In actual fact, I had less than 48 hours in Skopje. I think it was closer to 42, which in and of itself is a great number, but it is far too little time to spend in most any city, especially not if it’s the capital city of a country, and even less so if that country has as rich and interesting a history as Macedonia. That said, I did my best to make the most of it. My friend, Vane, from the Happy Hostel in Niš, had recommended I check out either Ohrid or Matka, both lake regions and both stunning in the pictures I saw of them. Needless to say, Macedonia and I have unfinished business, but ultimately I felt that my time was best spent getting to know Skopje. Again, I simply didn’t have enough of it.
You get to a point in Vienna when you realize that taking pictures is futile and you just have to encourage everyone you know to go there and see it for themselves. I won’t compare Skopje to Vienna any more than that, as they are such different cities, but I will say that it’s a place you have to visit yourself in order to feel the breadth of it. Truly two cities in one, wandering northeast across the Vardar River will take you out of the more western-feeling area and straight into the North Bank and the heart of the Čaršija, the old Turkish bazaar. There you are transported into an alternate reality where the Ottomans remain dominant in Skopje. For this reason I feel that it is worth approaching this post in parts, giving each city its due, as well as having a look at what modern Skopje has to offer.
A Taste of the Ancient World
Although Skopje retains little in the way of classical ruins, as travel guides and history books are quick to point out, it is clear just by taking a stroll around the city center that Macedonians are proud of their ancient past. Skopje is currently reintroducing the ancient to their city, part of the project ‘Skopje 2014’. Just last month, a statue of Phillip II of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great, was erected near the Stone Bridge. In the Ploštad Makedonija, or Macedonian Square, one is treated to a kind of statuary park. Statesmen, resistance leaders and former rulers are all present, along with Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, who came from Skopje. And surrounded by all of this is the enormous monument to Alexander the Great. ‘Enormous’ itself does not go nearly far enough, and this statue alone, in my opinion, is worth visiting the city of Skopje to see. I will save a more detailed description of this for the next post, suffice it to say that Alexander, seated on his rearing horse, is a commanding presence in Macedonian Square.
The stone bridge, a beeline out from the Alexander statue, is a destination of its own. It seems fitting that the gateway to the Ottoman world of Skopje would be a bridge built by the Ottomans themselves. The mid-15th century wonder stretches out over the Vardar and cuts a truly majestic figure, taking you past the statue of an unknown rider (I am certain that this man is, in fact, known, but I could find no details of him in Skopje, nor can I find out anything about this impressive statue online) and feeding directly into the Archaeological Museum of Macedonia. The building itself looks as if it has recently been excavated, as it is currently undergoing renovations. I found this at once extremely appealing from an aesthetic standpoint and a terrible disappointment as a curious visitor. What wonders must the Archaeological Museum of Macedonia contain?
Along the bridge people stand and chat with friends, sell trinkets and souvenirs and even engage in a bit of mischief. A variant of the shell game was going on as I was passing, older gentlemen throwing down money as a man slid boxes in and out of position and sought to distract the onlookers long enough to keep the marble beneath from being discovered. Two or three other men appeared to be running interference for this man, and as I took a picture they all turned. One politely held up a finger and shook his head, while another took me gently by the arm and whispered, ‘This is private business, my friend.’ Enough said, guys. Best of luck to you all.
An Introduction to the East
As I mentioned above, crossing the river brings you into the old Turkish bazaar of the Čaršija. It is described as a true throwback to the city’s Ottoman days, and it does not disappoint. I was greeted almost immediately by an open shop with a display of hanging rugs of rich colour and beautiful detail. Minarets peeked over lower buildings at me and went in and out of view as I walked on. I soon passed an older man playing the çifteli, an Albanian instrument that takes its name from the two strings used to play it. I watched this man pluck away his tune and sing softly, almost to himself, before breaking out into loud song and attracting curious looks from passersby. Truly, I had entered another world.
The lyrics of this man’s song, like the music itself, had an unmistakable Eastern quality, although he was most likely Albanian, a western neighbour of Macedonia. According to 2002 census data, Albanians make up around 25% of the population of Macedonia and 20% of that of Skopje. This is one of the sources of Skopje’s twin-city feel and results from several historical factors, including the borders of a long-shrunken Greater Albania, the withdrawal of the Ottoman Empire and the drawing of state boundaries after the First World War. It is a truly fascinating history, and I look forward to reading more about it very soon. In short, Albanians as a people were much more receptive to Islam than most Slavs, and to this day the majority of Albanians, whether they find themselves in Albania or in surrounding countries, identify as Muslim (whether or not they are truly practicing). The Ottoman influence that accompanied their faith is still very present in many cultural traditions, music being only one of many that retains a decidedly Eastern flavour.
On this side of the bridge, mosques with their minarets abound, along with many a ćebabčinja (café where ćebabi, little meat sausages, are sold). The smell alone is intoxicating as roasting meats waft over from their grills and lead people cartoon-like by the nose to one of these charming cafés. The bazaar itself extends in maze fashion in every direction, with shops offering precious stones and metals, antique jewelry, handmade scarves and other clothing, spices for cooking, and a great many books. Most of these last seemed to be either religious in content or a depiction of life in Macedonia, both past and present. Eager shopkeepers offered me countless exemplars of Macedonian histories, heedless of my embarrassed smiles and assurances that I speak no Macedonian. They smiled back and chuckled, and I went on my way.
I eventually wound my way through various alleys and side streets in search of a particular minaret that had caught my eye. Again we played the game of hide-and-seek, the towering structure revealing itself to me off to the right, but after I had pursued it for a few minutes it popped up again toward the left. Somehow I managed to pin down the location of the Mustafa Paşa Mosque, wagging my finger at the teasing minaret as I climbed the stairs alongside it. I had not been to a mosque in almost twelve years, and the sight was truly incredible. The dome rose up high over the courtyard with its washing area and small garden, and people congregated around idly as if waiting for something to happen (I would soon learn, as I describe in Friday Morning at the Mosque, that services were about to begin).
Above the doorway was carved, in the elegant strokes of Arabic calligraphy, a message to the savvy visitor about the construction of the mosque. Alas, this visitor is not so savvy. Beyond the entrance the interior expands tall and wide, giving the impression walking through the slender neck of a bottle before discovering its true dimensions. The detail that I found inside was extraordinary. More Arabic calligraphy covered the walls and painted a picture of faith and beauty. Forbidden from rendering images of Allah or even Mohammed, writing became a form of artistic expression, and its delicate curves and subtle finery gave the mosque a hallowed feel. A leaf-like design spread out in a kind of soft triangle in the four corners of the interior, in colours that varied depending on the side of the room. At the back, set into the wall in impressive detail, was the mihrab, showing the faithful the way toward Mecca. There was one man inside praying, bowing east toward the mihrab, although off to the side. He looked up at me for a moment, and I suddenly felt guilty for being in this place of worship snapping pictures. I needn’t have felt that way, though, and the man made that clear with a wide smile and a nod that showed that I was more than welcome.
As I exited the mosque, I saw that the washing area was growing more crowded. Though I had taken off my shoes before going inside, I suddenly wondered if it had perhaps been disrespectful that I had not washed my feet before entering. Again I was embarrassed, until I later discovered that this ceremony was specifically for prayer. Several women had arrived at this point and had begun putting on head scarves or hats to enter the mosque. They chatted happily to their friends and made their way in and out quickly, as services would start shortly and they would not be allowed at the mosque once they began.
After the end of the service, I walked back through the bazaar and had some lunch-ćebabi, naturally, with bread and raw onions. It is amazing what a person will eat when they are only interested in taste and not in how they will smell afterward. I had no one to impress, and I piled on the onions as I ate. Heading back into central Skopje, I had to smile as I looked around me. The Ottomans had been fully ousted from Macedonia a century earlier, and yet so much of that way of life persisted. Religion, culture, food, markets…it was all there just across the Vardar river.
City of Statues
Even strolling through the Čaršija there are signs that the West is close at hand. Heading back toward my hostel one afternoon I spotted a boy in a ‘Prison Break’ t-shirt. I laughed and thought about my friends, Sarah and Shane, as well as Courtney (we’re all big ‘Prison Break’ fans). But even as I made a mental note to remember it, I saw another t-shirt that was even better. The front of it just said, ‘Firefly’. Was it a reference to the greatest science fiction show ever made? I say it was, and you can’t take that away from me. Again, I found myself smiling. Even surrounded by sights and smells of the East, I knew that I couldn’t be too far from home.
Skopje is a modern city, after all, and you only have to spend a few minutes there to recognize that. There are some quirks that make sightseeing an adventure, of course. For example, if you didn’t know that адвокат was Macedonian for ‘lawyer’, you might begin to get the impression that city planners had gotten lazy about naming their streets and just went with this one word. Signs advertising legal services abound, and I regularly saw АДВОКАТ exactly where I would have expected a street sign. To be fair, the same can be said for Serbia (and in Kosovo I would even be told that the street names change so frequently that no one bothers putting up signs-whether the same logic is behind the Serbian and Macedonian distaste for signage, I do not know), so I shouldn’t really single out Skopje on this one. Playful musings aside, it is a city with both feet firmly planted in the 21st century.
I have discussed the myriad sculptures that are to be seen in Skopje, especially in Macedonian Square, but what I found particularly delightful about the city was the preponderance of modern as well as ancient-looking statues. They are everywhere, although they are sometimes hard to spot. ‘Hidden in plain sight’ seems to have been the acting philosophy when placing these monuments in a playfully artistic mentality, and strolling through the city one is met with surprises around almost every corner. The statues often appear to be pedestrians themselves, frozen in whatever pose the artist happened to catch them. A woman walks gracefully down the street while talking on her cell phone, a man leads an invisible partner across a dance floor, a bull prepares to charge. Thankfully, this last is merely an imagined pedestrian, although with the earthquakes that have ravaged this city over the centuries (most recently, and with devastating consequences, in 1963), one wonders if this bull is a reminder of a force that is quiet now but sits waiting to be unleashed.
Mother Teresa, born in Skopje and of Albanian descent, is also remembered with a touching memorial in front of a patch of grass where the house of her birth once stood. Walking past, you could almost miss it, but for the flowers set out in front. Elsewhere, two people sit at a table without chairs to support them, the effect both mysterious and intriguing. Finally, one of my personal favourites is of a metallic man leaning against a wall, casually checking the time and advertising the Božinovski watch shop.
As a last image of Skopje, I leave you with another of my favourite statues. This old man, appearing to beckon the interested traveler closer, sits almost directly in front of the Božinovski shop. He is ancient, as you can see from the lines in his face and the veins in his hand, but he is still there and willing to share what he has seen. Božinovski’s modern marvel could be interpreted as looking at his watch with impatience, wondering when the past will finally catch up to the future. This old man is a reminder, however, that the past is one thing that Skopje has always been willing to hold onto. Ancient architecture may have fallen with earthquakes and the whims of politicians, but Macedonian Square is erecting it anew. The Ottomans may have retreated to their bastion of the Bosporus, but that tradition lives on in the people of the North Bank, who keep the old ways alive and blend them with the new. This city of Skopje may be transforming itself into a modern European capital, with tall buildings, shopping malls, cinemas and restaurants, but it is nevertheless steeped in history both ancient and eastern. The old man knows this, and he patiently waits for you to sit with him for a while and hear about what Skopje has in store for the world.