05 July 2007

Visions of paradise face up to reality

By Eric Jansson
Published by Financial Times, 5 July 2007

Leopards and bulls rest in the shade of fruit trees. Peacocks strut down the aisles of ancient churches. Deer lap water from an ornate urn, from which springs the "tree of life".

To archaeologists, the vivid mosaics at Heraclea Lyncestis suggest visions of paradise both figurative and practical figurative because the animals and geometrical patterns portrayed pointed to paradise for the early Christians who once worshipped at the site, practical because there is so much more promising work left to be done there.

Since the 19th century, when an Ottoman sultan authorised the first excavations of the city, archaeologists have uncovered 1300 sq m of mosaic flooring, much of it exquisitely preserved.

Yet their efforts to date have scratched just the surface of what Heraclea may ultimately offer up. Engin Nasuh of the Bitola Institute and Museum, chief archaeologist at the site, says test digs in surrounding vineyards indicate that only "about one tenth" of the ancient city has been excavated so far.

The existing finds are remarkable for the views they afford of Greco-Roman convergence, from Heraclea's founding in the 4th century BC through the Roman conquest two centuries later and eventually the westward spread of Christianity.

At such sites in the Republic of Macedonia, a look backwards in time reminds citizens that their claims to European identity are not merely aspirational but foundational.

As the country inches closer diplomatically to the European Union, EU diplomats frequently proclaim an emerging "European perspective" for the western Balkans. But standing amid the ruins of Heraclea, Mr Nasuh notes with some satisfaction that this place's European heritage actually predates the EU by millennia.

"There is a kind of mysticism here, a magic, what you might call a European feng shui," he says.

Heraclea blatantly no longer stands at the centre of the continent's development, as it did when it was an important city on the Via Egnatia, the Roman road linking Jerusalem and Rome. Today its ruins lie on the dusty outskirts of Bitola, a city little known outside the region.

Yet the stones there continue to afford glimpses into Europe's cultural heritage that resonate today.

A startling example is the site's "small basilica", the ruins of a church that Mr Nasuh says may have been built before 300 AD. Its eastern walls are rectangular on the outside but curved behind the altar space within evidence, the chief archaeologist says, that the Christians who built it may have been compelled to disguise the building's true purpose, worshipping secretly in the shadow of official Roman persecution.

The small basilica, a much bigger basilica, episcopal residence and other buildings now lie beneath the periphery of a Hellenic amphitheatre adapted in Roman times for gladiatorial games.

But the site is less glorious than it could be. This summer, visitors will be disappointed to find sand covering the expansive mosaic floors of the big basilica. The archaeologists dumped it there to protect the ancient tiles from Macedonia's changeable weather. They have yet to devise a better method of preservation.

Chronic underfunding impedes progress at the site, along with "a general lack of long-term strategy and planning for preservation of cultural heritage in Macedonia," says Mr Nasuh.

Heraclea's total budget for 2007 is €40,000, most of which is earmarked for construction of a museum shop. Sales at the new shop may ultimately yield the local cash flow that the site currently lacks, enabling workers to operate with greater independence from the state budget drawn up in Skopje.

Meanwhile some EU countries, most notably Italy, have started stepping into the void. Interested in part because of its own ancient ties to Heraclea, Rome has offered funds to improve site security and night-time illumination.

But international co-operation could be better. Unresolved rivalries stemming from the break-up of Yugoslavia almost two decades ago still pose a problem. Serbia, where centralised Yugoslav state institutions were based, has so far refused to relinquish archaeological records from Heraclea.

Mr Nasuh blames academic rivalry.

The records, to which, he says, his counterparts in Belgrade refuse him access include studies from the Yugoslav era on key archaeological questions, such as what lies beneath some of the mosaic floors.

"There is almost certainly enough material for 20new doctorates in there," he says.

Yet if it is true that only a tenth of the site has been excavated, the very ground under Mr Nasuh's feet may yet yield enough archaeological material for hundreds of doctorates.

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