How to put a new country on the map?
A visit to Skopje in North Macedonia is a confusing event for a collector of images of equestrian statues like me. Twelve equestrian statues in one day and I am still not sure whether I have seen them all.
To understand what follows, we need a little of the recent history of North Macedonia. At the time of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire (in the early twentieth century) and the subsequent wars in the Balkans, Macedonia was a region inhabited by Greeks, Slavs, Albanians and others, all with different aspirations. Some sought an independent Macedonia, others a union with Bulgaria, Serbia or Greece. In 1913, Ottoman Macedonia was partitioned between Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece, with the lion’s share going to Greece and Serbia. In their respective portions of the country, these states vigorously suppressed all attempts to uphold a specific Macedonian identity. However, when Yugoslavia fell apart in 1991, the Serbian part of Macedonia declared independence.
From the very beginning, Greece fiercely disputed the name of the new nation, which is why the official name of the country is now North Macedonia.
In 2010, the government of North Macedonia publicized an ambitious plan to revamp the capital: Skopje 2014. The plan involved radically reinventing the city centre with the aim of giving it a more monumental appearance. This includes dozens of new buildings, bronze and marble statues, fountains, bridges, a triumphal arch, etc. It soon became clear that it was more than a revamp; it was also a reinvention of the Macedonian identity. The government did not lose time putting the plan into effect. When I visited Skopje in 2013, the results were already clearly visible. The Triumphal Arch was there, as well as many neoclassical buildings and numerous statues in marble and bronze. The project has caused a great deal of dispute with regard to the financial aspect (should a relatively poor country spend millions of euros on projects such as these?), the architectural and aesthetic values, and the choice of the heroes portrayed. Is this project a rewrite or an update of the history? Who is running the show, politicians or historians? Apparently there is no consensus about the history, not only in the neighbouring countries, but also not within North Macedonia itself.
Let me give a few examples. The most monumental figure is the huge equestrian statue of A Warrior on a Horse, as the centrepiece in Macedonia Square was officially named. Everybody knows that this statue depicts Alexander the Great and this enraged the Greeks, because they consider Alexander as a Greek hero. The same applies to the statue of his father: Philip II of Macedonia. Greece sees all of this as an attempt to hijack Hellenistic history and culture.
Another controversy concerns an equestrian statue with the neutral title Macedonian Equestrian Revolutionary. This bears a striking resemblance to Todor Aleksandrov, who is considered by some Macedonians as a heroic revolutionary, but by others as a Bulgarian traitor, as he is said to have actively worked against the formation of an independent Macedonia. Similar disputes apply to some of the other equestrian statues. Many of those portrayed – such as Delchev, Sandanski and Chakalarov – are seen as Bulgarian in Bulgaria, but as Macedonian in North Macedonia. They were leaders of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (or IMRO), a clandestine Macedonian revolutionary group fighting for the independence of Macedonia from Ottoman rule. However, they were divided between those who sought an independent Macedonian state and others who saw freedom from the Ottomans as a stepping-stone towards a union with Bulgaria.
Disputes like this will go on. The most recent example is the discussion concerning a twenty metre tall statue of Mother Theresa that will be raised in Skopje, the town where she was born. Two other countries, Albania and Kosovo, claim the Nobel Prize winner as theirs, because she lived part of her life there. Fortunately one thing is certain: it will not be an equestrian statue.
I should also add a few remarks about other matters, including the aesthetic values of the project. To start with, my repeated efforts to contact the local authorities in order to verify the authorship of the equestrian statues were unfortunately in vain. As a result, the names of the sculptors are sometimes uncertain. All the statues have been sculpted quite recently, but most of them are nevertheless very classical in style.
If anything applies to the project Skopje 2014 it is the old proverb ‘Too much of ought is good for nought’. Skopje is building as much public art in a few years as some European capitals did in three or more centuries, and it bears all the traces of the hurry they are in. It is not balanced and seems too much in too short a time. Time will tell whether Skopje 2014 has met its targets: building a sense of national pride and creating a metropolitan atmosphere.