Thursday, May 24, 2007

Mad(e) In Macedonia

For the past year or so I have been following, on and off, in the footsteps of Alexander the Great. From Mount Aornos and the banks of the Jhelum river in Pakistan, through the remains of Persepolis, a couple of Alexandria's (one in Turkey and one in Egypt) and as far as the Siwa oasis by the Libyan border. This guy sure got around! But now I have finally come to where it all started, here in Macedonia.

Actually it all started with Alexander's father Philip, who took Macedonia from being a poor, backwater Greek province to ruling the entire country, so that when Alexander came to power he had to look further afield to do his conquering, creating the largest empire the world had seen. It's a shame then, after spreading Hellenism far and wide and founding so many cities (at least 9 more bearing his name) that so little tangible evidence remains of those halcyon days in Macedonia itself. Of the once-great capital Pella and the majestic royal city of Aegae barely anything remains above a few foundations (even the names of the cities themselves are mostly forgotten). Luckily neither time nor people managed to get at Philip's tomb at Aegae where there is enough opulence and gold to give even Tutankhamun a run for his money.

And seeing as we're on the subject now's a good time to talk about the Macedonia question. Ask any Greek and they will tell you that Macedonia is the region of northern Greece, always has been, always will be. Whereas your average European would probably say, "oh, isn't that one of those countries formed by the breakup of Yugoslavia?" No (Oχι)! insist the Greeks. Only a small part of that country is actually Macedonia. And of course they steadfastly refuse to call it Macedonia, preferring to say Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia, or better yet just FYROM or Skopje (after the capital) so that they don't need to use the M word. The Greeks feel that their northern neighbours are trying to usurp their history with every new instance of name-grabbing (e.g. calling the main airport in Skopje, Alexander the Great airport) making the headlines this side of the border and further fanning the flames of discontent. To illustrate how emotive an issue this is among the normally phlegmatic Greeks one only has to hear the story of a once-popular celebrity who got the dream job of hosting the Eurovision song contest two years ago when it was held in Greece. After inadvertently calling Macedonia (the country) Macedonia her gaffe made the front pages of every newspaper and her career lay in tatters. But at least it's good to know which buttons to press to annoy the Greeks.

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