Granice » 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.