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The Area of the Prespes Lakes: Megali and Mikri Prespa which includes Byzantine and post-Byzantine monuments

Date of Submission: 16/01/2014
Category: Mixed
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of Greece to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Region of West Macedonia, Regional Unit of Florina
Ref.: 5864
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Description

The Prespa National Park (PNP) is situated in Northwest Greece, in the Region of West Macedonia; it covers an area of 327km2 and is part of the Transboundary Prespa Park, which is shared between Greece, Albania and FYROM. The PNP consists of the lakes, Megali and Mikri Prespa, and the lake basin which extends to the tops of the surrounding mountains. The two lakes are separated by a narrow isthmus called “Koula”. Mikri Prespa has a maximum depth of 8.4 m and covers an area of 47.7 km2, of which 43.5 km2 belong to Greece and 3.9 km2 to Albania. Megali Prespa is 55m deep and covers an area of 259.4 km2 which is divided between Greece, Albania and FYROM. The PNP has approximately 1,500 inhabitants.

The region of Prespa preserves various monuments and many remains of settlements created through the long-term human presence in the area. The archaeological data show that people have lived in the Prespa valley for over four thousand years, but documented human presence does not emerge until the 2nd century BC. Inscriptions found on the island of Agios Achilleios, dated to the Hellenistic era, refer to Julius Crispus and the independent city of Lyca. In Classical times the Prespa region formed part of ancient Lyncus, and the lakes were called Little and Great Brygeis. In 148 BC Prespa became part of the Roman Province of Upper Macedonia. In the Early Christian period it belonged to Macedonia Deutera as a part of Illyricum Prefecture. In the late 8th and early 9th century AD the region belonged to the Theme of Thessaloniki. In the 10th century, Agios Achilleios became the first seat of Czar Samuel Comitopoulos’ government. He founded the basilica of Agios Achilleios, in which he placed the relics of Saint Achilleios. In 1018 the Byzantine Emperor Basil II reconquered the territory, built two fortresses, Vasilida and Konstantion, and established the seat of the Archbishop of Ohrid. In 1072 the Alamani and Franks passed through Prespa and ravaged the church of St Achilleios. In the 12th century Prespa was referred to as Province of Prespes in the chrysobull of Alexios III Angelus. For a while, the region of Prespa remained under the control of the Despot of Epirus, Michael II Angelus, before passing into the rule of the Emperor of Nicaea, Michael VIII Palaeologus. During the 14th century Prespa was incorporated into the kingdom of Stephen Dusan and was conquered in circa 1386 by the Ottomans. The region remained under their rule for 526 years.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

protected area, the PNP is considered an ecosystem of global significance and has been identified as one of Europe’s major transboundary “ecological brick sites”. It is worth noting that in the Prespa National Park, which is a restricted geographical area, varied forms of life, including many rare, endangered and endemic species are concentrated. Moreover, Lake Mikri Prespa is a Wetland of International Importance, thus coming under the aegis of the international Ramsar Convention. The Transboundary Prespa Park between Greece, FYROM and Albania is the first transboundary protected area in the Balkans. The entire Prespa region hosts unique habitats and species that are important from both a European and a global conservation perspective.

The cultural value of Prespa can be documented by the numerous archaeological sites and ancient finds from the Neolithic Age to the Byzantine and Post-Byzantine period.

Another important feature of the area is the domestic architecture, since many houses have been built until the early 20th century from natural materials such as stone, wood, clay and reeds. 

Criterion (ii): The cultural heritage of Prespa is marked by its duration through the ages. The archaeological record shows that people have lived in the Prespa valley for over six thousand years. The cultural and natural environment determined human activity, while historical conditions led to the area receiving various cultural influences, which it assimilated and modified dynamically, resulting in the creation of important monuments, witnesses to the wealth of human ingenuity.

Moreover, the area, despite the fact that it is encircled by the Via Egnatia and is therefore situated on a hub of land routes, remains an isolated place with its own rhythms. The amount of artistic activity, considering the remoteness and sparseness of habitation, is surprising. The artistic currents present in the monuments are common to the entire Greek peninsula. The religious painting that has survived displays artistic influences from two significant urban centres, Kastoria to the south and Ohrid to the north.

It is worth noting that Byzantine architecture, painting, sculpture and woodcarving are represented in numerous interesting churches, such as the Basilica of Agios Achilleios (founded between 983 and 986 AD), the Church of Agios Germanos (early 11th c.) in the village of the same name, the Church of Agioi Apostoloi (10th c.) on the island of Agios Achilleios, the Church of Agios Nikolaos (13th c.) near the village of Pyli, the ruins of a church on the island of Vidronisi, supposed to be a Palaeologan building, the Church of Agios Dimitrios (with preserved frescoes of the 14th c.) on the island of Agios Achilleios, and the Church of Agia Anna near the village of Lefkona (12th c.).

The remoteness and isolation of the area played a major role in making Prespa a monastic centre, easily identified by the large number of hermitages, such as the Hermitage of the Metamorphosis in a cave on the eastern shore of Megali Prespa (dated to the 13th c.), the Hermitage of Panagia Eleousa on the south shore of Megali Prespa (dated to 1409/10,) the Hermitage of the Mikri Analipsi on the Megali Prespa (dated to the 15th c.). Further evidence of anchorites is found on the rock face near the village of Psarades, where there are two frescoes depicting the Virgin Mary, dated to 1373 and 1455/6.

In the Post-Byzantine period significant churches appear in the region, such as the Church of Agios Georgios on the island of Agios Achilleios (late 15th c.), the Church of the Presentation in the village of Laimos (15th-16th c.), the Church of Agios Nikolaos in the village of Platy (1591), and the Monastery of Panagia Porphyra on the island of Agios Achilleios (1524).

In the following centuries, religious architecture is represented in churches such as the church of Agios Athanasios in the village of Agios Germanos, constructed in 1816. Artistic activity is also evident in the restoration and redecoration of older churches. During the 19th c. new churches with characteristic architecture and decoration were built in almost all the Prespa villages, including Agios Athanasios and Agia Paraskevi in Kalithea, Agia Paraskevi in Pyxos, Agia Paraskevi in Laimos, and Agios Athanasios in Oxya.

Criterion (iv): The area contains a great number of monuments, mostly of the Byzantine and Post-Byzantine period (see criterion II) and villages such as Agios Germanos, Laimos, Miliona and Psarades, built during the 19th and early 20th century.

The houses are prominent examples of Balkan architecture of the period. In 19th-century buildings, external walls are constructed of stone, and have a visible horizontal wooden framework. The stone used is usually local granite (Agios Germanos, Laimos) or limestone (Psarades). The walls of the upper storeys and the internal partitions are usually lighter, with a timber-frame structure covered by lath or reed and plaster (bagdati) or filled with adobe bricks (tsatmas). In the buildings of the early 20th century, stone walls contain a hidden wooden framework, revealed by characteristic metal ties at the corners of the building. For buildings of the same period in the plains, such as those in Miliona, the basic construction material for thick and timber-framed walls is brick (plithoi).

The 19th-century houses display an extroverted rural character, while the houses of the early 20th century exhibit a more introverted, urban character.

Criterion (vii): In 1975 the Prespa area was designated a ‘Landscape of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and, in 2009, 11 smaller areas of the Prespa National Park were designated ‘Protected Natural Formation or Landscape Elements’. These are:

S1-S2: Two stands of ancient Juniper trees, some over 400 years old, in Agios Georgios in Psarades and Agios Athanasios in Vrondero village. The main species (Juniperus foetidissima) is usually encountered as a shrub, but tree-sized juniper is rare in Europe.

S3: The field of Narcissus sp. in Oxya village, a remnant of the old Narcissus fields.

S4: The wet fields of orchids in the Seltsa area, one of the few remnants of wet fields with aquatic vegetation and orchids, which is located in the rural zone and away from the lake.

S5: Agios Achilleios Island. A rare example of a rural landscape under low exploitation, a model of reed-bed management by cattle grazing alone, a remnant of a rural landscape without roads. On the island are areas of historical importance including five Byzantine and Post-Byzantine monuments and churches.

S6: Vidronisi Island in Lake Megali Prespa, an area of 40 km2 which is an important breeding habitat of two species: Phalacrocorax carbo and Larus cachinnans. The seagull colony is the only one in Greece so far from the sea.

S7: The riparian forest in the area of Slatina Plateos and the estuary of the River Kallithea. A riparian forest remnant with rich biodiversity.

S8: Springs in the area of Kefalovrisia Pilis and the riparian stand of Salix species.

S9: Wet fields and springs in the area of Moutsara, Mt Varnoundas.

S10: Mikrolimni stream.

S11: Riparian forest of Betula pendula.

Criterion (ix): The Prespa National Park is a mixed but unified ecosystem, formed of both terrestrial (mountains) and aquatic (Lakes Mikri and Megali Prespa) areas preserving a large number and variety of ecological, geomorphological and cultural elements.

Its geomorphological variety, hydrological, territorial and climatological conditions, annual geopolitical isolation, and mild and mainly traditional human activities, have resulted in the evolution of the special natural and cultural values of Prespa. Some examples are:

- The stand of ancient Juniper trees, unmixed and mixed with Quercus trojana (habitat type 9250, 9562, 9563) in Agios Georgios in Psarades village and in Agios Athanasios in Vrondero village. These areas are protected by legislation and are designated “Protected Natural Formations or Landscape Elements”.

- Wet meadows. These are among the most important breeding habitats for fish and also form feeding habitats for many aquatic birds. The preservation of the wet meadows is connected with mild human activities and sustainable management practices. Fishing exists only as a traditional activity and livestock farming is used for reed-bed management. Moreover, the construction of the sluice gate in 2005 to control the water level of Lake Mikri Prespa resulted in efficient flooding of the wet meadows. The rich biodiversity of fish and aquatic birds is directly linked to the existence and preservation of the wet meadows.

Criterion (x): The main characteristic of the Prespa National Park is habitat diversity. The altitude range, from wetland habitat (altitude 850-853m) to alpine meadows (altitude over 2000m), has given rise to a species assemblage that is unique by international standards.

Prespa has an unusually high number of species per unit area and a high proportion of locally endemic species. The following have been recorded in the Prespa National Park:

- Over 2,000 species of flora

- 49 habitat types, 7 of which are considered priority habitat types

- 271 bird species, of which 143 breed in the area. Prespa boasts the largest breeding colony of Pelecanus crispus in the world and the only common nesting colony of Pelecanus crispus and Pelecanus onocrotalus in Europe.

- 60 mammal species, of which 25 are chiroptera

- 23 fish species, 9 of which are endemic

- 22 reptile species

- 11 amphibian species

Areas important for conservation of habitat types and species of flora and fauna:

-  The area of unmixed Buxus sempervirens near the village of Vrondero (habitat type 5110)

- The area of unmixed stands of Quercus trojana in the area of Ramna – Vrondero (habitat type 9250)

- The areas of Juniper trees, mixed and unmixed Quercus trojana (habitat type9250, 9562, 9563) in the village of Psarades and Vrondero, with emphasis on the two stands of ancient Juniper trees in Agios Georgios, Psarades and in Agios Athanasios, Vrondero. These areas are bear and wolf habitats.

- All the areas in the basin of Agios Germanos, with mixed fir and beech forests that are also habitats for bears, wolves and Balkan chamois Rupicapra rupicapra balcanica.

- The mixed deciduous forest in the village of Oxya, an important habitat forHazel grouse (Tetrastes bonasia).

- The wetlands and especially the area of Koula-Slatina-Slogi-Opagia, where there are parts of Natura Directive 91E0 and 92A0 habitat types, as well as Vidronisi Island and reed beds in Mikrolimni-Bouskani which are important habitats for 17 aquatic bird species (Annex I of Directive 79/409/EEC) and many endemic fish species.

- The rocky shore of Lake Megali Prespa, which is an important breeding habitat for Mergansers (Mergus merganser)and a feeding and resting habitat for 12 further rare bird species.

- Agios Germanos River, from the estuary in Lake Megali Prespa to the springs of the Gaidouritsa, Giovanitsa and Siroka streams and a 30-metre zone around it, which includes 3240, 91E0 and 92A0 habitat types as well as habitats of endemic fish species Salmo peristericus and Barbus prespensis and habitats of Galanthus nivalis.

- The last large field of Narcissus sp. in Oxya village

- Areas of Diphelypaea boissieri and Lesquerexia syriaca (confidential).

- Areas of 6211 and 6230 habitat types in the alpine zone of Mt Varnoundas, which is also a habitat of Rubicapra rubicapra balcanica.

- The area southeast of the deserted village of Daseri and Latsista Bay, containing the most important natural habitat types. 

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The Prespa National Park covers an area of 327km2. The wetland covers about 30% of this area while the remaining 70% is land. As a dynamic natural ecosystem, the PNP is evolving, but nevertheless conserves unique characteristics and ecological values including important habitats and rich biodiversity, as well as its cultural heritage, such as traditional villages and human activities and remarkable Byzantine monuments. The absence of human activity during the second half of the 20th century has contributed to the preservation of both the natural and cultural heritage. Present human activities are mild and nearly 70% of professional activities are in the primary sector, e.g. bean cultivation, fishing and livestock farming.

The PNP is a protected area according to national, European and international environmental legislation. The most important legal tools for the protection of the PNP are:

- Common Ministerial Decision 28651/FEK 302’D declaring Prespa a National Park.

- The EU Birds Directive 79/409 and EU Habitats Directive 92/43 for the recognition of Prespa both as SPA/SCI areas of the Natura 2000 network.

- The Ramsar Convention for the recognition of Lake Mikri Prespa as a Wetland of International Importance.

Cultural heritage in the PNP is protected mainly by

- Archaeological Law 3028/2002 “On the protection of antiquities and cultural heritage in general”.

Byzantine and post-Byzantine monuments are protected, restored and conserved by the Ministry of Culture and Sports. On the island of Agios Germanos, a two-storey restored building of the early 20th century, on the edge of the village, functions as a centre for archaeological exploration in the region and will serve as a museum for the Byzantine collection.

Comparison with other similar properties

The breeding colony of Dalmatian Pelican in Prespa is the largest in the world. In 2012 there were recorded 1111 pairs. In Greece, colonies of Dalmatian Pelicans have also been recorded in other four protected areas (National National Parks of Amvrakikos Wetlands, Lake Kerkini, Messolonghi-Etoliko Lagoon and the Eco-Development area of Karla-Montenegro-Spring-Velestinou), but the number that has been recorded in those areas is much smaller than in Prespa. Moreover Lake Mikri Prespa is one of the two areas in Europe, with Romania, were mixed colonies of Dalmatian and Great White Pelicans breed.

Additionally, PNP hosts unique habitat types and species that are protected by the European and international legislation. In PNP there have been recorded 49 habitat types of the European Directive 92/43 and more than 1600 species of flora, while in other similar areas in Greece, like Kerkini National Park, with a total area almost two and a half the size of PNP, there have been recorded 21 habitat types and approximately 1160 species of flora.

Also, it should be mentioned that Lake Mikri Prespa is a Ramsar site and the Transboundary Prespa Park among Greece, FYROM and Albania is the first transboundary protected area in the Balkans.

Furthermore, the Prespa National Park apart from its outstanding natural beauty of high environmental value presents a rich cultural heritage. It is therefore comparable to the Gorge of the River Lousios in Arcadia, an area of rare and imposing natural beauty, known as the “Mount Athos of the Peloponnese” due to its many historic monasteries, hermitages and churches. The area of the River Lousios, however, does not present the plethora of features of the Prespa region (for instance, there are no villages).

Prespa could also be compared to the town of Kastoria, which combines natural beauty with important monuments of the Byzantine and Post-Byzantine period and has influenced the art of the wider area. Finally, mention must be made of the city of Ohrid with its great history and Byzantine monuments of exceptional artistry, which, together with Lake Ohrid, is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List as a cultural and natural heritage site.