Turcoman Colonization of the Ottoman “Wild West”


A review of Imperial Expansion, Colonization, and Conversion to Islam in the Islamic World’s ‘Wild West’: The Formation of the Muslim Community in Ottoman Deliorman (N.E. Balkans), 15th-16th CC., by Nikolay Antov.

Nikolay Antov’s dissertation contributes new understandings to the nature of Islamic expansion under the Ottomans in the Western Islamic world of the 15th–16th centuries. This period marks the empire’s expansionist apogee: the self-proclaimed caliphal state that emerged with the conquest of Mecca and Medina in 1516-17.  Set against the backdrop of tensions between the Shīʿī Safavid empire of Iran and the Ottomans, the professed “defenders of Sunni orthodoxy” (p. 1), the dissertation investigates the formation of a substantial Shīʿī-oriented Turcoman community in Ottoman Deliorman—the northeastern region of the Balkan peninsula. Antov argues that the heterodox and refugee nature of Deliorman’s Turcoman settlements were largely the result of state-enforced deportations and voluntary immigration of dissenting, nomadic Turcoman populations of Anatolia. The resultant Turkicization of the original, but sparse, Slavic Christian communities, distinguished Deliorman from other areas of the Balkans, such as Bosnia, Albania, and the Rhodope mountains, whose indigenous populations converted to Islam at various points between the 15th to 18th centuries, while retaining the primacy of the local languages. This region-specific case-study, in six chapters, provides a rare window into the complex processes of Turkic colonization, religious conversion, and Ottoman realpolitik, that led to the formation of this unique Balkan Muslim enclave. The study is primarily based upon administrative documents, such as Ottoman tax-registers, deeds of pious endowments, and period historiographical and hagiographical sources.

After surveying the bibliographic terrain and laying out his methodology in Chapter One, Antov traces in the next chapter the history of migrations of nomadic Turkic pastoralists in the Eurasian steppe, from the fourth to second millennium B.C. down to the pre-Ottoman incursions of some Turkic groups into the Balkans, and the eventual Ottoman expansion into Anatolia and the Balkan lands. The major focus of this chapter is the migratory waves, unleashed by the Mongol invasions, of Turkic peoples, especially the Seljuk Turks, into the northeast Balkans and the Crimea, and the regular incursions into the Balkans, from the 14th century onwards, of Turks who had settled in Anatolia. The disintegration of the Seljukid territories of Anatolia into petty principalities is detailed, as are the allegiances and counter-allegiances forged and broken between the Byzantine state and these principalities, many of which were maritime states. The Ottoman capture of Byzantine Tsympe and the fortress of Gallipoli in 1354, Antov notes, raised the Ottomans above other Anatolian emirates in their ability to establish themselves as an indomitable force, and marked a pivotal moment in the establishment of an Ottoman presence on the European side of the Dardanelles, from which further expansion over the next two centuries into the Balkans became relatively straightforward. Significantly, the author posits the view that the Anatolian Turcoman nomads, led by the Ottomans, saw their role as gazis or ‘holy warriors’ as not incompatible with their nomadic pastoralism; rather, their interpretation of Islam provided ethical reinforcement to their expansionist tendencies, which arose from the innate “pressures of nomadism as a temporal subsistence pattern” (p. 80). To the Ottomans, the Balkans represented what Antov calls a “spatial (or geographical) reservoir” (p. 80) with “a vast expansionist potential in comparison to its rival principalities in Anatolia” (p. 81). By the end of the 15th century, the Ottomans had successfully made the Balkans an integral part of their territories, and were poised to marshal its vast human, natural resource, and revenue potential. The Ottoman success in the Balkans, as Antov shows, was a result of their judicious oscillation between the application of military force, when needed, and the subjugation of other regions through vassalage. Moreover, the Ottomans successfully mobilized religious sentiment to their political advantage, first harnessing Islamic sentiment in their territorial expansion into the Christian Balkans, and then deploying Balkan Christian vassal armies to conquer rival Turcoman principalities in Anatolia.

The first half of Chapter Three, rich like the previous one in historical detail, is devoted to delineating Deliorman’s history within the larger historical developments of the 15th-century Northern Ottoman Balkans. Antov traces the impact of the fratricidal civil war waged between the sons of Sultan Bayezid I, the emergence of his triumphant son, Mehmed I (r. 1413-21), as sultan, and the conditions that led to the rise of the rebel Sheykh Bedreddin and the revolts which he and his disciples led against Mehmed. He also sketches the history of crusader alliances between Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia, Poland, and Byzantium, and the Crusade of Varna (1444) fought against the Ottomans under Murad I. Ottoman policy towards non-Muslims in their newly conquered Balkan territories was tempered as much with political prudence as with Islamic tenets and the policies the Ottomans had themselves developed with regard to non-Muslim peoples, providing such groups with “a substantial degree of autonomy” which, Antov notes, was crucial to the “relative stability” of Ottoman rule in the 15th-century Balkans (p. 118), and its ultimate success in the region. The second half of this chapter turns to extrapolating, from Ottoman tax registers, the demographic features of Deliorman in the Ottoman province of Nigbolu, an area which period sources show to have been almost entirely depopulated in the late 15th century. This crucial evidence bolsters Antov’s central argument that large tracts of Deliorman were later repopulated by Turcoman nomads, many of whom were forcibly resettled there by the Ottoman state, evidence that goes against the accepted view that the early 15th-century activities of Sheykh Bedreddin in the region were the primary cause of the growth of Deliorman’s Muslim population.

The Ottoman-Safavid conflict that came to a head during the reigns of Selim I and Süleyman I (1512–1566) is the focus of Chapter Four, which delineates the hardening of Islamic sectarian identities across the Middle East in response to the proclamation made in 1501 by Shāh Ismāʿīl of the Safavid dynasty of Iran that Twelver Shīʿīsm was the official religion of the state. The Ottoman state responded by proclaiming themselves as the upholders of Sunnī Islam, and, accordingly, created official policies that marginalized the Shīʿī Turcoman nomads of Anatolia, who had in the 15th century helped to wage their expansionist wars. In the 16th century, many such Turcoman groups, led by various charismatic rebel leaders who espoused an extremist militant Shīʿī ideology (ghulūw), helped to catapult Shāh Ismāʿīl to the leadership of the Safavid state. Antov shows how these Turkic nomads ultimately became doubly marginalized: the Ottomans now viewed them as heretics, worthy of persecution, while the Safavids distanced themselves from the extremist ideology of these supporters, espousing instead Twelver Shīʿīsm, an ideology more conducive to the consolidation of their hierocratic and centralized state. After the Battle of Chaldiran (1514), where the Safavids were defeated, these dissenters found their escape routes to Iran blocked—one of the reasons why, according to Antov, they sought refuge in Deliorman, which had by then come to be viewed as a sanctuary for political rebels.

Taking the views of the Turkish Ottoman historian, Ömer Lütfi Barkan, on Ottoman colonization of the Balkans as a point of departure, Antov provides, in Chapter Five, an extensive analysis of the possible hypotheses for Deliorman’s repopulation in the 16th century. Two factors were crucial: first, the Ottoman policy of deportation of what the state perceived to be problematic groups; and second, the remote nature and topography of mountainous, forested Deliorman, which made it attractive both to officials sending deportees there as well as to refugee nomads themselves. The latter, who moved there voluntarily, found it to be a tax haven, since it was relatively inaccessible to the Ottoman administration; it was also an area conducive to sheepbreeding, the main livelihood of these nomads. The region gradually developed, as the author shows, into a major sheepbreeding center that provided Ottoman Istanbul with much of its supplies of mutton. This chapter continues to chart, on the basis of late 15th- to 16th-century Ottoman tax registers and lawcodes, the demographic, social, and economic map of Deliorman, while highlighting the importance of two institutions to the stabilization of the population: derbend villages that guarded mountain passes, and the wakf, pious charities largely established by prominent Ottoman officials that enabled the establishment of mosques and religious schools (medreses). Among the many factors that led to Turcoman colonization of the Balkans was also the role played by Shīʿī dervish groups. While the state was uncomfortable with dissenting groups in Anatolia due to the Ottoman-Safavid conflict, once removed to the western margins of the empire, such populations and their non-Sunnī beliefs, Antov argues, were largely accommodated, even supported, by the state, with the help of land grants and tax exemptions, as was the case in the resettlement of dervish groups.

The sixth and final chapter studies the development of four key urban centers of Deliorman—Hezargrad, Shumnu, Chernovi, and Eski Chuma—showing how each of these towns developed along lines different from the other three. Here Antov tests two theories of the Ottoman city, both motivated by nationalist ideologies: the first is the statist view of the Turkish historiographer, Ömer Lütfi Barkan, who emphasized the role of Ottoman urban planning and state policies in the development of such Balkan cities. The second is the opposing view of a Bulgarian historian, Nikolai Todorov, who stressed continuities between the Ottoman and the pre-Ottoman city, downplaying the direct role of the Ottoman state in urban development. In stressing that no single paradigm of urban development fits all Ottoman cities alike, Antov acknowledges the role, in the case of Hezargrad, of Ottoman state intervention in urban planning, while reifying the state’s accommodationist abilities in accepting more “spontaneous” urban formations (p. 342), such as Eski Chuma, as long as such centers possessed a mosque and a marketplace—the basic hallmarks of the city to the Ottomans. This chapter, and the dissertation as a whole, bears rich implications for deepening our understanding of the socio-religious aspects of the groups that repopulated Deliorman. It opens up several questions. What was the impact, for instance, of Ottoman institutions, such as medreses, on Shīʿī populations? Did Sunnīs also migrate to Deliorman? If not, did the Ottomans bring Sunnīs specifically to attend to the administration and day-to-day running of the wakf-endowed institutions? What were the tensions, if any, between various Muslim groups in Deliorman, and how did these play out over the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries? What were Sunnī-Shīʿī demographics across the rural-urban divide? Did the Balkan Shīʿī populations tend to reside more in the rural areas or in the Ottoman cities? Were the Shīʿīs more attracted to places like Eski Chuma, for instance? What were Muslim-Christian relations like in 16th-century Deliorman?

There is a dearth of studies on the Ottoman Balkans in the North American and Western European academe. Scholarship on the Islamization of the Balkans emerging from the pens of Balkan and Turkish historians, as Antov himself shows throughout this dissertation, has often been colored by nationalist ideologies; theorization, moreover, about the Islamization of the Balkans has tended to ignore regional differentiation. This study, which upholds the salience of the case-study method in piecing together the larger history of the Islamization of the Balkans, while drawing upon an impressive array of sources in European languages and Turkish, is a notable corrective in all of these regards, providing the first detailed historical examination of Ottoman Deliorman. Apart from its inherent attraction to historians of the Islamic world, Turkey, and the Balkans, and to comparatists who study religious conversion and ethno-linguistic colonization, Antov’s nuanced analysis of the rise and decline of Ottoman Deliorman’s urban centers should be of interest to historians of the medieval city. Here too Antov successfully counteracts the biased views of Turkish and Balkan nationalist historiography. For all of these reasons, this dissertation would also be of interest to those who work on nationalism and the many historiographies it has spawned.

Ayesha A. Irani
Visiting Scholar
Institute of Islamic Studies
McGill University

Primary Sources

Prime Ministry’s Archive, Istanbul
Oriental Department of the National Library, Sofia
Topkapı Palace Museum Archive, Istanbul

Dissertation Information

University of Chicago. 2011. 381 pp. Primary Advisor: Cornell H. Fleischer.


Image: David&Bonnie, “Harmony in the Mountains,” Velitrenë, Albania. Flickr.

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