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Home » Bitola and Manaki Brothers – Searching for the Lost Common Balkan Identity

Bitola and Manaki Brothers – Searching for the Lost Common Balkan Identity

My trip to Bitola was a revelation to me and helped me understand the deeper connection between the Balkan nations.

Bitola and Manaki
Photo credit: Antonis Tsapepas

When Julijana welcomed me to her hometown of Bitola, North Macedonia, last year, I considered it an opportunity to learn more about this Balkan city just 18 kilometres (km) from my country on the Greek border. I met Julijana two years ago on Facebook, and as a matter of fact, I had never heard of Bitola. I was eager to learn more about this place.

One aspect that has made me extremely pleased throughout the four years I have been writing travel articles is the possibility of speaking with fascinating people from diverse nations.

Shirok Sora
Photo credit: Antonis Tsapepas

The history of Bitola

Bitola is a historical city attempting to establish its character in North Macedonia. It has also taken its first significant steps towards becoming a Balkan tourism attraction.

The Lynkestai tribe is believed to have created the first known home in the area. In honour of Hercules and the surrounding populace, Philip II (Alexander the Great’s father) founded the city of Heraklea Lyncestis. The city flourished as a significant Balkan economic centre during the Roman and Byzantine eras. Due to the numerous monasteries and churches in the region, the city adopted the name Monastir during Ottoman Rule.

Monastir developed into a significant commerce hub in the 18th century and primarily in the 19th century when it was connected to the rest of Europe by railroad. The city had a predominantly French-speaking population, several international schools, and a military academy. It was a period when every major European country had a consulate in the city. This is the reason it was nicknamed the “City of consuls”. 

The city was at the epicentre of the Balkan Wars and both World Wars, suffering catastrophic bombings, damages, and destruction. Yet it managed to retain its character. But Bitola lost its significance and devolved into a neglected city when the town of Skopje was chosen as the capital of the Federal Yugoslav Socialist Republic of Macedonia.

Photo credit: Antonis Tsapepas

A walk along Sirok Sokak

In April 2022, I drove into Bitola after crossing the border at Florina. From the moment I arrived in the city, there was an immediate familiarity with both the place and its people. Besides, many Greeks from the other side of the border visit Bitola daily for shopping or business. My first thought after checking into my hotel was to walk through the city’s historic district. 

The city’s main attraction is Sirok (or Shirok) Sokak (which means in Turkish “wide alley”). The street is approximately 2 km long and regarded as the longest pedestrian street in the Balkans. I passed through shops, cafes, bars, restaurants, and other establishments as I walked along the road. Sirok Sokak is lined on both sides with magnificently preserved 18th and 19th-century structures. I was impressed by the buildings’ diversity, distinctiveness, and exterior decorations. Among the patterns I noticed were anthropomorphic beings, flowers, intricate patterns, symbols, and capital letters.

While walking, I couldn’t help but stop to admire the impressive architecture and discover a unique city that has preserved its European historical tradition while at the same time having that warm hospitality that you find all over the Balkans.

But apart from the beautiful buildings, a white building caught my attention as I was wandering. Walking up close and reading the information board at the entrance, shivers of cinematic thrill ran through me. The building was actually a cinema called “Manaki” and was built on the site of the original cinema of the Manaki Brothers.

Manaki cinema
Photo credit: Antonis Tsapepas

The Manaki brothers

The Manaki Brothers are regarded as the forefathers of Balkan cinematography. The two brothers, Yanaki and Milton, came from a wealthy family and were raised in the Greek village of Avdela. It was there that they later established their first photography business. They relocated to Bitola in 1904 and started travelling throughout Europe in 1905 after being appointed court photographers by the King of Romania.

In 1907, they started shooting in the Balkans with a Bioscope cine camera they had brought from London. They documented the Balkan Wars and the two World Wars but also took pictures of everyday people and rural life. They played their first film for the general public in an open-air cinema they built on Sirok Sokak in 1921. A proper movie theatre was constructed in 1923, but it was eventually destroyed by fire in 1939.

As I read this, my mind spontaneously recalled the film “Ulysses’s Gaze” by the famous Greek director Theo Angelopoulos. In the film, a Greek filmmaker living in the United States begins searching in the Balkans for a legendary lost reel of footage by the Manaki Brothers. During his journey, he comes across many Balkan cities and their cultures. In the film, the Manaki Brothers’ reel symbolises a common Balkan past that should be rediscovered.

Manaki btothers
Photos by Manaki Brothers - The State Archives of the Republic of Macedonia (DARM), Bitola Department, Public Domain

Today, the Manaki Brothers are considered key figures in North Macedonian culture. Every year in August, the International Cinematographers’ Film Festival Manaki Brothers” takes place in Bitola. It is considered the world’s first and oldest film festival dedicated to cinematographers’ creativity.

Bitola clock tower
Photo credit: Antonis Tsapepas

A Balkan and cinephile landmark

My visit to Bitola and the knowledge I gained about the Manaki Brothers made me see with a clear eye the historical and cultural relations of the Balkans. Two Greeks became pioneers in another country despite remaining relatively unknown in their country of origin. 

For the Manaki Brothers, their country was the Balkans, and they created such a body of work that it has become an ark of common memories for the Balkan Nations. The story of the Manaki Brothers is the story of the Balkans, and they represented a shared history and identity that we, the Balkan people, should rediscover.

Bitola is undoubtedly one of the most special destinations I have visited. It is a city that combines a European past with its Balkan identity and manages to preserve its cultural heritage. It is an unknown city that deserves to be discovered and is an important landmark in Balkan culture. At the same time, it is an unexpected cinephile destination with great importance for Balkan and European cinema.

If you are looking for other cultural destinations, visit our website’s art and culture page.

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