Monday, August 20, 2012

The Churches of Voskopoja

All roads lead to a church (or the ruins of one) in Voskopoja
Church of St. Nicholas
This past weekend we took our second trip to the village of Voskopoja in Southeastern Albania.  We had visited Voskopoja on a rainy day in May and despite the muddy conditions, enjoyed it tremendously. This past weekend's visit was sunny, dry, and well worth the return trip.

Voskopoja came to prominence during the early 18th century when it was a stop along the Venice to Constantinople (Istanbul) trade route.  During its heyday it was home to twenty-six churches and was the center of Balkan Christianity during the time of Ottoman rule.  Surprisingly enough, Voskopoja was also the largest city in the Balkans with a population of 35,000 residents.  As a testament to the important role church played in the lives of early residents, each of the neighborhoods within the village had two churches and the entire village was home to several basilicas.

A quick look at Voskopoja today does little to reveal how prominent the town once was.  What was once the numerous churches that put the village on the map are now ruins; only a handful of the churches remain standing.   Natural disasters, war, human pillaging, and neglect have left much of Voskopoja a sad shell of what it once was.  Poorly maintained roads snake by both well maintained and neglected private residences.  Several ubiquitous cafes that now make Albania famous line the main street as do signs pointing the way to the numerous tourist houses that now supplement the incomes of the few hundred farmers who call Voskopoja home. Fortunately, a few of the church structures remain and are being maintained and restored by people who are understand the historical significance of the village.

The portico  of the Church of St. Nicholas
Fresco at the Church of St. Nicholas
Interior of the Church of St. Nicholas
One such church is the Church of St. Nicholas.  Built in 1726 as a basilica then later protected during the Communist Era, the church and it grounds have been painstakingly restored.  Our recent visit found both the exterior and interior of the church decorated with tulle buntings and ribbons.  The  interior, filled with richly colored icons and a gilded throne, is perhaps the most ornate interior I have seen in any Albanian church.  The surprisingly elevated and narrow seats make me wonder how even the most average sized person could comfortably worship within the church- but perhaps that is the idea.  (As is the case in most churches and museums, photography is prohibited in an attempt to preserve the interior of the building.  I wish I could have taken pictures since my words cannot capture the true essence of the church).  Within the church's portico is a fresco painted by local artists Kostandin and Athanas Zografi, two brothers from Korce whose artwork was in demand during the 18th Century.

The bell tower at St. Thanas (minus the bell)
On the other side of the village, the Church of St. Thanas is in the midst of a restoration.  When we first visited in May the inside of the church was cluttered with construction debris, the grounds were overgrown with weeds and bushes, and the bell tower was under construction. Our return visit found the interior of the church spartan but cleaned, the grounds bramble free, the bell tower completed.  The fresco gracing the exterior wall of the church has been cleaned, revealing a more vibrant scene than the one on the exterior wall of the Church of St. Nicholas.  As a sad testament to the conditions in Albania, the original bell that once graced the tower, was stolen during the renovations.  While now complete, the bell tower sits empty.

Outside of the village sits the still occupied Monastery of St. Prodhomi.  Like most places we have visited in Albania, getting there was half of the adventure.  We travelled over a narrow cobblestone bridge and up the mountain on a short but rock and pothole filled road before reaching the gated grounds.  (Our trip down the mountain involved sharing the road with numerous circa 1980 Mercedes struggling to clear the protruding rocks).  Built in 1632 and destroyed by at least one fire since then, the interior of the small chapel is filled with ornate fresco and icons.  Annually, a small number of the most devote followers travel to Voskopoja to spend the night on the floor of the chapel.  On a more regular basis, however, local Albanians come here to picnic on the grounds and escape the more oppressive heat of the cities.

Entrance to the Monastery of St. Prodhomi

In recent years Voskopoja has been working to develop its tourism industry.  With the assistance of a dynamic Peace Corp volunteer, their tourist center is working to attract both Albanian and international visitors to their tiny village.  Their efforts seem to be paying off since during our recent visit the churches and village center were filled with visitors.  The preservation and restoration of these amazing churches is a key part of their continued success.  History shows us that people will travel to great lengths to visit historic sites with churches being a major draw.  We originally stumbled upon Voskopoja by chance and within a short period of time returned for another visit.  We witnessed progress and improvements between our first and second visits and this gives me hope that perhaps Voskopoja is moving in the right direction.

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