Reeinventing Skopje

Warriors stand beneath Alexander the Great

Warriors stand beneath Alexander the Great

All major cities have a clear-cut identity. They’re historic, hip, Mediterranean, green, industrial, modern, rich or poor. Skopje is the exception to that rule: Socialist concrete, wannabe-splendour and Ottoman heritage collide in Macedonia’s capital.

Super-sized fountains and statues are the focal points of every square, their opulence reeking from 1960s socialist gigantism. The centrepiece of the gold-and-bronze-studded inner city is a 22-metre high statue of Alexander the Great – plainly called “Warrior on a Horse” for political reasons. The fountain beyond Macedonia’s national hero provides a nightly music and light show for visitors. Quite sophisticated for a supposedly five-decades old structure.


Alexander the Great overlooks the Macedonia Square

It turns out that the statue was erected only three years ago. The same goes for most of the other oversized structures. Why would a nation swamp its capital with this kind of exorbitant pomp?

The reason, as often, is nationalism. The conservative government memorializes its ethnic Macedonian heroes in order to strengthen the Macedonian identity, enraging plenty of their neighboring nations in the process.

The long-lasting feud with Greece was rekindled by the placement of the Alexander the Great statue on the Plostad Makedonia (Macedonia square) – the two countries have been fighting over the name Makedonia for decades. The construction of a triumphal arch depicting the whole geographic region of Makedonia, part of which is Albanian now, upset Macedonia’s western neighbors. Another statue disgruntled Bulgaria.


Bigger is…


…better in Skopje’s eyes.

Apart from politics, the architectural style offends some Macedonians. Former prime minister Ljubco Georgievski called the whole project “historic kitsch” and a “Macedonian Disneyland.” The discomfort is understandable considering the nicer side of Skopje: The Ottoman old town, a pleasant place for tourists, with its cobblestoned alleys and friendly restaurants. So far, the city renewal project – simply called “Skopje 2014” – has stayed away from the “Old Bazaar,” although two massive fountains have been erected right next to it.

Further away from the city centre, visitors find what many expect in Eastern European capitals – masses of grey concrete, remnants of the communist rule; the post office being the most spectacular example. Older buildings than those are one-in-a-million, and there is a reason for that.

Colourful squares are spread all over the city give it away. They show a date: 26 July 1963, the day an earthquake destroyed about 80 per cent of the city. Skopje was rebuilt, with the help of and donations from many other countries, after a plan by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange. Last year, the city commemorated the 50-year anniversary with the distribution of the now-omnipresent squares. Their colours now provide a refreshing change from the rest of the grey-and-gold city.

Cynics might note that it takes the anniversary of a catastrophe to improve the city’s appearance, but apart from all the architectural questionability, Skopje manages to be something attractive for tourists. It is unique, even without a single identity.


Martin Schauhuber

I'm an exchange student from Austria. If you speak german (or like photos), you can find more of my work at

Be first to comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.