Author: Tan Wee Cheng

Worldwide with Wee-Cheng #31: Thessaloniki, Greek Macedonia & Skopje, Republic of Macedonia: A Tale of Two Macedonias, Part I –

#30: Thessaloniki, Greek Macedonia & Skopje, Republic of Macedonia: A Tale of Two Macedonias, Part I

24 June 2002
Thessaloniki, old Salonika. Pearl of the Aegean, Second City of the Byzantine Empire. I arrived in Greece’s second-largest city and capital of Greek Macedonia on Thursday morning. Ouzo billboards, strong Greek coffee, gyros stalls and loud Greek music suggests nothing more Greek than Thessaloniki. But good old “Salonika”, as the city is also known, hasn’t always been as Greek as the Thessaloniki of today.

Two hundred years ago, the city was ethnically more diverse – with Greeks, Jews and Turks living together. Kemal Mustafa Ataturk, father of modern Turkey, was born in a townhouse in the centre of Salonika. Venture to the countryside and an 18th-century visitor would have found Turkish landlords and Slavic Macedonian farmers, Vlad shepherds – these are descendants of Roman soldiers who still speak a tongue similar to Latin and Romanian – and Roma gypsy nomads.

By the start of the WWI, the ancient region of Macedonia had been subdivided by the Greeks, Serbians and Bulgarians. The Treaty of Lausanne, which settled the post-WWI Greco-Turkish War, implemented the Great Exchange of Population between Greece and Turkey. The Turks of Macedonia departed for Turkey, replaced by the Greeks of Pontus and Anatolia. Hitler moved the Jews to the death camps of Mitteleuropa, and intense Hellenisation led to the departure of Slavic Macedonians to Bulgaria and Yugoslav-controlled Macedonia, as well as Australia. Greeks left other parts of the Balkans for Greece as the Iron Curtain fell across half the continent. Old Salonika now becomes a mono-ethnic city. This is a scenario being played repeatedly across the Balkans, especially in the past decade of the wars of Yugoslav succession.

It is no accident that I chose Thessaloniki as my beachhead into the Balkans. Salonika, founded by one of Alexander’s the Great’s generals and successor in Greece, is the largest city of Macedonia, both Greek and the Slavic parts. Macedonia, the crossroads of history, was the homeland of Alexander the Great, the conqueror whose forces took over the Persian Empire, and created an empire stretching from Egypt to Ferghana Valley in Uzbekistan, where I visited in 1998.

The Macedonian kingdom that propelled into the Classical Age was a semi-barbarian (that’s what the Greek city states regard the Macedonians as) state hugely expanded by Alexander’s father, Philip II. Philip’s tomb was discovered in the 1970’s in Vergina, a village to the west of Thessaloniki. Also discovered there was the emblem of the Macedonian Dynasty, the Golden Star with outstretched rays. This famous logo was adopted by the newly independent Macedonian Republic in 1991 upon the collapse of the Yugoslav Federation, a move that infuriated the Greeks, who promptly declared a blockade of poor little Macedonia. The Greeks even demanded for a change of the name of the country. Eventually tiny Macedonia, with 2m people, was forced to change its national flag, and was only admitted into the UN and international organisations as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, a bizarre cumbersome mouthful. Utterly ridiculous, considering that even Serbia and Montenegro will no longer call themselves Yugoslavia soon, and yet Macedonia is forced to hold on to that outdated title.

After the collapse of Alexander’s empire, Macedonia became a mere geographical expression for two millenniums. The Slavic tribes came and intermarried with the local semi-Hellenised Macedonians. Even then, ethnic Greeks continued to live in the city and the Turks arrived here too, when the Ottoman Empire captured the region in the 14th century and ruled the region till the start of the 20th century. So what do you call the people here? Aren’t they all Macedonians, whether Slavic, Greek, Turkish or whatever? Should anyone have monopoly over the name Macedonia? So, welcome to the Balkans, land of confused politics and identities!

After a relaxing day in Thessaloniki visiting the numerous ancient Byzantine churches (as well as Ataturk’s house museum which is heavily guarded against anti-Turk activists) and thoroughly bored with the numerous slogans like “Macedonian is Greek” and so on, I took a train across the border to the Republic of Macedonia. When I bought the ticket, I had to say “Skopje, the Yugoslav Republic”. The Greek press calls it the “rump Skopje Republic”. (If you take the train the other way, you would have seen the large Greek billboard “Welcome to Macedonia” – I know of people who were confused and thought they haven’t gotten out of the Republic of Macedonia”.) Within the hour of rolling hills and lush green valleys, I entered the territory of the Macedonian Republic.