The Architectural Heritage of the Ottoman Balkans

The Architectural Heritage of the Ottoman Balkans

Machiel Kiel, research fellow
Netherlands Institute in Turkey, Istanbul

In 1353 the Ottoman Turks set foot on the shores of South-Eastern Europe after having served for more than half a century as mercenaries of the various warring Byzantine political fractions. This time they came to stay. In 1371 the outcome of the Battle on the Maritsa secured their hold. After this date they unfolded an impressive building activity. Within half a century the Ottomans developed their own style of architecture. By the end of their rule over the Balkans, in 1912, their total architectural output reached around 20.000 buildings: mosques, schools, baths, caravanserais, kitchens for the poor, castles, dervish convents, mighty bridges and monumental mausolea for the great military or spiritual leaders.

Kadin Most (Woman’s Bridge)
Over the Struma near Kyustendil (W. Bulgaria), built in 1470 (H. 874) by Inegöllü Ishak Pasha. The bridge is representative for the many great bridges built by the Ottomans in the Balkans.

Sarajevo, Bosnia
The old city centre with its 16th century monuments. In the foreground Hovace Durak Mosque, 1528, at left the Bursa Bedesten 1550s, in the background Gazi Husref Bey Mosque, 1530.

Eski Djami, Shoumen, N. Bulgaria
‘Old Mosque’, founded around 1495 by Yahya Pasha from Skopje, who also provided a hamam. These buildings were the starting point of the emergence of a new Muslim-Turkish city.

The successor states of the disappeared empire (after 1878 or 1912) saw themselves as Christian nation states, pushed out their Muslim population and destroyed (not counting Bosnia) perhaps 98% of all existing Ottoman buildings. In the rest of Europe this kind of ‘cultural policy’ was hardly noticed. The rich literature on Islamic architecture did not, or hardly, reach the great libraries of the various Balkan libraries and the history of Islamic art was not taught in any Balkan University.

Forty years of field work in the Balkans combined with study in libraries all over Europe and the US, and especially the long years of research in the Ottoman Archives has resulted in a vast fond of knowledge and documentation. The inventory of the still existing monuments of Ottoman architecture is now largely completed.

Dervis Banja (Bath of the Dervish)
Kyustendil, W. Bulgaria, 1566. One of the rare examples of a small domed mineral bath surviving in Bulgaria. In the past there were nine of them in Kyustendil alone.

Travnik, Bosnia
panorama taken from east

Feridun Ahmed Pasha Mosque
Kyustendil, W. Bulgaria, built between 1575-1577. The builder of this mosque must be the well-known historian and politician Feridum Ahmed Pasha, who served some years as Sanjak Bey of Kyustendil in the early 1570s.

What still needs to be done is much work in the archives to find the original building orders or the accounts of the construction of them, preserved from about 1460 onward. The monuments have to be placed within their socio-economic and historical background. We still have to find the patterns of patronage, just as we have to reconstruct the population of town and villages to find out why Islamic buildings were erected there, and not elsewhere.

Here the Ottoman population-and taxation registers (tahrir defter) of the 15th until the early 17th century are of great help, giving population and production village by village, household by household. For the 17th and 18th century we have the very detailed Avariz defters, supplemented by the dzizye defters, that only give the non-Muslim population per district. The architectural legacy of the Ottoman Empire can be understood only when presented against its historical and socio-economic background. This work will take another few decades, and in fact art historical interpretation never ends.

The present researcher published 12 books on the topic, as well as almost 200 studies and contributions to various encyclopaedias. His work appeared in English, French, German, Dutch, Bulgarian, Greek and Turkish. Translation of his books on the Ottoman legacy of Albania and on the island of Mitylini in the Ottoman period is in process.




South East Europe and Balkans
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Temmuz, 2020
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