The Area of the Prespes Lakes: Megali and Mikri Prespa which includes Byzantine and post-Byzantine monuments
The Area of the Prespes Lakes: Megali and Mikri Prespa which includes Byzantine and post-Byzantine monuments is part of the Tentative list of Greece in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.
Click here for a short description of the site, as delivered by the state party.
Map of The Area of the Prespes Lakes: Megali and Mikri Prespa which includes Byzantine and post-Byzantine monuments
The T List “Area of the Prespes Lakes” (etc!) consists of those parts of Great and Little Lake Prespa (and adjacent land) which belong to Greece. They have been designated a Greek "National Park" for both natural and cultural reasons and this has been mirrored in the T List entry. However, the Lakes are shared with FYROM ("Macedonia") and Albania - neither of whom has placed their area onto their T List! Furthermore, they are situated extremely close to FYROM's existing "Mixed" WHS of "The Ohrid Region". Indeed, at its closest point, the current Ohrid core zone boundary is only 2.6 kms in a direct line from the FYROM banks of Great Lake Prespa, whilst its buffer zone actually reaches it! When we visited Prespes in Apr 2018 we had just come from Lake Ohrid and inevitably found ourselves drawing contrasts and comparisons between the 2, as well as considering what the impact of its near neighbour’s inscribed status might be if it were ever to try for Nomination.
We had found the mix of Nature and Culture presented in the Ohrid WHS very unsatisfactory. The Macedonian lakeside has been significantly (over) developed and towns like Struga (pop 16500) and even much of Ohrid (pop 42000) are not only of no cultural value, but even detract from the natural values of the Lake area. In 1979 it had been nominated for both Natural and Cultural reasons (under the name of "Ensemble Naturel et historique de la ville D'ohrid et de ses Environs") but, for some reason which is unclear, ONLY the IUCN evaluation was discussed and recorded. And IUCN didn’t want it to be inscribed (“Any decision to place on the World Heritage List should be based on cultural values. Current data does not warrant listing on the basis of natural values”)!!! However, in those early days, it was somehow “scammed” through the WHC - solely on Natural criteria and with the name "Lake Ohrid (that part which lies in Yugoslavia)"!
One year later, the Cultural aspects were discussed and were added to this “weak” natural WHS within the same boundaries, thus compounding the earlier “error”. However, despite having its recommendation ignored in 1979, IUCN has engaged constructively with the Ohrid inscription. First it has lobbied for an extension to Albania, thus covering the entire Lake. This seems likely to be accepted in 2019. It also pushed for an improvement to Ohrid's inscribed and buffer zone boundaries. But FYROM needed 2 attempts to satisfy it! In 2008 the first proposal was rejected with the request to "consider realigning the boundary of the property, preferably along topographic or other features recognisable in the field, to include all of Galičica National Park and other critical areas". If that had been done then the Ohrid WHS would indeed have reached Lake Prespa, since that forms the eastern boundary of Galičica NP. In 2009, however, FYROM got away with merely extending the inscribed area within the Galičica NP and only bringing the buffer zone all the way to Lake Prespes. As far as I am aware, IUCN has never suggested that Ohrid's core area should be extended to include Prespes.
Interestingly, Ohrid’s extension for “Cultural values” in 1980 made it only the second “Mixed WHS” (Tikal had been inscribed in “one go” in 1979). All the cultural justifications given at the time related solely to Ohrid town – its churches and its vernacular and military buildings. The AB evaluation doesn’t even mention other cultural locations such as the very popular tourist spot of St Naum Monastery, though the subsequent UNESCO Web description does refer to “The development of ecclesiastical life along the shores of the lake, along with its own religious architecture”. In fact, vast areas of the mixed WHS possess no “cultural value” whatsoever or are even antithetical to it. It would seem that UNESCO hadn’t fully thought through what was needed for a site to be “mixed”. It would have been far better if old Ohrid Town had been inscribed separately, within its own limited boundary, for its undoubted cultural value (including, possibly a few selected historic ecclesiastical buildings from elsewhere around the Lake) and the Natural aspects of the Lake area had been treated either as a totally separate WHS or possibly even been left for protection solely by other schemes (Biosphere Reserves/Ramsar etc). The Albanian lakeside extension will add little to the cultural value of the WHS. Its main town, Pogradec, is no “Ohrid” - what you see today, other than its ruined castle, is primarily a lakeside town created in the Communist era. The one Albanian lakeside cultural sight is the prettily situated village of Lin which contains another early Byzantine church.
So - how does Prespes compare with Ohrid? In terms of “Natural values” there is considerable overlap. All 3 are "Tectonic Lakes" and share similar geology (Note that Lake Ohrid even receives some of its water from Prespa via underground streams!) and ecology - such that the entire area is sometimes described as the “Ohrid-Prespa ecosystem”. Their “ecological” closeness was recognised in 2014 by the creation of the “Ohrid-Prespa UNESCO Transboundary Biosphere Reserve”. As well as the Great and Small Prespa Lakes and surroundings, this includes the whole of Lake Ohrid and its surrounding land except that to the north. These 2 articles (first and second) summarise the geological and natural aspects of the 2 lake areas. Both are clearly important for their, often shared, endemism and as habitats for the same migrating and resident species. Ohrid’s “speciality” lies in the extra aquatic endemism which seems to derive from its greater depth (and, as a result, possibly a greater period without any “dessication”). Apart from this aspect, however, the preservation of each would seem to depend very much on the preservation of them all. The Albanian Ohrid lakeside extension, which might gain inscription in 2019, would seem to add nothing new to the site’s existing “Natural Values”. Rather, its justification would lie in providing "complete coverage" of Lake Ohrid itself. Clearly. it is important to ensure that Albania doesn’t damage its part of the lake - but, isn’t that being achieved anyway by all the other “designations” to which Albania is party? No doubt IUCN will argue that there will be benefit from a fully integrated "World Heritage" level of management -but couldn't the same argument be applied to Prespes as well!
In terms of “Cultural” values, the Ohrid WHS really depends solely on Ohrid town and its Byzantine/Bulgarian churches. Prespes also “majors” for its cultural values on Byzantine churches - but, whilst no doubt possessing "niche" significance, none of them approach those of Ohrid in value. The unique aspect claimed by Prespes lies in the OUV of its villages. However, as far as I can make out from its T List description, it isn't intended that the area would be proposed as a "Cultural Landscape". This concept didn't "exist" when Ohrid was inscribed and wouldn't be valid anyway given the distinct nature of its natural and cultural elements. However, one might have thought that Greece might claim it as a valid differentiator for Prespes. The UNESCO description states that "The Prespa National Park is an example of the harmonic coexistence of human and nature" (dating from the Neolithic age to the 20th Century)
We found the natural “atmosphere” at Prespes to be far superior to that of Ohrid. At the watershed you see just lake and unspoilt country, with no towns and no modern hotel developments etc. This compared, for instance, with the views of Lake Ohrid from the watershed on the Albanian side - across the lake, the glass windows of the modern towns of Struga and Ohrid glisten in the sunlight.
I can’t claim that we fully explored the Prespes area - but we enjoyed the afternoon and overnight we gave it. We crossed the narrow spit of land which divides the 2 lakes by a road which then climbs the hill (photo). There, beyond and below us, we watched Pelicans flying in the distance - it was so peaceful that, when they landed far away on the lake, we could hear their “splash”! The road continues to the village of Psarades which is attractively situated on an arm of Great Lake Prespa and is the nearest thing the Greek area has to a lakeside tourist town - in 2011 it had a population of just 83. It offers small boat trips onto the lake - so different from the mighty “cruisers” with loudspeakers blaring, which operate out of Ohrid. We also stayed overnight in one of the nearby villages which is mentioned in the UNESCO description - Agios Germanos (pop 182). It markets itself as a “traditional” town with a Byzantine church and frescoes, water mills and vernacular architecture. We enjoyed our stay at a “traditional hotel” – mainly because we had chanced in on a weekend group of “Greek Dancing” enthusiasts from Thessaloniki who obviously regarded this as good place in which to partake of their “traditional” hobby and we were invited to their evening BBQ! However, our “highlight” overall was undoubtedly crossing over to the island of Agios Achillios on Little Lake Prespa. Since 2000 this has been achieved using a pedestrian pontoon bridge which passes through lakeside reed beds. We found this a worthwhile excursion providing good close-ups of birds and interesting (but not “outstanding” in comparison with those of Ohrid town of course) Byzantine etc remains on the island.
So - would Prespes justify WHS status?
Regarding the area’s “Natural aspects”. Neither of the lakes is entirely within Greece - c85% of Little Lake Prespa is, but c87% of Great Lake Prespa lies outside. Although Yugoslavia managed to gain natural inscription for only a part of Lake Ohrid back in 1979, IUCN now clearly wants its entire lake area to be inscribed and this seems likely to happen soon. It is difficult to see how only a part of the Prespes lakes would be accepted by IUCN now. And even then, is there any justification for inscribing them separately from Ohrid?
Regarding the area’s “Cultural credentials”. An immediate problem is that the current national boundaries are not really relevant for delimiting such cultural values as it might possess. Greece “acquired” its part in the Treaty of Bucharest in 1913 which set the frontier with (then) Serbia and Albania - prior to which all sides had shared many centuries of Byzantine Christianity and rule by the Ottoman Empire. So, for instance, could a nomination which majors on the Byzantine remains of the “Prespes area”, really not include those on the nearby Albanian island of Mali Grad and the FYROM one of Golem Grad?
Whilst the 3 countries have cooperated on managing their shared natural environment, cooperation on cultural matters has been more fraught! An indication of this can be seen in the fact that, in these days of largely open frontiers across most of Europe, the FYROM/Greek border at Great Lake Prespes is still closed, with the road on both sides deteriorating to a rough track (illegal to cross) at the frontier. We reached the area from Ohrid by crossing into Albania and then back into Greece and, when talking in Greece about where we had been, had to be very “careful” to refer to “FYROM” rather than “Macedonia” if we didn’t wish to be "corrected"! Coincidentally Greece/FYROM have just (Jun 18) signed an agreement (at Psarades!) on the name issue in the “Lake Prespa Accord” (as yet unratified and facing opposition in both countries), so cooperation in future might be improving (and must do so still further if FYROM were ever to join the EU). But, even if they did all agree to work together, does the “List” really need yet more Byzantine churches from the Balkans? (But I think of all those WHS for wooden churches across several countries in another corner of Europe!)
And what about the cultural values of the villages on the Greek side. The area in which they are situated had a “hard” 20th century. From the Balkan wars, through de-population, destruction as a leftist stronghold during the Greek Civil War, then isolation as a strategic military area on the edge of Communist Europe - all of which has helped “preserve” the area from 20thC development - but has also heaped a degree of destruction and ruination on it. We found Psarades and Agios Germanos to be pleasant enough in location and their vernacular architecture but perhaps not that “special” and, anyway, are their values limited to the Greek side of the frontiers?
Everything about a potential nomination of the area, whether on Cultural, Natural or Mixed criteria would seem problematic. With Lake Ohrid already inscribed could/should Prespes be treated independently, added as an extension or ignored on the basis that the area’s values are adequately covered already? Our view is that the Prespes area provides a worthwhile destination if you are in N Greece – and, if you interested in Birdwatching, a very fine one – particularly at certain times of the year. Natural, undeveloped, free of crowds etc etc - but does that justify becoming a WHS? I think not.
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