The Ottoman legacy in the Balkans

Term Paper, 2007

14 Pages, Grade: A




2. Two opposing interpretations of the Ottoman legacy







500 years of Ottoman sovereignty have undoubtedly left significant imprints on the Balkans. Monumental edifices and everyday words spoken in different languages are, amongst others, living testimonies of the imperial past. However, there are opposing interpretations of the Ottoman legacy. The prevailing view describes the Ottomans as alien intruders, blaming them for the Balkans’ perceived backwardness, whereas others see the era more as a period of combining Turkish, Islamic, and Byzantine/Balkan traditions. This variety of interpretations is not surprising, given that the judgment of historical facts hardly ever reflects the reality of those facts – the way history is perceived is highly dependent on the content of history textbooks used to educate children from the primary level onwards. And the authors of such books have tended to, consciously or not, describe the past in an elective manner in order to achieve certain pragmatist goals, for example to justify nationalist aspirations.

In order to avoid overgeneralizations and -simplifications, the notion of an “Ottoman legacy” has to be taken with caution for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the Ottoman empire was preceded by the Byzantine empire, which itself was the successor of the Roman empire. Consequently, some traditions wrongly ascribed to the Ottomans can be traced back as far as to the Romans. For example, the internal Ottoman provincial divisions followed closely the boundaries of pre-existing principalities. Secondly, a distinction has to be made between what of this legacy is Islamic and what Ottoman. Without any doubt, many Ottoman institutions were inherited from earlier Islamic models, but the Ottomans made their own particular contributions in many fields. Thirdly, significant regional differences within the empire need to be taken into account. Finally, in some instances the question of an Ottoman inheritance has to be extended to the broader question of imperial inheritances because particularly at the end of the Ottoman era, the Balkans were also subject to influences from the Austro-Hungarian and the Russian empire.

What do we mean by the term “Ottoman”? Originally, it had dynastic overtones, with respect to the family of Osman. Under the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent in the mid-16th century it took on a cultural meaning, implying membership in the Muslim Turco-Arabo-Persian elite, referring to those Muslims holding positions as state bureaucrats. The Ottomans used the term “Turks” with regard to peasants, not to themselves. Europeans, however, called all Muslims Turks (Itzkowitz 1996:31).

This paper is structured in the following manner. I would like to start by presenting two different interpretations of the Ottoman legacy. Next, I will describe some continuities from the Ottoman period that have persisted until today before rethinking historical perceptions in and about the Balkans. The following segment will deal with the extent to which the Ottoman past has contributed to Yugoslavia’s disintegration in the 1990s. A conclusion will top off the paper.

2. Two opposing interpretations of the Ottoman legacy

I am now going to elaborate on the two opposing views concerning the Ottoman period that I have mentioned above. It should be mentioned that neither one is completely “right” or “wrong”, but that both can be articulated moderately and convincingly, and that one’s preference for either one depends on one’s political or philosophical conviction. These two Weltanschauungen (or “Ottomananschauungen” – Todorova 1996:52) have existed since the emergence of the Ottoman empire.

The first one has it that the Ottoman rule was a “religiously, socially, and institutionally alien imposition on autochthonous Christian medieval societies” (Todorova 1996:46). Central to this belief, which was held by most 19th-century Europeans and is still the predominant view from within Balkan historiography, opinion molders, and people at large, is the belief in the incompatibility between Christianity and Islam. This assessment, though dispelled by many scholars, is sometimes reproduced in the “mechanical/separate spheres” approach to the Ottoman empire: the attempt to find Ottoman imprints in different areas such as in language, in music, in food, in architecture, etc. (Todorova 1996:47). When applied by Westerners, this approach usually does not distinguish between Ottoman, Islamic, and Turkish influences – “oriental elements” are a common denominator. On the other hand, Balkan historians often run the danger of artificially differentiating between indigenous and Ottoman influences.

However questionable this first approach might be, its legitimacy cannot be completely denied. After all, the peoples of the Balkans were overwhelmingly Christian and European by accident of geography. The Ottoman empire was primarily an Islamic state with little potential for non-Muslims to participate in existing power structures – unless they converted to Islam. Although in principle everyone was equal, Muslims were more equal. Being a supranational state with medieval elements, the empire lacked strong social cohesiveness and integration; bureaucracy seemed to be the only institution linking the population. Beginning in the 18th century and growing intense in the 19th century, nationalist movements aimed at separating themselves from colonial powers by negating their past. The double boundary of language and religion was highlighted in order to construct Balkan ethnicity (Todorova 1996:47-48). Putting one’s past in a negative light entails a break with it and a search for a new identity. Nobody wants to belong to this “marginal”, “transitory” region. For example, Slovenia has denied having a Balkan identity. Before its identification as a European country, Greece has most vigorously negated its links to the Balkans. And almost needless to say, Romanians have always identified themselves as Latin (Özge 2002:53-54).

Based on the assumption that centuries of coexistence must have led to converging traditions, the second interpretation of the Ottoman legacy sees it as a symbiosis of Turkish, Islamic, and Byzantine/Balkan traditions, emphasizing the continuity from the Byzantine period. The early religious, cultural, and institutional syncretism serves as one example to confirm this view. For instance, it seems legitimate to regard the Orthodox Church as an essentially Ottoman institution. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchy, located in Istanbul, had economic, holy, and juridical sovereignty over all the Balkan Orthodoxies. Therefore it is not surprising that the separation of the new nations from the empire was always accompanied by a secession from the Constantinople patriarchate. The numerous conversions to Islam throughout the Ottoman rule, with a peak in the 17th century, definitely contributed to creating a “Balkan melting pot”. Although most of these conversions were nonenforced, they were often the outcome of indirect economic and social pressure and driven by the wish to achieve some extent of integration. One problem with this second, organic interpretation is its trivialization of the impact of the Ottoman period (Todorova 1996:49-50).

One can distinguish between two different approaches concerning the idea of legacy. The objectivist outsider emphasizes continuity, focusing on the chronological order of events. Alternatively, the subjective insider is concerned about the retrospective assessment of the Ottoman legacy, dealing with the problem of perceptions (Todorova 1996:52-53). The following two sections will deal with both of these approaches.


Excerpt out of 14 pages


The Ottoman legacy in the Balkans
School of Advanced Internatl. Studies  (School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS))
The Balkans - From Fragmentation to What?
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ISBN (Book)
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Ottoman, Balkans, From, Fragmentation, What
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MMag. M.A. Gisela Spreitzhofer (Author), 2007, The Ottoman legacy in the Balkans, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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