A month-long monument hunt, and what I learned along the way.
17 January 2014
The Ilinden Spomenik – or Krusevo Makedonium, as it is also known – is one of the most definitive icons of the young Republic of Macedonia. It appears on the nation’s 10,000 Denari bill, and serves as a potent symbol of independence and the freedom from oppression. In October I travelled to the medieval town of Kruševo to visit the Ilinden Spomenik for myself, and to try to unravel some of the dense symbology which surrounds this near-sacred site.
The Former Republic of Krusevo
Krusevo itself enjoys the accolade of “Macedonia’s highest town” – situated at an altitude of 4,430 feet above sea level. This sleepy medieval settlement has the laid-back atmosphere of a holiday resort, and yet, on our visit, was blissfully empty of tourists. Rather, it seems that most of Krusevo’s tourism trade takes place in the winter; a particular draw being the ski resort on nearby Mount Busava.
We travelled to Krusevo by road, taking one coach from Lake Ohrid in the south as far as Bitola; changing there for the bus that would carry us high up into the Balkan Mountains. The approach to the town was quite spectacular. Hidden in a sort of bowl just beneath the mountain’s peak, the view was nothing but open countryside, dramatic, tumbling mountain slopes that fell away into uninhabited oblivion; and then quite suddenly, the rattling old bus turned a corner in the road and we entered a hidden cauldron.
Here the medieval town spread out in the basin beneath us: a thicket of timeless houses with their walls whitewashed beneath traditional tiled roofs, the surrounding pine forests held back like a tide of fir. In a word, it was magical.
Almost immediately, I spied the Makedonium – looking down on the town from its perch on Gumenja Hill, positioned to the northwest side of Krusevo. Against this setting the spomenik’s futuristic design appeared incongruous, but by no means vulgar . Rather, this space-age monument seemed to somehow compliment the traditional buildings clustered into the cauldron below.
On alighting from the bus it took only a matter of minutes to find a friendly local bar, get chatting with the manager and arrange an introduction to a neighbouring landlord.
Within an hour we were well fed, checked into a scenic room overlooking winding backstreets in the heart of Krusevo, and then setting off: climbing the hill to the north, onwards to the spomenik above.
The Ilinden Spomenik was opened on August 2nd 1974, a celebration that marked the 71st anniversary of Macedonia’s Ilinden Uprising.
It was also the 30th anniversary of ASNOM: the Anti-Fascist Assembly of the National Liberation of Macedonia (the acronym taken from the Macedonian form, ‘Antifašističko Sobranie na Narodnoto Osloboduvanje na Makedonija’).
While some have likened the appearance of the monument to a magnified virus, a heart valve and even a cauliflower, the true inspiration for the Dome’s shape reportedly came from the head of a mace. Designed by Jordan and Iskra Grabuloski, the monument is often referred to by the name of its construction company: ‘Makedonium’.
Its true name however, the ‘Ilinden Spomenik’, refers to more than just the strange white sphere that has become so iconic in Macedonia and beyond. The Makedonium, rather, is a memorial complex of which that futuristic white Dome is just one feature; it is a park of remembrance dedicated to the ill-fated rebellion fought in these very same mountains and forests, little over a century ago.
The Ilinden Uprising
The Ilinden Uprising of 1903 is remembered with pride in Macedonia; and while the resultant Republic of Kruševo was short-lived, the knock-on effect of the conflict would become another contributing factor towards the destabilisation of Ottoman rule, and the ultimate independence of the Republic of Macedonia.
By the end of the 19th century, most of the Balkan Peninsula was controlled by the Ottoman Empire. In the region of modern-day Macedonia, the preceding century had seen numerous local revolts; and in August 1903, another rebellion was staged by the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation.
It began in Bitola, an attractive market town located in the south of Macedonia. Fighting broke out on August 2nd, celebrated as the day that the prophet Elijah (here known as ‘Ilija’) was said to have ascended to heaven. The uprising was named after the occasion; ‘Ilinden’ literally meaning the ‘Day of Elijah’.
Many of the insurgents in the Bitola uprising came from Krusevo, and as widespread oppression erupted into all-out rebellion, the Krusevo region declared its independence. By August 3rd the town and surrounding villages had named themselves as the independent ‘Republic of Krusevo’ and elected a president: the local school teacher Nikola Karev.
The Turkish response was swift and bloody.
This surprise rebellion was met by an army of 176,000 Ottoman soldiers, 444 cannons and 3,700 mounted troops from the east. The fighting was fierce, and the Macedonian villagers fought bravely – with notable stands at Sliva, and Mečkin Kamen (a site known in English as ‘Bear’s Rock’). Inevitably though, the superior force and firepower of the Ottomans won out, and the Krusevo Republic was dissolved just 10 days after it came into being.
The town of Krusevo and its surrounding villages suffered heavily in the conflict, as churches were destroyed and citizens hanged in the streets. Local records suggest that 12,400 houses were burnt to the ground by the Turks, 201 communities lost, 70,000 people left homeless and 8,816 people were summarily executed at the hands of their Ottoman overlords.
All that remains today of the ten-day republic is the famous Krusevo Manifesto (Крушевски манифест), argued by many to be the first truly democratic political document to come out of the Balkans; promoting ethnic equality and universal tolerance. The rebellion which gave birth to it, meanwhile, served as one of the pivotal events building into the Balkan Wars of 1912; and, as the failing Ottoman Empire finally pulled out of the Balkans, the territory of Macedonia was divided up between Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia.
The approach to the monument itself is divided into a series of stages; the design of each imbued with deep, poignant symbolism. We visited first on the evening of our arrival in Krusevo. As we followed the road up the mountain it became a path, winding through concrete and stone installations to the dome at the top. The place was deserted, save for a group of local children who sat talking and smoking on the steps.
The building was locked, its lights turned off, and I was just taking a few photographs of the exterior when a man approached me. He was one of the curators, it turned out, and recognising us as foreigners he invited us in for an unofficial tour of the building. Our host was clearly keen to share the history of the spomenik with us, though he spoke very little English. The Macedonian language has a strong Slavic root, and I had already found I was able to get by with the basics of conversation – but even with that, much of the tour was lost on me and my historical hunger remained unsatisfied.
So, we thanked the curator for his hospitality… and resolved to come back the next morning, when the Ilinden Spomenik would be officially open to the public.
The following day was bright and warm, and once again we followed the road north to the edge of Krusevo, and then up the mountain beyond that. Here it terminated in an area of tarmac where a handful of stalls sold tourist trinkets: postcards, flags and miniature models of the Makedonium. On one side rose the steel and glass frame of the Tose Proeski Memorial House; a building dedicated to the memory of the popular Macedonian singer and songwriter, who died in a tragic car crash at the age of 26.
The place was quiet – traders slept behind their stalls, and we seemed to be the only visitors. At the east end of the car park, a tree-shaded path broke off to climb up to the monument itself. Around the entrance to the memorial complex rose large, whitewashed shapes. These awkward concrete characters are said to represent broken fetters, discarded chains; on a more symbolic level, they stand for Macedonia’s liberation from foreign rule.
I found myself wondering if the architects had included Yugoslavia in that gesture. While the Ilinden Spomenik was constructed during the Yugoslav era (and it’s certainly a fine example of the modern constructivist form made so popular under Tito’s Balkan regime), the spomenik nevertheless stands for a free and independent Macedonia. I’m sure the point wasn’t lost on the locals, even if such a subtlety went unnoticed by the communist officials then ruling these lands from Belgrade.
Following this path we entered soon into a large, circular area paved in cobblestones. The raised banks of grass were held back by a concrete surround, and from this extended a mass of metal-tipped points like the reaching tentacles of sea anemones.
Known as the ‘Crypt’, this stage represents a chronology of the Ilinden Uprising. Each metal plaque protruding from the wall was labelled with the name of a place, a person or a family – some with dates, others no more than a word.
According to official literature the Crypt shows, “significant events and persons from the period before, during, and after Ilinden Uprising”; later I would get home, and look up some of these names to find that every one of them was a story in itself.
The name ‘Ножот’, for example, referred to the uprising at Nozhot: a mountain town in the Prilip region whose name means ‘Knife Peak’, and where a bloody battle was waged against the Turkish oppressors in 1907. Beside that, ‘Димитар Влахов’ was a reference to Dimitar Vlahov, a politician and revolutionary leader. Macedonian scholars consider Vlahov an ethnic Macedonian, while the Bulgarians argue firmly in favour of his Bulgarian heritage. (His hometown of Kilkis, meanwhile, is now considered a part of Greece.)
This Crypt, then, was a coded library of stories: odd words and names that each hinted at something much larger, 58 plaques in total representing half a hundred separate threads wound tragically together by the events of 1903.
Following the path from the Crypt, the banks fell away on either side and we emerged into a clearing on the side of the mountain; a plateau high up above the town of Krusevo, offering spectacular views of the landscape in all directions.
Krusevo lay beneath us to the south with the Bear’s Rock, Meckin Kamen, just beyond. The mountains of the Pelagonija region spread out to the east and west, while off to the north stood the Sliva monument and the 33-metre cross of the Monastery of Sveto Preobrazenie (or ‘Holy Transfiguration’).
The white ‘Dome’ lay ahead of us, beyond an installation known as the ‘Amphitheatre’. Here, surrounded by brightly coloured ceramic walls, a garden of concrete pegs rose up in rank and file. Some sources will tell you that these miniature monuments represent the army of the Krusevo Republic, stood bravely in the face of their Ottoman oppressors. Others say the foot-high stones are memorials to the fallen; either way, the general message here would seem to be a reminder of the countless soldiers who stood, fought and died for the freedom of their land – itself so amply illustrated by the breathtaking scenery on all sides.
On the surrounding walls, peculiar geometric shapes were formed from the arrangement of tiles according to the design of artist Petar Mazev; squares and triangles in vivid shades of green, blue, yellow, purple and red.
On the previous night’s visit, I had asked the curator – the man who spoke barely a word of English – if these shapes too hid a secret meaning.
“Oh, yes,” he had replied, nodding vigorously. I asked him what they stood for.
“Oh, yes,” he said again, smiling enigmatically as he walked off into the night.
And that brought us to the main feature: a truly otherworldly object, sat on the paving stones as if it had simply dropped out of a wormhole onto this pleasant Macedonian mountainside. Up close, the ceramic plaster was coarse to the touch. A raised walkway ran from the Amphitheatre up to the main door of the Dome; beneath it, a locked door hidden in a shadowed recess provided access to the hull of the object.
I walked the circumference of the Dome, admiring the bizarre shape; though quite without precedent, there was a pleasing sort of symmetry about the design. Four horizontal nodules branched out from the sphere, each ending in a glass observation window. Above those, another set of four were aligned with the spaces in between, and fitted with coloured glass. Then, higher still, another four lumps were raised up towards the heavens.
As we came back around to the entrance, the wooden door at the end of the walkway suddenly opened: the spomenik was ready to receive visitors.
While the previous night we’d had an unofficial tour from a man who seemed desperate to share the wonders of the Makedonium with us – despite possessing none of the linguistic abilities to do so – this time it was the standard package. We paid a small entry fee at the door, before being welcomed inside the museum.
According to numerous sources I have read since visiting the spomenik, visitors are greeted by the sound of Thoma Proshev’s oratorio, Sun of the Ancient Country.
There was no music playing on the day of our visit though, and I couldn’t find Proshev’s work online. But if the Ilinden Spomenik was intended to have a musical accompaniment, then I feel obliged to provide one… and the Macedonian anthem seems like a fair substitute.
The interior of the spomenik was as clean, white and minimalist as one might imagine from a glance at the exterior; albeit with the added pools of colour provided by sunlight filtering down through the stained glass windows above. There were various museum-style exhibits on display, including a selection of traditional Macedonian costumes, Ottoman officers’ uniforms and a series of painted portraits on easels; one of them detailing Pitu Guli, the revolutionary freedom fighter who led the Macedonian forces at the Battle of Bear’s Rock. In another corner stood a bust of the songwriter Tose Proeski.
More interesting though, was the symbolic design of the building itself. Today’s host spoke fluent English and proudly talked us through the various installations about the room, beginning with the entrance we had just passed through: itself shaped like the ‘M’ in ‘Makedonia’.
Wings spread out from the Dome to mark the cardinal points, short corridors culminating in wide glass windows. In each of these, shaped into the wall on either side of the glass, sculpted forms told the story of this nation’s history. Our guide gave them names like “gestation”, “conflict” and “freedom”, and though each relief appeared vague and abstract at first glance, on closer inspection the illustrations became… if not self-apparent, then at least tangible.
Up above, the extensions fitted with stained glass were designed by the artist Borko Lazeski, and signified the four seasons. Beyond those, the uppermost set of swellings stood for the four ages of Macedonia: the ancient kingdom, the period of Turkish rule, the years of rebellion and the foundation of an independent state.
In the centre of the floor rose a symbolic eternal flame; or rather (and perhaps more in keeping with the space-age feel of the place), an eternal inner-lit console. Arranged into segments which seemed to grow from the ground into the shape of the Macedonian flag, the white installation glowed from within with a deep, pulsating orange light.
The most important place in the Dome however, was reserved for the President of the Krusevo Republic. Nikola Karev was laid to rest here in 1990, and his memorial – decorated with the flags of both Macedonia and the Republic of Krusevo – was marked with a clean, white cube turned up to rest on one corner.
The curator pointed out a chunk missing from one edge of the shape; a reminder that Karev died with his life’s work incomplete.
The Ilinden Legacy
I first came across photographs of the Ilinden Spomenik several years ago, on some website or other listing “Abandoned Yugoslav Monuments”. In reality, however, the Makedonium is very far from “abandoned”.
I’ve made the point above that while the monument was built during the Yugoslav period, the philosophy behind the Makedonium is – potentially – as anti-Yugoslav as it is anti-Ottoman; rather, it represents the ongoing struggle of the Macedonian people for independence and self-government. It is in this latter respect, that the Ilinden Spomenik is never likely to fall into the state of disrepair apparent at so many other former-Yugoslav monuments.
There seems to be a very real sense in Macedonia that their nation’s struggle for independence is far from won. It’s not just a matter of physical borders, so much as cultural boundaries. For example, many Bulgarians will tell you that the Macedonians are, essentially, Bulgarian; they share similar cultures, an almost identical language and are divided by borders which have shifted fluidly back and forth over the centuries. The Macedonian perspective, however, is that their own heritage can be traced back to Europe in the 8th century BC – while the Turko-Morgilic Bulgars did not arrive in Europe until the 7th century AD.
Having said that, Greek historians claim that back in the 8th century BC, Macedonia was in fact a part of Greece; and that Macedonians have been effectively Greek since as early as 2000 BC. This has led to complicated naming disputes – there is already a large region of Greece known as Macedonia, and a huge subset of the Greek population who identify, accordingly, as ‘Macedonians’.
The Greek government has gone so far as to take the issue before the UN, suggesting that the Republic of Macedonia – despite their claims of a distinct and separate heritage – should adopt the somewhat ugly title of ‘FYROM’ (the ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’).
It’s all very complicated, very messy, and no doubt deeply frustrating for all those involved. As an outsider, frankly, I don’t feel anywhere near educated enough to have an opinion on the matter. I can merely conclude however, that the Ilinden Spomenik – a powerful, blood-stained symbol of national identity and of the struggle for state independence – is not likely to be abandoned any time soon.
 ‘Spomenik’ is the Macedonian (and common Serbo-Croat) word for ‘monument’.