The History of Skopje

From Scupi to Skopje: Tracing the City's Origins

Skopje is the capital and largest city of North Macedonia, a landlocked country in the Balkans. It is a city with a rich and diverse history that spans over two millennia.

Skopje has witnessed the rise and fall of empires, the clash of cultures and religions, and the transformation of societies and landscapes. In this article, we will explore some of the most important historical events and periods that shaped Skopje’s identity and character

Ancient Origins of Skopje

Skopje was mentioned for the first time by the Greek geographer Claudius Ptolomeus, under its ancient name Scupi in the 3rd century BC. It was located at the confluence of the rivers Lepenec and Vardar, in the territory of the Paionians, a people that inhabited the region. 

Scupi became the capital of Dardania, a district of the Roman province of Moesia Superior, under the emperor Diocletian in the 4th century AD. Scupi was a prosperous and cosmopolitan city, with a diverse population of Romans, Greeks, Illyrians, Thracians and others.

It had a forum, a theatre, an amphitheatre, temples, baths and aqueducts. However, in 518 AD, Scupi was totally destroyed by a devastating earthquake that left it in ruins.

Roman Influence: Scupi, the Roman Colony

During the Roman Empire, Skopje gained prominence as Scupi, a major urban center. The Romans developed Scupi into a thriving colony, complete with impressive infrastructure, such as amphitheaters, baths, and basilicas. The archaeological site of Scupi offers a fascinating glimpse into Skopje’s Roman past.

Medieval Skopje

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Scupi came under Byzantine rule from Constantinople. During much of the early medieval period, the city was contested between the Byzantines and the Bulgarian Empire, which made it its capital from 972 to 992 AD.

Skopje became a centre of culture and learning, where Cyrillic script was developed and spread by the disciples of Saints Cyril and Methodius. In 1189 AD, Skopje became part of the Serbian realm, later becoming the capital of the Serbian Empire under Stefan Dušan from 1346 to 1371 AD.

Skopje flourished as a political, religious and economic hub, with numerous churches, monasteries, palaces and markets. However, in 1392 AD, Skopje was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, who called it Üsküb.

Byzantine Era: Skopje as a Regional Center

In the Byzantine era, Skopje became a regional center and an important hub for trade and culture. The city flourished under Byzantine rule, witnessing the construction of magnificent churches and fortifications. Many of these Byzantine treasures still grace Skopje’s cityscape today.

Ottoman Rule: Shaping Skopje’s Identity

The Ottoman Empire left an indelible mark on Skopje, which lasted for centuries. Ottoman rule brought a fusion of cultures, resulting in the unique blend of architectural styles found in the city. The iconic Stone Bridge and the imposing Skopje Fortress are notable remnants of this era.

Walk on Stone bridge
Stone bridge

Ottoman Üsküb

Skopje remained under Ottoman control for over 500 years, serving as the capital of the sanjak of Üsküb and later the vilayet of Kosovo. The city underwent a radical transformation, as mosques, madrasas, hans, hamams and bazaars replaced churches and monasteries.

Skopje became a prominent centre of Islamic culture and education in the Balkans, attracting scholars, poets and artists from across the Ottoman Empire.

doner place in skopje
Turkish influence nowdays in Old Bazaar

Some of the most notable landmarks from this period include the Stone Bridge over the Vardar river, built by Sultan Mehmed II in 1469 AD, the Mustafa Pasha Mosque, built by Mustafa Pasha in 1492 AD and the Old Bazaar, one of the largest and oldest markets in Europe.

The city also became home to a diverse population of Muslims, Christians and Jews, who coexisted peacefully for centuries.

Read more about Skopje Old bazaar

Skopje in the 20th Century: Destruction and Rebirth

Skopje faced significant devastation during the earthquake of 1963. The disaster destroyed much of the city, including historical landmarks and cultural heritage.

However, the spirit of Skopje prevailed, and the city embarked on a remarkable reconstruction effort, rebuilding itself as a symbol of resilience.

Modern Skopje

In 1912, Skopje was annexed by Serbia during the Balkan Wars, ending Ottoman rule. After World War I, Skopje became part of Yugoslavia as the capital of Vardarska Banovina. During World War II, Skopje was occupied by Bulgaria, which collaborated with Nazi Germany.

In 1944 AD, Skopje was liberated by Yugoslav Partisans and became the capital of Socialist Republic of Macedonia, a federal state within Yugoslavia.

The city developed rapidly after World War II, but this was interrupted in 1963, when it was hit by another disastrous earthquake that killed over 1,000 people and destroyed most of its buildings.

Skopje was rebuilt with international aid, following a modernist design by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange.

In 1991, Skopje became the capital of independent Macedonia, following a referendum that declared its sovereignty from Yugoslavia.

Today, Skopje is a vibrant and dynamic city, with a population of over half a million people. It is a centre for metal-processing, chemical, timber, textile, leather, and printing industries.

It is also a cultural, academic, and tourist destination, offering a variety of attractions, events, and festivals.

Millennium Cross on Vodno mountain, Skopje
Millennium Cross on Vodno mountain

Some of its most famous landmarks include the Millennium Cross on Vodno mountain, Mother Teresa Memorial House, dedicated to Skopje’s most famous native Macedonia Square, the largest public square in the country and Skopje Fortress, also known as Kale, which overlooks the city centre.

What significant events have shaped Skopje’s history?

Skopje has endured several significant events that have left an indelible mark on the city’s history.

Here are a few notable examples:

1963 Earthquake

Skopje experienced a devastating earthquake in 1963, which resulted in the destruction of much of the city. The earthquake led to an extensive reconstruction effort and the transformation of Skopje’s urban landscape.

Skopje 2014

In recent years, Skopje underwent a massive urban revitalization project known as “Skopje 2014.” The project aimed to transform the city’s aesthetics and showcase its historical and cultural heritage through the construction of new buildings and monuments.

Exploring Skopje’s Architectural Marvels

The city’s skyline is adorned with structures that pay homage to its rich history and culture. The Skopje Fortress, perched on the hill overlooking the city, stands as a symbol of strength and resilience. Its ancient walls and towers offer panoramic views of Skopje’s sprawling landscape.

One cannot miss the iconic Stone Bridge, a magnificent Ottoman-era structure that spans the Vardar River. It serves as a link between Skopje’s past and present, connecting the old town with the modern city center. As you stroll across the bridge, you can feel the echoes of history reverberating through its ancient stones.

The Macedonian Parliament building, with its neoclassical design and grandeur, is another architectural gem worth exploring. Located in the heart of Skopje, it showcases the city’s commitment to preserving its historical heritage while embracing contemporary influences

Macedonian Parliament building, Skopje
Macedonian Parliament building


Skopje’s City Museum, housed in a beautiful 15th-century building, takes visitors on a journey through the city’s past. Exhibitions and artifacts provide insights into Skopje’s various historical periods, allowing visitors to delve deeper into its captivating history.

Skopje, with its rich history, architectural wonders, cultural heritage, and natural beauty, is a destination that captivates the hearts of visitors.

Skopje’s fusion of past and present, tradition and innovation, creates a unique tapestry that leaves a lasting impression on all who visit.

Skopje is a city that has witnessed and survived many changes and challenges throughout its long and turbulent history. It is a city that has preserved and celebrated its diverse and rich heritage, while embracing and creating its modern and unique identity.

It is a city that invites and welcomes visitors to discover and enjoy its beauty, charm, and spirit.

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