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Analysis 01 Aug 11

Bronze and Marble Transform Skopje Forever

Macedonia’s capital is shedding its old dowdy image as the government flings up new statues, bridges, fountains, arches and government buildings in a grand but controversial makeover.

Klimentina Ilijevski
Skopje

The giant equestrian statue of Alexander the Great was erected in June

In the space of just one year some 20 tall bronze and marble statues have gone up on and around the central “Macedonia” square of the Macedonian capital, Skopje.

The pinnacle of the project, dubbed “Skopje 2014”, has been the erection in June of a giant equestrian statue of the ancient warrior, Alexander the Great. Standing 24 metres high, the statue towers over its surroundings.

While critics of the project say the existing additions are too much for the city to absorb, the authorities say many more are on the way.

One will be a statue of Alexander’s father, Philip of Macedon. Reportedly 28 metres high, this monument should be even taller than Alexander’s.

Preparations for the new bronze statue have already begun. It is envisaged that it will stand on a tall pedestal placed at the centre of a heart-shaped fountain.

The statue of Philip will be erected on the other side of Skopje's Stone Bridge

The complex will have four fountains, decorated with sculptures of soldiers, women, horses and lions. One of the women on the fountains is expected to be Alexander’s mother, Olympia.

Presumably to avoid further angering neighbouring Greece, the authorities are referring to the new complex as “Warrior with accompanying figures and fountains”. In the same way, the statue of Alexander was officially named only “Equestrian statue”.

Greece will be annoyed in any case. Athens and Skopje are locked in a long-standing row over use of the name “Macedonia”, and over what Greece sees as Macedonia’s theft of its Hellenic heritage.

Not all new additions to the capital have historic themes. Skopje is also to get a new Ferris wheel. Not originally part of “Skopje 2014”, the authorities chanced on this idea last year, as they called for projects for a amusement park.

Building of the archeological museum

As for the monument of Alexander, much work remains to be done, but the authorities say they will soon finish the pedestal, which will be decorated with bronze reliefs of soldiers and lions and marble ornaments.

The VMRO-DPMNE-led government of Nikola Gruevski - the force behind the makeover of the city - has paid 5.3 million euros for the Alexander statue, of which 650,000 went to the artist, Valentina Stevanovska. Some 4.1 million euros went on the costly pedestal.

Stevanovska, author of both the statues of Alexander and Philip, also designed the 20-metre-high triumphal arch, named “Macedonia”. To be decorated with marble reliefs of historic scenes, the arch is under construction a few hundred metres from the central square, not far from parliament.

The triumphal arch is named "Macedonia"

The government plans a grand opening for the arch on September 8, Macedonia’s independence day. The arch has been costed at 4.4 million euros.

Skopje, meanwhile, awaits another 29 statues, to be placed on a new bridge near the city centre. Most will be of kings, generals and saints from the early Christian and Byzantine eras.

Another 29 statues will adorn a second bridge, “The Bridge of Art”. These will depict well-known painters, writers, singers and actors. Among them will be the much-loved ballad singer Tose Proeski, who died in 2007 in a car accident in Croatia. Media reports say the budget for the bridge will be 2.5 million euros.

Near the two bridges, the authorities envisage two more fountains, shooting water 30 metres into the air. One will stand beside the National Theater while the other will go in front of an entirely new building, housing the archeological museum, constitutional court and state archive.

One of the two brand new bridges that are under construction

Grand new government buildings form a major part of the “Skopje 2014” plan.

The authorities are financing the construction of a foreign ministry, an agency for electronic communications, a philharmonic orchestra, a museum to the “Macedonian Struggle”, a financial police building, a new building for Skopje’s water supplier and a new city hall.

Of these, the museum is expected to be open by the end of the year.  It will house wax figures of prominent historical figures, murals and massive paintings of famous scenes and battles. Originally costed at 6 million euros, the museum’s final cost is expected to be closer to 12 million.

As part of the project, parliament is also getting a facelift, which includes strengthening the base of the building so that it can support three domes on the roof.

The museum of the "Macedonian Struggle" will open first

According to the government, the National Theater, costed at 20 million euros, and the Archeological Museum, budgeted at 25 million euros, will be ready in the first half of 2012. The Philharmonic hall is to open in 2013.

A square deal:

By the end of this summer, meanwhile, the authorities expect to finish the gazebo on Macedonia Square. Skopje officials say the 350,000-euro structure is needed to add a “decorative element”.

Construction on the square also started this month of a new five-star hotel. Another hotel and a new home for the Skopje mayoralty are expected to follow in the vicinity.

Many statues are already in place in the city centre. One is a five-metre-high marble sculpture of the medieval Tsar Samoil, standing on a 3.5-metre-high pedestal that cost 1.5 million euros. The Roman Emperor Justinian, portrayed in marble and much the same height, cost 1.2 million euros.

Bronze statues of Dame Gruev and Goce Delcev

Also on, or near, the square stand statues of the Ottoman-era Macedonian revolutionaries Dame Gruev, Goce Delcev, and Petar Karposh and the scholars Gjorgjija Pulevski, Dimitrija Cupovski and Krste Petkov Misirkov.

The Orthodox saint-scholars Cyril and Methodius and their pupils, Sts Kiril and Naum of Ohrid are also in place. St Kliment obtained a statue last year, standing next to the city’s main Orthodox church.

Four eight-metre-high bronze lions already guard the Goce Delcev Bridge, near the Macedonian government building.

A large bronze statue is also in place commemorating the so-called Thesaloniki boatmen, a group of Macedonian revolutionaries who tried to attract international attention to Macedonia’s plight in the 19th century by attacking Ottoman and international targets in the port of Salonika, today’s Thessaloniki.

Four lions guard the Goce Delcev bridge

Metodija Andonov-Cento, Macedonia’s first president after the Second World War, is also honoured with a large marble statue on Macedonia square.

Near parliament a monument has gone up to the Macedonians who died in the 2001 armed conflict with ethnic Albanian insurgents.

Some projects have been moved from their original designated sites. Following a hostile reaction from the government’s ethnic Albanian coalition partner, the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, a new church dedicated to Sts Constantine and Elena, destined for Macedonia Square, will go up elsewhere. Originally planned for a spot next to Alexander the Great, it is now likely to be built near army headquarters.

Tourist attraction:

The Macedonian government insists that the entire makeover of the city will come in at about 80 million euros.

Orthodox Scholars St Cyril and Methodius and their pupils Kiril and Naum of Ohrid

The Social Democrat-led opposition rubbishes these figures, saying that it believes around 350 million euros have already been set aside from the state budget on current works, while the final cost may be closer to half a billion euros.

Macedonian officials hope that the revamp of the capital will make Skopje a more popular tourist destination than it has been in the past.

Skopje was never a historic centre of Macedonia – that role in decades gone by belonged far more to Bitola, once known in Ottoman days as Monastir.

Skopje only achieved its current importance after the Yugoslav Communists made it the centre of the new Republic of Macedonia, created at the end of the Second World War.

Till now, Skopje’s shabby, grey Communist-era buildings and windswept squares have been anything but a draw to overseas visitors.

Foreign Affairs Ministry

“We expect and welcome a financial effect from the 2014 project, as it will interest people to at least come and see them [the new buildings] in person”, tourist guide and archeologist Vasilka Dimitorvska predicts.

For now, most tourists seem more confused than impressed by the appearance of the city centre.

Jiri Skrivan, a doctor from the Czech Republic, said he was suspending judgment till the project was finished.
 
“The new statues and monuments with their distinct architectural styles are quite strange, but you can’t assess it now because it is not finished,” he said.

This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.

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