New East Digital Archive

Inventing history: Making a mythic past in Macedonia

27 October 2016

For Polish photographer Michal Siarek, the quest to depict Macedonia’s obsession with Alexander the Great started with an image: the construction of a 25-metre tall figure of a warrior on horseback towering above Skopje. As he later found out, it was one of many newly created references to the mythical heritage of the great leader. From that point he embarked on a five-year-long journey to explore Macedonia’s conflicted identity and troubled political situation.

Siarek first had the idea of creating a project about the rise of Macedonia’s cult of Alexander the Great in 2010, when the government began its campaign to bring the historical figure back onto the national agenda.

“I was 21 back then and didn’t know yet how to cover the topic,” he remembers. “I knew about the conflict with Greece over the country’s name and heritage but It took me at least a year of research to clarify that Macedonians had not much in common with Alexander.”

The more Siarek explored the topic the more he began to realise that the obsession with Alexander was not just an attempt to fill an ideological void, but also the reason for Macedonia’s growing isolation.

“The pursuit of nobility is now turning the country into an authoritarian regime,” he reflects. “I was interested and attracted by the scale of how they erect monuments that are hollow inside, everything being made from concrete and poor materials. Although they claim that they are to remain for many years, they are actually hollow and superficial.”

“The monuments of Alexander reignited the conflict with Greece. Everything was solved in the late 1990s between Macedonia and Greece, the name of the country settled as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which allowed Macedonia to be internationally present. But then a new populist government made the decision to erect this monument. The monument is called Warrior on a Horse, and though it’s not officially Alexander it still revived the whole conflict.”

Siarek’s perspective on this formation of national identity is distant. He captures the grand scale and detail of these new monumental buildings on a large-format camera, revealing the theatrical nature of these crumbling settings.

You can almost smell the fresh concrete and can tell that the Roman shields are made of plastic. For Siarek, these props are poor cover for the crisis unveiling in the country.

“Macedonia is torn apart by ethnic hatred and is very poor as a result. It’s not able to negotiate joining either the EU or Nato. There is a constant fear that its neighbours could claim its land. There is a lot of uncertainty,” he says.

“With my project I wanted to show that the history of the region is not running in straight lines, but more like concentric circles — the situation for the last two years in Macedonia reminds me so much of the beginning of the war in Kosovo.”

In the end, the issues the photographer explores transcend time and place to touch on human history as a whole, the geopolitical nature of conflict and the foundation of modern Europe. “The story I wanted to tell goes beyond Alexander the Great and Macedonia,” he said. “It’s about rewriting or classifying history, rebuilding artefacts and questioning who owns antiquity and what legitimises the modern nation.”