Macedonia Stories and Tips

Macedonia: What's in a name?

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When I told people back home that I had gone to Macedonia, most of them responded with inquisitive looks. "Macedonia is it's own country," they would ask. Many would assume that it was part of Greece or that the people in Macedonia were Greeks, and for good reason. When almost any of us think of Macedonia what do we think of other than Aleksandar III of Macedon a.k.a. "the Great" a.k.a. Colin Ferrell. Alexander, the great conqueror and Hellenizer who spread Greek culture all the way to India until he died from malaria, typhoid fever, poisoning or natural causes (depending on who you ask). So, many people have asked, why exactly is a country made up of a bunch of Slavs calling itself Macedonia and claiming Alexander as their own if he was such a great Greek? Well, that's a question that historians have been arguing over for years and that has caused a few international scandals here and there, and it is nowhere close to being solved. But if you are going to travel to Macedonia, you'd better know just what's going on because any trip to FYROM (that is: the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) wouldn't be complete without a brief discussion of the origins behind its ridiculous name and it's something you couldn't avoid if you tried. Books on Alexander stack the shelves at every bookstore. The Macedonians want to remind you just who they are, no matter what the Greeks have to say about it.

Even the most nationalist of Greek scholars would be hard pressed to claim that Alex was Greek and that the Macedonians are Greek in the same way as the Athenians, and if the man himself could speak today I am sure he would say the same. Nobody doubts that Alex, Philip and the other Macedonians spoke Greek and exported Hellenic culture, but as to what their native language was, that is divided. Some say they spoke a Slavic dialect and used Greek because it was the lingua franca of the day (most likely) and some say they were native Greek speakers (less likely). But both of these are outside of the real issue...

The real issue is what Macedonia means today, and what implications it has for Greece. Ancient Macedonia is spread out over what is now FYROM, Greece, and Bulgaria, with each country claiming to be the real heirs of Macedonia. In Greek Macedonia (north of Thessoloniki) today there exists a minority of Slavic peoples. They speak a language related to Macedonian and have existed in this land for millennia, but the Greek government denies their very existence. They are denied the right to speak their own language, be educated in it, publish in it and broadcast in it. It is officially illegal to talk about the Slavic minority in Greece. As a friend of mine once said, quoting a professor, the stance of the Greek government concerning the Slavic minority is "the only Slavs in Greece are tourists." Hardly the truth.

The name FYROM came about when in 1991 Macedonia voted for independence from Yugoslavia and chose the name "Republic of Macedonia." Greece, long fearing Macedonian nationalist desires to unite the Slavs of Greece with Macedonia were furious. They feared that the new Republic of Macedonia would fuel the flames of revolt among the Slavic minority, just as the communists did in the 60s. Greece pleaded to the international community to urge Macedonia to change its name. FYROM was the concession. It didn't go far enough for Greece, though, who forbade the use of the term or of Macedonia in newspapers and to this day many Greeks just call it "Skopje" (or more harshly, "the pseudo-statelet of Skopje").

Who would have thought that one little name could cause so much trouble? So if you are keeping track, the official, internationally-recognized name of the country is The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, but if you want to make some fast friends while in town, make a big fuss about how these Macedonians are the only true Macedonians and those wimpy Greeks are just jealous.

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