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Rumeli and how the Balkans became the Balkans

Sunset in Budva - flickr-marielito
Sunset in Budva. Photo: flickr/marielito

Mark Mazower is one of the best historians of the Balkans. He has written about Greece especially and we have featured his book on Salonica here. In 2000 he published a short book on the whole region which is divided into four sections: The Land and its Inhabitants, Before the Nation, Eastern Question and Building the Nation. This book is a great short introduction and it is full of facts and ideas that will come as a surprise even to those who think they know the region. For example it was only about one hundred years ago that it really began to be called "The Balkans". Before that it was more popularly known as "Turkey in Europe", a name which, with the Balkan War of 1912, finally became utterly obsolete as the Turks were driven back almost to the gates of Constantinople.

At the end of the twentieth century, people spoke as if the Balkans had existed forever. Two hundred years earlier, they had not yet come into being. It was not the Balkans but "Rumeli" that the Ottoman's ruled, the formerly "Roman lands" that they had conquered from Byzantium. The Sultan's educated Christian Orthodox subjects referred to themselves as "Romans" ("Romaioi"), or more simply as "Christians". To Westerners, familiar with classical regional terms such as Macedonia, Epirus, Dacia and Moesia, the term "Balkan" conveyed little. "My expectations were raised", wrote one traveller in 1854, "by hearing that we were about to cross a Balkan; but I later discovered before long that this high-sounding title denotes only a ridge which divides the waters, or a mountain pass, without it being a necessary consequence that it offer grand or romantic scenery.

"Balkan" was initially a name applied to the mountain range better known to the classically trained Western traveller as "ancient Haemus", passed en route from central Europe to Constantinople. In the early nineteenth century, army officers like the Earl of Albermarle, explored its little-known slopes. "The interior of the Balcan", wrote a Prussian diplomat who crossed it in 1833, "has been little explored, and but a few, accurate measurements of elevation have been undertaken."

Later Mazower notes:

Through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, "Turkey in Europe" was the favoured geographical coin of the day. But by the 1880s, the days of "Turkey in Europe" were evidently numbered. Successor states – Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania and Montenegro had emerged during the nineteenth century as contenders to carve up what remained. Between 1878 and 1908, diplomatic conferences whittled away Ottoman territory, and subjected what remained to Great Power oversight. Western travellers, journalists and propagandists flocked to the region and popularised the new, broader use of the term "Balkans". By the time of the outbreak of the First Balkan War in 1912 – which ended Ottoman rule in Europe (outside the immediate hinterland of Constantinople), it had become common currency. Purists were annoyed. One German geographer talked crossly of "the southeast European – or as people increasingly say – the Balkan peninsula." A Bulgarian expert complained about "this region… [being] wrongly called the Balkan peninsula". But the tide was against such pedantry. In less than half a century, largely as a result of sudden military and diplomatic changes, a new geographical concept rooted itself in everyday parlance. By 1917, a standard history of the Eastern Question talked about the "lands which the geographers of the last generation described as 'Turkey in Europe' but for which political changes have compelled us to seek a new name, The name generally given to that segment is 'The Balkan Peninsula', or simply, "The Balkans".

The Balkans. Mark Mazower. 2000.
[pp. 1-2 & 3-4 / Weidenfeld & Nicolson, an imprint of The Orion Publishing Group, London]

January 2009
Tim Judah

 Back Balkans - Next 
  1. Istanbul: Pamuk's City
  2. Istanbul: Swimming across the Bosphorus
  3. Salonika and the Jews
  4. Salonica: Slaves and Trade
  5. Thessalonika: 1923
  6. Ohrid: Rise and Fall
  7. Tornado of Dust - 1944
  8. Awake Romania - 1989
  9. Novi Sad: Nest of the Serbian nation
  10. Nis: War Capital, 1915
  11. Belgrade and the Selenites
  12. 1996: Serbia Calling
  13. Belgrade Train Station - 1964
  14. Srebrenica: Vengeance
  15. Srebrenica: Blood
  16. Srebrenica: July 1995
  17. Mealtime - Interwar years in Travnik
  18. Dayton: The Napkin Shuttle
  19. London Buses in Sarajevo
  20. The Museum and Bosnian Identity
  21. Foča: The Bosniak
  22. Kosovo: The Swiss Front
  23. Mitrovica: 1908
  24. Pristina: Kosovo like Namibia?
  25. City without traffic - Pristina 1966
  26. Durham in Pristina - 1908
  27. Tirana: 1962
  28. Zog's Tirana
  29. The Kotor - Constantinople Express
  30. Kotor and the Montenegrins
  31. The Rabbi of Stolac
  32. Dubrovnik: England, Wine and Wool
  33. Cetinje: Nikola Under the Elm
  34. Cetinje: 1858
  35. Dalmatia: Ships & Grapes
  36. Prophet of Yugoslavism
  37. The head of the world
  38. 1919: Mushrooms and Lies
  39. Sofia: Bulgaria's Jews during WWII
  40. Zamfirovo: Rural livelihoods in the mid-1990s
  41. Kosovo
  42. Romania: 1914
  43. Istanbul: Food and the frugal Turks
  44. Micklagard: Surprising, cosmopolitan Constantinople
  45. Sukhumi: The history of the region became ashes
  46. Black Sea: The coming of steam and rail
  47. Mestrovic: Motherhood and the Victor
  48. Rizvanovici, Bosnia: Gnashing
  49. Down the Danube with Magris: Ruse
  50. From Pristina to Tskhinvali
  51. Serbia, Historians and Hitler's War
  52. Balkan Strongmen: Bulgaria's Zhivkov
  53. Sarajevo: The Siege Within
  54. Turkey: Osman's Dream
  55. Durres 1961: Beijing on Sea
  56. Cetinje: Eggs for the Ladies
  57. Bosnia: Land of Immigrants
  58. Ottoman Croatia
  59. Harem: All the Sultan's Women
  60. Sibiu: Regime Change, European Style
  61. 1929: The Balkans and the Great Crash
  62. Rumeli and how the Balkans became the Balkans
  63. 1948: Stalin, Kosovo and Swallowing Albania
  64. Transforming Turkey: the 1950s
  65. McMafia and the Balkans
  66. 1916: Serbia in Corfu
  67. Princes Amongst Men
  68. Limp Shevardnadze
  69. Knin: War and Suburbia
  70. In the Mountains of Poetry
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