North Macedonia - Background information
Abridged from the History section in Macedonia: the Bradt Travel Guide
The Republic of Macedonia achieved independence from Yugoslavia on 8 September 1991. The word ‘Macedonia’, however, has been associated with a much larger area than that represented by today’s republic. ‘Macedonia’ has meant many things and had a multitude of changing boundaries across the millennia, but at its core is a geographical area upon which most historians and geographers are united. Geographical Macedonia, covering a large swathe of land from the source of the River Vardar (Axios in Greek) to its estuary at Solun (Thessaloniki in Greek), has a very rich and varied history, which is reflected in the present-day political climate and division of the geographical region.
Macedonia had its heyday during the build-up of its ancient empire, ending with the sudden death of Aleksandar III of Macedon (also known as Alexander the Great). Macedonia’s claim today to this period of history is hotly disputed by the Greeks. As a recognised state, Macedonia rose for a short while again in the 11th century during the reign of Tsar Samoil (hotly disputed by the Bulgarians). The region exerted an influence variously through its status as the Archbishopric of Bitola and Ohrid but, as an independent state, Macedonia did not emerge again until the ten-day Kruševo Republic of 1903.
Geographical Macedonia is now made up of four political entities: Vardar Macedonia, which is the Republic of Macedonia; Pirin Macedonia, which is in Bulgaria; Aegean Macedonia, which is in Greece; and a tiny sliver north and south of Debar, which is in Albania.
Due to Macedonia’s location between the Mediterranean and Euro-Siberian regions, the variety of flora and fauna is extensive. During the 1970s and 1980s research and records were made of all the animals and plants in the Yugoslav Federation. Since then, however, Macedonia has had few resources to spend on maintaining these records and so even approximate figures on how many of each type of animal there are in Macedonia are few and far between. Macedonia has worked jointly with other countries, such as Greece, to try to establish approximate numbers of wolves for instance, but more research needs to be done in order to confirm these figures.
A number of hotels and travel agencies can arrange wildlife observation trips by jeep if you are interested. Lake Dojran and Golem Grad Island in Prespa Lake are havens of water wildlife, insects and birds, and there are dedicated wetlands at Ezerani (near Resen) and Blato (near Strumica). If you take a guided tour in one of the national parks, such as from the village of Brajčino, your guide will be able to show you the tracks and beds of the local animals. Bats can often be seen in the evening around many of Macedonia’s caves such as at Leskoec, Matka and Treskavec.
If you just want a quick overview of Macedonia’s wildlife then the Macedonian Museum of Natural History in Skopje houses everything (stuffed) in one convenient location. Although the museum is in desperate need of attention and a good English brochure, it is quite interesting and also houses the skeletons of prehistoric animals that used to roam through Macedonia.
There are several protected mammal species in Macedonia, including brown bears, jackals and Balkan lynx.
A study in 1997 on brown bears (Ursus arctos) assessed their figures at somewhere between 160 and 200, of which there were around 70 in Mavrovo National Park, 30 in Pelister and only three or four in Galičica. Although brown-bear hunting became illegal in 1996, the bear population does not appear to have increased – the estimated population in 2010 (when the last count was carried out) remained at 160–200.
For the golden jackal (Canis aureus) there are no available numbers. The Balkan lynx (Lynx lynx martinoi) is the national animal, depicted on the back of the five denar coin. Despite being illegal, it is still poached for its gorgeous spotted golden-brown fur, and its habitat is also under continuous threat from illegal logging. In continuing decline, its numbers are believed to be fewer than a hundred across Macedonia and Albania, with even fewer in Serbia and Kosovo. In an effort to reverse this phenomenon, the Balkan Lynx Recovery Programme has been established across the Balkans to monitor and assist with protection. Thirty cameras have been set up in Galičica National Park alone, where the programme is monitored by Dime Melovski of the Macedonian Ecological Society.
Wolves, on the other hand, are not protected as they are considered a pest, preying on sheep and other farm livestock. Hundreds are killed every year, but their population remains stable at around 700. Since the government decreased the amount paid for a wolf skin (now about 700MKD), it has been assumed that the wolf population will increase.
The national parks and Jasen Forestry Reserve are home to many of the hunted species in Macedonia such as wolf, marten, wild boar, chamois, roebuck and other deer, and their numbers are meant to be regulated through the use of a hunting licence system.
Reptiles and insects
Macedonia has a few poisonous insects and reptiles, including some snakes and a couple of species of spider, including a rare fish-eating spider which lives in the wetlands near Strumica. Like most wild creatures, these will go in the opposite direction of a human being if given enough chance to do so. Many types of lizard will be seen scurrying from footpaths as you walk through the mountains, and frogs are abundant at Lake Prespa. Mosquitoes are common in marshy areas in the lowlands, but these areas are few and far between. Watch out also for tortoises or turtles crossing the roads – these are as much of a hazard and victim here as hedgehogs are in Great Britain.
Among Macedonia’s 17 different types of snake are the common (and poisonous) adder, field viper and sand viper (known as poskog or ‘jumping snake’ in Macedonian), as well as non-venomous water snakes and other more unusual species. The javelin sand boa, found in sandy areas around Lake Dojran, can reach up to 70cm in length and is one of the smallest of the boa and python family usually found in warmer parts of the world. The largest European snake, which can be found in the lowlands of Macedonia, is the large whip snake (Coluber caspius), which reaches up to 3m in length. Although non-venomous, it will bite in captivity or when frightened.
Two ‘semi-venomous’ snakes also live in Macedonia. The Montpelier snake (Malpolon monspessulanus) is found up to 2m in length in rocky limestone areas with dense vegetation. The cat snake (Telescopus failax) reaches up to 1m in length and prefers dry rocky lowlands, old walls and ruins. Both snakes are semi-poisonous because their venom produces only localised swelling and numbness and is difficult to eject from the small mouths of these snakes into a human arm or leg. Fingers might be tempting, though.
Macedonia’s freshwater fish include carp, bream, catfish, barbell and perch. Dojran bleak, Strumica bleak and Macedonian dace are some that are peculiar to Macedonia, as is the Dojran roach, Ratilus ratilus dojrovensis, and Ohrid trout (Salma trutto letnica). The latter are now endangered and fishing for them is illegal. Ohrid trout is one of four protected fish species in Macedonia. Another type of Ohrid trout (belvica) is also served in restaurants and is a tasty alternative for a law-abiding tourist.
Eel (jagula in Macedonian) is common in Macedonia and a favourite dish of the locals. The eel from Lake Ohrid used to spawn in the Sargasso Sea until dams were built along the River Crni Drim. It is not yet clear how this is affecting their population, but they still seem abundant. Of the many small fish in Lake Ohrid, the plašica is the most famous, for its scales are used to make Ohrid pearls, using a painstakingly intricate technique the secret of which is fiercely guarded by the artisans of Ohrid.
There are over 330 kinds of bird in Macedonia, and almost 100 migratory bird species that spend some of the year in Macedonia. Of Macedonia’s native birds, 56 are protected. Amongst those protected are vultures and eagles. Despite this status and efforts to increase numbers, vulture populations have halved over the past 20 years or so. In 2010 there were estimated to be 19 or 20 pairs of griffon vultures, 26–28 pairs of Egyptian vultures, and only one solitary male bearded vulture and one male black vulture. Having not been seen for ten years, a sighting of a black vulture was made again in 2015. Black and bearded vultures are monogamous creatures, so it is extremely unlikely that a solitary sighting will find new mates. Three black vultures have been released by the Vulture Conservation Foundation to neighbouring Bulgaria as of 2018, and so in due course further sightings might be seen in the region.
Although eagles used to be abundant in Macedonia, only a dozen or so pairs can be found now around Mount Korab and the Šar mountain range. Storks, both white and black, are also on the decline, but you will still see them nesting in a number of villages and towns. Macedonian folklore claims they bring luck, especially with
regard to childbearing.
Pelicans and cormorants are quite common and fishermen use cormorants to catch fish on Lake Prespa. A wetland reserve at Ezerani is home to many of Macedonia’s birds. Imported birds include peacocks, to be found at the Monastery of Sveti Naum; swans, introduced to Lake Ohrid in the early 1970s; black turkeys at the Monastery of Zrze; and ostriches farmed near Tetovo and Gostivar.
Macedonia is arguably the most ethnically diverse country in the Balkans, if not in the whole of Europe, and a quick look at Macedonia’s history will show you why. Aside from various settlers in the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron ages, Macedonia has been invaded, starting with the Romans, by over a dozen tribes, races and empires. And those are the ones that didn’t stay. Then there are those who made a home in Macedonia. Interestingly, when French was the language of diplomacy in Macedonia, the French adopted the word macedoine to mean anything mixed up, such as a mixed salad or a mixed-fruit dessert.
The country’s diverse heritage has largely to do with the fact that Macedonia lies on two important trading routes across Europe. The Via Egnatia linked the sea port of Durres in Albania with Constantinople in Byzantium and brought Romans, Albanians, Gauls, crusaders, Byzantines, Turks, Bulgarians, Roma and Greek tribes. The Diagonal Way linked northern Europe with Greece and brought Vlachs, numerous Slav tribes, Goths, Huns, Avars, more Serbs and more Greeks.
The disputed question of Macedonian identity is one that numerous academics have written about, and there are many books on the subject. If you want a lively discussion in Macedonia, then enquire of a person’s origins, and you’ll find that your interlocutor will furnish you with a complicated family tree as long as your arm, and each person’s background will be different.
Macedonia’s potentially most important and unique contribution to world art is its little-known and unverified claim that 12th-century Renaissance art originated in its secluded monasteries. Religious art is certainly making a comeback in Macedonia. On other fronts, while there are no big, famous museums, art galleries or world-renowned festivals, there are always plenty of smaller events going on, in Skopje year-round and all over the country during the summer festival season. Venues and playlists are usually announced only a few days before the event, so you need to keep your eyes peeled for the information. Festivals and saints’ days also have a big following in Macedonia. Skopje, and some of the other larger towns in Macedonia, have a small but thriving classical arts scene in music, ballet, opera and drama, as well as modern drama in Macedonian and minority languages. In 2013, the Feast of the Holy Forty Martyrs in Štip was inscribed on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage – the first element from Macedonia to join the list. The Kopachkata, a social dance from the village of Dramče, was inscribed on the list in November 2014.
Macedonia has a long tradition of indigenous handicrafts mostly developed around religious art (see below). In addition, there are manmade Ohrid pearls, silver filigree jewellery, iron and copper work, carpets, embroidery, and local musical instruments to be found here.
The arts in Macedonia, like its nationhood and politics, are fractured. During Ottoman times still life was banished and so depictions of such retreated to Macedonia’s many monasteries. These took the form of frescoes, icons and woodcarvings of which there are a great many in Macedonia that are literally priceless and uninsurable.
Makarije Frčkovski and the Mijak brothers Marko and Petar Filipovski from Gari were famous in the early 19th century for their iconostasis carvings. In total they carved four iconostases during their lifetime. Three can still be admired at Sv Spas Church in Skopje, the Monastery of Sv Jovan Bigorski near Debar, and Sv Gavril Lesnovski near Kratovo. A fourth in Sv Nikola Church in Kruševo was destroyed when the church was razed during the Ilinden Uprising in 1903. In 1999, a tourist is alleged to have offered the head priest at Sv Jovan Bigorski a blank cheque for the church’s iconostasis. Aside from the fact that dedications to God cannot be bought at any price, the piece is irreplaceable and so it remains there today and hopefully forever.
Icons up until the 10th century were made of terracotta, such as those found in Vinica and many are now on view at the National Museum of Macedonia in Skopje. Thereafter they were generally paintings inlaid with silver and sometimes gold from the gold mine outside Radoviš. Most of these are still in their original churches, but some of the more important icons and frescoes, rescued from centuries of neglect during the Ottoman Empire, have been put on display in Skopje’s and Ohrid’s galleries. Macedonian Byzantine church frescoes had an important impact on the Renaissance period. The best three examples of these are at Sv Pantelejmon near Skopje, Sv Sofia in Ohrid and Sv Gjorgi near Kurbinovo.
Modern art has taken hold of Macedonian artists in a big way, as if trying to catch up with centuries of artistic deprivation. The Museum of Contemporary Art, which was set up in 1964 after the disastrous earthquake in Skopje the year before, houses a permanent collection of modern art as well as frequent travelling exhibitions. Many pieces were donated to the museum as a result of the earthquake, including a piece by Van Gogh, which is usually stored down in the basement, but can be viewed on request.
The Museum of the City of Skopje (the old railway station) and the national galleries of Čifte Amam and Daud Pasha Amam, both former Turkish baths, also hold travelling exhibitions. Those living in Skopje will not have failed to notice the amount of modern art, alongside the compulsory icon or two, that adorns the walls of modern Skopje apartments. Today, the works of Macedonians such as Iskra Dimitrova, Omer Kaleši and Ibrahim Bedi are beginning to travel the world. The Skopje 2014 regeneration project included the renovation of a number of museums, and the unveiling of plenty of new sculptural monuments.
Since Yugoslav times, and especially since independence, Macedonia has encouraged artist colonies to grow and flourish. Ohrid is home to many Macedonian artists and you will frequently see budding artists trying their hand at representations of city life. The monasteries have also encouraged art, where the tranquillity of monastic life is often conducive to artistic development. Several art colonies take place in Macedonia during the month of August, including those at the Monastery of Sv Joakim Osogovski near Kriva Palanka, the Mijak village of Galičnik, the Monastery of Sv Petka in Velgošti near Ohrid, and the village of Kneževo near Kratovo.