On the odd occasion, nations will seek to impart to their airports a touch of local history, not only to honour famous people or places but also to highlight their importance to foreigners. Thus we have Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, Kingsford Smith Airport in Sydney and Atatürk Airport in Constantinople. Athens Airport is named after Modern Greece’s great statesman, Eleutherios Venizelos, whereas Thessaloniki airport is not named ‘Basil the Bulgar Slayer Airport’ but rather ‘Makedonia’ so that travellers have no misconceptions about the geographical region in which they have landed. Similarly, Ioannina Airport is named ‘King Pirros’ after the ancient Epirotic monarch Pyrrhus who deserves to have his name transliterated correctly, Kastoria Airport is named ‘Aristotelis’ and Kavala Airport is named ‘Megas Alexandros.’
This is all well and good where there is clear delineation between nations’ history and culture. However, when historical elements or personages normally associated with one culture are claimed by another, this naming process becomes somewhat more complicated.
Enter the government at Skopje’s recent decision to rename Skopje airport after Alexander the Great (Аеродром Алeксандар Вeлики). At the outset, this is a marketing masterstroke so skilful as to even cause John Singleton to turn green with envy, for let’s face it, prior to this fortuitous announcement, most of the world did not even know that an international airport existed in that city. Indeed, the only time that airport has ever previously achieved any prominence in the world media is when on 5 March 1993, a Fokker F-100 belonging to the local airline, Palair, crashed seconds after taking off from Skopje runway 34 on a flight to Zurich. Investigation determined the cause of the accident to be the failure of the Skopjan flight crew to have the aircraft de-iced before departure. Sadly, 81 of the 97 passengers on board perished.
Already, the gloves are out. Even before being asked, the Foreign Minister at Skopje, Antonio Milososki has pointed out that Alexander the Great, a historical military leader was an international figure and not the property of one country. He hastened to add that the renaming of Aepoдром Cкопје (Aerodrom Skopje) was not an attempt to monopolize the name and Greece should not take it as a provocation, this despite the fact he knows Greece would and in fact has, interpreted it as such. In a gesture of magnanimity, Mr Milososki advised that while the original intention was to name the airport ‘Alexander the Macedonian,’ the more conventional name would be applied in order not to hurt Greece’s feelings.
Poppycock. For years the government in Skopje and/or its predecessor and various of its people have been trying to appropriate to themselves pieces of history, selected at whim, in order to forge a national ideology. This includes the publication of Thessalonican landmarks such as the White Tower on proposed banknotes, abrogation of the Star of Vergina, the publication of provocative maps of ‘Aegean Macedonia,’ concerted attempts to dissociate the ancient Macedonian royal family from any reference to its Hellenic descent and the formulation of a thoroughly racist and exclusionist conception of the term ‘Macedonian.’ One can therefore appreciate the context in which Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyiannis’ expounded her position on the issue, namely: “The attitude shown by Skopje is not in line with its obligations for good-neighbourly ties that result from its commitments to the European Union and are not in favour of its Euro-Atlantic ambitions.” The meaning of the government at Skopje’s clumsy gesture is therefore apparent to all and it shall be interesting to see what, if anything, the Greek government attends to do to address the issue in the face of continued recalcitrance.
However, before the Greeks of the world rush off complaining about Skopjan duplicity to a western post-modern world that believes in no ultimate truth and in the right to call one’s self whatever one wishes, is complacent about its own history given that it cannot be assailed and is contemptuous of petty and dare we say inferior people’s squabbling over historical rights and titles, let them pause and reflect for a while. For quite possibly, the government at Skopje’s renaming of Aerodrom Skopje as ‘Alexander the Great’ has repercussions beyond the ken even of the petty populists in both camps.
Firstly, to all intents and purposes and despite decades of inept propaganda to the contrary, in the wider worldwide consciousness, the historical personage of Alexander the Great is inextricably linked with Greece. This singular fact is attested by aeons of folklore by peoples from the Balkans all the way to Chinese Turkestan. Therefore, while the populists in Skopje think they are scoring points with their own electorate and attempting to obtain sole title to a historical personage, what they are actually doing is sending the message that they are honouring a Greek King and that their country once belonged to him. It goes without saying that this is not devoid of benefit for the Greek people.
As an aside, it is worthwhile to note that if the various dedicated internet forums are anything to go by, the government in Skopje’s decision is unpopular with a large section of its constituents that view the Greek King Alexander as a ‘Grekoman’ and thus, as a ‘race-traitor.’
Secondly, if we apply the esteemed but rather inept Mr Milososki’s argument that no country has sole right or title to international historical figures or concepts further, then logically, the name ‘Macedonia’ is also one of historical and international significance and not the property of one country. This being so, Mr Milososki has conclusively proven that his government and people cannot solely abrogate to themselves the right to call themselves Macedonians.
Greeks feel a sense of pride when they consider Alexandria, one of the greatest cities of Egypt and of Hellenism combined. They do not consider the continued use of Alexander’s name by that city a slight in any way, as that thriving metropolis is a living testament to the impenetrable will and almost superhuman achievements of a most unique man. Ultimately, all places or things that bear the great Greek King’s name resound to and reflect his eternal glory, not that of those who misappropriate or utilise it for their own ends.
I find it touching that the government in Skopje should seek to honour arguably the most famous Greek in history, by naming their airport after him. This is a gesture the great Greek king would have appreciated. After all, was it not Alexander who in his quest to find Eschate – the furthest limit of human endurance and attainment, founded a multitude of cities throughout the world and named them all after himself, a more grandiose equivalent to graffitiing on walls the slogan: ‘Alexander was here?” Further, this gesture takes a lot of guts. In contrast to their western cousins, the Bulgarians could not tolerate the existence in their country of a city that bore the name of a Macedonian king, Thus Philippoupolis, founded and named in honour of Alexander’s father and existing under that name for centuries was renamed Plovdiv after its inclusion in the Bulgarian state.
Therefore, in order to nip any problem that may arise over the naming of the airport in the bud, and to head off any criticism directed against us and our brothers in Skopje by our enlightened western friends to the effect that we should raise our heads above the quagmire of history I would humbly submit my own solution to the problem:
Not only should we accept the government in Skopje’s noble gesture in honouring our great Greek king by giving their airport the same name as our own in Kavala, we should reciprocate by naming a local airport within Greece after a famous Fyromian personality of historical importance. I would nominate the great Fyromian diva and queen of Balkan pop music Kaliopi Bukle for this most singular honour. Travellers arriving at Kaliopi Bukle Airport could have their auditory nerves massaged by such masterpieces of the musical stave as Kaliopi’s rendition of “Smeh,” “Ne Mi Go Zemaj Vremeto” or “Za Kogo Postojam.” Suitably captioned exhibits could entrance and inform travellers on Kaliopi’s international importance as a songwriter, focusing upon the unparalleled artistry she displayed in composing lyrics for such worldwide musical heavyweights as Elena Risteska and Maja Grozdanovska-Pancheva. In bad weather, Kaliopi’s songs could help planes to really take off. As we say at Kaliopi Bukle International Airport, ‘sky’s the limit.’While we are at it, let us be guided by our northern brothers’ example and institute a campaign to rename all the airports in all the cities ever conquered, founded or visited by Alexander the Great after him, including Kabul Airport in Afghanistan, Tehran Airport in Iran and Baghdad International Airport in Iraq. To this effect, it is imperative that an aerodrome is also built in Heidelberg, adjacent to the Warriors’ Soccer Ground. And when the neraida arrives one day at the terminal asking the perennial question of the Passport Control Officer «Ζει ο Μέγας Αλέξανδρος;» he will smile, nod and reply, «Ζει, ζει και βασιλεύει.»
First published in NKEE on 15 January 2007