The Republic of Macedonia became independent from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, but because of disputes with Greece over the name “Macedonia”, it changed its name in 2018 to the Republic of Northern Macedonia or North Macedonia for short. It was the 6th of 7 countries of the former Yugoslavia I visited. I began in the lakeside town of Ohrid, before heading to its capital, Skopje. Ohrid’s architecture is primarily Ottoman, but I’m struggling to find the words to describe Skopje, so I will settle on Las Vegas meets Ancient Greece.
North Macedonia’s history begins with the usual Balkan inhabitants. Neolithic settlements have been found, as have Bronze and Iron Age ones. Illyrian tribes settled the nation, but the world first took notice of the area when a distinct tribe, the Macedonians, led by Phillip II defeated Athens in 338BC and paved the way for his son, Alexander the Great, to conquer a good part of the known world.
Following Alexander’s death, the Macedonia kingdom weakened. Eventually, Northern Macedonia and Ohrid became Roman colonies and remained thus until 395AD, when the Byzantines incorporated it into their empire. Slavs invaded in the 7th century and were conquered and became part of the Bulgarian empire in 842. Although they integrated with the locals, Macedonians remained a distinct group and, in the 10th century, Macedonia briefly established its own kingdom. After 1042, it changed hands between the Bulgarians and the Byzantines, with a small interlude as part of Serbia until the Ottomans captured it in 1395, keeping it through to 1912 when it was lost again to the Serbians.
The Kingdom of Bulgaria occupied Macedonia between 1915 and 1918. After WW1, the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes incorporated Macedonia. During WW2, it was occupied first by Italian ruled Albania, but in 1941, pro-Germany Bulgaria took over. Following WW2, it was part of Yugoslavia. In 1990, the government peacefully transitioned from communism to social democracy. It declared independence in 1991 and avoided becoming embroiled in the wars engulfing the region, although it did suffer economically when 350,000 Kosovars sought refuge in the country in 1999 during the Serbian-Kosovo conflict.
Ohrid has all the trappings of a modern resort town on Lake Ohrid, including a pedestrian walkway bustling with ice cream vendors, stores selling bright flotation devices, buckets and pails, beachwear and book stores. Along the lake were restaurants and coffee shops and ticket booths selling half day and full day trips around the lake. Beginning at the lake and rising high on the hill is the old city of Ohrid, a UNESCO world heritage site, a history buff’s dream and my destination for the night.
Standing proud over the city is Tsar Samuel’s Fortress, named after the emporer Samuel who ruled the first state of Macedonian Slavs between 976 and 1014 and to whose era the current fortress, towers and ramparts are attributed. But archeology reveals that the foundations date back to Phillip II.
Also Greek in architecture is the Ancient Theatre, dated to 200 BC, but still used today for opera and concerts.
The Church of St. Sophia was built during Byzantine times between 852 and 889. Converted to a mosque during Ottoman times, it still retains many Christian frescoes:
Nearby, the remains, and particularly the mosaics, of a 4th century basilica are protected by roofs. A few feet away are the best views of the lake.
Of all the sites, my favourite was the one right outside my hotel, Small Saint Clements Church, a 14th century Byzantine gem. My hotel, the Villa & Winery Mal Sveti Kliment was also unique; it was both a hotel and wine tasting room housed in stones buildings hundreds of years old. After dining at a restaurant on the lake, I returned to the Winery. Only the two people working there, both named Elena, were present. The cook had been ill so there was no diners. They poured me a glass of white wine, from the rkaciteli grape (“the only good thing Stalin ever did for Macedonia,” said Elena#1, one of 2 Elenas working there). The Elenas and I went outside and sat on the ancient steps, on a beautiful, hot June evening, stars twinkling in the sky, drank wine and talked. Elena #2 had worked as a cruise ship photographer for 7 years, had a Macedonian boyfriend living in Toronto and just left the cruise industry to be closer to her mother. Elena #1 explained Macedonia was a bit backwards; people had old fashioned ideas. I asked for an example. Elena#2 piped up “my mother doesn’t like my 7 tattoos.” I told her I agreed with her mother. It kind of killed the discussion.
Having been to a half dozen Balkan capitals already, I figured I knew what to expect in Skopje: a city built across a river encircled by high mountains, a fortress atop a hill, an Ottoman bazaar, an Ottoman stone arch bridge, maybe a Greek Orthodox Church or two and a Cathedral. Skopje has all those.
And certainly there were statues of its most famous citizen, Alexander the Great:
But there were surprises. It had its own Arc de Triumphe:
And a Brandenburg Gate lookalike:
Along the river and in the main square, buildings were constructed along classical Greek lines, including the round one on the right, which serves as the government water management headquarters:
All the buildings are relatively new as 80% of Skopje’s buildings were heavily damaged by an earthquake in 1963. The former railway station was left standing as a memorial. If you look closely, the remains of the former left wing are visible hanging from the building’s central hall.
When the government embarked on rebuilding and adding statues around the river and main squares, my walking tour guide explained its 3 goals:
- to provide office space for government workers;
- to instill a sense of pride amongst Macedonians about their heritage; and
- to attract tourists.
He said the first objective had been achieved.
The Archeological Museum had the suitable antiquity elements, as did most of the other buildings around. A walking bridge was adorned by statues of notable Macedonians. As for three large, permanent boats on the river, our guide just shrugged and said “go figure. Macedonia is landlocked and never had a navy.”
It was all a little kooky, maybe a little unbelievable and quite amusing to walk around the city, spotting all the nods to ancient Macedonia.
The Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia:
The only building in the main square rightfully devoid of any reference to antiquity is the Holocaust Memorial Centre. Opened in 2011, it was built on the grounds of the old Jewish quarter and contains 3 sections. The first details Jewish history in North Macedonia, starting with the Romaniote Jews fleeing Romans in then Palestine and constructing the oldest synagogue outside of Constantinople in nearby Stobi in 163CE, which remnants still stand. Crusaders passing through in the 10th to 13th century mention the Jewish community, destroyed parts of it, but in 1366, Skopje got its first synagogue.
The next section exhibits the ballooning Jewish population in Macedonia following the Spanish Inquisition and their expulsion from Spain in 1492. The Ottomans welcomed the fleeing Jews, allowing them to settle in Skopje, govern themselves and speak their own language, Ladino. Numbering about 10,000, they were an integral part of the trading, legal and medical community in the country.
The final section is about the Holocaust and how it devastated the community. Bulgaria, a Nazi ally, occupied the area in 1941 and enacted strict anti-Semitic laws. In 1943, Bulgarian forces, acting on orders from Germany, rounded up all the Jews and placed them in Monopol, the former tobacco warehouse in Skopje. There, 4 managed to escape, those with foreign passports were released and a few medical professionals were allowed to stay in order to ensure there was not a shortage of doctors in Skopje. Everyone else, all 7,215 people, were put into cattle cars, transported to the Treblinka concentration camp and killed. Not one person who was transported survived.
Today, there are only a few hundred Jews in Macedonia, mostly descendants from Jews who had escaped Treblinka by joining the partisan forces battling the Nazis.
North Macedonia was a treat to visit. Small, scenic and modern, it has historical characters, ruins and stories spanning from the 4th century BC to the current day. Ohrid is picturesque, Skopje is unabashedly Ancient Greece with a touch of Disney and thoroughly inviting.