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Letter From Macedonia: Owning Alexander Volume 62 Number 1, January/February 2009
by Matthew Brunwasser

Modern Macedonia lays its claim to the ancient conqueror's legacy


Ancient Roman statues found on Macedonian soil sit outside the prime minister's office in the capital city of Skopje. (Matthew Brunwasser)

Ever since the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia became independent 17 years ago, the small country of about two million people has been locked in a battle with Greece over which country has the right to the name "Macedonia." Greece insists that Macedonia should change its name, claiming that it implies ambitions over Greek territory—the northern province of Greece is also called Macedonia—and opposes the name as an appropriation of Alexander III of Macedon (Alexander the Great), whom the country claims as Greek. While the capital of the ancient kingdom of Macedon was Pella, now in northern Greece, the territory actually encompassed land in both modern countries. The dispute reached its height last April, when Greece vetoed Macedonia's membership in NATO because of its name.


Viktor Lilcic visits the ancient settlement of Marvinici, one of hundreds of sites he studies in an effort to define the borders of the ancient kingdom of Macedon. (Matthew Brunwasser)

But following independence from the Yugoslav Federation—a union that assembled six republics into a nation on the basis of a shared Slavic history and socialist future—Macedonians are now looking to the past for their identity. "The consciousness of our ancient heritage has been awakened," says archaeologist Viktor Lilcic of Skopje University. "This is connected to the glorious history of ancient Macedon and the name that we inherited. The archaeological problem is to figure out how direct this connection is."

Lilcic says he has studied the remains of about 500 ancient fortresses in the Republic of Macedonia in order to define the boundaries of ancient Macedon. But there are 400 more he hasn't visited yet. There is so much ancient cultural material in such a small area, he says. "I find myself in a sea of extreme wealth, like Donald Trump." But the comparison only goes so far. Lack of funding means that Lilcic discovers most of his sites through old-fashioned detective work and sweat. He wanders the mountains on foot for several days at a time in areas where he expects to find ancient construction. He asks local farmers, shepherds, and hunters whether they have seen old stone walls. Macedonian archaeologists have little collaboration with colleagues from other countries, but Lilcic is undeterred. "I am a researcher, not a politician," he says. "Macedonia is still an archaeologically unknown land with sensational finds waiting to be discovered."

Matthew Brunwasser is a freelance journalist who covers the Balkans.