Who “owns” Alexander the Great?


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Archaeologists in the former Macedonian capital of Aigai, now Vergina, in northern Greece are continuing their excavations at the giant palace of King Philip II of Macedon (382-336 BC), despite the summer heat of August. 

The statue oddly reminiscent of Alexander the Great in Skopje has reignited debate with Greece over the Macedonian name [Credit: Georgi Licovski/EPA]

Two years ago, a modern museum was built in nearby Pella. At the centre of all the attention is King Philip’s famous son, who wrote world history: Alexander the Great (356-323 BC). 

Not far north of the site, Skopje – capital of the modern Republic of Macedonia – is being remodelled. New museums, statues and buildings have emerged in historicizing style, including triumphal arches. 

One of the statues is a 22-metre-high monument depicting Alexander the Great as an antique warrior on horseback. 

Both Greece and its neighbour, Macedonia, claim the world-famous ancestor – a dispute that has led to a year-long standoff between the two states. 

The expensive reshaping of Skopje’s city centre only carries one message: look at us, we are the real descendants of Alexander the Great, who was not Greek but Macedonian. 

Politicians and historians have been trying to prove this thesis since the small Balkan state came into existence in 1991 as Yugoslavia disintegrated. ‘As a punishment’ Greece has been blocking any kind of rapprochement of Macedonia to the European Union and NATO. 

Greece has been insisting on a change of name for the Balkan state. Internationally, Skopje has thus been acting under the bulky name of ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.’ 

Every attentive student knows from history class that Alexander the Great belongs to Greece just like the Acropolis in Athens. 

And still Greek history professor Basi Gounaris in Thessaloniki says, ‘This conflict is never going to be solved, I’ll bet my money on that.’ 

‘What Skopje is doing is nationalism in the style of the 19th century,’ he adds, condemning the recent events. 

And in Greece, no political party would take the risk of solving the problem – history is the only thing ‘that keeps the Greek population together,’ the professor adds. 

‘Antique history is of such tremendous value for us that we cannot accept any compromise.’ 

In the Museum in Pella, archaeologist Anastasia Chrysostomou explains the absurdity of the statement made in Skopje. All inscriptions on pillars and monuments were written in ancient Greek. 

Angeliki Kottaridou, director of the excavations in the Greek part of Macedonia, argues in a similar way. 

Alexander’s ancestors were members of the Dorians, one of the ‘main tribes’ in ancient Greece. They spoke a Greek dialect and worshipped the same Greek goddesses as Greeks in the city states of Athens, Corinth, Thebes and Sparta. The neighbour’s claims made on Alexander the Great were ‘crude populist falsification.’ 

In Skopje, the people who are responsible for the ‘new capital’ are not available for comment. Foreign journalists are being denied interviews. The administration of the ‘district Old Town’ points to the government. 

The government does not answer any questions. It seems obvious that the architect in charge, Oliver Petroski, had to cancel a meeting due to an order from the very top. 

Historic truth or not, the giant project ‘Skopje 2014’ is meant to establish tangible facts in order to underpin the Republic of Macedonia’s position. At the heart of the capital’s ‘new historic centre’ is a colossal bronze statue of Alexander. 

But this is not nearly all. The National Theatre, the Archaeological Museum, the Foreign Ministry, the Constitutional Court and the building of the Financial Police are being built in a style copying classical antiquity. A dense network of large-scale statues covers the city centre, some of marble, others of bronze. 

‘I was shocked when I came back from studying in Germany,’ Anastas Vangeli comments on the architectural activity in his hometown. 

The majority of Skopje’s residents were against the project, according to surveys. 

They would have preferred that the enormous sums had been invested in the country’s dilapidated infrastructure, weak health care system or derelict apartment buildings. 

While the government estimated the cost at 80 million euros, Vangeli, an analyst at a political institute, assumes that the true cost was ‘considerably more than 200 million euros.’ The opposition is even talking about 500 million euros. 

Kottaridou, the Greek director of the excavations in Pella, does not contest all this. She is pleased with the EU money that pays for the excavations at Philip II’s palace in Aigai. 

Kottaridou and her staff are currently working on a ‘virtual Alexander museum,’ which will gather the whole work of the famous son of the region. 

At the site, archaeologists discovered the recurring symbol of a stylized star or sun, which has also been claimed by Skopje: as the Vergina Sun, it adorns the flag of the Republic of Macedonia.  

Author: Thomas Brey | Source: Monsters and Critics [August 21, 2011]



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