Blog The Macedonian Identity in 19th century

The Macedonian Identity in 19th century

Posted by Author on in Blog 49

By Dr  Evangelos Kofos
Historian and Balkan expert

With the establishment of the modern Greek state in 1830, Greek national ideology developed on the basis of national continuity. It stressed classical Greek roots but also traced, from Byzantium, through Turkokratia, to Independence, the survival of the Greek nation, the Greek language, Greek customs and, of course, the Greek Orthodox religion.7 In Macedonia, however, emphasis was focused on two important, specific points. The first centred on the grandeur of ancient Macedonia and the saga of Alexander the Great. The magnetism of the great king, his achievements and the name of the Macedonians had been stimulants of Greek national ideology in Macedonia even before the Greek War of Independence;8 during the period of the Enlightenment, Greeks of Macedonia, both locally and in the diaspora, carried the Macedonian name as an additional testimony of their Greekness.9 As yet there was no challenge to the view that the ancient Macedonians were Greeks, and that the Greek inhabitants of Ottoman-held Macedonia were the only bona fide ethnic group entitled to bear the Macedonian name. These modern Makedones took pride in claiming descent from kings Philip and Alexander, just as eighteenth-century Athenian villagers traced their ’imagined’ lineage from Themistocles and Pericles.

The extraordinary revival of Hellenic names, particularly those of ancient Macedonian origin, which were given to children, to cultural clubs and even to towns (Edessa in lieu of Vodena, Monastir in lieu of Bitola) indicates...
how strongly the heritage of the past conditioned nationalist manifestations. 10 Interest in archaeological research in Macedonia was not limited to trained archaeologists or historians, but caught the imagination of local teachers, priests and professional people. In 1896 the monumental work by M. Dimitsas, an Ohrid philologist, appeared under the appropriate title I Makedonia en Lithois Fthengomenois kai Mnimeiois Sozomenois [Macedonia in Speaking Stones and Surviving Monuments].11 The product of years of laborious library and field work from one end of Macedonia to the other, this book stimulated among Greeks interest and pride in their national roots, as well as a sense of legal ownership of the land with the hidden testimonies of its Greekness. It is no wonder that nationalist literature of the period made repeated references to ancient ruins and Greek inscriptions to prove the Hellenic origins of Macedonians 12.

As education spread further into non-Greek-speaking communities, the Alexander saga captivated their imagination too. Seeking to identify themselves with the glory of the ancient Macedonians, they associated themselves with classical Hellas. It is not surprising that in the latter part of the nineteenth century, when, mainly in the central zone of Macedonia, Greek and Bulgarian ideologies competed for the loyalties of Slav-speaking communities, Greek educators and propagandists published and circulated the popular story of Alexander’s life in the local Slav dialect, but in Greek script. 13

Historical geography was similarly employed to determine ethnological boundaries as perceived by the competing national ideologies. Macedonia, a land of ill-defined and rather arbitrary geographical delimitation, was easy prey to manipulation by geographers, historians and politicians. Until the 1870s it was customary among Greeks to claim, on historical grounds, the entire geographical region of Macedonia as far north as the Shar mountains. Subsequently, the emergence of the Bulgarian national movement - and to a lesser extent Serbian activities -made necessary a more realistic approach. Indeed, Macedonian ethnography differed remarkably from region to region. Excluding the Muslims, three zones could be roughly identified. The northern zone, bordering on Serbia and the Bulgarian principality, extended over one third of the entire geographical area of Macedonia and was inhabited by Slav-speaking populations of either Bulgarian or Serbian orientation. The southern zone, bordering on Thessaly (annexed to the Greek kingdom after 1881), had a distinct Greek-speaking population. The central zone, however, was an ethnically mixed region of Greek, Slav and, to a lesser extent, Vlach-speaking Christians. Their national orientation varied from one locality to another. In terms of national identity, Slav speakers could invariably be split into Greek, Bulgarian or Serb factions, even within the same village community. 14 Such political realities curtailed earlier, excessive Greek claims to the northern zone. Greek historians came forward with more plausible theories concerning the historical boundaries of ancient Macedonia. Conveniently, these boundaries followed a west-east line from Lake Ohrid - Prilep - north of Monastir - Strumnitsa - Nevrokop - Nestos (Mesta) River. By coincidence or design, these northern limits corresponded almost perfectly with the northern boundary of the central zone. 15 The Greeks could thus argue that the political and cultural heritage of Macedonia, the historical geography of the region, and the Macedonian name all justified their aspirations to both the southern and the central zone.

The second pillar of Greek national ideology was the legacy of the Byzantine Empire. Quite apart from the traditional view of the advocates of the ’Great Idea’ that the modern Greek state was destined to act as a nucleus for a resurrected Byzantium, in Macedonia the medieval multi-ethnic, multilingual empire had a particular attraction. Prior to the appearance of Bulgarian, Serb and even Romanian national ideologies in Macedonia, the Byzantine tradition of multi-ethnic societies and empires had been popular among Balkan Greeks. It had found its expression in Rigas Ferraios’s dream of a Balkan federation. It was no coincidence that a significant number of Rigas’s disciples were Macedonian Greeks of the central European diaspora. Understandably, the Greeks expected to play the leading role in their visionary federation or empire. Much as Alexander’s campaigns had resulted in the multinational Hellenistic states of the diadochoi, spreading Greek culture and language over most of the Balkans and the NearEast, and much as the Eastern Roman empire had evolved into a Greek Byzantine society, so their visionary state was able to embrace other ethnic groups who were willing to share Greek language and culture. These romantic visions of the late eighteenth century and the early decades of the nineteenth gave way to more practical considerations as national states emerged in the Balkans. Nevertheless, in Macedonia Greek national ideology continued to be preoccupied with such considerations down to the early years of the twentieth century. The fact that a significant number of Slav speakers in the central zone of Macedonia, most of the Vlach-speaking communities, and the scattered Christian Albanian villages had opted for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and Greek education was an encouraging sign to the Greeks that Greek national ideology stood a good chance of being adopted by the majority of the Christian population of central and southern Macedonia. 16

A third historical weapon in the arsenal of Greek ideology emerged after the Bulgarian ecclesiastical schism. It related exclusively to Macedonia and, to a lesser extent, southern Thrace. For almost a quarter of a century since 1870, the contest between Greeks and Bulgarians in Macedonia over the Slav-speaking inhabitants had developed on the basis of ecclesiastical loyalties. Opting for the Bulgarian Exarchate, particularly in the absence of physical coercion by armed bands, was sufficient evidence of Bulgarian national identity. Greek nationalists, fearing that the neutral, ecumenical and non-racist approach of the Ecumenical Patriarchate could not serve their needs for national polarization, sought to Hellenize the institution of the Church. To them it was not enough that the language of the liturgy was Greek and the clergy Greek speakers. The Orthodox faith - the only ’true’ faith - and the Church - with all its saints - must acquire a distinct and convincing Greek identity. The peasants of Macedonia, by remaining loyal to the Patriarchate, would accordingly continue to be listed as ’true’ believers, while simultaneously being ushered into the ’cherished’ world of Greek national ideology. 17

Thus the legacies of Hellenic - and Hellenistic - Macedonia, of the medieval Byzantine Empire and the traditions of the Greek Orthodox Church, all contributed to rendering Greek national ideology adaptable to the unique requirements of nineteenth-century Macedonia. In order to spread this ideology and at the same time cope with the Bulgarian challenge (and to a lesser extent with that of Serbian and Romanian ideologies), the Greeks employed all traditional means at their disposal: schools, cultural associations, the press, and distinguished personalities. In doing so, however, they were exposed to contradictory signals emanating from the two centres of Hellenism: the irredentist, revolutionary nationalism of the capital of the independent Greek state, and the conservative, evolutionary ecumenicism of the Constantinople-based hierarchy of the subject Greeks. This strain was clearly manifested in the uneasy, and at times polemical, relations between Greek consuls and bishops in the dioceses of Macedonia. Consular dispatches to the Athens government and bishops’ reports to the Constantinople Patriarchate provide ample evidence of the two different approaches. It was only at the turn of the century, when the ecclesiastico-educational contest between Greeks and Bulgarians developed into armed struggle between opposing bands, that the Church’s evolutionary approach was subjected to the requirements of militant national ideology.18

* The above text is an excerpt from the article by Evangelos Kofos titled “National Heritage and National Identity in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Macedonia”, published in the “European History Quarterly, 1989, Vol 19”» The title of the thread as the bolding parts are my own and not of the author. The references located in the paper.