‘You must dive naked under and deeper under,
a thousand times deeper. Love flows down.’
– Rumi, ‘The Silent Articulation of a Face’
translated by Coleman Barks
1. The Line
There was a line in the lake where it went from transparent to opaque. This was where the basin suddenly dropped from twenty metres to almost 300, making this oldest of Europe’s lakes also one of its deepest.
As below, so above: this abysmal descent was perfectly echoed by the vertical peak that rose to 1,000 metres above the inlet where our little boat was moored. The peak was called Big Shadow and was part of the karstic mountain that cast its chill over the eastern side of the lake. From where I had swum out, I could see the crumbly niches in Big Shadow, where hermits had lived for a thousand years. The last resident hermit, one Kalist, had been spotted in 1937, in a cave accessible only by rope ladder. The early anchorite monks and nuns lived on roots and berries, rarely leaving their eyries or breaking their silence, the changing colours of the lake their daily contemplation.
The chalky mountain separates the lake from its higher, non-identical twin, but only overground. Underground, they are connected. Ohrid and Prespa: two lakes, one ecosystem. The water of Ohrid (hard ‘h’) is famous for its translucence. On a late summer’s morning, it appeared immaterial, unearthly – not so much water as the essence of water – and its temperature made it inseparable from your skin. You could be swimming through air. Reflected clouds hung in the water and moored boats levitated in space. On such mornings, time became illusory and the distant became present. There was a magical, almost quantum feel to this lake, and it was understandable that many believed it was inside an ‘energy vortex’.
Lake Ohrid is Europe’s largest natural reservoir of clean water, but its ethereal quality was partly the work of Lake Prespa and the mountain. The porous karst allowed underground streams to flow from the higher to the lower lake and they filtered the water like a giant sponge, so that when the underground rivers of Prespa came out at Ohrid in the form of multiple springs, the water was newly born. Further sublacustrine springs fed the lake. Swimmers who came out of the lake had a particular expression: for a short time, they took on the quality of the water. They looked completely at peace.
I knew about the sudden drop in depth, but not its exact location, and anyway it’s easy to forget everything you knew on a brilliant-blue sunny day with no separation between air, lake and mountain, when you’re floating in coastal waters off the inlet of Zaum in a state of bliss. My boat guides, two sisters, had moored for lunch here, where the medieval church of Mary of Zaum with bat-shit-encrusted but lifelike frescoes sat just metres from the water under weeping willows. Here was a depiction of a bare breast, rare in the Eastern Orthodox canon: Anna in a robe of deep red breastfeeding Mary. And the earliest-known portrait of St Naum, patron-protector of the lake and healer of the insane.
The St Naum Monastery was a quick boat ride south of here. Five centuries before, it had been established in the ninth century by the Bulgarian monk Naum – viticulturalist and ‘miracle-maker’ – on a piece of land sitting atop numerous springs. Naum’s arrival marked a long period of Slavonic cultural efflorescence on the lake. This was followed by a Byzantine efflorescence and with the later arrival of the Ottomans, a rich culture of Sufism, some of which still survives. And because the people of this intricate landscape were organically suited, and millennially devoted, to the mysteries of nature, the result is a continued syncretic approach to all worship and ritual. Nature remains the original source of the sacred, beginning and ending with water.
The lake is surrounded by healing springs and wishing wells. The largest are the St Naum Springs at the southern tip of the lake shaped like a perfect oval mirror. At the northern end is another healing spring, on top of which perch niches and painted cave churches. Their patron is the resident icon of a Black Madonna. Believed to cure infertility and blindness, like the spring, legend tells how she’d been thrown into the lake many times by ill-wishers, but each time, she’d swum back to the spring. The Black Madonna of the lake is still worshipped on special days by Macedonians and Albanians alike, including Muslims. People kiss her, leaving hundreds of lip marks on the protective glass. The lake also has another, secular protector-spirit – a fictional woman called Biljana, from the lake’s anthem ‘Biljana washed her linens in the Ohrid springs’. Biljana was washing her linens when a caravan of vintners passed. She warned them not to crush her linens. They promised to repay her in wine, but ‘I don’t want your wine,’ she said, ‘I want that lad over there!’ But the lad was betrothed, and Biljana was left in the icy springs – disappointed but at least in charge of her linens.
Not far from where I swam, an invisible line ran across the lake from the St Naum Monastery to the western shore: the Albanian-Macedonian border. Or North Macedonian, since the country changed its name in a painful trade-off with neighbouring Greece in 2019. The sisters had refused to take the boat beyond the border zone, which I couldn’t see but they could. It was a border of the mind but trespassed, it came with very real fines, and a confiscation of your boat licence. Yet the lake was open, boundless. And it had been this way for at least three million years; some scientists said five million. Either way, humans were recent arrivals in comparison.
From the St Naum Monastery, we could hear the Italian pop music of lakeside restaurants in the nearest Albanian village. We could almost smell the grilled fish. You could swim into Albanian territorial waters from the monastery’s beach, but you’d need a passport, and you risked being arrested by either side’s border police.
Because I am a confident swimmer, I’d gone quite a long way in from Zaum. I knew that you could see through the water down to twenty-three metres, and when I dived, I saw the long plants that grew from the bottom and reached for my legs, like the hair of the mythical samovilas. Samovila: a shape-shifting Balkan female entity that acts as the custodian of forests, mountains and lakes. She is seductive but you don’t want to cross her. That’s because the human being is a trespasser in her realm. Lake Ohrid had its own samovilas which would sing their siren songs to the fishermen, seemingly from within the deepest part, and by the time a rowing boatman found himself in the middle of the lake and realised that the song was in fact howling wind from the karstic mountain, it was too late – the weather had turned, all four winds of the lake had risen, there was the deadly undertow, subject to capricious subaquatic weather, and you were a long way from the shore. The catchment area of Ohrid is 2,600 square kilometres, but it has no islands. Once out on the lake, you are without shelter.
The deepest part was here, some thirty metres in a straight swimmer’s line from Zaum, and I remembered this when I suddenly couldn’t see through the water any more. Its colour had changed and, with it, the temperature. A chilly dark abyss gaped beneath me. A tomb. My body momentarily seized with panic. No wonder the traditional Ohrid boat resembled a coffin, with its raised square sides, its design unchanged since the time of the ancient Illyrians.
In that lonely moment on the edge of the precipice, just before I turned round and swam back, swallowing water because I’d clocked what a long way I had gone and my breathing was out of sync, in that moment I glimpsed the fathomless nature of water. Of my relationship with water, perhaps all human relationships with water, and what had really led me back here to the matrix, to this lake of lakes where my maternal family line had seeded somewhere in the depths of the genetic pool, and was reaching up to me, pulling at me with deadly playfulness.
2. The Dream
Though I grew up in an inland city, water has always been with me. In a dream I’ve had for the past thirty years, an immense body of water rises on the horizon and approaches me and the world as I know it. I am on a high shore. The water may not reach me, but it will reach others. I am terrified, but can’t stop watching the water make its majestic approach. This is not personal. It’s not even about any of us. It’s about the water and how it suddenly threatens our interests, when we thought it was our friend.
Sometimes, the dream ends there, on the brink of cataclysm. The collective dread, the belated astonishment rises in me – how come we didn’t see it coming? – and in that moment of no return I grasp that I knew, we knew it was coming, but chose not to see it. Other times the waters creep in, in an anticlimax of silence, and I find myself in a submerged world. Underwater, I recognise buildings, neighbourhoods and people. Everybody’s eyes are open now. There is no sound. I swim through the wreckage, looking for familiar faces. Pylons collapse.
For a time, I thought the imprint for this dream came from a childhood summer camp on the Black Sea, when I witnessed a storm with raging black waves and its aftermath – broken concrete on the beach, a dead dog and piles of seaweed and jellyfish. But recurring dreams probably come from more than one moment in time. They are symbols seeking to communicate across psychic realms. In archetypal terms, the sea symbolises the universal unconscious, ‘the mother of all that lives’ in Carl Jung’s words, with its contents submerged yet ever present. Physically too, we are mostly water. Our bodies are made of water. The primordial ocean contains all moments in time, and we spend our prenatal life in water, absorbing our mother’s nutrients and emotional-neural vibrations. That is why, even though your mother can be free of you, you can never be entirely free of her. In every holistic cosmological system of thought – from Daoism to Jung – water is feminine, or yin.
My mother and sister are afraid of deep water, mistrustful. By contrast, my maternal grandmother Anastassia loved water. She died when I was a child. There was, I always sensed, something distinctly thalassic about her. She came from here and carried the lake within her for the rest of her life. Anastassia had a radiant, but unstable, choppy-water quality about her. She absorbed to excess the energies of people and places, and had a deep emotional memory. As if she was more than one person, a whole nation of souls. She carried some original matrix where the land masses were still moving, the fault lines stirred under the surface, the water levels rose and fell, something was out of sync and could not be reconciled.
My grandmother (left) with two of her cousins on Lake Ohrid
My mother, an only child, inherited this submerged and submerging compulsion, but with more fear in the mix. Low-grade chronic anxiety, but also sudden black flashes of fear, fear of depths mixed with a yearning for depths. I was, of course, next in line, and the fear kept me very close to my mother. It kept us close, because we couldn’t tell the difference between love and fear. Until it began to drain me of my vitality, later in life. Trust was eroded by fear, and eventually an arid space opened up between us, like the basin of a prehistoric sea.
My mother was born three years after the end of the Second World War in a Sofia ravaged by British and American bombs, with fragile health that needed support and deteriorated in later life. We have been quite literally separated by oceans for years now, but our illnesses have always mirrored each other with ghostly resonance. At the time of this lake journey, I was recovering from a severe health crisis which featured fatigue, widespread pain and a black, waterlogged heaviness in my bones. I was weighed down by an impersonal dread.
In my search for healing, I found Daoism and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). In Daoist cosmology, everything physical has a metaphysical dimension. Material phenomena, including illness, are merely localised, temporal manifestations of timeless, universal energy, or qi. The ocean of qi precedes and outlives all material reality. In the holographic universe of Daoism, the human body is a microcosm of the earth, with its cycles of death and regeneration. In the Daoist theory of correspondence, the inner and outer worlds reflect each other, and every living ecosystem, including the human body, is based on five elements and their interplay: wood, fire, earth, water and metal. Water is the strongest: it extinguishes fire, corrodes metal, rots wood and flows into the earth. Water always finds a way. Even when it evaporates, it comes back as rain.
In Daoism, the essence of vitality, or jing, with which we are endowed by our parents at birth, is contained in the kidneys. This water organ is the jewel in our inner garden, because jing carries our precious genetic imprint. It is temporally finite. When jing runs out, we die. This is why the decline of kidney meridian energy is associated with ageing in TCM – marked by greying hair or loss of hair, cold extremities, loss of fertility and a general heralding of winter. Beyond the jing, the kidneys’ purifying instincts decide what is health and what is poison, and like a hibernating bear, they store our reserves of life force, to release them in times of crisis. You can use up your jing prematurely and become burnt out.
In the elemental classification, water and the kidney are associated with the emotion of fear, the colour black and the function of conservation, protection, memory, temperance and deep knowledge. People with dominant water qualities in their constitution and personality seek depth, solitude and understanding, including of death and all subterranean mysteries that the other elements can’t face. Water is, in terms of mythos, Plutonic: it is the underworld. Water does not like being breached, and its greatest fear is not death, but extinction through invasion. When out of sorts, water is black ice: hard and unyielding, it says no. It can form stones in soft places, and make things rigid, petrified, stagnant, shut away from the sun. Like the women in my family, when we are in crisis.
The sisters were waiting for me by the boat, smiling, tanned, relaxed. They had a lot of fire in them.
‘I think I reached the deep,’ I said, water dripping from my words. I had swallowed a lot.
They laughed. They mirrored each other – just like my aunts here, who were identical twins and finished each other’s sentences. In fact, my aunts and these two girls were related through marriage. By the lake, everybody was related, and like the lake, everything had a mirror image, a double: nations, official histories, siblings and mother-daughters. My third aunt, their radiant sister Tatjana, had died as a young woman and my grandmother, who was her beloved aunt, had followed a couple of years later. Somewhere between the two world wars, the Cold War and emigration, our family had been fragmented and weakened by hard borders and the hard propaganda that goes with them. But here at the lake, all felt close. The dead and the living alike.
‘No you didn’t,’ the sisters laughed in unison. ‘It’s much further out.’
We jumped in the boat and headed for the deep. Paragliders floated above the porous mountain which seemed to be breathing. But never above the lake.
‘That’s because it’s dangerous,’ the sisters said. ‘You can get sucked in by an air spiral.’
A paraglider with a slightly hunched back, called Angelo, had told me that his friend died in exactly this way, and he himself had smashed his spine in a near-fatal fall. The water I had just enjoyed, the diaphanous, barely-there water, was hard like obsidian if you fell on it from a great height.
‘This is the deepest part,’ said one sister. It was as black as the Black Sea, where my father had showed me how to trust water. He would go swimming for hours from the beach, beyond the horizon, causing my mother black fear.
‘Nobody swims here,’ said the other sister.
‘There’s a legend of a noblewoman who wove a long rope and came to measure the depth of the lake,’ said the other. ‘But just as she dropped the rope, a storm arose, waves battered her boat.’
She understood that humans had no business in the middle of the lake, and vowed to build a commemorative church in the inlet, if only the lake would let her go.
‘This is the legend of Mary of Zaum,’ said the other sister.
The folk corollary was that you plumbed the lake at your peril. There was endless local lore of drownings, especially as a result of insulting the guardian spirits of the lake.
‘There are all sorts of things at the bottom of this lake,’ said the sisters.
We were now passing the Bay of Bones, where a Neolithic dwelling on stilts had been reconstructed after divers had found a treasure trove of archaeological remains. The earliest-known people to live on these lakes were an Illyrian–Thracian tribe.
‘The lake is nature’s safe box,’ Angelo had said as we stood at the top of the mountain, with him as guide. ‘Water has memory.’
From the 2,000-metre-high peak we’d scaled, both lakes were visible, like eyes in an ancient face. The cold mountain wind took all your words and threw them away. We could almost see the Adriatic, where Angelo’s ancestors had arrived from Sicily, fleeing a vendetta. I asked him what was at the bottom of the lake, since he was also a diver. He was a true creature of the lake.
‘Everything,’ he said. ‘Shipwrecks from the First World War, unexploded mines, war planes, family treasures, church loot stolen by mean priests, antique jewellery, Neolithic ceramics, inconvenient people, weapon stashes, saints’ relics. You name it, it’s in the lake.’
And a statue of the unpopular King Alexander of Yugoslavia planted by the Serbs on Ohrid town’s waterfront, before a large medieval mosque, which the returning Bulgarians in the 1940s dumped in the lake. But the Serbs reclaimed the lake later, under the red flag of Tito, and the mosque was blown up.
The land was deeply imprinted with events, and it projected its trauma onto the lakes. During the Cold War, Albania and then-Yugoslav Macedonia had lived in separate universes, even as they shared the lakes. The lakes had been turned into a political membrane, an iron curtain. People drowned trying to cross, or were executed by border soldiers. As a child visiting our Yugoslav relatives, I’d stand on the jetty in Ohrid town and look across to the distant blue mountains of Albania, filled with curiosity and dread, because I sensed that a country so hermetically sealed had to be terrible for its people.
‘And we used to hang out at the jetty in Pogradec,’ an Albanian friend told me, ‘and dream of visiting Ohrid, with all its glamorous lights.’ Pogradec was a mellow old town on the Albanian side, where the fish was cheaper and Italian music was heard more often.
The land was diachronic, tattooed by time: history had been literally made here, along the Roman road Via Egnatia that you could still trace from the Albanian coast to Istanbul, and on whose remaining cobbles I walked above the lake. But the lake was synchronic in nature. All roads ended in the lake. The very idea of a road vanished. Time lines and grievances dissolved.
From the high peak where I’d stood with Angelo, the conversation between the two lakes was as clear-chiming as music. As Ohrid waned, Prespa waxed. Prespa had a very large population of pelicans and cormorants that travelled each year from Africa, though the old individuals overwintered here.
‘Like us humans,’ Angelo smiled, with all the wrinkles in his face. ‘I’ve been climbing this mountain and diving in the lakes, and flying over them for so long, it’s like I’m looking for myself.’
Me too. I was looking for something that had felt lost, forgotten, broken – but here by the lakes, I felt whole. My family, my body, the world – all felt whole.
‘See the river inside the lake?’ Angelo pointed. Some could see it: the Black Drim River, which started at the St Naum spring, travelled across the whole length of the lake, and came out with champagne ebullience at the northern end.
‘You know the story of the Ohrid eel?’ the sisters asked.
The story of the Ohrid eel verges on the fantastical. Ohrid eels spawned in the Sargasso Sea, and travelled here when young. How did they make it from the Atlantic to this landlocked lake in the south-west Balkans? Nobody quite knew. It is one of the earth’s mysteries. They swam in rivers and underground streams to get here. The mature eels then returned to the Sargasso Sea to mate and drop their eggs. But when the Black Drim was dammed in the 1950s, an impassable obstacle was placed in their way. For twenty or so years after, the eels continued to throw themselves into the maw of the hydroelectric beast, resulting in massacres. The ancestral compulsion was stronger than their survival instinct. Still, a few individuals made it all the way to the Sargasso Sea and continued the cycle. The Ohrid eel is now on the verge of extinction. There were attempts to rejuvenate the population by bringing in eels from Greece, but because of ‘livestock’ regulations between the EU and the non-EU, this failed. The famed water snakes of the lakes are also endangered because of drought. An island in Lake Prespa was called the Island of Snakes, but the closest I got was a shed skin floating in the water, the ghost of a snake.
Lake Prespa’s levels had always fluctuated, like the rivers which fed it. Prespans believed that the levels rose when catastrophe approached, and oddly enough, this happened three times in the twentieth century: the tragic Ilinden Uprising against the Ottomans in 1903; the First World War, which ended in the traumatic tri-partitioning of Prespa along new borders (Yugoslav Macedonia, Greece and Albania); and the Second World War, which extended into the Greek Civil War. The main rebel camps were here, in Prespa, until the end in 1949. The enormous human loss and displacement of that last war included a large population of refugee children scattered all over Eastern Europe, America and the Antipodes – to this day. Since 1950, Prespa has lost most of its humans and animals and seven metres of its water – the work of war, poor cross-border politics, orchard pesticides and climate change.
To get to Prespa, you have to drive over the mountain saddle along a lonely winding road that is part of a national park. You pay a fee of two euros to enter it. The water of Prespa is darker, with a metallic sheen, and its shape is different too – jagged with inlets, a giant teardrop. Prespa is garlanded by the necklace of two high mountains often draped in mists. These are the southernmost glacial massifs of Europe. Two strong winds clash over the lake, in autumn and winter. I was caught out on a boat with a group, one day, when a strong wind rose. Waves smashed into the boat, high and solid as concrete houses. We were drenched and shaken, but lucky, the boatman explained as we made an emergency landing in a reed bed: it was just one wind, not two. The mountains were in conversation, and on this occasion, one of them remained silent.
Lake Prespa, meaning ‘vale of snow’, is full of vortices and sinkholes, some of which feed Ohrid below. At night, from the small lakeside guest house where I stayed, I could hear the lake breathe, but not see it. I could hear the two winds draw their ciphers on the surface. Just as I could see the lakeside checkpoint with Greece, but not cross it – it had been closed during Greece’s military junta in the 1960s. Recently, revived bilateral plans to reopen it had stalled again, for two reasons: one, a change of government in Greece, and two, a French snub to North Macedonia despite decades of promises to let it into the EU’s club, and despite the humiliating name change it had borne to appease Greece (which claimed exclusive cultural rights to the name Macedonia). Because of the disused checkpoint, to cross into the nearest Greek village a couple of miles along the lake, I had to drive over one of the glacial mountains, go through another distant checkpoint, then drive over another mountain, empty of people and full of ruins from the Greek Civil War, before finally rejoining the lake. Four hours and 170 kilometres later.
Prespa is the shadow self, the dark side of the moon, the untold story, the black to Ohrid’s white. It is like a medicine: taken in small doses, it is healing, but if you overdose, you begin to hurt. Despite its altitude (850 metres), Prespa is warmer than Ohrid, with a median temperature of 32 Celsius, heaven for birds and fish, but when I swam in it, the feeling that something was reaching up from the murky depths made sure I didn’t go far from the shore. Locals talked of vortices and sinkholes where the bodies of the drowned disappeared forever. Of giant carp, 200 kilos apiece, which lurked in the vortices in winter. Of giant bones found in graves on the Island of Snakes. Of resort buildings on the waterfront built by political prisoners in the early years of Tito, where locals had found the skeleton of a man literally built into a wall, boots and all, immured in the lime as an execution, here where Yugoslav Communist Party bigwigs came to holiday and hunt for boar and brown bears in the hills. The bears were still here. In a high mountain village where I stayed later, they came down to the gardens to eat cherries, and locals chased them off with gunshots. I was careful not to swim far from the shore or climb high into bears’ territory.
The Albanian checkpoint above the lake was a friendly place and I even made a friend: an ethnic Albanian from Macedonia, a customs officer who sometimes took breaks from his night shift and came down to the lakeside guest house, where he had a dram with me and the few remaining locals in this former fishing village, as the two winds blew sand into our faces and made the reed beds whisper loudly to each other from one shore to another.
Here, on the Albanian side of partitioned Prespa, was the legendary sinkhole of Zaver, meaning ‘vortex’. Zaver had inspired legends of gifts – like lambs – being pushed down into it by Prespans and received, two days later, in the springs of St Naum at Ohrid. A team of scientists had tested the legends in 1925: they’d poured red paint into Zaver and two days later, the waters of St Naum ran red. It was only a sixteen-kilometre course, through the mountain, but underground rivers follow their own destiny. It was also here that Biljana, of the linens, was said to have thrown her engagement ring after she fell in unrequited love with that vintner lad in the caravan. But the ring popped out in St Naum – like a harsh lesson.
Zaver was dry. It was the sinking of the lake levels. The Albanian side of the lake was parched, depopulated, monocultured and still recovering from half a century of totalitarian abuse under Enver Hoxha. In a lakeside village, I asked an old woman with apple-red cheeks and patched clothes whether life was better now, or during communism. She smiled.
‘Before, we were separated from our loved ones because of the border,’ she said. ‘And we were poor. And now, we are separated from our loved ones because of emigration. And we’re still poor.’
I sat on the dry shore above the vortex from which the lake had withdrawn in that woman’s lifetime. Was the lake running out of its essence, its jing? Curiously, despite the dramatic fall of Prespa, Ohrid had not suffered a decrease in volume. I wondered what I would witness, if I lived to her age, if I returned to the lakes, if I would ever be free of my mother’s pain, this earth’s pain, if we could be made whole again in the image of these two lakes that were both the soma and the psyche of the land, if all our black fearful tears could be sucked into the sinkhole and purified by the mountain, to emerge not so much as water but as the essence of water in the lower kingdom two days later.
Feature image: The author’s mother, grandmother and Tatjana, Lake Ohrid, 1960s
All images courtesy of the author