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30 Nov 12

Bitola, Bright Jewel of Macedonia’s Past

The influences of waves of civilisations are reflected in the monuments, architecture and lifestyle of the one-time ‘City of Consuls’.

Nemanja Cabric
BIRN Belgrade

Located in southwest, Macedonia, the country’s second largest city is a place where classical antiquity meets the Ottoman era and Christian traditions.

The minarets of Bitola’s many mosques stand together with Orthodox churches and the old clock tower as witnesses to the city’s multi-ethnic history and population.

Layered with historic remains dating from prehistoric times, and with a distinctive oriental flavour, Bitola is scattered around the small Dragor river, some 14 kilometres from the border between Greece and Macedonia.

A colourful city, the mixture of architectural styles and variety of sights, from late antiquity and Rome to Slavic, Bulgarian and Ottoman times, leave many visitors breathless.

Among the don’t-miss highlights are the ruins of the ancient city of Heraclea, the covered bazaar, the 19th-century church of St Demetrius and several historical mosques.

Philip’s foundation:

The city of Heraclea was once one of the most prosperous cities in the region. Founded by Philip II of Macedonia, it was dedicated to the demigod Hercules.

This powerful ruler, the father of Alexander the Great, considered the son of Zeus as his ancestor, secured his throne by claiming divine right to it.

Heraclea, whose remains lie two kilometres outside Bitola, was a strategically important town in the Hellenistic period, lying on the cusp of Macedonia’s border with Epirus to the west, and to the non-Greek world to the north.

Later, when the Romans conquered Macedonia in the mid-2nd century BC, their main highway in the region, the Via Egnatia, ran through the city, continuing the tradition of wealth and prosperity.

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Heraclea continued to be an important episcopal centre until it was sacked, first by Ostrogoths under Theodoric the Great in 472 and later by Slavic tribes. It was then abandoned.

Excavations have revealed several sections of the fortified wall on the acropolis and two basilicas in the main part of the town. 

Some of them house well-preserved mosaics from the 5th and 6th centuries AD, including both floral motifs and figures and presenting fine examples of early Christian art.

Excavations near both basilicas have also uncovered streets and buildings from the 4th and 5th century AD.

Several other monuments from Roman times lie in Heraclea, including a portico, baths and an amphitheatre.

The theatre, which once held around 3,000 people, was built by the Emperor Hadrian in the centre of the town.

This arena fell into disuse in the late-4th century AD, when gladiatorial fights in the Roman Empire were banned following the spread of Christianity.

In place of the deserted arena, several houses were built when the Slavs came, which also built a fortress around their settlement.

Birth of Bitola:

The name “Bitola” was first recorded on an inscription from the year 1015 referring to the fortress.

The name probably comes from the Old Slavic word Obitel whose Greek translation, Monastiri, became the version used by Albanians and Turks. As a result, up until the 20th century, the English-speaking world generally called the town “Monastir”.

Bitola was part of the First Bulgarian Empire from the late 8th to early 11th centuries.

The spread of Christianity was assisted by Saints Clement of Ohrid and Naum of Preslav in the 9th and early 10th centuries. Many monasteries and churches were then built.

After Ottoman rule was established in 1395, Muslims became the majority population in the city, while the surrounding villages were populated mostly with Slavs.

The celebrated 17th-century traveller, Evliya Celebi, says in his Book of Travels that the city had 70 mosques, several coffee and tea rooms, a bazaar with iron gates and 900 shops.

Bitola, or Monastir, became the centre of a “Sanjak”, an Ottoman prefecture, in the province of Rumelia Eyalet.

The most attractive legacy of that era is the Ajdar-kadi mosque in the city centre.

Celebi describes it as one of the most beautifully decorated he had seen. Studies show that the mosque was the only one in Bitola with two minarets.

Other Ottoman heritage sites are the Jeni and Ishak mosques. The first now houses art exhibitions. The other holds several fine sarcophagi. In the Deboj bath, visitors can see an original Turkish hamam.

The covered bazaar, built in the 15th century, called Bezisten in Macedonian, is one of the most impressive and oldest buildings in Bitola from the Ottoman period, as well as one of the biggest covered markets in the region.

The City Museum, located in the old Army Barracks, houses historic evidence from all these periods, and much more.

Built in 1830 as a Military High School it was where the father of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, was educated.

It contains a special permanent exhibition of photos, documents and facsimiles about Ataturk’s life and activities.

Other permanent exhibits include Neolithic heritage items and 19th -century furniture.

In this way, the museum links the city’s heritage of millennia with its status as a diplomatic centre enjoyed more than a century ago.

The city was then known as “the City of Consuls” on account of the 12 diplomatic consuls resident here from the time of the Berlin Congress of 1878 to 1913, when the Balkan wars all but terminated the Ottoman Empire in Europe and Bitola became part of Serbia (later Yugoslavia).

Bitola is still a city of consuls, however, though it’s less known for that today.

There are 13 currently resident, and, as many countries remain interested in opening new consulates here, that number could yet grow.

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