IT IS LATE AFTERNOON ON AN OVERCAST AUTUMN DAY IN OCTOBER…
and I am climbing up to the summit of Tatićev Kamen. I feel as if I am ascending a stairway to a castle in the clouds, one carved into the andesite remnants of a now extinct volcano. I reach one of the four east-facing ‘thrones’ of what is thought to have been a sacred Bronze Age megalithic observatory in the Kokino archaeological site of North Macedonia. I can see why; the mountainous horizon greets me in any direction I turn, and with sudden and unexpected trepidation I realise how high above that horizon I seem to be.
My mother and I came here on a whim, a short diversion after visiting family in Kumanovo, where my grandmother grew up. We drive past wild rose bushes bejewelled with rose hips. These are the kinds of rose hips your great-grandmother used to make rosehip jam, she tells me, as I confess my frustrations in making it from rose hips foraged in urban London that approximates the flavour preserved in my memory.
Suddenly there are oak trees, tall, resplendent, ancient. Nearing Kokino, we pass Staro Nagoričane, a small village with an 11th century Byzantine church. My mother tells me my great-great-grandfather, Milan, came from here. I had no idea! I am overwhelmed with the thought of him, us, me being descendants of the ancient inhabitants of Kokino.
Slowly I start to retrace my steps. As I turn west, I notice rays of sunlight puncturing the clouds. The sun breaks through and I am filled with the joy that only the light of my homeland brings. The yellowed grass on the slopes, burnt by that same sun throughout summer, suddenly glimmers golden as if touched by Minas.
I am reminded of all my summers here, the landscape like a painting etched in my mind which I carry with me anywhere I go in the world. I think of all my other ancestors – from Skopje, Bitola, Kruševo, Thessaloniki, Sarajevo, Belgrade. I am of all these places, of all these lands. I am Balkan.
BUT WHAT DOES “BALKAN” MEAN EXACTLY?
Etymologically it may have a Farsi root – bālkāneh or bālākhāna (high above, or proud house), or an Ottoman Turkish root, denoting wooded mountain range, referring to the Balkan Mountains. As a concept, the idea of a Balkan region emerged within the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the 19th century.
Delineating the exact contours of the Balkans requires an academic-level understanding of the geography, history, and politics of the region – and, to date, there is no real consensus. For practical reasons, I think in current map terms: the Balkans comprises the nation-states born out of the demise of the former Yugoslavia— Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovenia —as well as Albania, Bulgaria, mainland Greece, and parts of Hungary, Romania, and Turkey.
These are ancient lands where some of the world’s greatest civilizations – Hellenic, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman, to name a few – have meaningfully overlapped with each other and with the indigenous population. This has resulted in significant borrowing in all directions – by and from the local population and by, from and between the various civilisations either ‘passing through’ and temporarily occupying the region, or conquering the region, often for prolonged periods of time.
As the front-line for many cultural, ideological, religious, political, and other exchanges and confrontations, the Balkans have not only birthed but also absorbed many diverse traditions, resulting in one of the most dynamic, multi-layered, complex, and therefore, in my opinion, interesting regions in the world. They have also, crucially, had to fight to survive in the face of this imperialist criss-crossing, domination, and exploitation – and the effects of it, poverty, and massive exodus from the region at several points in history.
This unique, if not always positive, legacy is most stubbornly preserved and most meaningfully manifested in the cuisine of the region. A fusion of indigenous ingredients and preferences with traces of influences from across the world: Persian, Levantine, Asian, Ottoman, European, Austro-Hungarian, among others. It is a humble cuisine, one of necessity, adaptation and crucially, survival.
Read the full article in Issue 25