Rumeli and how the Balkans became the Balkans
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]