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The secrets of "Saint Ilija" monastery in Chardak

In early XX century, a Muslim man often came to the “St. Ilija” church in the village of Mirkovci, near Skopje, a took some of the water that sprung in the very church that he believed had healing properties and gave it to his ill wife. The pair believed that a miracle would happen and she would get healthy.

One day, the sexton serving in the monastery complex at the time, mumbled that he wouldn’t give healing water to a man from a different religion, so he filled his pot with water from the Banjani River, which flowed near the monastery. After some time, the Muslim man came back to the church, overjoyed and bringing presents. His wife got better and he believed it was because of the water from the church, not knowing that sometimes he was given water from the river. This story is told from generation to generation in the village of Mirkovci and we were reminded of it when we visited the monastery complex “St. Ilija” last weekend.

There is a situation depicted in a gospel in the Holy Bible about an ill woman who had spent her entire property on doctors, with none of them able to cure her. She approached from behind, touched Jesus’s clothes and suddenly got healthy. Jesus asked: “Who touched me?” The woman said it was her and why she had done it, to which Jesus replied: “Don’t be afraid my daughter, your faith saved you. Go with peace!”

Archaeological site “Balaklija”

People still come to the church to take some of the water they believe is healing. But, there are periods when there is no water because the spring dries up. Water sprung up again last year on the holiday of Good Friday – Balaklija, the day when the adjacent church, also part of the monastery complex, celebrates its patron. The holiday of Good Friday is dedicated to Virgin Mary because she washed Jesus’s wounds on this day, which is why people come to the springs to wash their face and eyes, or throw some water behind them three times. That is why this holiday is mostly celebrated in churches located near a spring. After the water sprung up on that day, it dried up again the very next, but reappeared again later.

The locals believe that the old and small church “Balaklija”, located just a few steps away from the church of “St. Ilija” is the oldest church in this part of Skopje with construction beginning in the XI century.

There isn’t much information in detail about this monastery, which is very popular among the people of Skopje on 2nd August – the Uprising Day. It was built before WWII on the site of the former monastery. There are three churches in the complex – the old “St. Ilija” church, the new “St. Ilija” church and the “Virgin Mary” church, or Balaklija, as locals call it.

The known information about this part of the city is recorded by the Centre for scientific research and promotion of culture in Skopje – HAEMUS. A team from the centre, led by Vasilka Dimitrovska, MSc in Archaeology, explored the village of Mirkovci in 2013 and found a new site, “Balaklija”. The results of the preliminary research showed that buildings from the late antique or medieval periods can be found in and around the village. We had the opportunity of seeing the items found by HAEMUS during our visit of the site.

According to HAEMUS’s research, there is a pillar made of stone of volcanic origin, which is part of the fence, in the yard of the “Virgin Mary” church, which, even though severely damaged, leads to the assumption that it was part of an object dating back to the late antique or medieval period. The field configuration with remains from a semi-circular, apsis-shaped stone structure, points to the possible existence of a sacred object. There haven’t been any surface findings and without any archaeological probing or excavation it is difficult to understand the character of the building.

There is a dislocated capital, which was part of a marble architectural sculpture of an early Christian basilica, located in the church, by one of the walls. The finding is pretty damaged and worn out, which points to a secondary use in later architectural buildings. Wax remains and a sitting pillow placed on it lead to an assumption that it may have been used for different purposes related to folklore and people’s beliefs. The capital is massive, heavy with different scenes depicted on the two sides – one depicts a cross flanked by volutes and the other – David’s 41st psalm, one of the most frequent motifs in art decoration of the Christian monuments.

“The presence of a capital from an early Christian basilica leads to an assumption that we should be looking for the remains of a great sacred building, which probably existed in the same period as the town and the necropolis” – Dimitrovska says.

Other items have also been found – a proof of the rich history of this region

According to Macedonia’s archaeological map, two sites have been registered in the village of Mirkovci so far. Several monuments, or findings, from the Roman period have been recorded to the “Preku Reka” toponym and they are kept in the lapidarium at the Museum of Macedonia. A necropolis from the late antique has been recorded to the “Shumanica” toponym, north of the village, with remains from tombs with stone plate constructions likely to have existed in the village farmlands, but destroyed during the farmers’ work.

The research of HAEMUS gives us an insight of this part of Skopje yet to be explored.

Monastic life

The monastery complex “St. Ilija” – Chardak is one of the many holy temples built on Skopska Crna Gora Mountain, which was a sacred place for Christians, who built churches and monasteries on its slopes during the Ottoman reign. The mountain is also known as Mount Athos of Skopje. It got its name because of the black mantles of the numerous monks who lived there (Skopska Crna Gora – Skopje Black Forest). Some say that around 100 monks were killed during the Ottoman reign.

The “St. Ilija” monastery, one of 15 in a 10 km radius, is probably the only one with active monastic life. There are two monks from Serbia currently residing there. However, it used to be a female monastery. The tombs of several nuns and father Sofronije are located in the yard, in front of the hospice. Father Sofronije, who died in 1890, built the old monastery church “St. Ilija”, and everybody who lived in this sacred place contributed in the construction of the monastery complex. One of the nuns, sister Minadora, built the hospice where the two monks from Serbia are currently staying.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get the chance to see them. They were inside their monastic cells. There was nobody in the monastery during our visit. Only the candles in the yard were proof that there were other visitors before us.
People not related to church are not allowed to stay in the hospice. The bell tower, however, is in a phase of preparation and is expected to have a capacity of 20 people.

The monastery is also a good place for school excursions. Schools from Skopje organize visits to the monastery, albeit not very often. The complex is surrounded by a high fence. The yard is big, with abundance of grass and is ideal for children to play. The famous national restaurant “Chardak” is located next to the monastery.

You will find your spiritual peace during the visit of this monastery complex located in a beautiful, untouched nature. There are many reasons to spend a day in this part of Skopje and you might even find out something about this place that is yet to be explored by archaeologists.