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

3 thoughts on “Islam in the Balkans

  1. Hey Paul…I am travelling for a year and i am looking at doing the opposite to you. I was planning mostly on overnight trains. Milan – Venice – Ljubljana (Slovenia) – Zagreb (Croatia) – Sarajevo (Bosnia and Hercegovina) – Belgrade (Serbia) – Sofia (Bulgaria) – Istanbul. I am just wondering, how much did it cost you do train all these places? And is there any info you can give me separate to your blog?

  2. Pingback: Classic Posts 1 – Religion | Paul's Travel Blog

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