January 30, 2016

Scattered heritage


Whether abundant or scarce, cultural heritage is in fact cultural wealth, as it holds great historical, artistic or spiritual value. We can think of our cultural heritage as being abundant if we have abundant knowledge of it. Our sense of a rich cultural past will be as strong, and as present, as the insight we have into it. This insight, though, is closely related to the evidence we have at our disposal.

For most of its history, Macedonia has been at a crossroad of civilisations. Therefore it is inevitable that its territory should be rich with historical, ancient cultural and civilisational testimonies. Despite that advantage, there have been times when specific aspects of the Macedonian state (i.e. its non-continuity and incomplete institutions) resulted in a neglect of cultural and civilisational treasures, which had been created on Macedonia's territory throughout centuries.

During its history, Macedonia has had many conquerors and foreign emissaries who destroyed, and robbed the land of, anything that was of value. Historical documents, especially those that refer to more recent times, can confirm that those people proved to be raiders of catastrophic proportions, doing much harm to the country's cultural heritage.

Hence, the most valuable medieval manuscripts and books, as well as the most beautiful icons and archaeological objects, are to be found today in foreign museum collections. Priceless manuscripts and books crafted and illuminated with exquisite ornaments in the Macedonian medieval literary centres, as well as valuable icons created by master artists during the lifetime of the unsurpassed Michelangelo and Da Vinci, have been taken by raiders to their own countries, or have been sold into other countries. In consequence, today they are jealously kept far from both the public and from Macedonian scholars. Macedonian scholars, therefore, don't have enough information on everything that was stolen and taken away – but the existing data is shocking nonetheless.

What was taken away in this manner from Macedonia cannot be estimated in numbers denoting financial worth. The value of cultural heritage isn’t measured thus, but just to illustrate that aspect as well, here's a comparison:

A single old parchment sheet will fetch astronomically high sums (hundreds of thousands of dollars) in auction houses or on the black market. Macedonia has been robbed of hundreds of such manuscripts, i.e. tens of thousands of parchment sheets, which are now being kept in foreign libraries, museums and private collections.

Or consider this: In the early 1990's, Moscow's "Vladimir Ilich Lenin" State Library asked our country for an insurance policy to exhibit some of its many Macedonian manuscripts. Unfortunately, our country couldn't afford the policy, since the Russian library estimated the fifteen Macedonian manuscripts in question were worth around 70 million dollars!

Another example: In 1998, both the Bulgarian and the Macedonian public were intrigued when information was published about valuable Macedonian antiques and several relics being kept in Bulgaria. Among them was the Ohrid Archbishops' crown. For half a century, the exact location of the crown had been a mystery. Announcing its location, and explaining that it had been hidden because of its high value, the Sofia National History Museum's director made the evaluation that the precious stones embedded in the crown alone are worth around 20 million dollars today.

The valuable objects described above are just a small fraction of the treasures that have been taken out of Macedonia. It would take many volumes just to record everything that foreign emissaries destroyed or scattered. We can point out and list only the most valuable plundered artefacts, particularly if we bear in mind that information on many valuable objects isn't available – that is, they are being kept in the coffers of some neighbouring and European countries to this day.

Throughout all history, especially from the early 19th century to World War II, Macedonia's cultural heritage was mercilessly demolished, pilfered, and scattered. The damage to it was catastrophic, movable heritage suffering in particular.

In this publication we will present only the most important information relevant to the destruction, theft and scattering of all types of cultural heritage (handwritten, archaeological, ethnological, sacred). This study is the first in-depth attempt to treat the entire problem of the destruction and dispersal of all types of Macedonia's cultural heritage. (This subject, until now, has never been a topic of any scientific, institutional or journalistic studies.) An overview of this kind can never be all-inclusive, because many acts of theft and destruction go unrecorded or because information is withheld by the countries who have received the artefacts. But we shall attempt to examine: How Macedonia's movable cultural heritage was destroyed and by whom, how it was stolen, where it was taken, and where it is today, i.e. to list several key treasures from Macedonia's territory and the foreign museums, libraries and collections in possession of these items.

To be continued...

Nove Cvetanoski

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