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Ardenica
Where Skenderbeg exchanged marital vows five centuries ago





By Jerina ZALOSHNJA

Standing on the highest of the hill
tops overlooking the plains of
Myzeqe, in the center of Albania,
is the Monastery of Ardenica, an important center of the Orthodox Church in Albania, dedicated to the birth of Saint Mary.

Its beginnings date back to about the 10th Century to approximately the same period when the foundations were laid of one of the two original churches, the Church of St. Triadha, the very first nucleus of the Monastery.

Towards the end of the XII Century, St. Triadha Church and the Monastery itself suffered damage (earthquake or fire) and were reconstructed together with a second Church, the Renaissance of St. Mary’s Church.

Final reconstruction work was done on this ensemble in the years from 1740 to 1744.



The icons and the icon screen of St. Mary’s were embellished by the most renown of Albanian artists, Konstandin Shpataraku of Voskopoja, Konstandin and Thanas Zografi. The wooden icon screen is one of the most well preserved in Albania and it is believed to have been engraved by the wood carvers of Voskopoja. The original is thought to date back to 1744. It was repaired in 1804. The alter and the icon holders were engraved during the same period. The inscriptions on the fresco and every other manuscript in St. Mary’s Church are in ancient Greek. It is believed that Gjergj Kastriot Skenderbeg, the Albanian National Hero was joined in wedlock at the St. Triadha Church, in May of 1451. Archival sources provide the explanation that because he took a bride from the area of Myzeqe and because the Castle of Kruja (Skenderbeg’s main place of residence), had to withstand wave after wave of assaults by the Turkish armies, Ardenica was regarded to be the most suitable location, out of range of the fighting and yet not to distant from Kruja. One reason why the decision was made to have the wedding in an Orthodox Church was because a brother of Skenderbeg, Raposhi had lived in several monasteries of Greece and was buried at the Monastery of Hilandar where his grave can be seen to this day.

The Treasures of the

Monastery

The Church of St. Mary houses numerous icons and an icon screen, the spot from where passages from the Bible are read. Several wood carvers from Voskopoja worked on the embellishment of the screen. The Church also preserves the ancient throne of the Archbishop as well as the sacred holder where the icon chosen for the day was placed.




Among the most well known icons are those of the Lord Jesus Christ, the icon of Saint Mary, the icon of Saint John the Baptist, that of the Birth of Saint Mary, the icon of Saint Nicholas and that of Saint John Vladimir, in whose frame there also appears a presentation of the Albanian Prince, Karl Topia.



There are also numerous codices, two of which are of enormous importance and are written in ancient Slav. One focuses on the legacy of the Kastrioti Family to the Monastery of Hilandar (in present day Greece), and the other speaks about the inheritance of the treasures of the Monastery of Ardenica by the males of the family. On the deaths of the male members of the family, the treasures became the property of the Monastery itself. Apart from these churches, the Monastery also had a library within its confines, but which was sadly gutted by fire in 1932. Several hypotheses have been raised over the cause of this fire, but the real reasons remain a mystery. The Library is mentioned many a time, not only for the wealth of volumes it had, but particularly for the codices, historical and religious manuscripts and rare and valuable trappings of the churches. Very little remains of the heritage that adorned the library and the monastery itself. Among the few treasures from the library is an old prayer book from 18 Century in Greek, and a copy of the Bible in two languages, as well as a small collection of old photographs.


The Curse of this astonishing Monastery

After completing morning mass that begins at 06:00 hours and continues for no less than two or three hours and after delivering special midday prayers for Saint Mary, Father Emanuel, the only priest at the Monastery of Ardenica (which is also the only inhabited monastery in Albania), has gone for a walk, to meditate in solitude. Like every other day, he will return to begin the evening mass and then withdraw to his cell for his personal prayer session. This, however, is not just a monotonous ritual. Every day Father Emanuel mentions something special from his own life or from the lives of the people who live in close proximity to the Monastery.

A good part of the time he is accompanied by a young monk who is also the caretaker of the monastery and by the chickens pecking away in the yard of the monastery. Foreigners also visit the monastery, mostly Japanese and Chinese tourists, particularly during the summer months. Local followers also come and pray in both churches, however, for the greater part of his time Father Emanuel is in solitude.

The Monastery of Ardenica, chosen by Father Emanuel as his earthly and spiritual abode is in fact, a very surprising place.

15 years ago Ardenica was a popular resort, far removed from a place of God. The "cells" (small rooms), living quarters of the monks today, had been turned into motel rooms of a primitive style for the entertainment of the elite of the previous regime. In the court yard of the Monastery was a restaurant at which it was a special pleasure to dine because of the widow trees around the monastery and the lingering mysticism of the location that none of the decisions prohibiting religion in Albania had managed to stifle.

In the mid-nineties’ the Monastery was restored and in Easter of 1996 Father Emanuel and one monk moved in. This is the beginning, but by no means the best beginning the existence of a monastery could have. As we mentioned earlier on, tourists from around the world come to visit the monastery, but without even paying an entry ticket in return. The monastery is not just a religious object, but it is of particular value as a cultural monument.

Monasteries in other countries thrive from the work and the economic management of their residents, while the Monastery of Ardenica is financially dependent on revenue allocated by the Seat in Tirana.

There is a story about a curse of the Monastery of Ardenica. Some years ago, a successful local businessman began to build an old style restaurant on land that was property of the monastery, without the approval of the priest or of the Orthodox Church. It so happened that the businessman died suddenly from a heart attack. Two other owners of the restaurant also suffered the same fate. Finally, their families decided that this property be returned to the monastery
 
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