The Balkans: A Very Short Introduction

By Emil Mirchev

The Balkans. A place full of contrasts. Relatively well-known by Europeans, forgotten by the rest of the world. Often mystified, the peninsula is associated throughout the centuries in different ways – most recent of all is the vision of corruption and poverty, some decades ago the process called “balkanization”, and a hundred years ago the Great Powers referred to the region as a “powder keg”. 

However, the negative sphere of association was not always the case. In Ancient times, the Greek and Thracian Civilizations were flourishing, in the Medieval ages, on the other hand, the East Roman Empire’s Constantinople was considered to be the Queen of all Cities. Concurrently, the Bulgarian Empire’s Literary schools developed the Cyrillic alphabet becoming the centre of Slavic languages and culture. Of course, there are plenty of other important events and people who contributed to Balkan, European, and World’s heritage but the following piece of text should be rather considered as a piece of an introduction than a comprehensive description. In fact, there is so much to write about!

The contemporary Balkans

But what are the Balkans now?

The peninsula is in Southern Europe but it is dominated by mountains. The result is hot summer everywhere and cold winters north of Greece. The magnificent beaches of the islands of Zakynthos, Corfu Rhodes, the Croatian pearls of Brač and Hvar islands. The ski slopes of Bansko, Borovets and Pamporovo in Bulgaria, the beautiful Romanian cities by the sparkling Danube. However, the question that should be asked is — what is the more special of the abovementioned places compared to the ski resorts in France and Austria, to the beaches of Spain and Italy. There are two answers. Firstly, they are way cheaper while the quality is more or less the same. Secondly, food and culture play an important role when experiencing the leisure time.

The delicious Balkans

Balkan cuisine is truly unique! For all the food lovers, the region offers an exceptional mix of the Oriental and European spirit. You can taste the great Mediterranean Greek Fish, the excellent Serbian pork BBQ or the special lamb cheverme in Bulgaria. The salads, composed by tomatoes, feta cheese, paprika and cucumbers are also a must-try. For the summer days, I recommend the yoghurt-based drinks and dishes such as tarator, ayran, tsatsiki. The masterpiece Turkish desserts such as baklava should not be neglected. And what is really important – the blend of different flavours and smells can be found in every restaurant, not just the specialised “Greek taverns” or “Serbian restaurant”.

The old Balkans

The Balkans lie on the ruins of ancient civilizations and medieval empires. In Greece, the famous Parthenon where Athenians prayed to the pagan gods still dominates the city landscape, in Croatian Split, the fabulous palace of one of the mightiest Roman emperors, Diocletian, can be visited. In Bulgaria, you can search for Roman Theaters in Plovdiv, the stronghold of the Thracians’ golden treasures, tombs and strongholds such as Perperikon. In Romania, you can spend time in the magnificent palaces of Peles, Corvin and Bran. Everywhere across the region, the scattered castles of the Romans, Bulgarians, Albanians, Serbians and Croatians wait to be rediscovered by their fellow Europeans. Indeed, the tragedy of the Balkans is reflected in this context. The remnants of once the richest and most developed regions in Europe, now left in oblivion.

The complicated Balkans

The Balkans is an antagonist of Europe. While nowadays the Old Continent is considered to be the colonizer and torturer of the world, the peninsula has always been the opposite. The Balkans were colonized by the Ottomans for about 400 years and were discriminated on the basis of religion. The implemented taxes known as devshirme (also know as a tribute in the blood) and jizya (special tax in Muslim countries for non-muslims, a great source of revenue) constituting the highest form of discrimination. But the persecutions did not stop there. Most of the local churches were destroyed or converted to mosques, a process that surely has its consequences even today. 

The broad scope of policies and oppressive practices paid off. In the first centuries the Empire was the mightiest state in Europe, and therefore there was no need for special political acts – this can be observed by the way the Balkan population was now named, rum millet (literally Roman people). However, the Ottoman power and influence eventually declined and the Sultans started to follow the principle of divide et impera as the main instrument in handling the ever-increasing unrest and riots. 

Although the Ottomans were fully expelled by 1912, their legacy remains. The nations of Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece are for the long left with immense mistrust between them, and religious divisions are explicit. Indeed, the long period under imperial rule resulted in a region full of diversity – in one city it was completely natural to hear as many as 5-6 languages. If you decide to visit Sofia, Bulgaria within 600 metres you’ll see the synagogue, catholic church, orthodox church and a mosque. 
We, the Balkanians, can be called devout, corrupted, poor and many more by our Western and, Northern neighbours. However, it is important to understand the reason of the current state of the matters. It is a tough history of oppression and prevalent mis(fortune). We lived under colonial rule for more than 400 years, we were used by the Great Powers as their proxies and if we have not obeyed, we were often threatened with war and occupation. Abandoned by the West after the Second World War, blamed to be „post-soviet” now. The Balkans were a victim of foreign influence for nearly 600 years but it is important to look at the future, as the possibility of becoming an equal member of Europe and rest of the World is more achievable than ever.

1. Often, under the term “balkanization”, scholars describe the process of fragmentation of states and the resulted by it ethnic and religious tensions and conflicts.

2. The dates are contestable but widely accepted in the scholarly literature. The Ottoman conquered Bulgaria in 1414, Constantinople in 1453, Serbia in 1460, Morea/Greece in 1460, Bosnia&Herzegovina in the 1480s and Hungary in 1490s. Respectively, Bulgaria was liberated in 1878, Serbia in 1815 but gained independence in 1878, Greece in 1830. The last one to become independent is Albania (1912).

Edited by Zuzanna Mietlinska

Artwork by Chira Tudoran