Religion and nationality Macedonia in Ottoman Times

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  • George S.
    Senior Member
    • Aug 2009
    • 10116

    Religion and nationality Macedonia in Ottoman Times

    Religion and nationality

    Macedonia in Ottoman Times

    By Nick Anastasovski

    IT WAS NOT a sense of ethnicity or nationalism driving the Ottoman Empire, but religion. ‘Their law was a religious code, their army a force which conquered in the name of a faith.’ (144) Basic categories in the Ottoman Empire were based on religious groups. There were Muslims, the ‘believers’, and others, the ‘non-believers’. Ottoman society was organized according to religion, and as everyone necessarily belonged to a religious community, all citizens were considered to be a part of a 'nationality' known as millet.

    Prior to 1870 the Ottomans recognized only two millets in the Balkans, the Rumi millet, which consisted of all Orthodox Christians, and the Muslim millet, to which all Muslims belonged. As the only recognized Christian church in the Ottoman Balkans prior to 1870 (the Macedonian autocephalous Archbishopric of Ohrid was abolished in 1767), the Greek-controlled Constantinople Patriarchate was the official head of all Orthodox Christians. Adherents were thus labeled as belonging to the Rumi millet (also known as Roum or Rum millet). Consequently, in the official language of Turkish bureaucracy, a common racial name was given to all Orthodox Christians and Muslims respectively, with only two nationalities officially recognized – ‘Greeks’ (Roum millet) and ‘Turks’ (Muslim millet). (145) Later, with the intensification of Balkan rivalry over Macedonia (1870–1912), and the official recognition of other Orthodox Churches, new millets or ‘nationalities’ were recognized.

    Politically perceived as denoting nationality, church affiliation incorrectly implied an attachment to the corresponding national state. For instance, when the Bulgarians and Serbs established their churches (as well as the Romanian church, aimed at Vlahs), new millets were recognized, and suddenly new ‘nationalities’ emerged in Macedonia.

    Religious or sectarian identification from a Christian perspective based on church adherence did not necessarily correspond to ethnic identification. In fact, Christian church adherence was at times fluid, with allegiance transferred from one national church to another ‘as necessary’ (to protect life and property). Subjected to an intense political rivalry between the Greek, Serb and Bulgarian churches, Macedonian Christians could therefore, theoretically, be recognized under the Ottoman millet system as belonging to the ‘Greek’, ‘Bulgarian’ or ‘Serb’ nationalities, but by transferring their religious adherence to a competing Orthodox church, they could fluctuate between the loose labels of ‘Greek’, ‘Serb’ and ‘Bulgarian’. In contrast, a Muslim was generally regarded as belonging to the Turkish race only.

    Converting to Islam was seen as a process of leaving one’s own national group and ‘becoming Turkish’ ('po-Turchuvajne'). The Macedonian proverb, ‘whoever changes his faith, changes his nationality’, testifies that faith was seen to equate to nationality during the period in question and that whoever changed their faith was seen to submit to the conqueror. (146) Due to a powerful association perceived between the Muslim religion and the Turk, Islamicised Christians considered that they had adopted ‘the Turks’ religion’.

    The earliest Christians who converted to Islam were the old Macedonian feudal class in the urban centers, who, over time, became assimilated as Turks. Later the same fate befell many other Islamicised Macedonians in the large towns. But in the rural sector assimilation was far less likely to occur and the position of the peasants remained largely unaltered. Through their acceptance of Islam they acquired some of the privileges reserved for the ruling caste, however their cultural traditions and language remained unchanged. (147) They appear to have been nominal but ‘very lax Muslims who have adopted Islam as a protection, but hardly observe its precepts unless they are among Turks’. (148) Islamicised Christians appear to have identified Islam with the Ottoman Turkish Empire and the ruling feudal class, and the new convert rarely took it upon himself to study the precepts of his new religion, not as a theological belief system. (149) The new convert rarely took it upon himself to study the precepts of his new religion. (150)

    Although ‘the Turks’ religion’ had become their own, generally Islamicised Macedonians were conscious that they were not Turkish. Macedonian Muslims have themselves used and been known by various labels. In the eastern regions of Macedonia, and on the Bulgarian hinterland around the Rhodope Mountains, Islamicised Christians were known by the label Pomaks. (151) In the western regions of Macedonia they have commonly been known as Poturi or Torbeshi. (152) In the Gora region Macedonian Muslims are known as Goranci. (153) Although various labels were used to denote Islamicised Christians, a popular label in the late nineteenth century was 'Turk'. (154) The Turks themselves labeled all Muslims as 'Turks', and Albanians similarly labeled all who professed the Muslim religion as 'Turks', regardless of their ethnicity. (155)

    Although the term ‘Turk’ had widespread usage, Macedonian Muslims were generally conscious of their separate language, customs and traditions in comparison to Turks. In the Dolna Reka district villages, Macedonians had limited contact with Turks, and even though they adopted the religion of the Turk, and identified with the Turk on a religious basis, Turks were considered a separate people. (156)

    Born in 1911 in the village of Velebrdo, Asan Asani recalled that older people in the village referred to themselves as ‘Muslims-Turks’ ('Muslimani - Turci'), with an emphasis on the term ‘Muslim’. (157) It is evident that Macedonian Muslims experienced some difficulty separating the terms ‘Muslim’ and ‘Turk’. A lifelong resident of Velebrdo, Asani Rejep, explained:

    The old people understood themselves to be Turks because we were Muslims, that’s how it was perceived. In the Turkish period when a Macedonian Muslim met a Turk, he could not speak his language, he knew he wasn't the same as him. The Macedonian used different labels to identify himself back then, but he always knew he was unique. (158)

    A retired village schoolteacher, Abdula Odzheski, from Zhirovnica, stated that many of the older people referred to other Islamicised Macedonians with the term 'nashinski Turchin' (‘one of our own Turks’) whereas the term 'Turchin' (‘Turk’) was used when speaking of a genuine Turk. (159)

    Elderly men in the village were known to say 'Elamdulah' (‘Praise to God’) at the end of a meal, indicating that the meal was finished. This Turkish term was also used as an expression forsaking Turkish identity - 'Turchin Elamdulah' - 'vo posledno sum Turchin'. (160)

    In the Gora region Macedonian Muslims identified themselves as ‘Goranci’. Although conscious that they were not Turks, the interviewee, Ismail Bojda, now a resident of Skopje, advised that Macedonians of the Muslim religion considered their religion to be Turkish. Elderly folk in Gora were known to say 'imame Turska vera' (‘we have the Turkish religion’) and 'zhimi Turska vera' (‘I swear by my Turkish religion’). (161)

    Although the Empire was made up of diverse ethnic and racial groups of people, religion remained the essential basis of identification. As such, regardless of ethnicity, Christians commonly regarded Muslims as ‘Turks’, so the term ‘Turk’ was used as a blanket label for all Muslims. In line with this view, in the late nineteenth century Macedonian Christians generally maintained a stereotypical view of all Muslims as ‘Turks’ in everyday language, particularly where there was limited contact with Muslim communities, including Macedonian Muslims. However, where Macedonian Christians lived in shared communities, in neighbouring villages or even maintained family links, similarities of language, customs and traditions were recognized.

    Exposed to Macedonian Muslim communities in the Mala Reka district, at the end of the nineteenth century, Shtiljan Trajanov Chaparoski from the village of Galitchnik recognized distinguishing cultural and ethnic features of Macedonian Muslims (as well as with other separate Muslim groups). Although maintaining use of the ‘Turk’ label in a loose form, Chaparoski classified Muslims into three distinct language groups, ‘Turks who speak Turkish’, ‘Turks who speak Albanian’, and ‘Turks who speak Slavic’ (Macedonian). (162)

    During the Macedonian Kresna Uprising in 1878 the political and military program of the rebel committee as outlined in its Constitution – ‘Rules of the Macedonian Rebel Committee’ - made a direct reference to Macedonian Muslims as constituting a part of the Macedonian people. According to Article 15, ‘The Military Rules of the Macedonian Army’: ‘Any Christian or Muslim Macedonian, Turk, Albanian, Wallachian or anyone else who proves to be an opponent of the uprising and of the rebels, will be pursued and when caught, duly punished’ [sic]. (163)

    The explicit common ethnic identification in the term ‘Christian or Muslim Macedonian’ is noteworthy. Macedonian Muslims also appear in ‘The Constitution on the Future State Organization of Macedonia 1880’ (Macedonian League) under the sub-section 'Boundaries and People', in general population data. Macedonian Muslims appear under the name 'Pomaks (Muslims)' (Article Three), and significantly not as 'Turks'. (164)

    These movements were clearly attempting to transcend religious difference in the articulation of a nascent ‘ethnic’ nationalism.

    Rivalry between the Bulgarian and Serb churches in the Reka districts during Ottoman rule did not impact on perceptions held by Macedonian Muslims of their Macedonian Christian neighbours. The concept of a Macedonian Patriarchist being a ‘Serb’ or ‘Greek’, or a Macedonian Exarchist as a ‘Bulgarian’, was one with which respondents were unfamiliar. During the period of late Ottoman rule Macedonian Muslims in the Reka districts viewed Macedonian Christians as ‘Christians’ and did not associate any modified form of ethnic identity with their Macedonian neighbours as a result of village Patriarchist (Serb) or Exarchist (Bulgarian) religious jurisdiction. (165)

    Of fundamental importance to the overall aims of this present work are Macedonian Muslim perceptions of Macedonian Christian identity during Ottoman rule. In every instance respondents from the Mala Reka district spoke of the 'old people' routinely describing Macedonian Christians simply as being Risyani ('Christians'), or, as Asan Asani stated, ‘the old folk knew that Macedonian Christians were different because of their religion, otherwise they were ours (nashi) also’. (166)

    The Islamicisation of Macedonian territory produced a splintering of what had been a relatively homogenous Christian population. More fundamentally, however, it radically challenged the easy assumption that ethnic identification and religious adherence were interchangeable. It will be demonstrated in the following chapter that the demographics were much more varied and complex than this. We turn now to examine in detail the various categories of populations occupying the Macedonian territory in the late nineteenth century.


    144 H.N. Brailsford, Macedonia: Its Races and their Future, London, 1906, p. 62.

    145 Report of the International Commission to Inquire into the Causes and Conduct of the Balkan Wars, Washington, 1914, p. 22. G.M. Mackenzie and A.P. Irby wrote ‘throughout Turkey in Europe the name "Turk" is used to express a Mahometan; the name "Greek" to denote a Christian of the Eastern church’. Op. cit. pp. xxiii–xxiv. A Bulgarian millet was later recognised (in 1872), corresponding with the establishment of the Bulgarian Exarchate church.

    146 The scholar of Macedonian folk literature, T. Sazdov, Macedonian Folk Literature, Skopje, 1987, p. 145.

    147 H.N. Brailsford, op. cit. p. 88.

    148 C. Eliot, op. cit. p. 329; See N. Limanoski, 1993, regarding Macedonian Muslims secretly maintaining their Christian faith after Islamicisation.

    149 The historian, A. Matkovski, Otporot protiv Izlamizacija [Resistence to Islamicisation], Skopje, 1987, p. 37.

    150 Ibid, p. 53.

    151 G.M. Mackenzie and I.P. Irby, op. cit. p. 24. The term, Pomaks, was in widespread use during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by Bulgarian writers and was adopted by European commentators at the time when referring to all Islamicised Christians in Macedonia.

    152 The historian, J. Hadzhivasilevich, Grad Debar y vreme oslobodzhenja 1912 g. [Debar during the liberation of 1912], Belgrade, 1940, pp. 39-40. The term Torbeshi is seen as politically incorrect in the late twentieth century as Islamicised Macedonians feel it has a derogatory connotation.

    153 The Gora region encompasses approximately 400 square kilometres and extends over three states. Situated where the political borders of Kosovo (Serbia), Albania and Macedonia meet. World Macedonian Congress, Report za polozhbata i pravata na Gorancite vo Oblasta Gora i na Kosovo so predlozi za nivno konsolidirajne i sanirajne [A report on the conditions of the Gorancite in the Gora region of Kosovo with recommendations for their consolidation and sanitation], Skopje, 2000, pp. 1-2. The contemporary commentator and historian, S. Gopchevich, also refers to this group as Goranci. He claims that their language is a mixture of Serbian and Albanian and that they have 'forgotten' their Serbian language. S. Gopchevitch, Stara Srbija i Makedonija [Old Serbia and Macedonia], Vol I, Belgrade, 1890, p. 204.

    It is interesting to note that at the end of the Second World War, in 1946, a group of Islamicised Macedonians from the Gora region (the modern municipality of Dragash) presented a petition to the Macedonian government requesting that their children be educated in the Macedonian language. They met with the then President of the Macedonian Parliament, Vidoe Smilevski-Bato, however, their aim was never realised. At the same time there were calls for a modification of the administrative boundary between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Serbia (both then in the Yugoslav Federation) in order to include the Gora region into Macedonian boundaries. Makedonsko Sonce [weekly Macedonian news- magazine], No 263 - 09 July 1999, Article by S. Sharoski, pp. 22–23. According to the ethnographer, V. Kanchov, Macedonian Muslims in the Kitchevo region have been known as Chitaci. V. Kanchov, Makedonia Etnografia i Statistika [Macedonia Ethnography and Statistics], Sofia 1970 (1900), p. 333. The late nineteenth century compiler of ethnographic and linguistic data in the Debar region, S.T. Chaparoski, noted that Albanian Muslims in certain Debar districts (Grika, Luzunija, Dolni Debar and others) were known by the name Malesorci. S.T. Chaparoski, Mesnost(ite) od Debarsko okruzhie [Places in the Debar region], Document Number NR54, From the Archive of the Macedonian Academy of Sciences, p. 26.

    154 V. Kanchov, 1970 (1900), op. cit. p. 334

    155 S. Gopcevic, 1890, op. cit. p.113.

    156 Asan Asani (born 1911 Velebrdo, Dolna Reka district) interview conducted in Velebrdo on 25 March 2000. Asan Asani is from the 'Asanagovci' family (Asan’s father’s grandfather was named Asan) and he was able to trace his male ancestors back four generations to his grandfathers grandfather, Kara Mustafa.

    157 Ibid. The Albanian interviewee, Justref Metovski, (born 1908 in Resen, Prespa region) advised that in the past (into the second half of the twentieth century) it was not uncommon for elderly Gypsy Muslims to identify as Musliman-Turchin ('Muslim-Turk') or Turchin-Guptin ('Turkish-Gypsy'). Albanians similarly used terms of identification such as Musliman-Turchin ('Muslim-Turk') or Turchin-Arnaut ('Turk-Albanian').

    158 Asani Rejep (born 1915 Velebrdo, Dolna Reka district) interview conducted on 25 March 2000 in Velebrdo.

    159 Interview conducted with Abdula Odzheski (born 1945 Zhirovnica) on 25 March 2000 in Zhirovnica.

    160 Ibid.

    161 Ismail Bojda (born 1953 Brod - Gora region) interview conducted on 7 March 2000 in Skopje.

    162 S.T. Chaparoski, document NR54, op. cit. J. Hadzhivasilevich claims that Christians in the Debar region commonly used the terms Torbeshi or the more popular Poturi when speaking of Islamicised Christians, and the term Turk was more likely to be used in anger. 1940, op. cit. pp. 39–40.

    163 H. Andonov-Poljanski, editor, Documents on the Struggle of the Macedonian People for Independence and a Nation-State, Skopje, 1985, p. 269.

    164 S. Dimevski, V. Popovski, S. Shkarich, and M. Apostolski, Makedonskata Liga i Ustavot za Drzhavno Ureduvajne na Makedonija od 1880 [The Macedonian League and Constitution for the future state organisation of Macedonia 1880], Skopje, 1985, p. 238.

    165 In the Reka district the Christian religious contest was played out between the Serb and Bulgarian churches

    166 Asan Asani interview, op. cit.

    Nick Anastasovski has made use of over sixty primary and more that one hundred and thirty secondary sources as well as numerous other documents to put this book together.

    With 520 pages and a large format, “The Contest For Macedonian Identity 1870-1912” is a well researched and easy to read book that everyone should own. It is an excellent defensive weapon to use in the protection of the Macedonian identity.

    “The Contest For Macedonian Identity 1870-1912” is the ninth Macedonian book published by Pollitecon Publications. It is available in Australia for $35 plus $10 postage.

    In North America the book can be purchased from the Canadian Macedonian Historical Society’s web page for $ 45 Canadian. See

    The Contest For Macedonian Identity 1870-1912

    By Nick Anastasovski

    Published by


    PO Box 3102 Abbotsford NSW 2046

    Australia Ph: (02) 9715 7608

    Fx: (02) 9713 1004

    Em: [email protected]


    Editor & Publisher: Victor Bivell

    Front Cover: A Macedonian family from the Reka region of western Macedonia circa early 20th century.

    ISBN 978-0-9804763-0-9

    @ Copyright 2008

    About the author:

    Nick Anastasovski was born in 1965 in Bitola, Macedonia. He arrived with his family in Australia in early 1966 and grew up in the western suburbs of Melbourne. He graduated from La Trobe University with a Bachelor of Arts degree with majors in Sociology and Philosophy. He was awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at Victoria University in 2006 for The Contest for Macedonian Identity 1870-1912 (under the title of Contestations over Macedonian Identity 1870-1912). In recognition of Nick's academic performance, he was awarded Outstanding Final Year Research Student in the School of Social Sciences at Victoria University in 2006.

    In North America this book can be purchased from the Canadian Macedonian Historical Society’s web page for $ 45 Canadian. See
    From email from rstefov
    "Ido not want an uprising of people that would leave me at the first failure, I want revolution with citizens able to bear all the temptations to a prolonged struggle, what, because of the fierce political conditions, will be our guide or cattle to the slaughterhouse"
  • Liberator of Makedonija
    Senior Member
    • Apr 2014
    • 1597

    Have no idea why there are no comments on this thread. That is a fantastic read, I will look into getting a copy of that book for myself.
    I know of two tragic histories in the world- that of Ireland, and that of Macedonia. Both of them have been deprived and tormented.


    • vicsinad
      Senior Member
      • May 2011
      • 2337

      It is a good read with some invaluable research. I recommend it.