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Pasko Kuzman, Macedonia’s excavator in chief, says he is not putting down his shovel until he finds the tomb of Alexander the Great – even if it takes him till he is 99.
Pasko Kuzman, who is expected to retire soon as head of the Cultural Heritage Protection Office, says he will never stop searching for the tomb of Alexander the Great, which he is convinced lies somewhere in southeast Macedonia.
Many in Macedonia compare this restless, adventurous and eccentric-looking archeologist to Indiana Jones.
Recently, he vowed to give no more interviews until the government decides whether to retire him this year or extend his term until 2014. But he broke his "vow of silence" for Balkan Insight.
Kuzman says that even if he does leave the Cultural Heritage Office, he will not rest at least until he is 99.
“There is no force in this world that will make me stop working after retirement,” he told Balkan Insight.
“Pasko Kuzman will work until he is 99, and afterwards we shall see. Pasko can be retired only by Pasko,” he said in Ohrid, his home town, where he has conducted his major researches.
Kuzman’s name is closely linked with the extensive excavations in this ancient town, dominated by a medieval fortress, as well as with the reconstruction of the prehistoric settlement in the Bay of Bones, on the nearby Ohrid Lake.
Sitting in a café near St Sofia, a medieval church that is more than a thousand years old, he says he was always captivated by the city’s beauty.
Beside his long almost white hair, one of the most striking things about him are four wrist watches that he wears on both hands.
“I love watches, they are my hobby,” he declares.
“I don’t wear them to measure time conventionally in 24 hours as others do… they are time machines, vessels that help me travel through time. Definitely not in minutes, but in centuries.”
Seen often at public events standing next to Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, and presiding over the main institution in charge of cultural heritage, many see him as the mastermind behind the grand revamp of the capital called “Skopje 2014”.
Kuzman is a member of Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE party.
Drawing inspiration from Classical Antiquity, and intended to give the neglected capital a more monumental appearance, the Skopje 2014 project envisages the construction of numerous tall bronze and marble monuments and some 20 buildings.
Statues of Alexander the Great, of his father and mother, Philip and Olympia, as well as of the medieval Tzar Samoil are among the focal points of this massive undertaking.
“No, they exaggerate! I am not the mastermind!” Kuzman exclaims, adding that the man pulling the strings behind Skopje 2014 is Prime Minister Gruevski.
“This man has amazing ideas and visions that fitted into our ideas, and so the project started. But Gruevski was the one initiating the building of these monuments,” he says.
“It is true that I was on all the committees, selecting the monuments, suggesting historical figures from that time and insisting on [the construction of ] the Muses and Dionysius in Skopje,” Kuzman concedes.
He strongly defends one of the most disputed aspects of the project, placing characters from Classical antiquity under the spotlight.
“We did not skip the Middle Ages, but there were simply no Macedonian characters from that time,” he notes.
“Macedonia was under the five-century-long rule of the Turks… so, everything that we’ve preserved comes from Ancient Macedonia”, Kuzman says.
“Even the Prime Minister asked me once, ‘Did we go over the top with the Ancient characters and neglect the Slavic ones?’” he recalls.
“I replied by asking him to name me one character from that time and we would include it. But there aren’t any. We only have St Clement and we already have a university in Ohrid named after him.”
Kuzman says the wax figures being prepared for the new archeological museum in Skopje will try to add some balance in that respect. The museum, adorned by Classical columns, is due to open next year.
The figures will range from Philip of Macedonia to the medieval King Marko and the first Slavic princes, he says.
One of the things that put Kuzman on the covers of the world press was his controversial decision to place a set of valuable Ancient sculptures excavated across Macedonia out in the open at the entrance to the Macedonian government building.
Despite objections, mainly from Greece, which saw the move as provocation, the 15 statues found in Stibera, Stobi and Heraklea excavation sites are still there.
“We wanted to present our cultural heritage in the Government [HQ], inside and outside, so that distinguished visitors to the country who don’t have time to go to museums can see these things,” he recalls.
“Initially, we wanted to place the sculptures inside the building but after talking to the architect, he said they were too heavy to go inside,” Kuzman adds.
With possible retirement from office looming, Kuzman says he will not give up his dream of finding the tomb of Alexander the Great, who he is convinced is buried in present-day Macedonia.
Recently he told the media that he was close to making this grand discovery.
“There are two theories: according to the first his tomb is in Egypt, but a mosque was built above the tomb so no one dared dig under the mosque and reveal the tomb.
“We opt for the second theory, that there is a grave in Egypt, but that Alexander is not there, because on the request of his mother, Olympia, the sarcophagi were replaced and one coffin was sent to Egypt, while the other traveled to Macedonia, where Alexander is buried.
“He was buried with all the honours, but in a secret location in southeast Macedonia at a cemetery which still exists”, Kuzman continues, comparing the mystery of his grave with the mystery of the lost kingdom of Atlantis.
“I'm always behind him, closely following his footsteps! My passion since my student days is to find his grave. I am convinced that day will come,” he insists.
Kuzman is proud of the excavations he led in and around his home town of Ohrid.
The discovery in 2002 of an ancient golden burial mask and a golden burial glove near Ohrid, believed to date from the 5th or 6th century BC, made Kuzman a local celebrity.
However, he is disappointed that the extensive excavations at Tsar Samuil’s fortress on the hill above the old part of the town did not reveal much about the life of this king.
Kuzman says the golden artifacts along with a rare bronze krater used for mixing wine and water from Ohrid will be the star attractions in the new archeological museum in Skopje. They will be “our biggest surprise”, Kuzman maintains.
In 2008, another of Kuzman’s dreams came true when Macedonia opened a museum on water.
The museum in Lake Ohrid on which Kuzman worked lies on the southern coast of the Gradiste peninsula in the Bay of Bones where a stilt-house settlement, or pile-dwelling, dating from between 1,200 and 700 BC has been reconstructed.
Now he is engaged on another ambitious project, to explore, reconstruct and prepare all the main archeological sites and fortresses situated near Macedonia’s main highway leading to Greece in the south and to Serbia in the north.
The highway, part of the pan-European corridor 10, was recently named after Alexander the Great.
“The forts will be fully explored and preserved and lit up to attract the attention of night drivers along the highway,” he explains.
“The plan includes Skopje fortress, Kozhle fortress on the Skopje-Veles stretch, Stobi, Antigona, Demir Kapija, Isar Marvinci and Vardar Hill, which is located near Valandovo and Gevgelija.
“We will rebuild the walls of the fortresses. These are buildings from the Ancient and medieval period and the plan is to finalize them by 2020.”
Kuzman announces one more major archeological project. Under his leadership, a team of experts in various fields is working on a vast scientific tome that covers the whole of Macedonian history from the Stone Age until the present time.
Still secretive about this work, which he says may attract hostile views from neighbouring countries, he says that it will soon be published in three volumes, each containing some 2,600 pages.
Finally, Kuzman has a very important key, which opens the archeological depot in his home town. It is full of unearthed valuables.
But with his retirement approaching, he is faced with a dilemma: with whom should he entrust safekeeping of the key? He says the government will decide his successor.
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