Ottoman Serbia

From New World Encyclopedia
Map of Turkey in Europe dated 1726. Serbia (Servia) is in the center.

Ottoman Serbia refers to the period from the conquest of medieval Serbia by the Ottomans in 1459. The Serbian Empire had emerged from the earlier Serbian kingdom in the fourteenth century and existed from 1346 until 1371, when the Ottomans won a decisive battle. While it lasted, the empire was one of the largest and most powerful in Europe. A successor state managed to resist Ottoman conquest until 1459 before it fell to the Ottoman invasion. Serbs had developed a self-identity as the bastion of Christianity in the face of the Muslim threat. Memory of their status as a medieval power and their role as defenders of Christian civilization was revived as nationalistic ideals spread around Europe in the wake of the French Revolution, resulting in a successful Serbian revolution national uprising, and de facto independence, in 1817. This was officially recognized by both the European powers and the Ottomans at the Congress of Berlin in 1878.

Serbia combined with other former Balkan provinces of the Ottoman empire—known as Turkey in Europe—to form what was later named Yugoslavia in 1918. Following World War II this became a communist state. When Yugoslavia, which Serbia had dominated, collapsed in 1991 war broke out in the Balkans, during which Serbia's president, Slobodan Milošević drew on a legacy of animosity towards Muslims to attempt to destroy neighboring Bosnia as a multi-cultural state. He had himself depicted on posters alongside the iconic Serbian hero, Prince Lazar, whom the Turks had slain during their conquest of Serbia. Although there is considerable evidence that life in the Ottoman space often saw cordial relations between Christian, Muslims, and Jews, this was denied by the propaganda and program of ethnic cleansing masterminded by Milošević. In a world where new awareness of common human responsibility towards each other and towards the planet itself is developing, perpetuating the image of Others as demons, ignoring examples of harmonious co-existence, does nothing to encourage human cooperation across race and religion to make the world a better, more harmonious, just, and peaceful place.

Historical background

Serbs formed their first unified state under the Vlastimirovic dynasty by 812. By the beginning of the fourteenth century Serbs lived in four distinctly independent kingdoms—Dioclea, Rascia, Bosnia, and Syrmia.

At first heavily dependent on and a vassal of the Byzantine Empire, over time the most powerful of the Serb states—Raška (Rascia) achieved full independence, overtaking the Kingdom of Duklja, which had previously dominated the Serbian lands between the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The center of the Serb world (Raska, Duklja, Travunia, Zahumlje, Pagania, and Bosnia) moved northwards, further from the Adriatic coast. Although fully converted to Christianity by 865 C.E., this relocation to the north and east also meant the shift towards the Eastern Orthodox rather than Roman Catholic faith (initially predominant in the south following the East-West Schism). Well before the Ottoman conquest, Serbia was solidly an Orthodox state, with a close relationship between Serbian and Orthodox identity.

The Serbian Kingdom was proclaimed in 1217, joined later by the Kingdom of Syrmia, Banovina of Mačva, and Bosnia; finally, the Serbian Empire of Stefan Dušan was formed in 1346. One of the largest states in Europe, Serbia would soon find itself on the frontier between the Ottoman and European spaces. After striking a blow to the weakened Byzantine Empire in 1356 (it is disputed that the year may have been 1358 due to a change in the Byzantine calendar) which provided it a basis for operations in Europe, the Ottoman Empire started its westward expansion into the European continent in the middle of the fourteenth century. The Balkans was their first theater of war.

Ottoman Conquest

Wars for Serbia (1371-1540)

Disunity and fragmentation of the Balkan states weakened resistance to the militantly expansive and highly motivated Islamic invaders. The first confrontation took place in 1344, which the Serbs won. Serbia suffered two crushing defeats during the initial invasions. The Turks defeated the Serbian army on the banks of the river Marica in 1371, where the forces of Serbian nobleman Mrnjavčević from today's Macedonia were defeated, and in the Battle of Kosovo on Kosovo Polje (Kosovo Field) in 1389. This battle pitted vassal troops commanded by Prince Lazar against the Turkish Sultan Murad I. This battle would take on iconic significance in Serbian myth; Lazar became a Christ like figure; Turks were demonized. Sultan Murad I, though victorious at the battle, was later stabbed and assassinated by a Serbian nobleman named Miloš Obilić who was taken as a prisoner inside his tent, where the Turks expected him to show his respect to the sultan. Obilić himself was immediately executed by the sultan's Janissary bodyguards as a response.

The Battle of Kosovo defined the fate of Serbia, because after this it was unable to field a force capable of standing up to the Turks. This was an unstable period, marked by the rule of Prince Lazar's son, Stefan Lazarević—a true European-style knight, a military leader, and even poet. Along with his cousin Đurađ Branković, he moved the capital north to the newly built fortified town of Smederevo. The Turks continued their conquest until they finally seized all of northern Serbian territory in 1459 when Smederevo fell into their hands. During the 70 years of resistance, though, the Serbs did win several victories. After 1459, the only free Serbian territories were parts of Bosnia and Zeta. Following the fall of the Bosnian kingdom, Serbia was ruled by the Ottoman Empire for almost four centuries. A Serbian principality under Hungarian protection was created after the fall of the Brankovic's in what is now Slavonia, Vojvodina, and northern Serbia and Bosnia. The state spent its entirety fighting the Ottomans and represented the continuation of what was left of the Serbian Kingdom. It fell in 1540, when the Ottoman conquest of the Serbian lands, which lasted about 200 years of continuous warfare, was finally complete.

Hungary and Serbia (1389-1540)

Monument to Emperor Jovan Nenad in Subotica.

From the fourteenth century onward an increasing number of Serbs began migrating north to the region today known as Vojvodina, which was then under the rule of the Kingdom of Hungary. The Hungarian kings encouraged the immigration of Serbs to the kingdom, and hired many of them as soldiers and border guards. Therefore, the Serb population of this region increased. During the struggle between the Ottoman Empire and Hungary, this Serb population attempted a restoration of the Serbian state. In the battle of Mohač on August 29, 1526, Ottoman Turkey destroyed the army of the Hungarian-Czech king Louis Jagellion, who was killed on the battlefield. After this battle Hungary ceased to be independent state, and much of its former territory became part of the Ottoman Empire. Soon after the Battle of Mohač the leader of Serbian mercenaries in Hungary, Jovan Nenad, established his rule in Bačka, northern Banat, and a small part of Srem (these three regions are now parts of Vojvodina). He created an independent state, with city Subotica as its capital. At the pitch of his power Jovan Nenad crowned himself in Subotica as the Serb emperor. Taking advantage of the extremely confused military and political situation, the Hungarian noblemen from the region joined forces against him and defeated the Serbian troops in the summer of 1527. Emperor Jovan Nenad was assassinated and his state collapsed.

Austria and Serbia

Seoba Srba (The Moving of Serbs), a picture by Paja Jovanović.

European powers, and Austria in particular, fought many wars against the Ottoman Empire, relying on the help of the Serbs that lived under Ottoman rule. During the Austrian–Turkish War (1593–1606), in 1594, the Serbs staged an uprising in Banat, the Pannonian part of Turkey. Sultan Murad III retaliated by burning the remains of St Sava the most sacred saint of all Serbs. Serbs created another center of resistance in Herzegovina, but when peace was signed by Turkey and Austria they were abandoned to Turkish vengeance. This sequence of events became usual in the centuries that followed.

The Great War between Ottomans and the Holy League

The Great War between Ottomans and the Holy League took place from 1683 to 1699. The Holy League was created with the sponsorship of the Pope and included Austria, Poland and Venice. These three powers incited the Serbs to rebel against the Ottoman authorities, and soon uprisings and guerrilla warfare spread throughout the western Balkans, ranging from Montenegro and the Dalmatian coast to the Danube basin and Old Serbia (Macedonia, Raška, Kosovo and Metohija). However, when the Austrians started to pull out of Serbia, they invited the Serbian people to come north with them to the Austrian territories. Having to choose between Ottoman reprisal and living in a Christian state, Serbs abandoned their homesteads and headed north led by patriarch Arsenije Čarnojević.

Austrian-Ottoman War

Another important episode in Serbian history took place in 1716–18, when the Serbian ethnic territories ranging from Dalmatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina to Belgrade and the Danube basin became the battleground for a new Austrian-Ottoman war launched by Prince Eugene of Savoy. The Serbs sided once again with Austria. After a peace treaty was signed in Požarevac, Ottomans lost all its possessions in the Danube basin, as well as northern Serbia, northern Bosnia, and parts of Dalmatia and the Peloponnesus. From 1718 until 1739, Austria ruled the part of Serbia it had won in the 1717-18, war but relinquished this territory in 1739.

The last Austrian-Ottoman war was the so called Dubica War (1788–91), when the Austrians urged the Christians in Bosnia to rebel. No wars were fought afterwards until the twentieth century, which marked the fall of both empires.

Revolution and independence

The Serbian revolution took place from 1804 until 1817. Notions of nationalism were sweeping across Europe. Serbia emerged from this as a sovereign European nation-state. From 1817, Serbia was constituted as a Principality under the rule of Miloš Obrenović, although it was not until 1878 that the Ottomans officially recognized Serbia's independence. In 1882, the Principality became a kingdom and in 1918, it united with Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia to form what later became Yugoslavia. Dominated by the Serbian royal family, for many Serbs, this resurrected the Serbian Empire, or Greater Serbia that had lost independence to the Ottomans at the Battle of Kosovo. Having resisted Ottoman domination for more than 70 years before their final defeat, this new success in asserting their independence from the Turks later informed notions of Serbia's role as a buttress against the world of Islam, although the philosophers of the revolution had stressed the importance of religious freedom. There is little doubt that Ottoman policy became more repressive as the Ottomans feared the collapse of their empire and feared national uprisings across their large territory.


The legacy of Ottoman conquest and rule impacted significantly on the Serbian people. Serbian history stressed their Christian and European identity and the Balkans geo-political importance as, potentially, the last line of defense between Europe and what has often been seen as the threat to European identity presented by the Muslim world. In Serbian literature, the Battle of Kosovo represents a defining moment in Serbia's history. Lazar is widely regarded as a hero, although scholars debate his origin and existence. The Balkan myth depicts Lazar as a Christ-type and the Turks as Christ-killers. In this view, Slavs who converted to Islam ceased to be Slav, since Slavic identity was so closely associated with Orthodox Christianity that conversion to "any other religion was simultaneously to convert from the Slav to an alien race."[1] By becoming Muslim they became Turk: Turks, together with all non-Europeans, were considered inferior. The creation of Yugoslavia was a direct result of the Ottoman legacy; a more unified Balkans may have resisted Ottoman conquest. As the various Balkan provinces of the Ottoman Empire gained independence, they feared possible Italian expansion and saw a unified state as a form of defense.

Following the breakup of Yugoslavia, some Serbs wanted to revive the Greater Serbia of pre-1389. They thought that territory occupied by those parts of Bosnia that had once been Serbian ought to be reclaimed, and its Muslim occupants expelled. The status of Kosovo became problematic; regarded as a holy city by Serbians, it has a mainly Muslim population which the new Serbian state attempted to expel. Not all Serbs share or shared this racist ideology. However, the charge that Muslims were responsible for Serbia's defeat at the Battle of Kosova was widely used during the war to justify acts of brutality, destruction of property, and even genocide. Referring to the myth of Kosovo as contained in the The Mountain Wreath by P.P. Nyegosh, Prince-Bishop of Montenegro (1830-1851), Mahmutcehajic wrote:

the message conveyed by this seminal poetic drama is that the battle between Serbs and Muslims is the battle between good and evil and can only end in the destruction of one or the other, "our battle shall have no end/until we or the Turks are dead to the last man."[2]

Miloševic was himself depicted in posters side by side with Prince Lazar and Jesus, "in a kind of holy trinity."[3] Both Serbia and Croatia also represented themselves as Christian bulwarks against the threat of Muslim expansion; thus the Muslim presence in the Balkans was "an obstacle that should be removed: a presence discordant with the political growth of Europe and one that interferes with the creation of pure Serbian-Croatian borders." The reality of life within the Ottoman space in Europe was somewhat different to how Serbian myth portrays this. Jews often found refuge there from persecution and expulsion elsewhere; inter-marriage across the faiths took place. Mahmutcehajic describes, especially referring to Bosnia, a tradition of mutual respect and of what he calls "unity in diversity." This tradition may be of "paradigmatic importance for the entire world." [4] It is difficult to conceive that the reality of life in Ottoman Serbia was radically different from that in Ottoman Bosnia with respect to the practice of religious toleration that was characteristic of Ottoman polity. In an increasingly inter-dependent world, perpetuating the image of the religious or cultural Other as a demon while ignoring the more positive aspects of interaction does nothing to encourage human cooperation across race and religion to make the world a better, more harmonious, just and peaceful place.


  1. Sells (1998), 45.
  2. Mahmutcehajic (2000a), 70.
  3. Mahmutcehajic (2000a), 70.
  4. Mahmutcehajic (200Ob), 83.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Anscombe, Frederick F. 2006. The Ottoman Balkans, 1750-1830. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers.
  • Brown, L. Carl. 1996. Imperial Legacy: The Ottoman Imprint on the Balkans and the Middle East. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. ISBN 9780231103046.
  • Cox, John K. 2002. The History of Serbia. The Greenwood histories of the modern nations. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. ISBN 9780313312908.
  • Mahmutcehajic, Rusmir. 2000a. The Denial of Bosnia. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press. ISBN 027102030X.
  • Mahmutćehajić, Rusmir. 2000b. Bosnia the Good Tolerance and Tradition. Budapest, HU: Central European University Press. ISBN 9780585395326.
  • Matthias, John, and Vladeta Vuckovic. 1988. The Battle of Kosovo. Athens, OH: Swallow Press. ISBN 0804008973.
  • Mihaljcic, Rade. 1989. The Battle of Kosovo in History and in Popular Tradition. Belgrade, SP: Beogradski izdavacko-graficki zavod. ISBN 8613003664.
  • Sells, Michael A. 1998. The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia. Berkeley, CA: The University of California Press. ISBN 0520216628.
  • Wiles, James W. 1970. The Mountain Wreath of P.P. Nyegosh: Prince-Bishop of Montenegro, 1830-1851, 2nd ed. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. ISBN 083714311X.


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