Skopje, Macedonia

Sveti Spas Church, Skopje, Macedonia

This very unusual church stands at one end of Skopje’s Old Bazaar area. It is unusual because half of it is built underground. An edict from the Ottoman rulers of Skopje said that no church could be higher than any mosque. For Sveti Spas this meant either a very low structure indeed, or building down instead of up.

It was built shortly after the devastating fire of 1689 and was largely rebuilt above ground in the mid-1800s. From the outside it appears to be a featureless one storey building with a later wooden bell tower dating to the 19th Century. However, you go down steps into a dark world of candles and astonishing carvings. The iconostasis is one of the most renowned wooden carvings in the Balkans and dates to 1824, it is 10 metres long and 6 wide and is partly gilded.

The interior of the church is quite small and coming back out into the courtyard outside one has to blink furiously to allow your eyes to adjust. Sveti Spas is the resting place of Macedonian hero Goce Delcev who fought to free Macedonia from Ottoman rule, whose birthday is still marked by an official ceremony every year. He died in 1903 having been betrayed by local villagers in Bulgaria to the Turkish forces who ambushed him. His tomb outside the church is a massive square slab shaped sarcophagus, plain but powerful as he would most likely have approved.

Photo - Andrew J. Müller

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