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The Saga of Kosovo
The Saga of Kosovo

   

 

Serbs And Albanians Under Turkish Rule


 

The end of the Serbian Despotate in 1459 was followed by the demise of the Kingdom of Bosnia (1463). The Ottoman Empire now ruled not only over all Serbs (except those in Montenegro of which more will be said later), but stretched all the way from Mesopotamia to the Danube, and westward to the Adriatic. Serbs, Greeks, Bulgars, and Albanians were subjugated, and they had no idea how long their plight would last. At the same time, some among them concluded that life would be easier if they converted to Islam. Many others decided to move out--to Hungary or to head for the coast and to look for a haven in Venice or in Venetian held territories in Dalmatia, or to try the gates of Dubrovnik, which in exchange for tribute to the Sultan, was allowed to retain its small territory free of Turks. Those who stayed and did not convert had one thing in common: all of them were classified as "giaurs," a category that lumped together all those who were not Moslems. 

To the Turks the Byzantine and Roman faiths were two sides of the same coin, a logical conclusion. In real life, however, the best proof that it was not so, was to be found in the very fact of Turkish victory. It took them less than a century to annihilate three Balkan tsardoms, divided and never assisted by Christian Western Europe.

On the other hand, Christianity was the only single bond that the subjugated peoples of the Balkans now had in common. What else was there to hold on to until thc Islamic flood should recede? Moreover, the Balkan peninsula became a two-realm society: Moslem and Christian, one privileged and the other discriminated against. It was up to the individual to decide whether he wanted to live and die as an exploited person, or the favored one. It was obvious that hard decisions had to be made.

The Turkish occupation did not mean the same thing for all Balkan nationalities. The Greeks, for example, who had played such an important role in the Byzantine world, were viewed with the greatest respect by the invader. The Turks were good fighters and eager to participate in the spoils of war, but when it came to bureaucracy and administration in general they were sadly lacking. It was not long after the fall of Constantinople that the city's Greek, Venetian, and Jewish communities began to bustle with activity and oppulence. Someone had to provide the continuity in commerce, administration, and in understanding the Balkan mosaic. By all standards, in the reality of the period, the Greeks had to be the ones.

When it came to choosing who would represent the Christians, and to provide spiritual leadership, the choice again fell to the Greeks. Having a Greek as Eastern Orthodox Patriarch in Constantinople made a substantial difference.

For the Serbs, a glimpse into the gruesomeness of their reality in that period is given us by a contemporary Serbian, turned adventurer, soldier of fortune, and author-- Konstantin Mihailovich of Ostrovitsa. Serving for ten full years as a member of Turkish shock troops and fighting for Sultan Mehmed II, he later escaped to Hungary. Toward the end of his life, this gifted man wrote Memoirs of a Janissary, in the form of a general history of the Turks of his time. One of the events he described was the fall of the Serbian mining town of Novo Brdo into the hands of the Sultan. First, the Sultan ordered all gates closed except one, through which all of the inhabitants had to pass, leaving their possessions behind. "So they began passing through, one by one," writes Mihailovich, "and the Sultan, standing at the gate, was separating males from females... then he ordered the leaders beheaded. He saved 320 young men and 704 young women... He distributed the women among his warriors, and the young men he took into theJanissary corps, sent them to Anatolia... . I was there, in that city of Novo Brdo, I who write this."

The shipping of young Christian men (and boys) to Turkish schools to become Janissaries, or if talented, to be a part of the administrative apparatus, was common practice in the Ottoman Empire. It was part of the tribute the Christian "rayah" had to pay to the Turks, but it was not always the same in all regions. It is not clear whether it was a compliment or a punishment when the Turks took more male children from one area than from another. Serbs were trying to hide their boys, only to realize later that the ones who were taken away fared much better in life.

Because religion, not nationality, was the fundamental factor in the Turkish concept of governing, it was possible for a "rayah" child to become a Grand Vizier of the Turkish Sultan. Mehmed Sokolovich, a Serbian child from a village near Vishegrad, was a Turkish Grand Vizier. He built that famous bridge on the river Drina, the subject of the book by Serbian Nobel Laureate, Ivo Andrich. In general, it can be said that compared to today's totalitarian societies, where party and creed adherence is a must, Turkish rulers come out rather liberal. As long as one was a devout Moslem, that was enough for the Sultan to expect allegiance. And allegiance he got. Mehmed Sokolovich served three of them in a row with the highest possible loyalty and fidelity.

As the Islamization process was taking place, it took root better in some areas, among certain classes, and in certain environments. For example, the process was much faster in Albanian and Bosnian areas than in Serbia's former state area. Accepting Islam in Albanian regions was a less painful process, because the Albanians did not have an autocephalous church, and their Christianity, whether Latin or Byzantine, was a foreign product, either Greek or Italian. And in Bosnia the widely spread Bogumil sect did not hold Christianity in high esteem.

Wealth and material position were also important factors that entered into the decision process at times of conversion. Town dwellers, land owners, and military oriented personalities had to think in terms of Islam, if they wanted to preserve what they had, and to take part in new accumulation. Those with professional skills--artisans, doctors, scholars, and administrators--could not expect to fare well if they stuck to their old faith. This, however, was not true of the common people and the peasants.

All of this played a role in defining the new stratification of the society under Ottoman rule, as well as the power balance among national groups. Undoubtedly, the balance was shifting, and as far as the Albanians and Serbs were concerned, it was shifting drastically in favor of the Albanians, to the detriment of good relations between them. With over thirty Grand Viziers of Albanian descent during Ottoman rule, the top policy making machine was indeed saturated with people of Albanian stock.

No one knew the effect of the nationality stock better than the Dubrovnik colony of merchants in Constantinople. Never did they have it better than when Sokolovich was the Grand Vizier. Never were they hated and envied more in Constantinople than when Djivo Djurdjevich and Pavle Sorkochevich, the two senators from the city republic, could come, just as many other Slavs of rank, and ask for an audience and be received by the Grand Vizier with sympathy and understanding. The Serbian historian, Radovan Samardzich, describes it almost poetically in his book on Sokolovich:

Sokolovich took great pleasure in talking with Dubrovchani because he could talk with them in his mother tongue, without witless, muddle-headed, and dangerous interpreters, obtaining firsthand detailed, and exact evaluations of conditions in Europe ... More than that, he experienced a personal satisfaction, impregnated with unspecified melancholy, on hearing in his own language all those expressions, thoughts, and cut-outs of life, which to his own Turks, even if they still knew the language, were becoming foreign...and when occasionally he would, with jestering sarcasm, frolic upon their poltroonery, easily detectable slyness, and clumsily hidden egoism, he [still] never... Iet them return to their quarters unhappy or discouraged.

One could contend that in this particular case the prominent Serbian historian had fallen prey to unscientific sentimentality, but there is no doubt that as far as the process of Islamization was concerned, Albanians in general showed themselves much more pliable than Serbs. The weight of their Albanian traditional load must have been a lighter burden. Theirs is the famous saying: "Ku este shpata este feja" (your faith is where the sword is). First class warriors, fascinated by guns, used to discipline and obeying when ruled by a strong hand, the Albanians represented a much better medium to be cast into the Turkish mold than the individualistic and unpredictable Serbs.

In the Turkish society which had several centuries to go before being seriously challenged, this was a crucial distinction that would decide the potential for advancement. After the Serbian Patriarchate was abolished (1556), it was a blessing for the Serbs to have had Mehmed Sokolovich in a position of power, who reopened the Patriarchate (1557) and placed his brother, Makarius, in charge. But the Serbs badly needed another Mehmed in 1776, when the Patriarchate was once again abolished. Unfortunately for them, one or two Serbian candles, at best, were not enough in five centuries of Turkish darkness. There is no doubt that the Albanians' continued presence at the seat of power gave them an upper hand, which was the beginning of a tragic divisiveness, of separate roads for them and for the Serbs. The former became the rulers and the latter the ruled.

This split, or a parting of the ways, is probably best seen in the gradual deterioration of relations between neighboring Montenegrin and Albanian tribes. In the early stages of Turkish occupation these relations were friendly. Living under similar conditions in the isolated highlands, having similar life patterns, traditions, and history, they were a world apart from the rest of the Balkans. They populated the roadless mountain areas that invaders had no particular desire to visit as long as their control was acknowledged by regular tax contributions and tributes. Usually they were left alone to lead and organize their own lives around their own social patterns. Their elected local leaders, together with their priests, ruled in strict observance of their traditions and customs. The Turkish judiciary never bothered the Christians unless Moslem rule or people were involved. In their relationships members of the two societies, Christian and Moslem (Montenegrin and Albanian, although sometimes not necessarily so clearly delineated), were generally cordial. Through common experiences and alliances in local conflicts, as well as opposition to outside influences, the firm word (besa-promise) often meant mutual protection.

The symbiosis that engulfed the clans of different ethnicity was noticeable and evident until more recently, and traces of it can be found even today. A French traveler was taken aback, when in the late years of the 1 8th century he visited Hercegovina. It was the Christian holiday of St. Ilija, but to his amazement he noticed that Moslems were going to the mosque, splendidly lit. His agitated curiosity and inquiry were given a laconic answer: "It's Ilija in the morning, Alija in the evening!" Even today one can still see Albanian Moslems of Kosovo, Metohija, or Macedonia, men, women, and children of the same family, descending from their hills and visiting a Serbian monastery. Men wearing their white skullcaps, in their white serge trousers braided with black lace, followed by their women (who no longer wear veils), bringing their infant children or alone, waiting for the priest to admit them to the Serbian place of worship. They arrive in reverence of Holy Mother, or a saint whose icon is in the church or, more often, of relics of some Serbian king, sanctified in the monastery and known to help where Mohammed and Esculap had failed. "No wonder," a Serbian priest would comment after such visits (always on Friday), "they were Christians once."

In the 14th and 15th centuries, the great majority of Albanians were Christians, Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic in the North, predominately Eastern Orthodox in the South. Members of the north Albanian tribe, Malisori, celebrated Saint Nikola Day (their patron and protector, just as he is of the Montenegrins). Both could be heard singing their national ballads, to the accompaniment of the onestring instrument (gusle). The Malisori would sing about King Marko and Prince Lazar; the Montenegrins would sing about Skanderbeg, alias George Castriota.

It is an exceptional case today, but until recently it was not unusual to see Albanians visiting with their Christian friends on Christian holidays, or participating in dancing and feasting (wine and pork avoided), attending weddings and baptism ceremonies. Usually these were the traditional inter-family ties of friendship, hailing from the old days, when the respective families were closely knit, living through periods of harmony or quarrels, but never inimical hostility. These were the days of stable family life, when young men went abroad only to return with money saved, and then continued to live the life of their fathers. Even today there are young Kosovo Albanians who remember that their fathers would never begin any project on Tuesday, the day of the Kosovo defeat.

The monastery of Pech, which was the seat of the Serbian Patriarch (1346-1556 and 1557-1766), maintained close and friendly relations with the Albanians of the rugged area of Rugovo, which provided shelter to Patriarch Arsenius IV in 1737, when he had to hide from the pursuing Turks. These Albanians continued to provide guard services to the Patriarchate in Pech and the Dechani Monastery, but in recent years with notable lack of success.

Late in the 19th century two English ladies visited Kosovo (Miss Muir Mackenzie and Miss A. P. Irby). In their book, Travels in the Slavonic Provinces of Turkey-inEurope, they reported the respect among Albanians for the Serbian holy places. The authors blamed the Turks and their propaganda for any Albanian excesses that occasionally took place in the area. They maintained that the Turks were the ones who incited young Moslem Albanians to illtreat the Serbs, to "throw stones and filth" at Serbian funerals, and to shout "insults and obscenities at Christians on Sundays."

But it was not only the Turks who were the source of such incidents. Other quarters (e.g. Rome and Vienna) contributed their bit to poison the atmosphere in Kosovo, Metohija, and the border area between Montenegro and the Albanian regions. Both Italy and Austro-Hungary had no interest in maintaining peace and harmony in those regions.

While one should never underestimate the importance of foreign schemes in muddling relations between the Slavs and the Moslems in the area, the phenomenon of Islamization, and all that it meant in terms of personal welfare and social advancement, still remained the main cause of the estrangement. To the Albanians, Islam was an opportunity that they could not let pass. It was a vehicle, not only to get even, but in addition to outrank the Greeks and the Slavs.

The Islamization process was a continuous one, but its fervor and intensity were not. At certain periods, in certain areas, with certain people, the process would explode, usually triggered by some violent event. Something would happen, such as Albanians siding with Venice in a dispute with the Porte, or the Serbs would join the Austrian army in its incursions into the territory. The aftermath would be intensified Islamization. Pressures would be applied, and on such occasions Serbs would usually show more intransigence than Albanians. The Albanians could never understand that inherent Serbian hostility toward the Turks, but then they had no Kosovo in their heritage. The Greeks, on the other hand, understood it very well; they had Thermopylae.

One must credit all Balkan peoples with one thing: capacity for survival. But some did it the hard way; others compromised and adapted to what they regarded as a temporary situation. Even today, modern history has proved that Serbs fall into the first category. The Kosovo syndrome seemingly does not let them act in any other way.

Albanians are survivors, too, but in most cases they do it the easier way. Islamization was one such way. The phenomenon of "crypto Christianity," practiced profusely by many Albanians, both Catholic and Orthodox, is proof. This cannot be said, however, to be a character trait of Albanians, or even duplicity, but rather a pragmatic solution of an intelligent survivor. Again we come to the question: could not the Serbs have done the same thing? Yes, and those who were not burdened with Kosovo did it (the Bosnians).

American historian Stavro Skendi defines the Albanian crypto-Christians as follows: "The crypto Christians lived in regions near those inhabited by Moslems and professed Islam, but satisfied their consciences by practicing Christianity in private. They emerged in periods of outbursts of anti -Christian fanaticism" (The Albanian National Awakening; Princeton, 1967, p. 12). Skendi continues: "In the North the crypto Christians were concentrated in the Pashalik of Prizren; they were called laramane (motley) and they lived chiefly around Ipek (Pech) and in the plain of Kosovo." Miss Mackenzie called these Albanians "secret Christians." She cited a case, in those border areas where Albanians and Montenegrins lived, of a young Albanian Moslem letting the Serbian priest into his house, because his parents were still clinging to the old faith, while he himself was a hybrid.

There was another religous phenomenon in Albania, mostly in the southern areas, with the same rationale. The Moslem sect of Bektashism (a product of Anatolia), as early as the 13th century, existed in the frontier regions where Christianity, Islam, and paganism coexisted. Bektashis were not so much anti-Christian as they were pro-Albanian. They proclaimed themselves to be brothers of all peoples, which is why the Slavs preferred the Bektashis to the Sunni converts. The latter, however, were more numerous than the Bektashis in the regions of Kosovo, Montenegro, Hercegovina, and Bosnia.

The Sunni fervor prompted the puritanical Montenegrin Prince-Bishop Danilo (1670-1735) to purge converted Montenegrins. In their Moslem fanaticism, the latter had gone so far as to assist the invading Turkish force to enter the Montenegrin capital of Cetinje. National bards sing of the brothers Martinovich who executed the eerie plan of eradicating the traitorous "poturice" (converts) with their consecrated maces. It was done in the dark of one Christmas eve (1702). This crepuscular feat immensely impressed Russian Tsar Peter the Great. He ordered money, gifts, missals, and icons to be sent to the Prince Bishop of Montenegro.

The massacre resulted from an intense hatred of everything Moslem, including people of their own blood who had converted to Islam. As a young man of 20, when he attained power, Danilo Petrovich-Njegosh, felt rather strongly that one day the Moslem corruption of Montenegrin Christian souls would have to be stopped. That day came when the Pasha of Skadar promised him safe conduct to Podgoritsa, where he was to consecrate a new church. Danilo did not trust Turkish promises, but felt that "for the sake of my faith, I have to go, though it may be my fate not to return." He saddled his best horse and departed. On his way back, Bishop Danilo was blackmailed. The Pasha demanded 3,000 ducats for his release to the Montenegrins. As he was being marched back to Cetinje, he must have thought of a suitable revenge. The ransom was somehow paid, and Danilo summoned his flock to agree on the day when the traitorous Turks would be massacred all over the country. The executioners were merciless; all those who refused baptism were executed, and Montenegrins have ever since sung about this feat of "purification. " Traitors were no more in their ranks. And the neighboring Albanians, if of Moslem faith, never lost sight of the bloody message.

Bishop Danilo's type of solution, regardless of how drastic and effective in Montenegro, could not stop the process of Islamization in the Balkans. The only viable opposition was in the fortitude of the Christian people themselves, in their resolution to oppose Islam and to "die for the Christian faith" if necessary. Albanians obviously felt that choosing death would be impractical. Once they found that conversion to Islam was a valuable asset, they could not be stopped. By the end of the 17th century, two-thirds of them were Moslems. The Turks were at the peak of their might, and their corruptive policy of granting favors and privileges to individuals and tribes that accepted Islam prevented all attempts to solidify any meaningful mass resistance.

In a sense, Albanians found the special treatment they got from thc Turks, once they converted to Islam, not unusual. They were treated as a separate category in Byzantine and in Serbian times. Their warriors were in great demand, and one of the ablest generals that Tsar Dushan had at the time of his Greek campaign was an Albanian by origin. Dushan settled many Albanians in conquered lands as a reward for their services. Not only as mercenaries, but as a sheep and other livestock raising ethnic group, the Albanians enjoyed a special and separate status.

By the 19th century, in areas where Serbs and Albanians were inter-relating, something more critical than ethnic or religious differences was becoming evident as an impediment to communication between them. This was the disparity in political outlooks or concepts. The Serbs had a very clear idea about Serbian statehood, while the Albanians, with occasionally weak blimps of Albanianism, were for the most part Turkish oriented. While the Serbs dreamed of their Serbian state, the Albanians tended to identify with the Ottoman Empire of which they were a part.

Albanian patriot Sami bey Frasheri), in his history of Albania, written in Turkish in 1899 and later translated into German, describes the Albano-Turkish affinity in the following words: "Turks were finding devout and courageous co-fighters in Albanians, while Albanians found thc Turkish kind of governing very much to their taste. In Turkish times, Albania was a wealthy and blossoming country, because Albanians were riding together with Turks in war campaigns all over the world, and were returning with rich booty, gold and silver, costly arms, and fine horses from Arabia, Kurdistan, and Hungary." (Was war Albanien, was ist es, was wird es werden [What was Albania, what is it, what will it be]: Vienna and Leipzig, 1913, p. 12).

Warring and fighting, the Islamic converts devek.ped an aggressive mentality, and in times of peace turned on their Christian neighbors. They began viewing themselves as the propagators of the Islamic faith. Much better armed than the deprived Christians, they left a bloody trail in their forceful Islamization drives among the Serbs. An old Serbian religious inscription, made in 1574, reads: "This is where great Albanian violence took place, especially b.v Mehmud Begovich in Pech, Ivan Begovich in Skadar, Sinnan-Pashich Rotulovich in Prizren, Slad Pashich in Djakovitsa--they massacred two thousand Christians... Have Mercy upon us, Oh Lord, Look down from Heaven and free your flock" (translated from Ljubomir Stojanovic, Stari Srpski zapisi i natpisi [Old Serbian Inscriptions and Epitaphs]: Vol. I, p. 219, Belgrade, 1902). There in the same vein are numerous other memorials or inscriptions in Stojanovich's collection.

Probably the most notorious among the converts was Koukli beg and his offspring who used force in their attempts to Islamize the area of Pastrik, Has, and Opolje at the end of the 18th century. Remembered as an arch enemy of the Serbs is another Islamic convert, Grand Vizier Sinan Pasha, who ordered the remains of Saint Sava transferred from the Milesheva Monastery to Belgrade and there burned on a wooden pyre in 1594. In his rage he reasoned that once turned into ashes, Sava's body would cease being a rallying point for Serbian Christendom. Blinded by his new faith, he never realized that his enemies were not guided by Sava's flesh but by his spirit and his ideals.

Ever since the Christians began fighting for their faith in Roman times, they were the deprived ones. And in Turkish times the deprived status would have been acceptable philosophically to the Christians, had the Albanians also been among the deprived segments of the population, even if they showed signs of enmity toward the Serbs. But to abandon the faith of ones ancestors, in order to join the privileged class, was not acceptable. This is why the quality of animosity between Serbs and Bulgars was always considerably different from the quality of estrangement between Serbs and Albanians. This is not to judge or to moralize, but simply to emphasize the qualitative difference in the two hostilities.

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