Seeing Stars: Character and Identity in the Landscapes of Modern Macedonia

Article excerpt

In 1978, the excavation of the Macedonian royal tombs at Vergina in north Greece gave a more physical aspect to the historical place of Philip and of Alexander the Great. These archaeological finds now have an active role in the region's politics, where the present is again being re-made by the pictures of the past.

This paper explores the meeting-point of symbolic and material landscapes in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (henceforth FYR Macedonia), the only Republic so far largely to have avoided involvement in the fighting which marked the break-up of former Yugoslavia. The paper opens with a consideration of the new Macedonian flag, and the issues that it has raised. The paper then considers the ways in which an internal crisis of legitimation underlies this most visible dispute. The flag is just one example of the way that symbols of various kinds link people and territory together in the Balkans, and how escalating tensions between groups drive the deployment of such symbols, which then contribute further to focus ideological dispute. The question of the flag has been noted and largely dismissed as two Balkan states squabbling over an empty symbol: much less attention has been paid to its significance in the complex and on-going struggle to re-shape the contours of the past, present and future Macedonian landscape.

In this respect, this paper seeks to extend to FYR Macedonia the kind of analysis suggested by Mitchell (1994) in a consideration of the Israeli landscape, and by Chapman (1994) in an analysis of the destruction of buildings of national and religious significance in Bosnia. Like both these territories, Macedonia is and has been a home to different groups, all of which have claims on the ground. In Israel and now in Bosnia these claims resulted in policies which aim to erase other elements from the landscape. In FYR Macedonia, though, still in train are various constructive processes by which differences are being expressed and made significant. It thereby still offers an opportunity to examine the different ways in which territory comes to be imbued with exclusive identity, and symbols come to matter.


Until 1944, the meanings of Macedonia existed in different time zones. Ancient Macedonia was acknowledged as belonging to the classical and Hellenistic world: modern Macedonia was a battleground of Slavic and Greek national movements in the late 19th century, divided between Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece after the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. In 1944, though, a new federal Yugoslavia was created, the southernmost republic of which was called Macedonia, and the slavic inhabitants of that region acknowledged as a nation in their own right. Greece always disputed the application of the name to this territory and these inhabitants, but her objections have only been highlighted in the wider world since the declaration of autonomy by the Republic of Macedonia in late 1991.

In 1994, both sides are trying to bring together the past and present of Macedonia, to impose a single unambiguous meaning on the word that currently means so much to both of them. Greeks privilege the ancient world, and emphasize the Hellenic connections and aspirations of Philip II and Alexander III; today, they argue, Macedonia is wholly Greek. The former Yugoslav Macedonians point to evidence that ancient Macedonians were not Greeks in their bid to carve out a heritage for themselves and their very young state. In the confrontation, a single symbol has taken centre-stage: the 16-pointed sun or star. This was established as the emblem of the royal house of ancient Macedonia by Manolis Andronicos, when he discovered the royal tombs at Vergina in 1978. In 1992, the democratically-elected Parliament of FYR Macedonia adopted it as the device on the new state flag. A symbol empowered by archaeology is today a token by which present regimes claim stewardship of the past and thus gain legitimacy and authority. …