Historical or geographical Macedonia is divided between the Republic of North Macedonia (38%), Greek Macedonia (51%) and Bulgaria's Pirin Macedonia (11%). For its people, their history is a source of great pride but also a heavy burden. The post-Yugoslav experience has seen existential pressure from neighbours constantly challenging the Macedonian identity. North Macedonia's history is too complex for simple answers, but many have strong opinions.

Ancient Macedonians & Romans

The powerful Macedonian dynasty of King Philip II (r 359–336 BC) dominated the Greek city-states. Philip's son, Alexander the Great, spread Macedonian might to India. After his death (323 BC), the empire dissolved amid infighting. In 168 BC, Rome conquered Macedonia; its position on the Via Egnatia, from Byzantium to the Adriatic, and the Axios (Vardar River) from Thessaloniki up the Vardar Valley, kept cities prosperous.

Christianity reached Macedonia with the Apostle Paul. The Roman Empire's AD 395 division brought Macedonia under Byzantine Constantinople and Greek-influenced Orthodox Christianity.

The Coming of the Slavs & the Macedonian Cars

The 7th-century Slavic migrations intermingled Macedonia's peoples. In 862, two Thessaloniki-born monks, St Cyril and St Methodius, were dispatched to spread orthodoxy and literacy among Moravia's Slavs (in modern-day Czech Republic). Their disciple, St Kliment of Ohrid, helped create the Cyrillic alphabet. With St Naum, he propagated literacy in Ohrid (the first Slavic university).

Byzantium and the Slavs could share a religion, but not political power. Chronic wars unfolded between Constantinople and the expansionist Bulgarian state of Car Simeon (r 893–927) and Car Samoil (r 997–1014). After being defeated in today's Bulgaria, Prespa and Ohrid in Macedonia became their strongholds. Finally, Byzantine Emperor Basil II defeated Samoil at the Battle of Belasica (near today's Strumica, in eastern Macedonia) in 1014, and Byzantium retook Macedonia.

Later, the Serbian Nemanjic dynasty expanded into Macedonia. After Emperor Stefan Dušan (r 1331–55) died, Serbian power waned. The Ottoman Turks soon arrived, ruling until 1913.

Ottoman Rule & the Macedonian Question

The Ottomans introduced Islam and Turkish settlers. Skopje became a trade centre, and mosques, hammams (Turkish baths) and castles were built. However, Greeks still wielded considerable power. In 1767, Greece caused the abolition of the 700-year-old Ohrid archbishopric. Greek priests opened schools and built churches, to the resentment of locals. Bulgaria and Serbia also sought Macedonia. The lines were drawn.

In Macedonia, Western European ethnic nationalism collided with the Ottomans' civil organisation by religion (not ethnicity). Europe's powers intervened after the 1877–78 Russo-Turkish War, when the Treaty of San Stefano awarded Macedonia to Bulgaria. Fearing Russia, Western powers reversed this with the Treaty of Berlin, fuelling 40 years of further conflict.

Although Macedonia remained Ottoman, the 'Macedonian Question' persisted. Various Balkan powers sponsored revolutionary groups. In 1893, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation (Vnatrešna Makedonska Revolucionerna Organizacija, or VMRO) was formed. VMRO was divided between 'Macedonia for the Macedonians' propagandists and a pro-Bulgarian wing.

In the Ilinden Day Uprising (2 August 1903), Macedonian revolutionaries declared the Balkans' first democratic republic, in Kruševo; it lasted just 10 days before the Turks crushed it. Although leader Goce Delčev had died months earlier, he's considered a Macedonian national hero. The uprising is commemorated at the Ilinden Uprising Monument in Kruševo.

In 1912 the Balkan League (Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Montenegro) fought Turkey (the First Balkan War), with Macedonia a prime battleground. The Turks were expelled, but a dissatisfied Bulgaria turned on its allies in 1913 (the Second Balkan War). Defeated, Bulgaria allied with Germany in WWI, reoccupying Macedonia and prolonging local suffering.

The Yugoslav Experience

When Bulgaria withdrew after WWI, Macedonia was divided between Greece and the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (Royalist Yugoslavia). Belgrade banned the Macedonian name and language, and disgruntled VMRO elements helped Croat nationalists assassinate Serbian King Aleksandar in 1934.

During WWII, Josip Broz Tito's Partisans resisted the Bulgarian–German occupation and socialist Yugoslavia was formed in 1945, with Macedonia as a republic. Some ethnic Macedonians joined the communists fighting royalists in the 1946–49 Greek Civil War. The communist defeat forced thousands, including many children (known as the begalci, meaning 'refugees'), to flee Greece.

In Yugoslavia, Macedonia (along with the other Yugoslav republics) became more urbanised and Macedonian grammar was established in 1952. The 1963 earthquake destroyed around 65% of Skopje and the city was rebuilt with Yugoslav and international donations. Macedonia's Orthodox Church was created in 1967 – the 200th anniversary of the Ohrid archbishopric's abolition.

North Macedonia after Independence

In a 1991 referendum, 74% of Macedonians voted to secede, making Macedonia the only Yugoslav republic to do so peacefully. However, the withdrawing Yugoslav army took everything, leaving the country defenceless. Greece's fears of an invasion from the north thus seemed unfounded to everyone but them; nevertheless, Macedonia changed its first flag (with the ancient Macedonian Vergina star) to appease Athens, after it had already accepted a 'provisional' name, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), in order to join the UN in 1993. When the USA (following six EU countries) recognised 'FYROM' in 1994, Greece defiantly announced an economic embargo.

This crippling embargo coincided with wars in other former Yugoslav states, creating ideal conditions for high-level schemes for smuggling fuel and other goods. The 1990s 'transition' period created a political/business oligarchy amid shady privatisations, deliberate bankrupting of state-owned firms and dubious pyramid schemes.

During the 1999 Kosovo crisis and NATO bombing of Serbia, Macedonia sheltered more than 400,000 Kosovo Albanian refugees. In 2001 Ushtria Člirimtare Kombetare (UČK; National Liberation Army) was created demanding equal rights for Macedonia’s large ethnic Albanian minority, which brought the country to the brink of a civil war. The conflict-ending Ohrid Framework Agreement granted minority language and national symbol rights to the Albanians, along with quota-based public-sector hiring.

Macedonians found the conflict a humiliating defeat. Albanians saw it as the first step to a full ethnic federation. Foreign powers have argued that this may well occur, if Macedonia cannot join NATO and the EU.