Death Is Not The End – Scepan The Short & Saint Tryphon In Montenegro (A Balkan Affair #13)

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.

A Hero Of His Time - Scepan The Short

A Hero Of His Time – Scepan The Short

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.

Strange Destiny - Saint Tryphon of Campsada

Strange Destiny – Saint Tryphon of Campsada

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.

Paying Respect - Cathedral of Saint Tryphon in Kotor

Paying Respect – Cathedral of Saint Tryphon in Kotor (Credit: Mhare)

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.

Click here for:A Little Bit of Venice, A Whole Lot of Wealth – Perast: On A Strait Path (A Balkan Affair #14)

Rising To The Occasion – Kotor: Conquering Fort St. John On Foot (A Balkan Affair: #11)

My first hours in Kotor were going to be the most physically taxing part of my entire Balkan adventure. I set myself the goal of scaling the fortifications that rose high above the Old Town. Gazing up at Mt. St John and the fortress of that same name with eagerness, I could see the hike would be anything but easy. I surveyed the towering mountainside from outside the city walls along the north bank of the River Scurda. The emerald river looked mesmerizing as it made a final approach to the bay. Its surface was completely at peace with not a ripple to be seen. This was deceptive.

The river had arrived at Kotor from the tumultuous recesses beyond the mountainside I was about to traverse. A few scattered hikers were crawling like ants up the rocky slopes. They made their way higher and higher until disappearing from my view. About halfway up the mountain I saw a church, that would be my first goal. Beyond that I could see a flag being blown by a breeze. It was attached to a pole atop what must have been Fort St. John*, my ultimate destination and one that would take a mighty effort to reach.

To The Fortress - The final steps to Fort St. John

To The Fortress – The final steps to Fort St. John

Churchgoers – Remedying The Situation
One of the joys of visiting Kotor in the offseason was that for much of the hike I had the trail to myself. After exiting the Old Town and making my way onto the stony path, I passed an empty booth where fees were taken during the summer season. It seemed sadistic to charge tourists for the privilege of toiling up a steep mountainside on a dangerous trail. The hikers I did encounter were carefully taking their time. The stone stairs were broken and battered in many places. The trail had the potential to be an ankle breaker for anyone not paying attention. Trying to get good footing was a constant chore, add in the steep incline and before long sweat was dripping off my brow. I had expected a tough hike, but the hike felt more like a mountain climb. It was 650 steps to the church and 1,350 to the fortress.

I soon became fixated on the church, which I surmised was the approximate halfway point. It would offer me a place to catch my breath as well as a photo opportunity. The Church of Our Lady of Remedy stood on the mountainside. The church, with a bell tower soaring high above it and the adjacent rock face, was striking. Its situation even more so. A wall surrounded and protected much of the church. This was likely intentional, because when the church was built the danger of an Ottoman raid was clear and present. The citizens of Kotor had just survived another threat at the time, in the form of a deadly plague in 1518.

The survivors wanted to honor the Holy Mother and the church was built in her honor. Recent archaeological evidence has shown that this was not the first church on the site. Another church stood here as early as the 6th century. This should not come as a surprise because the site was prime real estate, both for prominence and protection. Though the church was not open, this did nothing to take away from the experience of being 240 meters above Kotor. The view of the bay from here was stunning and would only get more so as I began to make what would prove to be an even steeper ascent.

The Old Town - Kotor as seen from the walk to Fort St. John

The Old Town – Kotor as seen from the walk to Fort St. John

Fortress Mentality – Acts Of Conquest
Like the church, the current fortifications along the mountainside above Kotor have ancient antecedents. The first people to fortify these heights were the area’s original inhabitants, the Illyrians. Later during the reign of the Emperor Justinian, the Byzantines reconstructed the Illyrian fortress. The mountain itself provided as much protection as the fortress during this time. It was the Venetian presence which proved decisive in building an entire network of fortifications extending all the way up the mountainside. These are the works which still stand today. Marvelous engineering of the fortifications integrated them seamlessly along the rugged terrain. Trying to build this, let alone besiege it, would have been an extremely difficult task.

Defending Kotor was not easy either. It fell into Ottoman hands on two occasions, during the first half of the 16th century and the latter half of the 17th century. The British were able to subdue the fortifications with high powered artillery during the Napoleonic Wars. A conqueror needed either technology or massive manpower, often both, to overcome these fortifications. The fortifications offered protection though they were not impregnable. Kotor has been conquered on at least 14 different occasions. Whomever held these heights, held the town.

Making History - The ruins of Fort St. John

Making History – The ruins of Fort St. John

Falling Upward – Living On The Edge
I considered my walk to the top worthy of conquest due to the physical exertion that it demanded. The hike between the Church of Our Lady of Remedy and Fort St. John induced shortness of breath and a river of sweat. My lungs were ready to burst when I finally arrived at the fort. It was worth the effort. Though the fort was in various stages of disrepair, this did nothing to distract from the real attraction, the view back out over the Old Town and Bay of Kotor. Below me was a scene that defies description. It would have been easy to believe this was fantasy rather than reality. The Bay stretched into the distance, flanked by ranges of mountains.

The triangular shaped Old Town was reduced to a miniature set piece, one that was swallowed by the scale and scenery of its surroundings. A single boat sliced slowly through the water. I watched as its wake slowly dissipated. Movement was reduced to super slow motion from this vantage point. The world was down there in all its noisy confusion, but from my vantage point everything looked at peace. The irony was that I could not imagine a safer place to be even though I had to watch my step on more than one occasion. Falling was a distinct possibility and the truth was that I had already fallen, but in this case it was upward. Heaven was on the edge of this mountain, so close that I could finally feel it. My conquest of Fort St. John was complete.

* Also known as Fort St. Ivan in Serbian and the Castle of San Giovanni in Italian

Click here for: A Venetian Induced Trance – Kotor’s Old Town: The Same Dream Again & Again (A Balkan Affair: #12)