Byzantium: its internal history and relations with the Muslim World

Speros Vryonis Jr.


Byzantium and the Muslim World



(Rapport at the IIé Congrès international des études du sud-est européen 3-10 (Athens, 1970)) 


(a) The State of Christian Societies in Anatolia and the Balkans at the Time of the Conquests
(b) The Nature of the Turkish Conquests in Anatolia and Balkans



The title of this paper calls for a broad examination of the general conditions surrounding the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans. More specifically, Dr. Condurachi, the Secretary General of AISEE, directed me to examine these conditions from the point of view of the Balkan peoples, taking into account the totality of historical facts which constitute this period of history in southeast Europe.


This is, of course, an enormous task and one which cannot be satisfactorily treated within the narrow time limits imposed by the conference. Consequently, I must eschew any detailed treatment of Ottoman military operations and Christian defeats, of the fiscal system and variations thereof to which the Balkan Christians were subject, etc. There are however, several broad topics which would lend themselves to a theoretical discussion which might be more fruitful in the short time allotted to us here.


It is to one such broad theme that I wish to address the cursory remarks which follow, the general cultural impact of the Ottoman conquest on the Balkan peoples. More specifically why were the Balkan peoples so imperfectly affected by the two related but distinct processes of religious Islamization and linguistic Turkification? I say ‘distinct processes’ for there were examples of Islamization without Turkification, and of Turkification unaccompanied by Islamization. The historians of the eastern Mediterranean world have been absorbed with the cultural currents that have dominated that part of the world since the time of Alexander the Great: Hellenization, Romanization, Arabization, Islamization, have all left their particular veneers on the exterior of this part of the world in an ebb and flow between east and west. The appearance of the Muslim Turks and their conquest of Anatolia and the Balkans represent the most recent of these cultural pulsations. Thus, in a sense, the cultural impact of the Turks on the Balkan peoples is but one aspect of the Turkish imposition on the Slavo-Byzantino-





Armenian cultural world of Anatolia and the Balkans.


When we compare the Turkish cultural impact on Anatolia with that which they had on the Balkans, the differences are immediately evident. Asia Minor was, by the 15-16th centuries, predominantly Muslim and Turkish speaking. By contrast, the Balkans, from the sixteenth century to the present, remained essentially Christian and non-Turkophone. The Ottoman tax registers for sixteenth century Anatolia indicate the presence of 1,067,355 Muslim and only 78,783 Christian taxable hearths, or a proportion of 92% Muslim and 8% Christian. The patriarchal documents of Constantinople confirm the Ottoman tax registers, for they state that in mid-fifteenth century Anatolia there remained only thirteen metropolitanates and three bishoprics, whereas in the eleventh century there had been some fifty metropolitanates and over 400 bishoprics. Contemporary accounts indicate that a large portion of these Greeks and Armenians who had remained Christians were nevertheless Turkified linguistically. Thus, by the fifteenth century the cultural transformation of the majority of the Anatolians is an undeniable fact.


However, in the Balkans, the sixteenth century Ottoman tax registers reveal quite a different situation: 832,707 Christian, 194,958 Muslim, and 4,134 Jewish hearths, or a ratio of about 80% Christian and slightly less than 20% Muslim. Though the numbers changed in favor of the Muslims with the passage of time, nevertheless in the Balkans the Christian remained a majority and the Turks a minority. In spite of the fact that the Turkish language became the language of administration and had a heavy lexicografical influence on the spoken Balkan languages, it did not replace them as it did with the native languages in Anatolia. It is of interest that the Balkan converts largely preserved their original languages in the rural areas. The Pomaks continued to speak Bulgarian, the Cretans Greek, the Bosnians Serbo-Croat, and the Albanians Albanian. Consequently, an aljamiah literature arose to satisfy the demands of such converts.


How, then, is one to explain the fact that the Turkish conquest of the Balkans did not radically alter the two basic manifestations of cultural life, religion and language, whereas from this point of view the Turkish conquest of Anatolia resulted in a thorough cultural transformation? Perhaps the best insight into the Balkan historical experience during the Turkish conquest and domination is to be obtained through a broad historical approach which will view the Balkan experience against the broader





background of the Turkish intrusion into the entire area of Byzantine culture, both in the Balkans and Anatolia.


In such an exploratory investigation, one begins with the following historical facts as the known: The major portion of the Balkans and Anatolia constituted a triune culture block which might be termed Slavo-ByzantinoArmenian. In Byzantino-Armenian Anatolia, Islamization and Turkification were virtually complete. In the Slavo-Byzantine Balkans, Islamization and Turkification remained peripheral phenomena. Proceeding from these two known quantities the historian wishes to ascertain the unknown: Why was the cultural impact of the Turkish conquest so limited in the Balkans as in contrast to Anatolia? This necessitates an examination of three categories:


(a) The state of Christian societies in Anatolia and the Balkans at the time of the conquests.


(b) Nature of the Turkish conquests in Anatolia and the Balkans.


(c) Nature of events after the conquest and during the long centuries of Ottoman rule.


If he finds differences in these three historical categories it is quite possible that they are in some way correlated to the different cultural impact of the Turkish conquests of Anatolia and the Balkans.



(a) The State of Christian Societies in Anatolia and the Balkans at the Time of the Conquests.


The Armenian and Greek political entities which were in existence during the Turkish conquest of Anatolia were for the most part beset by decline and were in a process of political disintegration. The same is true of the Balkan Christian states in the late 14-15th century. The Christian policies in both the Balkans and Anatolia were characterized by disintegration and consequently the political conditions of Christian Anatolia and the Balkans were similar.


Did the various Christian peoples constitute socially and culturally cohesive entities at the time of the conquests? A number of scholars, arguing ex post facto from the almost completely Turkified and Islamized character of Anatolia, state that the Anatolian Greeks were neither Hellenized nor Christianized effectively. Consequently, they succombed readily to Islamization and Turkification. Thus, this community did not form a socially and





culturally cohesive unit on the eve of the conquests. This is, however, nothing more than an assumption deduced from the fact that by the 15-16th centuries Anatolia had been transformed. Greek Anatolia had been one of the first regions in the Mediterranean to undergo Christianization and it had formed the most populous and most vital province of the Constantinopolitan church. Even after conversion this formerly Christian population of Anatolia brought a great portion of its Christian practices and beliefs into the popular Islam of Anatolia. One need only examine the cultural transformation of other Mediterranean peoples to see that such compact cultural and social groups do undergo cultural transformation under certain circumstances. Take for example the Coptic Egyptians and Jacobite Syrians, both of whom constituted strong social groupings. They were both Islamized and Arabized.


In the Balkans the Serbs, Bulgars, Greeks, Albanians, and Vlachs formed vital socio-cultural units, though in the case of the Serbs and Bulgars their Christianity was of much more recent origin than that of the Balkan and Anatolian Greeks, and it was probably more superficial among the Slavic masses. So if anything the mass of the Balkan Slavs was less affected by Christianity than the Anatolian Greeks, and religious heresy was as significant among them as among the Greek and Armenian Anatolians.


Consequently the differing success of Islam and Turkish in Anatolia and the Balkans cannot be explained in terms of the differing intensity of the cultural-religious life of these various communities. For the Anatolian Greeks and Armenians, most affected by Islamization and Turkification, formed the oldest, most developed and evolved of the Christian communities.


Demographically, the Anatolian province was possessed of a larger population, of a more developed urban life, and of a more highly developed system of bishoprics and metropolitanates than was the Balkan region of Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Albania, and Bosnia (exception made of Constantinople and Thessaloniki). Indeed Serbian urban life was just beginning to develop in the 13-14th centuries, and in Bosnia it was the creation of the Ottoman conquerors. So it would be erroneous to argue that Islamization and Turkification failed in the Balkans because of the denser mass of Christian population at the onset of the invasions.


The first of the three categories which we set out to examine, the state of Christian societies in the Balkans and Anatolia at the time of conquests, does not reveal any differing set of sociocultural circumstances





which would explain the differing fate of the Christian populations in the wake of the Turkish conquests.



(b) The Nature of the Turkish Conquests in Anatolia and Balkans.


Let us proceed to an examination of the second category, the nature of the Turkish conquests in Asia Minor and the Balkans. These conquests had certain overall similarities in both regions. They destroyed the Christian states and dynasties (with the exception of the Roumanian Principalities), and replaced them with Muslim states and dynasties. The conquests effaced the Christian aristocracies, via absorption and decimation. Finally, they harnassed the economic wealth and manpower to the exploitation of the Muslim ruling classes. These general patterns characterized the Turkish conquests both in the Balkans and Asia Minor.


Alongside these broad similarities, however, there are some very significant differences which characterized the Turkish conquests of the two peninsulas. I shall list four of these differences and discuss them very briefly.


(i) The conquests in Anatolia were prolonged, repeated (lasting from the 11th-15th centuries), quite destructive and disruptive of life and property. They were effected by many states, and the nomadic element played a very significant role.


The conquest of the Balkans was much shorter, beginning in the mid-14th century and largely complete by the mid-15th century. Had it not been for the disastrous Timurid interlude the conquest would have been even quicker. When the Turkish conquerors crossed at Gallipoli they had been in Anatolia for almost three centuries and the process of sedentarization had proceeded apace. Though nomads did participate in this Balkan conquest, and they played an important role, they were much smaller in number than those who were in Anatolia, and the conquest was affected by one powerful state which effectively centralized military and administrative power. The conquest of the Balkans was shorter and more conservative of Christian life, property, and institutions.


(ii) The conquest of Anatolia did not destroy the Byzantine political center and monarchy at Constantinople. Consequently the Greek church of Asia Minor was, until 1453, associated with a patriarch who was often agent, appointee, and associate of the principal foe of the Turks, the Greek emperor. For 400 years, then, the church of Asia Minor was politically





suspect and undesirable to the Turkish authorities because of its close affiliation with the Byzantine emperor and patriarch.


The conquest of the Balkans destroyed all the Christian states with the result that the church no longer entertained dangerous and suspect political liaisons.


(iii) The conquest of Asia Minor virtually destroyed the Anatolian Church. The ecclesiastical administrative documents reveal an almost complete confiscation of church property, income, buildings, and the imposition of heavy taxes by the Turks. In addition, they furnish evidence for further irregularity in ecclesiastical life due to the fact that the conquerors frequently prohibited the entrance of bishops and metropolitans, and often expelled them from their seats.


The conquest of the Balkans did not destroy the church. As the conquest, generally, was under centralized control, was shorter, and proceeded first by subjection of the Christian states to vassalage, the disturbed conditions did not last as long as they did in Anatolia. After 1453, with the destruction of Byzantium, the church was no longer associated with the Ottomans’ political foe, and the church was used as an administrative arm of the new empire. But the fate of the Greek church in Thrace prior to the collapse of 1453 reinforces the proposition that the church suffered so long as the Byzantine Empire existed. The ecclesiastical seats of Adrianople, Serres, Maroneia, and others in Thrace suffered the ravages of war, and the Turks confiscated the church properties, buildings and revenues, converting them to waqf and timar, and removed the bishops, metropolitans for many years. Thus, the fate of the church in Thrace prior to 1453 was exactly parallel to that of the church in Anatolia. But the time which elapsed between the conquest and 1453 was shorter in other areas and the ecclesiastical life and regime suffered much less of a shock. After 1453, the juridical and pragmatic situation of the church was regularized in the Balkans and Anatolia, and it functioned in a nearly normal fashion over what was left of Christianity in the two areas.


(iv) The conquests of Asia Minor were accompanied by large influxes of Turkmen nomads. Consequently, we are dealing not only with a conquest but with an ethnic migration. However, it was not only the numbers which contributed to the Turkification of Anatolia but also the very character of nomadism. Nomadism brought with it political decentralization, instability, and intermittent anarchy; it brought a nomadic economy based on pastoralism,





banditry, and slave trading, all of which constituted a heavy burden for the sedentary Christians. These were instrumental in the devastation and disruption of Christian rural life throughout much of Anatolia. The Anatolian place names, so heavily Turkified, seem to reflect the disruption of much of the Christian rural society.


In the Balkans, the number of nomads who accompanied the Ottomans was much smaller (there were about 37,435 nomad hearths in the early sixteenth century), they were more nearly subject to centralized control, and so their disruption of Christian rural life was much more restricted. In contrast to Anatolia where they seem to have spread everywhere, in the Balkans they were numerous only in certain areas, being strongest in Thrace, parts of Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Thessaly.


These four basic differences in the Turkish conquests of Anatolia and the Balkans must be taken into account if one wishes to comprehend why it was that the Balkan portion of the Byzantine cultural world remained largely unaffected by Islamization and Turkification whereas the Anatolian portion succombed. An apparent configuration of these propositions is to be found in the case of the Anatolian Trebizondine region. The Trebizondine area is the one region in Anatolia where the Greek church and language survived most nearly intact from Byzantine times (the Greek speaking region of Smyrna represents, to a large extent, post-Byzantine immigrations from the Aegean world). The Empire of Trebizond remained comparatively inviolate from Turkish nomads and was under a Christian ruler from the 11th-15th centuries. When Mehmed II took the city the conquest was relatively quick and pacific. The district was quickly incorporated into the centralized empire and the position of the church regularized. It had been spared the preceeding 400 years of political changes, Muslim domination, and nomadic devastation.


These four differences in the conquests of the Balkans and Anatolia are possibly the determining factors in the different cultural evolution of the Balkan and Anatolian Christian populations. There were events and circumstances during the four century Ottoman rule in the Balkans which led to Islamization among various sectors of the Christian populations, particularly in Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, and Crete. But the nature of the Turkish conquest did not sufficiently corrode the bonds of social and cultural cohesion in the Balkans so as to result in the mass Islamization of the Balkanites. Though the phenomenon of Islamization in the Balkans has





not been systematically examined, a new picture is beginning to emerge of this phenomenon. In the case of Bosnia, the older theory by which Islamization was attributed to similarities in the supposedly dualist Bosnian church and Islam has been abandoned by many scholars. For Islam spread gradually, from the towns and centers of Turkish administrative control, to the remoter rural areas. The members of the Bosnian church lived primarily in these remoter areas and Islam came to them only later. In Albania, Bulgaria, and Crete, Islamization made its great gains during periods of conquest or during wars with Catholic Venice and Austria and with Orthodox Russia. This observation would seem to coincide with the general proposition that conversions were most numerous in periods of upheaval, warfare, and in the atmosphere of religious tension and political suspicion which accompanied such periods.


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