Hunt for Lost Treasures Has Macedonia Divided

While Macedonia laboriously collects copies of its lost treasures, some say the effort is wasted - and want the country to seek the return of original items now sitting in foreign museums.

This article is also available in: Македонски Bos/Hrv/Srp

The so-called Alexander Sarcophagus in Istanbul

If all goes well, by the end of this year a copy of a precious sarcophagus, the so-called Alexander Sarcophagus, bearing reliefs of the Ancient hero, should arrive in the Macedonian capital, Skopje.

If it does, it will be placed the new, nearly finished Archaeological Museum, adding lustre to the country’s burgeoning collection of monuments commemorating Alexander the Great.

The head of the Macedonian Cultural Heritage Bureau, archeologist Pasko Kuzman, says the copy will be the work of Macedonian and Turkish experts.

He does not know the final price of the work, as it remains unclear whether the Turkish authorities will lend support to the project.

“The documents are still being prepared, which is a time-consuming procedure, so we can’t say exactly when the sarcophagus will be finished,” Kuzman added. “And a thorough review of its overall costs still needs to be done,” he continued.

Kuzman hopes that the attractive copy of the valuable sarcophagus, which now lies in Istanbul and was found in Lebanon, will boost visits to the new museum and attract more tourists to the capital in general.

“We’ll be the only country in the Balkans possessing such a copy, so we expect it to stir great interest in countries across Eastern Europe,” he maintained.

Although everyone agrees that the sarcophagus is a valuable item of world cultural heritage, there are different theories about its origin.

One theory is that it belonged to the Phoenician King of Sidon, Abdalonymus, who Alexander appointed as King after the Battle of Issus.

Archeologist Pasko Kuzman

Another theory is that it belonged to a Persian nobleman and governor of Babylon.

Art historian Eleonora Petrova says that there is no obvious reason why a copy should be placed in a Macedonian museum, as no one has conclusively connected the sarcophagus directly to Alexander.

“After Alexander’s body disappeared in Egypt in 323 B.C., there were many theories about where he was buried. So, I cannot understand the need for us to have a copy of this sarcophagus,” she said.

“I also don’t understand the intent to force the Antique issue, by bringing more artefacts here, though they won’t ultimately help us solve any of the current problems,” she added, referring to the long-running row with Greece over which country “owns” the memory of such heroes of Antiquity as Alexander.

Hundreds of depictions are engraved on the sarcophagus of Alexander’s victories, especially the battle with the Persians at Issus, but also an image of a lion.

The coffin, weighing at least 15 tons, is made of two blocks of high quality marble, which over time changed in colour to gold.

While some Macedonians mull the value of buying a copy of the sarcophagus that may, or may not, have belonged to Alexander, others think the country would be better off elsewhere.

They say Macedonia should concentrate on ensuring the return of original items, found in Macedonia, which now sit in foreign museums.

Thousands of valuables were excavated from Macedonia in the period before the Second World War and removed – partly because Macedonia was not then a state or even an autonomous region with its own museums.

 The Alexander sarcophagus:

The marble sarcophagus attributed to Alexander the Great, dating from the 4th century B.C. , was found by the archaeologist Osman Hamdi Bey while unearthing the necropolis in the area of the Lebanese city of Sidon, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire.

Hamdi Bey came across four, well preserved sarcophagi belonging to significant individuals, which were transferred by boat to Istanbul and then displayed in in the Ottoman Imperial Museum, which was specially opened on August 13, 1891 for this occasion. The sarcophagi have remained in the Museum ever since.

After the Balkan wars of 1912-13, Ottoman Macedonia was partitioned between Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria. The modern Macedonian state is entirely composed of the old Serbian portion, which became one of six federal units in Yugoslavia after 1944-5.

The Cultural Heritage Bureau, a signatory to numerous international conventions on restitution, by the end of this year is expected to publish two papers detailing all the artefacts removed from Macedonia over the years.

But Kuzman is not optimistic about their chances of recovering them.

“Before World War 2 Macedonia did not exist as a legal subject, so there are no international laws that we can turn to [in seeking the return of removed artefacts],” he says.

“When they were removed, it was a totally legal procedure, so those items cannot be called stolen goods,” Kuzman told Balkan Insight.

Macedonia can reclaim its lost treasures “only through good will and as a result of good neighbourly relations”, he added.

Current initiatives have not yielded much in the way of results – even when all that Macedonia is seeking is copies – let alone asking for the originals.

Macedonia recently asked the national museums in Belgrade and in Sofia to donate copies of of four golden burial masks, a big bronze bowl and an ancient helmet, all dating from the 5th and 6th century B.C.

Bulgarian and Serbian archeologists excavated the valuables near the southwestern town of Ohrid during the first half of the 20th century.

But the outcome of the requests was disappointing, with Macedonia obtaining only a copy of one mask, from Belgrade.

In May, Serbia’s then Minister of Culture, Predrag Markovic, handed the copy of the mask to Macedonia on his visit to Skopje. Markovic described the replica as a gift of friendship to the Macedonian people and state.

Serbia handed one copy of a golden mask to Macedonia

But when it came to the others, Kuzman recalled that the national museums in Belgrade and in Sofia “turned us down politely”.

According to Kuzman, the head of Serbia’s national museum, Tatjana Cvijeticanin, apologized by letter about the others, saying the other artefacts were too fragile to undergo copying.

“Personally I do not believe this. The bowl is not fragile at all and besides, today there are 3D non-invasive methods of making replicas that don’t require physical contact with the artefacts,” Kuzman told the daily Dnevnik.

He said the Bulgarian museum was even more polite in its refusal, but would only agree to make copies for 100,000 US dollars each. “There are many ways to turn someone down!” Pasko jested.

After the copy of the golden mask arrived from Belgrade, the head of a small rightist party, Vanco Shehtanski, accused Serbia of “totally humiliating” behaviour.

“Serbia and Bulgaria should return the originals treasure they took during their occupations of Macedonia and not send us back museum kitsch,” he thundered.

Some Macedonian experts also felt offended by Serbia’s refusal to give Macedonia copies of the other treasures. They say the country is turning into a collector of copies, instead of seeking to regain its original treasures.


Macedonian Church rebuffed:


Macedonian Orthodox Church officials say their attempts to regain valuable icons and old Slavic writings have been rebuffed.

“Restitution from other countries is very unlikely; it’s almost a mission impossible,” Fr Timotej from the Macedonian Orthodox Church said. He says the Church had tried several times to launch an initiative for cultural restitution, but without significant results.

“It is good that we attempt restitution but it seems there is not much interest in it [among the political parties],” he says.

One recent advance was that some countries now at least acknowledge where some of their treasures come from.

“For a long time the Bulgarians denied even having the mitre of the Ohrid Archbishopric,” he said. “But since they’ve publicly presented it, it’s become known that it comes from Macedonia,” Fr Timotej said.

“We should focus on the originals. When it comes to our artefacts in museums in the region, or worldwide, we should make an effort to regain them,” historian Petrova says.

“I have nothing against making copies of artefacts, but only as the last resort,” she adds.

She says spending money on copies is “mere stupidity” noting the bid to replicate the sarcophagus as a classic example of this, especially “as there is no certain evidence who it belonged to”.

Some experts believe that restitution may be possible if the country can find enough evidence to prove the origin of the artefact in question.

Archeologist Vasilka Dimitrovska says the UN’s cultural wing, UNESCO, can provide support in the restitution of artefacts, although she says it should not play the key role.

“When we behave passively, we leave room for the wrongful interpretation of these artefacts,” she says.

“Our diplomats should be more active in presenting these claims. We should make official websites listing the artefacts now in other countries, clearly stating their country of origin.

“Then we should start legal procedures for their restitution.”

Some estimates suggest as many as 100,000 Macedonian artefacts are scattered in museums in the region and worldwide, from Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey to Russia, Britain and the US.

The archeological museum in Skopje | Photo by:

They include nearly 20,000 icons from Macedonian churches and monasteries, about which there is no certain data concerning where they now lie.

Except for the golden masks, many valuable icons from Macedonia now form part of the collection of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

The greater part of Macedonia’s oldest Glagolic writings are also scattered far and wide, from Zagreb to Munich, Moscow, Odessa, Bucharest and elsewhere.

The mitre of the archbishops of Ohrid, dating from 1789 and with an estimated value of around 15 million euro, is in the National History Museum in Sofia.

For now, Macedonia owns only one original golden mask, found in 2002, near Ohrid.

This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.

This article is also available in: Македонски Bos/Hrv/Srp