The spread of Islam in the Balkan
The Muslim colonisation
The process of the Muslim colonisation of the Balkans was concurrent with the Ottoman conquests. The goal of these organised migrations of people from Asia Minor was to establish the institutions of the new government and to organise life on the conquered territories. Representatives of the Ottoman civil and religious administration (such as the Sanjak-beg, cadis, imam, muezin and others) were placed in cities, while military garrisons went in the city fortress. These first waves of colonisation left the Balkan villages untouched. Besides this, from the beginning of the XV to the middle of the XVI century, the Ottomans also populated the conquered lands with Yoruk (nomadic-shepherd population) from Anatolia. The Yoruk were resettled along the large river valleys of the Balkans, along which ran the most important lines of communication, and their main role was to secure these lines. Turkish defters show that large Yoruk Sanjaks were formed in Ovcepolie and around Thessaloniki. Immigrants came with their families and brought their religion, customs, habits, cultural practices etc. In this way, new elements were introduced into the social and cultural sphere of the Balkan people.
Islamisation of the Christians
The colonisation measures conducted by the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans were insufficient to fortify the government on the newly conquered territories. For this reason, the state adopted a policy of Islamisation – converting the Christian population to Islam. Islam was the new monotheistic religion brought to the Balkans by the Ottomans. Their holy book was the Koran, which recorded the words of Allah as told by the prophet Mohamed. The members of the Islam religion were called Muslims.
In the Ottoman state Muslims were considered fully fledged citizens and had more rights and privileges than the members of other religions. To be Muslim meant quicker social and economic adaptation and progress within the state system, work in state services, serving in the army, lower taxes, higher positions of power etc. On the other hand, Christians and Jews were considered “second rate” citizens. They paid higher taxes, and as “infidels” they had no right to perform state and military duties, nor to testify in court against Muslims etc. In everyday life they did not have the right to bear arms, to wear certain clothes, to go to a hamam when Muslims did and so on. In these socio-economic conditions the “voluntary” conversion to Islam was the only certain way for a large number of non-Muslims to escape discrimination and gain the status of a fully fledged citizen of the Ottoman society.
Beside “voluntary”, there was also forced Islamisation expressed through the taking of children (the well known blood tax – devshirme) for the needs of the Janissary corpus of the Ottoman army, who were then converted to Islam and transformed into fanatical fighters for the new religion; the destruction of churches and building of mosques in their place; the abduction of women and girls who were then forcibly married to Muslims, and occasional large actions for the mass Islamisation of the local Christian population (particularly in parts of western and south-east Macedonia).
A key role in the prevention of mass Islamisation in Macedonia was played by the people's resistance. For the broad masses converting to Islam was equal to being an infidel and traitor. This perception was cultivated by the Christian Church, and the church made an important contribution to the maintenance of the national spirit through its actions.
Examples of the fierce resistance to Islamisation are found in the biographies of the Macedonian martyrs Gjorgji Kratovec and Zlata Meglenska. Gjorgji Kratovec, who refused to convert to Islam, was thrown into the dungeons under the excuse that he had insulted Islam and, since he would not give up his faith, he was burned on the stake. The biography of Zlata Meglenska states that this young girl was kidnapped by the Ottomans and was forced to convert to Islam and marry one of them. Despite the threats from the kidnappers and the pleas from her parents and sisters to give in, she would not change her religion, for which she was tortured and, in the end, hanged. The remains of Zlata were kept by the other villagers, and she was extolled as a saint in the Macedonian monasteries and churches.
The process of Islamisation in the Balkans continued throughout the entire period of Ottoman rule, and reached its zenith during the second half of the XVI century. It was carried out most intensively on the territory of what is today Bosnia, Albania, Macedonia and Bulgaria. According to data from the Turkish census defters it is estimated that in Macedonia by the end of the XVI century approximately 25% of the urban and 3% of the rural population (or approximately between fifty and sixty thousand people) accepted the new faith. The Macedonians from western Macedonia who converted to Islam are known today as Torbeshi, or Macedonian-Muslims. Despite accepting the new faith, this Macedonian population kept their language and identity. The Islamisation conducted throughout the entire Ottoman period failed to drastically change the Orthodox religious identity of the Macedonian population.
Crypto-Christianity (“double faith”)
Accepting Islam was neither a quick nor easy process for those who became Muslims, which led to a large number of people who converted to Islam to secretly continue practicing the Christian faith a long time after the conversion. They used their Christian names in their homes, baptised their children and celebrated Christian holidays, while in public life they presented themselves as true Muslims, went to mosque, used their Muslim names and celebrated Muslim religious holidays. Someone called Suleiman could also been known as Constantin, and Mustafa could be known as Petko. A Turkish telegraphist in Albania, in the beginning of the twentieth century, noted: “Muhammadans here are not real Muhammadans, nor are Christians real Christians.” This so called crypto-Christianity remained in the Balkans even after the Ottomans left.
Changes in urban architecture
The spread of the new culture lead to a change of the physiognomy of the cities, whose nature became more Islamic-oriental. In the XV and XVI century in all the larger and more important cities in the Balkans (Skopje, Sarajevo, Sofia, Thessaloniki) a number of Ottoman structures were built, such as mosques, hamams, bezistens, dervish houses, etc.
The new mosques were often built on the foundations of medieval Macedonian churches, or the existing churches were turned into mosques. During the reign of Sultan Selim I (1512-1520), the largest Macedonian temples, the cathedral church St. Sofia and Klement's monastery St. Panteleimon in Ohrid, were turned into mosques, and where the monastery St. George Gorg in Skopje used to be, Sultan Murad's mosque has towered since 1428. In his time, a number of monasteries were also destroyed including the Polog St. George, the Reka St. Arhangel and others.
The building of new churches, particularly in cities, was forbidden to Christians, while their repair and any additions were regulated by a number of strict rules. For example, neither the appearance nor the dimensions of the old object could be changed, and the entrance doorway could not be higher than 1m and 20cm, which led to them often being dug into the ground. A typical example of this is the entrance to the church of Holy Saviour in Skopje. Particularly interesting is that church bells were forbidden throughout the Ottoman empire. Robbed of the use of bells, travellers testify that the Christians found creative ways around the rules. Instead of bells they used planks which would be hit with a mallet, or they may have hit bronze objects.
As the culture of Macedonian Christians was repressed in urban areas it continued to develop and be nurtured in distant and inaccessible monastery centres.
THE MILLET SYSTEM IN THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE
Millets in the Ottoman Empire
Sultan Mehmed II, who was called Fatih (the Conqueror) for conquering Constantinople (Istanbul), allowed Christians and Jews, who had their own holy books the Bible and the Talmud (i.e. were people of the Book), to continue practising their religion through their own religious institutions. This is how the millet system began in the Ottoman Empire.
The word millet is of Arabian origin (milla, ???) and means nationality, community, nation. In the Ottoman Empire it was used to mark people defined by their religious affiliation. From the XV century the Ottoman Empire recognised three millets: the Rum millet, the Armenian-Gregorian millet (and the two Orthodox ones) and the Jewish millet. These religiously defined communities had certain rights, their own council and their own religious leader. The most important rights for each millet were the right to use their own language, to confess their own religion, to develop their own culture and to form their own educational institutions. The spheres in which the millet had almost complete authority were both of a religious and secular nature, such as approval of marriage, divorce, inheritance and a number of other civic issues that involved only non-Muslims. The millet was represented by the leader who was responsible to the government for the collection of taxes from his community, and for their good behaviour.
The millet system and its significance to non-Muslims
The millet system allowed non-Muslim religious communities in the Ottoman Empire to live in accordance with their own traditions and keep their own cultural inheritance. This system could actually be treated as a separate religious state within the Ottoman super state. The government accepted the role of a police force towards the non-Muslims, caring for public order and peace, while a large number of religious and civic issues were left to religious communities through the millet system. In this way the life of the various ethno-linguistic and religious communities in the Ottoman society was regulated not so much by state law as by old customs and inherited practices. Until the second half of the XVIII century, the millets created religious universalism and unity.
The millets and the birth of the nations
The religious nature of millets was disrupted in the XIX century by the influence of western ideas of nations. The elite of the millet communities, accepted these ideas and slowly began to highlight their language, their customs and the traditions typical of their groups. They began to work in accordance with the political aspirations of the ethnic or linguistic group, attempting to break the borders of the millet and build solidarity with people who spoke the same language and shared the same culture. This is how ethnic nationality and uniqueness came to be stressed within the Orthodox millet.
These kinds of aspirations appeared in the Macedonian people at the beginning of the XIX century, when Joakim Krchovski and Kiril Pejchinovik printed the first books in a mixture of the Macedonian (vernacular) language and the Church-Slavonic language. In the same period, Teodosij Sinaitski opened a printing workshop in Thessaloniki where the first alphabet book, “Nachalnoe Uchenie”, composed by the archimandrite Anatoliy Zografski, was printed. The movement to introduce a Slavonic language in the churches of Macedonia and a national language in the schools was strengthened in the second half of the XIX century. A number of Macedonian national revivalists, such as Parteniy Zografski, Dimitar Makedonski, Kuzman Shapkarev and others, began to publish text books written in a mixture of the Macedonian (vernacular) language, the Church-Slavonic language and the tongue they themselves spoke. In 1880, Gjorgija Pulevski published the first part of the first grammar of the Macedonian language. This is how national Macedonian awareness began to rise and strengthen in the people. More and more Macedonian people were joining in the revival process, highlighting its uniqueness compared to other Orthodox millets in the Ottoman Empire.
CHURCH INSTITUTIONS IN THE BALKANS
DURING THE OTTOMAN RULE
The Constantinople Patriarchy
After the conquest of Constantinople and the final destruction of the Byzantine Empire, the Sultan Mehmed II, respecting the right of the Orthodox Christians to their own religion, decided to allow the millennium old Constantinople patriarchy to continue functioning. Through this act, the Constantinople Patriarchy continued unimpeded to use its rights as the universal church and to consider itself the high arbiter of the internal workings of the other autocephalous Orthodox churches, throughout the duration of the Ottoman rule. Besides performing spiritual functions, through the millet system the Patriarchy was drawn into politics and administration, as the voice of the Orthodox subjects of the Empire. The patriarch was the leader of the entire Orthodox millet and was personally responsible before the sultan for the collection of taxes from Christians and for the behaviour of his believers.
In time the financial and ethnic problems within the Patriarchy increased. This was visible in the frequent changes on the patriarch's throne. For example, in the XVI century the patriarch throne saw only 19 patriarchs, while in the very next century they numbered as many as 61. The increasing corruption in the Patriarchy coincided with the rise of a group of wealthy and western educated Greek families in Constantinople, known as the phanariots (according to the part of the city they lived in – Phanar). They came to occupy some of the highest posts in the Ottoman administration and started to dominate in the civic offices of the Patriarchy.
Bribing of Ottoman officials, with money borrowed from the phanariots, became the main way to gain high church positions in the patriarchy. The money borrowed by the future church functionaries from the phanariots could only be repaid by increasing the church taxes on the Christian villagers. One British traveller wrote down a saying from some Greek peasants that stated: “the country suffers from three evils: the priests, the kojobashi and the Turks, three plagues in that order”. The influence and control of the phanariots in the church and civic matters of the Patriarchy led to a change in the church orientation, from universal to national. The main turn in this direction came in the XVIII century when the other two autocephalous churches of the Balkan Orthodox population, the Ohrid Archiepiscopy and the Patriarchy of Pec, were abolished, and the Constantinople Patriarchy started leaning more and more towards representing Greek national interests.
The Ohrid Archiepiscopy
The Ohrid Archiepiscopy continued to exist within the Ottoman Empire, managing to retain its independence, rights and privileges. In its organisational structure, the Archiepiscopy was divided into eparchies (around 33 in the year 1530) headed by metropolitan (bishops) who formed the Synod of the Ohrid Archiepiscopy. The Synod was the highest regulatory and executive body of the Archiepiscopy. It was presided over by the archiepiscope who could be removed or judged by the Synod. The archiepiscope supervised the entire church, presented it before other Orthodox churches, called sessions, assigned metropolitans and presented his followers before the Ottoman authorities. The Archiepiscopy was funded by taxes collected from believers.
Its territorial reach varied in different time periods depending on the political and church situation. For example, in the XV and XVI century, when the Archiepiscopy was most powerful, it included the Sofia and Vidin eparchies, the Vlashko (from the beginning of the XVI century) and the Moldavia (until the end of the XVI century) eparchies, parts of the abolished Patriarchy of Pec and the so called Italian eparchy (Paulia, Calabria, Sicilia, Malta, Venezia and Dalmatia).
Despite the religious tolerance of the Ottoman state, the Ohrid Archiepiscopy still suffered great damage and injustices from the Ottomans. A large number of churches were turned into mosques, church land was confiscated, the separation of some eparchies from the Archiepiscopy was supported etc. Due to the unenviable position of the Archiepiscopy, from the XVI century onwards a number of its archiepiscopes travelled through Europe in order to secure help and support for the Archiepiscopy as well as its liberation activities. The reaction of the Ottoman authorities to these activities was fierce. In 1598, in Veles, the current archiepiscope Varlaam was murdered, while even greater taxes were imposed on the Archiepiscopy – an additional burden for the poor Macedonian population.
This is how the learned Byzantine from the XV century, George Sphrantzes, described the meeting between the Constantinople patriarch Gennadius Scholarius and the Sultan Mehmed II: “... because he (Mehmed II) wanted to act as the ruler of the City (Constantinople) as did the Christian emperors, he invited the patriarch to sit and eat with him. And when the patriarch came, the tyrant received him with respect and after a long discussion between them, he promised to give the patriarch numerous gifts. When the time came for the patriarch to leave the castle, the Sultan arose with him, gave him the precious sceptre as a gift and asked him to accept it. He went to the yard with the patriarch... and since the horse was ready he helped him on the horse and ordered all those at the castle to follow the patriarch and so he accompanied him to the respected temple devoted to the Holy Apostles... for this holy place was selected by the Sultan to be the Patriarchy.”
From the “Chronicle” by George Sphrantzes, respected Byzantine diplomat and learned man from the XV century
The clash of interests between the Constantinople patriarchy and the Ohrid Archiepiscopy over the control of the Balkan Christian eparchies culminated in the second half of the XVII century. This clash ended with the abolition of the Ohrid Archiepiscopy in 1767. Under the strong influence of the Constantinople patriarch and the powerful Phanariote elite in Istanbul and in Ohrid, the last Ohrid archiepiscope, of Macedonian origin, Arsenii was forced to hand in his written resignation to the Constantinople patriarch Samuil on the 16th of January 1767. A sultan decree, confirming the abolition of the Ohrid Archiepiscopy, was gained immediately afterwards. Since then and until the forming of national churches in the Balkans in the XIX century, the Constantinople Patriarchy governed the Macedonian eparchies of the Ohrid Aprchiepiscopy.
The impact of the Ohrid Acrhiepiscopy to the preservation of the Macedonian identity and Christian culture is enormous. Due to the autocephalous status, the Archiepiscopy continued to spread Slavic literacy amongst the Orthodox people of the Balkans. Its monasteries were centres of literary activity expressed through the creation of numerous church scripts and books. The Ohrid Archiepiscopy, as the spiritual protector of Orthodox Christians against Islam and the whims of local dignitaries, was also the guardian of the nationalities of all the Orthodox people, and particularly the Macedonian people which were its base.
The Patriarchy of Pec
After the liquidation of the medieval Serbian state by the Ottomans, the Patriarchy of Pec temporarily ceased to act (in 1459). Its renewal came in 1557, when Sokullu Mehmed Pasha, an Islamised Christian from Bosnia, was appointed to the function of Grand Vezir. Makarius, Mehmed pasha's brother and the main initiator of the renewal of the Patriarchy, became the first patriarch.
This marked the beginning of the second period in the history of the Patriarchy of Pec (1557-1766). Its dioceses included all the Orthodox Christians in Serbia, Bosnia and Hercegovina, Dalmatia, Slavonia, Banat, Bac and Baranja, as well as the eparchies of Kjustendil and Samokov. The city of Pec became the residence of the Patriarchy once more, the monasteries were opened and the number of scribes increased.
The Patriarchy of Pec was also in constant conflict with the Constantinople Patriarchy, which attempted to interfere with its internal workings, regarding the control and influence in its eparchies. Attempting to free itself of the influence of Constantinople, the Patriarchy of Pec maintained connections with the Pope, Austria, Russia and other forces, and it also supported revolutionary movements. Because of this it lost the trust and favour of the Ottoman authorities. Another period came when churches and monasteries were robbed, while Greeks were appointed as patriarchs and episcopes. With time, the authority of the Patriarchy of Pec declined while its debts kept growing. In 1766, the Sultan Mustafa III signed the ferman (decree) for its abolition. Its eparchies went under the jurisdiction of the Constantinople Patriarchy, and the Slavic metropolitans were replaced with Greek ones.
The Catholic church in the Balkans
During the Ottoman rule in the Balkan peninsula, besides the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church also had a presence. There were a number of Catholic seats with their own territories in which the archbishops, bishops and missionaries cared for the spiritual life of Catholics dispersed throughout the Balkans. Such seats included Bar, Belgrade, Skopje, Prizren, Skadar, Sofia and others. The goal of the Catholic priests and missionaries was to prevent the process of Islamisation as much as possible, particularly amongst the Albanian Catholic population and, on the other hand, to convince the Orthodox believers and churches to unite with the Roman Catholic Church. There were several talks on the possibility of unification of the two churches, between the Ohrid Achiepiscopy and Patriarchy of Pec on one hand and the representatives of the Pope on the other, but no agreement was reached. The activities of the Catholic church heightened particularly after 1622, when the Pope formed the “Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples” which governed the activities of the missionaries in the entire world. In 1630, within this increased Catholic Evangelisation an attempt was even made to take over the church St. Mother of God, Perivlepta in Ohrid, but the Archiepiscopy managed to thwart this plan through a large bribe to the sultan. Even though the number of Catholics in the Ottoman Balkan provinces decreased due to Islamisation, and was very small, particularly in the southern regions, the Papacy never ceased to be present in these territories and to keep an eye on the conditions of its believers.
This great injustice is described in the poem The one thousandth seven hundredth sixty second summer by the famous Macedonian revivalist and poet Grigor Prlichev