Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2011/10 posted by hidden europe on

We journeyed through Macedonia last week. We stayed at the country's only World Heritage Site at Ohrid and then hugged the Albanian border as we travelled north through Debar to Tetovo. This is territory that has long fascinated travel writers and our journey picked up elements of itineraries followed by Edith Durham and Rebecca West.

article summary —

Dear fellow traveller

We journeyed through Macedonia last week. We stayed at the country's only World Heritage Site at Ohrid and then hugged the Albanian border as we travelled north through Debar to Tetovo. This is territory that has long fascinated travel writers and our journey picked up elements of itineraries followed by Edith Durham and Rebecca West.

Edith Durham reported frequently on developments in Debar (Dibra in Albanian) during the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, ever championing the cause of her beloved Albanians. Today the town is in Macedonia, but it looks to the west over the border into Albania. Back in the mid-fifteenth century, Debar was in the forefront of the conflict between ethnic Albanians and Ottoman forces. It was the first town stormed by the Albanian leader Skanderbeg when he commenced his successful military campaign against the Turks in autumn 1443. So it is perhaps no surprise that a huge statue of handsomely-bearded Skanderbeg graces the centre of Debar, so marking out the city as a place that is very Albanian in demeanour.

Tetovo

Then we continued north to Tetovo. Edith Durham never included Tetovo in her Balkan itineraries, and more's the pity, for the English writer would surely have liked the small city that nestles under the great Sharr Mountains. The place is the hub of commerce and political life for ethnic Albanians in Macedonia. So we used Rebecca West's account of Tetovo as the touchstone for our explorations of the city, which today is still surrounded by apple orchards just as it was when Rebecca West visited in 1937.

West commented on Tetovo's painted mosque that stands on the south bank of the River Pena just outside the Old Town. For Rebecca West it was a feast of coquettish polychrome, reminding her of the Pasha's palace in Bardovtsi. She remarked on the extravagant interior, lavishly decorated like "the most whimsical tea-trays." Tetovo's painted mosque is as wonderful today as it was when Rebecca West saw it more than seventy years ago. The building housing the old Turkish baths on the opposite bank of the river, which West noted was in ruins, has happily been restored and now serves as a small art gallery.

Bektashi life

Rebecca West was sometimes less astute than Edith Durham when it came to reading the Balkan cultural landscape. Having visited the colourful Alaja mosque, West went on through a run-down district to a nearby enclosed garden, where she identified what she thought was a Turkish merchant's house, commenting on its distinctive periwinkle blue colour.

No longer is the area "tongue-tied with decay" (West's phrase), and the shady garden with its wonderful pavilions is actually the Harabati Baba Tekke of the local Bektashi community. Not Turkish merchants at all, but a distinctive Sufi group who follow their own deeply meditative variant of Islam. Local Sunni Muslims contest Bektashi control over this prime site. The presiding Bektashi Dervish, Abdulmuttalip Bekiri, receives guests in a pavilion tucked away in one corner of the complex. Abdulmuttalip perfectly fits the image of a man who follows the Sufi ascetic path. He quietly told us of the difficulties of Bektashi life in modern Macedonia.

Islamic heritage

Macedonia is a country that mainstreams on its Slavic credentials and there are new Orthodox churches aplenty. The national narrative structures identity around the country's Byzantine and Slavic traditions and allows little space for Islam or ethnic Albanians. Few tourists ever visit Debar and Tetovo. Yet these are deeply interesting communities, and Tetovo in particular reveals something of Europe's rich Islamic architecture and traditions that are still very much alive today.

Fatmir Besimi, Macedonia's Minister of Economy, is a rare creature in mainstream Macedonian politics. We met him last week. He is an ethnic Albanian from Tetovo and a man more inclined to listen than to shout. He is in no doubt that his home town could cut a dash on the Balkan tourist circuit. But convincing the Skopje elite of Tetovo's merits is certainly not going to be easy.

You can see a few images of our Macedonian journey in the gallery on our website.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.