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Skopje's Strange Quest to Rewrite Its History ... Through Public Sculpture

Skopje's Strange Quest to Rewrite Its History ... Through Public Sculpture
Armin Rosen

From the upper turrets of Skopje’s fortress, a sixth-century battlement streaking through the hills above the Vardar River, Macedonia’s capital is a palimpsest whose layers show remarkably little regard for the others' existence. The sloping roof of Macedonia’s National Theater, a landmark of 60s modernism, soars over a 16th-century bathhouse in Skopje’s cramped Ottoman quarter; just a couple hundred yards away, a row of severe neoclassical structures hulk over the Stone Bridge, a straight row of elegantly-proportioned archways whose origins go back to the early Byzantine period. Only slightly upriver is an entanglement of Brutalist angles and prisms, products of a global rebuilding effort after Skopje was nearly destroyed by a 1963 earthquake.

Skopje's aesthetic proudly defies any harmony or unity, and the capital is appropriate to the country that it governs. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Ottoman Macedonia was Europe’s version of present-day Syria or Lebanon, a multinational battleground whose Greek, Bulgarian, Turkish, Albanian and Slavic populations were pulled between the great powers of the day. There were Bulgarian and Slavic rebellions against the region’s Ottoman overlords throughout the final quarter of the 19th century, and the "Macedonian question"—shorthand for the competing national and strategic claims on the Balkan peninsula’s fractious central region—triggered the first and second Balkan wars in 1912 and 1913. These labyrinthine flare-ups, proxy conflicts for a larger struggle between Ottoman Turkey, Tzarist Russia and the western European powers, helped set the political conditions for the following year's world war.

Macedonia hasn’t had any major violence since a brief 2001 insurgency among members of its Albanian minority, who comprise over a quarter of the country's population. But Macedonian identity remains unsettled, even if it’s no longer a violent flashpoint. Macedonian is a Slavic language similar to Serbo-Croatian, and the country’s folk culture borrows from Bulgarian and Slavic traditions.

But "Macedonia" is also the name of a region in Greece’s northeast, a cradle of the classical civilization that figures deeply into modern-day Greek nationalism. Greece imposed a short-lived trade embargo shortly after Macedonia’s independence from a disintegrating Yugoslavia in 1991. It didn’t last, unlike the still-simmering controversy over Macedonia's internationally-recognized official name.

Officially, Greece is worried that a Macedonia that goes by that exact name harbors territorial claims on the Greek region of Macedonia, which includes the major port city of Thessaloniki. There’s little evidence that Macedonia actually harbors that ambition, so it’s more likely that the naming dispute is rooted in the Greek fear that Macedonia—as opposed to the "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia"—wants to claim some portion of the Greek patrimony for itself, one that includes Philip of Macedon, Alexander the Great, the Byzantine Empire, and the flourishing of Orthodox Christianity. For Greece, the “Former Yugoslav Republic” prefix that Macedonia uses in international fora puts a comforting distance between the modern state of Macedonia, and Greece’s own territory and history. Abstact as this all may seem, the naming dispute led to a Greek veto over Macedonia's 2008 invitation to join NATO.

But what really changes if the country lost the "Former Yugoslav Republic of" bit?

More than one may think. Loring Danforth, a professor of anthropology at Bates College and author of a book on the Greece-Macedonia dispute, says that claims on the region's ancient history get at sensitivities that are unexpectedly contemporary.

"If you grew up going to Greek or Macedonian schools, it would be as if somebody claimed that George Washington was British, or if the British claimed that he was one of their national heroes," Danforth says of the controversy over which country Alexander the Great rightfully belongs to. In controversies over national symbols—the name included—both sides believe that the other is claiming some indelible aspect of their national being. And neither is secure enough in its national self-definition to cede any ground to the other.

One possible and deeply problematic way out of this is to double down—to glorify a single, straightforward, and unapologetically nationalist narrative in marble and bronze, and at a scale meant to eliminate any and all doubt. It’s a narrative of historic accomplishments, from St. Cyril’s invention of the Cyrilic alphabet to Czar Samuel’s conquests, and of heroic resistance against centuries of outside rule—against Ottoman occupation, Bulgarian and Greek conspiracies, and the total indifference of the great powers. Like any good national myth, it ends in victory and revival, with the glories of the past fueling an equally glorious present.

•       •       •       •       •

Its natural that a relatively new state would want to create some connection with a seemingly-settled history. And Macedonia has quite an amazing past: the region’s history spans from Alexander the Great to Saints Cyril and Methodius—the fathers of eastern Orthodox Christianity—to Mother Theresa, an Albanian Catholic born in Skopje, and Mustafa Kemal Attaturk, who was born in Thessaloniki, in modern-day Greece, and spent his formative years in Bitola, in modern-day Macedonia. Problematically, Only 64 percent of Macedonia is ethnically and linguistically Macedonian; Alexander, Cyril and Methodius certainly were not. But in downtown Skopje, the government is trying to take history that happened in Macedonia, long before the late 19th-century emergence of a modern national language and identity, and make it Macedonian. It’s plunked its preferred and all-too straightforward national narrative right in the heart of the capital.

An explosion of recent, government-directed building in Skopje’s downtown, a project called Skopje 2014, is a heavy-handed, Vegas-esque attempt to impose both historical and aesthetic unity where there is none. It includes dozens of statues, enormous new government buildings, and ornamented bridges, fountains, and archways. It's a project of the ruling Macedonian Party for National Unity, which claims its origins in the late 19th century revolutionary movement against the Ottoman Turks. Skopje 2014 "is happening in a small country, with 2 million inhabitants and a lot of minority and religious groups, where a state identity concept is needed which includes all inhabitants," says Julia Lechler, a scholar of urbanism at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich who is currently teaching a university course in Skopje that will focus on Skopje 2014, "and doesn't promote an identity concept which is based on only one narrative."

For Lechler, the building spree's architecture is as problematic as its historical outlook. "The main impact of the project is the aesthetic destruction of the city center in Skopje," says Lechler, who notes, for instance, that the new building obscures the riverfront view of Macedonia's postal service building, "an icon of brutalist architecture." Visitors can gawk at giant men on horseback, musical fountains, monumental colonnades, and outdoor galleries of stone-faced czars, church fathers and 19th century guerilla fighters. But Macedonians are stuck with this building boom, and a lot of them seem to be against it: Lechler says that opposition parties in Skopje have gained traction based on their opposition to Skopje 2014, and there were major protests against the project this past June. In attempting to settle some of the biggest dilemmas Macedonia faces, Skopje’s building extravaganza might have just driven some uncomfortable questions even deeper into a restive national consciousness. "Sometimes you get the impression that there is no other issue in Macedonia," says Lechler.

Skopje 2014 wants to settle Macedonian history once and for all: to root an ethnically-diverse, 21-year-old modern state in a unifying and uncomplicated vision of the past. Whether it succeeds or not, the attempt has left a deep mark on an already-dizzying cityscape.


The centerpiece of Skopje 2014 is Macedonia Square, which is centered on a towering statue of a "warrior on horseback."


Warriors at the base of the statue.

Everyone, including some tourist maps of the city, assumes the “warrior on horsebeack” is actually Alexander the Great, although the conflict with Greece prohibits Macedonia from making this official. For Danforth, the connection between Alexander and any modern nation-state—be it Greece or Macedonia—is tenuous. "It's bad scholarship and inaccurate history to try to impose a 20th century national identity on people like Alexander the Great or Czar Samuel," he says.

Czar Samuel, whose statue is pictured above, is a 10th-century Bulgarian emperor who both Bulgaria and Macedonia claim as a national figure. More contentiously, Bulgarian nationalists believe that Golce Delcev, a leader of the late 19th-century movement against the Ottomans, belongs in their national pantheon. Delcev, who is buried in Skopje, has a George Washington-like prominence in modern Macedonian nationalism, and there are streets named after him in virtually every town—and a statue of him just opposite Samoli’s. Says Danforth of the dilemmas raised by Alexander, Samuel and Delcev: "It's a crowded history in a crowded country with lots of small nation states, with each one trying to carve out a history, an identity and a cannon of national heroes."


The Macedonia Arch, near Macedonia Square.


Right to left: a statue of the Roman emperor Justinian, who was born in modern-day Macedonia; the country’s national archeological museum, which will open next year; and the antique Stone Bridge.


Another statue depicting a massive, classical-era warrior, on the side of the Stone Bridge opposite Macedonia Square. At right is a 16th century Ottoman bath complex. Skopje’s Ottoman quarter is a network of alleyways, trading ins, mosques and bath complexes. It’s common to hear Turkish spoken, and teahouses serving cay in traditional, hourglass-shaped cups make it seem as if a neighborhood in Istanbul has been dropped inside a Las Vegas-like take on the ancient world.


A family in classical dress sits at the base of the column, near the entrance to the Ottoman quarter. Skopje’s fortress is at left.

Skopje 2014 has a detectably pro-family and even pro-natalist bent —almost all of the woman it depicts are engaged in some kind of maternal activity. These three figures, part of an assemblage just opposite the warrior column, are typical:



Women are in short supply, and so are minorities: there aren’t many statues of Albanians, and certainly no Turks, who represent 4 percent of Macedonia’s population. The project favors an ethno-nationalist view of Macedonian identity—which emphasizes a shared origin, language and culture, rather than a shared political system, or civic existence.


The Vardar River waterfront. The bridge at left has two opposite rows of statues of famous Macedonian writers, composers and musicians.


An equestrian statue on the grounds of Skopje’s unfinished archeological museum.


Close-up of the warrior on horseback. A crucial element of Skopje 2014 is its sheer scale—the project’s buildings and statues dwarf everything around them. The city has a new aesthetic identity, distasteful to some and seemingly dismissive of everything that came before it, but more appropriate to Macedonia its planners likely intended.

 

Keywords: Skopje

Armin Rosen writes for and produces The Atlantic's International Channel. All posts »

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