A Blinkered Greek Nationalist View of the Past Fails the Test of the Present

Statements made by UN mediator Matthew Nimetz following his meetings (Feb 2) with Macedonian foreign minister Dimitrov and President Ivanov, invited a response from the Greek diplomatic corps which doubled-down on the country’s position regarding the identity of Macedonians. In order words, the government of Greece stated publicly that the identity of the Macedonian people is up for negotiation and must be redefined if Macedonia wants to become part of NATO and the EU.

Here is a brief background on the remark; it came after Mr. Nimetz stated that he hasn’t “heard anything during his visit to Greece that would suggest FYROM’s national identity was being disputed,” reports Ekathimerini. To this, Greek diplomatic sources retorted that Greece’s “position on the issue of the tiny Balkan nation’s identity is clear…

“We do not interpret Mr Nimetz and he shouldn’t interpret our positions. Greeks say the Slavic population inhabiting FYROM cannot claim to have a Macedonian identity or language, as the latter have been a part of Greece’s history since the times of the warrior kings of ancient Macedonia.”

From behind its major holdout in the negotiations, grounded in ancient history, Greece is intent on stamping down the right of self-determination of Macedonians, forcing the imperative that another nation must become oblivious to its national memory and reinvent its identity if it wishes to exist as one within the borders of the nation-state that it inhabits. Even the sparrows across the European landscape see through the absurdity of Greece’s demands in that ancient history — a completely impractical area of consideration — is deployed in a real-world problem of international relations and geopolitics. So what could be done?

Macedonia can’t garner the kind of international support that would put pressure on Greece to accommodate its stance to the reality of the situation. If the name issue persists and Macedonia remains outside NATO and the EU, the pressure will be on Macedonia, say political commentators in the country. That is understandable, as there are many ways to exert pressure on a tiny state that has pressing internal problems. “They” could “send” the Albanians, for example, on any given occasion that invites public nationalist displays that have in mind to irritate the rest of the population and prolong the stagnation or if you will, the sporadic progress; or “they” could deploy financial tricks on Macedonian exports in order to deliver a series of blows to the economy.

But what is the end game here? Does Macedonia need to capitulate so that this knot is untangled by force, or could we all get over ourselves and do this sidetracked region a favor — for a solution yields more progress and benefit to all than the unyielding fists of calloused nationalists. A show of good will is all it takes.

But to return to the ancient history holdout that is inhabited by both determined and latent Greek nationalists. It is necessary that Greek diplomacy and that country’s institutions of science and learning are reminded that their position regarding ancient history is crudely one-sided, insensible and does not allow any room for open interpretation and dialog. If the ancient history dimension of the name issue had been left to regional and international experts on the subject, its role would have been diminished to a lesser factor of decisiveness in the resolution of the name issue.

Arguably, if history is such a “sensitive” subject for the Greek state, then this subject is of equal or greater importance to the future of the entire Balkan region: precisely, state-sanctioned-or-supported constructs of modern national identities, which are not rooted in contemporary challenges and visions for the future, are inherently anti-democratic and unyielding to the evolutionary process of regional integration. Another look in that direction brings to one’s awareness that without a meaningful integration effort the countries of the Balkans will remain economically peripheral and may slide backwards, further away from the European core.

So what would remedy a hardline state-sanctioned-and-state-supported ultimatist national narrative (“Macedonia is Greek”) that is causing so much unnecessary trouble in these precarious times and one that works contrary to the idea of the European vision for the future? For starters, it is necessary that any nationalist myth/narrative that purports to elevate one nation against another (or all the others)(1) becomes debunked, for it will always be a barrier to the fair resolution of the name issue, and is ignorant to the fascinating complexity of the becoming of this historically, linguistically and culturally diverse and multilayered region of Europe.

Naming and Renaming

I will start my brief quest by opening up a view into the rash Greek nation-building project since the conception of the Greek state. Just one small detail reveals that the ancient Hellenic pride of the modern Greek nation has been thrown on top of a discontinuity of the cultural tradition which it pretends to uphold. In other words, claims of temporal and spatial ownership of land and history by modern Greeks could only be possible by erasing and forgetting the previous cultural traditions that existed behind that country’s modern borders.

Case in point is the Tomb of Unknown Soldier memorial, next to the National Greek Assembly’s building, in front of which thousands of Greeks amassed during the February 4 protest for the preservation of the Greek character of Macedonia. When constructing the memorial from 1930–1932, the architects of the Greek state wanted to have its walls inscribed with the names of places where Greek soldiers have fought historic battles, including the Korea war (fought under the UN flag). Of course, most of the towns and villages where Greek soldiers fought were in Greece, or in a broader sense, in the Balkans.

One thing is amiss about the monument though — some of the towns and villages are inscribed in their original toponyms, which have been given Greek names in a later effort of consolidating the Greekness of the newly-won territories. There is a strange correlation between the Greek state and renaming.

So, the village in Norther Greece that in the Macedonian memory exists as Banitsa (ΜΠΑΝΙΤΣΑ) (a type of bread) is today known as Karie or Symvoli; the village Petsovo (ΠΕΤΣΟΒΟ) — originating from the verbs for baking and earning, is today called Dito; the toponym Ostrovon(2) (ΟΣΤΡΟΒΟΝ) close to the border with Republic of Macedonia, can be found by the name Arnissa; the toponym written as SOROVICH, known today as Aminteo, used to be called Surovichevo, which in the XIX century was populated by about 700 Macedonians, 35 Turks and 30 Rom.

Clearly, the Greek nation-building effort shows its inconsistencies: some places which had been originally inhabited by Macedonians, Albanians, Turks, Vlachs, Roma and Bulgarians retained their original, mostly Macedonian names. But they were subsequently grecicized. One wonders, was it too late to remove the blocks with the original names Banitsa and Petsovo and replace them with new, uninscribed ones? (3)

You and your Memories are Forbidden!

Now moving on to the wild claims that the Macedonian people have arrived wholesale from behind the Carpathians and that they have nothing to do with the Macedonians of antiquity. That an ancient Macedonian tradition has remained and survived throughout the centuries is revealed by many facts and details, including toponyms and a number of given-names, some of which are exclusive to Macedonia.

In the Macedonian tradition of shortening or endearing given names (ex: Aleksandar — Sasho, Sande and even Aco; Atanas — Tane, Doncho — Done, etc.) several ancient Macedonian names have been passed-on down the generations: the name Gone is derived from Antigon which most likely is an ancient pre-Greek name whose meaning likely has to do with speed or running. Antigon the One-Eyed was a Macedonian general during Phillip and Alexander and was the founder of a dynasty. His fame must have caused the passing-down of his name to the progeny. In the Ottoman census books the name Gone appears throughout Macedonia, but has fallen out of favor in modern times; however, it has been preserved in the family name Gonev, which appears in eastern Macedonia and suggests to a continuation of the Paionian element on the territory of the country.

The name Tole is possibly derived from the name Ptolemy and the Ptolemaic dynasty which ruled Egypt and had without any doubt maintained relations with Macedonia. This name also appears in the Ottoman census books. Furthermore, the town of Bitola gets its name (according to one legend) from a chieftain named Tole, who was chosen as the leader against the Ottoman invasion; hence, Bitola comes from Tole being cheered on by the city’s dwellers, who called bi-Tole or “Tole to be” [the leader].

The name Mincho may be a derivative from the name Amynta. The name Rope (preserved in the Aegean Macedonian surname Ropev/Ropevski may originate from Dropida, the father of Cleitus the Black; one variant may possibly derive from the name Europa; and other two possibilities are Dropion — a Paeonian king or Asterop, also a Paionian and a military leader or chelnik(4) who is mentioned in Homer’s Illiad(5)

It appears that there is a correlation between the aforementioned names as they all contain rop whose etymology can only be speculated. It is sensible to assume that rop could have been a remnant of an earlier culture or language that left its mark on the Haemus peninsula, as both the Greeks, Macedonians and Paionians became as result of newly arriving tribes mixing with those who were previously there.

One of the blocks in the amphitheater in Heraklea, Bitola has PAIONIA inscribed on it, pointing to the diplomatic relations between the Macedonian dynasties and Paionian rulers

In Ottoman census books from the XV century the name Phillip appears often in the form Vilip; Alexander appears as Alekso or Alek. There is also a very peculiar name, Agrijan, found in villages of the north-west as noted in XV century census books; this name is most likely a remnant of the Paionian tribe Agriani which inhabited northern Republic of Macedonia proper.

One of the most peculiar names, and exclusive to Macedonia, is the name Indo which has been preserved in the family name Indov/Indovski. The only possible explanation of this name is through the existence of the region Sinthia and the town Sint which existed in Paionia (Dojran region, Republic of Macedonia proper). The origin of this name, however, may have a much more distant past than that of the ancient Macedonians, because it resonates with the Sindhi of Northern India as well as the river Sindh (Indus), which is but one detail into the arrival of Indo-Iranian tribes, likely from both Asia Minor and Eastern Europe routs between XVII to XII century BC.

And speaking of this ancient migration, there is a historic figure from around that time whose name is Alakshandu (6), implying that monolithic claims to historic ownership are blind to the complexity of cultural fusion, migration and language borrowing.

The male name noted in the census books as Kumanche (diminutive of Kuman) is peculiar to Aegean Macedonian villages in northern Greece. This name attests the reach of the tribe Kumani, who inhabited parts of the Balkan peninsula and Hungary. There are two villages in modern Greece that bear the Kuman ethnonym — the villages Kumanich, one near the border with Bulgaria and one in the Drama region.

I have also discovered the names Rajan and Brajan (Ryan and Brian if you will) in XV century books. Although the origin of this name has been traced in the Celtic language, they appear in Macedonia. Both Brajan and Rajan have fallen out of favor over the next few centuries, however, they are preserved in the family names Brajkov/ski and Rajkov/ski.

Then there are female names that further inform the fascinating mix of influences which had taken place in Macedonia. The name Kala (likely of Indo-Iranian origin) had been a very popular name throughout Macedonia in the XV century. The name Armenka points to an Armenian influence. The names Persa echoes the ancient Macedonian king Perseus and likely, the Achaemenid (Persian) influence in Macedonia, as they have ruled the land of today’s Republic of Macedonia proper for an entire century and may have found a mutually intelligible language with the inhabitants of Paionia and Thrace.

The name Varuna appears in a number of Macedonian villages in Northern Greece. Its origin can be only related to the Vedic sky deity of the same name. In the Aryan lexicon the word vari and the Macedonian and Slavic word vari are both descriptive of heat and boiling. It could have been so that this deity was associated with the sky because of the sun which emanates heat — hence the name. Another brief note about the word vari is that it appears in the history of Cyprus — precisely, its old capital city was called Varosa — not unusual of a city name in the Balkans, as each old-town nucleus of most cities in Macedonia used to be called varosh: the old town Varosh of Ohrid, the Varosh of Prilep, Gostivar; also Varna in Bulgaria; Varanasi in India; Ferencvaros in Hungary; possibly Lisdoonvarna in Ireland (for its hot springs) and so on.

Varuna lived in the XV century in the village Lundovo, Aegean Macedonia, today known as Krya Nera, south of Kastoria

The name Roksana, which also has the male version Roksan, is peculiar to western Macedonia, especially in the Mijak villages. Roxana was a Sogdian princess who became wife to Alexander the Great. She traveled to Macedonia with her son, and heir to the throne, where they were protected by Alexander’s mother Olympia. The relation between Alexander the Great and Sogdia is preserved in another way that is more substantial for the consideration of the present. The Yagnob people of Tajikistan, who speak a remnant of the Sogdian language, have a number of words in their lexicon that sound both same and similar in the Macedonian language and have the same or similar meaning. (More on the Yagnobi lexicon in another publication.)

In the memory of Stamat, Roksa and their son Risto Dukovski

The evidence of Indo-Iranian migrations and their influence in the Balkans, and in this case, their influence in Macedonia, lead us to several place-names in the country that have retained their pre Ancient-Macedonian names and have resisted the Slavic influence. Some such places are the village Nichpur (places of the same name exist in both Iran and India); Armatush in Pelagonia; Peshkopeja* on the border with Albania (Peshkopi in Albanian) which stems from the verb pesh and sheta (pesh — to walk — is shared between Macedonian and Greek and Phillip’s infantry was called the peshetairoi); the village Pishkupati, on the Albanian side of Lake Ohrid also contains the verb for walk; the village Badar on the river Vardar comes from the word “vardara” which contains the word for water “vari”, registered in the Sanskrit lexicon; and other examples.

One brief reflection on the Phrygians of Asia Minor. It is believed that they shared ties of kinship with a related people called the Brygians, because they had originally lived in the Balkans. It is also possible that these tribes maintained a semi-nomadic relations in that they visited each other, meeting along the way other tribes of similar language and culture. At any rate, we should be thankful to this ancient people, who fought on the side of the Trojans against the Hellenes, for giving us the Smurf’s hat. There is a possibility that some of the old inhabitants of Republic of Macedonia and western Bulgaria have retained a Phrygian cultural artifact — that very same hat, which was also worn by Paris and other Trojans, as can be seen on their marble busts.

The Phrygian-Trojan “Smurf” hat
Macedonian oro dance in Australia; two of the men are wearing the Phrygian hat

History is Digital

All of this gives weight to the argument that the elements which comprise the historic past of the geographical region Macedonia, containing all the people that populate it including the Macedonian nation, can be neither downplayed or erased from existence by diplomatic arm-twisting. The spread of the Internet also facilitated the consequential phenomenon of digitalization of historic documents and literature; because history is now digital, it has become readily available for anyone (dabblers and dilettantes included) to re-imagine and re-interpret the fragments that comprise our species’ past. This is more than welcome because in the past decades entire narratives of a particular past have been construed by people with different biases, resulting in large segments of a particular population having a distorted view of their own past or that of their neighbors, or the past of people who come from a strange and previously unknown cultural context.

After more than a century of consuming foreign propaganda aimed at de/re nationalising the population, the people of Macedonia have stated to gather up the scattered pebbles that make up the true picture of the Macedonian mosaic. As I am not surprised nor afraid to find out, this mosaic reflects not the exception but the rule that follows all modern nations: that behind the vulgarized facade of any national project hides a myriad of details that have the natural tendency of rendering that project into one that is inter-national in its true nature.

In light of this argument, the determination that we see in the Greek state to erase what is unerasable, will only deepen the etchings and the result will be the raising of a voice and spreading of information that can not be contained, because, the Internet: the folly of the Greek nationalist statism will be called time and again through public lectures, symposiums, documentaries, annual meetings of the Macedonian children refugees and their offspring, and not just on one continent. In this way many people in Greece will eventually grapple with the thought how Greek was Ancient Macedonia, does or let’s say how much right of ownership does Greece have over ancient history, how did the Greek state expand and what happened to those who were not Greek; and last but not least, the question of the post-national inevitability, “does the myth of my nation’s creation have any relevance juxtaposed to the present-day problems”?

Then, why should the participants of any nation be “assisted” by the state in delimiting themselves to a monolithic self-perception of their identity as individuals, when in the modern era the identity of the Self has the tendency to unchain itself from the self-perception of the national identity?

As my concluding words, I can only say that the political behavior on the part of Greece, as witnessed and recognized by political figures in Europe, as well as major media (Der Spiegel) and the rest of the world (more than 130 countries have recognized Republic of Macedonia under its constitutional name), is truly nonsensical. Simply considering the fact that ancient history can not bear any practical use or implications in international relations obviates the fact that the Greek political establishment is today a major obstacle to the advancement and integration of the Balkan region. Furthermore, harboring a one-sided view of history also means that a one-sided view is held regarding the complexity of the present, which is to the detriment of the many, including the people and their political reality in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

End notes:

1.“When my people were writing philosophy, your people were swinging from trees” — line from the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding

2. Interestingly, some scholars believe that the inhabitants of ancient Paionia spoke some form of a Slavic language. John Shea likens the Paionian toponym Astraion to the Slavic word ostrov (island) and the ruins of Byla Zora translates directly to “white dawn.” The ancient Macedonian kingdom’s capital city was Pella or Bella meaning white. “Macedonia and Greece: The Struggle to Define a New Balkan Nation, p52”

3. As for Macedonia, the lack of nation-building effort and preservation of existing toponyms can be attested by the existence of Turkish toponyms (predominantly east of the Vardar); this shows that the Macedonian state did not engage in wiping out the cultural influence of the Turks or anyone else.

4. Both the ancient Paionians and Macedonians used the word Tselniku or Chelniku, a designation for military strategist; chelo in modern Macedonian means forehead and the word chelnik in Macedonian is a person who leads, like gradonachalnik (city mayor).

5. See Basil Chulev “Ancient Macedonia — Paionia)

6. The Aryans by V. Gordon Childe, p45

*I am noting a remark regarding the etymology of the town of Peshkopeja; the word bishop – peshkup in Albanian, was pointed as the source of this toponym.

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