Clock Stopping – The 1963 Skopje Earthquake: Twenty Seconds Changes Everything 

The Balkans is a popular byword for fragmentation. The region became synonymous with ethnic upheavals that led to warfare and endemic divisiveness during the 20th century. The word Balkans was transformed in the 1990’s by the dissolution of Yugoslavia. This led to the term Balkanization, which stood for ethnic and political divisions into smaller and smaller units. Both Balkans and Balkanizing were almost always used in the context of geographic regions, empires and nations-states. Both terms are still defined by the region’s rancorous politics that continue right up to the present. Yet some areas of the Balkans have another history of breaking up, not from within, but below. Just like politics, earthquakes have had an unsettling effect on the region, most prominently in Romania and Bulgaria. They have also struck in other areas of the Balkans, including what was then the nation of Yugoslavia during the post- World War II era. One of the many earthquakes to strike Yugoslavia gained such infamous notoriety that it is still commemorated to this very day in a uniquely singular manner.

Monumental movement - Alexander the Great statue in Skopje

Monumental movement – Alexander the Great statue in Skopje (Credit: Diego Delso)

City Of Importance – Monumental Movements
The Macedonian capital of Skopje has gained a fair bit of fame for a major redevelopment project that took place in the city center from 2010 to 2014. The project was marked by huge doses of monumentalism such as a Triumphal Arch that caused one local wag to ask exactly what triumph was being commemorated. The Macedonian parliament building was crowned with glass domes, integrating symbols of modernity and deep history. Statues of historical personages that reach far back into “Macedonian” history tower over onlookers. This statuary references leaders from such disparate ages as the Serbian Empire, Macedonian-Bulgarian Empire, Byzantium and Classical Greece among others. This reflects an outsized yearning for Skopje to be something other than what it was, a provincial city that through historical forces beyond its control became a city of either great, minor or no importance depending on the time period.

Such monumentalism is also a convenient political device that allows the nation’s leaders to thumb their nose at Greece. The Greek state is a perennial thorn in the side of Macedonians due to its refusal to recognize Macedonia as anything other than an interloper trying to co-opt the Hellenistic legacy. Greece insists that Macedonia stop referring to itself by that name. According to Greece, the name Macedonia is an irredentist claim to the Greek territory of northern Macedonia. While most non-partisan observers consider this ridiculous, it has been a useful ruse for the Greeks to keep Macedonia on the outside looking in when it comes to such exclusive organizations as the European Union.

For their part, Macedonia’s leaders have used the Skopje redevelopment project to irritate the Greeks. Foremost among these efforts is a 26-meter high statue of Alexander the Great that might be one of the few things in history equal to the conqueror’s own ambitions. Such monumentalism is an attempt by Macedonia’s political elite to remake the city, and by extension the nation, into something greater than its history might suggest. It also distracts from one of the most revealing sites that represent the modern history of Macedonia. This site is none other than the old city train station, turned to ruin a half century ago and left in situ as a stark reminder of just how quickly everything can change in Skopje.

A mountain of rubble - Skopje post-earthquake in 1963

A mountain of rubble – Skopje post-earthquake in 1963 (Credit: State Archives of the Republic of Macedonia)

Bombing From Below – The End Of Progress
In 1689 the Austrian Army occupied Skopje, officially known as Uskub when the Ottoman Turks ruled over it. The Austrians had a terrible experience during their short stay in the city, suffering along with the locals from an outbreak of the plague which was raging in the city. The decision was soon made to retreat from Uskub. Before retreating, the Austrian General Enea Silvio Piccolomini decided the city should be burnt to the ground. From the moment that martial destruction ended until just before daylight on July 26, 1963, Skopje grew by fits and starts until it was home to a population of 170,000. That number was the most people to ever live in this city which had straddled both sides of the Vardar River since pre-Roman times. The modern progress of Skopje came to a catastrophic halt in just twenty seconds.  At 5:17 a.m. a 6.1 magnitude earthquake erupted from beneath the city center. Specifically, the epicenter was located beneath the city’s central square. Three buildings on that square immediately collapsed, including the grand bank building. Anywhere from 40% to 80% of the city’s structures were destroyed. Over a thousand people were killed, more than three thousand injured and a majority of Skopje’s citizenry were immediately rendered homeless.

The city was transformed into one vast ruin. The New York Times foreign correspondent David Binder, who arrived in a devastated Skopje just after noon that same day, likened what he saw from the air to the aftermath of “a heavy bombing raid”.  While flying into the city he noticed the “haze of brick and mortar dust which hung over the city.” As much as the earthquake tore Skopje apart, it also served to bring Cold War enemies from the communist and capitalist worlds closer together than they had been in decades. Since Yugoslavia was part of the non-aligned movement of nations that were officially neutral in the Cold War, all sides of the international community were welcome to provide much needed aid to the city. That is precisely what happened as Americans, Brits, Soviets and other nation states ignored political differences to launch a major humanitarian initiative. They provided food, water and shelter among other necessities of life that helped save tens of thousands of lives. From horror to humanitarianism Skopje rose from the rubble.

5:17 in Skopje - One thing that has not changed (Credit: Furmum)

5:17 in Skopje – One thing that has not changed (Credit: Furmum)

Tragic Timing – From Ruin To Relic
Skopje would have to be rebuilt in order to make it livable once again. This process was long, arduous and has never been entirely completed. The vast redevelopment project has overhauled much of the city center, but the most poignant relic of the 1963 earthquake still stands a few hundred meters from the main city square where the earthquake first struck. What was then the city’s main train station partially collapsed. The part still standing included an exterior wall with a clock. The clock stopped that morning at exactly 5:17 a.m. It remains there today. The clock hands have never moved since that moment, forever telling the time when tragedy struck Skopje and changed the city forever.

2 thoughts on “Clock Stopping – The 1963 Skopje Earthquake: Twenty Seconds Changes Everything 

  1. Oo really useful to know all this context. I went to Scopje two years ago and it reminded me of how surreal the city is. Monumental in the craziest possible way but worth seeing 😀

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