The most amazing thing about Skopje’s crumbling medieval fortress is not its stunning view over the city, or its complex history. The most amazing thing is that it survived at all.
Skopje, the capital of Macedonia in the southern Balkans, has been inhabited for at least 6,000 years. It boasts a rich Sephardic legacy and was a stop on the ancient spice route from Constantinople. But the fortress was one of the few structures standing when most of Skopje was destroyed in a 1963 earthquake, and the city had the great misfortune to be rebuilt at precisely the moment when East European architecture was, by broad consensus, at its postwar nadir.
So a few years ago, officials decided to do something about it. Macedonia may not have E.U. membership or even a national identity everyone can agree on — its very name is contested by neighboring Greece, while its claim to a separate Slavic language is disputed by many Bulgarians, and a third of its population is ethnically Albanian — but its capital could at least get a makeover. The result was “Skopje 2014,” an ambitious project that has installed lavish neoclassical museums, ornate fountains, statue-dotted plazas, and heroic monuments throughout the city center.
Not everybody thinks all this classical kitsch is tasteful — but for the first time in a long time, Skopje has given tourists something exciting to look at.
And something to do. Recently unveiled attractions inside those new structures include the Holocaust Memorial Center, a moving if not particularly well-stocked display, and the National Archaeological Museum of Macedonia, which looks a lot like the James A. Farley Post Office in Manhattan, except with an entry promenade flanked by ornate, gilded lampposts and bronze statues of classical heroes bearing shields.
Not all these buildings are architectural wonders … but their sheer ambition is compelling. Take the considerable investment evident in the recently unveiled Holocaust Memorial, for example, and the three-story Jewish Community Center, inaugurated in 2015 with a large menorah in its courtyard. Skopje’s Jewish community consists of just a few dozen families, but the city was a diaspora refuge for much of the last millennium, a history acknowledged by these recent constructions. Over the centuries, Sephardim expelled from Iberia, Greece, Holland, and elsewhere in Europe settled in Macedonia, enriching Skopje’s commercial life as merchants under a series of empires.
Their eventual fate becomes clear in one poignant object — a wooden train car, painted with Bulgarian insignias, which transported Skopje’s Sephardim to Treblinka. The searing simplicity of that wagon contrasts with the soaring, stone-and-glass edifice of the Holocaust Memorial, which also displays photographs and artifacts from the 2,500-strong prewar community. Across the Vardar River, in a pretty neighborhood near the verdant City Park, the JCC houses a small but lovely synagogue (with infrequent services), along with several communal organizations.
But Jews are marginal to Skopje’s ethnic drama — a tense détente between Orthodox Christian Slavs in the modern districts south of the River Vardar, and Albanian Muslims and Roma in the shabby, older quarters to the city’s north. The cityscape is punctuated by minarets and Ottoman-style domes, while conversation turns toward the arrivals of newer Muslims, migrants from the eastern stretches of that old spice route.
If Skopje has a historic core, it’s probably the central bazaar, a fascinating cultural smorgasbord on the eastern riverbank. To wander through this jumble of Byzantine ruins, Turkish baths, Ottoman mosques, a clock tower, ethnological museums, folk art galleries, and souvenir shops is to taste the confusion that is modern Macedonia — a country that only recently gained its independence, yet whose status is largely defined as a place of transit.
Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle is a few blocks away. Built in a neo-Ottoman style, with a soaring, jewel-blue stained glass dome and a stunning interior of circular balconies, the museum is a mournful tribute to this territory’s age-old effort to define itself amid a shifting landscape — literally and figuratively — of bitter ethnic rivalries and repressive empires.
The third in Skopje’s right-bank museum trio is the National Archaeological Museum, and it’s here that the post-independence tendency toward historical kitsch reaches its apogee. If you can make it past what looks like a recreation of an Iliad battle scene into the entrance without an ironic smile, you’ll probably succumb somewhere between a replica of Alexander the Great’s sarcophagus (Alex is the disputed national icon, claimed with equal fervor, naturally, by Greece) and a mini-wax museum of great Macedonian heroes, including good old Alex in his prime.
It’s hard not to root for a capital that’s trying so hard. Shut out of the European Union, poor yet rich with history, Skopje is struggling to define a Macedonian identity amid the confusion of modern Europe. The Continent’s future may be unclear — but in one of the Balkan’s poorest corners, this proud, ancient city is very much enjoying a renaissance.