The Skopje Earthquake – a devastating catastrophe

If you are passing by the Museum of the City of Skopje, you will probably notice the large clock on the building, whose hands are pointing the time 05.17. This is not just a broken clock which accidentally stopped working at that particular time, but it represents a reminder of the disastrous Skopje earthquake that happened on 26th of July 1963, 17 minutes after 5 o’clock in the morning.

Skopje Earthquake Museum

This building is what remained from the old city railway station after the earthquake and it haunts the people of Skopje, reminding them on the devastating catastrophe that killed around 1.000 people, seriously injured more than 3.300 and left homeless about 76% of the population.

The 1963 Skopje earthquake measured 6.1 on the moment magnitude scale, which is equivalent to 6.9 on the Richter scale, with its epicenter in the Vardar River Valley, close to the city, at a depth of 6 km. The tremor lasted for 20 seconds, and smaller tremors followed immediately afterwards, shaking the earth until 5:43 a.m.

The epilogue of the Skopje 1963 eqrthquake

The NewYork Times journalist, David Binder, who was among the first foreign journalists to arrive in the city after the Skopje earthquake reported: “From the air, Skopje looked as if it had been struck by a heavy bombing raid.” His statement fairly describes the damage caused by the earthquake in Skopje and the fact that around 80% of the total building area was either destroyed or heavily damaged.

Skopje Earthquake Ruins

Residential buildings, industrial property, schools, libraries, as well as many cultural and historical monuments that adorned Skopje were mostly destroyed. The fortress in Skopje, known as “Kale” among the residents, was heavily ruined. The high walls of the fortress, built during the Ottoman era, as well as throughout the Byzantium period, that rose above the river Vardar for centuries that morning turned into a huge pile of ruins.

Heavily damaged were many buildings that were built by the Ottoman period, such as Kurshumli An, Suli An, Cifte Hamam, and many mosques. The old residents of Skopje still remember the National Bank, the Officers Hall and the National Theater, buildings that were located on the central square and were considered to be some of the most beautiful buildings that were entirely destroyed by the Skopje Earthquake.

After the earthquake

Skopje Earthquake Tito

“Skopje has experienced an unprecedented disaster, but we will rebuild it again. With the help of our community, it will be a symbol of brotherhood and unity, of Yugoslavian and world solidarity” stated Tito during the visit of Skopje, the day after the earthquake. His statement, shortly after, turned into reality. The 1963 Skopje earthquake quickly became international news and the story reached the worldwide public. Within a few days, 35 nations requested the United Nations General Assembly to put relief for Skopje on its agenda. Relief in money, as well as supplies, along with medical and engineering support and building teams, were provided by 78 countries that took part in helping the victims and rebuilding the city.

As never before, solidarity could have been seen on every street of Skopje. Solidarity is what helped the city to be rebuilt from its ruins. Ever since, Skopje is called the “City of International Solidarity”, which is the unofficial motto of the Macedonian capital.

As a sign of gratitude for the received relief and support, many streets and buildings in Skopje were named after the countries that donated and constructed them. The Municipality of Karposh is a good example where many of the streets and buildings were named in honor of the countries that helped the city. Most are located within a relatively tight parameter, which is to say within short walking distance.

On one side of Partizanska, one of the longest boulevards is the polyclinic medical center Bukuresht. In Macedonian language, Bukuresht stands for Bucharest, the capital city of Romania and this name was given to the medical center as an appreciation to the Romanian government that donated it. On the other side of the boulevard, as you get deeper into the narrow streets of the neighborhood, you will see the names of many capitals or countries on the streets name tags, such as Warsaw, Paris, Mexico, Havana, Vienna, Oslo, Helsinki, etc.

The homes of the people on these streets were donated by the countries they were named after. On yet another side, north-west from the polyclinic medical center Bucharest, the “Russian buildings” are still there. These were the residential buildings donated by the Soviet Union.

Rebuilding after the Skopje earthquake

Skopje Earthquake Kenzo Tange Rebuilding

The urban plan for a modern Skopje was designed in 1965, after the 1963 Skopje earthquake. It is a creation of the Japanese architect, Kenzo Tange, who won the international competition to redesign and rebuild the city center. Looking back in retrospect, the election of a foreign architect purely on terms of merit is surreal considering the political climate of today. But this is a discussion, perhaps, for another forum.

At that time, the architectural trend was modernist, with a particular focus on concrete brutalism – a marked highlight of Skopje even to this very day. Geometric themes and raw concrete characteristic for the brutalist architecture can be seen all over the Skopje city center, some of them being the Saint Cyril and Methodius University of Skopje, the Central Post Office, the Central train station, and the dormitory buildings “Goce Delchev”.

Ever since the Skopje 1963 earthquake, the building codes are strict and vigorously enforced. Only few years ago the Macedonian capital revealed its first skyscrapers, located in the municipality of Aerodrom. The Cevahir complex features 4 buildings all of which are over 40 floors high, and there is growing popularity to build upwards and transform Skopje into a proper European metropolis. Dozens of new residential buildings, most of them 10 stories high, as well as shopping malls, office and institutional buildings now saturate the city, which is growing at a rapid clip year after year as both citizens and economic growth skyrocket in numbers.