A saint’s heartbeat: Sveti Naum

By Rob Packer

If you put your ear close enough to his tomb at Sveti Naum Monastery, they say you can still hear St Naum’s heart beating 1100 years after his death.

Maybe the Orthodox choral music was too loud, maybe I didn’t know where to listen or maybe it’s an Orthodox-only treat, but I didn’t hear anything from beyond the grave at the monastery, spectacularly sited under the shadow of Galičica Mountain and on the shores of Lake Ohrid barely a kilometre from the Albanian border. The monastery was founded in the 10th century by St Naum, a disciple of Saints Cyril and Methodius, two 8th-century brothers, who famously conducted one of the first Christian missions to the Slavs and one of whose names I’ve known since I was 13 in my first Russian class where we learnt the Cyrillic alphabet.

Inside Sveti Naum Monastery.

My last visit in Ohrid to a church over a millennium old.

Like so many of the churches around Lake Ohrid, the monastery is covered in frescoes and the taped choral music and smell of incense make it seem like you’ve stepped back in time to another age. But Sveti Naum goes further and makes it seem like you’ve stepped into a parallel universe: the 30km journey out along the sides of this incredibly blue lake under a dazzlingly blue sky was just the start. The monastery’s grounds are full of peacocks, a bird I’ve always thought of as being an escapee from Borges’ book of imaginary beings, and out the back of the monastery is a field filled with rundown-looking caravans.

Peacock feathers.

Caravans out the back of the monastery.

But the strangest thing about Sveti Naum is its holy spring. As you cross the path from the bus stop to the monastery, you pass what looks like an inlet in the lake where a small river joins it, but as you cross the bridge you see the transparent water come streaming out from under the bridge, into the lake and then the current proceeds across the lake appearing as if the waters of lake and river do not mix—in fact, it’s considered to be part of the Black Drin, rather improbably crossing Lake Ohrid to become its only outlet to the sea. That such a relatively small amount of water overcomes the expanse of Lake Ohrid seemed even more incredible when I walked a couple of hundred metres and found the same sight repeating itself: except that the water was now gushing with the same force out of the side of a hill. I later found out that this pressure-hose effect probably comes from the fact that a lot of Lake Ohrid’s water comes underground from Lake Prespa, another tectonic lake 10km away and 150m higher.

But whatever the geological explanation, in winter with no-one around to distract you, the spot seems almost magical. And this is probably why St Naum founded his monastery here in the first place.

The transparent waters of the Black Drin.

Rural idyll at Sveti Naum, just before it empties into Lake Ohrid.

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