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Street in Carsija (Bazaar) of Skopje
Street in Carsija (Bazaar) of Skopje. Photo: Alan Grant

Skopje is the capital of Macedonia, located in the north of the country, 15 km from the border with Kosovo and 30 km from the border with Serbia. With slightly over half a million inhabitants it is home to a quarter of the Macedonia’s population. Much of the city was destroyed in a 1963earthquake, which claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people and destroyed 80 percent of the city's buildings. The loss of much of its architectural heritage, combined with subsequent communist-era reconstruction projects, left a mark on Skopje's appearance, prompting the Lonely Planet travel guide to describe the city as follows:

"In about 50 years or so pundits may well be raving about this superb period ensemble of concrete apartment towers, vast avenues suitable for tank parades, and weird space-age public buildings. To the current eye, though, it might seem a tad ugly. The locals do have a sense of humour about it all. One described the bunker-like National Theatre as just like the Sydney Opera House, only square." (Lonely Planet Guidebook, Western Balkans)

The city of Skopje dates back to a Roman settlement in the second century BC – Colonia Flavia Aelia Scupi. Of military importance due to its strategic location, Skopje remained relatively insignificant politically until 1346 when Stefan Dusan chose it as the site for his coronation as emperor of the Serbs and Greeks. The town came under Ottoman dominion at the end of the 14th century, shortly after the battle of Kosovo in 1389. Under the comparative stability of Ottoman rule Skopje lost its strategic importance as a fortress. The development of trade and handicrafts caused the town to flourish economically, however. By 1683 it had a population of 60,000 and was an important centre of Islam. Skopje's Madrasah ranked as the fourth most important in the Empire behind those of Istanbul, Edirne and Bursa. The town was also the seat of a Greek-Orthodox metropolitan bishop and a Catholic archbishop (Fikret Adanir, Skopje: Eine Balkan Hauptstadt).

Skopje's development was brought to an abrupt halt during the so-called "Great Turkish War", during which much of the population fled the city. Austrian Imperial troops under Eugene of Savoy, supported by Serbs and Albanians, took the city in 1689 and deliberately set it on fire. For decades Skopje was strewn with the ruins of mosques, houses, and public buildings destroyed in the fire. Fikret Adanir reports that Skopje's population was still only between 5,000 and 6,000 as late as a century after its destruction. Only in the 20th century did its population reach 1683 levels.

After the Second World War, the creation of the People's Republic of Macedonia under Tito made Skopje a capital city. The Yugoslav communists turned the city into an industrial centre with the establishment of chemical, steel and cement industries, as well as an oil refinery. It attracted workers from the surrounding regions and grew from a town of 70,000 after the war to a city of 172,000 by 1961 (Fikret Adanir, Skopje: Eine Balkan Hauptstadt).

Not even the earthquake on 26 July 1963, which – like the Austrian army three centuries before – almost completely destroyed Skopje, could halt its development. An estimated 1,100 people were killed and 120,000 left homeless, prompting a large relief effort by the international community, supported by countries lying both east and west of the Iron Curtain. Other than the old Turkish bazaar, the biggest west of Istanbul, none of the older neighbourhoods survived the earthquake. The reconstruction of Skopje saw the establishment of a completely new, modern city.

Today Skopje is the capital of the Republic of Macedonia. Its population reflects the country's ethnic diversity. The latest census from 2002 found that 67 percent of the city's inhabitants are ethnic Macedonians, while 20 percent are Albanians. Roma, Serb, Turk, Bosniak and Vlach minorities make up the rest.

May 2008

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