Monday, October 28, 2013

Скопје & Prizren

We decided to take some time off this year during the Feast of the Sacrifice holiday in Turkey. Republic of Macedonia does not require a visa from us, so we took a 3-day trip there, with the aim of visiting the neighboring Kosovo as well. Given the limited time, we planned to see three cities: Skopje and Tetovo in Macedonia, and Prizren in Kosovo.

Skopje, which we call Üsküp in Turkish, is the capital of the Republic of Macedonia. It is written as Скопје in Macedonian using the Cyril alphabet. The city has been settled since Neolithic times. It came under the control of the Roman Empire, later changed hands between the Byzantine Empire and the Bulgarian Empire, served as the capital of the Serbian Empire, and in 1392, it was conquered by the Ottoman Empire and served as the capital of the Kosova Province until 1912. It is noteworthy that Skopje became part of the Ottomon Empire almost 60 years before İstanbul was conquered. It was under Ottoman control for more than 500 years. It has been part of Yugoslavia until Republic of Macedonia separated from Yugoslavia in 1991.

From Turkey, you can fly to Skopje via İstanbul. The flight takes around 1 hour and 20 minutes. Skopje has an international airport called Alexandre the Great Airport. Despite the name, the airport is humble in size. The naming of the airport, and more importantly, the naming of the country itself is rather controversial. The ancient Kingdom of Macedonia was of Greek origin and centered around the current day city of Thessaloniki (Selanik in Turkish) in the Region of Macedonia within Greece. The famous leader and military commander Alexandre the Great, who lived around 350 BC, is from ancient Macedonia. The Greeks are quite opposed to the name of the current day Republic of Macedonia, as it is geographically located on the northern parts of the ancient Macedonia and ethnically current day Macedonians are a different group of people than the ancient Macedons. My understanding is that Macedonians might have historic ties to the ancient Macedons, but they came under heavy influence of Slavs. As a result, they are more of a Slavic ethnic group today. They speak a Slavic language as well. I personally find it strange that they want to own the ancient Macedon figures like Alexandre the Great and Philip II. Apparently that really upsets the Greeks, who consider these figures as part of their history. Due to the naming controversy, today you might see the words FYROM in some maps, which means The Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia, which is the official UN name due to Greece's protests over the name Republic of Macedonia.

Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, is a city that houses half a million people. Macedonians constitute 65% of the population, whereas Albanians form 25%-30%. There is ~4% Turkish population, and ~3%of Romanis (Gypsies). Close to two thirds of the population is Christians (mostly Macedonian) and one third is Muslims. There does not seem to be any religious tensions. You can see both churches and mosques around. Call for prayers are heard five times a day. The official language is Macedonian in Macedonia, but in places where there is a sizable Albanian population, Albanian Language, written using the Latin alphabet, is co-official, as in Skopje. The money used in Macedonia is Macedonian Denar. In Skopje, some places also take Euros.

Stone bridge in downtown Skopje
From the airport, we take a taxi to the city center of Skopje. It is around 20kms from the airport. As we enter the city, it surprises us to see so many Halkbank branches and ads. Halkbank is a Turkish bank. We check-in at a hotel close to the main square in the city center, aptly named the Square Hotel. The hotel is at the 6th floor of a building. Doesn't look too promising from outside, but it is clean and tidy inside. The Vardar River passes through downtown Skopje. The city is under construction. There was a big earthquake in 1963 in Skopje, which has destroyed the city and it seems the city is truly recovering from that destruction only now.  Macedonia is a candidate country for the European Union and with support from the EU, they have started a downtown renewal project. As part of this effort many new buildings and statues are being built.

Warrior on a Horse
However, we feel that the statue thing is a little overdone. There are too many of them and at weird places as well. Some of them are nicely placed though. One such example is the Alexandre the Great statue shown on the left, which is the central attraction in the main square. It is best viewed from the old bridge, as it is placed quite high. From up close, you are more likely to see the underbelly of the horse, rather than the Alexandre sitting on top of it. The funny thing is, Macedonians are not allowed to name this statue as Alexandre the Great, due to the longstanding naming dispute with Greece. As a result, it is named Warrior on a Horse. On the other side of the old bridge, there is another statute, this time of Philip II, standing up with his fist pointed in the air. Again, it cannot be named Philip II, and instead it is named The Warrior. There is also a triumphal arch, again built as part of the renewal project. It is said that the nationalist government has spent more than 200 million for this effort so far, which is striking considering the rather poor country. The unemployment rate is as high as 35%, which is frighteningly high. If you walk a little outside of downtown, you can start seeing graffiti over unkempt and rundown buildings.

Kale Fortress
Across the bridge, you can find the old city, where the Ottoman impact is highly visible. There are Ottoman mosques, such as the Mustafa Pasha Mosque, Hamams, Inns, and a Bazaar. Also on that side of the river, located on top of a hill and overlooking the city center is the Fortress of Skopje, called the Kale Fortress. Kale is the Turkish word for Fortress. So it is the fortress fortress :). The fortress was originally  built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, but has been partially reconstructed many times. With the lighting at night, it looks very impressive, as seen on the right. The old city has many stores and restaurants with Turkish names and it is easy to find local folks who can speak Turkish. For lunch we had meatballs at a restaurant, and two of the waiters knew Turkish. In fact, one of them was a local Turk. 

The next day we took a bus to neighboring Kosovo. The two important cities in Kosovo are Prishtine, the capital, and Prizren. We decided to visit Prizren, as the Turkish connection is stronger there. For those who do not know, Kosovo is a country. However, it is not internationally recognized. Among many who recognize it are the USA and Turkey. It was separated from Yugoslavia as a result of the Kosovo War in 1999, which was fought by the Kosovo Liberation Army with aerial bombardment support from NATO. Turkey has participated in the NATO operations as well. Almost a decade after the war, it declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. However, Serbia still does not recognize Kosovo and has territorial claims on it. Today Albanians form around 90% of the population in Kosovo. Serbian forces have committed war crimes during the war and many Serbians have left during or after the war due to the resulting ethnic conflict. Kosovo is not part of EU yet, given its mixed status as an independent country. But there is a EU mission in Kosovo providing rule of law, such as police officers, prosecutors, and judges. The euro is the official currency in Kosovo.

Namazgah where Fatih has prayed
Prizren is located on the slopes of the Sar Mountains and the road from Skopje to Prizren has nice views. It takes around 3 hours by bus, but half an hour of that is spent waiting for the passport control on the Macedonia-Kosovo border. Prizren is a very attractive little city, full of history. Perhaps the right description for it is 'boutique'. As we leave the bus station, on the other side of the street, we find the Namazgah. This is the place where Fatih Sultan Mehmed has stopped to pray when Prizren was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in 1455, that is 2 years after the Fall of Constantinople. The remains from the Namazgah are partially restored, as seen on the left. It does not look pretty, but it does have historical significance for us.

Stone bridge over the Bistrica
The city houses less than 200 thousand people, which are predominantly Muslim Albanians. There is also a Turkish minority, which seems quite active in the political scene. Turkish is a co-official language in Prizren, Albanian being the main language spoken by the population. Everyone seem to know a little Turkish though. They speak it with a cute accent, somewhat resembling the Black Sea coast accent from Turkey. Bistrica river passes through the city. On the right, you can see an old stone bridge over the river. You can walk along both sides of the river and pass through nice little cafes, restaurants and other local stores. The city is quite lively. Historical sites are very well preserved. The city is very clean and tidy.

As you walk along the river towards the city center, you can catch the view of the Fortress of Prizren, which is located on a hill overlooking the city center. The fortress was built by the Byzantines, was expanded by Serbians, and was given its final shape by the Ottomans. Unfortunately, we did not have the chance to climb the fortress to get a view of the city from up there, because it started to rain heavily an hour after we reached Prizren.

In the city center, you can find the town square, which is called the Shadervan, meaning Fountain in Turkish. There is indeed a fountain in the middle of the town square. The square hosts many small restaurants. We had lunch in one of them. The cabbage salad and the thin sliced beef steak were delicious. Located next to the town square is the Sinan Pasha Mosque, built in 1615. There is also a Hamam close to the city center. There are also Eastern Orthodox Churches. One of them is the Our Lady of Ljevis Church, which we saw from outside, but were not allowed to get in or take pictures. It seems many churches were burned during the ethnic clashes and even today there is animosity against Serbians and thus against the Churches. We hang around the cafes at night, stayed at a very central hotel close to the main square, and took the bus next morning back to Skopje. Before boarding the bus, we tasted local Böreks at a pastry store. Böreks are filled pastries made of a thin flaky dough (known as phyllo in the US). They were delicious.

As soon as we arrived in Skopje, we took a bus to the nearby city of Tetovo. During the Ottoman times, this place was named Kalkandelen. The city is the political capital of the Albanian minority within the country and Albanians form the relative majority here. In 2001, there was a minor civil war within Macedonia, and Tetovo played a central role during that time. The conflict was resolved by granting more rights and better representation to the Albanian minority. An example is the right to have universities that teach in the Albanian language.

Painted Mosque
The Pena river passes through the city and you can find an Ottoman Hamam next to it as you walk towards the city center. You can also find, located very centrally, the Painted Mosque. This mosque, shown on the right, was originally built in 1438, and later reconstructed in 1833. The mosque is unique because it does not follow the traditional Ottoman architecture. It has floral paintings. Inside the mosque, under the dome, you can see panoramic drawings of trees, plants, and buildings. This is the first time we see an interior mosque decoration like that. From the outside, it also looks interesting. The back side of it looks as if it is made out of playing cards :). The mosque has a nice small courtyard, which also houses an Ottoman mausoleum (called a Türbe), which houses the tombs of the financers of the mosque. Tetovo also houses an Ottoman fortress overlooking the city and a historical Bektashi Tekke, that is a Bektashi Dervish Lodge.

We had a nice dinner in Tetovo and returned back to Skopje at night. There was a concert in the main square which continued until midnight. Early next day, we went back to the airport for our return flight to İstanbul.

No comments:

Post a Comment