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Volume 24, Number 3May/June 1973

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Islam In The Nearest East

Written by Patricia Brooks
Photographed by Jackie Curtis

Most people today can tell you where the Near East is, but 100 years ago it wasn't so easy. Then, and until World War I, the Near East was a lot nearer than it is today. It included Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria and a large part of what used to be the Balkans and is today largely Yugoslavia.

Now, to be sure, Yugoslavia is "Eastern" only in the sense that it belongs to the East European Bloc. But up to 1913 diplomatic concern about the "Eastern Question" focused on a region that flew and saluted the crescent of Islam for 450 years and has never quite erased its distinctive imprint since.

Of the six separate republics in the modern state of Yugoslavia, not all were engulfed in the 15th-century Turkish invasion of Europe. Although Bosnia, Hercegovina, Serbia and Macedonia went under, Slovenia and much of Croatia remained under the protection of the Hapsburg Empire, and Montenegro, though subdued and held briefly, later fought its way to an uneasy freedom. Nevertheless the Muslim descendants of the Turkish conquerors today form approximately 12 percent of the Yugoslav population, and in Bosnia-Hercegovina a full third of the people are Muslim Slavs.

As a result traces of Islamic culture are common: shoes that turn up at the toe, bright Eastern patterns woven into long skirts, head scarves that are not quite veils but still shield women's faces from curious observation, Arabic calligraphy on signs and buildings, oversized Turkish incised jewelry, copper water jugs and the whitewashed "Arab" villages of inner Bosnia.

You can even hear the echoes of Islam. Such proper names as Omar and Mustafa are as common as Milan and Branko. The Serbo-Croatian language, dominant in this multi-lingual nation, is salted with Turkish words. The Serbian word shogam for "good-bye" is clearly a relative of salaam, Arabic for "peace." Bosnian love songs are called sevdalinke, from the Turkish word sev for love. Aferim is the local equivalent of O.K., as it is in Turkey and some Arab countries. Mirak is to enjoy the essence of a thing (a very Islamic concept, that) and merhaba is the Arabic marhaba , "hello."

Numerous place names suggest an Islamic heritage too. Mostar—from the Turkish stari most or old bridge—is one, and the town is appropriately famous for its ancient Turkish bridge. The name of the town Tekiya means "sanctuary" in Turkish. And Hisar, which means "fortification" in Arabic, is built on a hill. The most famous place name is Sarajevo, which means "palace in the fields."

Muslim influences, not always acknowledged as such, have crept into the mainstream of Slavic culture through food too: shish kebabs, skewered grilled meats, pilaf, dolmas (sometimes called sarmas) and variations on baklava , which even slipped into the Austrian repertoire disguised as strudel.

Even in Dubrovnik, that proud coastal city known as Ragusa in the Middle Ages, and famous for its successful resistance to the Turks, there are remnants of Islamic influence. Paying annual tribute to maintain their independence as a seafaring and trading power, Ragusans prided themselves on their freedom. Yet in the Gothic chapel of the Franciscan monastery, a superb triumph of medieval Christian architecture, the rug beneath the altar is unmistakably an Islamic prayer rug.

When asked about it, a resident will say, "That is an old Bosnian rug."

"But it looks so Turkish in its bright colors and geometric patterns and the type of weaving."

The local resident shrugs, "You are mistaken. Rug weaving is a very old Bosnian craft."

Neither is wrong. It is a Bosnian craft, but one learned from the Turks in the years following the Turkish conquest of Bosnia in the 15th century.

The medieval kingdom of Bosnia, flanked on the west by Croatia, on the east by Serbia, and the south by the mountainous terrain of Montenegro, was the first real toehold of the Turks in Europe. After half a century of thrusts into the Balkans, in 1463 the Turkish army approached Bosnia and captured it. Then the Turks swept into Hercegovina in 1482 and Montenegro in 1496. Later, when the soon-to-be-memorable Suleiman (not yet dubbed "the Magnificent") had succeeded to the throne, they took Belgrade. Eight years later, in 1529, they crossed the Danube and met their first major setback at Vienna.

During the centuries of Ottoman rule, life was certainly no worse than under the feudal Christian kings. In fact, the Turks exacted less tribute and levied fewer taxes than the kings and nobility had. Often they accepted taxes in the form of labor services, rather than in land or money.

They were considerably more generous about religious freedom too, especially toward the Eastern Orthodox Church, with whom they had earlier established a detente. There were, to be sure, ground rules which non-Muslims were expected to follow: no church towers, as the mosques had to be the tallest religious buildings in town; no church bells, as they might distract from the muezzin; no mixed congregations. But otherwise they could practice their religion unhindered. And French writer Jean Bodin observed in 1576 that "The King of the Turks ... constrains no one ... permits everyone to live according as his conscience dictates ... permits the practice of four diverse religions, that of the Jews, the Christian, according to the Roman rite and ... the Greek rite, and that of Islam." In most of Ottoman Yugoslavia, the Turks ruled a predominantly Christian populace. But in Bosnia the Islamic Slavs soon gained ascendancy, especially in Sarajevo. So tight was their control they passed an edict that the Turkish vizier, who nominally supervised them, could spend no more than 48 hours within the city. His capital was Travnik, 50 miles away, and he was encouraged to stay in it. He did until 1850, when Ombar Pasha, a Bosnian Muslim loyal to the Sultan, brought the independent Muslims to heel.

In 1878, after the Russian-Turkish War, Bosnia and Hercegovina were placed under the nominal control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but to woo the still-powerful beys the Austrians extended concessions to them which, ironically, were denied the Bosnian Christian peasantry.

The beys' power, however, waned after 1912 when the Balkan states broke free of Ottoman rule and, in 1917, formed the state of Yugoslavia. In the face of fierce nationalism the term Muslim was belittled as a mark of feudalism and illiteracy, and some Muslims, faced with loss of jobs, poverty and ridicule, renounced Islam and called themselves simply Serbs or Croats.

Most of the Bosnian Muslims, however, insisted tenaciously that they could be Muslim and Slavs too. Today, though Muslims are but a third of the Bosnian landscape, they have stamped it in their image, have given their republic its depth, traditions, color and texture. When other Yugoslavs describe something as Bosnian, they usually mean Muslim.

Today Muslims have the same rights as other Slavs—equals among equals. They have provided cabinet ministers, assembly presidents and government leaders. Prize-winning Mesa Selimovic is a Muslim, as is the noted artist, Mersad Berber, whose richly ornamented woodcuts owe their inspiration to a golden Eastern past.

Muslim influence far exceeds its numerical percentage. Avo Humo, a Yugoslav statesman of Muslim background, has said, "The cultural heritage of the Muslim past is not simply being preserved and recorded; it still acts as a living inspiration to new generations."

Such inspiration reached its peak in Sarajevo, where Islamic art, blooming in the 16th and 17th centuries, produced a profusion of mosques, medresas (schools), baths and inns, and bridges like the one at Višegrad, built in 1571-77 by Kodza Mimar Sinan, the Ottoman court architect, and immortalized by Ivo Andric, Nobel Prize-winning Bosnian novelist, in his popular Bridge on the Drina . It stands, an 11-arched, 180-meter wonder, a tribute to Muslim imagination and engineering skills.

Another celebrated bridge is the Stari Most at Mostar, southwest of Sarajevo, designed by Sinan's most notable apprentice, Hajredin the Younger, about whom they tell the following story:

When Hajredin was commissioned to build the bridge, his first attempt collapsed into the teal-blue torrents of the Neretva River. The Sultan was furious and announced that one more failure would cost Hajredin his head. Since Hajredin was given no deadline, he worked slowly, trying to prolong his life, but finally finished the bridge in 1566. When the supports were removed, and the bridge stood firm, Hajredin's assistants could not find him to tell him. They eventually came upon him weeping as he dug his grave, fatalistically preparing himself for the inevitable. His precise craftsmanship has survived over 400 years.

Mostar itself is rich in Islamic treasures. Near the bridge is a tiny coffee house, or kafana, with rugs on the walls, its low, covered benches arranged, Arab style, around all the sides of the room. In one corner old men in maroon fezzes pour sweet Turkish coffee from the traditional brass dzezve . In the marketplace, a visitor can watch artisans hammer out copper trays and ornate incised belts that would sell well in Baghdad. Along the narrow, twisted streets he can find an open café, serving lamb wrapped in grape leaves. After a leisurely walk he can see the Karaadjoz Bey Mosque, whose slender minaret looks out over the beautiful green Neretva valley.

A few mountainous miles south, through the Prenj Mountains, near the Dalmatian coast, is Pocitelj, a 15th-century Turkish fortress, now being restored. Visitors may spend the night in renovated Muslim houses nestled into the hillside above the river valley. Above the village towers the 16th-century mosque with its elongated minaret. Still further up, at the hill's peak, the crumbled remains of the Turkish fort stand silent guard, offering a view that extends as far as the Adriatic.

It is Sarajevo, though, where everything comes together. It is, as Rebecca West wrote in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon , "a fantasia on Oriental themes worked out by a Slav population."

In Sarajevo modern construction and new industries are wedged in with ancient warehouses and an old market square still alive with the freewheeling merchant system of the Arab suq . Even the state-controlled, fixed-price system falters here—almost as if the central government threw up its collective hands and said, "All right, do it your own way!"

Sarajevo's skyline, with its 80 or so mosques, also makes spirits soar, and individual buildings keep them aloft—buildings like Gazi Husef Bey's Mosque, largest in Yugoslavia, built by Sinan in 1530; the Kursumli Medresa, a boarding school; and Szrzo's house, an exquisite example of 17th-century Turkish residential architecture. This last building, which once belonged to a wealthy merchant, boasts arched windows with perfect proportions, views of a secluded garden, a courtyard, a fountain, and superb craftsmanship in the fretted wooden screens. In simple but perfect taste, it conveys the essence of the Islamic life style of that time.

In Serbia, the Muslim trail more or less follows the major trade routes from West to East. Pristina, capital of Kosovo province, was the seat of a pashalik, still has a sizable Muslim community and boasts of the Mosque of Mehmed the Conqueror (1461), one of the loveliest Islamic buildings in Yugoslavia. It was built by the reigning sultan, Mohammed II, as a memorial to his predecessor, Murat.

To the southwest is Prizren, with Gazi Mehmed Pasha's Mosque (1561) bearing at the entrance this inscription: "In the town of Prizren a beautiful mosque changed the town into a paradise." In the courtyard is a mausoleum with a collection of 2,000 volumes of Arabic and Turkish manuscripts, one of which dates back to 1321.

Several of the country's finest Islamic buildings may be seen in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. The Daut Pasha Hammam, or public bath (1484), now turned into an art gallery, was the talk of Europe in its day, with its lavish fountains, white marble arabesques and stalactites in stucco, accommodating 100 people at a time, men on one side of a huge wall, women on the other.

The hammams fulfilled the Islamic ritual of frequent washings and bathing. Many were immense buildings, as the one in Skopje demonstrates. In Bosnia alone there were 50 public baths at a time when Europeans did not view bathing as a necessity.

Another building of note in Skopje is the caravansary, commissioned in 1550 by Mevlana Muslihudin, a privy counselor to Sultan Selim II. With two interior courtyards, a large, two-storied porch, a well-proportioned fountain, and many square rooms with vaulted ceilings, the building faces inward, Islamic style, and presents one of the finest examples of Ottoman public architecture in its days of glory.

But those are the tangible manifestations. Of much more importance are the intangible qualities of the Islamic spirit, now so melted into the culture that although almost indistinguishable as Muslim influences per se, they have, nevertheless, reshaped the Slavic spirit in the same way that they once reshaped the spirit of the known world and infused it with the generous grandeur that is Islam's own.

Patricia Brooks, a writer for 20 years, has been around the world three times, written three books and placed articles with McCall's, Saturday Review, Reader's Digest and the New York Times Magazine.

This article appeared on pages 4-7 of the May/June 1973 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1973 images.