Exhibition captures shared legacy of the Balkans

Highlighting the shared history of the various communities in the Balkans should act as something of an antidote to prevailing (mis)conceptions of a region that has become known as a byword for sectarian violence and intolerance. Generally speaking, the media throughout the 1990s and since has peddled tales of “ancient hatreds”, fuelled by various observers, not least amongst them Robert Kaplan, whose Balkan Ghosts, published in 1993, can be seen as part of a wider narrative relegating the Balkans to not-quite civilised status, a fringe region different to the rest of Europe, where barbarity is still the norm, a shortcoming that broadly could be sheeted home to almost five centuries of Ottoman (Turkish) rule.

In fact, the Balkan region during the period of Ottoman rule *was* different to the rest of Europe in that there was widespread intercommunal cross-pollination and tolerant co-existence. Historians argue that Sultan Mehmet, the conqueror of Constantinople in 1453, thought of himself as assuming the mantle of the Byzantine emperors (and the attendant glories of ancient Rome) rather than stamping out the Greek empire. Ogier de Busbecq, a 16th century envoy from Vienna, who betrayed no love for the Turks, remarked that Turkish merchants were reluctant to put out to sea each spring until Greek priests had blessed the waters in Istanbul. Edith Durham travelling in Albania did a double take seeing Bektashi dervishes vesting the tomb of St George; ‘I thought you were all Muslims,’ she asked a sheikh. ‘So we are,’ he replied, ‘but of course we keep St George’s Day.’ And Leon Sciaky’s memoir of old Salonika tells of street pedlars who could speak six languages. I could go on… but I ask, where else in Europe could you see or record such things?

It would be naive to assume that the Ottoman centuries were a unbroken period of intercommunal bliss. Of course there were moments of persecution, injustice and intolerance and a social hierarchy constructed along religious lines that would be anathema in a modern democracy, but cross pollination and co-existence were just as significant factors in daily life, such that there are identifiable echoes between Greek, Turkish, Albanian and southern Slavic languages, music, food, folklore, customs and architecture apparent even today.

It is these more positive aspects of the Ottoman Balkan centuries that are on show in this exhibition that will tour Athens, Belgrade, Berlin, Prizren, Skopje and Tirana in months to come. You can click through to some of the images by visiting the map.

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IN RELATED news, the 28th Sarajevo Winter Festival was recently launched. A fixture on the Balkan cultural calendar since 1984, the festival continued even throughout the siege of Sarajevo from 1992-5. This was a mighty gesture of defiance in the face of Serbian paramilitaries, who appeared pretty intent on destroying the multicultural fabric and cultural artefacts of the city. The festival was a reflection of the show-must-go-on attitude of the Sarajevan arts community during that trying time, and continues to this day as a manifestation of the inherent joie-de-vivre of the city’s inhabitants.

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