The Heroic Mountains of Macedonia

 Despite centuries of dispute over who owns Macedonia, a part of this recently independent state remains of great historical significance to Serbs. 

In September 1916, the area around the 2520m peak of Kajmakčalan witnessed some heroic fighting. The mountain changed hands several times, but eventually the Bulgarian and German foes were driven back, and the Eastern Front saw a change in the course of the Great War.

My family and I travel to Macedonia almost very year (my wife is from Bitola). I had heard of the mysterious mountain Kajmakčalan on the border between Greece and present-day Macedonia, and the Serbian Church of Sv. Ilija and its ossuary situated there; yet nothing could prepare me for its breathtaking beauty; quietness and solitude, in contrast to the intolerable noise of battle that raged there 90 years ago.

The drive up to the mountain starts in the flat foothills and affords idyllic views over the villages of Bač, or Skočivir where King Peter I had his temporary wartime headquarters. Signs of habitation gradually decrease as you start to climb and the road becomes a dirt track. I immediately imagine how impassable it would be in the winter and admire the resilience of those Serbian soldiers.

We come upon a stone sarcophagus bearing the inscription: “Peace to the heroes. Here are laid to rest heroes who fell for the unity of Yugoslavia.”

Hesitating, we descend into the macabre ossuary, containing the bones of around a thousand gallant Serbian warriors who died on this barren mountaintop for our freedom.

Leaving the ossuary, you see the Church of Sv. Ilija on the highest point. The sight is familiar yet somehow strange. On taking a closer look you notice that the cross on the spire is crooked and that the church is made up of weapons; shells and barbed wire fence off the church, in a testament to eternal peace.

The church is open to anyone. Remarkably it is in good condition given the inclement weather and years. Inside the church, there are small icons on the wall, and signs of reverence and visitation: candles and wreaths proudly tied with the Serbian tricolour. As you walk into the church you notice a marble urn on which is inscribed:

In this urn
On Kajmakčalan’s peak
The golden heart sleeps
Of a Serbian friend …

8th August 1929

It contains the heart of Dr. Archibald Reiss , the Swiss-German father of Forensic Medicine, who sought to bring to the world’s attention the slaughter of Serbian civilians during the Great War; while the West was talking about Verdun, Ypres and the Somme, over a million people perished in Serbia. Such was Reiss’s loyalty to the Serbian cause that he fought alongside Serbs, lived in Belgrade until his death, and declared in his will that his heart be embalmed and placed in an urn on Kajmakčalan. And there to this very day it remains.

The bell tower and rear of the church perch precariously on a crag, surrounded by fabulous views of the Nidže mountain range. Peaceful. Forlorn. Significant yet Unknown.

Walking further down, one finds a sign marking the border between Greece and SFRJ, Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia - there cannot be many of those left! Bitter, herbal wormwood is the only thing growing among the mica, gneiss and granite on the barren mountain top.

As we turn back to Bitola, a massive hailstorm halts our perilous descent. But our difficult journey was worth it. This testament to our history is not that well known and I find myself pondering many questions: Should it remain a secret, unblemished by mass tourism? Does the current Serbian government know or even care about this legacy? Will it still be there in another 90 years, for our children’s children, amongst the mountains of Macedonia?

by Simon Petrović