Ottoman Architectural Heritage in Macedonia

by Teresa Waltenberger

Macedonia has a very rich architectural heritage from antiquity to the Byzantine period. Five hundred years of Ottoman rule also left a significant architectural legacy. Knowing about these monuments might help to appreciate them more, and, consequently, to preserve them for future generations.

The Ottoman Empire grew in Asia assimilating each conquered land with their people and their culture. In their advance from East to West they adopted from the Sassanids in Persia the technique of dome construction, an essential structure for their mosques. From Byzantinum they copied, among other architectural elements, the decorative layered brick and stone construction technique used widely for mosques as well as for civic buildings.
At the zenith of the Ottoman Empire, that is during the 15th and 16th centuries, the architects found their own style embodied in rich endowments all over the Empire and consisting of new types of buildings like mosques, tekkes, caravanserais, bazaars, hamams, bridges, aqueducts and, of course, private dwellings.

This brief article cannot cover all the Ottoman buildings in Macedonia. Rather than focussing on the best known and frequently visited examples, this short list of buildings scattered all over the country reflects the variety or architectural forms and gives an insight into the richness of architecture in this period.

The Husameddin Pasha Mosque in Stip with its harmonious proportions and unusual mihrab (a niche indicating the direction of prayer) deserves a quick intervention to save it from complete destruction. Above the square prayer hall, a multisided drum makes possible the transition from a square space to the round dome. The most striking feature of this mosque is its octagonal vaulted mihrab, visible on the south facade. Possibly, this shape of mihrab is a result of the interaction between early Ottoman and late Byzantine traditions in architecture. Another outstanding feature of this provincial mosque is the porch. Two white and two green Byzantine marble columns are connected by stunning arches in alternating red and white stones and covered with three smaller domes.

The Harabati Baba Tekke (Arabati Baba Teke) in Tetovo is probably the most beautiful tekke in the Balkans. (Muslim Tekke is somewhat similar to a Christian monastery.) It consists of a variety of buildings including the burial place of past dervishes, living quarters of the dervishes, a guest house, and a most attractive blue tower. The tower pictured here was built for the daughter of the ruler Abdurrahman Pasha, Fatima, who led a secluded life in the grounds of the tekke. It is an elegant two-storey building with a solid stone base. Its wooden upper part is painted bright blue. Painted exterior and interior friezes add to the artistic value of this monument.

The Cifte Hamam (Cifte Amam) of Skopje is a Turkish bath which was a must in any Ottoman town. While advanced hygienic concepts among Muslims made them necessary, the baths also served as a pleasant meeting place. Numerous domes of different sizes cover the brick and stone building of Cifte Hamam. The interior is divided into a Blue Tower in Tetovo Cifte Hamam. The interior is divided into a variety of rooms for undressing, bathing, massaging, laundering, etc. One of the most outstanding qualities of this monument is the use of elaborate stalactite decoration in the spaces connecting walls to the domes.

The Kursumli Han (Kursumli An) in Skopje, a caravanserai or trading inn, was built with the purpose of lodging travellers, mostly traders, with their animals and goods. Because of its size and design it is one of the most imposing trading inns not only in Macedonia, but in all the Balkans. It consists of a huge building of two floors with a spacious inner court surrounded by arched galleries which lead to the individual guest rooms. The now missing lead (kurşun in Turkish) roof had given the inn its name.

The Clock Tower is a typical building in the Ottoman world, reminding people that life is finite and time should be used in God-pleasing ways. The Clock Tower in Gostivar is one of the oldest and most beautiful ones in Macedonia. A solid square stone base with the original arched stone entrance finds a transition to an octagonal shape above. The upper wooden part of the tower contains the clock mechanism.

The Feudal Tower in Strumica is a defensive structure in the Roma part of town that, like many such buildings, served as a dwelling in war times. It has a nearly square foundation and consists of three floors with wooden balconies. Originally the tower had no staircase. For security, the upper floors were accessible only by means of retractable ladders.

Bridges across the three rivers flowing through Kratovo were built to facilitate the flow of goods, particularly in connection with the traditional mining of precious metals that continued to grow during the Ottoman period. High pointed arches of solid stone work have survived until this day.

The Officers’ Club in Bitola represents a good example of Western influences in late Ottoman architecture. Neoclassical facades contrast with oriental decorative elements such as the shape of windows and doors and floor designs. It was built during an especially prosperous period for Bitola when the town was an important military centre of the Empire.

The Kanevci House in Ohrid is a private dwelling of a well-to-do family. Even though these traditional houses are typified now as Ohrid-style, the Ottoman influence is clearly visible. Big windows in protruding upper floors contrasting with almost none on the ground floor are essential characteristics of the Ottoman house. Built-in cupboards and sanitary facilities reducing furniture are another typical feature of Ottoman houses. The Kanevci House is an outstanding example of how to use a minimal space to maximal profit in a most attractive way.