One of the great things about my Balkan adventure was the dead people I got to meet. As you might imagine these were not ordinary people. As such, meeting them was quite an extraordinary experience, especially considering that I did not even know who one of them was during my visit to Montenegro. While the other one was locked away in a church crypt that I had no way of accessing. Obviously, I have no aptitude for communicating with spirits of long deceased individuals other than through the printed word. Thus, our only medium for contact was through research and reading. This was how they were resurrected in my mind. Discovering these dead people meant they had to first appear in printed form.
Facts and stories substituted for flesh and bone. In fact, they only came to me after I got back home. By that time, I was over 5,000 kilometers away from Montenegro and the dead were even further away from me in both space and time. The place that gave the dead fame, infamy and sanctity was now centuries removed from their exploits, but they still loomed large in the legend, lore, hopes and prayers of Montenegrins. The two dead people I met were Scepan the Short (Scepan Mali) and Saint Tryphon (Tryphon of Campsada). They came to me for the first time through the pages of old travel guides and history books, but without my visits to Budva and Kotor I would never have stumbled upon them after the fact or at all.
Rumor Has It – Timing Is Everything
To say that Scepan the Short suddenly appeared on the historical stage in Montenegro is an understatement. The story of his rise to prominence is so improbable that it sounds more like a work of fiction, rather than one of history. And how could it be otherwise? Scepan’s origins are murky at best. No one knows for sure exactly where Scepan came from. Historian’s best guesses are either Bosnia or Dalmatia. After arriving in Montenegro during the mid-1760’s, he settled on the outskirts of Budva. Scepan then proceeded to begin selling herbs in the town and offering “medical” services. He was Montenegro’s version of the Old West’s snake oil salesman. The kind of person who can be found on the fringes of society.
Scepan’s profession did not stop a wild rumor from circulating that he was really Tsar Peter III of Russia. This of course seemed scarcely plausible since Peter III had been murdered by the brothers of his wife, Catherine the Great’s lover. Scepan did nothing to dispel the rumor, in fact he encouraged it. He was also the beneficiary of lucky timing since Montenegro was suffering from a renewed Ottoman assault on the country and famine had beset the land. The leader of Montenegro at the time, Vladika (Prince-Bishop) Sava was senile and ineffective. The powerful chieftains decided that Scepan was the best bet to carry out their desires. The upshot was Scepan gaining power. He soon had Sava imprisoned and set about ruling the country.
Once Scepan took power, I expected to learn that his tenure as leader was disastrous. Far from it, he managed to unite disparate clans, defeat both the Ottoman Turks and Venetians in separate engagements and rule Montenegro with a firm hand. He even went so far as to finally admit that he was not Tsar Peter III. The people forgave him for the lie because he was so well respected as a leader. The Ottomans feared Scepan to the point that the Vizier of Skodra plotted to have him murdered. In a spectacular act of betrayal, a turncoat Greek barber who had been sufficiently bribed, cut Scepan’s throat. Scepan’s reign, like his stature may have been short, but he was a wise and just ruler deserving of his unlikely place in Montenegrin history.
Heads Up – A Crypt Keeper
The other dead person whose acquaintance I made several weeks after my visit to Montenegro was Tryphon. The name will be familiar to anyone who has spent time within the walls of Kotor’s Old Town. St. Tryphon’s Cathedral is the most famous church in Kotor. The man whose name graces the cathedral is much less famous in the rest of the country. That is not surprising since Tryphon never came anywhere near Kotor, let alone Montenegro. How could he? The country did not exist when he lived during the first half of the 3rd century. Tryphon was born to humble circumstances in west-central Anatolia (present day Turkey). He was a goose herder until he became known for performing miracles that healed the suffering of others. His wonder working ways were aligned with his Christianity, which brought him to the notice of Roman officials in 250 AD during the persecution promulgated by the Emperor Decian.
After his arrest, Tryphon confessed his fervent Christianity. He was subsequently sentenced to death by the authorities who wanted to make an example out of him. Tryphon was then subjected to horrific tortures before the execution took place. Finally, Tryphon was beheaded. He was later venerated as a saint by both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. What did any of this have to do with Montenegro? In the year 890, a ship carrying a trove of relics to Europe stopped in Kotor. The townspeople contributed 300 gold pieces to purchase Tryphon’s head. It has stayed in Kotor ever since, eventually finding a place in Saint Tryphon’s Cathedral where it can still be seen in the crypt today. Unfortunately, I never found the church open during my visit. It would have been fascinating to see Tryphon’s head. It is not often that I get to meet the dead face to face.
Eternal Resting Place – The Pages Of History
I may not have known about Scepan the Short or the story of Tryphon’s head during my visit to Montenegro, but I felt lucky to have met them both through the pages of history. Their tales and travails were uniquely unforgettable. Both men enjoy an eternal fame, one that transcends time and place. In their end was their beginning. And in their stories, I found a new beginning that helped me rediscover a different side to Montenegro. The Old Towns of Budva & Kotor were splendid, but not nearly as splendid as those places where I met dead people.