Military history

Part Four


Balkan Ghosts?

IN MY GRANDFATHER’S HOUSE, WORLDLY BOOKS WERE KEPT IN A DARK, musty, and icy-cold back room. Downstairs, in a stained-oak bookcase with little green curtains covering the glazed panels, were the various editions of The Holy Scriptures: A New Translation from the Original Languages by J. N. Darby, the King James Bible (for critical and comparative purposes), Cruden’s Concordance, and shelves of pamphlets, Bible readings, and tracts. There too were the Bible games that we played on Sundays—question 6: “Name the three good men cast into the burning fiery furnace.” But upstairs were forgotten and ignored heaps of old National Geographic magazines, and untidy piles of books that had belonged to my grandfather’s childhood and which still bore the grubby finger marks of my own father’s avid reading. There were many volumes of G. A. Henty’s stirring and, I still think, rather effective tales; Sherlock Holmes in the Strand Magazine; the gung ho patriotic Our Living Generals; and all the literary paraphernalia of a Victorian boy’s childhood. The National Geographics were exceptionally worldly, but then my grandfather had received the Lord quite late in life and absolute consistency was never his strongest point anyway.

However, amid all the battles and gore of the books, only one thing terrified me. In a dull gray-blue tome called With the Colours, or, The Piping Times of Peace, R. Mountjoy Jephson described the adventures of a young officer in the 1860s. He overcame the natives in the Ionian Isles, Hong Kong, India, China, and Japan, and his trusty revolver saved him in many sticky situations. But in Corfu he nearly met his end. A huge Albanian dog attacked him:

In a moment, I am dashed to the ground, and the infuriated beast is over me. He struggles to get at my throat, but fortunately my hands are already at his and I hold him off … His hot breath fans my face, his eyes gleam like pieces of live coal, and the saliva streams from his cruel powerful jaws. Those sharp white teeth have already met in my flesh, for my hands and the sleeves of my coat are crimsoned with blood and I feel the warm current trickling down my arms as I hold him from me.

Fortuitously young Bob Foyle has a hunting knife and manages, with difficulty, to kill his adversary. Then he faces the dog’s avenger: “The Albanian with his long yataghan naked and uplifted in his hand, his face livid and distended with fury, is within three paces of me.” Trusty Sheffield-steel hunting knife parries yataghan, but

the sharp blade of the yataghan glances off the handle of my knife and rips my forearm from wrist to elbow … I now grapple with him, for the closer we are the better for me … I notice how strong he smells of garlic; and even to this day a whiff of that redolent bulb always brings to my mind the deadly perils of that savoury embrace.1

All ended well. Bob’s chums rescued him in the nick of time, and bound the Albanian hand and foot. But Bob, mindful that he had killed the man’s obviously beloved dog, turned him loose. Simkin’s engraved illustration of this event terrified me at the age of nine, and still has the power to frighten. The Albanian rushing from the woods, with dark cruel eyes, tight lips, and a bristling beard, was the stuff of nightmares. To this day it remains my first instinctive and childish understanding of the Balkans. But I was not alone in my terror: fear of the East is common to many nations. For the English, the barbarians began at Calais, and according to Prince Metternich, Asia began at Vienna’s high road, the Rennweg, which led east to Hungary.2 Yet this cultural map was never exact nor precise. The lands south of the rivers Danube and Sava had a double character. They were both part of Europe and part of the East; the same was true farther north. Poland and Russia were Christian, but they were also savage. The heart of this paradox lay in Greece: indubitably Balkan, part of the Ottoman world, yet also the cradle of Hellenism and of Western civilization. How could Greece have fallen so low, from its ancient glory to the decayed state described by European travelers from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries?

The answer was the Ottomans. “Turkey in Europe” had begun in the fourteenth century, had occupied the Christian lands from the Aegean to Budapest by the 1530s, and then slowly diminished from its apogee until it included only the plain of Adrianople, its first European center, and the city of Constantinople (Istanbul) by the 1920s. Almost five centuries of Ottoman rule became the whipping boy for everything that had gone awry in these lands. There was a wildness and rugged strength in both the peoples and the topography of the Balkans; the Turks made the people into savages and the landscape became, if anything, even more untamed. In his remarkable book Balkan Ghosts: A Journey through History (1994), Robert D. Kaplan talks of the Ottomans as if they had overlain the Balkans like an incubus. Anything that was misbegotten could, in one way or another, be traced back to their presence. An Orthodox nun, Mother Tatiana, one of his main informants, told him, “We [the Serbs] would have been even greater than the Italians, were it not for the Turks.” Kaplan himself added: “That was a refrain you heard throughout the Balkans, in Dame Rebecca’s day [Dame Rebecca West, author of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon] and in mine. Dame Rebecca writes, ‘The Turks ruined the Balkans, with a ruin so great that has not yet been repaired.’ ”3

For Kaplan, the Balkan past could be mobilized to explain the dark and harrowing events of the Balkan present. I had admired the quality and insight of his writing for many years; I liked his capacity to present nuance, light and shade. But in Balkan Ghosts, those qualities were absent: he now wrote of a world that contained only horror and atrocity, without nuance, always haunted by a sanguine past. Even his vocabulary had darkened. It was still compelling; and yet, at the same time, he brought back fearful memories of the garlic-scented Albanian of my childhood.

The reasons for his deepening gloom grew from the times in which he wrote. Here was a man seeing places, which he had known in happier days, that had suddenly become murderous and savage. He discovered the origins of this bleak transformation wholly within the region’s long (and dark) history. Past was present, with metaphors of atrocity drawn from the 1870s being attached to the atrocities of the 1990s. The Bulgarian massacres of 1876, when Ottoman bashibazouks killed thousands with their lances and yataghans, were the point at which, for Robert Kaplan, we could say, “In modern times, it all began here.”4 He was creating a special type of history for the Balkans—what the social scientist Immanuel Wallerstein later called “TimeSpace,” where “the meaning of time and space in our lives is a human invention … time and space are irremediably locked together and constitute a single dimension.”5 Wallerstein used one Balkan example, that of Kosovo, and one from Northern Ireland, to show that two completely divergent versions of the past could exist simultaneously within the same area, visions that no amount of evidence could alter or disprove.6 This is what anthropologists used to call the anthropological present—a kind of TimeSpace particularly suitable for “primitive” peoples, in whose world “time had frozen, and where there was no possibility of change or alteration.”7 This style of history of the Balkans is exemplified by Franjo Tudjman, scholar and first president of independent Croatia after 1991.8

But later, as I read more widely, it became clear that Kaplan was not alone in adopting these conventions. He stood in a long tradition of writing about Balkan malevolence and darkness.9 Some eight decades before Kaplan’s Journey through History, another writer, Harry de Windt, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, author of The New Siberia, A Ride to India, and From Paris to New York by Land, visited the Balkans as a special correspondent of the Westminster Gazette. His book was entitled simply Through Savage Europe. He explained why:

“Why ‘Savage Europe’?” asked a friend who had recently witnessed my departure from Charing Cross for the Near East.

“Because,” I replied, “the term accurately described the wild and lawless countries between the Adriatic and the Black Seas.”

For some mystic reason, however, most Englishmen are less familiar with the geography of the Balkan States than with that of Darkest Africa. This was my case and I had therefore yet to learn that these same Balkans can boast of cities which are miniature replicas of London and Paris. But these are civilised centres. The remoter districts are, as of yore, hotbeds of outlawry and brigandage, where you must travel with a revolver in each pocket, and your life in your hand, and of this fact, as the reader will see, we had tangible and unpleasant proof before the end of the journey. Moreover, do not the now-palatial capitals of Servia and Bulgaria occasionally startle the outer world with crimes of medieval barbarity … Wherefore the word “savage” is perhaps not wholly inapplicable to that portion of Europe which we are about to traverse.10

Windt and Kaplan were saying roughly the same thing. The Balkans were irredeemable, cursed by their collective past. A “journey through history” becomes a tour through the heart of darkness, a catalog of horrors. Thus, set into the context of this dark past, the present—in either 1907 or 1993—seems explicable. The same stories inevitably appear in both books in different guises: the (improbable) blinding of 14,000 captured Bulgars by Emperor Basil II Bulgaroctonos “the Bulgar Slayer,” Vlad the Impaler with his forest of twisting bodies, the grim battlefield of Kosovo Polje. Kaplan was able to add the nightmare events of the 1990s. Harry de Windt had rushed through on a whirlwind tour, but Robert Kaplan moved more methodically, recording the authentic voices of nemesis, such as Mother Tatiana, who had, like Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage, seen everything and suffered it all.

“I am a good Christian, but I will not turn the other cheek if some Albanian plucks out the eyes of a fellow Serb or rapes a little girl or castrates a twelve-year-old Serbian boy.” … My eyes adjusted to the darkness and for the first time I got a good look at her face. She had a strong, lusty appearance, with high cheekbones and fiery maternal eyes. She was a handsome old woman who was clearly once attractive. Her eyes, while fiery, also appeared strangely unfocused, as though blotted out by superstition.11

Here is a deeper truth. Blindness of superstition, old stories embellished, retold, and then made still more bitter in the retelling, lie at the heart of these journeys through history.

By contrast, the Irishman James Creagh, author of A Scamper to Sebastopol and Jerusalem in 1867, presented himself as a species of tweedy fool, for whom everything turns sunny side up.12 Just as the Muslim inhabitants of the Balkan provinces of Herzegovina and Bosnia were taking up arms against the reforming sultan in Constantinople, he set out on a leisurely tour down the Danube to Belgrade, thence west into Bosnia and Croatia, and finally meandering south to the mountains of Herzegovina, Montenegro, and the Albanian lands. His book, published in the following year, was entitled Over the Borders of Christendom and Eslamiah: A Journey Through Hungary, Slavonia, Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Dalmatia, and Montenegro, to the North of Albania in the Summer of 1875.

Creagh’s principal preoccupation seems to have been “tall and well-made girls in gaudy bodices and petticoats [that] gave them, at a distance, the appearance of Affghan maidens.”13 But beneath the jovial banter, Creagh saw things in a very different perspective than many other Western travelers. He quoted an old and much-traveled Magyar whom he met on the journey down the Danube.

The travelling philosopher will find men and women, at bottom, the same everywhere. There is the same ambition in every heart; the same credulity in every mind; the same roguery in every priest; the same desire to domineer in every woman; and the same selfishness among all. Their languages and education are alone different.14

Unusually he made few distinctions between Muslims and Christians. In Belgrade, he described a panorama of the “graceful minarets of the deserted Turkish mosques, the church steeples, and the wide red-tiled roofs”; the mosques were “now closed or used for the vilest purposes; and in a place once considered sacred by the Turks, their temples are defiled and desecrated by a people who were once their slaves.”15

However, in some respects, Creagh offered much the same overall picture as other writers. Outside the towns and cities the Balkans were lawless, as Ottoman government had little authority in its borderlands. Creagh described a Turk who told him that it was extremely dangerous to travel in Bosnia, and pointed to a wound in his side, which he said had come from an attack in the woods the day before. Anyone, Muslim or Christian, local or visitor, was a possible victim. The seemingly imperturbable Irishman stayed in filthy hans, where “dirty, picturesque and handsome-armed ruffians lay about the floor”; was attacked by swarms of fleas—“The vilest lodging house in St Giles [in London] could not have been more abominable than this place; nevertheless … I never slept more comfortably.”16 But he observed rather than condemned, and certainly did not blame all the ills of the Balkans on the Ottomans:

The Turks and the Christians in Bosnia, except for service in the army, are on a footing of equality; but the remembrance of ancient persecutions still inspires those deadly hatreds which, like the passions of the Ribandmen [a Catholic association] and Orangemen [a Protestant association] in the north of Ireland are ever ready to break out with a violence all the more astonishing because the causes that might justify it have long been removed.

[In Bosnia] a feast, a procession, a word or a song may set the province in a blaze which would throw even the riots of Belfast into the shade … God knows the Turkish Government is not the most enlightened administration in Europe; but it has fearful difficulties to contend with and its despotic and paternal rule certainly prevents the Bosniacs from tearing each other to pieces.

Every misfortune is attributable to the Turks, and we hear so often that they are tyrants and oppressors that the people generally believe they are so.17

In Montenegro, later on his journey, he had another encounter, very similar to Robert Kaplan’s meeting with Mother Tatiana.

A gentleman, bristling with arms and wearing a light green body coat told me he was a barrister. Expressing wonder at my having escaped without any incidents during so long a journey in Turkey [in Europe] he began to apostrophise the Turks in gracefully rounded periods, delivered in impassioned gestures of forensic eloquence. With flashing eyes, he called them dogs, pigs, foxes, snakes and serpents; and declared that they were as brutal, uncivilised and degraded, as the Christians of the same provinces were cultivated, polished and advanced.

Creagh politely demurred, saying that was not his experience. The lawyer rounded on him, saying that “he never heard such an opinion in the whole course of his life, and it was the duty of all Christians to hate the Musselmans.”18

These travelogues—and there were many others like them—are neither diaries nor documented history, but kinds of polemic. Each writer was telling a tale that he had made up for himself. Characters such as the verdant Montenegrin advocate or the fiery-eyed Orthodox nun were selected for a narrative purpose, to tell a particular story. Kaplan wanted to show that the Balkans were fixed in ancient hatreds: Mother Tatiana obliged. Creagh, who had come rather to like the “gentlemanly” qualities of the Ottomans, presented his Slavic popinjay who would condemn himself as in essence a “coarse mountaineer” and whose God was called, Creagh claimed, the “Old Murderer.”19 Within the Balkan lands it seemed possible, in the space of a short journey, to piece together almost any view of the past and, hence, of the present. One prolific modern writer on the region goes so far as to suggest that “The Balkans … is the unconscious of the world. It is here that the repressed memories of history, its traumas and fears and images reside.”20

In such a shadow world nothing could be taken on trust. Even the image of the barren and precipitous Balkan peninsula so often depicted in engravings was only partly true.21 Hills and mountains covered much of the land south of the Danube, and the Carpathian chain to the north. But there was no massive chain of towering peaks (catena mundi) that ran continuously from the Black Sea to the Alps and then continued on to the Atlantic as some geographers had once asserted.22 In reality, Italy is more precipitous than much of the Balkans.23 In many parts of Serbia, the “summits are often below 2,000 feet and seldom exceed 3,000 feet.” Even in Montenegro, “like a sea of immense waves turned to stone,” the peaks rarely exceed 6,000 feet.24 But the idea of an extreme landscape was deeply rooted. The origins of the word “Balkans” was Old Turkish, meaning simply highland, and more specifically, a heavily forested mountain slope.

Since Westerners erroneously perceived the whole region as wild uplands, the entire area between the Aegean Sea and the Danube—mountains, hills, and open plains—was defined as “highlands.” Maria Todorova has found that the first use of the word “Balkans” in any Western language came at the end of the fifteenth century, in a description sent by the Italian humanist Philippus Callimachus to Pope Paul II. The local people, he observed, called the mountains “Bolchanum.”25 Yet this misconception was also revealing, for well into the nineteenth century geography was often as much about perception as scientific measurement. So, in Scotland, “Highland” signified savagery and barbarity, while “Lowland” was equated with cultivation, both in the sense of agriculture and of civilization.26 In reality, there was much wild high ground south of the Highland Line; some mapmakers logically marked both “Northern” and “Southern” Highlands.27

Mountains were an emblem of risk, and in that sense the Balkans were indeed vertiginous. The uplands of Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Albania were filled, Western travelers learned, not with colorful peasants but with brigands and bandits. These categories were, however, mutable. Often local people’s perception was a mirror image of the visitor’s viewpoint, although the former gave it a different slant. Balkan to the Easterner, like montaña to the Spaniards far away in the West, meant a home to outlaws, monfies, and thieves. But it was also the heartland of tribal honor and, latterly, of patriotism. The harsh terrain bred doughty fighters, and in the more impenetrable recesses of the Balkans, wild men—called variously armatoli, hajduks, klephts—preserved their ancient customs, vendettas, and myths of a heroic past.28 They were simultaneously feared and admired: a murderer and robber could also be perceived as a man of honor. They were epic characters, whose fame (rather than infamy) lay in exacting vengeance from their enemies. The historian Branimir Anzulovic recounts how in one folktale Grujo punished his wife for her act of betrayal to the Turks:

He smeared his wife with wax and tar

And sulphur and fast powder

Wrapped her in soft cotton,

Poured strong brandy over her,

Buried her up to the waist

Lit the hair on her head

And sat down to drink cool wine

While she cast light like a bright candle.29

Other European cultures have possessed similarly ambiguous folk heroes.30 But the Balkans possessed an especially rich vein of mythmaking, with each village or family telling stories of its own local heroes. Slav and Albanian pride in their languages was considerable. Slavs traced its written form back to two early Orthodox missionaries from Salonika, Cyril and Methodius, who created a version of the Christian liturgy in a Slavonic idiom, and wrote it in a unique script called Glagolitic, from the Old Serbian “to speak.” This later became known as Church Slavonic, and this sacralized the Slavic tongues over all other vernaculars, raising it in Slav eyes to the same level of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew as a worthy vehicle for transmitting the word of God.

This subtle and mellifluous tongue soon developed many forms and variants. The most fragmented zone—in language, and in ethnic and religious terms as well—lay along the westernmost part of the Balkans, all along the Adriatic littoral, through what are now Herzegovina, Montenegro, and down into modern Albania and Greece.31 Across the limestone escarpment of the Dinaric Alps in Bosnia there was an even greater variety and complexity. There Catholicism existed alongside Orthodoxy and Islam, but even within the Catholic community there were divisions. Some Catholics worshiped God in Latin and wrote in the Latin script, as they had been taught by missionaries from Italy; others learned their Catholic liturgy in Church Slavonic in the Glagolitic script; still others read it in a Bosnian variant of the Cyrillic. In Bosnia there also was (in Catholic eyes) a “heretical” Bosnian church. In many areas there were pockets of Orthodox believers. Thus, western Balkan Christendom contained not merely the binary division between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, but a bewildering variety of dialect and scriptural forms, all fiercely defended by their adherents. Farther east, in Serbia, Orthodoxy dominated, but even there there were still many subtle dialectal differences.32 Among the Slavs, national labels like “Serb” or “Bulgar” did not adequately denote identity.33 Placing strangers as friend or foe meant knowing which village or town they came from, of which community or kin they were part.

The extreme diversity is difficult to relate to the clearly defined “homelands” presented by nineteenth-century nationalist historians and propagandists.34 A similar fragmentation existed outside the Slavic populations. The land that became Albania in 1913 had never been occupied by the Slavs. The native Illyrians who lived there successfully maintained both a distinct culture and a Latinate language incomprehensible to the Slavs. Within the ethnic category of “Albanian,” there were marked divisions, both in religion and social structures. In the south, close to the Greek lands, Orthodox Christianity predominated, while in the north some of the tribes were Catholic. But the Albanian communities were further divided between southern lowlanders (Tosks) and northern high-landers (Ghegs). After the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans, the Tosk and Gheg communities still retained Christian and Muslim enclaves. But despite these Christian communities, being Albanian soon became almost synonymous with being Muslim. In Bosnia, too, there was an additional religious mélange, with numerous conversions to Islam among local Slavs, so that they called themselves “Turks” (Turci). They continued to use their Slavic mother tongue, but with a distinctly Bosnian tinge. Other Muslims, “true Turks,” whether from Anatolia or Circassian Tartars settled by the Ottoman rulers in the Balkans, were always distinguished from local “Turks” and called Turkuse.35

Any map of the Balkans that truly showed the extraordinary diversity of languages and religious faiths and ethnic distribution in the region looked nothing like one of the twentieth-century frontiers. If anything, the pattern resembled more closely the maritime chart of an archipelago, such as the northern Aegean or the Cyclades. So, rather than “peninsula”—the traditional description of the region—perhaps a better metaphor for the Balkans is an archipelago, a pattern of separate islands, some large, others small. An archipelago society, however, especially one set in an ethnic and linguistic landscape as convoluted as the Balkans, will of necessity become acutely aware of local differences, and will not take easily to the ordered structures of more traditional polities.36 Edith Durham, traveling in Macedonia in 1905, was surprised that in some isolated areas Christian customs seemed strongly tinged with ancient folk beliefs.

I do not think I ever saw a picture of a saint in any of these houses. The icon and the lamp, so conspicuous in the houses of the Serbs, the Montenegrins and the Orthodox Albanians, was wanting. Nor did the people invoke Christ or the saints, or cross themselves at mealtimes, or before going to rest for the night. They seemed to possess none of the religious fervour that is so marked a characteristic of Orthodox peasants. They had more faith, it seemed, in the amulets they wore than in anything else. Some of these were very odd. One was a green glass heart, two pink beads, and an English sixpence.37

She quickly realized that easy generalizations in so idiosyncratic a land were meaningless. People saw themselves as possessing multiple loyalties and identities. Ascribing hatred to ethnic origin was too limiting a classification: as everywhere, antipathy had manifold causes and manifestations. Neighbors warred with one another; men and women were at odds; strangers were all devils and dangerous. Sturdy individualism was perhaps the only quality that characterized the Balkans as a whole, true of the people of the plains almost as much as those occupying mountainous ground.38

NO ONE IS QUITE SURE WHERE THE BOUNDARIES OF THE BALKANS should be drawn. Were the Carpathians—the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, peopled by “Romanians” speaking a Latinate language—part of the Balkans? The Transylvanian monk who in 1779 published a prayer book, Carte de rogacioni, in Latin instead of in Cyrillic script thought not. He made “a declaration of the Romanians” ethnic distinctiveness and an affirmation of the bond with Europe.”39 Most of this chapter is concerned with the lands south of the Danube. The majority of internal nationalist historians tend to minimize the role of external forces, while many historians writing from an outside perspective look upon the Balkans as a natural field for their involvement. But both approaches to the region’s past histories share a common premise: the long Ottoman occupation had been the source of all the region’s problems. Remove that malign influence and the Christian East could be redeemed.

The Austrian and the Russian plans for this redemption were far from disinterested. Russia in particular had huge ambitions. There is a popular eighteenth-century cartoon of the empress Catherine II making the great imperial stride (l’enjambée impériale) between the solid rock of Russia onto the sharp Islamic crescent atop the minarets of Constantinople. The crowned heads of Europe stand underneath, looking lewdly up her voluminous skirts and commenting on what they see. The great empress looks uncomfortable at her exposure.40 But the cartoon makes a serious point: neither Russia nor the Habsburg empire believed they could afford to ignore the Islamic power in the Balkans, any more than they (and Prussia) could have left Poland alone. The partitions of Poland in the late eighteenth century foreshadowed the treatment of the Balkans in the nineteenth century, although, unlike the case of Poland, only the Habsburgs made major additions to their territory from the carve-up of the Balkans. But Russia gained a dominant role if not land, becoming a symbolically menacing bear, looming suggestively over her Balkan protégés or puppets. Justifying both the eighteenth-century dismemberment of Poland and nineteenth-century approaches to reshaping the Balkans was the belief that their barbaric peoples would benefit from “Enlightenment.”41 These perceptions had deep roots. In 1572 a French prince, Henry de Valois, had ruled briefly in Warsaw. His court poet could see nothing good about the Poles and their land:

Farewell Poland

Farewell deserted plains

Eternally covered with snow and ice

Oh savage people, arrogant and thieving

Boastful, verbose and full of words

Who wrapped night and day in shaggy furs

Takes its only pleasure playing with a wine glass

By snoring asleep and falling to sleep on the floor

And who then, like Mars, wishes to be famous.

It is not your great grooved lances

Your wolf’s clothing, your misleading coats of arms

Spread all over with wings and feathers

Your muscular limbs, nor your redoubtable deeds,

Dull-witted Poles, that saved you from defeat.

Your miserable condition alone protects you.42

Writers in the eighteenth century, in the era of the Enlightenment, appeared just as preoccupied with the East as their predecessors in earlier centuries. The focus of interest had shifted, but not the underlying assumptions. Larry Wolff’s groundbreaking studies, Inventing Eastern Europe and Venice and the Slavs, have presented a new and convincing interpretation of Western preconceptions of the Slavic world. Reading both books, I was struck by how the negative attitudes I had hitherto associated specifically with the Muslim and Ottoman East were extended in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment to the Slavic world as well.43 The differences between the two worlds were still profound. The Slav world was (largely) Christian and the Ottoman world was predominantly Muslim; yet Western travelers saw both of them as sunk in ignorance, lust, and violence.

Wolff quotes the comte de Ségur writing of Catholic Poland as a void, with vast forests punctuated by open plains, and “a poor population, enslaved; dirty villages; cottages little different from savage huts; everything makes one think one has been translated back ten centuries and that one finds oneself amid hordes of Huns, Scythians, Veneti, Slavs, and Sarmatians.” An English visitor, William Coxe, traveling in Russia and Poland, also found the sources of Eastern barbarities in the primitive peoples of the region, which could be subsumed under the broad heading of the “Tartar Yoke.” In Moscow, he encountered “an Armenian, recently arrived from Mount Caucasus.” He was the very image of a barbarian, and Coxe described him in much the same way as others portrayed the wild ghazi, akinji, bashibazouks, or dervishes in Ottoman service.

His dress consisted of a long loose robe, tied with a sash, large breeches and boots: his hair was cut, in the manner of the Tartars, in a circular form; his arms were a poignard, and a bow of buffalo’s horn strung with the sinews of the same animal … he danced a Calmuc dance, which consisted in straining every muscle, and writhing his body into various contortions without stirring from the spot; he beckoned us into the garden, took great pleasure in showing us his tent and arms … We were struck with the unartificial character of this Armenian, who seemed like a wild man just beginning to be civilised.44

This “Armenian” displayed the negative particulars—wildness and lack of control—that had been pinned to “Islam” since the early medieval period. The “backwardness” of the Slav East came from many distinct causes, but I wondered if one was the contact with the Eastern Muslim world.45 Islam had impinged on the Slav world along an extended frontier. In the fourteenth century, as the Ottomans were advancing into southern Europe, the Mongols of the Golden Horde, whose “Tartar yoke” had long overshadowed the northern Slav lands of Muscovy (Russia) and Poland, accepted Islam. In time, the rising power of Russia gradually freed itself from the suzerain power of the Golden Horde, but the Tartar horsemen merely regrouped farther east, thereafter raiding rather than ruling their former domain. In 1484, the Ottoman armies, pushing north, took the key fortified towns of Killia at the mouth of the Danube and Akkerman at the mouth of the Dniester and became a dominant force in the borderlands around the Black Sea. Crimean Tartars were allied to the Ottomans, and Tartars and Caucasian skirmishers became a valued element in the Ottoman armies, raiding on their fast ponies far beyond the Danube into Hungary and the Austrian duchies. They settled in many parts of the European Ottoman domains, and remained largely separate from the local Muslim population, who spoke a quite different language.

In Western eyes, “Tartars” and “Turks” had both collective and separate identities. The hellish witches’ brew in Shakespeare’s Macbeth contained the twin elements of evil, “nose of Turk, and Tartar’s lips.”46 While the phrase “the Grand Turk” embodied the grudgingly admired “imperial” qualities of the Ottomans, the Tartars epitomized the unspeakable and fearsome savagery that was their other attribute. Some said that their name meant they were the denizens of hell (from the Latin Tartarus).47 The abbé Fortis became the West’s literary cicerone for the Balkan wilderness and its inhabitants. He wrote that he “saw customs, poetry, music, clothing, and habitations as Tartar as they could be in Siberia.”48 The chevalier Louis de Jaucourt, writing on “Tartars” in 1765 in Diderot’s Encyclopédie, observed that it was “humiliating that these barbaric peoples should have subjugated almost all our hemisphere” in the age of Genghis Khan. He assured his readers that although “this vast reservoir of ignorant, strong, and bellicose men [had] vomited its inundations in almost all our hemisphere … the polished nations are sheltered from the irruptions of these barbarous nations.”49 But not, however, in the rough and rugged lands of the Balkans.

Which peoples were “polished” and which “barbarous” could never clearly be defined where Turks, Tartars, and Slavs had common boundaries. The precipitous Dinaric Alps, inland from the Adriatic, provided one such fracture zone. After his visits to Venice’s Balkan possessions, Fortis published his Travels in Dalmatia (Viaggio in Dalmazia) in 1774. He described the people of these mountains, the Morlacchi, as not at all the “race of ferocious men, unreasonable, without humanity, capable of any misdeed,” whom the people of the coast accused of “the most atrocious excesses of murder, arson and violence.”50 Fortis’s book and his many letters presented a much more positive image of these high-landers. He held that the violence for which the Morlacchi were sometimes justly blamed stemmed from the circumstances in which they lived. In a society where banditry and raiding were the norm, many Morlacchi perforce became hajduks, or border reivers. These men “lived the lives of wolves, wandering among rocky and inaccessible precipices, hanging from stone to stone … It would not be surprising if frequently one heard of strokes of atrocity by these men grown wild and irritated by the ever present sentiment of such a miserable situation.”51

The Morlacchi and others were forced to lead such desperate lives by the entropy that afflicted the Ottoman lands in Europe, and which spilled over into the domains of Venice or of the Habsburgs beyond the mountains. Life on the rugged frontier was different than in the towns and villages of the plain. The hajduks of the Dinaric Alps, like the uskok frontiersmen of Senj in the sixteenth century, were men “Who have no father and mother / Gun and sword are their father and mother.”52 The highlands—much of Greece, great tracts of Albania, Herzegovina, and Bosnia, the whole of Montenegro—were filled with armed men, both Christian and Muslim. The roads and passes were notionally protected by armed militia, armatoli, against the bandits known in the Greek-speaking areas as klephts. Raiding was an honorable profession, and some, like the famous “Lion of Janina,” Ali Pasha (immortalized by Dumas in his novel The Count of Monte Cristo), became powerful and successful by practicing these traditional skills. It was easy to romanticize them. Thomas Gordon, in his 1832 History of the Greek Revolution, rhapsodized:

Extraordinary activity and endurance of hardships and fatigue made them formidable light troops in the native fastnesses; wrapped in shaggy cloaks they slept on the ground, defying the elements, and the pure mountain air gave them robust health. Such were the warriors that, in the very worst of times kept alive a remnant of Grecian spirit.53

The hardships and fatigue had one simple cause. Without the heavy burden of the Turks, the old civic virtues of the ancient Hellenes could rise again. And so too could the Slavs.

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