Thessaloniki, Greece. The Galerius Arch has been the eastern gateway into this pulsating port city since it was built in 299 A.D. commemorating the Roman emperor’s victory over the Persians.
The thoroughfare passing beneath the arch—the Via Egnatia—is even older. It dates from 146 B.C. and extends 400 kilometers from the Adriatic town of Durres across the mountains of Macedonia and then south to this magnificent city at the top of the Aegean Sea. The Via Egnatia was the second most important highway in the Roman Empire and the first to span the Balkan peninsula. It remains Thessaloniki’s principal thoroughfare.
It is tragic that a geo-political argument prevents Thessaloniki from being fully integrated with its traditional hinterland. The problem is the rancorous, silly dispute between the Macedonian region of former Yugoslavia and Greece that has dragged on, impeding regional progress for two decades. Athens argues that the Republic of Macedonia that emerged from Yugoslavia in 1990 is not entitled to be called Macedonia because the real Macedonia is in Greece.
So adamant is Greece that in 2008 it vetoed its vulnerable northern neighbor’s bid to join NATO and continues to block Macedonia’s path to the European Union.
The Slavic Macedonians share the blame. They have only a connection of geography to the ancient Macedonians, whose most famous son, Alexander the Great, died hundreds of years before Slavs even arrived in the Balkans. It’s an insult that the Republic of Macedonia names the airport of its capital city Alexander the Great. Pursuing a fraudulent identity, Skopje has built statues to a Hellenic-speaking tribe with which it has no lineage.
Despite economic crisis, Greece allows the dispute to fester. This month brought more angry exchanges. The Greek prime minister accused Skopje of intransigence. Macedonia’s prime minister countered, asking Greeks how they would feel if their country was called “the former Ottoman province of Greece,” a pointed reminder that Greece endured 400 years of Turkish rule. Foolishly, Greece insists that in international organizations its neighbor is identified as FYROM, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
A sensible solution is for Skopje to have the name Northern Macedonia. This would suggest that the Macedonian heartland is to the south in Greece and that only an accident of history resulted in the southern part of Yugoslavia having the same name.
Of course, strife and bloodshed are all too common in the Balkans and Thessaloniki has been a particular victim. Traditionally a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities, Thessaloniki endured the Romans and then the Turks who were finally beaten and driven out in 1912. The victorious Greeks sought to obliterate all evidence of Ottoman rule, destroying all but one of the city’s minarets.
Further outrage came under the Germans when the Nazis deported and killed Thessaloniki’s 50,000 strong Jewish community, which had flourished since receiving sanctuary from the Turkish sultan after being expelled from Spain in 1492.
Thessaloniki somehow manages despite the political standoff and rail and road delays at the Macedonian border. But it would be so much more vibrant if it could resume its rightful place as the commercial center of an integrated, peaceful Balkan region, the beating heart of the Via Egnatia. #