If you wander the streets of Niš, Serbia, it will not be long before you stumble upon the huge statue of King Alexander Karađorđević, sitting proudly atop his horse and staring boldly into the middle distance. I came upon the park where his statue stands and was immediately impressed. It is a striking feature amidst an otherwise unadorned and simple park, and I approached the king with reverence before I even knew for certain that it was he. Upon reading his name engraved on the mount that supported horse and king, I nodded respectfully and decided to call the place Alexanderplatz (Berlin folks will get the joke, a play on Alexander Square, a famous-and much larger-square in Berlin).
King Alexander I, for those of you who do not already know, was the heir to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (inherited from King Peter, no less, which can only be a good sign). He assumed the throne in 1921 and reigned until his assassination in Marseilles in 1934. During that time, King Alexander abolished the constitution of the kingdom and gave himself dictatorial powers, even refusing to allow for secret ballots in the election of members of parliament. Despite these seemingly despotic tendencies, King Alexander is not known as Alexander the Terrible, but rather Alexander the Unifier. It was under this king that the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes adopted the official name, ‘Kingdom of Yugoslavia’ (long the colloquial moniker, dating back even to his father, Peter’s, day). He sought to align his kingdom with the West, even going so far as to attempt to replace Serbian Cyrillic with the Latin alphabet. Although not universally loved (especially by members of non-Serbian nationalities living inside Yugoslavia, who viewed his imposition of unity as Serbian domination), he is nevertheless considered to have been a great leader of Yugoslavia and set the course for the future of a country that South Slavs could call home.
I was anxious to describe my first visit to Alexanderplatz in an earlier post about Niš, but upon my arrival in Skopje I discovered something that bade me wait. As I noted in yesterday’s post, Skopje has its own statue of Alexander, although this one bears no relation to the former King of Yugoslavia. Naturally, the hero of Skopje’s own Alexanderplatz is Alexander the Great of Macedonia. His statue, which also depicts the ruler sitting atop a horse and looking proud and mighty, absolutely dominates Macedonian Square. It is quite possibly the largest, but at the same time grandest, monument I have ever seen. Sword drawn, Alexander looks as though he is ready to again conquer the world (although whether the fact that he appears to be facing south, toward Greece, is in any way significant, only people with too much time on their hands will decide).
It is no insult to Niš or King Alexander to assert that Alexander the Great’s extraordinary statue is far superior. An enormous column plunges up out of a fountain, hoisting Alexander and his stead aloft, while the leader’s fellow warriors surround the area with weapons at the ready, seeming to plunge through the deluge sent up every few seconds by the spumes from the surrounding fountain. It is truly a sight to behold, and although I could find no marker to tell what this monument commemorated, I got the feeling that that was part of the point. If there was anyone present, the entire array seemed to bellow, that did not know who this man was, then they were better off just moving along. This was Alexander the Great, himself a despot, but also a unifier.
If Alexander the Great cannot be missed in Skopje, Alexander of Yugoslavia is a little hard to find. On my last day in Niš, before making my way south to Macedonia (on an unknown pilgrimage to visit another Alexander), I tried to retrace my steps back to that great king of the line of Karađorđević. Chicken burger in hand (it was absolutely delicious-a flame-roasted treat, covered in spices!), I sought out Alexanderplatz but was unable to find it again. I am convinced that cities change shape around me just to keep me confused, and this experience did nothing to disabuse me of that notion. I left Niš without setting my eyes on this man again, but I arrived in Skopje to pay tribute to another of his name and of his ilk.
Interestingly, the comparison of the ancient and modern rulers goes deeper than their totalitarian schemes of unification, at least as concerns the cities who have erected their statues. Alexander the Great, though from Macedonia, was not from Skopje, although Justinian I (Byzantine ruler and another ‘Great’, by the way) was. Furthermore, King Alexander was not from Niš, but Constantine (yet another ‘Great’) was. In fact, Niš is preparing to celebrate the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan, granting religious freedom throughout the Roman Empire, in 2013. All told, that’s not too shabby a claim to fame, Niš.
So I sit back and think about these two great rulers, both possessed of their faults as well as their qualities, and I reflect on what a wonderful trip I was blessed to have had traveling around the Balkans. Both Niš and Skopje have their Alexanders, and bragging rights abound for each city, but what I found most pleasing was the symbol that each had for a commitment to history and remembering a great past (although the potential for abuse of such memories must always be guarded against). King Alexander’s statue had been destroyed by the communists during the 1960’s and was only replicated and rededicated in 2002. Alexander the Great’s statue is an even newer addition to Skopje, part of the city’s ‘Skopje 2014’ project to celebrate that city’s past glory.
In the end, I found it truly remarkable that these places retain such a connection to these historical leaders, and this is what I took away from each Alexanderplatz. History is there for the taking, both the good and the bad, and although pride can be warped and manipulated, if we’re careful and view past greatness as something to aspire to in cooperation with one another, lasting change is within our reach. So I choose to let these despots and unifiers inspire me, and I hope that they inspire the people of Niš and of Skopje as well.