In Turkey itself, a reciprocal fondness registered with the popular period-piece television drama “Farewell Rumelia” (“Elveda Rumeli” in Turkish) -- a program shot in Bitola, where the late-Ottoman ethos captured on the show remains. (Contemporary Turkish television dramas are also now popular in Macedonia.)
One century ago, Macedonia suffered tremendously during anti-Ottoman rebellions. Yet old enmities are long forgotten. Macedonians appreciate Turkey's strong diplomatic and economic support since independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. It's been a rocky road; Macedonia was not only challenged by transition from communism but also continues to endure obstructionism from Greece over the country's very name. Throughout, Turkey has been a firm ally -- partly for its own political interests, but also due to its historical and cultural legacy here. Nevertheless, while political and economic cooperation remains constant, Macedonia is only beginning to promote its Turkish legacy. Doing so more comprehensively, however, can help these two EU-candidate countries achieve complementary economic, cultural and diplomatic goals.
Opportunities and challenges
Priority perceptions help explain the relatively low Turkish profile. Macedonia's historical wealth runs from Neolithic through ancient Macedonian, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman times. The government is investing heavily in archeology. However, time and resources are limited, and a favoring of antiquity -- stoked by the long-standing antagonism with Greece over the ancient Macedonian legacy -- means that Ottoman ruins get less attention. In the countryside, centuries-old mosques lie in forlorn disrepair, while provincial fortress-towns like Kratovo -- one of the Balkans' most fascinating -- await full renovation. As a professional travel writer with long regional experience, I am sure such sights will appeal to foreign visitors.
Macedonian archeological authorities are willing to cooperate with outside initiatives, from the Turkish government, diaspora groups and academic bodies, among others. Yet the high-visibility Turkish attractions remain largely “known commodities”: the mosques, converted hamams and the castle of Skopje's carsija -- one of the best-preserved Ottoman old towns in the world. Tetovo's sublime Painted Mosque (Alaca Camii in Turkish) is another must-see sight.
One promising new development involves one of Skopje's most prominent Ottoman landmarks, Kursumli An, where a Turkish cultural center is to be located. In a kind reciprocal gesture, a Macedonian cultural center will be opened at one of central İstanbul's best locations, Taksim.
Nevertheless, today's passion for erecting statues of ethnic Albanian and Macedonian heroes has limited other possibilities while mystifying outsiders. A statue of Albanian idol Skanderbeg rises in Skopje (a house-museum dedicated to local daughter Mother Teresa stands downtown), while various Macedonian heroes are envisioned for immortalization along Skopje's main square and center. However, little commemorates Turkish luminaries in this city evoked by 17th-century Ottoman travel writer Evliya Çelebi.
Other intriguing opportunities lie beyond the capital. A critical moment in the 1908 Young Turk revolution against Sultan Abdülhamid II occurred at Resen, where Major Ahmed Niyazi and his men rebelled; however, not even a commemorative plaque stands here (Niyazi's former home is today a ceramics shop, Turkish officials say). Yet considering the rebellion's significance for the modern Turkish Republic, and general European history, one imagines a museum for educating visitors would be worthwhile.
Then there's Bitola (once Monastir), where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk attended military school. Turkish officials have shared with me their desire to open an Ottoman military museum here. I believe such a structure could include not only arms but also present the city's role in contemporary Ottoman-European interaction. (Several honorary consulates from Europe's former “Great Powers” exist here, attesting to Bitola's antiquarian attraction.) However, local cooperation remains sluggish. Macedonia should perhaps contemplate a more ecumenical national heritage strategy, one not primarily deriving from remotest antiquity.
A new popularity
Macedonia is becoming more appealing to Turkish visitors. An example is businessman Barkın Karslı, who moved here with his wife in 2008 following a weeklong vacation in Skopje the year before. “We were seeking to get away from the crowdedness and chaos of İstanbul,” says Karslı. For him, Skopje's general atmosphere strikes of “İstanbul, Edirne and Bursa at the same time.” Affirming the locals' friendliness and cultural similarities, Karslı also notes that “the number of people [from Turkey] paying short or longer visits is on the rise since we came here.” (Incidentally, Turkish officials attest that the popularity of “Farewell Rumelia” helped create a newfound popularity for Macedonia among Turkish tourists.) Many Turks have familial roots in Macedonia and neighboring Balkan countries, and such visitors will surely wish to encounter more signs of their ancestors' legacy.
Today, though Turks comprise just 4 percent of Macedonia's population, they are considered peaceful and are well liked by the other ethnic groups. And Turkish culture remains vibrant, from the eastern Yuruk villages, with their colorful handicrafts, to the concentrated western populations. In Lonely Planet's 2009 travel guide to the Western Balkans, I enjoyed writing about Vrapciste and its “Days of Turkish Culture” celebration. Held each summer at this Gostivar-area village, the event includes Macedonia's best bas pelivan (Turkish oil wrestling). Such authentic cultural events are becoming increasingly sought after by Western tourists tired of packaged, artificial destinations.
‘Turkey in Europe,’ once again?
The Turkish government's ambitious foreign policy has sparked debate at home and abroad, with the term “Ottoman nostalgia” sometimes encountered. Yet in the Balkans, increased Turkish leadership can only aid stability. European leaders remain self-contradictory and confused over sticky issues like Kosovo, the Macedonia-Greece name dispute and further EU enlargement. And they often misunderstand or incorrectly analyze cultural differences and norms. Thus Turkey, with its historical and cultural Balkan knowledge, becomes the vital partner.
Turkey and Macedonia are both EU candidate countries with barriers to surmount. Macedonia needs Turkey's diplomatic and economic support, while Turkey can emphasize its historic role in Macedonia to achieve a greater goal -- showing wary Western Europeans that Turkey is, and indeed long has been, part of Europe.
Foreign experts and local officials agree. “Turkey remains Macedonia's single best regional ally, both in real terms and in potential impact on the Macedonian economy and culture,” says Kent Patton, a former US State Department official responsible for the Middle East and North Africa. According to Patton, who currently runs a consulting firm and has been involved in Macedonian politics at all levels since 1997, “the current Macedonian government recognizes the value of Turkey, and the Turkish minority. … The government and their Turkish coalition partners should do all they can to continue building institutions and events that highlight the contributions of Turks to the history and development of the region.”
One of the more perceptive European diplomats on the Balkans, former Norwegian Ambassador to Macedonia Carl Schiotz Wibye, adds that “even though Turkey is not yet in the EU, it is Macedonia's main regional ally, and can help fulfill Macedonia's national interests in many ways. Emphasizing Turkey's historic contributions and legacy in Macedonia would, therefore, be a wise long-term strategy for Macedonian leaders.”
Even though promoting Turkish culture remains nascent, this thinking has not been lost on government officials. For Macedonia's foreign minister, Antonio Milososki, protecting his country's Turkish legacy is a serious responsibility. “Over the centuries, the Ottoman cultural heritage has become an integral part of the Balkan cultural fabric,” he tells me. “Macedonia is now recognizing its part of ownership in this interconnected patrimony.”
In a major academic study of the 1908 Young Turk revolution, “Preparation for a Revolution,” M. Şükrü Hanioğlu quotes from a prescient communiqué issued by the Paris-based revolutionary leadership. It warned that defeat in Macedonia would lead to “the loss of half of the Ottoman Empire” and inevitably result in the capital's relocation from İstanbul to Asia Minor -- something that “would exclude us from being among the powers of Europe and make us a second -- or even third-class -- Asiatic power.”
Back then, few could have imagined that 100 years later Macedonia would be independent -- and fewer still, that Turkey would strongly support its development. Just perhaps, the key to rebuilding outside awareness of European Turkey lies in this contested and vulnerable patch of Balkan territory.
*Chris Deliso is a journalist and travel author based in Macedonia, most recently having written about Turkish heritage in Macedonia for Lonely Planet's 2009 guide to the Western Balkans. He is director of the Balkan-interest Web site www.balkanalysis.com, and holds an M.Phil. with distinction in Byzantine studies from Oxford University.