Name: Memorial Ossuary/Tomb to the Heroes of WWII (Споменик Костурница)
Location: Veles, Macedonia
Year completed: 1979 (3 years to build)
Coordinates: N41°43'24.0", E21°47'21.4" (click for map)
Dimensions: ~10m high and ~15m wide
Materials used: Poured concrete and rebar
Condition: Fair, neglected
Click on slideshow photo for description.
This Spomenik Kosturnica (Memorial Ossuary) at Veles was built to commemorate the Partisan soldiers who fought for the freedom of Veles and Macedonia during the National Liberation War from 1941 to 1945 against the fascist German and Bulgarian forces. In addition, this monument serves as a resting place (in the form of an underground crypt) for the remains of roughly one hundred fallen Partisan soldiers from the Veles area.
World War II
On April 6th of 1941, the city of Veles underwent a relentless bombing campaign by the German Luftwaffe as Axis forces began to wage an invasion and occupation of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The Royal Yugoslav Army soon capitulated and Veles was over taken by Axis Bulgarian forces. The eastern two-thirds area of modern Macedonia, where Veles was situated, was handed over by Axis leadership for administrative control to Bulgaria, who designated the region as Vardar Macedonia. As the Bulgarians began their occupation of Veles, they pursued a relentless series of brutal tactics to subdue and oppress the native population of the city, during which they engaged in looting, torture, deportation and, in some cases, murder. Those often most targeted were the town's Jewish and Roma populations, along with any communists, dissidents and those opposing Bulgarian occupation.
In late 1941, some small groups of anti-fascist rebels attempted to organize armed resistance units in Veles, however, they were quickly discovered by Bulgarian forces, being either imprisoned or executed. Through the spring of 1942, tensions began to rise higher among the population of Veles, with high school students and women's groups taking to the street to protest the heavy-handed Bulgarian occupation. Due to these and other resistance efforts, that same spring, several new Partisan detachments were organized in the Veles region. Of these newly formed Partisan units, one of the most important and accomplished was one named "Pere Toshev", formed in 1942. This detachment was successful in three separate battles against Bulgarian police squads in Mount Lisec, in Kriva Krusha, and Vojnica. These crucial victories led to the creation of the Veles-Prilep Partisan Detachment on April 23rd, 1944, nicknamed the "Trajče Petkanovski" unit, consisting of roughly 30 resistance fighters. However, by September of 1944, the unit counted over 500 fighters within their ranks. Then, in early November, the Veles-Prilep Partisans descended on Bulgarian forces in Veles.
Photo 1: Partisan soldiers fighting during the battle for the liberation of Veles, 1944
Over the course of two days, a battle ensued between these two adversaries, with the city finally being liberated by Partisan forces at 4 o'clock in the morning on November 9th, 1944 (Photo 1), when all Bulgarian occupying forces were expelled from the city. To thank Partisan's commander Josip Tito for their liberation, the city of Veles renamed itself 'Titov Veles' directly after the war. This remained the name of the city until 1996, when it was changed back to 'Veles', in order to establish and identify itself within the newly formed independent state of Macedonia (FYROM).
While the idea of constructing a monument memorializing the WWII events of the city of Veles was put forward almost as soon as the region was liberated, fully committed work on the monument did not formally begin until almost 30 years later. When a design competition was called in the early 1970s, artists from across Yugoslavia submitted proposals, among them notable Belgrade sculptor Momčilo Krković (Photo 2). However, the design that was ultimately selected for the monument complex upon the competition's conclusion was the proposed concept put forward by Novi Sad creative duo sculptor Ljubomir Denkoviḱ and architect Savo Subotin (Photo 3). On-the-ground construction began in 1976 (Photo 4). The monument's creation, which was coordinated by Veles veterans organizations, was largely financed through public donations from people across the Veles region. The official public unveiling of the complex, named 'Spomenik Kosturnica' or 'Memorial Ossuary', was made during a elaborate commemorative ceremony on October 11th, 1979, with an inaugural address given by Yugoslav General Kosta Nađ (Коста Нађ), president of the "Association of Yugoslav Fighters".
Photo 2: Momčilo Krković concept
Photo 3: Model of the Veles monument
The shape of the monument is described to be in the shape of an upside-down open poppy flower, with half the inside area open air vestibule, while the other half houses a small museum and mosaic art installation (which is among the most expansive in Macedonia). The vestibule half of the monument originally contained many copper plaques listing the names of fallen soldiers and interpretive descriptions of the history of Veles (however, most are now currently missing or stolen). A long steep staircase would lead up to the monument. Around the base of the staircase was built a large courtyard at the middle of which was a circular sunken amphitheatre area. To the north of the amphitheatre was built a long promenade landscaped with rose beds. Originally lining the promenade was a series of sculptural busts sitting on pedestals depicting many Macedonian heroes and revolutionaries. However, at some point, presumably during the 1990s, all of these busts and pedestals were removed from the promenade.
Within the underground ossuary or 'crypt' portion of the monument are interred the remains of 87 fighters from Veles who fought in the Partisan resistance and in the battle for the liberation of Veles. The remains of these fighters were originally interred at the Church of St. Panteleimon (Црква Св. Пантелејмон) in Veles before they were moved to this current location during the spomenik's construction. One of the notable fighters buried here at the Veles monument is poet Kočo Racin (Кочо Рацин) (Photo 3), who is considered one of the fathers of modern Macedonian literature. At a centralized location within the monument a 3m tall bronze tree sculpture was created and dedicated to these fallen fighters and civilians. Also within the enclosed area of monument's structure was created a massive series of colorful mosaics relating the history of the Macedonian people's struggle. Created by Skopje artist Petar Mazev in a very modernist style, the 220 square meter sized mosaic series was considered the largest of its type in all of the SR of Macedonia. Yet, while great effort was put into the construction of this complex, issues with water damage compromising the structure began almost immediately.
Photo 4: A view of the monument at Veles under construction, 1978
Photo 5: Poet Kočo Racin
With the dismantling of Yugoslavia during the 1990s, the monument began to fall into disrepair and neglect. While the art and mosaics in the museum were more or less protected, all the copper plaques in the outside open-air sanctum of the monument have all been removed or stolen. It is not clear whether these stolen memorial elements have been recovered by the authorities, but if they have, they have yet to be restored in their original locations. Furthermore, due to years of neglect, the monument's structure and facade had become stained and discolored, the roof had begun to leak and the exterior concrete was chipping, cracking and being vandalized with graffiti. Then, in 2003, the city received 100,000 euros in funds from the Macedonian Institute for Protection of Cultural Monuments to renovate the memorial complex and install an updated security system. While this fixed many of the problems, making the present state of the monument look much more presentable, much more work needs to be done in restoring this to its original condition, as it has been reported that water damage is still compromising parts of the interior of the monument. From 2013-2016, further rehabilitation efforts were made, such as painting the exterior and new attempts to fix the concrete facade and internal leaks. In 2015, the annual poetry event called the "Racin Meetings" (Рацинови средби), which honor poet Kočo Racin (Photo 5) were held at the Veles monument for the first time. In 2019, the Swiss-based rap duo 'Mozzik x Loredana' released a rap video 'Romeo & Juliet' that is partially filmed inside the Veles Memorial Ossuary.
Plaques, Engravings and Graffiti:
Upon the opening of the Veles Memorial Ossuary in 1979, there were a number of engraved and inscribed elements. Firstly, in the open-air vestibule section of the monument, there was there were a set of six circular bronze plaques lining the courtyard walls set atop short pylons (Slides 1 & 2). In addition, there was a large rectanular plaque attached to the north wall of the vestibule. However, with the dismantling of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s up until the mid-2010s, every single one of the plaques and plates within the monument's vestibule were stolen from their settings by looters, vandals and thieves (Slides 3 & 4). Yet, over subsequent years, local police were able to recover a number of these plaques and plates from the theives who had stolen them. As such, in the spring of 2019, local authorities were able to replace four of the six circular plaques that had been recovered from theives (Slide 5).
Close up photos of each of the recovered and recently installed circular plaques can be seen in Slides 6 - 9. From right to left as they appear within the courtyard, they translate from Macedonian to English as:
"The courage of the immortal fighters who are interred here does cease outside the walls of this crypt. It is directly woven into our own freedom."
"Their [sacrificial] death - the most beautiful constellation of our heaven."
"May the struggle be as eternal as death itself."
"Rejoice!... this day of our first step into our first century!"
As far as the last two plaques (located on the far left of the set of six), it is not clear if authorities are still in possession of these and if they do, whether they will be re-installed as well, but if the location of these final two missing plaques are unknown, whether new copies of them will be made. The location of the large rectangular panel which was attached to the north wall of the vestibule is also unknown. This 2018 article seems to infer that the panel still does exist, but that it will be re-installed at some future date. The article also says that the panel contained names of the fallen fighters interred within the memorial's crypt, while the article also contains a list of those names.
During the time the monument fell into disrepair (as mentioned above), much of the structure was covered in graffiti (Slide 10). However, at the time of the 2003 renovation of the structure, all graffiti removed and painted over. Even to this day, I found no graffiti on the monument during my most recent visit. Slide 10 in the slideshow above shows the state of the exterior covered in graffiti before the 2003 renovation. Security cameras have recently been installed around the monument complex as of 2015, so, hopefully this will go a long way to protect the site from further theft and vandalism.
Within the rear half of the monument, there is a small museum displaying the mosaic work of artist Peter Mazev. Surrounding the museum interior, Mazev has covered the majority of the wall space with a series of five massive mosaic works. Covering an area of 220sq meters, the work is considered to be the single largest mosaic installation in the country of Macedonia. Across this series of mosaics, Mazev depicts the history of Macedonia, from the Ilinden Uprising against the oppression of occupation by the Ottoman Empire, to the devastation during the Balkan Wars, World Wars I and II, to the liberation from and conquest over fascism and then, finally, to the freedom and the rebuilding of Macedonia. This work is often referred to the as the "Guernica of Macedonia", in reference to Picasso's masterpiece.
Slideshow - Mosaic Museum (images via mahr.mk)
In the 1984 book "Macedonian Monumental Painting on the Themes of the NOV & the Revolution" (Македонското монументално сликарство на теми од НОВ и Револуцијата) by Boris Petkovski, much commentary is made on the artistic style and cultural significance of Mazev's mosaic murals here at Veles, such as this excerpt for example (translated here into English):
"In his mosaics, Mazev also accepted some suggestions for his work from [Petar] Lubarda and Picasso, as well as from some aspects of the region's medieval art. But at the same time, the artist sought to free himself from the allure of the Byzantine mosaic technique, applying instead more emphasized primal forms: sometimes they were observed within mosaic systems as forms that were close to Byzantine but whose texture was more expressive and less meticulous (similar to mosaics from Tunisia and Israel). Combining natural stone found in Macedonia with Venetian mosaic tiles, Mazev managed to highlight their physical features to achieve modern, colorful and stylish effects. Particularly noticeable is the interweaving of linear, zonal lines & strips (often grouped together) with more solid, pointed forms and separate colorful loud accents. This mosaic complex of Mazev in the Memorial-Ossuary at Titov Veles is undoubtedly a new turning point in the development of Macedonian monumental painting, and especially of what is related to the People's Liberation Army and the Revolution."
Meanwhile, in a 2019 interview with Evaz Asanov, who was one of Mazev's assistants during the three year construction of the mosaic, he describes the process of its creation in the following terms (translated here into English):
"The [mosaic] was made back in the studio, being created in sections. We worked with Petar Mazev together with colleagues and students, and when we finished with each mosaic section we loaded them on a TAM truck and we carried everything to the monument, then anchoring them in place on the wall. Mazev oversaw work, creation, and fitting... it was physically hard work. He was a very neat, cultured man, working in a calm and quiet atmosphere, without saying many words and more often than not using head gestures to communicate as far as when and what to do. The project was always fully in his hands. When the mosaic was completed, General Kosta Nađ personally came to see the mosaic during the complex's opening. The tiles from which it was created came from Italy and were imported specifically for this purpose. When he finished the mosaic, Mazev stopped Nađ and said that this is his biggest success in life."
In addition, at the main entrance to the museum complex is a large bronze sculpture of which depicts a blossoming tree, created by Denković. Sources indicate that it is meant to represent a 'budding' tree of freedom and symbolize the triumph of Partisan forces over fascist aggression and occupation. Underneath this 'tree' sculpture is the crypt where the remains of fallen Partisan fighters are interred, allowing these remains to act as the 'roots' of this tree of freedom.
However, since the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the monument complex has fallen into dereliction and disrepair, which has had considerable negative effects on the mosaics and the roof structure of the museum. In many locations on the mosaics, apparent water damage and staining is evident. Furthermore, additional staining can be seen on many locations on the museum's ceiling. A project to restore and fix these water damage issues was made in 2003, with 100,000 euros being spent on the effort. However, even despite these restoration efforts, the water damage and ceiling leaking issues have not been fully resolved, with the city already desperately looking to procure additional funds to initiate further repairs and renovations.
When visiting the monument, the doors into the mosaic museum will be closed and locked the vast majority of the time. If you wish to gain entrance into the museum to explore it, the best way to do this is to make an appointment ahead of time with its curators at the National Museum of Veles. They can be contacted via email at or by phone at +389 43 231 434.
Photo 6: Poppy flower
The shape of the kosturnica (crypt) monument here at Veles, macedonia is said by multiple sources to represent the inverted petals of an opened poppy flower (Photo 6). In Macedonia, the blooming poppy flower is a widespread and extremely common plant which has come to symbolizes life and rebirth across the region. In fact, thousands of these flowers bloom naturally all around this memorial complex every spring. In this instance, such a symbol as a poppy flower would be a celebration and recognition of the fallen soldiers interred at the tomb within this monument. However, other sources I have found refer to the symbolism of this monument to represent the fractured helmet of a German soldier broken into pieces. I have not been able to determine which meaning was the intention of the sculpture's artist Ljubomir Denkoviḱ or if, maybe, both are equally appropriate (or neither). Perhaps the shape is up for the viewer themselves to interpret and internalize as they see fit.
Status and Condition:
The overall state of the monument here at Veles could be classified as fair to poor. As has been mentioned in other section in this article, the condition of this monument has been deteriorating since the early 1990s, with severe issues with vandalism, water damage, neglect, theft, concrete damage, etc. Furthermore, additional problems not mentioned above which have been occurring in recent decades have been under-funding, a lack of sufficient staffing, extended periods without electricity and roof damage.
Extensive renovations were funded in 2003 to facilitate repairs to roof damage and water leakage, however, these problems have persisted and the municipality of Veles is seeking new funding for additional repairs and renovations. While I was there, I did see evidence that some wreaths and flowers were left at the bronze tree statue inside the museum area. As such, it is clear that some in the community come to pay homage and respects to this site, but it is not clear to what extent this happens. In addition, there was no road signage or directional markers from the main road, either in town or from the motorway, leading visitors or tourists to the monument. Interestingly, upon my visit to the site in 2018, I found stacks of old pedestals piled in front of the old visitors center which were inscribed with the names of local Yugoslav WWII heroes (Photo 7). Presumably these were once adorned with sculptural busts and set prominently around the memorial site, however, the busts are now gone and the pedestals look as though they are being treated as nothing more than trash.
Photo 7: Disused pedestals
Photo 8: A view during the 2015 Kočo Racin Meetings event
Meanwhile, much of the courtyard and amphitheatre at the base of the monument's stairs was overgrown and falling into disuse, with the ornamental fountain in that same area being in complete disrepair. While some landscaping work is undertaken at the site, much of the grounds are left untended and overgrown. However, a serious government effort was put forward in December 2013 to repaint the entire structure and make renewed attempts at fixing the leaking roof and water seeps, as these issues have been ongoing problems for the structure. The restoration was completed in early 2016 at a total cost of 4.5 million denars (roughly 73k euros), provided by the country's Ministry of Culture. Regular commemorative events are still held at this memorial site which are often attended by many notable local personalities and politicians. Meanwhile, in 2015 the annual poetry event called the "Racin Meetings" (Рацинови средби) (Photo 8), which are intended to honor poet Kočo Racin, were, for the first time, held here at the Veles monument during early June. The event includes poetry readings, musical performances, a book fair and an awards ceremony and are often attended by many notable regional and national dignitaries.
The Veles monument complex is relatively easy to find. As you are approaching Veles along the highway coming from the north (heading south), the monument can easily be seen on the hillside from the M1/E-75 motorway as you are approaching the 'East Veles' exit. As you get off on the exit, take a left onto road R1312 at the bottom of the exit ramp. Unfortunately, the ramp exists in such a way that a left might not be possible to make (as it only lets you head south towards downtown Veles, so, if you find it difficult, simply turn back around at the large traffic circle less than 1km down the road. Then, you'll take your immediate right onto a paved road (Photo 9) that will take you right to the memorial complex, with parking available along the road in front of the circular courtyard (Photo 10). The exact coordinates for parking area are N41°43'21.6", E21°47'17.0". Additionally, parking can be made at or near the LukOil petrol station, then walking up the winding stairs to the monument courtyard.
Click map to open in Google Maps in new window
Photo 9: Sharp turn off main road towards monument
Photo 10: Parking area in front of monument sign
This sub-section details information related to the directional/spatial orientation info for elements of the monument complex at Veles, as well as local and seasonal lighting conditions, all primarily geared towards those wanting to photograph the site. Firstly, the primary stairs that lead up to the monument are oriented in a rough east-west configuration. The front facade of the monument at the top of the stairs points in a western direction. For information on sunrise and sunset, you can obtain a detailed reports on yearly conditions at Veles by visiting the profile page for that location at TimeAndDate.com.
Select Sources and More Information:
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