Friday, 15 November 2013


world-map nis


After months of Across Asia With A Lowlander, it’s now time for something a little different. You may remember me saying that I had been on two pilgrimages to St. David’s and then Bardsey Island in Wales. Next up I’ll be posting my travelogues of those two trips but before then, here is a one-off, my reflections on a short trip to Macedonia back in 2003 when i was living in Bulgaria. This talks about my feelings on this fascinating little country which I would love to revisit someday, but it should also be seen in the context of my wider Bulgarian experience, more of which can be learnt about in my lengthy travelogue Balkania and my one-off piece on drinking in Bulgaria.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt





I first heard of Macedonia when sitting on the veranda of a surgery of a Greek doctor whilst looking out across the Ionian Sea and the mountains of Albania. I was working in Corfu at the time and Dr. Hatsiastros was both my employer and my friend, and on top of both of those, my initiator into the complex world of Balkan politics.

“I was not a supporter of Papandreou really, but I can say that his actions over Makedonia were right.”

“What’s Makedonia?” (I was terribly ignorant back then you see, I had never even heard of the place).

“Makedonia? Makedonia! Makedonia is Greek! It always has been Greek! The biggest part of it is still in Greece!”

Makedonia, it turned out, is what we British mistakenly call ‘Macedonia’, the ancient Balkan kingdom that gave the world Alexander the Great, the mightiest of all the Hellenes. Thinking back to my childhood, I vaguely remembered reading about how Alexander had not come from Athens or Sparta or any of the normal Greek places, but somewhere to the north and that he had invaded all the Greek city states before absorbing their culture and then going onto conquer most of the known world. So, thinking about it strictly, that day on that Corfiot balcony was strictly not my first Macedonian encounter, but I digress…

But in fact it was not Alexander’s ancient realm that the good doctor was getting all worked up about that day. No, his mind was occupied with matters most recent. They did however, involve the ancient as well.

“Alexander the Great; he is Greek, nai?”

I assured my friend in the medical profession that Greek he most certainly was.

Nai, nai, of course he is Greek, he is the greatest of all Greeks really. So then, why these bloody Serbs go calling their country ‘Makedonia’? When Alexander the Great was around there was no Serbia, none of these bloody Slavs, instead they were all living somewhere in the middle of Asia!”

What my friend, his former prime minister and most of his compatriots were objecting to was in fact a new country just north of Greece, formed from the break-up of Yugoslavia, that had decided to call itself ‘Makedonija’. The Greeks saw this as a claim on their heritage and furthermore the symbol used on this new state’s flag was one associated with Alexander’s ancient kingdom, thus linking the new entity with the old.

“This bloody flag they use in Skopje!” Hatsiastros fumed, (Skopje incidentally, is the capital of the new country). “You know where they found this bloody symbol? In Veria! In Greece! So they steal our history really, bloody Serbs in Skopje!”

And that, essentially, was the Greek objection. A new country had been formed, calling itself after an ancient Greek kingdom, thereby stealing Greek history. People would forget that Alexander the Great was Greek and start thinking of him as a Slav. And would it stop there? Would they next be after Greek territory too? Greece’s largest province, whose capital is the prosperous port city of Thessaloniki[1], is also called Makedonia. Did the new state have designs on that too? The objections may seem a little trivial to us, but to a Greek, or at least, to Papandreou, they were a deadly serious matter. When the new country announced its name and flag, the Greek PM immediately ordered them to change both. They refused and so, (much to the consternation of their European partners), in February 1994, the Greeks blockaded the new Macedonia, a serious matter since the new country’s main gateway to the world is Thessaloniki. In the end the economics began to bite and the Macedonians, (or should we say ‘Skopjeans’?), relented, changed their flag to something very similarly but without the symbol found in Veria and agreed to temporarily refer to their country as FYROM which stands for the ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’. It is the name still in official documentation and used only by the Greeks.

Alexander-the-Great-WC-9180468-1-402 Alexander the Great: disputed legacy

But if that is Macedonia from a Greek perspective, what about the rest of the Balkans and, in particular, Bulgaria, which is after all the subject of all these essays?[2] Do they have any feelings about the new nation next-door? Well, the answer to that question is an easy one that anyone who has spent more than five minutes talking to a Bulgarian can attest to: If the Greeks are a nation bothered about Macedonia, then the Bulgarians are a nation positively obsessed with it! And they have good reason to be as well. A short history lesson will explain why…

The ancient kingdom of Macedonia, (i.e. that of Alexander the Great), first emerged in the 7th century BC and grew steadily in strength and size until the 4th century BC by which time it covered a large chunk of the central Balkans and was producing leaders of the calibre of Alexander and Philip II. The former we know all about of course, but the latter, his father who ascended to the throne in 359BC perhaps did more to ensure the actual growth and continuity of the Macedonian entity itself, transforming the kingdom from a weak and unimportant entity into a Hellenic realm ready to challenge the mighty city states themselves. Alexander may never have become a ‘Great’ if it were not for the endeavours of his father.

Macedonia continued as a recognised entity until the Romans came along and invaded it in 168BC, splitting it up into four districts. After the Romans – or perhaps more accurately, as a continuum of the Romans – came the Byzantines who did not relinquish their complete hold on the area until the 13th century by which time their power was well on the wane and the Ottomans took over. In between this however, (and this is the bit that concerns us), Slavic peoples from Central Asia moved into the region and settled there, assimilating with the local peoples and dominating the local population. And here is where the confusion starts, with the emergence of several new and aggressive Slavic kingdoms, most notably that of the Bulgars, to the area north of that which was controlled by Byzantium.

The reign of King Samuil (976-1014) represents one of the greatest epochs in Bulgarian history. His Bulgarian kingdom (recognised by the Pope as such) stretched from the Black Sea to the Adriatic and had its capital in the (nowadays located in FYROM) city of Ohrid. Samuil and his Ohrid-centred Bulgarian kingdom was a Golden Era for Bulgarian language and culture.

Or at least… that’s what the Bulgarians say.

The Macedonians of FYROM however, maintain that Samuil’s kingdom was not Bulgarian at all, despite the say so of the (Latin) Pope (who was not only mistaken but also a heretic). No indeed, it was in fact a Macedonian kingdom, the first in around a thousand years and the direct heir to the glorious legacy of Alexander the Great.

Except, as the Greeks so forcibly point out, this kingdom was ruled by people of a completely different ethnicity to the old one (Slavs, not Hellenes), and in a different location (well, slightly) to that of Philip and Alexander’s realm. Thessaloniki and the ancient Macedonian capital of Veria were still very much in Byzantine (for that, read ‘Greek’) hands.

Thankfully, all parties do agree that this Golden Era ended in 1014 after a defeat of Samuil’s army by the Byzantines who, after their victory, proceeded to gouge out the eyes of nine out of every ten of the soldiers that they’d captured, and then sent the lot back to Ohrid. Samuil apparently died from the shock and shame.

Byzantine domination only lasted for a couple of centuries though. The Ottoman Turks swept across South-Eastern Europe like a wind from hell. Everywhere they met resistance, some so stiff that it lasted for decades, (such as Skanderbeg in Albania), but always they eventually prevailed. Macedonia was taken in 1389. They did not relinquish control of the region until 1912.

makedonija1 Kale Fortress, Skopje, which dates from Byzantine times

When the Ottomans first came to the area, they were a vibrant, dynamic, modern and murderous force. Over the years however, they stagnated until by the 19th century they’d lost all those qualities barring the last. As the new ideology of Nationalism swept across Europe, the Balkans too began to feel its effects. A Serbian state was established in between 1830 and 1867, a modern-day Greece was established in 1830 and Bulgaria had its uprising against the Ottomans in 1876. And then, in 1893, the IMRO (the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation)[3] was formed.

The aim of this organisation was to free Macedonia from Turkish rule. On that all parties agree. First they wanted autonomy within the Ottoman Empire, then independence. After that however, it depends upon who you talk to: The FYROMians declare that independence was the final aim of IMRO; the Bulgarians on the other hand, believe that the IMRO revolutionaries considered themselves to be Bulgarian all along and that their eventual aim was for union with the Motherland.

Whatever the case may be, they failed. The Ilinden Uprising of 1903 led by the enigmatic Gotse Delchev managed only to liberate the town of Krushevo before it was put down. Delchev, who is now a national hero claimed by both the Bulgarians and the FYROMians alike, was killed in action on the 4th May, 1903. It seems strange to us to make a hero of someone who failed to achieve any of his objectives, but this is the Balkans where they love a glorious failure and, like Vasil Levski, the fact that he paid the ultimate price for starting the ball rolling means that he will long be enshrined in the hearts of the locals.

The Ilinden Uprising may have been a failure, but the Ottoman Empire was on its last legs and the First Balkan War of 1912 saw Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia put an end to Turkish rule over most of the peninsular, and the Treaty of London that followed (May 1913) awarded Northern Macedonia to Serbia and its southern regions to Greece. This angered the Bulgarians who remembered well the days of Tsar Samuil and the cooperation and closeness of their people with the IMRO partisans. The Second Balkan War (1914), First World War (1915-8) and Second World War (1941-5) all saw the Bulgarians attempt to reclaim what they saw as their territory. In all instances, save for two short periods during the wars, they failed and in 1945 Southern Macedonia emerged still as an integral part of Greece whilst the majority of Northern Macedonia was, as before the war, a republic of Yugoslavia, with the Bulgarians only controlling a small part of the ancient Macedonian territory, that around the town of Blagoevgrad and the Pirin Mountains.

gotse delchev Gotse Delchev: A great Macedonian… or Bulgarian…?

So now we are into the time of Tito and his Yugoslavia that was a communist state but not a member of the Warsaw Pact and certainly no close ally of the Soviet Union’s bed partner, Bulgaria. And whilst keeping his distance from the omnipotent USSR and her friends, Tito also had to mould his own diverse state into a strong and unified entity. So began the process of (according to the Bulgarians) creating a false Macedonian identity, distinct from that of Bulgaria, with the establishment of an independent Macedonian Church (1944-5), the appointment of an Ohrid Archbishopric (1958) and the promotion of the Macedonian language, (which according to the Bulgarians is merely a dialect of their own tongue). And why you may ask, were all these measures undertaken? To separate Macedonia culturally as well as politically from her Mother Country, before then welding her firmly to Serbia, (which perhaps explains why Dr. Hatsiastros referred to them as ‘Serbs’?

Unsurprisingly, the present, post-Yugoslavian government in Skopje look at things somewhat differently, stating that they truly are a separate nation, culturally as well as politically; that their language, whilst similar, is different to Bulgarian and that Macedonia does truly have its own distinctive culture. Is it all true though? Who knows, though the fact that 95% of the Macedonian electorate voted for independence when asked in a referendum on September 8th, 1991, suggests that either Macedonia truly is distinct culturally from Bulgaria, or that the Serbs were remarkably successful in their cunning plan.

I however, wanted to find out more about it all, and in my opinion, the best way to do that is to pay the place a visit. In 1999 I’d been to Blagoevgrad, the major town in the Bulgarian part of Macedonia and found it to be a pleasant enough city, though culturally indistinguishable from the rest of the country[4] and in the same year I’d seen a little of Greek Macedonia, and although the two regions had a lot in common architecturally (i.e. Ottoman), the cities that I visited (Thessaloniki and Veria) were undeniably Greek and the Slavic influence was nil. So, if Bulgarian Macedonia is very Bulgarian, and Greek Macedonia is very Greek, then what exactly is that entity that calls itself ‘Macedonia’ like? On a chilly February evening, I took the bus from Sofia to find out.

Macedonia, Makedonija, FYROM or whatever else you want to call it, turned out to be not quite how I expected. As I passed through the countryside and villages in the bus en route to Skopje, I found that it little resembled either Greece or Bulgaria. In fact, of all the countries that I have ever visited,[5] I found it to be most like Turkey. The roads to Skopje and thence Ohrid were good and the dwellings, though often apartments, were less uniform and drab than those of its neighbour. In fact, it seemed altogether less communist, with more individualism evident in the dwellings and layout. Gone too were the ubiquitous Ladas on the roads and in their place, the smart VW Golf-a-like Yugo Zastavas, and a profusion of Western European cars. The place looked prosperous, clean and altogether far more Western than its neighbour.

makedonija 001Skopje Panorama

Perhaps the main reason behind that is nothing to do with any ancient kingdoms, but instead the country’s far more modern history, namely its forty-six year inclusion in a communist Yugoslavia that followed a radically different economic path to that of the Warsaw Pact states. Whereas Bulgaria has only recently started to open up to the capitalist world, accepting huge numbers of Western European tourists, sending its citizens abroad for better work and encouraging private endeavour, the Yugoslavians have been at it for years, resulting in the 1980s in a country that was far more prosperous and westward looking that any other in Eastern Europe. In fact, so open and wealthy was she, that before the break-up, Yugoslavia was being considered for EU membership. As I entered the outskirts of futuristic Skopje, (the city was largely rebuilt in a modern style following the devastating earthquake in 1963), I felt more on the outskirts of Birmingham than Burgas. Superficially at least, Macedonia was not Bulgarian in the slightest. Dig deeper however, and perhaps the ties would become more evident?

If one wants to find Bulgaria in Macedonia though, there is of course, only one place to head, and that is Ohrid, the capital of Tsar Samuil’s great kingdom. I took the bus from Skopje through the mountains that Gotse Delchev and his comrades once fought in, before arriving at the lakeside town. The Bulgarian influences were immediately apparent.

“Do you speak Macedonian?” asked the proprietor of the room that I had rented for the night.

“Sorry, none at all,” I replied, “though I do speak Bulgarian.”

“Ah!” she exclaimed. “It’s the same really!”

And I was inclined to agree with her. Throughout my entire stay, I had no problems understanding this supposedly alien tongue. True, there were a few minor differences to the Bulgarian that I’d learnt. “Where are you from?” was “Kade li at?” instead of “Kude li ot?”; and they seemed to borrow different foreign words, so ‘chips’ were the French ‘pommes frites’ instead of the German ‘kartofi’, and they had no word for the little milk capsules that you get with coffee, but overall it was very much like a dialect of Bulgarian, as distinct from that spoken in Sofia as Scouse is to BBC English.

And Ohrid itself? I wandered through its beautiful streets lined with centuries old buildings, peered into dark churches and watched the boats bob on the water. It reminded me of Veliko Turnovo only with a lake. It is one of the finest sights in the Balkans.

makedonija3 Ohrid

But if Macedonia’s ancient capital is Veliko Turnovo, then her modern one is not Sofia. Skopje in fact, although a surprisingly pleasant place, did not remind me of any of Bulgaria’s cities, major or minor. Her modern, post-earthquake centre was decidedly communist, but it was a somehow different, smarter communism that bore little resemblance to dark, depressing Sofia.

Skopje however, is far, far more than its 1960s centre with its proud statue of Mother Teresa, (the city’s most famous daughter), and its shortage of reasonably priced hotels. Cross the little bridge over the River Vardar and you enter another city entirely. The bridge itself is the start, ancient, stone and Turkish, with eight elegantly-proportioned arches, it is straight out of an Ivo Andrič tale of the Ottoman Balkans.[6]

The city across the Vardar might not be truly Bulgarian, but it is truly Balkan. A fine Turkish fortress, ancient Orthodox churches and a sea of domes and minarets. I wandered through the streets of the bazaar with its headscarfed Albanian ladies and snappily-dressed Slavs and reflected that this is what the Balkans is famed for: a crossing point of cultures and faiths.

The tomb of Gotse Delchev is situated in a courtyard next to the tiny and exquisite church of Sveti Spas with its intricate iconostasis of 1824. Next to the church is a small museum detailing the National Hero’s life and it was ominously devoid of any Bulgarian references. I decided to question the curator about this and asked about Delchev’s relationship with Macedonia’s next-door neighbour.

makedonija2 By the tomb of Gotse Delchev

“He studied in Sofia,” she replied, and strangely that was all that I was going to get. I came out of the museum wondering and was confronted by the magnificent 1492 Mustapha Pasha mosque, one of the finest in the Balkans. And that perhaps, is where Macedonia differs from Bulgaria and Greece. Such scenes of cultural mixing are rare to the east and south. True, there are places where one gets a taste of it such as in Shumen or Razgrad, but by and large today’s Bulgaria is almost entirely Slavic and today’s Greece most definitely Hellenic.[7] In Macedonia however, the battle of the cultures rages strong. There Slavs contribute only 68% of the population whilst the Muslim Albanians and Turks make up 27%, and with those groups having a much higher birth-rate, the Slavs are getting jittery. The country is only twelve years old and it has already seen an insurgence by the Albanians in 2001 that had to be put down with the assistance of NATO troops. Approach Skopje by night and that conflict for cultural hegemony is all too evident: an enormous illuminated and controversial cross shines down on the city from a nearby hillside, proclaiming to the heathens that this is a Christian country.[8]

As I sat in the 24 hour café awaiting my bus back to Bulgaria, I mused upon this strange little country, its past, present and future. It didn’t seem like a country to me and Skopje not a capital but instead a provincial town that had inexplicably had great status bestowed upon it that it didn’t quite know what to do with. Macedonia’s ancient past she shares with Greece, whilst her more recent history, both Slavic and Ottoman domination, she shares with Bulgaria, as she does her language. But despite all this, one gets the feeling that she never truly was Bulgarian and most definitely she is not now. Like her troubled neighbours to the north – Bosnia, Kosova and Vojvodina – she is a crossroads, a confusing melting-pot, and like in Bosnia, the post-communist hierarchy are attempting to create a successful, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural state. Quite whether they will succeed or not is another matter; I for one am sceptical and without assistance from the EU, am sure that failure will result. But then I fail to see the Macedonian Slavs as a truly separate people from the Bulgarians, and their nationalism instead strikes me as regionalism gone mad, more akin to the lunacy of Yorkshire or Cornish nationalism in the UK rather than the legitimate self-determination of the Irish. But there again, that is just my opinion and perhaps I have been in Bulgaria for far too long and have always approached the Macedonian Question from a largely Bulgarian standpoint. Had I been a teacher in Veles or Bitola for a year and my opinions might have been radically different.

makedonija5 The ruins of the old railway station, Skopje. The clock stopped at the moment when the earthquake struck the city in 1963

And as for the future, who knows what will happen? Whilst prosperous in a united Yugoslavia, independent Macedonia is nowadays struggling economically, not helped of course by the Greek attitudes towards it and the Albanian minority continue to clamour for more autonomy or even separation. It is already an absurdly small country, with a population of only two million and a land area of but 25,333km² and if it ever were to lose its Albanians, would a rump Slavic state be able to survive? Yet on the other hand, can it ever be successful as a multi-ethnic entity? Sad as it might be to say this, but Balkan history suggests not. Would therefore, an eventual union with Bulgaria be perhaps desirable? Pavel Marinov, a colleague and fervent Bulgarian nationalist, perhaps assesses the situation most accurately:

“I used to worry a lot about the Macedonia situation when I was young, but then I realised that until Bulgaria is economically successful they would never wish to join us. The job now is to build a prosperous Bulgaria. Then the rest will come.”

He is right. At the end of the day, what people care about most of all is food on the table and money in the bank. Pride, passion and historical ties count for little beside these. Perhaps the main reason why 95% of the electorate declared themselves to be Macedonian in 1991 was because both Bulgaria and Albania were considerably poorer than they were. As capitalism matures in the region however, and with Bulgaria’s ascension to the EU in 2007, then the people of FYROM may well have a change of heart and this tiny yet fascinating country will disappear. Perhaps so or perhaps not? Whatever the case, only one thing is for sure: It will be interesting to view the developments.

Written on the Varna – Ruse train, 30th June, 2003

Copyright © 2003, Matthew E. Pointon

[1] Usually referred to as ‘Salonika’ in English.

[2] This piece was originally included in a series of essays about Bulgaria.

[3] In Macedonian ‘VMRO’.

[4] To be fair, when I returned in 2003 and explored the region a little further, I did notice more the strong Muslim presence but even so, it was still extremely Bulgarian.

[5] And notably, that does not include any of the other former republics of Yugoslavia.

[6] It’s named the ‘Kamen Most’, lit. Stone Bridge.

[7] Although this is far from always having been the case and is partially the result of ethnic-cleansing, most notably the removal of Dobruja’s Latin Romanians in 1940, the Golyamata Ekskursiya (Great Excursion) of 1989 when many of Bulgaria’s Turks left/ were forced out to Turkey, the Holocaust which decimated Jewish and Roma populations and, most crucially, the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey in 1923, which transformed multi-ethnic areas into ones largely homogenous.

[8] The Millennium Cross was constructed in 2002 to celebrate two thousand years of Christianity in Macedonia and the world. Standing at 66m, it is the largest cross in the world.

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