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2,300 years later, 'Alexander-mania' grips Macedonia

Much to the anger of Greece, the ancient conqueror is making a big comeback in Macedonia – he's arriving just in time for Sunday's election.

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Indee, Macedonia's bold claim to be the taproot of Western civilization is daily media fare.

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Last summer, the government flew in members of Pakistan's Hunza tribe, considered lost descendants of Alexander, to tour the country. Startled and pleased Hunza were greeted at Alexander airport with flowers and treated like long lost cousins as they disported across the nation, cameras in tow.

Even "God" has gotten involved. A nine-minute TV ad starts with a petition from Macedonia to the heavens: "Our neighbors distributed thousands of books across the world, containing false history and portraying a wrong picture about Macedonia. ... Only you know our pain." The Almighty then responds: "From you, Macedonians, descendants of Macedon, I conceived the white race. All that stretches to the seas off Japan is conceived from your genes."

Sinisa-Jakov Marusic, a columnist for Balkan Insight, cheekily observed, "So there you have it! What better proof than God himself?"

Beyond theatrics, the new program deeply troubles many scholars and intellectuals here – who are being sidelined – for its promulgation of myth as truth. The new taxpayer-funded Alexander ideology has no serious texts.

Unlike Serbia's Kosovo story, based on centuries of poetry and legend, the Macedonian ideology is being both invented and presented at the same time. There is no outside scholarly consensus, no textual tradition; the result is a kind of history-free history. The top-down, debate-free imposition of the new history is itself seen as illiberal and authoritarian.

The new program deeply troubles many scholars here. "What is the content of 'Alexanderization?'" asks Irena Stefoska, a Byzantine scholar at the Institute of National History here. "Who knows? It is a new reading of history completely different from the previous, not done from an academic point of view, but from a purely political view."

Alexander is considered one of the greatest military leaders of all time. Born in the Greek city of Pella in 356 BC, his conquests extended to most of his known world by the time of his death at age 32. He opened up Greek civilization from the Mediterranean to India, and is regarded as the first to link Europe, Asia, and Africa.

"Alexander was the captain general of all the Hellenes. He spoke Greek. He went to war on behalf of the Hellenes. No one in the ancient, medieval, or modern world has disputed this," says Michael Wood, a historian and British filmmaker who has produced a work on Alexander and has another in the making.

"The Macedonian state claim has no basis in history; it is a state-sponsored myth. I tell my Macedonian and Greek friends to ignore it," Mr. Wood adds.

State archaeologists in Skopje and Athens, however, are busy unearthing ancient Hellenic artifacts, which are then presented as evidence of Alexander heritage. Advocates of this new history leap from the present day to ancient times, ignoring Ottoman, Slavonian, and Byzantine periods when the Balkan peoples migrated and mingled.

"The problem is that no one today can be the direct descendants of ancient civilizations," says Ms. Stefoska. "Macedonians are Slavs. Our Slavonic heritage is accepted by historians."

Several years ago, VMRO officials claimed that Macedonia's majority population had an ethnic Bulgarian or Slavic origin.

A chief fear here is a scenario of partition – of north Kosovo Serbs in the Mitrovica area joining Serbia proper, which could push Macedonian and Kosovar Albanians into a union, breaking up Macedonia.

So far, ethnic Albanians here have been patient over the Macedonia-Greece dispute. Albanian parties are in the ruling coalition. Yet the patience may not be unlimited, senior diplomats say.

Artan Grubi, head of an Albanian civil society organization, says, "Most Albanians will tell you they have nothing against building a Macedonian identity. But they don't want to suffer because of it. At the moment, the policies of this government are moving us further from Europe."

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