Macedonia’s name and the issue of cultural heritage

The articles and press reports covering the name dispute between Macedonia and Greece have largely died out nowadays, when the anti-climactic NATO summit in Bucharest came and went without an invitation being extended to Macedonia. That doesn’t mean the dispute has ended, however, nor have its roots been thoroughly examined. The key issue at stake here is cultural heritage, and what ownership of cultural heritage means for the people of the Balkans. Recognition by the world (including Greece) as the Republic of Macedonia, implicates that the people of Macedonia, Macedonians, own a right to the cultural heritage bequeathed to the region by the ancient Macedonians (Philip, Alexander, etc). In the Balkans, this right to cultural heritage translates into other kinds of entitlement, such as entitlement to territory once ruled by the ancient Macedonians. It is this local belief, combined with the fact that the Greeks see themselves as the cultural and ethnic descendants of Alexander the Great and his people, that has caused the matter of self-determination to become an inflamed dispute involving the entire NATO alliance.

The first question that needs to be answered is why the Macedonians want to call themselves Macedonians. Ethnically and linguistically, modern Macedonians are southern Slavs with close ties to the Bulgarians. The Roman province of Macedoniaterm, Macedonia, though, acquired a geographic meaning rather than an ethnic meaning during the Roman era, with the establishment of the Roman province of Macedonia. Thus, after the Slavs migrated into the geographic lands called Macedonia and absorbed the local populace, they adopted the name Macedonians in part because they indeed were Macedonians (people living in an area often delineate themselves as a member of that community, New Yorker, for example). In the wake of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the Balkan wars (which were fought over Macedonia), the people living in the region used the name to rebuff claims that they were Bulgarian, Greek, or Serbian, thus entrenching the name Macedonia into the region’s communal identity.

Macedonian Culture

Macedonian Culture

In effect, the people were forging a distinct national identity out of the simple fact that they lived near each other. That’s not a horrible reason to form a nation, and it certainly has its merits. By the time that the Ottoman Empire was on the decline, most of her Slavic subjects had been under her control for at least the greater part of five centuries. Most of what survived was the Slavic dialect (though heavily influenced by Turkish; the local languages were ‘purified’ after liberation), the local religion (usually Orthodox Christianity), and the knowledge that they were second class citizens in the empire. During the waning years of the Ottoman Empire, a national consciousness began to form each of the separate groups living in the region. These groups identified with previous kingdoms or empires on the peninsula, and thus was the continuity between the Middle Ages and the 19th century born. Macedonia’s case, thus, isn’t all that different from the other countries on the peninsula. It just got to the game a little later and wasn’t able to legitimize itself before its neighboring countries were able to ‘prove’ their ties to history.

What does all of this have to do with the name? The battle over the name signifies a battle over the cultural heritage left by the ancient Macedonians. Also, the Balkan states were all founded on the principle of one Great Macedoniapeople, one history, one nation. The national consciousnesses that were formed were extremely strong; and each nation sought to incorporate into their modern state everything that was seen as historically theirs. For Serbians that meant Kosovo, for Bulgarians that meant Thrace and Macedonia, for Greeks that meant the whole of the territory once owned by the Byzantine Empire (there was talk of a coup from within in the Ottoman Empire to place the Greeks in command and create a successor of the Byzantine Empire). Finally, for Macedonians, that means the region of Macedonia, part of which is in Bulgaria and Greece. Notwithstanding the fact that there have been Macedonian agitators for a ‘Macedonia with a port on the Aegean’, the Greek people themselves have been through this process of nation building themselves, and know the feelings that it can generate.

The solution isn’t as simple as a simply giving Macedonia a new name. The fact of the matter is, many, most, probably, Macedonians feel like genuine Macedonians, descended from the noble tribe of Alexander the Great. But then, the Greeks feel that they are the true descendants of Alexander and his kin. So it’s not a conflict over a name, it’s a name for a conflict. This conflict can only be resolved through the realization that, in fact, the cultural heritage of Alexander the Great belongs to all peoples of the region. The concept of one people, one history, is ridiculous. A regions history may belong to more than one people, especially when the region is small as the Balkans and as populated as it is by different ethnic groups.

What needs to happen is a concerted effort to stamp out the nascent cultural nationalism present in every Balkan country. It’s not needed. The countries are all neighbors, and they all stand to profit from eased relations. Economically, socially, and politically, the more the people of the Balkans realize that they have much more in common than they thought, and that they have many common goals to pursue, the better off the region will be.

And the world can finally stop using the Balkans as a negative stereotype.


About renovatio

I'm a recent college graduate looking forward to realizing my dreams. Hopefully, some of you will share in my successes by reading my blogs!
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20 Responses to Macedonia’s name and the issue of cultural heritage

  1. Bojan says:

    You just said pretty much everything an objective person may say regarding the “issue” and for that I thank you.

    Simple application of the nation concept on ancient tribes, be they Greek or distinct, is totally inaccurate, flawed and irrelevant. We share that history because we all live on the region where “history happened.” It would be fairly inaccurate to claim that one people is the remnant of a civilization, and to say that on a region on which in the past 2000 years had a clash of many different rulers and as such many different people.

    What I’ve been saying is exactly what you have said (I’m hoping I did not misinterpret something).

  2. renovatio says:

    That’s exactly what I’m saying. What needs to happen, I think, is a detachment from past beliefs that a national identity needs to be based on cultural heritage from over two millenia ago.

    Actually, I also read an article that said the percentage of Macedonians who would change the country’s name has decreased; meaning that more Macedonians are looking ahead to a better life rather than looking to history. The trouble with that is, moving past nationalism in a region full of it makes a country the target of such attacks as, “You don’t have a true national identity, you’re really Bulgarians/Greeks/Serbians.”

  3. Bojan says:

    Don’t get me wrong though. I am certainly not in favor for any compromise on a name of the country. The reason is not a historical one but a legal one.
    1)Every legal entity has the right to self-determination
    2)The name of a province cannot have a say or infringe on the right of a country/nation to call itself by the name of the very province. (Luxembourg, Brittany)
    3)There is no province in Greece called Macedonia, but rather 3 provinces called East, West and Central Macedonia making the argument of confusion between the 2 Macedonias an invalid one. (even if there was a province named Macedonia as a whole there is a distinction between the 2, i.e. a province and a republic)
    4)Forcing a change in the name of the country infringes on point 1 and 2 which makes such a move illegal.

    And those are just a few points to mention.

  4. renovatio says:

    I definitely agree that it is morally improper and illegal in international law to pressure a country to change it’s name like Greece has been doing (although I’m not an expert on international law).

    In practice, though, usually it’s not about who is right or wrong; just which country is in a better position to force its will on the other country, and which country can better convince other nations of its argument.

    Unfortunately for Macedonia, Greece is already in the EU and NATO, and is determined to hold a monopoly on the Macedonian cultural heritage because it makes up a large part of their national identity. What should happen is that other values comprise Greece’s national identity (and the other countries on the Balkans) besides historical grandeur: creativity, progress, industriousness, hospitality. Cultural heritage should be a part of the national identity, of course, but by that I mean a people’s way of life (folk songs, dances, foods, etc), rather than a people’s connection to past glories.

  5. Aleksandar says:

    With all the respect for your article, Renovatio, I think that you definitely need to revisit the history in greater depth than follow someones national propaganda. As everyone says to keep politics and history separate. First of all the slavs did not replace the Macedonians but rather mixed with them from 6th century BC, unlike the Greeks that do not exist from a long time ago … Tell me of any Greeks mixing with Macedonians, but rather making even bigger genocide than Hitler, and that against the Macedonians in what is called today “Greek Macedonia”. The world does know the truth, and believe me, one day, it will come forward. The truth is even ready now, but it would mean a total humiliation and destruction of the whole, what they call it “Greek Nation”. We all know the painful Balkan history, but also the world. The facts are archived somewhere, ask Turkey and they will provide you with books and facts that will shock you!!! It is a good article with some small corrections.


  6. renovatio says:


    The point of my article is to outline the reasons for the emotional response (on both sides) to the name Macedonia. My article goes on to state that there is a mutual cultural heritage between all Balkan nations, especially between neighbors such as Macedonia and Greece. What would be best (I mention this in the article and in the comments following) is if national identity in the Balkans is comprised not of historical connections to grandeur, but to modern, progressive ideals through which the Balkans can achieve prosperity.

    Also, I said:
    “Thus, after the Slavs migrated into the geographic lands called Macedonia and absorbed the local populace, they adopted the name Macedonians”.

    While there is a difference between ‘absorbing’ and ‘mixing’ (as you put it), to prove that it was simply mixing, you need a preponderance of evidence that the culture of today’s Macedonians is significantly influenced by the culture of the ancient Macedonians.

  7. eleni says:

    aleksandar is really a funny,braiwashed person!4oo ottomal rule on hellas and he speaks for a genocide that greeks made!!!what can i say …the human stupidity is without an end

  8. eleni says:


  9. renovatio says:

    Once again, what I tried to point out in my article (apparently unsuccessfully), is the need for people from the Balkans to realize that they have much more in common than not. Including this fervently strong allegiance to a country.

    Namecalling from either side won’t solve anything. Taking a step back and looking at it from the perspective that everyone has a vested interest in the future of the region will.

  10. Jojo says:

    I really liked your opinion regarding the popular concept of nation. By the definition of Anderson, author of An Imagined Community, Nation is an imagined community with a defined border, common fraternity, and its own sovereignty.

  11. renovatio says:

    A nation though, isn’t an imagined community, especially if it has a common fraternity. Especially small nations like Bulgaria; the people of Bulgaria are all “in the same boat,” to use a common metaphor.

  12. R says:

    It’s time we realize that all of us are related. And our languages, borders and religions are our cages. Cages formed by leaders to own their subjects. We are all owned even in this day and age. Does anyone truly own their land in the US? Stop paying taxes and you will find out. Some day the world will be one nation, one religion, and one people. It’s how we set it up to be, survival of the fittest and smartest. It’s what has driven our evolution to a division.

  13. UberMakedon says:

    Go check igenea or other institutes for genetics
    Macedonian DNA exist and its different than the “greek” one or bulgarian…
    Stop calling us bulgars,slavs… fashist politics
    do you know my friend why the language we speak its called ”slavic” or macedonian???
    learn some history before you post non-sense.
    Have you heard about St. Kiril and Metodij???
    that wikipedia stupid greek fashist propaganda can show to somebody else

    Post from iGENEA to 02.10.2008
    A antic macedonian genetic profile exists and has been discovered through the comparison of archaeological funds and persons with macedonian roots. These studies enable us to determine the macedonian roots of a person. We have 30% of macedonians in Macedonia, 20% in Greece an minorities in Bulgaria and Albania.

    It is very important to differ between politics and genetics, we are a genetic institute and we don’t have politic aims.

    30% Illyrians
    15% Phoenician
    14% Hellenen
    2% Vikings
    20% slavs

    10% Germanic
    20% slavs
    20% phoenician
    5% macedonian (in north more than 18%)
    35% Hellenen

    5% pheonician

    10% illyrian
    15% hellenen
    20% germanic
    5% hunnen
    15% slavs

    50% Illyrer
    4% Thraker
    20% Germanen
    6% Hunnen
    15% Slawen
    15% Kelten

    30% Slawen
    9% Phönizier
    21% Illyrer
    14% Kelten
    8% Hellenen
    2% wikinger
    18% Germanen

    your opinion is a result of the fashist politic of greecce, stop calling us slavs cause the greece is more slavic country than MACEDONIA!

  14. Pingback: Macedonian nationalism. No Balkan nationalists allowed! Please read before commenting. « Grok me?

  15. The Solution says:

    The thing I cannot figure out as an outsider who has looked closely at this debate, is why so many of the Balkans live in the past? The only way to move forwards successfully and prosperously for all these Balkan countries is to unite and work together. A good solution would be to unite much like the states within the USA, or the provinces within Canada – Forming a very strong united whole of distict regions that each have their own identity and varying cultural differences and histories. If you travel across north america, you will find more varied peoples and geography and span of distance than you could ever find across the Balkans! These countries need to realize there is more to their identities and future than their fragile borders and old history. Let’s move forwards folks… Unite and become and Eastern European international force to be reckoned with!

  16. George Greek says:

    I am Greek, and this article is one of the best attempts to examine the issue. Both Greeks and ‘Macedonians’ would disagree in many parts. I have a few things to add.
    1. The name Macedonia was used by both Greeks and ‘Macedonians’ in recent history. I believe Greeks were the first to use the name Macedonia in modern history, and its confusing for two separate regions to use same names. I would suggest the area to be called north and south Macedonia.
    2. After the demise of the Ottoman empire and the local wars over the macedonian territory, the area that each nation conquered (Serbs-‘Macedonians’ included, Greeks and Bulgarians), they aplied a hard-line nationalistic politics of education allowing only the language of the specific nation to be taught. For example a Bulgarian might live in Greece, but being illiterate and knowing how to speak Bulgarian and not to write, when his children went to a Greek school and learned how to READ and WRITE Greek, then he became ‘Greek’.
    3. The statistics fo the DNA, I don’t agree. If you take as an example of the Greek islands, there is very little Greek in terms of genetics. The islands were invaded, destroyed, resettled, mixed, by mediterranean pirates (arabs), Italians, French, English. Not to mention the modern mix of tourists who marry local Greeks.
    4. @ Bojan #3, Greek Macedonia is a prefecture. there is only one, which is in turn divided into 3 areas.
    5. @ Solution #15, US and Canada are united under one thing: the Green dollar and the flag. Its the only thing that unites so many different cultures and nations who decided to live in one area. That is their identity as they have rejected (or forgotten) the old original ones. But I agree we have to live in peace!
    6. Personally I believe its more than a name claim, its territory. ‘Macedonians’ claim that the Greek part belongs to them, that we caused a genocide, that Alexander the Great spoke Slavic and the Greek area should be returned to them. This is far too nationalistic. We too miss Constantinople (modern Instabull), but don’t claim it as Greek.
    7. @ Ubermacedon #13, when we refer to Macedonians in genetics, we don’t refer to slavs or Greeks, but to the ancient race of Macedonians, which was partially Greek and Illyrian. It was NOT your race. But yes, your race and the original Greek and Illyrian got mixed in time, and the slavic (‘Macedonians’ and Bulgarians) got added in it.
    8. @ R #12, well, actualy its in the human instict to fight each other and separate our identities. No, I am not a nationalist, but that’s whats happening since the beginning of time for the humman race. But I agree with you, the problem is that there are few people who actually do.

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  18. Tassos says:

    This is the only sensible and serious approach about the name dispute I have seen so far. As you have stated, this is not just a specific problem between Greece and R. Macedonia, but rather a problem of Balkan nationalism and the way that people view history; as something that they own and they have the intellectual rights upon it. Even if the problem is resolved, new “national enemies” will be found in the future for both countries, and they may even be (again) in the same side.

    Ironically, Greeks and Macedonians have a conflict about who is pure Macedonian, when the Ancient Macedonian itself (whatever its origin were) had strong influences from Greeks, Illyrians, Thracians and (possibly) Paeonians. So, two nations that are not so distinct when it comes to genetic differences are claiming that they are “pure” offsprings of a nations that was not pure at all…
    Besides, the most important factors tha define ethnic groups are cultural and not “genetic” (if this criterion makes any sense at all). Otherwise there would be no distinction between Roman and Byzantine empire. And considering the culture of the modern people around the Balkans, it differs at large from any of these ancient cultures. Funny though, modern balkans try to “fit” the ancient people to the modern (Christian Orthodox) morality.

    For Macedonians it is easier to see the irrationality of being descendants of Ancient Macedonians, because the Macedonian national myth is a fairly new one. The Greek national myth has been around for around 200 years and even “moderate minded” Greeks still believe that they are more or less descendants of Socrates and Aristotle. In 50 years from now, the Macedonians would not even doubt the fact that they are grandsons of king Alexander.

    If these problems were resolved, nobody -neither Greeks or Macedonians- would care about the actual name of this country. But, considering the “intellectual potential” of the people, I cannot be optimistic about the future.

    By the way, I am Greek – or more accurately Greek-speaking Balkan.

  19. Nick the Greek says:

    Macedonia:Understanding Haemus-Peninsula People-Dynamics

    FYRoM is free to follow ages-old natural path that facilitates discarding old cultural-linguistic baggage for new replacement ones. People-Dynamics tell us that people are just people…wandering free spirits. So people take journey’s. People wander into and out of, cultural-linguistic spaces, by force, by choice or by chance. If that place is hospitable enough, civilized enough, and rich enough to accommodate their needs, some people would find those things attractive enough to settle there. So in this regard, we can only talk about people like wandering free spirits, carrying with them some cultural baggage inherited from the previous cultural-linguistic area they decided to vacate.

    People have been uprooting themselves from since time immemorial, by their own free-choice or not, the point here is to illustrate the fact that biological make-up, blood and Dna, are not important factors on voyage towards development of new ethnicity. People with history, with previous ethnicity, with previous cultural-linguistic affiliations, are free to place those things on-hold during acculturation, the transitional period that leads to proper assimilation. History and the laws of People-Dynamics tell us that within 200 years or 8 generations, people can replace ethnicity with new one, replace language with new one, replace culture with new one. I shall not cite examples – that is for the reader to investigate and research.

    Long time ago, recorded in history, Slavic tribes uprooted themselves from steppe primordial homeland, a journey which led them to wander into new Greco-Roman cultural-linguistic area. The settlement of the Slavs into the Byzantine Empire is well documented. FYRoM’s immediate ancestors were the Draguvites, Sagudates and Berzetes. So FYRoM is Slavic in this regard. People-Dynamics ensured that within 200 years or 8 generations, the previous pre-Slavic Greco-Roman population there Slavicized, by force, or by fee-will. On this basis, FYRoM has been Slavic place from since the 6th Century AD, a cultural-linguistic area that can boast continuum >1400 years of Slavic history, where the Slavic-language, culture, and tradition has been practiced there for the same. FYRoM now though, appears to be in transition, on a journey towards development of new ethnicity, incorporating with it new identity-factors which do not follow the laws People-Dynamics taught us. The peoples there appear to be on voyage towards discarding their Slavic inheritance, shedding their Slavic cultural-linguistic identity for a Macedonian Hellenic one.

    FYRoM, without following the rules and laws People-Dynamics taught us, where (i) peoples are
    free to wander into, and outof, the cultural-linguistic spaces of others,(ii) people are free to settle, if they consider the place hospitable enough, civilized enough and rich enough to accommodate their needs,(iii) people are free to put on hold, their previous ethnicity during acculturation period,(iv) people are free to assimilate on acceptance by the host community,(v) people are free to absorb the language culture and traditions of host community,(vi) people are free to develop same ethnic-feelings, same collective-memories, same national pride of the host nation. FYRoM did none of these things. FYRoM did not follow the rules and laws of People-Dynamics, instead, FYRoM follows unnatural path of usurping them.

  20. Nick the Greek says:

    Macedon: Greek Kingdom from since the first King Karanus, 808-778 BC. The rise of Macedon saw a small Greek Kingdom expand to big Greek empire, an empire that dominated Hellenism in it’s entirety. From since it’s beginnings at 808 BC, to it’s demise in 167 BC…Macedonians never stopped being Greek. From since that time, Macedonians walk like Greeks and talk like Greeks – identity-characteristics which are still in play even today.

    FYRoM messes with this! FYRoM cannot base it’s national identity on the ancestral, cultural, and historical achievements of ancient-Greeks. The Macedonian name belongs in Greek domain. Macedonian identity belongs to Greek heritage. Two simple statements which negate FYRoM claims to the same. The name and identity should be confined to history – Greek history.

    Resurrecting ancient and archaic regional-tribal names, and then placing them outside of their original ethnic-racial cultural and linguistic settings, is a recipe for disaster, on the basis, it invites conflict in areas where geography overlaps more than one population-group.

    Macedon: The original Kingdom sits inside Hellenic national borders…Macedonia though, the bigger geographic region, straddles over more than one country. Macedonia the region, today, overlaps the national borders of Bulgaria, Albania and FYRoM. The difference between the Kingdom and the region is geographic. Macedon is where Northern-Greeks dwelt. Macedonia the extended region is where latin-Roman jurisdiction combined the lands of Paeonia and Dardania into one military district they renamed Macedonia Secunda Salutaris. Macedon, under latin-Roman jurisdiction was kept Greek, seperate and distinct, reflecting latin-Roman fondness for all things Greek. Macedonia-Prima is Macedon, the ancient-Greek Kingdom. Macedonia Secunda Salutaris is Paeonia and Dardania…where FYRoM is situated today.

    FYRoM is not Macedon. FYRoM is Paeonia and Dardania. The difference between Macedon and FYRoM is demographic and geographic. In FYRoM live Yugoslavs…South-Slavs for want of better description. In Macedon live Greeks – from since the days of King Karanus 808-778 BC.

    FYRoM is where the Slavic tribes settled at top-end of 6th Century AD. The descendants of Slavs cannot be Macedonians in the ‘Macedon’ sense of the word. Descendants of Slavs can be Macedonians in the regional-geographic sense, on the basis of a resurrected latin-Roman name, Macedonia Secunda Salutaris – it means, Second-Macedonia, or Beneficial-Macedonia in transliteration.

    FYRoM stakes claim and makes claims, to (i) Macedonian Name, (ii) Macedonian Identity, (iii) Macedonian History, (iv) Macedonian Heritage, (v) Macedonian Legacy…on the basis, FYRoM sits on lands the latin-Romans renamed Macedonia Secunda Salutaris.

    If you were Greek, you would be ready to burst a blood vessel…right!

    If you were a Historian, you would do what ever it took to see FYRoM chastised, shamed!

    If you were a Politician, you would do your very best to keep FYRoM at arms length, at a distance!

    If you were a Diplomat, you would use the very best diplomatic language to explain to FYRoM the virtues of compromise.

    The Onus is on FYRoM to compromise in order to end the long-running name-dispute with Greece. The UN, EU, NATO and the International Academic Community advise FYRoM to do that from since 2008. Macedon is Greek Kingdom. Greeks live there >3 Millenniums. Macedonians are Hellenic on this basis. FYRoM is not Macedon! FYRoM is Macedonia Secunda Salutaris – a resurrected latin-Roman name for Paeonian-Dardanian military district. FYRoM based it’s name on latin-Roman geographical political division of lands which are located outside the original boundaries of Macedon, the ancient-Greek Kingdom. Evidently, Academia in FYRoM is no good. Historians are no good. Politicians there know this!

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