Where did science and religion begin? Two men in blue standing on a mountain in northeast Macedonia claim it began here, at an ancient sacred temple called Kokino.
Just five years ago archaeologist Jovica Stankovski and astrophysicist Gjore Cenev were poking about the Bronze Age ruins near the top of this 1,000-meter high neovolcanic shock when they noticed certain notches in the ridge were aligned with the positions of the sun and moon at their seasonal rise.
A year later the discovery was validated by NASA, and Kokino is now fourth on the short list of oldest observatories on earth. Just beneath the summit the cut andesite rocks and a hand-hewn throne make up what is being marketed as the Macedonian Stonehenge, one of the greatest prehistoric observatories in the world — the only one so far discovered in Eastern Europe, ranking up there with Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Abu Simbel in Egypt.
Like boys on a treasure hunt, Gjore and Jovica scramble about the site, excitingly pointing to each marker and cut, oblivious to the 100-degree heat, espousing their theories. It was, they believe, crafted by a pagan cult in one of the first known efforts to create a calendar. Similar to the illustrious scene in the film "Raiders of the Lost Ark," the sun here would climb at the solstice and pour a ray through a slit in the rock. The rising beam would then illume the face of the high priest, they theorize, who sat on the stone throne.
The meeting of the sun and the mountain represented a marriage of two gods, and at that moment a series of sacrifices would begin — horses, bulls, rams, goats, perhaps humans. The blood spilled would fertilize the soil, promising abundance in the season ahead, and the union between sky and earth, between gods and people, would be manifest.
These rituals, timed to celestial movements, celebrated the first measurements of time, and made possible an organized society that knew when to plant seed, when to harvest, when to move the goats and sheep to pasture. Before, people had lived in roaming tribes, living off what they could hunt and gather, with no legacy of science or religion.
But Stankovski and Cenev also suggest that this is where religion and science divided, as these ancient practitioners discovered that each had merits separate from the other, and that split continues, ever widening, today.
The astronomical orientation of Kokina is kindling a controversy among skeptical archaeologists who just don't believe that random range of ridges can be called an observatory in any sensible fashion. But Macedonia boils with mysteries, solvable and otherwise.
While on this expedition we learned a team had deciphered the long-confusing middle text of the Rosetta Stone, the stele that unlocked the hieroglyphs. Three languages are on the stone, the top being ancient Greek and the bottom Egyptian hieroglyphs; it was long thought the middle text was some obscure mélange of the two. Not so, claim Tome BoÃ Â¡evski and Aristotel Tentov: it is Macedonian, and the source text for the two translations that bookend it.
Then there are the wholly unsolved riddles. Alexander the Great's golden sarcophagus, a treasure that would fetch untold millions today, has never been found, and there are those who believe it lies in a crypt yet uncovered. Along the Markova River just outside Skopje, where yellow flecks stipple the beaches, some archaeologists conjecture the Golden Fleece was cached in a cave. The Knights Templar marched across the great Roman road that runs across Macedonia on their way back from Jerusalem, where some believe they stole the Ark of the Covenant... perhaps that too is buried somewhere around here.
Where did art begin?
Just outside Kratovo, an old mining town built in an extinct volcanic crater, we meet Dr. Dusko Aleksovski, who holds advanced degrees in philology, archaeology and paleolinguistics. He is renowned as the man who discovered rock art in Macedonia in 1991 — a date coincident with the nation's modern birth— and he went on to locate over a million prehistorical wall drawings and etchings.
Aleksovski leads us to his most elaborate find, Tsotsev Kamen, a hellishly hot and hard-to-climb basaltic mesa fashioned for Neolithic fertility and wine ceremonies, where the mystery seems to be why anyone would build a temple here. On the backside we crawl up past a dead snake that lately guarded a mural of petroglyphs some 20,000 years old. Aleksovski raises his wrist, wreathed in a bead bracelet of rock art symbols, and points out a stick figure in elation, then what he calls "the tree of life," and finally a man and a chariot.
Afterwards, at his Rock Art Museum, crammed with as many testimonies to his finds as his actual finds, as well as souvenir jars of honeyed figs and home-brew rakija, he turns Bob Marley to play through the computer speakers, and raises a toast. "I believe rock art is the heart and soul of Macedonia. It is the beginning of all art!"
Adam of Macedonia
In a golden wheat field near a spreading walnut tree, not far from the village of Govrlevo, there is an inauspicious ditch about ten feet deep and perhaps 30 feet square. It is here in the autumn of 2000 that MiloÃ Â¡ Bilbija, an archaeologist at the Museum of the City of Skopje, unearthed a clay figurine of a headless yet contemplative man, a statue that dates to 7,500 years ago.
The little sculpture is quite realistic, with terracotta skin color, well-defined muscles, a visible spine, even the broken stub of a penis, and a flared disc representing the sun in his belly, his solar plexus. I am told this is the oldest carved figure of a man ever found, and with humbling audacity Bilbija calls it "Adam of Macedonia." It is significant, he tells us, because it solves a great mystery: it tells us when man changed his consciousness about who he is.
Prior to this all Neolithic figurines found around the world were of goddesses — some 50 were discovered deeper down in this same trench. In the layer above this ceramic man, metal jewelry and buttons were exhumed, marking the onset of the Bronze Age. Bilbija argues that this seated, round-bummed Adam may have his ass in the Neolithic era, but his eyes are looking toward the Megalithic era. This little figurine marks the tipping point where humans recognized the difference between man and other animals. We are not inside nature, he suggests, but above it, apart from it, different — or so we have believed ever since.
Perhaps this recognition gives rise to spirituality, the knowledge that we have a soul. Perhaps the cosmologies of the classic world revolve around this trench — the golden fleece in the river, the natural profusion of grapes that brought the sacred intoxication of wine, the bread ovens that literally gave rise to the agrarian diet... it happened here, at what MiloÃ Â¡ Bilbija calls "the navel of the world."
We kneel in this vital ditch sifting the sands of history, while nearby children of the village of Govrlevo play in the gardens. "We have a thousand musicians but only one Mozart — then, there were many priests, but only one genius. It takes only one man to change the world."
Maybe that man was Adam of Macedonia, or the craftsman who created him, and set us on the rocky journey of civilization.
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