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A BALKAN TALEThe Ottoman presence in the Balkans lasted from the 14th to the 20th centuries. In some regions this presence was continuous, in others interrupted (in the Morea, for instance), and still others never suffered an Ottoman conquest (for instance, the Ionian Islands and the Dalmatian shores). Yet, for almost the entire population of the Balkan Peninsula, the Ottoman centuries have been an important part of their historical experience. To a great extent, this history is unknown, or known under different perspectives in each country. This is due to the fact that the Christian peoples of the Balkans established their nation-states through, usually military, conflict with the Ottoman Empire. These conflicts placed a great emphasis on the religious difference between Christians and Muslims. At the same time, the appeal of the Western European model led to the devaluation of the cultural significance of the Ottoman centuries. The Ottoman Empire thus became identified with cultural ‘backwardness and was considered by all its successors as an ‘undesirable heritage’. Nevertheless, for some 600 years, Christians, Muslims and Jews lived together in urban and rural areas, farmed the land, patronised each other’s shops, met, and entertained themselves at bazaars and coffeehouses. Ottoman society was, of course, a society of hierarchies and discrimination between rulers and subjects. For the reayas [taxed subjects], everyday life had its cruel side, conflicts and hardships. Today, memory of this period remains hidden in buildings that have changed use, or has faded out completely due to negligence and destruction. Yet, whatever their condition, ruined or preserved, the buildings of the Ottoman period, private and public, Christian, Muslim and Jewish, remain as documents of a common history – the history shared by the peoples of the Balkans for some six centuries. The contemporary photographs of these monuments enable us to see in a different light the Ottoman heritage, to revisit our common past and to tell our Balkan tale.
CONQUERINGMany believe that the Balkans were conquered by the Ottomans after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The truth is, though, that a large part of the Balkan Peninsula had already been conquered in the 14th century, and the sultans had located their palace on European ground, in Adrianople (Edirne), as early as the 1360s. Despite the turmoil and destabilisation caused by their defeat by Tamerlane in the Battle of Ankara (1402), the Ottomans ultimately completed their conquest of the Balkans in the late 15th century. They twice attempted to conquer Vienna, in 1529 and 1683, but their conquering impetus in Europe definitively came to a halt in front of the city’s walls. Through its territorial expansion, from the 14th century to the late 17th, the nomadic kingdom of the Osman dynasty became a global Islamic empire, which held as its duty to pursue a holy war against the Christian West. During its heyday, in the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire extended from the Danube to the Nile. The Balkans formed an important part of this empire for six centuries. The Ottomans expanded in the Balkans to the west, towards the Roman Via Egnatia, which, through Serres and Manastir (Bitola), led to the Albanian shores, as well as north, towards Philippoupolis (Plodviv) and Sophia, up to Belgrade. Muslim populations from Anatolia followed behind the armies and settled in the occupied territories. Conversions to Islam, whether voluntary or not, and population movements slowly yet radically changed the demographic profile of the Balkan Peninsula. Equally dramatic was the change of the landscape in Balkan cities with the Ottoman conquest. As soon as the Ottomans occupied a city, they would transform the large churches into mosques, or build new, imposing mosques with tall minarets, and other ‘public’ buildings (bedestens [covered markets], hamams [bathhouses], imarets [public kitchens], caravanserais [inns]). The urban landscape of the Balkans thus acquired ‘Ottoman’ features, reflecting the new political reality. The Ottomans indeed sought to make their conquest ‘visible’.
LIVING TOGETHEROttoman society was strictly hierarchical. Social relationships were determined by the discrimination between Muslims and non-Muslims (zimmi), on the one hand, and between the ruling class, which was not taxed, and the taxed subjects irrespective of religion (reayas), on the other. The non-Muslim inhabitants of the empire were considered institutionally inferior to Muslims, but were entitled to practise their religion and own property. This hierarchy is also reflected in the form of cities. In Ottoman cities, sometimes there were separate neighbourhoods for Muslims, Christians and Jews. At any rate, they lived all together, in the alleys and bazaars of their cities. The bedesten (covered market) was the heart of the city, a meeting place, and the commercial centre. In fact, Evliya Çelebi, in the 17th century, distinguished two kinds of Ottoman cities, depending on whether there was a bedesten or not. In all three religions, water was symbolically associated with inner cleansing. The Koran provided for several ritual uses of water, especially of flowing water. This is the reason why public baths (hamams) were built in all Ottoman cities; they were double, with separate sections for men and women, or single, open to men and women at different times. The hamams were socialising hubs, especially for women, above all Muslims ones. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the British ambassador to Istanbul, in the 18th century, called them ‘coffeehouses for women’. The donation of water was, according to the Koran, a major act of benefaction, and many wealthy Muslims, even the sultan, sponsored more or less sophisticated fountains. The prevailing notion was that public works were an expression of piety and charity, and consequently were not considered government activities. Ottoman cities were full of building complexes made for charitable causes. These buildings were typically waqfs, that is, charitable institutions devoted to God. Inter-city contact was facilitated by an extensive network of roads, in which solid, arched bridges played an important role. Traders’ caravans travelled throughout the Balkan Peninsula and Central Europe, blazing trails for communication and exchange of products and ideas.
WORSHIPPINGDuring the Ottoman centuries, religion represented a key element, not only of people’s identity but also of their everyday life. Social events related to birth, marriage and death, dietary practices, ways of thinking and doing things were all inextricably related to religion. This is a reason why places of worship and religious manifestation were points of reference in Ottoman cities. The Ottoman state was undoubtedly Islamic, largely based on the Islamic Holy Law (şeriat). Yet, for this huge, multi-ethnic state to function, it was necessary to include non-Muslims and recognise their own religious leaders. Şariat entitled Christians and Jews to repair their churches and synagogues, yet not to build new ones. Permission by the Ottoman authorities, either the local judge (kadı) or even the central administration in Istanbul, was required for each repair. Yet, in actual practice, the Ottoman state demonstrated realism and flexibility, so that new churches and synagogues were built, in spite of the official ban. Besides, there was quite a margin for adaptation on the local level. Yet, aggressive actions against other religions by fanatical ulema [Muslim scholars of sacred law and theology] or local Ottoman dignitaries also occurred. There was enmity, especially against Catholics, as the pope was considered the sultan’s greatest enemy. Only after the 1683-99 wars with the Habsburgs did the Ottoman authorities change their attitude. Since the Reformation era (Tanzimat), though, in the 19th century, and the liberalisation of religious policy, many more churches – including Catholic ones – were erected. The co-existence of different religious communities was reflected in space by the mosques, churches and synagogues. Another important presence was that of dervish orders, whose life revolved around their lodge, the tekke. This was a mystical and popular version of Islam that became very popular also in the Balkans.
MODERNISINGThe 19th century was the time of Tanzimat, that is, the reforms introduced between 1839 and 1876 by the sultans Abdülmecid and Abdülaziz, aiming to establish a modern state according to European models. Contact with Western Europe, its customs and culture had begun to influence the inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire very early on. The Christian merchants and scholars who travelled to Western Europe, in particular, returned with numerous new ideas and models in their luggage. The dramatic changes that occurred in 18th-century Europe in economy, society and politics were echoed in an Ottoman Empire that, while searching to be considered as an equal by the European states, continued to impose an absolutist rule on its subjects. The Ottoman modernisation was indeed precipitated by the emerging national Balkan movements, particularly by the success of the Greek War of Independence. The nationalist ideology, the parliamentary institutions, the modern army fighting for the homeland, the central administration, were all elements of the 19th-century European nation-states. Against these international and local developments, the Ottoman Empire put in place the ideology of ‘Ottomanism’, that is, the equivalent participation of Muslims and non- Muslims, an element that clearly deviated from şeriat. Yet, changes were far broader and deeper. The steam engine, banks, railways, factories, telegraphs, all transformed the life of Muslims and non-Muslims in the cities. The very landscape in the Ottoman Empire changed dramatically. New trends in architecture, painting and music, influenced by the West, swept the Empire. Women’s public presence changed, too. Muslim women teachers were employed in girls’ schools. The Sublime Porte now set as its goal mass education according to Western models. To a great extent, modernising meant Westernising. Clock towers can be regarded as the epitome of modernising in urban areas. Prominently located so that everyone could see them, they reflect the radical change in the perception of time from the traditional measuring by the imam’s call to prayer from the minaret. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Abdülhamid II’s reign, more than 100 clocks were built throughout the Ottoman Empire (1901-3).
FORGETTING & REMEMBERINGThe Ottoman Empire finally collapsed in 1923. The Turkish Republic took its place, alongside a string of nation-states that had gradually been established since the early 19th century. All Balkan states, even the modern Kemalist Turkey, sought to eradicate the memory of the Ottoman Empire and differentiate themselves from all that was ‘Ottoman’, which was considered unfit for modernising and ‘progress’. Fostering distinct national characteristics in each nation-state entailed erasing the multi-ethnic Ottoman heritage. The ideal of national homogeneity, besides, led to the assimilation or concealment of diversity. This development was encouraged by the major demographic changes that occurred in the Balkan Peninsula in the 19th and 20th centuries. Wars, migration and population exchanges dramatically, and violently, changed the urban and rural landscape. In some regions, there were no more Muslims to use the mosques. In others, the Orthodox monasteries were deserted. World War II and the Holocaust brought to a tragic end the centuries-old presence of Jewish communities in the Balkans. The Jewish synagogues and districts were desolated. Natural disasters, such as earthquakes and fires, destroyed entire districts, which were never rebuilt, or were rebuilt with a new, ‘modern’ design. Broad avenues and the new urban plan of the Balkan cities replaced the old Ottoman alleys; apartment buildings overshadowed imarets and türbes [tombs], while mosques, stripped of their tall minarets, disappeared in a dense urban environment. Nevertheless, the memory of the Ottoman period still exists: in place names, which resist the changes attempted by central authorities; in places of worship, such as mosques, synagogues and tekkes that are used once again; and in the informed activity, in recent years, of national and local entities to preserve a historical heritage that is under re-evaluation.