On Saturday morning I enjoyed a sunny stroll in the empty streets of Athens, shortly before visiting the National Historical Museum. I paused on the steps of the entrance, pondering the luck I had to enjoy another interesting exhibition which was hosted by the museum. The topic was absolutely fascinating - Nationalism in the Balkans.
The peculiarity of this specific exhibition is that it has been organized in collaboration with eleven South-Eastern European museums under the supervision of UNESCO, with a view to strengthening the Balkan memory, healing wounds and dispersing misunderstandings, caused by historical incidents and national fanaticism.
Before the tour, we gathered in the historic auditorium of the Old House, where an excellent tour guide greeted us. He prepared us for the specificity of the exhibition, he told us about the reasons for which they organized it and the difficulties which the historians encountered during the project - the views of each country affected the positions of others. Specifically, Greece had several issues to solve with Skopje. A particular impression caused the attitude of Slovenia, which decided not to participate because it sees itself as a country of Central Europe, but not in the Balkans.
The exhibition is quite rich in information. It starts by showing various cafes, where there is a comparison between the Balkan cafes and the Central European ones. The main reason for starting the walk from there is because the exhibition wants to show us the importance of these places, where city dwellers exchange views and information. The cafes were the heart of the cities, in the East, as well as in the West.
Then the exhibition presents photographs from the everyday life of the Balkan inhabitants. The photos are scattered and cover the entire peninsula. The existence of this collage is not accidental. Its purpose is to "confuse" visitors. This is the only way they can perceive the homogeneity of the Balkan peoples. You see a family photo of a Serbian priest, in which if you do not read the caption underneath, you can comfortably assume that it is of Greek origin. The same happens with the photograph of a nomadic family wandering in the mountains.
However, the calmness created by this part of the exhibition, was shaken strongly in the subsequent part - related to quarrels within the Ottoman Empire. While the Ottomans tried to create a centrally-controlled economic system in their empire, the Russians gave the right to Greek ships to travel freely with Russian flags, which led to the strengthening of Greek commerce, as well as communications of the Greeks with the West, ultimately bringing about the Greek enlightenment. At the same time Romania had close relationships with France and a large part of the Western Balkans had passed under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The western lifestyle began to penetrate the daily life of the Balkans.
Watching the changes in the lives of the Balkans, we see that in family portraits men have western attire, while women generally kept to the traditional. The reason for this difference is simple. The man was traditionally engaged in trade, so he had most contact with westerners and he was more influenced by that culture than the woman, who, as a mother, had as primary objective taking care of the home and the children.
In the creation of the first Balkan states, an important role was played by Enlighteners. Each country had its own. Greece had Rigas Fereos and Adamantios Korai, Serbia had Karadzic, and etc. The enlightenment of new states led to the Great Ideas and nationalism. Through the Balkan wars, the countries gained new territories, new heroes and new moments of glory.
Peoples who lived many centuries in harmony, now had to deal with large differences, hatred and land claims. Above all they developed a priority to strengthen their prestige through historical "facts". The beginning of fascism...
However, the exhibition ended on a positive note - the origin of a song.
A song written in the period of the Ottoman Empire, spread simultaneously in all the tribes of the Balkans, and was sung in twenty different languages.
If we do not fall into the trap of discord and fanaticism, we could live in a beautiful open-air cultural museum - the Balkans.