From the upper turrets of Skopje’s fortress, a sixth-century battlement streaking through the hills above the Vardar River, Macedonia’s capital is a palimpsest whose layers show remarkably little regard for the others' existence. The sloping roof of Macedonia’s National Theater, a landmark of 60s modernism, soars over a 16th-century bathhouse in Skopje’s cramped Ottoman quarter; just a couple hundred yards away, a row of severe neoclassical structures hulk over the Stone Bridge, a straight row of elegantly-proportioned archways whose origins go back to the early Byzantine period. Only slightly upriver is an entanglement of Brutalist angles and prisms, products of a global rebuilding effort after Skopje was nearly destroyed by a 1963 earthquake.
Skopje's aesthetic proudly defies any harmony or unity, and the capital is appropriate to the country that it governs. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Ottoman Macedonia was Europe’s version of present-day Syria or Lebanon, a multinational battleground whose Greek, Bulgarian, Turkish, Albanian and Slavic populations were pulled between the great powers of the day. There were Bulgarian and Slavic rebellions against the region’s Ottoman overlords throughout the final quarter of the 19th century, and the "Macedonian question"—shorthand for the competing national and strategic claims on the Balkan peninsula’s fractious central region—triggered the first and second Balkan wars in 1912 and 1913. These labyrinthine flare-ups, proxy conflicts for a larger struggle between Ottoman Turkey, Tzarist Russia and the western European powers, helped set the political conditions for the following year's world war.