The Story of the Mysterious Island of Golem Grad in Lake Prespa

StoryThe Story of the Mysterious Island of Golem Grad in Lake Prespa

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The island Golem Grad in the southwest of Macedonia in Lake Prespa is also known as the “Snake Island”.

Today, countless snakes and pelicans roam the island of Golem Grad in Lake Prespa, southwestern Macedonia, as if to protect the ancient rich history of this small island. The island is small, but its name tells us of size. Because Golem Grad means literally “Big City”. Let’s explore the history of the island, from the big city island to the snake island…

Golem Grad (Snake Island or also called Sveti Petar) is an island in Lake Prespa of great cultural and historical importance. It is mistakenly considered the only island in Macedonia, although there are several sea and river islands scattered around the country.

It has been declared a Strict Nature Reserve due to its specific geomorphological features, characteristic flora and fauna and historical past.

The island is 750 meters long and 450 meters wide, with the highest part being 50 meters above sea level. On all sides the island is surrounded by 20 to 30 meter high rocks and spirals. Above them is a plateau with two elevations in the north and south of the island. Under the hills there is a saddle that ends on the banks with small bays. These two bays are the only places from which you can access the plateau.

The surrounding water, the geological background and the proximity to the Mediterranean Sea have allowed the island to be dominated by a special microclimate, rich and rare of widespread vegetation and dominated by southern European flora.

On the island of Golem Grad, two forest communities stand out, the Biaro tenuifoliae-Juniperetum excelsae and the Pruno webbii-Celtetum glabrae, according to academic Hans Ehm.

According to the declaration of promulgation of the law on the promulgation of part of Mount Galičica, Article 4 of this law emphasizes that the island of Golem Grad in Lake Prespa is also within the boundaries of the national park Galičica.

Due to the natural values that Golem Grad Island possesses, the park’s spatial planning plan stipulates a special protection regime for the island and is placed in the zone for strict protection. The protection system in these areas is defined in Article 104 of the Nature Protection Act (Official Gazette of Republic of Macedonia 67/04).

Prespa Lake is hardly mentioned in ancient sources

Prespa, i.e. the region around Lake Prespa in what is now the border triangle of Macedonia, Greece and Albania, is hardly mentioned in the written sources of antiquity. Modern historiography, which also deals with issues of ancients in the Balkans, also mostly leaves this region on the fringes of historical events.

Perhaps if we look at the ancient sources we will find some indirect data associated with this geographic space. For example if we read the works of the ancient geographer Strabo.

In fact, this well-known author spoke of “salt fish on the lakes of Lihnis”, to which he added that the lakes are on the Via Egnatia. This leads us to conclude that he was also referring to Lake Prespa and not just Lake Ohrid. As he spoke of lakes.

There are no other lakes in the area, except Malič Lake, which is further from the Via Egnatia. In addition, we should not forget that even today the fish is still only dried (salted) at Prespa as a winter supply and then stored.

Modern writers also include Prespa in attempting to draw boundaries between the regions of the ancient tribes that lived in what is known as Upper Macedonia in the ancient sense. Or the “mountainous Macedonia” mentioned by Herodotus and Thucydides.

After the discovery of the two inscriptions in the region of Resen, in which two names are noted in the Macedonian calendar (Apelaios and Dios), it became particularly clear that the Prespa region probably belonged to ancient Macedonia.

The expansion of the Upper Macedonian region of Orestia near the Prespa region has been accepted in scholarship with the interpretation of the two complementary and discovered inscriptions near Vineni (Pili) and the island “Sveti Ahil” in Mala Prespa, where an ancient city was identified with the name Lyke.

Golem Grad island

In the immediate vicinity, in the north-west of the island, about 4-5 Kilometers away, in the Great Prespa Lake, there is the island of Golem Grad (Big City), which today is within the borders of the Republic of Macedonia. It is obviously an Orestian settlement.

The first researches relate to the expedition of the Russian scientist Miliukov, who visited the island in 1898. He noted two churches, without roofs, but with preserved frescoes on the walls. Then he noticed the two inscriptions on the rocks with Christian content, one in ancient Greek and the other in Old Slavic.

Golem Grad also attracts researchers’ attention because of the nearby island, Ventrok, in the small Prespa Lake, some 7 kilometers away, which is also known as the seat of Tsar Samuil and his cathedral church of Sveti Ahil.

Archaeological excavations on the island of Golem Grad began in 1967 and are still ongoing. This unusual place, far from communications, showed a long chronology of human presence and life in this area from the first millennium BC to the Middle Ages. The cultural strata cannot always be monitored vertically, but the horizontal stratigraphy marks a long continuity of life on the island.

Oldest finds from the Neolithic period

The oldest finds that were discovered relate to the New Stone Age (Neolithic). Mostly just in the form of stone weapons, used by the fishermen who lived on the shores of the lake and only traveled to the island to fish.

Pottery vessels with Iron Age characteristics have also been discovered and dated to the first half of the first millennium. This suggests that there was life on the island, i.e. attempts to inhabit it. Further investigation could provide further information on the remains of the settlement from this period.

More intense traces of life in the settlement were discovered and dated to the 4th century BC. In this context, the defensive walls in the southern part of the island, made of roughly worked blocks of stone, should be mentioned. They protect the access to the coast of the settlement, and thus the settlement itself.

The island itself is a nature reserve with an area of 18 hectares, 600 meters long and 350 meters wide, the height of the rocks from the level of the lake to the plateau is about 30 meters. The dry-stone fortress only had to be placed at the southern steep access leading from the lake to the settlement on the plateau.

The settlement began to flourish in the 4th century BC. For the time being, this conclusion was drawn due to the discovered necropolis in the southern part of the island. It took many years of hard work to discover the oldest necropolis where cremation rituals were practiced. This burial ritual was also common among other Macedonian tribes.

This is a sign of some changes in Macedonian society, especially in the Upper Macedonian regions. We first find analogies to the nearest neighbors, for example: in Lyncestis and Pelagonia, like Petilep and Beranci, in Elimeia, in Dassaretia, associated with the rich tombs in Lychnidos. However, we must not forget the cremation ritual in rich tombs in Lower Macedonia, neither in the burials in Zisten (Derveni, Pydna, Aenea) nor in the “Macedonian type” of tombs like the well-known royal tombs in Aigai.

Funerary architecture on Golem Grad is modest, but cremation remains in holes in the rocks, resembling the burials at Lychnidos, are accompanied by rich funerary goods such as gold and silver jewelry (pendants, brooches), soldiers’ weapons and/or ceramic vessels . But also coins: Didrachms of the city of Tanagra, bronze coins of the Chalcidian League, Drachmas of Philip II of Macedonia, from the middle of the 4th century to the end of the century.

The excellent trade relations of this small settlement with distant regions have been proved by the discovery of silver coins from Istiaia on Euboea, coins from Adria Appolonia, from Dyrrachion, the Epirus ruler Pirus, etc.

One particularly interesting find is the gold pendant from so called grave 160. The lion proteome of this Minutia jewellery could only be made with the precision of a master goldsmith. It was probably made by, and acquired from, a major goldsmith center in the mid-4th century. This was the time of fashion for incorporating lion proteomes into jewelry, but also the “Macedonian Sun” placed on the back of the pendant. Why the sun, and why on the backside? Perhaps it was a goldsmith’s mark as one of the most popular fourth-century motifs associated with the ruling signs of the Argeads.

Two ancient houses which could be dated in agreement with the ceramics and coins discovered. The Ihtis are the most common because the fish was a very important food for the population. There are also engraved luxurious jars with floral and figural decorations, vessels in which grain was stored, kraters and other vessels. One of the houses in the settlement was abandoned after a fire. Coins of Antigonos Gonatas, Adria Appolonia and Amphipolis were found.

At that time houses were built of wood, of Foya (a kind of pine). Its branches could easily be woven around juniper stalks, and then the walls were plastered with clay mixed with straw. It is possible to reconstruct the houses using the same construction system that can be seen in the examples of the neighboring village of Konjsko on the shore of the lake, which is today on the territory of the Republic of Macedonia. By the way, this construction technique was used in constructions in the region almost until the 1950s of the 20th century, when people lived in such houses. Today in Konjsko and in Stenje there are remains of such houses used as warehouses.

The burnt house (#2) in Golem Grad (Sector 1) was covered with straw but also with roof tiles discovered during the excavations. On them are names in Greek letters КРІТОΛАОУ, ПРЕУРАТО, probably as the names of the masters, a Macedonian (Kritolao) and an Illyrian (Preurato).

The occurrence of names from different ethnic backgrounds is not uncommon in border regions. Identical teguli with inscriptions were discovered during the excavations on the island of Moucopoulos, on the surface of which other names of Macedonian origin were engraved. Usually it is the same production, the same ceramic center that existed in the 2nd century BC. in some nearby settlements in Orestis.

Following the traces of life in the settlement on Golem Grad, it seems that cremation burials continued until the 1st century, which is dated by a tomb with an addition of a simpulum, spoon, with a typical Roman shape. With the breakthrough of Roman expansion and the crushing of the Macedonian Empire, life on the island seems to have vanished.

During Roman times the island of Golem Grad revived

There is a pause from the first centuries of the new millennium when the settlement was abandoned. From the 4th century, a late ancients and medieval necropolis was built over the old settlement. Burials took place in several places near the old settlement as well as near the church facilities. In this phase graves were dated from the 4th to the 14th century.

The settlement was revived some time in the 4th century. Archaeological traces from this period are more numerous. Two stone and plaster houses have been discovered so far, with soil and stone stamped floors and a water drainage system installed. But the most interesting discovery is the cistern, located in the rocks high above the water in the south of the island. It is clear that the new civilizational achievements of the Romans as new masters were fully accepted by the local population.

Despite the proximity of the water, the construction of the cistern using the cavity in the rock and the complex technique of overlaying with tegula and hydraulic plaster made life in the settlement much easier. Some of the houses are built closer to the cistern built near the plateau. It is clear that rainwater collection know-how was used, installing pipes on the north wall, leaning on the rocks, over which the water drained into the basin.

In the Middle Ages, when this building had lost its role and remained without a roof but still had a well-preserved masonry, the building was re-roofed and transformed into a church. This could have happened as early as the 13th century. The monks painted the church in the 14th century, which can be determined or dated from the remains of the frescoes.

In late antiquity, the population accepted Christianity. Pagan customs were slowly being abandoned, as was cremation of the passed inhabitants. The burial is skeletal from then on, with the “roof over two bodies of water” architecture, but with inscriptions of Christian symbols on the tombs. At that time, the early Christian single-nave church of rather small dimensions, narthex and ancillary rooms was built.

Only on the floor, in front of the altar, a believer-donor placed a piece of floor mosaic, reminiscent of the decoration of the rich mosaics in the basilicas in the urban centers and bringing some flair to the small church. The Christianized population began to be buried near this church.

The entire Roman epoch became more intensively researchable with the discovery of numerous coins, over 100 pieces as well as gold and silver jewelry from the period between the 4th and 6th centuries.

The existence of this small settlement is due to a certain manageable economy, which was definitely based on fishing, some farming, but also hunting in the forests in the countryside. The numerous boar teeth discovered in the culture layers confirm the hunting of animals.

To the coins already mentioned from the outlying cities of early ancients we can add those of the Roman era, particularly from the 4th to the 6th centuries AD, from Constantine to Justinian. This late Roman era and the beginning of the early Byzantine period as one of the phases in which the settlement existed was confirmed with the discovery of the necropolis, where pack saddle cushions, jewelry and coins from the 7th century were also found.

The settlement was not reconstructed in the Middle Ages. This period was characterized by monastic life and the intensified construction of churches. So far three churches have been discovered, including the two early Christian churches of Sveti Petar and an as yet unnamed basilica. Burials continued to take place around the Sveti Dimitrija Church, a sacred place for the population from the surrounding rural settlement.

The island has been inhabited almost continuously for 2000 years as we have seen. After the last residents left, new residents came to the island. Or, one might even have to say, when the people left the island, the natives took over their island again: the snakes and pelicans…

Now known as Snake Island instead of Big City Island

When the natives reclaimed their island as their habitat, the island also got a new title: Snake Island. This is how the once Great Island is now consistently referred to by the locals. But this expression has also established itself among tourists.

Due to the large number of snakes and natural features, as well as valuable cultural-historical and archaeological objects, the island was declared a strict nature reserve. Since 2008, Golem Grad has been organized and open to tourists who visit it in increasing numbers and leave with wonderful impressions.

But not only snakes and pelicans and other creatures feel at home on the island. Also the plant world.

160 species of ferns and seed plants from 180 genera and 41 families have been discovered. 80 of them are southern European plant elements. The Mediterranean and sub-Mediterranean flora with their presence is most important for the island. According to the biological forms, therophytes, i.e. annual plants, are the most common. Black hornbeam, Macedonian oak and blueberry are less common.

How do you get to Golem Grad Island?

The easiest access to the island of Golem Grad and the fastest is from the village of Konjsko, which can be reached by a local road from Stenje, almost 8 km far. The distance of the island from the village of Konjsko is just 4 km. Konjsko, a fishing village, is the last on the west side of the coast next to the Macedonian-Albanian border.

From Konjsko it takes only ten minutes by speedboat to reach the picturesque island of Golem Grad.

Other islands in Macedonia

There are at least 20 to 30 islands in Macedonia, the largest of which is Golem Grad Island in Prespa Lake. In addition, the island of Gradište in Lake Tikveš is also characteristic, on which there are remains of old buildings.

Also of great interest are the several large river islands downstream of the largest river in the country: the Vardar, which are covered with dense riparian vegetation and diverse wildlife. However, with the exception of Snake Island, you will find almost no data for the other islands.


Historical part about Golem Grad island:

  • Vera Bitrakova-Grozdanova, Ph.D. (2007)
  • Vera is an eminent Macedonian archaeologist and professor of ancient Balkan archaeology. In 1988 she won the Goce Delcev prize for scientific achievements of the Republic of Macedonia and in 1999 she was awarded the renowned Herder prize. She is a researcher in Prespa, Ohrid and Struga region.

Touristic part and about flora and fauna of Golem Grad island:

  • Wikipedia Macedonian
  • M.I.C
  • Infokompas

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