THE LAND OF MARKO
THE Balkans are a land of magic, of mystery, of romance. The past is ever the present. The present is as legendary as the past. They are a land of barren and desolate mountains and of valleys that are fertile and green. The howling winds and driving snows dash down through the valleys during the long winters, choking the passes with snow drifts. The hot sun shines continuously during the summer months and the verdure rapidly vanishes from the landscape in many places, while clouds of dust rise from the parched and thirsty soil.
The Balkans are a picturesque land. They are a land of peasant villages, the inhabitants of which live as in days of old. The old threshing floor is still the center of the community, and in the hot days of August the horses and cattle are trampling out the grain from morning until night, as they did in the time of Marko and before. The villages are small and bleak. They do not strike the eye, but perch on the hills and nestle in the valleys wherever water is available the entire year. There they abide for centuries.
The cities show more change, yet the old quarters remain as they were, as they have been for hundreds of years. They look fairylike and unreal against the morning sun, or when the last rays of the evening sun rest upon the mosques with their slender minarets, and the churches with their colored domes and gilded crosses. The people in the bazaars and markets still speak of the days when time meant nothing, for time still means nothing to them. But what tales the mountains arid cities could tell! The land has seen much of good and evil, as men and women lived arid loved and struggled and passed away.
Shortly after the close of the World War, I was traveling south from Nish to Skoplye and Salonika, through the land made famous by Marko. Traffic was still disturbed and uncertain. There were few travelers in the train, fewer window-panes and no lights. Suddenly about midnight the engine jumped the track. It had tried to cross a switch at the great speed of five miles an hour instead of the regulation three. The train was already ten hours late, and for hours the train crew worked to place bits of iron and stones under the engine in an endeavor to get it back on the track. All night long they toiled, while the moon came up over the Balkan hills. At last the sun rose, lighting up the desolate mountains, and the engine was once more ready to proceed. Below lay the city of Skoplye with its mosques and churches, its minarets and its citadel, and in its center the Vardar River winding lazily along, amid a slender row of trees and green. There it stood, a city out of fairyland, a real city as magical and unreal as the dreams of an artist could make it.
And all night long a shepherd sat beside the tracks, guarding his little flock. With his rifle ready before him he sat looking out into the darkness. Not once did he turn his head to gaze at the train, with the whistling engine and the men shouting as they worked. He had sat there long before the railroad had been built in the Balkans. His shepherd ancestors before him had sat there and seen the passing of the Macedonian phalanx, the Roman legion. He will sit there long after the last train shall have passed through those mountain valleys, and modern civilization shall have gone where Greeks and Romans and Ottomans have gone. He saw no reason to turn a weary head to see something that was of the ever-changing present.
That train was no more real, no more unreal, than the city of Skoplye, the battle of Kosovo, the great kingdom of the Nemanyas, of St. Sava and the Holy Mountain. Tales of those past days are as true as that watch on the hills, and the shepherd would have turned and looked if he had thought that instead of a railroad train of the twentieth century he would see the heroes of Kosovo Field, or better still, the greatest of all Balkan heroes, Marko Kralyevich, whose exploits have gone through Southern Europe, through Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, AlbaniaŚMarko, the great warrior, the great hero, the great friend. Amid wars and rumors of wars, the rise and fall of countries, Marko and his horse Sharats have a permanent reality, a deeper truth than the mere events of the present day.
Marko Kralyevich, Marko the King's Son, the Lord of Prilip, mounted on his wonder-horse Sharats, still wanders across the mountains and fields of the Balkans as he did during his mortal life, six hundred years ago. His fame has spread more and more widely over the land, and he lives immortal and unchanging through the ages.
CLARENCE A. MANNING
New York City