Friday, November 10, 2006

Macedonia: Geography and Brief History

Macedonia was a region with no clear borders and not even a formal existence as an administrative Ottoman entity. A bewildering mix of different peoples, hemmed in by newly created states - Greece to the south, Serbia and Bulgaria to the north - it became the focus for their expansionist ambitions at the century's close. Its ethnography, however, posed a challenge
for the most ardent Balkan nationalist and had changed out of all recognition since the days of Alexander the Great. The peasantry of the region were predominantly Orthodox, and mostly Slav speakers, Greek-speakers fringed coastal areas and inhabited the towns.

The history of the Macedonians began in the seventh century B.C., and Macedonia appeared for the first time on the historical scene as a geographical-political entity in the fifth century B.C., extending from the origin of the River Aliakmon and Mount Olympus to the River Strymon. The Greek tribe of the Macedons migrated from Orestis (present-day Argos Orestikon-Kastoria district, Greek western Macedonia) eastward and occupied what the historian Thucydides called "Lower Macedonia" or "Macedonia by the Sea" (present-day central Macedonia, Greece). According to the historian Peter Green (1991, p. 4), "Lower Macedonia was the old central kingdom, founded by semi-legendary cattle barons ... and ruled over by the royal dynasty of the Argeads, to which Philip himself belonged. About 700 B.C. this noble clan had migrated eastward from Orestis in the Pindus mountains, looking for arable land".

King Philip ΙΙ, father of Alexander the Great, a visionary, dynamic Greek leader, ascended to Macedonia's throne in 359 B.C., and in less than four years he managed to build his broken-up country, defeat Macedonia's enemies, and enlarge his kingdom. A leading statesman in the Greek world by 342 B.C., proclaiming his devotion to Zeus. Apollo and Heracles. Philip made Macedonia the leading military power in Europe.' "In less than four years he transformed Macedonia from a backward and primitive kingdom to one of the most powerful states of the Greek world"


By conquests or alliances, he also united the Greek city-states into a single country, Greece. A leader with brilliant political initiative and power of persuasion, he organized the "Greek Community" (to koinon ton Ellellon) in which the Greek states were bound by oath to keep peace among themselves. "He brought into being the combination of a newly created Greek state, self-standing and self-governing, and a Macedonian state which was unrivaled in military power" (Hammond 1997, p. 20). Occupying a critical geostrategic position in the Balkans, Macedonia in its tumultuous history over two millennia witnessed three multiethnic empires that ruled vast territories in three continents. It first witnessed the unification of the Greek city-states by King Philip ΙΙ, followed by Alexander the Great's spread of a culturally and nationally diverse empire that extended to Egypt in Africa and the Hindu Kush in Asia and survived -divided into five smaller, distinct empires, Macedonia being one -for three centuries after his death in 323 B.C.2 The three post-Alexander centuries, perceived as the Hellenistic Age, saw the dissemination of Greek civilization from one end to the other of Alexander's empire (Durant 1939).


Then arrived the Romans, who, by 145 B.C., had conquered vast areas in Africa, Asia, and Europe. Under Aemilius Paulus, they annihilated the Macedonian army at Pydna, destroyed seventy Macedonian cities, abolished the monarchy, and split the kingdom into four tributary republics which they annexed to the Roman Imperilrm (Mitsakis 1973). The last Macedonian king, Perseus, was imprisoned in Italy and died of maltreatment. In 146 B.C., the Romans combined Macedonia, Epirus, and Illyria and formed a large province which they called "Provincia Macedonia." As the Romans consolidated their possessions in Macedonia, Latin was spoken from Danube south to a line from Durres, Albania, to Lake Ochris, Skopje, Strobo, Sofia, and east to the Black Sea. Greek predominated south of this line. Banac (1992, p. 46) placed the line for the Hellenic language farther north to Skopje and Sofia. After one more millennium in the Byzantine Empire, religiously and culturally distinct from the Western Roman Empire, Macedonia fell together with the remainder of Greece to the Ottomans and remained enslaved till the beginning of the twentieth century, when it was liberated by the armies of the Balkan Alliance (Dakin 1966; Mitsakis 1973). Ever since Macedonia's conquest by the Romans in 168 B.C., its borders were ill-defined, depending on the political and military designs of its conquerors and the plans of the peripheral powers that attempted to influence or annex it. It is impossible to define Macedonia's frontiers, wrote Wilkinson (1951).

The British historian Nicholas Hanmond(1972), the first to define Macedonia as a nonpolitical area, wrote: "If we try to define Macedonia on political lines, we shall be chasing a chameleon through the centuries.... As a geographical area [ancient] Macedonia is best defined as the territory which is drained by the two great rivers Haliacmon and the Vardar [Axios] and their tributaries."


Macedonia has never in modern times been a political or administrative unit. It is therefore impossible to assign it even approximate boundaries. The Roman conquerors regarded or ignored the limits of the independent Macedonian kingdom they had conquered and made part of a larger Roman province; their Byzantine successors did the same. By the Middle Ages Macedonia's location had been forgotten and designated in areas mostly outside the original Macedonian kingdom. It was then overrun by the Bulgars and the Serbs, and finally conquered by the Ottoman Turks in the second half of the fourteenth century. Under Turkish rule Macedonia vanished completely from administrative terrninology and survived only as a legend in the oral Greek traditions. It reappeared on West European maps ofearly modern times strangely and imaginatively designated on and around the original nucleus. Notions about its location were further conhsed in the nineteenth century by scheming politicians and diplomats, learned travellers and amateur geographers serving different causes and interests. What came to be known as Macedonia has been essentially a 'hypothetical' country whose boundaries, notably its northern ones, have nloved between the outer reaches of ancient or 'historical'
Macedonia and modern or 'geographical' Macedonia. Rediscovered by travellers, cartographers and diplomats after centuries of being ignored or forgotten, misplaced or misunderstood, Macedonia and its inhabitants have never, since the begnning of the twentieth century, ceased being imagined and invented. So too has its past, both distant and more recent, by scholars ever toiling under the illusion that they are writing a definitive history of the land.'

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