Faces of Muslim Balkans

Just a few pictures from our few days among Muslims in the Balkans. The first picture below is of the Albanian-ethnic attendant of a mosque in Belgrade, Serbia; the rest are of Bosnians in Sarajevo. At an “ethnic” level, the story of Bosnia and Hercegovina is remarkably similar to the story of Cyprus (see posts of 10.27 and 10.28). Before the recent conflict, we were told, Muslim and Christian Bosnians thought of each other as people of the same “nationality” but merely different religions. Since the disintegration of the Yugoslav Republic and the subsequent conflicts, Christian Bosnians have been restyled as Serbs or Croats, with the “Serbian” Bosnians in particular identifying themselves with the Serbs of Serbia (even flying the Serbian flag within their semi-autonomous breakaway Republika Srpska) rather than the Muslim Bosnians, or Bosniaks, with whom they had lived together for hundreds of years. We were told that it is not possible to tell Christian and Muslim Bosnians apart, just as with Christian and Muslim Cypriots, but as all of the pictures of Bosnians below were taken within the city of Sarajevo, the subjects are most likely Muslim. As you can see, Muslims Bosnians look typically Slavic–they are genetically no different from their Christian neighbors. Few Bosnian women wear headscarves and few Bosnian men beards.

Islam in the Balkans

We didn’t really set out to travel at all in the Balkans. Outside of southern Spain, for its historical importance as a major outpost of Islamic culture, Europe was not to play a big role in our trip. But as it turned out, the cheapest flight from Europe to Dakar departed from Milan, and we figured, what better way to get from Istanbul to Milan than by train? And so, through Sofia (Bulgaria), Belgrade (Serbia), Sarajevo (Bosnia and Hercegovina), Zagreb (Croatia), Ljubljana (Slovenia) and Venice (Italy) we traveled to Milan, mostly on overnight trains.

In keeping with the theme of our year’s travels, we thought that we would use this opportunity to seek out historical and current Islam and Islamic culture in the Balkans. I knew that some of the countries in the Balkans had substantial Muslim populations (and detoured to Sarajevo to visit Bosnia in particular, post to come), but did not know how much Islamic influence we would see generally in the region. Given how extremely brief and superficial our travels in the region were, I was surprised to so easily find substantial remnants of Islam in the Balkans.

Islam came to the Balkans through the Ottoman Empire’s advances in the 15th century. From then until the 19th century, much of the Balkan peninsula was a part of that Turkish Muslim empire, and therefore subject to Turkish cultural and religious influence, as well as Turkish migration. We first saw evidence of the Ottoman and Turkish presence in the Balkans before we even left Turkey, at the Balkan Turks Foundation on Istanbul’s Divan Yolu (the sort of “main street” of the historical part of Istanbul), a cultural foundation similar to the East Turkistan Foundation for western China (see post of 11.05). It is unclear to me how many Turkish speakers remain in the Balkan countries now–given that some seem to have moved to Turkey–but in the period of Turkish advance before and during Ottoman rule, Turks must have moved into the Balkan peninsula just as they moved into Cyprus (see post of 10.27). Ataturk himself (see post of 11.02) was born in now Greece.

But Islam in the Balkans was not just a matter of Turkish-speaking Muslim migrants into the region, which seems to have been the primary phenomenon in Cyprus, but also of the gradual conversion of local populations. Just as there may not be any “Mughals” left in South Asia, but hundreds of millions of Muslims, there are far more Muslims in the Balkans than people of Turkish descent. As in other regions controlled by Islamic rulers, there was to some extent conversion in the local, originally non-Muslim population. There is one question, I have, however, about the spread of Islam in the Balkans, and that is why the Muslim populations seem so geographically concentrated today, in the more heavily Muslim republics of the Western Balkans (further from Turkey than the overwhelmingly Christian Eastern Balkans). I know that some of this has been exaggerated by recent conflicts, but it seems that the penetration of Islam was in fact greater in the west, perhaps due to greater/more direct/longer imperial presence/control in those regions. I would certainly appreciate clarification on this point from my readers!

Some photos and thoughts tracing Islam in the Balkans, from Bulgaria to Slovenia.

Ottoman-era mosque, Sofia, Bulgaria. The Banya Bashi Mosque, located a couple blocks away from the Sofia Synagogue, was built by none other than Sinan, the Ottoman Empire’s greatest architect, in the 16th century. Bulgaria is one of two European countries bordering Turkey, but it is, as is Greece (and, to the north, Romania), overwhelmingly Christian, despite nearly five centuries under Ottoman rule. The mosque seemed primarily for use by the Turkish minority (around 10% of the total population of Bulgaria) and perhaps Turks in transit, as it had Turkish language signs and prayer timetables in Turkish.

Bayrakli Mosque, Belgrade, Serbia. The Serbs, who have pride of place as a nation that engaged in a horrific ethnic cleansing campaign in such recent history (though some of the glory should be shared with Greek volunteers who took part in some of the worst atrocities), destroyed most of Belgrade’s at one time many mosques during the 1990s conflicts. Perhaps the current authorities believe that there is still a possibility of anti-Muslim mob violence, as this mosque had its own police box. The only other conspicuously Ottoman building we saw in Belgrade was a tomb of a pasha inside Kalemegdan Citadel. Much more so, modern Serbia identifies itself as a part of the Slavic world, with two of downtown’s most prominent landmarks being the Moscow Hotel and the Russian Tsar Restaurant (see Derek’s post of 11.12).

Bosnia and Hercegovina, despite very significant Christian populations (particularly in the semi-autonomous breakaway Republika Srpska), is very much a part of the Islamic world, and the most significant and northwesternmost bastion of Islam (if one does not count the large Muslim minorities within Western Europe). I will cover our visit to Sarajevo in a separate post to come.

Slovenia. Once you head into Croatia and Slovenia you leave the former Ottoman Empire for the former Austro-Hungarian, and traces of Islam disappear quickly. One small and depressing anecdote, however. Slovenia is by far the most financially successful of the former Yugoslav republics, now not only a member of the European Union but within the Eurozone as well. Slovenes are wealthy enough to be members of the international backpacker fraternity (we’ve run into them in Ethiopia and Kenya), and Ljubljana has a first world sheen that, say, Sarajevo does not. I asked a Slovene in Ljubljana what accounted for his nation’s success, and was told that the area that is now Slovenia has always been economically more developed than the rest of the former Yugoslavia, and as a sovereign state Slovenia was able to take better advantage of this lead. Another factor, I was told, was that the “southern people” of the other Yugoslav republics had a different mentality, in part because there were “many Muslims” and they “think differently” and were lazy and didn’t want to work. I had thought that Slovenes deserved credit for somehow staying out of the fray of the wars that entangled the other former Yugoslav republics, that Slovenes were perhaps less likely to think the sort of dangerous ethnic nationalism that their neighbors to the south seemed enamored with. Perhaps I was wrong.o

Breakfast in Belgrade

You might wonder why I’m coming out of obscurity to post for only the second time in these many months.  I’m doing it to dispel any myths anyone might have that traveling in Muslim countries is all joyful bliss, without any drawbacks.

While in Ethiopia in 2005, we met a Japanese couple that had been in the Sudan the month before.  They spoke of how hot and dusty it was and how exasperated they were that at the end of each hard day they “couldn’t even have a cold beer” because the Sudan, as with several other Islamic countries following the prescripts of the Quran, is dry.

For those into women, the site of female flesh can be a very limited commodity in Islamic countries.  In some, women are socially or culturally restricted to the home and you won’t even see them.  In others, most or all will have their heads covered and leave nothing exposed other than *maybe* their face and hands.

Taking pictures of women can be difficult in any country but in Islamic countries it can be much harder and even dangerous.  In parts of Pakistan, taking a picture of a woman can become life threatening when nearby men spot you doing it.  After showing some of my photos to men in some of the more restrictive countries, I think I know why.  Many of these men focus almost exclusively or entirely on the women in the photos, in a sexual manner and often accompanied by impolite, sexist or lewd comments, sometimes without regard for age, race or even beauty.  They just assume that others too will use photographs of women in this way.

So, given that I rarely drink, don’t care to look at women and manage to get the photos I need, what makes me write, here and now in Serbia?  


Our first experience with breakfast in an Islamic country was during our 2001 visit to Turkey.  I actually enjoy Turkish breakfast.  Olives, tomatoes, cheese, cucumber, boiled eggs, bread–tasty and even fun, really.  It turns out the Turks have the best of Islamic breakfasts.  It only gets slimmer and worse after that.  In some, a cup of tea with maybe a bit of bread.  In others, a limited version of the meal enjoyed in Turkey.

Over the last many months, this has worn on me.  Breakfast has always been my favorite meal and time of day.  Fried eggs, omelettes, eggs benedict and most importantly bacon and sausage are among the things I miss most.  Sure I’ve found a half-assed omelette here and there, or an egg that has been almost deep fried because of the amount of grease it was drenched in, but they just don’t suffice.  I’m not sure exactly what the Quran has to say about pork but I will say that any religion that restricts its consumption is a cruel one that cannot possibly be on the right track.  What sort of god would create such a meat and then forbid followers from eating it?  I know, forbidden fruit and all that but come on!  No apple has ever come even close to a strip of bacon.  

The Russian Tzar Restaurant, established 1890 and recently reopened after remodeling, is a place not to be missed on a swing through the Balkans.  This is what we had:

Breakfast “Russian Tzar”

eggs, crispy bacon, njegus smoked ham, and pancakes with forest strawberries all for a mere 330 dinars or roughly $6 USD

Paul was drawn in by the description of the

Omelette “Chef”

eggs, turkey fillet, mozzarella and njegus smoked ham for 300 dinars or less than $6 USD

The cappuccino was tasty and not expensive, and just to be friendly, they gave us a couple of berry muffins.

I’ll always have a soft spot for Belgrade.