Sunday, July 20, 2008

'Descendants' of Alexander help to boost Macedonian identity

This morning, an unusual delegation from the Himalayan foothills bids a quiet farewell to the Republic of Macedonia.

Prince Ghazanfar Ali Khan, his wife Princess Rani Atiqa and their entourage claim descent from Alexander the Great's conquering army, which reached their Hunza tribal homeland in northern Pakistan 23 centuries ago.

The fair-skinned, blue-eyed Hunza people, whose own accounts trace their descent to Alexander's march-weary troops, are renowned for their longevity and their high literacy rate.

Officials initially rolled out the red carpet for the septuagenarian prince and his entourage, who have toured cultural and historical sites since arriving at Skopje's Alexander the Great airport on July 11. Nikola Gruevski, prime minister, met the delegation, while a Macedonian Orthodox archbishop blessed it.

Hunza folklore gave a shot in the arm to the ex-Yugoslav country of 2m - still embroiled, 18 years after independence, in a frustrating "name dispute" with Greece, whose northern province is also called Macedonia.

Greece has made sure Macedonia cannot join Nato without a compromise name change. The latest round of United Nations-led talks in New York produced no breakthrough.

Mr Gruevski, who won a landslide re-election victory in June, has raised the ante by this week demanding recognition for a Macedonian (Slav) ethnic minority in officially homogeneous Greece.

But Mr Gruevski's critics have dismissed the Hunza visit as shallow populism and after ridicule in local newspapers, the youth and sport agency cancelled the princely couple's planned appearance in Skopje's main square last night.

The visit's main organiser was Marina Dojcinovska, a Skopje-based travel journalist who made a film about the far-flung tribe of "Macedonians" in 2005.

"This is a very special occasion for all Macedonians," Ms Dojcinovska said.

In fact, citizens proved divided about how literally to take their ancient origins. Their Macedonian language is closest to Bulgarian and other South Slavic tongues - pointing to roots in the tribal migrations about a millennium after Alexander.

Ana Petruseva, country director for the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, said of the Hunza visit: "Everyone who's a bit more educated is laughing at this."

The Hunza of today, who are mostly Muslim, had not heard of modern Macedonia until 12 years ago, when an expatriate Macedonian linguistics professor drew their attention to it.

Ilija Casule, an associate professor at Australia's Macquarie University, said he recognised common grammar and terms for body parts between the Hunza people's Burushaski and Indo-European languages.

But there are plenty who question just how robust the links are. Most linguists classify Burushaski as an "isolate" unrelated to other languages. DNA research has also debunked claims of genetic links between Macedonians and the Hunza.

"Macedonia's doing what other European countries did in the 19th century . . . elevating folk tales to official history," said Sam Vaknin, an Israeli economic adviser in Skopje. "This belated adolescence has been exacerbated by Greek insecurities bordering on sadism."

Greece plays the same game, funding cultural centres and schools for the Kalash, another set of Alexander claimants in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In the 1930s, scientists in Nazi Germany also combed the Himalayas in search of lost Aryan cousins.

Athens accuses Josip Broz Tito, the Yugoslav communist leader after the second world war, of "inventing" Macedonian ethnicity in the hopes of grabbing a piece of the Aegean coast.

Yet Skopje's popular identification with Alexander did not blossom until after the 1990s Yugoslav break-up, Macedonians argue.

Sensing threats on all sides, Macedonian patriots have become more stubborn on identity, calling themselves "Alexander's descendants" even though the ancient conqueror personally had no known children.

Aleksandar Dimiskovski, a business consultant in Skopje, says: "The [Hunza] visit provides affirmation of our ties to the former Macedonia of Alexander the Great. Approval from these people confirms that the legacy of ancient Macedonia belongs to the Republic of Macedonia, not just to Greece."

That is a view that remains very much in contention. Bulgaria refuses to recognise a separate Macedonian language. Serbia's church keeps Macedonians out of the worldwide Orthodox communion. And an ethnic Albanian minority of roughly 25 per cent challenges the young state's internal stability.

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