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by Hugo Roth
6. Spiridon Gopcevic (1855-1936), historian, diplomat, publicist and astronomer, after his pseudonym was named a peek on The Moon. Besides using scientific literature and sources, in his research of ethnic communities of hte Balkans, he had been sightseeing an incredibly large number of locations and settlements, including almost entire Central and Eastern Balkans, making this way his testimony authentic and original.
Between the Slava and the Prophet
Turkish invasion and possession of the lands of other peoples was always accompanied by significant administrative and territorial changes. This was particularly evident in the redrawing of boundaries and the changes of the names of previous administrative regions. The Turks divided the conquered countries into pasaliks, sancaks, vilayets, nahiyes etc., trying to erase old designations and introduce their own names and thereby their own way of life into the everyday life and customs of the subjugated peoples. Parallel with this, the Turkish or, as they themselves preferred to call it, the Ottoman empire very actively and in different ways transmitted and imposed not only their administrative but also their religious influence based on the Moslem faith. It is very interesting that of all the administrative names only one of all the possible Turkish names for administrative units has remained until today in Yugoslavia. That single one relates to a border region between Serbia and Montenegro but no longer as an administrative designation, that is, Sandzak (from Turkish sancak), but rather as a geographical name for this region. That region was otherwise known in pre- and post-Turkish times as Raska. As a special curiosity in contrast to the disappearance of all the administrative names but also as a memory and lasting trace of the "Turkish times", a certain number of settlements in these lands have retained their Turkish name even until today.
The religious influence consisted of the imposition of Islam either by force, through blackmail or arising from the expected and usually realised improvement in the social status or material position of the convert.
Since this forcible process of Islamization is not so well known in its broader outlines and was less practiced in other conquered areas, it is of use to devote some attention to it. It is a question of the previously mentioned tribute in blood. The Turkish expression for this concept is devsirme which in translation means gathering, collecting, and in this case related to the forcible taking of Christian children in the subjugated countries of the Ottoman empire. Thus, Serbian children also were reared to be Moslems and trained to become members of the janissaries, elite infantry units in the Ottoman army. The beginnings of this forcible gathering of Christian children was ascribed to the Emir-sultan, Orkan, in 1329 while the organised perfecting of this tribute in blood was carried out by Murat in 1360. The janissaries became in time so tyrannical that they even represented a danger to the Sultans themselves with the result that Mehmed II abolished them in 1826.
The most famous of those children taken in blood tribute was Mehmed-pasha Sokolovic (sixteenth century) who became Grand Vezier. His brother was Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church at the same when Mehmedpasha was successfully winning territory for the Turkish empire in his capacity as commmander-in-chief and conducting victorious campaigns.
The programme of conversion was carried out in all of the regions conquered by the Ottomans. They did this using both forceful and peaceful means, with the use of threats and without, in some places efficaciously, significantly less successfully in others. In Kosovo, this process developed with the help and through the agency of the Albanians who themselves had been Islamized in the interim. In Kosovo as well as in Albania itself, the Islamized Albanians also usually carried this out. An exception was the father and son of the noble family, the Kastriots, Ivan and Djordje. As a child, Djordje was Islamized but, fleeing from Turkey, he joined his father and later himself continued the struggle against the Turks. After initial successes and strongly resisting Turkish power he was defeated and after his defeat and death there was no longer any obstacle to converting the people to Islam in Albania.
Some extraordinarily illuminating facts about Albanian participation in the Islamization of the Serbs in Kosovo and Albania are to be found in the book Makedonien und Alt Serbien by Spiridon Gopcevic published in Vienna in 1889. 6
The best testament to his objectivity and conscientiousness is the fact that Bulgarian experts entrusted him with publishing a fair judgement concerning the national and ethnic origin of the inhabitants of Old Serbia and Macedonia, that is, to give an answer as to whether they were Serbs or Bulgarians. (The term "Macedonia" in the nineteenth century for the most part related to the area of Alexander the Great's state before, naturally, his military conquests.)
With regard to the work of S. Gopcevic, he wrote a large number of studies of the Balkan countries, among them Bulgarien und Ostrumelien (Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia, Leipzig, 1886), with a special review of the period 1878-1886 including an appraisal of the recently waged Serbo-Bulgarian war and whose objectivity was highly thought of by Bulgarian experts and, knowing of his reputation in German academic circles, they entrusted the aforementioned task to him. Since both Kosovo and parts of present day Albanian fell within the scope of his work, a significant part of his data also relates to those areas and so we shall present them.
Here is the first, characteristic, excerpt from his work Macedonia and Old Serbia, pp. 120-1:
"Everyone agreed when giving us the names of settlements but data about the nationality of the inhabitants where the Mohammedans were concerned was contradictory. Most explained that these were Turks, or Albanians, whereas others claimed that these 'Turks' spoke 'Bulgarian'. In this specific instance, these were Mohammedan Serbs whose number is probably significantly greater than has been hitherto supposed. At least I discovered that in many places that people who described themselves as Turks did not understand Turkish at all but only spoke Serbian which was the case as in Bosnia. On account of this it is very probable that many of those who are designated as Osmanlis or as Albanians on my ethnographic maps and in my statistical tables are in fact Serbs who are Mohammedanised. I have not heard the word 'Pomaci' (Mohammedanised Bulgarians) west of Vardar which is very significant because it points to the non-Bulgarianism of the Slavs in Macedonia."
(Author's note: in this and other translations, the original language is strictly respected and so, accordingly, old expressions are used.)
In explaining and, at the same time, in accepting these quotations, we have to keep in mind not only the time when these lines were written (1888-9) but also the state in which these facts were collected, that is, the Turkish empire. The contradictions expressed in the statements of those polled should, therefore, neither confuse nor astonish us. These contradictions arise from the easily observeable mimicry to which national minorities in the Ottoman empire resorted and so also in the face of the investigative group led by S. Gopcevic whose members communicated among themselves in a foreign, here German, language. However, this passage as well others which we shall cite in this chapter demonstrate how extraordinarily alert S. Gopcevic was to differences and nuances which means that he had an excellent grasp of the essence of the ethnic origins of the peoples of the Balkan peninsula.
Approaching the south-western parts of the Balkans, that is, towards the region of present day Albania, Gopcevic declares "... we continued our journey through the mountains and at about 1pm we reached the large and partly Islamized and Albanised Serbian village of Podgor. We discovered that there are about 2,000 inhabitants, that is, 1,600 Christians and 400 Moslem - Albanized Serbs ... (p.131)
There are plenty of such facts and we shall cite the more characteristic examples and the statistical table drawn up by S. Gopcevic will serve as a more detailed means of observing the process of the Islamization of the Serbs as well as their Albanisation.
Gopcevic presents Kicevo thus: "... this is a town of 3,500 people of which 800 are Christian and 1,200 are Islamised Serbs..." (p.200) and of Debar he says "... 12,000 people, 1,000 Christians, 4,000 Mohammedan Serbs, 3,000 Albanised Serbs, 4,000 Albanians..." (p.202). On p. 209, speaking about the area of northern Albania, he writes: "... from Greva we begin to meet Albanised Serbs who converted to Islam and who have even forgotten their own language. Real Sqiptari live only in a few villages (Grekaj, Tumini, Ljusna).'
"In Uniste, there are again Islamized Serbs who speak both Serbian and Albanian. Kolesnjan is half Serbian ... Bica, a third are Serbs but Islamized in Nans they are all Albanians. The hills at Brod, Novaseja, Backo, Restelica, Topoljana are all settled by Islamized Serbs and the greater part of the population in Ljubna, Sticna and Gostilj are Serb-Mohammedans. On this occasion I wish to mention that a great part of present day Albanians are, in fact, nothing other than Albanized Serbs. During the time of the Serbian empire, namely, almost all of the Malisors, Dukadjins, the population of the district of Elbasan and, most probably, Miredites were Serbs. This is revealed even today by the Serbian names for the tribes and villages. During the course of the centuries many of these names have been transmuted (Golobrdo into Kolobarda, Belgrad into Berat, Sokol into Zogolj, etc.) but many still retain their Serbian names. Memory of Serbian origins is still alive particularly among the Malisori and in the district of Elbasan. Of the first, many still celebrate their Slava and whole families have their patron saint ... in Elbasan there are many crypto-Serbs, that is, people who speak Serbian, their mother tongue, at home, Christians who celebrate their Slava but who, in public, represent themselves as Moslems and speak only Albanian !"
In the same chapter, Spiridon Gopcevic states that he was told that in the Elbasan region there were still living (he means in the ninth decade of the nineteenth century) about 20,000 of these so-called crypto-Serbs. He continues "I also found out some interesting details about the tribe of the Hasi... The district has in total 49 villages with 430 Serbian households (among them 400 Moslem) and 380 Albanian (of which 260 are Moslem). West of Hasi lies the district of Malj-i-zij (Crno brdo - Black Hill) with the tribes Krasnici, Bituci, Gasi ltd. In this district there are 600 Serbian households (of which 10 are Christian !) and 1,600 Albanian of which 550 are Catholic and the rest Moslem."
Let us briefly consider one specific but very significant detail. It is mentioned and was shown to be in practice that when a person whose origin is unknown but there exist indications that he could be Serbian is asked whether he celebrates his Slava or whether his forebears celebrated it of old, he gives an affirmative answer without hesitation.
The family Slava, a celebration which can also be a tribal, communal, church or similar one, is celebrated only and exclusively by Serbs so that it often happens that not even an individual or family conversion to another religion can succeed for a long time in eradicating that original trace, deeply entrenched in family and personal customs of people of Serbian origin. This approach was of great help
Also worthy of mention in this context is the well-known fact about the Krasnici tribe. Namely, in spite of its relatively short duration, the Turkish-Tatar war of 1687-92 under Arap-pasha from Anatolia brought fatal consequences. The destruction of Visoki Decani monastery, the looting and devastation of villages caused a large and numerous conversion of Orthodox Serbs to Islam. This also happened to the entire tribe of the Krasnici whose Serbian, that is, old previous name was Krastenic and who from then on were completely Albanized.
It is interesting to note that the German sources from the pen of Prof. Hopf referred to by S. Gopcevic also bring into question the origins of the Gegi, a north Albanian tribe, ascribing to it a Slav origin which, at least according to the testimony of these authors, is also reflected in the noticeable difference in relation to the south Albanian tribe, the Tosks. This difference appears in language, dress, customs and, allegedly, also in physionomy. Nevertheless, all of this still lies within the realm of unproven hypotheses. There were no serious investigations and time has done its work so that during these hundred years or more the aforementioned differences are becoming less and less.
Passing through Kosovo and Metohia, S. Gopcevic stayed awhile in Prizren. Besides the statistical data which he gathered, he also pointed out the incredible rate of the Islamization of the Serbs. Thus, in Prizren, for example, a town of 60,000 inhabitants, he establishes that there are 11,000 Christian Serbs but as many as 36,000 Islamized ones with the remaining population being Turks, Albanians, Tzintzars and Gypsies.
He portrayed Djakovica as a place of 4,100 households of which all of 16 (!) belonged to Christian Serbs, 450 belonged to Gypsies, 130 to Catholic Albanians and the rest to Islamicised Albanians, all of them Albanized Serbs "... who are among the greatest fanatics which, as is already well known, is always the case with renegades." Of Pec he says there were 2,530 households of which 1,600 were Mohammedan, 700 Christian Serbs, 200 Catholic Albanians, 10 Turkish etc. Very significant is his observation that the number of mosques in proportion to such a numerous Moslem population was negligible. This fact well illustrates that Islam was a new phenomenon in Metohia at that time.
Finally, here are a few facts about Pristina which, he says, had 3,510 households, 350 belonging to Christian Serbs, 2,600 (!) to Mohammedan Serbs, 260 to Turks, 70 to Jews, 70 to Albanians etc. Other, small settlements have not been left out but we will interpret them within the framework of a general statistical table.
In concluding this chapter, it is important to mention that S. Gopcevic, the author of the book cited did not begin his study tour and investigation because of the Albanian problem. He was primarily concerned with Serbo- Bulgarian relations and the problem of the Albanians was, according to scientific practice, treated as an objectively existing element of the reality of the time which thereby only increases the reliability of his testimony.
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