Saturday, July 08, 2006

Eight wonders of Macedonia

Our survey of the world's "Eight Wonders" continues into Europe, as we visit Macedonia in advance of the coming Richard Bangs Adventure, Discovering the Sacred Mysteries of Macedonia. Though many know of Macedonia from high-school history classes, few know it's a modern-day nation with plenty to offer the adventure traveler as well as the archaeology tourist. Julia Romano does the legwork of finding the fun and fascinating facts about Macedonia.

1) Alexander the Great

Born to military hero King Philip II of Macedon and tutored by famed philosopher Aristotle, young Alexander was destined for, well, greatness. His first real battle was the one he fought to assume the throne, as he was considered by many, including his father, to be an illegitimate heir. Soon after his crowning, Alexander expanded the Macedonian empire through Egypt, Persia,
Afghanistan and India. At 33, he died a mysterious death in Babylon, after which the great empire of Macedonia quickly declined. Read a history of Alexander the Great.

2) Heraclea

Founded by Phillip II of Macedon and named for the hero Heracles, this fourth century B.C. town stands today as monument to Macedonia's classic past. When the Romans conquered Macedonia in the second century B.C., Heraclea became a main stop on the Romans' newly constructed Via Egnatia (see below). Before World War I, archaeologists found a small theater ticket (for row 14 out of 20) made of bone. Two world wars prevented further excavation, so it was not until decades later that archaeologists unearthed the 20-row gladiator theater in the center of town, and an early Christian basilica with mosaics depicting a menagerie of exotic and mythical animals on its floors. The Greeks built many cities named Heraclea; this one is known as Heraclea Lyncestis.

3) Via Egnatia

Stretching thousands of miles in each direction, Via Egnatia connected the East to the West, linking Roman colonies from the Adriatic Sea to Byzantium - modern Albania, Macedonia, Greece and Turkey. The road's namesake, Macedonian governor Gnaeus Egnatius, ordered construction of the great highway in 146 B.C. The first stretches were finished nearly 14 years later, and trading towns and places of worship sprang up along its route, many of which still exist today as relics of the region's interconnected history. Today, engineers are constructing the modern Via Egnatia, "Europe's most difficult and modern motorway."

4) Lake Ohrid

Lake Ohrid is one of the world's oldest lakes, formed millions of years ago on the western side of the Dinaric Alps by geotectonic depressions (as were similarly ancient lakes Titicaca in Peru and Baikal in Siberia). This ancient body of water is home to the European eel, which comes to Lake Ohrid from its birthplace thousands of miles away in the Sargasso Sea. The eel lives in Lake Ohrid for 10 years, then returns to the Sargasso to spawn and die, leaving its progeny to repeat the process after birth. In 1980 Lake Ohrid was proclaimed a place of world cultural and natural inheritance by
UNESCO, Macedonia's only World Heritage Site. See photos of Lake Ohrid on Flickr.

5) The Stone Dolls

Near Kuklica village in the Kratova area of Macedonia, 120 stone figures, dated to 10 million years ago, rise from the earth, the tallest nearly 10 meters high. Legend has it the figures are members of a cursed wedding party, turned to stone by the fury of a scorned bride. Scientists suggest the "dolls" are products of tectonic erosion. For a tour of Kuklica, visit Macedonia's tourism site.

6) The Rosetta Stone

Discovered in Egypt in 1799, the writings on the Rosetta Stone date to 196 B.C. The text is transcribed in three languages, and the stone is considered a critical key to deciphering ancient script, especially the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt. Just last month Macedonian scholars said that the third language on the stone was Macedonian, and not a form of ancient Egyptian known as Demotic, as had been thought. It makes sense: the Macedonians ruled Egypt under Alexander the Great and his appointed regent, Ptolemy Sotir, founder of the last dynasty. For more on the Rosetta Stone, visit Wikipedia.

7) Prehistoric observatories

Some 5,800 years ago, ancients living near present-day Macedonia stood atop a hill shadowed by huge stone ridges and tracked the course of the sun and moon. Today Kokino is ranked fourth on the list of the world's oldest observatories, behind Abu Simbel in Egypt, Stonehenge in Great Britain, and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Not far away from Kokino stands Chochev (or Tsocev) Kamen, another Neolithic observation site, built some four millennia ago. The site is more developed than Kokino in many ways, including rock-cut footsteps and ladders, sacred basins, pictographs, and an ancient wine-making system.

8) St. George/Staro Nagoricane

First constructed in 1071, the Church of St. George, located in the village of Staro Nagoricane, was refurbished in the early 14th century by Serbian King Milutin after he conquered Byzantine Macedonia. The artwork Milutin commissioned during the church's renovation is haunting and otherworldly, and the frescoes still festoon the walls, darkened with age. Today, the Church of St. George is considered an important link to Macedonia's Byzantine roots. Read the history of frescoes.

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