Since time immemorial, some nations have grown to forge empires while others have shrunk into nothingness. So how do we truly know what the accurate borders of a nation are? Are they governed by demographics or by politicians signing treaties? Are they perhaps determined by the topography of the region or by geographical and natural boundaries? How do we truly know where one country begins and another ends?
Throughout the course of history, the borders of Macedonia have changed significantly over time. During the early 400’s BC, this small yet resilient empire controlled a small territory spanning from Voden (Edessa) to Larisa in Greece and westwards to Ser (Serres). These small, humble beginnings lasted a very short time after the kingdom acquired more land eastward some 100 years later in under King Perdicas I, enveloping what are now the modern-day cities of Bitola, Ohrid, Prespa and the regions of Epirus and much of Thessaly.
At the time of Phillip II’s death, the Macedonian Kingdom included modern day Macedonia, Greece, nearly all of Bulgaria and European Turkey. But the expansion of Macedonia had just begun. Led by his son, Alexander, the Macedonian army invaded the Persian Empire and brought the mighty Persians to their knees, absorbing their empire into his own. Macedonia now stretched from Ohrid to Islamabad, from Greece right to the borders of India.
After the death of Alexander, his generals fought amongst themselves and carved up his empire. What remained of the Macedonian Kingdom was much smaller than what it was at the time of Phillip II’s death. Macedonia now included all of modern-day Macedonia and Greece. Thrace, or what is now modern-day Bulgaria, had broken away, and modern day European Turkey was also incorporated. However, its borders were about to change yet again.
During the Roman conquest of Macedonia in 146 BC, the borders were altered, separating Macedonia and Greece entirely, save for a portion of modern northern Greece and incorporating parts of modern-day Albania.
During biblical times, Macedonia’s borders changed once more, now incorporating larger portions of Greece apart from the Peloponnese and all of modern-day Albania. Here it remained, under Roman occupation, until the formation of the East Roman Empire or the Byzantine Empire.
For almost half a century, the borders of Roman Macedonia remained intact and untouched. It wasn’t until the 8th century AD that Emperor Constantine VI created the ‘theme’ of Macedonia which, oddly enough, did not include any part of modern-day Macedonia! This province encompassed what is now bits of Thrace and parts of Bulgaria while the theme of Bulgaria included what is now modern-day Macedonia. The Theme of Bulgaria was established after Emperor Basil II conquered and dissolved the Bulgarian Empire that included Macedonia. He set Skopje as its capital and downgraded the Ohrid Patriarchy to an Archbishopric.
It is this particular era in history that causes much confusion and frustration to most Macedonians. The region of Macedonia was now renamed to the ‘Theme of Bulgaria’ and the region of Bulgaria was now renamed as the ‘Theme of Macedonia’. Many theories have evolved over time as to why this was, but what we are able to say for certain is that the Macedonian people who populated this region retained their identity and status as Macedonians. These border changes to Macedonia did not last long as soon after they were altered once more.
The fall of the East Roman Empire was slow and painful. The Ottoman Turks saw to its ultimate demise and absorbed what little territory it controlled. The Turks marched into the Balkans and the Battle of Kosovo of 1389 sealed the fate of the region of Macedonia for the next 500 years. During the Ottoman rule of the Balkans, regions and cities experienced many changes with regards to their demographic makeup and with that, what we now know as the modern day geographical and regional borders of Macedonia were born.
With these borders having been established, Macedonia was internally divided into ‘Sanjaks’ by the Turks in order to govern them easily.
These borders of Macedonia remained as they were for over 500 years, longer than any other borders imposed on the Macedonians. Unfortunately, they would change yet again.
The fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century triggered the two Balkans Wars, which are considered by many as a precursor to the Great War. The newly independent nations of Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria joined forces to drive the Ottomans out of Europe once and for all. In their success, the Turkish territories that remained were carved up amongst themselves; one of which was Macedonia.
On the 10th of August 1913, the leaders of Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, Greece and Montenegro divided Macedonia amongst themselves. The Treaty of Bucharest dictated that Greece would acquire the largest portion, followed by Serbia then Bulgaria. Macedonia would remain this way, erased from the maps of Europe for almost 50 years. It would not be until another global conflict that we would see Macedonia reappear as a state.
As Fascism swept through Europe, a desperate attempt for liberation was born. On 2 August 1944, on the 41st anniversary of the Ilinden Uprising, the first session of the newly created Anti-Fascist Assembly of the National Liberation of Macedonia (ASNOM) was held at the St. Prohor Pcinjski monastery. Metodija Andonov-Cento was elected president and Panko Brashnarov (former member of IMRO) vice-president. The assembly tried to secure as much independence as possible for Yugoslav Macedonia and gave priority to the unification of the three parts of Macedonia. Several sources state that Cento had made plans for creating an independent Macedonia which would be backed by the USA. А manifesto was written outlining the future plans of ASNOM for an independent Macedonian state and declaring the language as the official language of Macedonia. ASNOM was the governing body of Macedonia from its formation until the end of World War II.
After the second world war, Macedonia retained its status as ‘Socialist Republic’ within Yugoslavia. Then, some 50 years later, a referendum was held and the Macedonian people determined that they had stayed with Yugoslavia for long enough. On the 8 September 1991, Macedonia successfully and peacefully seceded from Yugoslavia in a nationwide referendum. It was the borders that were imposed on Macedonia during the 20th century that still remain to this day.
It is without a doubt, however, that it is the borders of modern Macedonia formed during the Ottoman rule that Macedonians feel an affinity towards. This is because it not only firmly includes much of the ancient kingdom’s borders, but it was the most accurate in terms of demographics and language. The population of people who dwelled within these borders referred to themselves as Macedonians and spoke the Macedonian vernacular. Countless songs, poems and films all depict this concept of a united Macedonia. It’s no wonder that today that dreams of a ‘united Macedonia’ still live in the hearts of the people who live in the modern republic, the occupied provinces, and its diaspora.