Serbs and Albanians Under Turkish Rule

Posted on April 25, 2013 by

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The end of the Serbian Despotate in 1459 was followed by the demise of the Kingdom of Bosnia (1463). The Ottoman Empire now ruled not only over all Serbs, except those in Montenegro, of which more will be said later, but stretched all the way from Mesopotamia to the Danube, and westward to the Adriatic. Serbs, Greeks, Bulgars, and Albanians were subjugated, and they had no idea how long their plight would last. At the same time, some among them concluded that life would be easier if they converted to Islam. Many others decided to move out – to Hungary or to go to the coast to look for a haven in Venice or in Venetian-held territories in Dalmatia, or to try the gates of Dubrovnik, which in exchange for tribute to the sultan, was allowed to retain its small territory free of Turks. Those who stayed and did not convert had one thing in common: all of them were classified as “giaours,” a category that lumped together all those who were not Muslim.

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Typical Ottoman and converted treatment of Serbs

To the Turks, the Byzantine and Roman faiths were 2 sides of the same coin, a logical conclusion. In real life, however, the best proof that it was not so was to be found in the very fact of Turkish victory. It took them less than a century to annihilate 3 Balkan tsardoms, divided and never assisted by Christian Western Europe.

On the other hand, Christianity was the only single bond that the subjugated peoples of the Balkans now had in common. What else was there to hold onto until the Islamic flood should recede? Moreover, the Balkan peninsula became a 2-realm society: Muslim and Christian, one privileged and the other discriminated against. It was up to the individual to decide whether he wanted to live and die as an exploited person or lead a more favorable existence. It was obvious that hard decisions had to be made.

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The Turkish occupation did not mean the same thing for all Balkan nationalities. The Greeks, for example, who had played such an important role in the Byzantine world, were viewed with the greatest respect by the invader. The Turks were good fighters and eager to participate in the spoils of war, but when it came to bureaucracy and administration in general they were sadly lacking. It was not long after the fall of Constantinople that the city’s Greek, Venetian, and Jewish communities began to bustle with activity and opulence. Someone had to provide the continuity in commerce, administration, and in understanding the affairs of the Balkan mosaic. By all standards, in the reality of the period, the Greeks were the most suited for this function.

When it came to choosing who would represent the Christians and to provide spiritual leadership, the choice again fell to the Greeks. Having a Greek as Eastern Orthodox patriarch in Constantinople made a substantial difference.

For the Serbs, a glimpse into the extremity of their situation in that period is given us by a contemporary Serbian, turned adventurer, soldier of fortune, and author – Konstantine Mihailovic of Ostrovica. Serving for 10 full years as a member of Turkish shock troops and fighting for Sultan Mehmed II, he later escaped to Hungary. Toward the end of his life, this gifted man wrote Memoirs of a Janissary, in the form of a general history of the Turks of his time. One of the events he described was the fall of the Serbian mining town of Novo Brdo into the hands of the sultan. First, the sultan ordered all gates closed except one, through which all of the inhabitants had to pass, leaving their possessions behind. “So they began passing through, one by one,” writes Mihailovic, “and the sultan, standing at the gate, was separating males from females … then he ordered the leaders beheaded. He saved 320 young men and 704 women … He distributed the women among his warriors, and the young men he took into the janissary corps, sending them to Anatolia. … I was there, in that city of Novo Brdo, I who write this …”

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Impalement – one of the most common punishment of Serbs. Unfortunately, the most eager have been the converted.

The shipping of young Christian men (and boys) to Turkish schools to become janissaries, or if talented, to be a part of the administrative apparatus, was common practice in the Ottoman Empire. It was part of the tribute the Christian “raja” had to pay to the Turks, but it was not always the same in all regions. It is not clear whether it was a compliment or a punishment when the Turks took more male children from one area than from another. Serbs were trying to hide their boys, only to realize later that the ones who were taken away fared much better in life.

Because religion, not nationality, was the fundamental factor in the Turkish concept of governing, it was possible for a “raja” child to become a grand vizier of the Turkish sultan. Mehmed Sokolovic, a Serbian child from a village near Vishegrad, was a Turkish grand vizier. He built that famous bridge on the river Drina, the subject of the book by Serbian Nobel Laureate, Ivo Andric. In general, it can be said that compared to today’s totalitarian societies, where party and creed adherence is a must, Turkish rulers come out rather liberal. As long as one was a devout Muslim, that was sufficient allegiance for the sultan. And allegiance he got. Mehmed Sokolovic served 3 sultans in a row with the highest possible loyalty and fidelity.

As the Islamization process was taking place, it took root better in some areas, among certain classes and in certain environments. For example, the process was much faster in Albanian and Bosnian areas than in the region of Serbia’s former state. Accepting Islam in Albanian regions was a less painful process, because the Albanians did not have an autocephalous Church, and their Christianity, whether Byzantine or Latin, had not become as integral in Albanian life and remained either Greek or Italian. And in Bosnia the widely spread Bogomil sect did not hold Orthodox Christianity in high esteem.

Wealth and material position were also important factors that entered into the decision process at times of conversion. Town dwellers, landowners, and military oriented personalities had to think in terms of Islam, if they wanted to preserve what they had and to take part in new accumulation. Those with professional skills – artisans, doctors, scholars, and administrators – could not expect to fare well if they stuck to their old faith. This, however, was not true of the common people and the peasants.

All of this played a role in defining the new stratification of the society under Ottoman rule, as well as the power balance among national groups. Undoubtedly, the balance was shifting, and as far as the Albanians and Serbs were concerned, it was shifting drastically in favor of the Albanians, to the detriment of good relations between them. With over 30 grand viziers of Albanian descent during Ottoman rule, the top policy- making machine was indeed saturated with people of Albanian stock.

No one knew the effect of the nationality background better than the Dubrovnik colony of merchants in Constantinople. Never did they have it better than when Sokolovic was the grand vizier. Never were they hated and envied more in Constantinople than when Djivo Djurdjevic and Pavle Sorkocevic, the 2 senators from the city republic, could come, just as many other Slavs of rank, and ask for an audience and be received by the grand vizier with sympathy and understanding. The Serbian historian, Radovan Samardzic, describes such an instance almost poetically in his book on Sokolovic:

“Sokolovic took great pleasure in talking with Dubrovcani because he could talk with them in his mother tongue, without witless, muddle-headed, and dangerous interpreters obtaining firsthand detailed, and exact evaluation of conditions in Europe … More than that, he experienced a personal satisfaction, impregnated with indefinable melancholy, on hearing in his own language all those expressions, thoughts, and slices of life, which to his own Turks, even if they still knew the language, were becoming foreign … and when occasionally he would, with jesting sarcasm, frolic upon their poltroonery, easily detectable slyness, and clumsily hidden egoism, he [still] never … let them return to their quarters unhappy or discouraged.”

One could contend that in this particular case the prominent Serbian historian had fallen prey to unscientific sentimentality, but there is no doubt that, as far as the process of Islamization was concerned, Albanians in general showed themselves much more pliable than Serbs. The weight of their Albanian tradition must have been a lighter burden. Theirs is the famous saying: “Ku este shpata este feja” (Your faith is where the sword is). First class warriors, fascinated by guns, used to discipline and obeying when ruled by a strong hand, the Albanians represented a much better medium to be cast into the Turkish mold than the individualistic and unpredictable Serbs.

In Turkish society, which had several centuries to go before being seriously challenged, this was a crucial distinction that would decide the potential for advancement. After the Serbian Patriarchate was abolished (1556), it was a blessing for the Serbs to have had Mehmed Sokolovic in a position of power, and he reopened the Patriarchate (1557) and placed his brother, Makarius, in charge. But the Serbs badly needed another Mehmed in 1766, when the Patriarchate was once again abolished. Unfortunately for them, 1 or 2 Serbian candles, at best, were not enough in 5 centuries of Turkish darkness. There is no doubt that the Albanians’ continued presence at the seat of power gave them an upper hand, which was the beginning of a tragic divisiveness, of separate roads for them and for the Serbs. The former became the rulers and the latter the ruled.

This split, or a parting of the ways, is probably best seen in the gradual deterioration of relations between neighboring Montenegrin and Albanian tribes. In early stages of Turkish occupation these relations were friendly. Living under similar conditions in the isolated highlands, having similar life patterns, traditions, and history, they were a world apart from the rest of the Balkans. They populated the roadless mountain areas that invaders had no particular desire to visit as long as their control was acknowledged by regular tax contributions and tributes. Usually they were left alone to lead and organize their own lives around their own social patterns. Their elected local leaders, together with their priests, ruled in strict observance of their traditions and customs. The Turkish judiciary never bothered the Christians unless Muslim rule or people were involved. In their relationships members of the 2 societies, Christian and Muslim (Montenegrin and Albanian, although sometimes not necessarily so clearly delineated), were generally cordial. Through common experiences and alliances in local conflicts, as well as opposition to outside influences, the binding word besa (promise) often meant mutual protection.

The symbiosis that engulfed the clans of different ethnic cities was noticeable and evident until quite recently, and traces of it can be found even today. A French traveler was taken aback, when in the late years of the 18th century he visited Herzegovina. It was the Christian holiday of St. Ilija, but to his amazement he noticed that Muslims were going to the mosque, splendidly lit. His agitated curiosity and inquiry were given a laconic answer: “It’s Ilija in the morning, Alija in the evening!” Even today one can still see Albanian Muslims of Kosovo, Metohija, or Macedonia, men and women and children of the same family, descending from their hills and visiting a Serbian monastery. Men, wearing their white skullcaps, in their white serge trousers braided with black lace, followed by their women (who no longer wear veils), bringing their infant children or alone, waiting for the priest to admit them to the Serbian place of worship. They arrive in reverence of the Holy Mother, or a saint whose icon is in the church or, more often, of relics of some Serbian king, sanctified in the monastery and known to help where Mohammed and Esculap had failed. “No wonder,” a Serbian priest would comment after such visits (always on Friday), “they were Christians once.”

In the 14th and 15th centuries the great majority of Albanians were Christians, Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic in the north, predominately Eastern Orthodox in the south. Members of the north Albanian tribe, Malisori, celebrated Saint Nikola’s Day (their patron and protector, just as he is of the Montenegrins). Both could be heard singing their national ballads, to the accompaniment of the one-string instrument (gusle). The Malisori would sing about King Marko and Prince Lazar; the Montenegrins would sing about Skanderbeg, alias George Castriot.

It is an exceptional case today, but until recently it was not unusual to see Albanians visiting with their Christian friends on Christian holidays, or participating in dancing and feasting (wine and pork avoided), attending weddings and baptism ceremonies. Usually these were the traditional inter-family ties of friendship, a legacy from the old days, when the respective families were closely knit, living through periods of harmony or quarrels, but never inimical hostility. These were the days of stable family life, when young men went abroad only to return with money saved, and then continued to live in the manner of their fathers. Even today there are young Schipetars (Albanians) who remember that their fathers would never begin any project on Tuesday, the day of the Kosovo defeat.

The Monastery of Pec, which was the seat of the Serbian patriarch (1346-1556 and 1557-1766), maintained close and friendly relations with the Albanians of the rugged area of Rugovo, which provided shelter to Patriarch Arsenius IV in 1737, when he had to hide from the pursuing Turks. The Albanians continued to provide guard service to the Patriarchate in Pec and the Decani Monastery, but in recent years with notable lack of success.

Late in the 19th century two English ladies visited Kosovo (Miss Muir Mackenzie and Miss A. P. Irby). In their book, Travels in the Slavic Provinces of Turkey-in-Europe, they reported the respect among Albanians for the Serbian holy places. The authors blamed the Turks and their propaganda for any Albanian excesses that occasionally took place in the area. They maintained that the Turks were the ones who incited young Muslim Albanians to ill-treat the Serbs, to “throw stones and filth” at Serbian funerals, and to shout “insults and obscenities at Christians on Sundays.”

But it was not only the Turks who were the source of such incidents. Other quarters (e.g., Rome and Vienna) contributed their bit to poison the atmosphere in Kosovo, Metohija, and the border area between Montenegro and the Albanian regions. Both Italy and Austria-Hungary had no interest in maintaining peace and harmony in those regions.

While one should never underestimate the importance of foreign schemes in muddling relations between the Slavs and the Muslims in the area, the phenomenon of Islamization, and all that it meant in terms of personal welfare and social advancement, still remained the main cause of the estrangement. To the Albanians, Islam was an opportunity that they could not let pass. It was a vehicle not only to get even, but, in addition, to outrank the Greeks and the Slavs.

The Islamization process was a continuous one, but its fervor and intensity were not. At certain periods, in certain areas, with certain people, the process would explode, usually triggered by some violent event. Something would happen, such as Albanians siding with Venice in a dispute with the Porte, or the Serbs would join the Austrian army in its incursions into the territory. The aftermath would be intensified Islamization. Pressures would be applied, and on such occasions Serbs would usually show more intransigence than Albanians. The Albanians could never understand that inherent Serbian hostility toward the Turks, but then they had no Kosovo in their heritage. The Greeks, on the other hand, understood it very well – they had Thermopylae.

One must credit all Balkan people with one thing: capacity for survival. But some did it the hard way; others compromised and adapted to what they regarded as a temporary situation. Even today, modern history has proved that Serbs fall into the first category. The Kosovo syndrome seemingly does not let them act in any other way.

Albanians are survivors, too, but in most cases they assured their continuity in an easier way. Islamization was one such way. The phenomenon of “crypto-Christianity,” practiced profusely by many Albanians, both Roman Catholic and Orthodox, is proof. This cannot be said, however, to be a character trait of Albanians, or even duplicity, but rather a pragmatic solution of an intelligent survivor. Again we come to the question: could not the Serbs have done the same thing? Yes, and those who were not burdened with Kosovo did it (the Bosnians).

The Sunni fervor prompted the puritanical Montenegrin Prince-Bishop Danilo (1670-1735) to purge converted Montenegrins. In their Muslim fanaticism, the latter had gone so far as to assist the invading Turkish force to enter the Montenegrin capital of Cetinje. National bards sing of the brothers Martinovic who executed the eerie plan of eradicating the traitorous “poturice” (converts) with their consecrated maces. It was done in the dark of one Christmas eve (1702). This crepuscular feat immensely impressed Russian Tsar Peter the Great. He ordered money, gifts, and missals and icons to be sent to the prince-bishop of Montenegro.

The massacre resulted from an intense hatred of everything Muslim, including people of their own blood who had converted to Islam. As a young man of 20, when he attained power, Danilo Petrovic-Njegos, felt rather strongly that 1 day the Muslim corruption of Montenegrin Christian souls would have to be stopped. That day came when the Pasha of Skadar promised him safe conduct to Podgoritsa, where he was to consecrate a new church. Danilo did not trust Turkish promises but felt that “for the sake of my faith, I have to go, though it may be my fate not to return.” He saddled his best horse and departed. On his way back Bishop Danilo was blackmailed. The pasha demanded 3,000 ducats for his release to the Montenegrins. As he was being marched back to Cetinje, he must have thought of a suitable revenge. The ransom was somehow paid, and Danilo summoned his flock to agree on the day when the traitorous Turks would be massacred all over the country. The executioners were merciless; all those who refused baptism were executed, and Montenegrins have ever since sung about this feat of “purification.” Traitors were no more in their ranks. And the neighboring Albanians, if of Muslim faith, never lost sight of the bloody message.

Bishop Danilo’s type of solution, regardless of how drastic and effective in Montenegro, could not stop the process of Islamization in the Balkans. The only viable opposition was in the fortitude of the Christian people themselves, in their resolution to oppose Islam and to “die for the Christian faith” if necessary. Albanians obviously felt that choosing death would be impractical. Once they found that conversion to Islam was a valuable asset, they could not be stopped. By the end of the 17th century, two-thirds of them were Muslims. The Turks were at the peak of their might, and their corruptive policy of granting favors and privileges to individuals and tribes that accepted Islam prevented all attempts to solidify any meaningful mass resistance.

In a sense, Albanians found the special treatment they got from the Turks, once they converted to Islam, not unusual. They were treated as a separate category in Byzantine and in Serbian times. Their warriors were in great demand, and one of the ablest generals that Tsar Dusan had at the time of his Greek campaign was an Albanian by origin. Dusan settled many Albanians in conquered lands as a reward for their services. Not only as mercenaries, but as a sheep and other livestock-raising ethnic group, the Albanians enjoyed a special and separate status.

By the 19th century, in areas where Serbs and Albanians were interrelating, something more critical than ethnic or religious differences was becoming evident as an impediment to communication between them. This was the disparity in political outlook or concepts. The Serbs had a very clear idea about Serbian statehood, while the Albanians, with occasionally weak blips of Albanianism, were for the most part Turkish oriented. While the Serbs dreamed of their Serbian state, the Albanians tended to identify with the Ottoman Empire of which they were a part.

Albanian patriot Sami Bey Frasheri, in his history of Albania, written in Turkish in 1899 and later translated into German, describes the Albano-Turkish affinity in the following words:

“Turks were finding devout and courageous co-fighters in Albanians, while Albanians found the Turkish kind of governing very much to their taste. In Turkish times, Albania was a wealthy and blossoming country because Albanians were riding together with Turks in war campaigns all over the world and were returning with rich booty: gold and silver, costly arms, and fine horses from Arabia, Kurdistan, and Hungary.”

(Was war Albanien, was ist es, was wird es werden? ) [What was Albania? What is it? What will it be?], Vienna and Leipzig, 1913,.

Warring and fighting, the Islamic converts developed an aggressive mentality, and in times of peace turned on their Christian neighbors. They began viewing themselves as the propagators of the Islamic faith. Much better armed than the deprived Christians, they left a bloody trail in their forceful Islamization drives among the Serbs. An old Serbian religious inscription, made in 1574, reads: “This is where great Albanian violence took place, especially by Mehmud Begovic in Pec, Ivan Begovic in Skadar, Sinnan-Pashic Rotulovic in Prizren, and Slad Pashic in Djakovitsa – they massacred 2,000 Christians “… Have mercy upon us, Oh Lord. Look down from Heaven and free your flock” (translated from Ljubomir Stojanovic, Stari Srpski zapisi i natpisi [Old Serbian Inscriptions and Epitaphs], Belgrade, 1902, Vol. 1, p. 219). There are, in the same vein, numerous other memorials or inscriptions in Stojanovic’s collection.

Probably the most notorious among the converts was Koukli beg and his offspring who used force in their attempts to Islamize the area of Pastrik, Has, and Opolje at the end of the 18th century. Remembered as an arch enemy of the Serbs is another Islamic convert, Grand Vizier Sinan Pasha, who ordered the remains of Saint Sava transferred from the Mileseva Monastery to Belgrade and there burned on a wooden pyre in 1594. In his rage he reasoned that once turned into ashes Sava’s body would cease being a rallying point for Serbian Christendom. Blinded by his new faith, he never realized that his enemies were not guided by Sava’s flesh but by his spirit and his ideals.

In Turkish times their deprived status would have been acceptable philosophically to the Christians. Had the Albanians also been among the deprived segments of the population, even if they showed signs of enmity, a Christian affiliation would have made them more palatable to the Serbs. But to abandon the faith of one’s ancestors, in order to join the privileged class, was not acceptable. This is why the quality of animosity between Serbs and Bulgars was always considerably different from the quality of estrangement between Serbs and Albanians. This is not to judge or to moralize, but simply to emphasize the qualitative difference in the two hostilities.

Kosovo, by William Dorich