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Monastery Zrze Challenges Archaeologists, Brings Peace to Visitors

The number of local and foreign visitors to the monastery complex Zrze, which is located at 1000 meters above sea level some 30 kilometers northwest of the city of Prilep, is drastically increasing. 

It is said that those who visited the monastery once, always come back to it in order to feel the atmosphere of peace and tranquility again and so they can connect with nature and clear their thoughts...

These sort of visitor impressions are shared with the members of the monastic brotherhood there.

"Their usual comment is that Zrze is a place that incites spiritual peace and tranquility as opposed to the hectic dynamic of their everyday life. Take care of Zrze, we need such a place, we are often told by visitors. We smilingly answer that it takes care of us", Father Kliment who is a hegumen at the monastery said.

The monastery complex 'Holy Transfiguration' encompasses a 3000 m2 area, and it has been reconstructed within the frameworks of the project for cultural heritage protection, which was realized from 2012 to 2015 by the Cultural Heritage Protection Office.

Father Kliment said that an interior design project is currently under way, which is supposed to finish by the end of 2016.

"Without the finished interior, the monastery quarters cannot be totally functional. The overall restoration of the complex has been underway for almost a decade. The monastic brotherhood has been part of this arduous but creative process the whole time. So, the fact that the process is nearly finished brings great joy and we are grateful to every institution and individual who contributed to the realization of this serious undertaking", Father Kliment said.

The 7 kilometer paved road allows for easy access to the complex

The increase in number of visitors is largely because an easy access was made available. The paved road, as well as the spacious parking lot contributed to this.

According to the director of the Cultural Heritage Protection Office, Viktor Lilic-Adams, the magic of the monastery plateau above village Zrze has always attracted visitors. But, its inaccessibility in the past prevented a lot of visitations.

The paved road, the spacious parking lot, and the monastery's high quality reconstruction allowed for the increase in visitors, who are present at the site on a daily basis", Lilic-Adams informed.

Father Kliment said that before reconstruction some 9 years ago only a dirt road existed, which in some parts of the year was completely blocked.

"Just as a reminder, Zrze is located at 1000 meters above sea level. In winter, when it snowed, the monastery was totally cut off. But the situation has changed with the construction of the 7 kilometer paved road. Now the monastery is easily accessible to everyone who wishes to visit. We have noticed that the number of visitors has tripled, especially over the weekend", he said.

The monastery complex is a challenge for archaeologists 

Archaeological explorations were also conducted, and they concluded that the complex does not date from the third decade of the 14th century, as was assumed, but it can certainly be said that it was a medieval monastic settlement with two cave churches and a skillfully organized union that dates back to the late 9th century.

"Basically, before us lays a complex archaeological fort site, whose eastern rocky vertical, at that time, saw the establishment of cave churches and monastic cells. Later on, on the plateau above them, the medieval monastery was founded. But this location hosted an even older early Christian tradition", Lilic-Adams said.

Generally speaking, he added, in the middle of the plateau a cold spring gushed mountain water, which was used in the early antiquity.

"There used to be a an early antiquity fort that later transformed into a late antiquity city around the spring. A small city which existed all throughout the 6th century AD, but exists as a Christian Monastery till this day. Of course there existed an undiscovered early-Christian intra muros city basilica, perhaps underneath the medieval monastery church. But, the late antiquity citizens also built an extra muros early-Christian church which was discovered by archaeologists at the northern plateau", the director of the Cultural Heritage Protection Office said.

Father Kliment said that the systematic archaeological explorations uncovered significant cultural monuments. In the surrounding rocky area, evidence of the monastic settlement dating back from the end of the 9th century was discovered, while on the rocky plateaus, an early-Christian basilica along with a tomb of a 5th century martyr was also uncovered.

"I hope that in the coming period the restoration of the monastic settlement in the rocks will finish, because it has incited great interest in the expert community and the public", Father Kliment said.

All the cultural discoveries, Lilcic-Adams said, have been complemented by the reconstruction of the monastery complex 'Holy Transfiguration-Zrze', so a respectable cultural destination has been established. Yet, the current situation calls for further exploration and restoration activities.

"The current site situation calls for further exploration and restoration activities at the monastic cells and the western sector of the remains of the antique city and its defense wall, which will be of interest in the coming period, in terms of enriching the cultural and tourist attractions outside the monastery complex", Lilcic Adams said.

Home to Seven Monks, Who Also Do Creative Work

The monastery in Zrze is home to 7 monks who do creative work. The quarters where the workshop for icon-painting is located, were also restored.

Father Kliment said that their brotherhood has renewed the Zrze icon-painting school, which existed in the 14th century.

Monk Tihon, along with two other monks are responsible for icon-painting. Every day, icons are completed and delivered for placed orders.