As you are reading these lines, an agreement has been signed by Greece and FYROM that stipulates Greece will recognize FYROM with the name Northern Macedonia. The agreement has some hurdles yet to pass to become a reality, though.
The search for a distinct identity and a past that allows claim to this piece of land or that piece of land is a very Balkan issue. Nationalism was the new trend in the 19th century. It was the idea that you bode better and you are more happy living with people that share the same culture, customs, religion and language, and not being part of some trans-ethnic empire as it was the norm up until that point.
To solidify that, people and scholars tried to find events in their history that signify the one moment or moments that people concluded that “us, we are different from them”.
For the neighboring country the first seeds of an idea about a distinct national identity came about the late 19th century, when the country was part of the Ottoman empire, despite that independence didn’t materialize until much later.
The two main schools of ideas about the national identity of FYROM are, roughly, one that says, we are Slavs but we are neither Bulgarians or Serbs and we are our own people that lives in a geographical area named Macedonia, which is however greater than what was historically the holding of the ancient kingdom of Macedonia, hence we are Macedonians. The other one and the one that causes the most grievances in Greece is the one that claims descent from the Ancient Macedonian kingdom of Philip and Alexander the Great, who are themselves claimed to have been Slavs.
Both scenarios cause grief in Greece for different reasons. The first one being ancient Macedonia never got that far north, despite its humongous expansion under Alexander. For example, FYROM’s capital Skopje was never part of the ancient Macedonian kingdom. The latter causes outright indignation, as it is viewed by Greeks as historical theft, without mentioning the maps that depict areas “stolen by Greeks” containing the Greek province of Macedonia.
The problem though is not unique, most Balkan countries were part of the Roman Empire, then the Eastern Roman Empire and then came under
Ottoman occupation for a very long time, almost two thousand years in total.
Antiquity is all they have to step on to build national identity, all of them have their myths and legends of how they came to be.
There are several Greeks claiming direct descent from ancient Greeks and even though cultural continuity is evident: in language for example, I can understand an ancient Greek text, and religion, because Eastern Orthodox Christianity is essentially a mixture of neoplatonic philosophy, ancient Greek pagan customs and Christianity. However, direct decent is, to put it mildly, kooky.
The same happens to Serbs, Croats, Albanians and Bulgarians, everybody has a story of how they came to be and a claim to a piece of land of their neighbor.
Featured image: The 13th-century church of St. John at Kaneo and the Ohrid Lake in Macedonia. The lake and town were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1980. By No machine-readable author provided. Amazone7 assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL , CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons