Thessaloniki: Heart of Macedonia

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. #

5 thoughts on “Thessaloniki: Heart of Macedonia

  1. I hope you don't suggest we let go on the issue. From your travelling around the world, you must be aware of peoples' ignorance. Once the term Macedonia is anywhere in the name, the world will be calling them just Macedonia, like they've been doing already.
    From your experience, do you think there can be a reasonable solution to the dispute unless the Monkeydonians back down? Supposedly, discussions are about to start over their E.U and Nato prospects. Shouldn't the long now allies to the Greeks, tell them off, spank their bottoms and put them in their place? Why haven't they done it so far? Would you accept as a friend someone who moves in next door with false identity and a fake passport? Finally, can you correct one historical mistake by making another?


  2. (Part 1) / Updated

    Pretty even article Mr. Wood. However, it would never be acceptable for Cuba to call themselves the Republic of Florida while attempting to steal and press the world into accepting the “new” Republic of Florida as the inheritor of everything: history and legacy of the US state and what it stand for within the US.

    This is what has transpired with this issue. If one were to study the ancient history of the Greeks, anything north of the ancient region of Macedonia (the Greek province obviously) fell outside of what can be referred to as a bona-fide part of Macedonia. In fact, the area that today's Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) fell within the ancient region of Paeonia who were at odds with the ancient Macdonians in the south that kept attempting to Hellenize them.

    In the Roman era, the Romans expanded and contracted the borders of all their provinces for federal (not ethnic reasons) and if we fast forward to the Ottoman era, what is today's FYROM was part of one of three regions (of a wider Macedonia – again borders were based on Ottoman government demands) within the Ottoman empire. The FYROM was part of the Kossovo Vilayet which was home to Albanians and Slavs, while the two other divisions – the Salonika and Monastiri Vilayet – was home to the dominant Greek population and other smaller groups (Jews, Turks, Vlachs etc..) within the historically Greek areas.

    It seems that the Greek government has been more giving and open minded than those in Skopje. Can you imagine a US government ever saying: ok, let's give the new Republic of Florida (formerly Cuba) the right to a compromise in the name? Yet, Greece now is actually open to compromising on its very heritage to put an end to the saga and by allowing a compromise with a culturally unrelated people who, instead of being fair themselves, go to great lengths to also promote the concept of a “United Macedonia” claiming that such a state “existed” in the past and erect statues of ancient Greeks (and also Bulgarian national heroes) throughout their country. And, within their education system ,children are taught two things: Macedonian were NEVER Greek and that Macedonia is occupied and it is their duty to liberate it.

    In north America, you got radical groups that could be labelled a terrorist organization called “United Macedonia Diaspora” that has one goal: the destruction of Greece. Their mission, to unite what they believe is their historical rights to “Macedonia.” They raise funds to conduct propaganda within Greece. However, such propaganda games don’t work in Europe because Greece is a member of the EU and, therefore, funds being raised would be akin to some radical group raising funds within the US to “destroy” the US – and the US has a history of these types of radicals which are usually rightfully dealt with by the government.


  3. (Part 2) / Updated

    So, using my earlier analogy, not only would the new Republic of Florida change the name of their country, but start demanding a United Florida that belongs to mother Florida in the Caribbean (the island of Cuba) and exhaust all avenues to get the message known internationally.

    In my opinion, even the term “North Macedonia” will result in further future issues, but it goes to show that Greece's government keeps extending olive branches to Skopje. And, we must all remember, where there is a “North” there must be some “occupied” or otherwise “divided” region elsewhere.

    The best name solution I ever found came from the Albanian site: in an article that stated the best name should include a designation for both ethnic groups within the FYROM. The author's solution was Republic of Ilyrida-Vardaria. In this way, the Albanians are happy with Ilyrida for themselves and the Slavs who have always lived in the Vardar region have their name that is natural both in the region and prior to 1944 when the region was called the Vardar prior to the Comintern creation of the “Socialist People's Republic of Macedonia” within Yugoslavia.

    As for Macedonia, it is a part of Greece – Greece's northern region – and has been as such both in the ancient world and today. In my opinion, just like the US will never stand for a Republic of Florida being promoted by an outside, unrelated government, so, too, Greece should never allow such a historic name – “Macedonia” – to be used by a state and nation that are unrelated to the culture, history and heritage of Greece.


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