Arts, Culture & Media

Macedonia Gets a Statue of Alexander the Great

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Statue of Alexander the Great in Macedonia. (Photo: Matthew Brunwasser)

A crowd of several hundred people gathered in Skopje's central square to watch the lifting of the 30 ton bronze statue. It depicts Alexander the Great on his mighty stallion Bucephalus. The statute is 92 feet tall from the bottom of the pedestal to the tip of alexander's raised sword.

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Macedonian Atso Stoyanov was excited. "This is a fantasy, it is a fantastic thing," he said. "It's wonderful for the Macedonian people, not to mention the Balkans, Europe and the entire world."

Stoyanov was impressed by more than the artistry. He approved of the symbolism. Greece claims Alexander the Great as its ancient hero. But what is today Macedonia, was once, along with parts of Greece and Bulgaria, one geographical territory. And Macedonians like Stoyanov say the statute of Alexander the Great represents their cultural heritage and future.

"With this statue we are showing the world that Macedonian has existed, it still exists, and it will continue to exist. The Macedonian people can never be destroyed. We have roots." Stoyanov said.

If many Macedonians sound insecure about their identity, they have reason to be. Greece accuses Macedonia of trying to appropriate its history. In fact, Greece insists that Macedonia change its name. But Macedonian cultural anthropologist Aleksandar Ristevski said his compatriots have already done more than enough to appease the Greeks.

"We changed our flag, we are calling ourselves internationally the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, mentioning a country which doesn't exist for 20 years using some idiotic acronym. We changed the constitution because of them. We changed millions of things. What did we get? Blockage, degradation and sanctions," Ristevski said.

Still, Greece is blocking Macedonia's bid to join the European Union and NATO unless it changes its name. Macedonian Zoran Iliev urges his countrymen to stand firm.

The European Union is temporary, it might last for 20, 30 or 50 years, but we are unchanging, we are Macedonians," he said. "We can change our name now, but then what happens in five years when the EU collapses? I'm not giving up my honor for any European Union. Not a single one."

It's that kind of nationalist fervor that provided the backdrop for the construction of the statute of Alexander the Great. Macedonians consider Alexander their heroic native son.

And anthropologist Vasiliki Neofotistos of the State University of New York at Buffalo said that means a lot to this beleaguered but proud nation.

"He was a conqueror and someone who really spread western civilization," Neofotistos said. "So the idea was that he started his journey from Macedonia and the idea is that this is the birthplace or a cornerstone of western civilization."

This week's completion of the statute of Alexander has angered the Greeks further. But more than one Macedonian pointed out that Greece has its own problems to deal with these days.