konstantinov – Džinot. He visited almost all monasteries and churches in Macedonia and wrote about it in [the newspaper] "Tzarigradski Vestnik". According to his research, in the Markov monastery St. Dimitrija in the vicinity of Skopje, for instance, there were twenty loads of books; in the St. Pantheleimon monastery in the Nerezi village there were more than thirty loads; in the St. Nikola monastery there were ten loads. But, as he says, they were burnt, torn apart, and scattered by careless monks. There were also many manuscripts in the St. Bogorodica Pčinjska monastery, but those the monks burnt or threw away into the river. Then, in the Matejče monastery until the year 1848 there were ten loads of manuscripts, which according to Džinot were later destroyed by Arnaouts. In Treskavec he recorded a library of 20 loads, in St. Jovan the Baptist, near Veles (in 1851) he recorded ten loads, in St. Nikola in Moklište there were 20, in the St. Georgi monastery at Crna Reka – 50 loads of manuscripts, in the Lesnovo monastery there were more than 50 loads. In 1855, however, he found only ten loads of manuscripts. In the village of Bukovo, near Bitola, in the same year there were more than 20 loads, but as Džinot says, all of them were destroyed by a Vlach priest. Džinot wrote in "Tzarigradski Vestnik" that during this period the biggest number of manuscripts could be found in Ohrid and the vicinity, but even there some monks "not speaking our language" destroyed them, sometimes even by throwing them into the lake.

Džinot estimated that Macedonia was brimming with "millions of Slavic relics written by hand on parchment". In 1854, he wrote: "Had we gathered the ancient Slavic handwritten books in our Macedonia 35 years ago and had we put them into a book archive, now we would have had around 150.000 manuscripts". Not many traces of that treasure remain today. A few hundred have been fortuitously saved in Macedonia or at Mt. Athos, Jerusalem, Sinai, i.e. Russia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Poland, Italy, France, Germany, Great Britain, Turkey, Greece and other countries. There are manuscripts in some foreign libraries today that were sold by Džinot himself (!).

What was saved in Macedonia is only a small part of its former abundant handwritten treasures; instead, many significant Macedonian documents are today to be found abroad. These foreign collectors most often do not acknowledge it, since their gains were ill-gotten, but facts are facts...

To be continued...

Nove Cvetanoski

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