Skopje, Northern Macedonia: disputed statues + who owns Alex the Great? 3

While perusing the international section of an online news-source last week I came upon an article regarding the country that for the last 20 odd years has been known as FYROM, or the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. It appears that the Macedonian Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev, and Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, have settled a longstanding dispute between the two nations, and FYROM is to be re-named: the Republic of Northern Macedonia. I thought I’d celebrate the occasion by writing a post on its capital, Skopje.

The founding of Skopje

Art Bridge, Skopje, Northern Macedonia

Art Bridge, Skopje, Northern Macedonia. Photo credit: Benjamin White

There is evidence of human occupation in the vicinity of Skopje dating all the way back to 4,000 BCE, although precious little is known of these earliest of inhabitants.

Roll forward to 200 BCE and a small village has arisen on the banks of the Vardar River. The village is known as Scupi, and it is the capital of the Dardanians, a tribe that lived between the Illyrians (who occupied the lands of modern-day Albania) and the Thracians (whose home-base was Bulgaria).


Scupi, Skopje, Northern Macedonia

‘Skupi – ruins near Skopje, Macedonia’ by Pudelek, 2014. Available online at under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence

The Romans conquered the Dardanians in the 1st Century BCE. In the following centuries the Dardanians were Romanised, and eventually disappeared from the history books altogether.

Scupi was at first utilised as a Roman military camp. Over the years it grew in size and prominence; it had its own public baths, at least one church, a Roman theatre, and it was surrounded by walls three metres thick.

Then, in 518 CE, Scupi was hit by a devastating earthquake and the great Roman city was destroyed.

Skopje Fortress

Kale Fortress, Skopje, Northern Macedonia

Kale Fortress. Photo credit: Benjamin White

Skopje Fortress, also known as Kale (which means Fortress in Turkish) was built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian (who ruled from 527 CE – 565 CE). The fortress was built out of stones recovered from the ruined city of Scupi.

In 695 CE the Byzantines were driven out and Slavic tribes moved in (the ancestors of modern day Macedonians). The city was then annexed by the First Bulgarian Empire, and was even capital of the First Bulgarian Empire between 972 and 992 CE.

Old Bazaar, Skopje

Old Bazaar, Skopje, Northern Macedonia

Old Bazaar. Photo credit: Benjamin White

In 1392 the Ottomans took control of the city as they swept across the Balkans, and they retained control of the city for the next 500 years. The city, now called Üsküp, became famed for its superb Ottoman architecture.

The Old Bazaar, which dates to the 12th Century CE, became the commercial centre of the city during the reign of the Ottomans. By the 17th Century it was one of the largest bazaars in the Balkans, and contained upward of 30 mosques.

Stone Bridge, Skopje, Northern Macedonia

Stone Bridge. Photo credit: Benjamin White

Roll time forward to 1963. The city is now called Skopje, and it is situated within the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. On July 26 1963 another earthquake strikes; 80% of the city is levelled.

Almost all of the Ottoman architecture in the city is destroyed. The Stone Bridge (seen in the picture above), which dates to the mid-1400s, is one of the few Ottoman monuments to survive.

Skopje 2014

Museum of Archaeology, Skopje, Northern Macedonia

Photo credit: Benjamin White

In 2010 the government of the Republic of Macedonia – the country became independent in 1991 – launched a major urban renewal project called Skopje 2014. The focus of the project was the beautification of the capital, in particular filling the numerous empty lots that remained in the city following the earthquake of 1963.

Skopje 2014 was to have a focus on art and culture; more than 100 structures, including museums, bridges, statues, and monuments of all shapes and kinds were to be created.

Art Bridge, Skopje, Northern Macedonia

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Which sounds all well and good, but the project ran into no end of controversy. First of all, it was astronomically expensive, costing more than 500 million euros in total (a steep rise from the 80 million euro quoted in 2011).

Then there were problems with the statues themselves, and the historical figures they represented. Critics accused the government of revising history, and even of falsifying history, to suit political interests.

Porta Macedonia, Skopje, Northern Macedonia

Porta Macedonia, completed 2012. Photo credit: Benjamin White

An enormous statue of Alexander the Great (officially known as Warrior on a Horse), a figure whom both the Greeks and the Macedonians lay claim to, is perhaps the most controversial inclusion.

Alexander the Great: was he Greek or Macedonian?

Warrior on a Horse, Skopje, Northern Macedonia

Photo credit: Benjamin White

The most correct answer is that he was neither.

Alexander the Great was born in Pella (located in the north of modern day Greece), in the ancient kingdom of Macedon.

The ancient kingdom of Macedon, though similar in name, is not interchangeable with modern Macedonia.

Warrior on a Horse, Skopje, Northern Macedonia

Warrior on a Horse. Photo credit: Benjamin White

Ancient Macedon was a Hellenistic culture (they spoke a version of ancient Greek, and worshipped Greek gods), while modern-day Macedonia is a Slavic culture – the Slavs didn’t arrive on the scene until 1,000 years after the death of Alexander the Great.

But the lands of ancient Macedon did extend across almost all of modern-day Macedonia. And thus both countries have a valid claim on the Great Alex.

And that’s all I’ll say on the matter

Skopje 2018

Stone Bridge, Skopje, Northern Macedonia

Photo credit: Benjamin White

In 2018 Zoran Zaev, the Macedonian Prime Minister, not only agreed to a new name for the nation, he also brought the Skopje 2014 Project to a halt.

A commission is currently being formed to implement the removal of controversial statues, including that of Alexander the Great.

Lion statue, Skopje, Northern Macedonia

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Practical information and how to reach Skopje:

Skopje International Airport (known as Skopje Alexander the Great Airport until February 2018) has flights to major cities throughout Europe. Buses run frequently to Ohrid (trip time = 3 hours), Pristina (trip time = 3 hours), Sofia (trip time = 6 hours), and Tirana (trip time = 7 hours). More transport info here.

Or visit my crappy capital cities page.

More on Northern Macedonia:

Ohrid – an old, deep lake, where Cyrillic was invented?

More on the Balkans:


Berat – town of 1000 windows = no window tax!

Bosnia and Herzegovina:

Sarajevo – Franz Ferdinand, and the Jerusalem of Europe

Mostar – bullet holes, sniper tower, Ottoman bridge


Plovdiv – do you like history? then this city is for you!!

Kazanlak – Buzludzha, Seuthopolis, a phenomenal Thracian tomb

Rila Monastery – frescos of demons and sinners in hell

Magura Cave – Stone Age cave paintings with a focus on fertility rituals


Pristina – capital of the newborn country complete with Bill Clinton statue

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3 thoughts on “Skopje, Northern Macedonia: disputed statues + who owns Alex the Great?

  • Karen White

    I’m glad the country has a new name, after so many years, but I’m sure that the politics about ownership will probably always be a bit tricky!! I love that stone bridge, it is so beautiful, I’m glad it survived the earthquake, it must have been devastating to see so much destroyed