Religion

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A small and beautiful country nestled in the southeast of Europe, Macedonia offers its visitors a unique blend of natural wonders, traditions and cultures - as well as a long tradition of unrivaled hospitality. Macedonians know how to make their guests feel at home or how to provide the curious traveler with the best, partly because of their history and partly because of its mixture of age-old traditions, historical treasures, cultures and different ethnicities. Combining all of these qualities, Macedonia has something for everyone who is truly seeking for the mystic and peaceful harmony of the monasteries, churches and mosques together. Country’s multicultural Past and Present live in every existence and everyday life of people, in grandparent’s stories, in every house and celebration, in every merrymaking. Following any religion in Macedonia is allowed and all followers of all religious faith are treated with equal importance and granted equal rights. The constitution of Macedonia declares "The right to express one's faith freely and publicly, individually or with others, is guaranteed.” In accordance with this basis, there are more than forty active religious communities in Macedonia which build relations of mutual respect and tolerance.

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In essence, today’s Macedonia is a unique patchwork of cultures and religions, where Balkan bloodlines have mixed with others more exotic still. There are 1 200 churches, 425 mosques, Roman Catholic Church and many others religious communities with their own places of worship in the capital and in other towns. In every of this sacral buildings there is emotion that is awaking and evoking the feeling and image of belief, desire and life of the people. Opposite of the overwhelming proportions of European cathedrals, many of the Macedonian monasteries and churches you can find hidden in the naturally rich locations, in small proportions but overwhelming with mystery, intensity and full of unique style and elements of fresco painting. They are among the country’s most precious treasures, where the spiritual and artistic heritage of the Byzantine Orthodox or Islamic tradition is magnificently preserved. First among these are the incredibly detailed and precise wood carvings found in many churches, especially in western Macedonia, created by the well-trained masters of the centuries-old Macedonian School of ecclesiastical art. The singularity of Macedonia’s churches is also shown in the many frescoes and icons unusual for either their subject matter or style. Inside them you can witness the country’s rich and varied past – revelation of the influence of Serbian, Greek or Latin founders, Oriental and even Evangelical touches.

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The Macedonian Orthodox Church has played an important role in the long struggle of Macedonian people for the preservation of its national identity, as well as in its education and culture. You can see it in the facts that the brothers Ss. Cyril and Methodius created a brand new alphabet, the precursor to Cyrillic, to expedite their missionary work with the Slavic-speaking Orthodox Christians of the Balkan, that the Archbishopric of Ohrid was the first autocephalous Slav Church, established by St. Clement and St. Naum, outstanding students of the brothers Ss. Cyril and Methodius, that the first Slavic university was established in the 10th century in Ohrid and many others.

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On your way, you can’t miss the 12th century church St. Panteleimon in village Nerezi, near Skopje, which is one of the oldest and most important in Macedonia, built and painted in 1164, with its exceptional fresco paintings, which convey dramatic facial expression and emotions and is not commonly found in Byzantine art and which is considered as a masterpiece, as it displays traits associated with renaissance art at a much earlier date than the blossoming of the Italian Renaissance; or the Church of St Spas, in Skopje (17th century), with its unusual design and the most beautiful carved wooden iconostases, an early 19th century creation of the famous Mijak school of Macedonian wood carvers. The truly mysterious and yet unique are Church St. Georgija, in the village of Kurbinovo, Resen (painted 1191), with its unique and exceptional blue fresco-painting and Church of St George, Staro Nagoricane, near Kumanovo (14th century), vital link to Macedonia’s Byzantine past, with its haunting, otherworldly frescoes by Mihajlo and Eftihie, two of the greatest painters in the Byzantine Balkans.

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Following the decline of the Byzantium Empire, Macedonia and the entire Balkans came under control of the Ottoman Turks. Macedonia owes its Oriental influences to five centuries of Ottoman rule, a phenomenon that affected everything from cuisine and language to architecture and religion. The mosques of Tetovo and Skopje are one of the exceptional Islamic sacral buildings that express admiration to every visitor: Sharena Dzamija (Colored or Painted Mosque), in Tetovo (1459), is an example of early Constantinople style, adorned with unelaborated painted facade and interior, making it unique in Macedonia or region or Mustafa Pasha Dzamija, (15th century), undoubtedly one of the most beautiful buildings of Ottoman architecture in region. The diversity of tradition, belief and religion you can “taste” also in the vast enclosed Harabati Baba Tekke, the center of the Bektashi dervishes of Tetovo. The ancient convent, with its 16th century buildings, lies at the foot of the mountains which overshadow the city. The tekke enclosure contains the tombs of quite a few Bektashi holy men as well as the lodgings for its dervishes, monks of a kind unique in the world of Islam, who in the past had to pronounce a vow of chastity.

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The Macedonians, like many other nations, have special religious days and celebrations throughout the year. In all of them the hospitality of the families, the generosity, the belief and the tradition live in every man and woman, in every adult and child. Many of them are important family and friends gatherings and include preparation of special foods. Some of the practices on these days since they are religiously symbolic they are interesting, spectacular and colorful. The origin on most of them is in the Orthodox Christianity or Islamic Religion, mixed with the pagan or old-time traditions. One of the most important celebrations is Orthodox Christmas, thirteen days after Western Christmas, on January 7th, in accordance with the old Julian calendar. It's a day of both ritual and joyous celebration that began with at the evening of January 5th, which is known as “Kolede”. That’s the time when children go from door to door singing Christmas carols, heralding the birth of Jesus, and receiving fruits, nuts and candy from the people. Later in the evening, the elderly people from the neighborhood gather around a bonfire outside, and engage in a conversation about the past year and the years to come.

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The following evening is the Christmas Eve, when a traditional oak log is brought to the home. This log is cut by the father of the household and his older son, while the table is being set for the Christmas Eve supper. The dinner cannot have anything derived from animals, and it cannot be cooked using cooking oil or other types of fat. The traditional dinner usually consists of baked fish. The dinner is the last day of a traditional 40-day Orthodox Lent, which is done in a way to honor the Virgin Mary for carrying baby Jesus. Part of the dinner is traditional homemade bread with a coin hidden in it (usually placed inside before it was baked). The traditional belief is that whoever gets the coin in his/her piece, will have a particularly successful year to look forward to.

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The most particular and most interesting place to visit in winter is Vevcani (situated on the west side of the Debar - Struga highway, just 15km away from Struga and Lake Ohrid) for the Vasilica holiday, on the night between 13th and 14th of January every year because of the carnival of Vasilica - Macedonian Orthodox New Year, when according to old Julian calendar the New Year starts. This carnival is one of the most attractive events in Macedonia. The participants, with a realistic sense of humor, satire, and sarcasm, mark the events of everyday life and mainly mock the authorities and the power they represent. The carnival in this small village is 14 centuries old and is included in the world carnival list.

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Beside Christmas day, another very important religious holiday in Macedonia is Easter. There is a great preparation for this day, and activities begin on Thursday with coloring the eggs in red, that symbolize the coming happiness in the resurrection. In some homes, beautiful designs are scraped on the service of a dyed egg with a sharp instrument which represents unusual technique of traditional Slavic Orthodox Christian style of decorating eggs. The first egg to be dyed is put aside and called "Protector of the House". It is placed beside the family icon and saved until next Easter, where the mother of the house buries it in the garden while nobody sees her. After this, follows the family dinner with strict vegetarian fast with only nuts, fruits and vegetables and attending to church on Friday; and traditional dishes for the Easter meal on Saturday with the famous and traditional egg taping.

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One of the most important religious celebrations is Epiphany Festivities in Macedonia, in memory of the day Jesus was baptized. Every January 19th, Macedonian Orthodox believers traditionally celebrate Theophany of Jesus Christ, a holiday that is recognized in Macedonia as "Bogojavljenie - Vodici". Macedonian Orthodox believers celebrate it by jumping for the wooden cross into a river, in a ritual that stems from the belief in the purifying powers of water. The most interesting Epiphany festivities in Macedonia are on the Stone Bridge over the river Vardar in Skopje and on Lake Ohrid.

In Macedonia there are many Saints blessing days, when all members of the family or community observe together a day set aside to honor their family protector saint which remains unchanged from the father to the son as a tradition of inheritance. While around the world, on 14th of February people celebrate the day of love, in Macedonia people celebrate one of the most important Saint blessing days - St. Triphun, the patron of the grapevine and wine, or so called “The day of wine”. On that day the Macedonians, known as warm and hospitable people, offer grape brandy (rakija) and wine in the churchyards, while all the wineries are open to visitors and those who happen to pass by. This is a day of happy and smiling faces in the streets, of street musicians and of holiday euphoria. Another tradition of celebrating the Saints is “Trimeri” days - the three-day Strumica Carnival, one of the greatest attractions because of its cheerful atmosphere and thousands of masked participants strolling through the streets of the town. The carnival is held each year, in March.
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