North Macedonia: The long history behind the country’s new name

The main square in North Macedonia’s capital of Skopje. Image: Getty.

Macedonian fans at the Handball World Cup, contested in Germany earlier this year, were easily idenitifiable, from the Alexander the Great helmets they wore to support their team, who played as Macedonia – despite the dispute with Greece over their country’s name coming to its conclusion with the new name of North Macedonia.

These helmets, of course, get to the heart of this dispute, with the Greeks seeing the ancient conqueror as a Hellenic figure and important part of Greek culture. Indeed it was Alexander the Great, the infamous ruler of ancient Macedon, who inaugurated the Hellenistic period of ancient Mediterranean history in the third to first centuries BC. It’s objections like this from Greece that have led to 28 years of the official name for its northern neighbour being The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYRO-Macedonia for short.

The new North Macedonia is only part of the modern region of Macedonia (and indeed of the ancient kingdom, which existed from about the 600sBC to the Roman conquest in 167BC). Northern Greece around the city of Salonica and the south-western part of Bulgaria also form part of the region, with those living in those areas also self-identifying as Macedonians.

Disentangling who has best claim to the name is fraught. The ancient Macedonians spoke a Hellenic language, conquered Greece and spread Hellenic culture across the Mediterranean. The modern Macedonian language is South Slavic, a language group that was only introduced to the Balkan in the fourth or fifth centuries AD. However, language is not the same as genetics; indigenous peoples adopt new languages over time. English, for example, only came to Britain around the same time and many modern English people are descended from ancient Britons as well as Anglo-Saxons. Indeed it was the Byzantine monks Cyril and Methodius who first codified the South Slavic languages in the 800sAD, what today is known as Old Church Slavonic.

The dispute is cultural, though it has led to political implications, up until now blocking North Macedonia from NATO or EU membership. The name was seen as laying claim to the heritage and perhaps territorially to the whole region. Neighbouring places – the country and the Greek regions – having the same name was also seen as confusing, although doing so would not be unique: two countries are called Congo and four have Guinea as part of their name. Within Europe, the Belgian province of Luxembourg neighbours the country of Luxembourg (the capital of which is also called Luxembourg). Moldova is the eastern part of Moldavia, the western part being in Romania and the northern and southern parts in Ukraine. Further apart, Georgia is a country in the Caucasus and a US state.

To resolve the issue, the UN suggested various names, each of which added a distinguishing adjective: New Macedonia, Upper Macedonia, Vardar Macedonia, Macedonia-Skopje and North Macedonia.

New Macedonia could have referred to the fact that the country only recently gained independence, in 1991. And it would sit alongside New Zealand, which was named after the Dutch province of Zeeland (Zealand is also the largest Danish island, including its capital Copenhagen). But it would negate the long history of the region.

Upper Macedonia would be a geographical expression, since the country is generally at a higher altitude. Bolivia was known as Upper Peru before its independence from Spain, and in West Africa, the enigmatically named Upper Volta was renamed the even more enigmatic Burkina Faso in 1984. The issue in this case, however, is that the Bulgarian part of Macedonia is also at high ground, being made up largely of the Pirin mountains.

The Vardar is the major river of the country, flowing through its capital Skopje. Many countries and territories have been named after rivers – Gambia in West Africa is a long thin country following the eponymous river for its lower 350 miles to the sea and never more than 30-miles wide. Belize, Congo, Jordan, Moldova, Niger, Nigeria, Paraguay and Uruguay are all named after rivers. So are many US states and other regions and provinces around the world. India, one of the world’s largest countries, is named after the River Indus, which is now almost wholly within Pakistan. This is one of the problems with naming territories after watercourses – rivers flow downhill going through other places. The Vardar flows into the Aegean through Greek Macedonia, just to the west of Salonica.

Using the capital to denote a country is seen with Guinea-Bissau, where the neighbouring Republic of Guinea is also sometimes unofficially called Guinea-Conakry. Other unofficial uses are Congo-Brazzaville and Congo-Kinshasa, the latter being the Democratic Republic of Congo or DR Congo. And Mexico is named after its capital. Throughout the Macedonian naming dispute, Greece often referred to the Republic of Skopje, which is perhaps one reason (as well as alienating other towns and cities in the country) why this solution would not have worked.

This has left North, a compass point that is hard to dispute (although it isn’t always wholly accurate: the northernmost point of the island of Ireland is not in Northern Ireland). The use of North, South, East and West in country names may seem common but actually isn’t. Both Koreas and previously Germany, Vietnam and Yemen, all have or had different official names. North Cyprus is not an officially recognised country. Western Sahara is a disputed territory and the Pacific island country of Samoa dropped Western (which distinguished it from American Samoa) in 1997. Compass points denote many counties, provinces or federal states within countries, but as far as sovereign nations go, North Macedonia will only be in the company of East Timor, South Africa and South Sudan. Though, lest you forget this saga, to its south are the Greek regions of Central Macedonia, Eastern Macedonia and Western Macedonia.


London’s rail and tube map is out of control

Aaaaaargh. Image: Getty.

The geographical limits of London’s official rail maps have always been slightly arbitrary. Far-flung commuter towns like Amersham, Chesham and Epping are all on there, because they have tube stations. Meanwhile, places like Esher or Walton-on-Thames – much closer to the city proper, inside the M25, and a contiguous part of the built up area – aren’t, because they fall outside the Greater London and aren’t served by Transport for London (TfL) services. This is pretty aggravating, but we are where we are.

But then a few years ago, TfL decided to show more non-London services on its combined Tube & Rail Map. It started with a few stations slightly outside the city limits, but where you could you use your Oyster card. Then said card started being accepted at Gatwick Airport station – and so, since how to get to a major airport is a fairly useful piece of information to impart to passengers, TfL’s cartographers added that line too, even though it meant including stations bloody miles away.

And now the latest version seems to have cast all logic to the wind. Look at this:

Oh, no. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

The logic for including the line to Reading is that it’s now served by TfL Rail, a route which will be part of the Elizabeth Line/Crossrail, when they eventually, finally happen. But you can tell something’s gone wrong here from the fact that showing the route, to a town which is well known for being directly west of London, requires an awkward right-angle which makes it look like the line turns north, presumably because otherwise there’d be no way of showing it on the map.

What’s more, this means that a station 36 miles from central London gets to be on the map, while Esher – barely a third of that distance out – doesn’t. Nor does Windsor & Eton Central, because it’s served by a branchline from Slough rather than TfL Rail trains, even though as a fairly major tourist destination it’d probably be the sort of place that at least some users of this map might want to know how to get to.

There’s more. Luton Airport Parkway is now on the map, presumably on the basis that Gatwick is. But that station doesn’t accept Oyster cards yet, so you get this:

Gah. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

There’s a line, incidentally, between Watford Junction and St Albans Abbey, which is just down the road from St Albans City. Is that line shown on the map? No it is not.

Also not shown on the map: either Luton itself, just one stop up the line from Luton Airport Parkway, or Stansted Airport, even though it’s an airport and not much further out than places which are on the map. Somewhere that is, however, is Welwyn Garden City, which doesn’t accept Oyster, isn’t served by TfL trains and also – this feels important – isn’t an airport.

And meanwhile a large chunk of Surrey suburbia inside the M25 isn’t shown, even though it must have a greater claim to be a part of London’s rail network than bloody Reading.

The result of all these decisions is that the map covers an entirely baffling area whose shape makes no sense whatsoever. Here’s an extremely rough map:

Just, what? Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

I mean that’s just ridiculous isn’t it.

While we’re at it: the latest version shows the piers from which you can get boats on the Thames. Except for when it doesn’t because they’re not near a station – for example, Greenland Pier, just across the Thames to the west of the Isle of Dogs, shown here with CityMetric’s usual artistic flair.

Spot the missing pier. You can’t, because it’s missing. Image: TfL/CityMetric.

I’m sure there must be a logic to all of this. It’s just that I fear the logic is “what makes life easier for the TfL cartography team” rather than “what is actually valuable information for London’s rail passengers”.

And don’t even get me started on this monstrosity.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.