The Crescent and the Cross - A First Encounter
Religion and Community in the Balkans
By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.
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Written: July, 2000
"In accordance with this [right to act],
whenever some one of the infidel parents or some other should
oppose the giving up of his son for the Janiccaries, he is
immediately hanged from his doorsill, his blood being deemed
Turkish firman, 1601
"...The Turks have built several fortresses in my kingdom and
are very kind to the country folk. They promise freedom to every peasant who
converts to Islam."
Bosnian King Stefan Tomasevic to Pope Pius II
"...The Porte treated him (the patriarch)
as part of the Ottoman political apparatus. As a result, he had
certain legally protected privileges. The Patriarch travelled in
'great splendour' and police protection was provided by the
Janiccaries. His horse and saddle were fittingly embroidered, and
at the saddle hung a small sword as a symbol of the powers
bestowed on him by the Sultan."
Dusan Kasic, "The Serbian Church under the Turks", Belgrade, 1969
Within the space of 500 years, southeast Europe has undergone two paradigmatic shifts. First, from Christian independence to Islamic subjugation (a gradual process which consumed two centuries) and then, in the 19th century, from self-determination through religious affiliation to nationalism. The Christians of the Balkan were easy prey. They were dispirited peasantry, fragmented, prone to internecine backstabbing and oppressive regimes. The new Ottoman rulers treated both people and land as their property. They enslaved some of their prisoners of war (under the infamous "pencik" clause), exiled thousands and confiscated their lands and liquidated the secular political elites in Thrace, Bulgaria, Serbia and Albania. The resulting vacuum of leadership was filled by the Church. Thus, paradoxically, it was Islam and its excesses that made the Church the undisputed shepherd of the peoples of the Balkan, a position it did not enjoy before. The new rulers did not encourage conversions to their faith for fear of reducing their tax base - non-Moslem "zimmis" (the Qur'an's "People of the Book") paid special (and heavy) taxes to the treasury and often had to bribe corrupt officials to survive.
Still, compared to other Ottoman exploits (in Anatolia, for instance), the conquest of the Balkan was a benign affair. Cities remained intact, the lands were not depopulated and the indiscriminately ferocious nomadic tribesmen that usually accompanied the Turkish forces largely stayed at home. The Ottoman bureaucracy took over most aspects of daily life soon after the military victories, bringing with it the leaden stability that was its hallmark. Indeed, populations were dislocated and re-settled as a matter of policy called "sorgun". Yet such measures were intended mainly to quell plangent rebelliousness and were applied mainly to the urban minority (for instance, in Constantinople).
The Church was an accomplice of the Turkish occupiers. It was a part of the Ottoman system of governance and enjoyed both its protection and its funding. It was leveraged by the Turk sultans in their quest to pacify their subjects. Mehmet II bestowed upon the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, its bishops and clergy great powers. The trade off was made explicit in Mehmet's edicts: the Church accepted the earthly sovereignty of the sultan - and he, in turn, granted them tolerance, protection and even friendship. The Ottoman religious-legal code, the Seriat, recognized the Christian's right to form their own religiously self-governing communities. These communities were not confined to the orderly provision of worship services. They managed communal property as well. Mehmet's benevolence towards the indigents was so legendary that people wrongly attributed to him the official declaration of a "Millet i Rum" (Roman, or Greek, nation) and the appointment of Gennadios as patriarch of the Orthodox Church (which only an episcopal synod could do).
The Ottoman Empire was an amazing hybrid. As opposed to popular opinion it was not a religious entity. The ruling elite included members of all religions. Thus, one could find Christian "askeri " (military or civil officials) and Muslim "reaya" ("flock" of taxpayers). It is true that Christians paid the arbitrarily set "harac" (or, less commonly, "cizye") in lieu of military service. Even the clergy were not exempt (they even assisted in tax collection). But both Christians and Muslims paid the land tax, for instance. And, as the fairness, transparency and predictability of the local taxmen deteriorated - both Muslims and Christians complained.
The main problem of the Ottoman Empire was devolution - not centralization. Local governors and tax collectors had too much power and the sultan was too remote and disinterested or too weak and ineffective. The population tried to get Istanbul MORE involved - not less so. The population was financially fleeced as much by the Orthodox Church as it was by the sultan. A special church-tax was levied on the Christian reaya and its proceeds served to secure the lavish lifestyles of the bishops and the patriarch. In true mob style, church functionaries divided the loot with Ottoman officials in an arrangement known as "peskes". Foreign powers contributed to the war chests of various candidates, thus mobilizing them to support pro-Catholic or pro-Protestant political stances and demands. The church was a thoroughly corrupt, usurious and politicized body which contributed greatly to the ever increasing misery of its flock. It was a collaborator in the worst sense of the word.
But the behaviour of the church was one part of the common betrayal by the elite of the Balkan lands. Christian landowners volunteered to serve in the Ottoman cavalry ("sipahis") in order to preserve their ownership. The Ottoman rulers conveniently ignored the laws prohibiting "zimmis" to carry weapons. Until 1500, the "sipahis" constituted the bulk of the Ottoman forces in the Balkan and their mass conversion to Islam was a natural continuation of their complicity. Other Christians guarded bridges or mountain passes for a tax exemption ("derbentci"). Local, Turkish-trained militias ("armatoles") fought mountain-based robber gangs (Serbian "hayduks", Bulgarian "haiduts", Greek "klephts"). The robbers attacked Turkish caravans with the same frequency and zeal that they sacked Christian settlements. The "armatoles" resisted them by day and joined them by night. But it was perfectly acceptable to join Turkish initiatives such as this.
The Balkan remained overwhelmingly Christian throughout the Ottoman period. Muslim life was an urban phenomenon both for reasons of safety and because only the cities provided basic amenities. Even in the cities, though, the communities lived segregated in "mahalles" (quarters). Everyone collaborated in public life but the "mahalles" were self-sufficient affairs with the gamut of services - from hot baths to prayer services - available "in-quarter". Gradually, the major cities, situated along the trade routes, became Moslem. Skopje, Sarajevo and Sofia all had sizeable Moslem minorities.
Thus, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, the picture that emerges is one of an uneasy co-habitation in the cities and a Christian rural landscape. The elites of the Balkan - church, noblemen, warriors - all defected and collaborated with the former "enemy". The local populace was the victim of usurious taxes, coercively applied. The central administration shared the loot with its local representatives and with the indigenous elites - the church and the feudal landed gentry. It was a cosy and pragmatic arrangement that lasted for centuries.
Yet, the seeds of Ottoman bestiality and future rebellion were sown from the very inception of this empire-extending conquest. The "devsirme" tax was an example of the fragility of the Turkish veneer of humanity and enlightened rule. Christian sons were kidnapped, forcibly converted to Islam and trained as fighters in the fearsome Janiccary Corps (the palace Guards). They were never to see their families and friends again. Exemptions from this barbarous practice were offered only to select communities which somehow contributed to Ottoman rule in the Balkan. Christian women were often abducted by local Ottoman dignitaries. and the custom of the "kepin", allowed Moslems to "buy" a Christian daughter off her husband on a "temporary" basis. The results of such a union were raised as Moslems.
And then there were the mass conversions of Christians to Islam. These conversions were very rarely the results of coercion or barbarous conduct. On the contrary, by shrinking the tax base and the recruitment pool, conversion were unwelcome and closely scrutinized by the Turks. But to convert was such an advantageous and appealing act that the movement bordered on mass hysteria. Landowners converted to preserve their title to the land. "Sipahis" converted to advance in the ranks of the military. Christian officials converted to maintain their officialdom. Ordinary folk converted to avoid onerous taxes. Christian traders converted to Islam to be able to testify in court in case of commercial litigation. Converted Moslems were allowed to speak Arabic or their own language, rather than the cumbersome and elaborate formal Turkish. Christians willingly traded eternal salvation for earthly benefits. And, of course, death awaited those who recanted (like the Orthodox "New Martyrs", who discovered their Christian origins, having been raised as Moslems).
Perhaps this was because, in large swathes of the Balkan, Christianity never really took hold. It was adopted by the peasant as a folk religion - as was Islam later. In Bosnia, for instance, Muslims and Christians were virtually indistinguishable. They prayed in each other's shrines, celebrated each other's holidays and adopted the same customs. Muslim mysticism (the Sufi orders) appealed to many sophisticated urban Christians. Heretic cults (like the Bogomils) converted en masse. Intermarriage flourished, mainly between Muslim men (who could not afford the dowry payable to a Muslim woman) and Christian women (who had to pay a dowry to her Muslim husband's family). Marrying a Christian woman was a lucrative business proposition.
And, then, of course, there was the Moslem birth rate. With four women and a pecuniary preference for large families - Moslem out-bred Christians at all times. This trend is most pronounced today but it was always a prominent demographic fact.
But the success of Islam to conquer the Balkan, rule it, convert its population and prevail in it - had to do more with the fatal flaws of Balkan Christianity than with the appeal and resilience of Islam and its Ottoman rendition. In the next chapter I will attempt to ponder the complex interaction between Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity as it was manifested in Croatia and Bosnia, the border lands between the Habsburg and the Ottoman empires and between "Rome" and "Byzantium". I will then explore the variance in the Ottoman attitudes towards various Christian communities and the reasons underlying this diversity of treatment modalities.
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