A History Without a Geography

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The clock had not moved since; it showed 5:17…

 I looked out of the car window as my Bulgarian colleague, Vasko, drove from Sofia towards the Macedonian border. We had been invited to demonstrate our company’s capabilities to a potential agent in Skopje.

In October 1994, I was busy across eastern Europe helping our organisation develop its business in the banking sector as the shrouds of communism dissolved and the free market alluringly beckoned. Yet, apart from Sarajevo and Gavrilo Princip, I was not aware of the region’s history nor the disputes which had surfaced as a result of the country’s creation phoenix-like out of the ashes of Yugoslavia two years earlier.

The fall of communism had a dramatic effect on eastern Europe in the early nineties. A friend playfully commented that the USSR (formerly the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) was no longer any of the aforementioned!

Yugoslavia, the kingdom of the southern Slavs, for long ruled by the dictator Tito became increasingly weak under a succession of effeminate rulers and it started to disintegrate step by step from June 1991 onwards.

First came Slovenia, Croatia and the opportunistic chancer, Serbian Krajina. Months later, on 25 September 1991, the Macedonian Parliament adopted a resolution to form the Republic of Macedonia as an independent country.

Yet not everyone was happy, neighbours Greece, and Serbia – still part of the failing state of Yugoslavia – had no welcome for this newborn. They tried to strangle it at birth.

There were international debates. Macedonia had its defenders. At the end of June 1994, in remote, ivory-tower debates in Strasbourg at the EU parliament, John Atkinson said, ‘The young Macedonian Republic is seized in a vice between Serbia and Greece.’ A pile of words higher than the mountains en route to Macedonia were spoken.

I had read the words but not understood their significance until that October day as we drove through the mountains towards Skopje, the capital of the new state of Macedonia. Reality hit me three miles from the border. Lined up along the roadside, we passed stationary petrol tanker after petrol tanker queuing to cross the border at Gueshevo. We passed perhaps four hundred lined up waiting, waiting, waiting. Bulgaria was Macedonia’s nursemaid and the road from Sofia its umbilical cord.

The border post had two lanes: one for commercial (the petrol tankers) and one for ordinary travellers such as ourselves. As no one wanted to go to Macedonia (except for petrol tankers) our queue was empty and after only ten or so minutes – all our papers were in order- we continued our route while a single tanker was liberated from the customs control into the country.

It was my first brush with the consequence of sanctions.

Skopje was a welcome sight and a fine town, but one who had suffered cruelly from a devastating 6.9 Richter Scale earthquake just two or three weeks after I sat my ‘O’ Levels at school. It made a lasting impression on me. Over a thousand people died with thousands made homeless.

The central railway station’s tower was half destroyed but the portion with the clock stood and time froze on that July morning in 1963. The clock had not moved since; it showed 5:17.

We proceeded to our appointment with BCS, an emergent computer supply company, who wanted to be our agent for our banking products (software, terminals, computers and ATMs). By now, I was used to dreary communist buildings constructed without imagination of concrete and glass enclosed in rusty frames. Although BCS’s offices were in a block of residential flats on the first floor, I was not surprised, I had encountered offices in residential flats in St Petersburg.

The meeting, however, was a surprise, but a pleasant one.

There was no initial discussion about markets or products or sales capability, but after a cup of chai from a samovar, without milk, a presentation on the state of Macedonia began. One BCS representative, his name long gone, presented Vasko and me with a large, white, hardback atlas. ‘Macedonia on Old Maps’ was written in gold letters on the cover in Russian and English. With care and a patriotic fervour I had never before witnessed, he proceeded to take us through the pages which started with: ‘A HISTORY WITHOUT A GEOGRAPHY. The maps presented in this monograph indicate that ever since ancient times the territory and boundaries of Macedonia have been perfectly defined… This is of extreme importance as it provides confirmation of the existence of Macedonia as an ancient and biblical land.’

I had heard of Alexander the Great 356 BC – 323 BC, the Macedonian king with ambition. He conquered far and wide to become Pharaoh of Egypt, King of Persia, and even King of Asia. Towns across Asia were named after him as well as Alexandria in Egypt. Even his horse Bucephalus became one of the world’s most famous.

Yet the Balkans had always been a turbulent region. With Greece and Turkey to the south and east, and the Slavic and Germanic states to the north imperial desires had subjugated Macedonia. Its shifting borders became a regular feature of each invasion or new ruler. Carefully, he turned the pages showing us maps from 1477 onwards, maps in Latin, Turkish, French, German, English and most recently in Russian, maps with titles such as: Graeciae vniversæ secvundum Hodiernvm sitvum Neoterica descripto, Macedonia Alexandri Magni Patria, to Die Landschaft Macedonien and Carte Militaire de la Turquie d’Europe, maps of the ethnicities of peoples along with physical maps showing the mountainous terrain.

After twenty minutes I felt a sense of the Balkans which I had never before experienced. The feeling that the land in which one lived must never be taken for granted, but defined, protected and nourished, overwhelmed me. As a post-war child, I did not understand the sacrifices and sufferings of my parents’ generation. The world wars had barely touched our island fortress whose borders had been inviolate for a thousand years, but here in the first floor office of a nascent computer company, I was suddenly confronted with the pleas of ordinary citizens of a small town in a new country. I felt their desire for recognition as much as their need for fuel which was stocked in the tankers awaiting entry.

For years German speaking peoples, Romance speakers (Italians, and Romanians), Slavic races from Bulgaria, Macedonia, Slovakia, and the Czech republic, along with Serbo-Croats, Hungarians, Albanians and Turks had criss-crossed the region. And my white book of maps showed the shifting borders and differing empires with names redolent of former dreams: Thrace, Rumelia, Thessalonika along with the recognisable titans of the region, Austro-Hungary, Turkey and Greece. Now, Macedonia forever a shadow on the maps was showing its hand clutching at a life-raft in the turbulent sea of nations which once constituted Yugoslavia. Not every neighbour agreed and sanctions, barriers were being imposed, at least no war had broken out for the massacre of Srebrenica was still nine months away.

The maps also showed another ominous symbol. Folded ridges of mountain ranges encircled the country like an angry crowd of spectators staring down from elevated stands onto the lands below. It was the anger of these mountains that erupted in 1963.

We never got much business done that day, but I became infinitely richer in my understanding of recondite country standing at the mercy of its edacious neighbours.

I had passed freely into the country and would pass freely out of Macedonia the next day, but my image of the people from BCS would endure.Their offering still lies both in my library and in my mind. Their country described recently by the Lonely Planet guide as: ‘Part Balkan, part Mediterranean and rich in Greek, Roman and Ottoman history, with a fascinating past and complex national psyche,’ sounds attractive to travellers today.

And if Skopje is: ‘The Balkans most bonkers and unfailingly entertaining capital city,’ I should visit again.

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2 thoughts on “A History Without a Geography”

    1. Thanks, I hadn’t realised that Alexander had so many cities named after him.
      I have been lucky to travel so much on business, I’ m now trying to construct little stories out of the experiences.

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