History of Bitola

Category: About Bitola

Genesis of Bitola. Following the historic facts about the creation and existence of the settlements in this region we will have to go way back where even that sentence in the stories “Once upon a time…” has real meaning and content.

The oldest Neolithic sites discovered in the Pelagonia Valley speak about an extremely long continuity of the existence of life in the region. The achievements in the sphere of the material culture of the Neolithic men speaks about his high sensibility and balance between his inner spiritual life and his “real” material world.
Numerous altars through which he tried to picture his inner feelings and emotions, and his eternal quest for the divine, the female statues with emphasized reproductive organs, the Mother Goddess through which he tried to manifest the importance and the meaning of the Cult of fertility, are only one segment of the culture of the Neolithic men.

The late Neolithic with its own characteristics represents one of a kind herald of the achievements which later on were a base for the appearance and change from the Bronze to the Iron Age. The arrival of the Slavs in the region, by the end of the 6th and the beginning of the 7th century, represented one of a kind upheaval in the historic development of the region, and especially of the creation of Bitola.

altar porodin

Model of house altar, dedicated to the Goddess Protector of home - archaeological site Porodin

The history of this new Slavic settlement, that was founded near the former city of Heraclea was first written about by the Slav tribe Brsjaci, in the middle of the 7th century. We assume that, the first written documents, about Bitola origininate from the 11th century.  It is mentioned here under the names of Buttela, Butili, Obitel, and later on as Monastir, Manstir but the most important and kept till today is the name of Bitola. In this period it is mentioned that the Byzantine Tsar Vasilij II, during his military raids trough Pelagonija, burned down the royal palaces of Gavrilo Radomir in Bitola.

Although Vasilij II destroyed a large part of Pelagonija, he didn’t completely conquer the city. The medieval cities always had their own fortresses that in case of war the local population could use them as a shelter, as well as a defensive object. So, this kind of fortress existed in Bitola too. This fortress during the long years of war and constant attacks was pretty much damaged, so the Tsar Jovan Vladislav in 1016 decided to restore the fortress. We assume that at the entrance of this fortress there was a marble board, in the scientific world known as “The board from Bitola”, where the name of Bitola was mentioned for the first time. The importance of this board is even bigger because it is the oldest monument inscribed with Cyrillic letters in this region.

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The board from Bitola "Bitola plate"

Bitola played a very important role in the religious life of the population too. The Episcopacy of Bitola, which was under the administration of the Archiepiscopacy of Ohrid, is seen as a successor of the Episcopacy of the former city of Heraclea. The turbulent times, frequent battles, destructions and robberies left their mark on the population, as well as on the city. The attack of the Crusaders, Epirian, Bulgarian, Latin and Serbian conquerors more or less left their mark and worsened the bad situation of the population. The Serbian conquers in the time of Tsar Dusan only fulfilled the picture of the numerous wars and conquerors. This period was calmed down during the ruling of Volkasin and his sun Krali Marko (King Marko).

In this period Bitola started to become an important trade centre with very strong trade connections with Venice, Dubrovnik as well as the other cities, that in the same period played a very important role in European and world trade. At the same time Bitola was a place where different types of trade products were stocked, and then transferred to the other, farther markets.

Bitola during Ottoman rule

The coming of the Turkish conquerers to the Balkans, announced a new era of life. The Turkish army during 1382/3, after many hard and bloody battles, and after an extremely violent resistance by the local population, finally managed to conquer Bitola. According to some of the legends, the priests from the seventy monasteries and churches that in the same period existed in Bitola gave a very violent resistance to the Turkish soldiers. Hadji Evronos Bej, who led the Turkish army ordered his army to destroy the fortress of Bitola because of this violent resistance.

The bloody battles that happened in this period influenced the massive migration of one larger part of the population from Bitola into the surrounding villages, which partly eased the colonization of the non - Slavic, Muslim population. In this period there were colonized a larger number of Turks, Cerkes, Jurucs, Konjari and Romans. This situation changed the picture of the city, because for the needs of the new-comers in the city, a lot of Islamic objects such as: mosques, medressas, amams, palaces, and everything else needed for a normal life of this population was built.

In this period an „oriental” shaping of the city started. This was a result exactly of the building of these types of buildings, as well as of the oriental building techniques and styles. In the period of 16th - 17th century, a period of historic as well as cultural changes, by the Turkish administration the city of Bitola began to be called Monastery or Toli Monastery. But anyway during all its existence the name Bitola was never forgotten, because by the Christian population it was in everyday use.

It is assumed that the name Monastery is a result of the legend about the seventy churches and monasteries that used to exist in Bitola in the period of Turkish arrival. Evlija Celebija also wrote, that here in this region in the time of Alexander the Great there used to be a big monastery, and this was the reason why this city was named Monastery. Although this information cannot be surely confirmed, it is possible that the number of churches and monasteries could be a reason for this name of the city.

Because of its location on the crossroads of all the most important roads (east, west, north and south), even from the earliest period of the Turkish ruling, Bitola gained deserved importance and became an important military and strategic centre. That was only confirmed in 1830 when Bitola became a political centre, of the Rumelian Vilaet. After the breakage of the old system and intensified torture by the Turks - owners of the great properties and farms, a new change of the ethnic structure of the city population happened. In connection with this situation it is very important to emphasize the repeated migration and settlement of one part of the Christian population from the villages to the city.

The ethnic and religious diversity and tolerance came to light during the process of colonization by a large number of Jewish emigrants from Spain and Portugal in the period between the 15th and 16th centuries. With their arrival a lot of changes in the ethnic and religious structure of the population happened. The Jewish population gave its own different mark of the time that they lived in the region. With the entrance of this different ethnic and cultural element, the diversity of the cultural picture of the city increased. The way the people dressed, the food and the religious beliefs reflected in the everyday existence and functioning of the city. The two biggest Jewish synagogues, which unfortunately don’t exist anymore, were a very significant element of the religious diversity of the city.

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Interior of the Synagogue in Bitola

With the arrival of the Jewish population in Bitola, there were changes in the development of trade and manufacturing. The Jewish community, well-known tradesmen, gave their unquestionable contribution in the development and expansion of the trade relations between Bitola and the most important European and world trade centres. With the settling of the Jewish population in Bitola, further ethnic changes in the region did not stop, because already in the 18th century in the surrounding villages, and in Bitola too, the presence of the Vlach population was already increasing.

The main reason for these changes was the extensive battles, terror and robberies that were done by the famous Ali Pasha Janinski. In 1788, he burned down the town of Moskopole. After this act a large number of Vlach community found refuge in Bitola. The Vlach population as well as the Jewish people gave their contribution in the development of the manufacturing, but perhaps even more in the trade.

Under the influence of all these events, Bitola developed very rapidly, becoming the most important centre of the Balkans. In this period, the city gained a different physical appearance. Situated in the Pelagonia Valley, surrounded by thousands of hundred-year-old trees and filled with avenues, it represented a real paradise. The river and more than ten stone and wooden bridges, pretty one - or two-story-high houses divided into 21 streets added to the unique physical appearance. of this city.

In the beginning of the 19th century, a period of economic prosperity in Bitola, there were many markets and about 30 other locations where different types of products were made and sold. All of them were divided according to the type of products that were sold there: Wood Market, Grain Market, Cream Market, Horse Market etc. Some of the names of the locations where some of the markets used to be in the past, are still preserved and used even though the actual markets don’t exist anymore. In these markets, different languages were heard, and different agreements were concluded. There was almost no tradesman in the city that didn’t know at least one foreign language. Except for the differentiation of the markets according to the type of products made and sold in them, the differentiation according to the different manufacturing was also present and important.

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Wooden Market in Bitola (End of XIX cent.)

In the period of flourishing of the manufacturing in Bitola, more than 130 types of manufacturing existed. They were assigned to satisfy the needs of the population and the army, but they also made products for foreign markets. The manufacturing was divided according to the types in different locations or in different alleys in the market. Today the number of manufacturers is extremely small and yet some of the names of the previous manufacturing still exist. That is the case with the street called “to the bell maker’s”, “to the hammersmith’s” etc. These locations and names that are preserved even today are not only simple data, but on the contrary in their essence they keep the story for some other time, and some other conditions, and according to this their cultural significance is even bigger.

The trade and manufacturing development and progress understandably led to the one of a kind economic prosperity of Bitola. The developed trade relations with the big European centres enabled the free flow of different information and trends. The economic prosperity of Bitola during the 19th century influenced its strategic and political role. The mutual impacts of the politics and economic interests led to the creation of one different picture of the city.

The seventy religious objects, mentioned by the itinerant, of which some are protected until today as very valuable cultural monuments, should represent a home for all the Muslim believers in the city where except for the civil Muslim population in one period about 30.000 soldiers were stationed there. This huge army was stationed either in the Red or the White Barracks, built in 1837 or 1844.

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Military barracks (The White Barracks) in Bitola (1844 - 1917)

The middle of the 19th century is the period when the biggest European countries, wanting to strengthen their influence on the Balkans, and then to spread it to the East, begin to strengthen their diplomatic activities. This interest brought about the formation of one different “Consul Bitola”. It can be freely said that in this period Bitola achieved her peak in economic, political and cultural prosperity. This was a period when the most powerful European countries: England, Austria, France, Italy, Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece, opened their Consulates in Bitola.

The aspirations of some of the mentioned countries and their Consulates expressed trough the propaganda were not only political and economic but also territorial, which is going to be seen later on during the apportion (partition) of Macedonia. Developed trade relations with Vienna, Leipzig, Trieste, Marsej, Istanbul and other important trade centres with the opening of the diplomatic agencies were only in deepened. The economic prosperity of the city influenced the opening of the great Ottoman Bank, of the French Bank and some other big financial institutions.

Economically as well as politically, Bitola became a place of differing influences, but this time European were accepted very easily. On the traditional buildings, new European styles and techniques were added. In a decorative sense, the houses obtained the physical characteristics of the European houses as those that could be seen in other European cities. But in the functional sense they remained in the frame of tradition.

The former cupboards were changed with different closets and wardrobes. The porcelain became widely accepted by the wealthy families in Bitola. The simple gasoline lamps were substituted with the new porcelain ones imported from Vienna, Leipzig, and Munich etc. In the city there were a large number of pianos, and they were a sign of prestige. Even those wealthy families of Bitola, that didn’t have any musically educated member, owned a piano, because that was something that gave them some “higher” reputation in the city.  This is where the epithet “The City of Pianos” comes from. The changes could be felt in every step. The European fashion became a change from the former clothing style.

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Exhibition – The Pianos in Bitola (NI Institute and museum Bitola)

Sirok Sokak, the main city street became a place where the wealthy ladies always dressed up according to the latest fashion, rustled with their dresses provoking numerous sightings. In the surrounding restaurants usually accompanied by coffee, “locum” (Turkish delight) and cigarettes, different conversations were had. Different discussions about the present political and economic situation were talked over, and new trade agreements were concluded. A lot of pleasant looks toward the young ladies, which went for a promenade exactly here, before these gentlemen, were directed to them. The sounds of the chaise and serenades were almost one inseparable element of the everyday life of Sirok Sokak.

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"Dembel Carsija"

The picnics on some of the twenty surrounding picnic places or even on Tumbe Cafe (surrounding hill), the rich food, cold and clear water that abounds the region, as well as the tall Molika trees, made this ambience so warm, that simply bound this city to your heart.

This period of luxury, night balls and Consul Parties wasn’t very long. Although all the richness and wealth of the city and one part of his inhabitants, Bitola was also a city with a very large poor population. This kind of contrast in the city was actually a part of its everyday existence; a part of its life that had not at all ruined the general impression of the city itself. The bad economic situation at one part of the population was present not only in Bitola but in the entire Turkish Empire, gradually found its reflection in the numerous internal events that lead to drastic social and political changes.

The whole revolt and anger that the population accumulated in their soul in the five hundred years of Turkish slavery, found its reflection into the events that followed. The terror and murders represented an introduction that speed up and intensified the preparations around the uprising that Bitola could not avoid. The murders of several pre-eminent men of Bitola happened only a few months before the uprising and were a result of the Turkish vengeance for the assassinations in Thessalonica, only increased the discontent of the wider population.

The Ilinden Uprising beside all the devotion of the population and beside all the desires and preparations, after one short successful period, ended unsuccessfully. That again led to slaughtering, murders and the highest degree of brutality in every way. In front of everyone’s eyes numerous uprising groups and their helpers were tortured and killed. The sound of the chaises was substituted with the sound of the fetters that echoed down the streets, leading the soldiers for freedom inevitably on the way without return. The period that followed, the attempts of the population, to continue with everyday life, however did not lead to the former glory of Bitola. The Young Turk Revolution brought a lot of changes that were very intensely felt in Bitola, as one of the centres of power of the Turkish Empire in this part of the Balkans.

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Memorial  museum in village Smilevo dedicated to the Ilinden uprise and Smilevo Congress

The proclamation of the Huriet in 1908 was celebrated on Sirok Sokak by the  members of the Young Turk Revolution, as well as by the 1200 political prisoners that were released from the prisons in Bitola.

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Enver bay - leader of the Young Turks Revolution

The suppression of the revolution ensured the regime several more years. One very important moment for Bitola in this period, was the visit of the Turkish Sultan Resad V in 1911, when the goldsmiths from Bitola gave him a gilded table and ink-pot as a present. Beside the glorious welcome of the Sultan, very soon arrived the real fall of the Turkish ruling in Bitola.

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The jeweler Fila with his coworkers who made the table of gold and silver, a gift from the Munici­pality to the sultan Reshad V, filmed at front of the store of artisan Fila, (1911)

The glory and the fall of magnificent Bitola, its wealth and poverty forever was captured by the sharp eye of the first cameraman of the Balkans, Milton Manaki. Every photograph, every sequence and every scene enables us even today to clearly see the revealing of the history knots and events. His photos remain to witness some other time, and show us the conditions and time exactly as Manaki and his contemporaries saw and lived those times.

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Manaki brothers - Janaki (left) and Milton (right)

Balkan wars

The first Balkan War forever ended the five-century-long Turkish ruling of Bitola and Macedonia. But the light of the liberation was not yet to come because one slavery was exchanged with the other. Proclaiming themselves liberators, the Serbian army very soon showed their real territorial aspirations. With the separation of Macedonia and the setting of the borders with Greece, it came to stagnation and gradually diminished the trade relations that Bitola used to have with Thessalonica and other European centers. Again, quickly one occupation was exchanged with the other. But this time the Serbian short-term occupation in 1915 after the beginning of the First World War was exchanged with the Bulgarian.

First and Second World War

The Bulgarian occupations endured in Bitola only one year, and in 1916 Bitola once more, fell under the authority of the Antanta (Italy, England, Russia and Serbia). The army of the alliance in this period occupied the city putting the front line against the Central Forces, near Bitola. This way once more Bitola remained in the centre of the events, and in the middle of the war and terror. This situation reflected extremely negatively in all the spheres of the existence of the city and its population.

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A mother with her starved children in Bitola during the First World War (1916)

The smell of smoke and death was constantly present in the city until 1918. The situation was even worse because Bitola was divided into four parts, each of them under different occupational authority (Italian, French, Serbian and Russian), but all of them under the command of the French authority leaded by General Sikr. All this just increased the tension and made the situation even more difficult.
As a result of this long occupation, the city became a city of ghosts, city that in only a few years changed all its glory with eternal darkness, and a city that all its vivid and turbulent life exchanged with death. Bitola became a graveyard for hundreds and thousands soldiers. All of them finding their death here in Bitola, also found their eternal peace. The German, French, and Serbian cemeteries are only one silent witness that in a simple but unusual way speaks about all the suffering of the people.
The end of the First World War did not bring any good for the people. The same story went on and on, as an eternal circle of hell. One occupation exchanged with the other force of the previous one. The kingdom SHS under whose authority remained one part of Macedonia - Vardarska Macedonia, in the process of trying to enforce its ethnic and cultural identity over the Macedonian population only worsened the situation. The tension increased the same way as the appetite of the alliances growth.

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German cemetery from First World War

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French cemetery from First World War

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Serb cemetery from First World War

Only after twenty years another war knocked again on the city doors. This Second War was even more fearful than the First one. With the capitulation of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in April 1941 the doors to the occupants were widely open. And again the same alternate change of the occupants, as a century old inevitability that has no end. The Serbians banished, but replaced with the new occupants, fascists, Germans and Bulgarians. And again the same attempts for impersonating someone’s strange identity and culture and as an attempt for repeated ethnic shapelessness of the population.
Bulgarian schools, Bulgarian reading-rooms, Bulgarian magazines and everything with only one purpose - a general Bulgarization of the population. The forming of KPM ( Comunist Party of Macedonia) and its activities in the four years’ duration of the Second World War, was the only light point that the population could see, and completely understandable, they tried to reach it.
The forming of the First partisan detachment “Pelister”, the “Bitola - Prespa” partisan detachment, the detachment “Jane Sandanski” and the forming of the Headquarters of the Second operational zone, represented the wishes of the population and the idea for final liberation.
Beside all the sufferings that for decades were a part of everyday life of Bitola, one morning brought the worst human catastrophe that one rational mind could think of, and that one human being could never even imagine. Through all the ashes and ruins, through the rivers of blood, one morning in March 1943, walked from the dream awakened 3.269 Jews from Bitola.
Starting out, they never even dreamed that for 3.013 of them, this was their last journey. The final destination the concentration camp of death - Treblinka eagerly awaited them. The streets filled with the cry of babies and children, filled with fluttering scared souls of the Jews, made the air sticky and unbearable. From the surrounding windows peered out the eyes of the curious people, as well as those of the ones that hiding their friend in their homes checked out if they were revealed in their intention. It looked like behind every latch, one more life was closed down, and as the last hope died out.
However the persistence in the trying and the intractable population, strengthened during the long years of inhuman sufferings, enabled them to wait and live the last year of the war. The members of the First Macedonian - Kosovo brigade, the Second and Third Macedonian brigade as well as the once of the Seventh brigade of Bitola, after the hard, exhausting and predominate battles during 1944 finally managed to open the door towards the freedom and for the first time after many years to realize their wish for independence.
A part of the members of these brigades continued their military raids even after the liberation of this part of Macedonia, on the battlefields in Srem, Bosnia, Croatia and everywhere where they were needed, until the final liberation in 1945.

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The liberation of Bitola

The soldiers from Bitola and the region, taking part in all the important battles, gave their contribution for the liberation and against the fascist regime. In this period a very important role was played by nine participants - delegates from Bitola at the ASNOM Assembly.

Bitola after the liberation

With the ending of the Second World War it came to the dramatic changes in all the aspects of human life. The long expected liberation finally arrived in Bitola, and the many years of wars finally ended.
In this period the foundations of a new socialist society was set. The agricultural reforms and the nationalization of the private properties began as well, so the centralised system of governance was established. But the negative consequences of these changes were felt very soon, so some legislative changes were made to overcome the negative outcome.
In the 1950s, a new worker’s self-government began to be established. The after war period as well as the legislative changes led toward noticeable and important progress in every sphere of life. The political situation became stable and the improvement of the standard of life was noticeable in the life of the population.
The transition that started in the 1990s in the economic sphere, brought changes also in the social organizations. The transformation of capital begun and a part of the social capital became a private one. After the independence of the Republic of Macedonia, the transition period continued, and one very important part of the social organizations bankrupted and at the end they were sold out and liquidated.
This situation badly influenced the economic situation of the population, but anyway in Bitola even today exists and successfully works not only the social but also the private companies. This period finds its reflection in the political system, so the former socialist political system of management was replaced with the pluralistic. In the political scene of the Republic of Macedonia were created various political parties.
One part of these political parties is still active and with their activity they significantly accomplish the creation of the social and economic picture of the life of the people. The process of decentralization in the last couple of years was successfully started and managed, which realizes different projects that are useful for the citizens. With the ending of the process of decentralization and gaining more competencies of the local self-government, should significantly contribute to the overcoming of the problems and situations that arose because of the long transitional period. Only this way and with maximum efforts it will regain the true glory of the city that actually had not disappeared, but it is somewhere here, concealed around us.

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