Modern Macedonia lays its claim to the ancient conqueror's legacy
EVER SINCE the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia became independent 17 years ago, the small country of about two million people has been locked in a battle with Greece over which country has the right to the name "Macedonia." Greece insists that Macedonia should change its name, claiming that it implies ambitions over Greek territory--the northern province of Greece is also called Macedonia--and opposes the name as an appropriation of Alexander III of Macedon (Alexander the Great), whom the country claims as Greek. While the capital of the ancient kingdom of Macedon was Pella, now in northern Greece, the territory actually encompassed land in both modern countries. The dispute reached its height last April, when Greece vetoed Macedonia's membership in NATO because of its name.
But following independence from the Yugoslav Federation--a union that assembled six republics into a nation on the basis of a shared Slavic history and socialist future--Macedonians are now looking to the past for their identity. "The consciousness of our ancient heritage has been awakened," says archaeologist Viktor Lilcic of Skopje University. "This is connected to the glorious history of ancient Macedon and the name that we inherited. The archaeological problem is to figure out how direct this connection is."
To teach me about ancient Macedonia and the obstacles faced by archaeologists here, Lilcic, a specialist in Macedonian fortresses and construction techniques, recently guided me on a three-day road trip around this Vermont-sized country. We were accompanied by his former student, Boshko Angelovski, a soft-spoken expert on ancient Macedonian weaponry. Lilcic is the head of the Macedonian Center for Archaeological Research, a nonprofit organization he set up in 1998. The main task of the center's staff of nine archaeologists is to map the borders of the ancient kingdom that lie within the present-day Republic of Macedonia.
Our first stop is a peculiar exhibition of statues of ancient Roman emperors and distinguished citizens at the entrance to the prime minister's offices in the capital of Skopje. The statues, all of which were found on Macedonian soil, were moved here last year from several museums across the country, as if to show the world that the country is recalibrating its relationship with the past. Many are missing arms or heads, a kind of metaphor for Macedonia's fractured national identity. The idea of the statues, Lilcic ventures, is that "Macedonia was a province of the Roman Empire, much like Macedonia now wants to join the big family of European countries in the European Union (EU)." The problem is that Macedonia is not in a good position to join the EU and partake in its prosperity. With widespread poverty, a stagnating economy, and tensions with its large ethnic Albanian minority simmering after an armed uprising in 2001, it's one of Europe's least stable countries.
DRIVING OUT of the capital, we soon reach the region of Agriania, the land between the ancient Strymon and Axius (modern Struma and Vardar) rivers, that was inhabited in antiquity by the Paeonians, a loosely governed, mixed-ethnicity federation of Balkan tribes. When the first Macedonians came north from the Pindus Mountains in northern Greece around 700 B.C., they began to gradually subdue and intermarry with these northern neighbors, eventually establishing political dominance. Lilcic points to a distant hill with an ongoing excavation of a fourth- through third-century B.C. settlement of the Agrianians, a Paeonian tribe. "The toughest and most loyal of Alexander's fighters, his commandos, came from here," he says, excited by the thought of Alexander's army crossing the lush farmland off the side of the road.
We stop at Vardarski Rid, a strategic hill overlooking the Vardar River. This site was inhabited by a succession of civilizations, including Paeonians, Macedonians, and Romans, for six centuries until the first century B.C. Lilcic has come to check on the excavation team's progress and there is excitement as we arrive. Archaeologist Igor Alexovski from Skopje University proudly shows us a newly found third-century B.C. ceramic mold for making cups. Its intricate patterns, for imprinting wet clay 2,300 years ago, are perfectly preserved. The cups it made, called Megarian (named for the city of Megara in Greece) were copied by other people on Greece's periphery as well. Alexovski and Lilcic believe that one way to define the difficult-to-pin-down borders of ancient Macedon is to draw it with coins and with artifacts like this. "This find is not uniquely Macedonian, but it was made here and is a mixture of both Macedonian and Greek cultures," says Alexovski. But the subtle relations between the ancient Macedonians and Greeks are sometimes lost in today's acrimonious debate over who has the exclusive claim to Alexander's homeland.
Our next stop is Demir Kapia, the ruins of a mysterious mountain-top stone structure. There has been no archaeological excavation on the site, although Lilcic once spent a few days with a metal detector here and found a collection of coins--including Macedonian, Paeonian, and later Byzantine examples, as well as the head of a fourth-century B.C. Macedonian sekira, a type of ax used to cut stone. "I'm struggling to understand why they would have invested so much on building something up here," Lilcic says on the 20-minute hike up a steep trail. When we reach the top, granite blocks, covered with moss, peek out of the rocky soil and bushes. To me, it doesn't look like much more than a pile of rocks, but to Lilcic they are tantalizing clues. He shows how the worked granite stones fit together, forming a square with walls nine feet thick. Another wall is 150 feet long. "Was it a border post? A palace? It could also have been a simple military guard camp, or a communication tower for relaying messages with fire or smoke." Late historian Nicholas Hammond of the universities of Cambridge and Bristol believed the site was a Macedonian colony founded by Archelaus I (413-399B.C.), the king who made Macedonia a regional power. Retired professor of history Eugene Borza of Pennsylvania State University speculated that it might have included a tower to guard the mountain pass that provided access to the capital at Pella, or perhaps was a settlement with a royal residence.
Lilcic is sure that it is a Macedonian military construction, citing the sheer size of the structure and the thickness of the walls, features typical of a fortress and not a palace. Determining the purpose of the structure is important for mapping the ancient kingdom, says Angelovski." Fortresses are built to defend states," he says. "If we locate fortresses, we will know that the site was on the border and not in the interior."
BACK IN THE CAR, we head west two hours on country roads to the city of Prilep, famous for its proximity to Marko's Tower. The medieval hilltop citadel was built by King Marko, the legendary Orthodox Christian ruler, famous for his fearlessness in defending the Slavs against the hated Turks, as well as his prodigious wine-drinking ability. Political leaders often take on mythical qualities in the Balkans--Alexander is not alone--and Marko's legacy is fought over by Macedonia, Serbia, and Bulgaria, who all claim the king as their own. In Prilep's well-groomed central park, Kiril Kacarev is taking pictures with his cell phone of a bronze statue of Alexander the Great, paid for by a wealthy Macedonian-American in 2006. The big-boned kitchen-utensil salesman wants to show the monument to friends in his village of Radovish. "We are not a big country now, but we were a great country thanks to Alexander the Great," he says. "Macedonians are not shy about saying they are proud to be Macedonian." I speak with locals, most of whom say they are proud of Alexander and like the statue. The conflict with Greece is a popular topic in the national media and much of the public identifies strongly with the ancient people who inhabited this land. But two construction workers in blue coveralls on their way to work say they are sick of Alexander. "If we had to choose between Alexander and joining the EU and NATO, wed choose Europe," says Goran Nikolovkski. "History is in the past," says his colleague Zlatko Petreski. "We want the name of the country to remain Macedonia because we are Macedonians," says Nikolovski. "But we want to move forward."
Leaving town, Lilcic, Angelovski, and I pass fields of tobacco plants with tall purple flowers, and abandoned, overgrown Ottoman Turkish graveyards filled with decaying tombstones. There are mountains in every direction. Carrying supplies of sausages, sodas, and beer for the team, we arrive at Staro Bonche after about 20 miles. The site makes a big first impression. Emerging from the side of a hill is the edge of a 100-foot-diameter circle of two-ton granite blocks. (It could be just a semicircle, however, since only about 20 percent of the hill has been excavated.) An enormous square tomb cut from the same stone sits in the middle. Thought to have been built in the third or fourth century B.C., the tomb is accessible through a 33-foot-long tunnel. The team hopes to find inscriptions on the stones or walls that might provide clues about the occupant; because it was robbed, there are no artifacts or human remains inside.
Archaeologist Antonio Yakimovski of Skopje University unwraps the plastic from a recent find. "Ooooooohhhhhhhh," says Lilcic, with friendly admiration. Examining the head of the sarisa, the 13- to 21-foot-long Macedonian pike used for battle, Angelovski asks about its dimensions. Meanwhile, archaeologist Katerina Kasapinova marks the location and proportions of the massive stones on a scale map. "We have never seen anything like this complex before," she says. "But it's sad because we don't have much time." While this is the third year of work on the site, there is a budget for only 15 days of work per year. "We try to do as much as we can. It's not an easy way to work, but we manage because we are used to it," she adds. A worker interrupts our conversation, saying he might have found another grave next to the wall. Six separate sixth-century A.D. children's graves with bones have been found in scattered locations around the site, buried some 1,000 years after the tomb was built. Kasapinova hurriedly follows the worker and, noting the sharp 90-degree corners of a stone he has uncovered in the ground, tells him to dig carefully.
Over the years, archaeologists working around the tomb have found Macedonian ceramics, shields with Macedonian symbols such as the eight-ray star, roof tiles, and coins dating from the fourth century B.C. to the third century A.D. Lilcic thinks this site is also the location of Pelagonia, the long-sought capital of one of the four meridas (provincial subdivisions) of the Roman province of Macedonia. He bases his theory on the possibility that the site is connected to an acropolis found about a mile from here in 2005. This is especially important to Macedonians because the capitals of the other three meridas are located in modern-day Greece. Since few historians or other archaeologists even know about these sites, Lilcic is left to theorize alone. The connection between this site and ancient Pelagonia needs to be critically explored. "I would love to work with my Greek colleagues. But for now, cooperation is zero," he notes sadly.
Lilcic says he has studied the remains of about 500 ancient fortresses in the Republic of Macedonia in order to define the boundaries of ancient Macedon. But there are 400 more he hasn't visited yet. There is so much ancient cultural material in such a small area, he says. "I find myself in a sea of extreme wealth, like Donald Trump." But the comparison only goes so far. Lack of funding means that Lilcic discovers most of his sites through old-fashioned detective work and sweat. He wanders the mountains on foot for several days at a time in areas where he expects to find ancient construction. He asks local farmers, shepherds, and hunters whether they have seen old stone walls. Macedonian archaeologists have little collaboration with colleagues from other countries, and no satellite imaging software to help locate large stone structures quickly and efficiently. But Lilcic is undeterred. He recalls a recent excavation on top of Mount Krastavec near Demir Kapia from which he could see the contours of the mountain chain across which messages were conveyed throughout Alexander's empire. Or perhaps the mountains formed its boundary. As he unearthed ancient arrowheads and 2,400-year-old coins that may have been the pocket money of Alexander's soldiers, he watched as 11 eagles flew overhead. Lilcic remembers stopping to think about the future of his country. "I am a researcher, not a politician," he says. "Macedonia is still an archaeologically unknown land with sensational finds waiting to be discovered."
PHOTO (COLOR): Archaeologists Darko Karasarlidis and Igor Alexovski show a fifth-century B.C. bronze statue of Artemis and a third-century B.C. cup mold found at Vardarski Rid.
PHOTO (COLOR): The author stands before a bronze statue of Alexander the Great in the city of Prilep.
PHOTO (COLOR): Several sixth-century A.D. children's graves were found inside the massive third- to fourth-century B.C. circular granite structure at Staro Bonche.
PHOTO (COLOR): Antonio Yakimovski proudly shows an ancient Macedonian spearhead recently found at Staro Bonche.
by Matthew Brunwasser
Matthew Brunwasser is a freelance journalist who covers the Balkans.
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