Turks in Bulgarian Literature, 15th-18th centuries

Rossitsa Gradeva.

For several centuries the Balkan region has been regarded as a zone of fraction between the Orient and Europe, between Islam and Christianity, where nothing is actually Christian, nor is it Islamic, a mysterious area where everything is possible. Not so long ago the discourse about the Orient concentrated around and treated mainly the interests of the big colonial empires in the East and their reflection in scholarship and letters, in the image of the "Orient" and "Oriental" peoples in the West. The attitudes in the Balkans, however, and especially those of Bulgarians to Turks and Muslims, meet us with a different reality, the reality of a (probably) "white" people (Christians) ruled by an "Oriental" empire. The recognition of the neighbour, the ethnic, religious and/or linguistic "other" in the Balkans where the relations are further complicated by the impact of the historical factor, and where each nation claims some kind of political and/or cultural dominance in the past, usually at the expense of the neighbours, is still in its beginning.

The present study aims at the investigation of the image of Turks/Muslims in Bulgarian literature from the 15th-18th centuries, an image built for centuries by dozens of Bulgarian intellectuals and religious functionaries with the means of the books, religious and lay, sermons, vitae, apocrypha, and, finally, in the 18th century - the first histories of Bulgarians written by Bulgarians. All these texts are analysed also with the purpose of revealing the roots of attitudes existing even in modern days. While they were composed or compiled by the literati of contemporary Bulgarian society, being addressed to the wide audience of the Bulgarian flock, it might be assumed that they to a great extent also reflect the feelings of rank-and-file Bulgarians either. Bulgarian folklore, reveals many specifics in the attitudes to the ethnic and religious other - Turk, Jew, Armenian, Greek, Serb or else, but even there one may claim that the main dividing line runs along the religious differentiation. Orthodoxy is regarded as the "Bulgarian faith" while Islam is considered "Turkish", hence those who speak Bulgarian but profess Islam or Catholicism are not considered Bulgarians. In this sense, conversion to Islam at the time invariably meant a change in the ethnicity, too, and the main efforts of the community aimed at preventing such a change.

The European Christian states' interest in Islam and Islamic societies, their political, social, and military structures, grew in particular with the establishment of the Ottoman empire in the Balkans and the conquest of Constantinople in particular. Due to various reasons ranging from mere curiosity to the desire to know better the enemy's/ally's political system, different states at different periods showed different degrees of interest in certain aspects of the imperial life. For Balkan peoples this interest was motivated by completely different factors, which changed radically again after the conquest of Constantinople when the Ottoman Empire became firmly established in the region. Knowledge about everyday life and even Islamic dogmatic was abundant. What became vital was the survival of the community which to a large extent depended on the separation of the Orthodox Christians from the religious other, on the prevention of any crossing of the line between the two main faiths in the Balkans. Thus despite evidence of the relatively peaceful cohabitation between Christians and Muslims Christian literature abounds in negative references to Muslims, the Muslim polity and religion. The historians of the 18th century further contributed and fixed this negative image which is still living in Balkan mentality, and is so easy to stir even nowadays.