The (hidden) face of Macedonia

The (hidden) face of Macedonia

Luca Paggiaro

How does Macedonia want to introduce itself to their visitors? What does the Southeast European country want them to show and to hide? A personal account of my journey(s) around Macedonia

That’s (allegedly) Macedonia, and nothing else

An “model trip” to Macedonia has to start from the magnificent palaces and monuments of Skopje, the capital city. Macedonia Square (see picture 1), the very town centre, tells the tourists the whole national history with a bunch of statues: the ancient Alexander the Great – located in the middle – dominates over all, while the modern Macedonian independence heroes Dame Gruev and Gotse Delchev overlook the entrance of the Stone Bridge over the central river Vardar and the medieval Tsar Samuil of Bulgaria marks the begin of Macedonia Street, the main city pedestrian zone. Philipp II faces his son Alexander from the other side of the Vardar, whose bank is characterized by shiny neoclassical buildings: the biggest among them is the Museum of Archaeology (see picture 2), surrounded by other museums, government palaces and the massive National Theatre. The monumental downtown includes also Skanderbeg Square (see picture 3), a vast place dedicated to the hero of all Albanians, who represent a significant ethnic minority in Macedonia.

The ideal journey throughout the former Yugoslav republic continues to Ohrid, one of the most impressive city of the Balkan: according to the Ottoman globetrotter Evliya Çelebi, who visited it in 17th century, the town used to have 365 churches, one for each day of the year. Not all survived up to the present, but the remaining are still well worth seeing: above all the marvellous Church of Saint John at Kaneo (see picture 4), built on a cliff which offers the tourists a breath-taking view over the lake. Ohrid has been known for its literary school besides,  established in 886 by Saint Clement – a student of Cyril and Methodius – and renowned for having preserved the Glagolitic script until the 12th century.

As already seen on Skanderbeg Square, in Macedonia do not live only Macedonian-speaking Christians, but also Albanian-speaking Muslims. The trip has therefore to include their cultural centre, the city of Tetovo: visitors are here welcomed by the impressive 15th century Šarena Džamija (Macedonian for “Painted Mosque”) (see picture 5), at the same time a symbol of the former Ottoman rule in Macedonia.

The ideal journey could end here, having portrayed by the way an “ideal image” of the small Balkan republic: a shiny capital city adorned with modern Neoclassical palaces, an ancient town displaying the glorious past of the nation and, at last, a symbolic centre for the main ethnic minority of the country. An ideal portrait maybe suitable for a reductive flyer of the National Tourist Board, or for a simplifying Wikipedia article, but definitely not for a research paper, and even not for this modest article. Hence, the ideal journey has to stop, and a real one has to begin.

That is Macedonia (too)

Let’s return to Skopje and follow the same route through the colossal monuments of the city centre, although this time guided by a representative of the NGO “Ploštad Sloboda” (Macedonian for “Freedom Square”). Let’s discover therefore that this gigantic project called “Skopje 2014” has been a scandalous waste of money: over 670 million euros for having redecorated an area of just 1 km2, participation neither of the citizens nor of the national parliament in all decision-making processes, money laundering in the construction works and use of lowest-quality building materials (some facades are even flammable). That should be enough to boycott the entire showy complex and to take refuge in the truly magnificent Old Bazaar (see picture 6) admiring the numerous mosques, hammams and caravanserais, precious legacy of the Ottoman rule.

Then let’s return again to Tetovo, the capital of the Albanians in Macedonia, and reach the western periphery of the town: the very well conserved Arabati Baba Teḱe (see picture 7) would be rarely mentioned in a city’s guidebook, which rather prefers to direct the few tourists to the Painted Mosque. And it is really a pity considering that Dervish Muttalib – the only one serving in this 18th century compound for spiritual retreat –  would like to show the visitors the beautiful flowered lawns and wooden pavilions. The reason for this is the burning dispute over the property of the tekke between the Bektashi order, which founded it 500 years ago, and the Islamic Community of Macedonia, which regards the Bektashis as “heretics”: in August 2002 the situation escalated since a group of armed Wahhabi Muslims seized control of a large part of the complex, reclaiming it as a mosque – although it has never functioned as a such – and harassing its visitors.

Let’s finally abandon any touristic route and get acquainted with the third-largest ethnic minority of Macedonia: the Turks. Actually some Turkish flags have already been visible in Skopje’s Old Bazaar and also in the Baba Teḱe of Tetovo, but in Centar Župa – a small village situated near the city of Debar – Turks constitute a sweeping 80 percent majority: no surprise then that a majestic statue to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (see picture 8) towers on the central square and that the neighbouring village of Kodžadžik is known for having been the birthplace of Atatürk’s parents. And even though the official languages are Turkish, Macedonian and Albanian – all three taught at school – it’s not unusual to hear local people speaking fluently German or Italian, as much of the population emigrated to Western Europe and return only during the summer holidays.

The real journey could still continue, since this small country includes even more ethnic, linguistic and religious communities, disregarding its innumerable natural and cultural treasures. Macedonia is in the heart of the Balkans and reflects in its own territory all the contradictions of the Balkans, but primarily two: the rich ethnic variety and the poor nationalistic temptations. All in a wonderful landscape.

Women on the Balkans

Women on the Balkans

Nasiba Abbasova, Translation: Megan Nagel

During our DAAD field trip to Macedonia and Albania with the aim of exploring the Balkan Muslims it was also interesting to observe the women both in cities and villages. Here the question is not only about the division of the role of men and women in the family or society but also about the influence of religion on the lives of the women. In our case Islam. According to the 2002 census 30% of the Macedonian population identify as Muslim, in Albania 50% according to their last census in 2011. From 1968 until the 1990s Albania was an atheist state under communist rule.

Tirana, Albania. Source: S. Stankovic
Tirana, Albania. Source: S. Stankovic

Women in cities and villages

Muslim women are represented everywhere in cities; on the street, at the markets and in other public spaces, whether with headscarf or not. To be out on the street at midnight as a woman is not dangerous. Smoking and drinking alcohol in public is also no problem.

Skopje Old Bazaar, mainly Albanian and Muslim part

The women in the villages are very friendly but not always visible. Public squares such as cafés or teahouses are mainly frequented by men. In the villages usually old ladies live in big and beautiful villas, either alone or with their men. One of these women is Afrodita whom we met in a village. She lives alone in a two-storeyed villa throughout the whole year. Her children and grandchildren live in Germany and she visits them a few times a year. She prepares different jams made with the fruit from her own garden and other specialities which she takes along to Germany when she visits. She welcomed us like her own grandchildren and hugged and kissed us when parting, presenting us with her tasty apples.

Women of the Bektashi community

During our field trip we visited the Bektashi community in the Macedonian town of Tetovo. During the conversation with the friendly man who is going to be the Dervish the coming years it appeared that the women of this faith are well educated, mostly with university degrees. They do not have to wear a headscarf or chador. The Bektashi community in Tetovo has had a woman as the Baba, the highest position in this society.

Women as entrepreneurs

In Zogaj, a beautiful village on Lake Skadar on the Montenegrin-Albanian border a workshop was founded a few years ago by a young woman where they produce carpets and bags etc in different sizes. It is a small and friendly team of women working here.

The owner of the workshop
Zogaj, Workshop. Source: Darinka Antić

Good future perspectives abroad

During the conversation with the women it became clear that they hope for a good and safe future for their children. Many want to send their children to Western Europe, especially Germany, for a good university degree and hope for a good perspective for staying there. A saleswoman in a shopping centre in Tirana talked about how she came to Germany with her two children during the refugee wave and was deported half a year later. She wants to do her best for her children to receive good higher education in Germany. “Good studies” and a “good life” in Germany/abroad are the most important desires for these women.

Forgotten Spaces

Forgotten Spaces in border regions

Michał Piasek, Translation Megan Nagel

The DAAD field trip led the group to regions where borders have been shifted over the past centuries and new borders have been drawn. In a visible and an invisible way. The Ottoman Empire shaped the region in a special way so that not only new political borders developed but also religious. Many of these borders are invisible and four chosen locations marked on the map will be presented.

This article is a portrait of the so-called “bordercrossing” shown in four chosen locations: Debar, Dolna Gorica, Zogaj and Rreth-Libofshe. All places are located along the political border of Macedonia and Albania and Montenegro and Albania, except Rreth-Libofshe. Rreth-Libofshe represents an own special place which will be explained later. All places but Debar which is mainly Albanian speaking are located in Albania. The presented locations are all connected by the same long Ottoman history as well as many political changes in the 20th century. New political systems, migrations and regimes which had a big impact on these places. Another communality is the fact that these four places are inhabited by groups that are linguistic minorities.

Sal markja memorial park

An old graveyard on the Macedonian-Albanian border close to Debar. This place is invisible from outside but after entering the forest old Ottoman traces appear. The region was  conquered by the Ottomans in 1395 and represented an important border between the League of Lezha under Gjergi Kastrioti and the Ottomans in the 15th century. It stayed under Ottoman rule until the Balkan Wars in 1912/13. Presently more than 90% of Debar’s population is Albanian speaking. Islam has the most members due to historic reasons. The members in this region are Albanians, Torbesh and Turks.

Dolna Gorica

After Enver Hoxha changed the original Slavic toponyms to Albanian in the 1970s  the Macedonian speaking village known as Goricë e Vogel located on Lake Prespa changed its name again in 2013, like all other places in this community. Together with eight more villages Dolna Gorica forms the only officially recognised community of a Macedonian speaking group. After numerous shifts of borders it is now located on the Albanian side of Lake Prespa. It distinguishes itself through the Macedonian speaking school and the small Orthodox church and graveyard.

Ottoman gravestones next to the mosque in Zogaj at lake Prespa

The village is located about one kilometre from the Montenegrin border. Zogaj was also under Ottoman rule after the siege of Shkodër 1578/79 until the Balkan Wars 1912/13. The traces are still visible today, as this gravestone shows. Today a small group of people speaking Serbian/Montenegrin is living in this region.

Graveyard next to the monastery “Manastiri i Shën Kozmait“ close to Rreth-Libofshe

Self-declared Serbians of Muslim faith  are living in this village. They came from the region around Novi Pazar in the first third of the 20th century. This is an isolated space because the other Serbian/Bosnian speaking groups in the region Fier declare themselves as Bosniaks.

This was only a selection of the so called Forgotten Spaces along the national borders of today. There are many more churches, monasteries, graveyards etc that make the old borders from the Ottoman Era visible. These spaces (graveyards and religious buildings) also show different historic events. The questions is whether these spaces will stay forgotten or play a role in the development of these regions. At least they enrich the cultural landscape and represent material for further research.

State Identities and Architecture in Albania and Macedonia: Ontological Security Perspective

State Identities and Architecture in Albania and Macedonia: Ontological Security Perspective

Milan Krstić

This outline aims to investigated whether the ontological security theory could be used to explain the linkage between certain public architecture policies and practices in Macedonia and Albania and (foreign policy) identities of these states. Public landscapes in Macedonia and Albania have undergone significant changes since the beginning of their political transition in 1990s. The gigantic project “Skopje 2014” is probably the most important example of such fundamental architectural changes. While various theoretical approaches could serve the explanation of different urban planning policies in Macedonia and Albania, the ontological security theory has so far not been applied to these two cases (to the best of our knowledge). The aim of this outline is, therefore, to quickly test whether the application of the ontological security theory to these two cases seems justified and promising.

Ontological security theory

Ontological security could be defined as a “confidence that most human beings have in the continuity of their self-identity and in the constancy of the surrounding social and material environments of action” (Giddens 1991, 92). This originally sociological theory soon spread into the scientific field of International Relations and International Security, starting from the 2000s (see for example: Mitzen 2006). The key aspect of this theory is the claim that certain elements of states’ behavior in international relations cannot be explained neither by the mere cost-benefit logic (rational behavior/ theory of rational choice), nor by the logic of appropriateness (normative behavior/social constructivist theory), but can be instead best explained through the states’ desire to protect their self-identity. In other words, states sometimes behave opposite of their cost-benefit rational, or even opposite of the norms accepted in the international society, all with an aim to protect what they consider essential for the continuity and consistency of their identity.

However, the existing literature has been mostly focused on the behavior (habitus) of states in their contacts (communication) with foreign audience, but not on the “material environment” and the ways in which material space could be influenced by the factor of ontological security, even though the spatial dimension of ontological security has been very important in the sociology studies. This gap was, however, recently addressed by Ejdus (2017) in his study on the way in which Serbia’s search for ontological security influenced the destiny of certain buildings in Belgrade, such as the Military Chief of Staff building, which was purposefully left ruined as a symbol of causalities caused by NATO bombing in 1999.


At the end of the 2000s, Macedonia started the gigantic project “Skopje 2014”, aimed at constructing numerous buildings in city center of Skopje – the majority of which in antic style. While this extremely expensive project was publicly justified with the cost-benefit logic (potential profits from tourism in future etc.), it was rather obvious from the very beginning that in a state like Macedonia, whose GDP is much below the continental average, the cost-benefit calculation for such a project was more than suspicious. On the other hand, projects based on the construction of “antic” objects in the city center, like this one, do not definitely represent any kind of a norm followed by other European cities (such things are common only to certain entertaining places in the world, such as Las Vegas).

It therefore seems that both cost-benefit logic and normative logic are quite flawed in the explanation of this case, which leaves plenty of space for the application of the ontological security theory. The main ontological security argument seems very plausible and intuitive: faced with attacks on its identity which are coming from Greece, as well as with widespread perception of Macedonians as “newcomers” to these territories in comparison to Greeks and Albanians (who perceive themselves as heirs of Ilirs), Macedonians decided to spend money on a project which would symbolize their runaway from the Slavic heritage and “antic” identity, in order to prove their historical continuity in the Balkans.

However, is it actually possible to talk about “security” and continuity of the identity in this case? It seems that there are significant obstacles to such a claim. First of all, the fundaments of such (antic) identity are not solid among the majority of Macedonians since mostly perceive themselves as Slavs, not as ancient Macedonians. Therefore, it seems that we cannot talk about “security” or “continuity” of the existing identity in the case in which this identity is not firm enough.

Moreover, when we look at the consequences of the insistence on such an identity, we can see that it has done nothing but caused ontological insecurity and turbulences, instead of strengthening ontological security in Macedonia! Skopje 2014 became a point of conflict between government and opposition and between different segments of Macedonian society, causing a massive civil society reaction (such as the organization Plostad Sloboda). Eventually, the government which supported this project lost the general and local elections in 2017 from those who opposed these identity building projects.


Albania has not suffered radical changes in the public space similar to those in Skopje. On the contrary – on the very first sight there is a feeling of continuity with earlier public spaces from the communist period. Buildings from this period dominate the landscape in Tirana and other Albanian towns, while communist bunkers could be seen almost everywhere. If one takes these facts into account, he could easily assume that there is no space for the application of ontological security theory. Unlike in Skopje, in Tirana we cannot find such a project which would be hard to explain using the cost-benefit or normative logics, and which would be based on the construction of antic-Ilir-Ottoman or any other retro-style buildings.

However, similar to the case of Macedonia, where we offered two counterarguments which might lead us to a completely counterintuitive conclusion – there are certain elements which might show us that the Albanian urban planning was also to a certain extent influenced by the ontological security. First of all, the decision to preserve and adopt communist spaces (through coloring their facades with warm colors or through turning them into museums, such as BunkArt) was perhaps motivated not solely or even not primarily by material reasons, but by the desire to keep the continuity even with some aspects of the communist heritage. The most important one is secularism (which was radical in its form of state atheism during communism), whose moderate form guarantees equality of different religions and unity of the nation. Parallel revival of Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox religious spaces proves that the equal presence of different religions in public spaces is indeed very important. The second reason why communist architecture is preserved and modified might be its usefulness for the construction of the “constitutive other” in public space for modern Albanian state. A good example in this regard is the mentioned BunkArt museum, where communist facilities present its hidden and autocratic history in order to send the message that Albania should never again be as isolated as then.


This brief outline has shown that there are sufficient elements calling for the application of the ontological security theory in the very different cases of Macedonia and Albania. Despite the fact that arguments against the applicability of this theory seem to solid as well, the very existence of the abovementioned evidence is enough for the conclusion that further investigation in this direction would be both theoretically and empirically justified. Nevertheless, if to be conducted properly, such a challenging research needs to include extensive field work, numerous structured and semi-structured interviews with relevant actors, as well as a thorough desk analysis of the relevant documents. Even if the analysis provides strong evidences in favor of the ontological security theory   explanation of certain urban planning practices in Macedonia and Albania, all alternative explanations (not only rationalistic and constructivist approaches, but as well those focusing on leaders, corruption and their private interests which might be the actual variable) is necessary.