The Ancient City of Kerameia
Legends and myths, historical truths and stories, kings, emperors and gods, all collected in one place, between the granite rocks of Marko’s Towers and Varosh, known as Kerameia in ancient times. It seems like nature took care of the place and turned it into a mystical and pretty remote place, so it could preserve itself in the stories that are passed from generation to generation for centuries and millenniums to preserve.
As silent witnesses of what really happened, and for the legends and the traditions too, topped by the Marko’s Towers, stands the castle of King Marko, one of the biggest legends in Macedonia. At the foot of the massive hill is the monastery “St. Archangels Michael and Gabriel”, and in Varosh, interlocking between the houses of the Varoshians, there are many churches. This small town, which constantly lives from prehistory through antiquity, was known as Kerameia until the early Middle Ages, as Prilapos from the 14th century, and to this day is called Varosh. A few kilometers south of Varosh, the Turks formed the fort Perlepe, the today’s city of Prilep.
The ancient city Kerameia, which was probably named after the numerous ceramic workshops, is not mentioned by the ancient writers and historiographers, but instead, is recorded in Tabula Peutingeriana or the map of Peutinger, a German humanist. His map is a copy of the map of a German monk from the 13th century who copied his from the map of another geographer from the 8th century, who, again, copied it from the original “Tabula Mundi” created in the year 350.
This map says that 36 roman miles from the way from Stobi to Heraclea the town of Kerameia is located. Indeed, if one takes off from Gradsko (Stobi) to Bitola (Heraclea), after 55 kilometers or 36 Roman miles they will reach Varosh, ancient Kerameia. The most notable thing, which you can first spot when in Varosh, are the palaces of King Marko at the top of the Towers, and the monastery “St. Archangel”, in the granite rocks at the foot of the Towers.
When King Volkashin, followed by his son Marko, formed a small state in Pelagonia, the fortification of the Marko’s Towers became a center – a capital of that country. The Pelagonian Bishopric, formerly situated in Bitola, was moved there. The Episcopacy retained there until the death of King Marko, and probably had only one bishop. The walls that are today seen on top of the Marko’s Towers are built in the time of reign of King Marko, over the former walls of the ancient fortress.
It had been the most appropriate place to build a defensive fortress with royal castles, because from the top of the Towers the whole Valley of Prilep can be seen as on a palm. On the other hand, the high rocky hill of Marko’s Towers is so inaccessible and naturally protected, that it did not take a large army to defend it. In written sources of that time, it is stated that only 50 soldiers had guarded the fortress.
Varoshians tell this legend about the construction of the King Marko’s castle:
“When King Marko decided to build the castle on top of the Towers, he gathered all Varoshians, all the men, women and children and ordered them to stand in rows next to each other from the foot to the top of the rocky hill. Thus arranged, the people handed rocks one to another, with which builders built the fortress. Even nursing mothers were not speared from working, and since there was no one to take care of their babies and the toddlers, they ordered an old lady to do so.
They sat the lady on the nearby hill, and placed the children around her so she could keep an eye on them. However, the babies cried having no one to breastfeed them, and the old granny unable to calm them down, started yelling and cursing. She wished and cursed herself to get petrified with the children. God listened to her and turned her and the children into rocks. Today she sits on the same spot.”
People today call the spot “Babata (The Old Lady)” and they claim it keeps Prilep safe from natural disasters. Nevertheless, the legend does not end here. People explain how the folk that built the castle got so tortured; many were left injured or dead. After the castle was finished, King Marko pitied the dead and decided to raise many churches in their memory. Construction of the churches began immediately and, according to the legend, 77 churches were built. Of these, Varoshians say only seven or eight stand today.
This is just a legend, like the one in which King Marko jumped with his horse (called Sharec) from one rock to another and from one hill to another, while the power of the horses’ hooves left holes in the rocks. It is true that he built the church “St. Archangels Michael and Gabriel”. This is a monastery church where today live five nuns and their abbess is sister Georgina. The entrance of the monastery church is painted with the portraits of Volkashin and Marko, and a sign in the church says that its founder is Marko. The church is built on the foundations of an older church, and part of its premises remain under the church of King Marko.
In the monastery courtyard there is a well that fills with water from the peaks of Marko’s Towers. The people believe that it is a miraculous, healing water and they call it Virgin water. Because of this healing water, the monastery, except celebrating the holidays of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, celebrates the holidays devoted to Mother of God, and in those days lots of people come to drink from the water and pray. The rest of the churches in Varosh such as “St. Nicholas”, “St. Demetrius”, “St. Athanasius”, “St. Peter” and “St. Immaculate Mother of God” are from different periods of the Middle Ages. These were churches of the medieval settlement under the Marko’s Towers, which was dispersed in several neighborhoods. Every neighborhood had its own church with a cemetery around it.
The fortress was strong until the death of King Marko in 1395. After his death, it had been conquered by the Turks and wrecked. They held it in the 15th century with 18 soldiers and in the 16th century with only five soldiers. Soon after they left the establishment, in which life never rebuilt. Life went on at the foot of Marko’s Towers in the rural Christian settlement Varosh. The Turkish settlement was a few kilometers south, known as Perlepe, today the central part of Prilep.
Nevertheless, Varosh was not only a medieval town. Life in this place uninterruptedly runs from prehistoric times to today. The birth of the city is not precisely known, but it was well developed and rich in the 4th and 3rd century BC. The necropolis excavated in the place known as “Pod Kuli” witnesses for it. Lots of luxurious ceramic and glass objects and jewelry have been found there, all imported from Greek workshops, which speaks of a time rich with highly developed trade relations.
The ancient city in Varosh revealed more parts of houses and a thermal bath, all excavated near the church “St. Athanasius”. The city had its own castle on top of Marko’s Towers and existed well until the end of the 3rd century, when the Goths attacked it. However, unlike many other cities, which never recovered after the devastations by the Goths, Kerameia rose again during the 4th and 5th century and continued to flourish. Moreover, it seems, it still existed as a well-established and organized town with lower nobility, which built their villas even outside the city.
Such a rustic villa or a rural villa was found at the place Peshterica near the artificial lake. In the villa, besides the part where the owners stayed, there were sections for the servants and facilities destined for the production of wine.
The owners of the villa had their own bath with pools for hot and cold water and two rooms for washing and perspiration. The villa had its own necropolis in which the members of the family were buried, and the coins that have been found there date from the reign of Constantine I to Theodosius I. The villa was used in the 3rd and 4th century and was subsequently destroyed by fire.
In the early Middle Ages, the town lived as an unspecified settlement, and on top of the Marko’s Towers, it had a defensive turret. In this defense fortification, known as “Frurion Prilapos” in medieval written documents, in 1019 King Samuel arrived. From up there he saw his fourteen thousand blinded army, as it returned from the battle of Belasica against the Byzantine Emperor Basil II. Until the conquest by the Serbs in 1334, the fortress had been under the rule of the Byzantine Empire, which used it as a remote military stronghold.
Read this article in Macedonia here.