Why is the name Macedonia so controversial?
North Macedonia took its official name in early 2019. Previously known as FYROM (the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) or by other simpler but controversial names, the recent re-naming of the country ended a decades long dispute between Athens and Skopje.
North Macedonia became independent as Yugoslavia fell apart and in that moment a larger dispute between Greece and the newly independent nation broke out. At the core of the conflict was the name of the new country itself. The people from North Macedonia were Macedonians with a deep connection to the region and its history. But from Greece’s perspective, how could a new independent country be called Macedonia when Greece already has the region of Macedonia? Deepening the division is the most famous Macedonian of them all: Alexander the Great who united the Greeks.
Untangling this question of naming unravels complex questions of identity, politics, and history. On this program, we will travel from Athens, the Capital of Greece through Thessaloniki (the Capital of Macedonia in Greece) before we make our way into Skopje. We will absorb the different perspectives on the names, reflect on the impact of the recent decision, and question the political motivations behind the conflict and the resolution.
In Athens, we’ll explore how a modern capital can be built on thousands of years of history. We will investigate the historical core of Greece atop the Acropolis and meet with locals and experts to understand the political struggle about the naming of North Macedonia from within Greece.
We will see the changing of the guards at Syntagma and unpack the cities own complicated history and role as the modern Greek capital. We’ll also try some of the best Souvlaki in the city and have dinner at a local taverna run by our friends.
From Athens, we will fly to the second largest city in Greece: Thessaloniki, the capital of the Macedonian region. Thessaloniki is an incredible city with a remarkably different history the Athens. Here we’ll have an introduction to this complex city while we try some of the local specialty sweets (Bougatsa!). We’ll also meet with locals who participated in the protest to understand their perspective on the issue and how they feel about the new name.
We will climb to the fortress at the top of the city and visit some of the Greek Churches with hidden crypts and layers of ruins. We’ll have dinner in the Aristotle Square and spot for a debrief in the coolest cafe spaces in all of Europe. (Hint: It’s tied to an American Brand)
Skopje, North Macedonia
We will drive North across the border between Greece and North Macedonia and continue onto the capital: Skopje. Skopje is one of the most intriguing cities of Europe as it has a mix of different time periods on systems of governance. The Yugoslav socialist history is very present as is the recent political strategy to cover the city in massive (and at times over the top) statues.
We will meet with locals from a variety of backgrounds to see how they feel about the resolution and why they fight over the name took so long. We’ll also take some time to reflect on the bigger questions the trip has presented before making our way back home.
Atlas Workshops has a deep network in Greece and a passion for connecting ancient stories to the present day. We also love the former Yugoslavia countries where we have extensive experience travelling and leading groups. This program mixes the two regions tied through a fascinating conflict.
We could adapt the trip to include other similar disputes in the region, such as a visit to Kosovo, or dive deeper into either country’s cultural history with deeper explorations. We could also adapt the program objectives to be more outcome driven, perhaps incorporating a design project, a publication, or even putting together guides and lessons for communities back home about a specific issue we encountered through the program.
We think this program really grapples with the importance of history, the careful usage of wording, political strategy at a local and regional scale, and American involvement overseas. More importantly the conflict in the region represents the soft disputes that have replaced the battles of WWII and the tension of the cold war perfectly.
If you are interested in other travel to the region you could dive more into the history of Yugoslavia on this program or you could consider other current political events in Greece, on a trip to Lesvos. We can also take you to other parts of Europe where the soft conflict and remnants of the cold war is opening up new divisions.