The Church And National Identity: The Case of Serbs (I)

The Christian Orthodox Serbs are already everyday protesting in the form of extremely peaceful liturgical processions in NATO’s member Montenegro against newly proposed and introduced the law on religious communities in this small Balkan and Adriatic country. The protests are headed by the Montenegrin branch of the Serbian Orthodox Church (the SOCh) which has to mostly suffer by the real implementation of the law as all religious objects of the SOCh are simply going to be confiscated and nationalized. However, behind such confessional policy of Podgorica is the task of final suppression and denationalization of the Serbs in Montenegro which is running with Serbophobic policy since 1997. Of course, the NATO is going to offer a crucial umbrella for the realization of the project of not only denationalization and assimilation but and expulsion of the Serbs from Montenegro according to the successful example in the 1990s in neo-Nazifascist Croatia of Dr. Franjo Tuđman. Current Serbophobia in NATO’s Montenegro is absolutely similar to the current Russophobia in Euromaidan Ukraine having the same sponsors in the West.

At the moment, the only protector of the Serbs in Serbophobic Montenegro (Crna Gora) is only the Serbian Orthodox Church and, therefore, it is quite understandable why Podgorica wants first to destroy the SOCh. The future of existence of the Serbs in NATO’s Montenegro is primarily depending on the possibility of the SOCh to survive as an organized representative and protective Serbian national institution in Montenegro.

In order to properly understand the importance of the SOCh in current political events in Montenegro, it is quite important to light some aspects of historical role of the Serbian Church in preserving Serbian national identity at the time of the foreign oppression and rule as it was, for instance, during the Ottoman yoke after the 1389 Kosovo Battle.

The goals of this article are: 1) to investigate the role of the revived Patriarchate of Peć in Serbian and Balkan history?; and 2) to explore and present the results of investigation of the problems with respect to: a) the role of the Serbian Church during the first decades of the Ottoman occupation of Serbian lands in the process of the creation of a Serbian national identity; b) Serbian-Turkish relations in the second half of the 16th century; and c) the reasons for Serbian disloyalty towards the Ottoman government at the turn of the 17th century.

The article addresses the reasons and causes of the decline of the Ottoman Empire, which was one of the most powerful European states in the New Age of European history. Marking a period of prelude to the “Eastern Question” in the Balkans, i.e. the question of the survival of the Ottoman Empire in Europe.[i] This was one of the crucial questions in the history of Europe from the time of the Reformation to the beginning of the First World War. The methodology employed consists of the analysis of available documents and a comparison of different historical sources and literature on the subject.

The Patriarchate of Peć is a subject of major significance as it was the only Serbian national institution within the Ottoman Empire and whose role was crucial in influencing the Serbian population to remain loyal to their faith rather than convert to Islam. The patriarchate was responsible as well for the fact that the Serbs preserved their own national medieval heritage and the idea of an independent national state. Under the influence of the patriarchate, Orthodox Christianity became the central and crucial element of the Serbian national identity that has been sustained to the present day.[ii]

The Patriarchate of Peć was one of the most important institutions in the history of the Serbs, particularly with respect to their religious and cultural history. This institution was founded in 1346 during the realm of the most significant Serbian monarch: emperor Stefan Dušan the “Mighty” (1331−1355).[iii] The foundation of the national Serbian Patriarchate of Peć was a consequence of a new political situation on the Balkan Peninsula, the emergence of Serbia as the most powerful country in this region positioned to replace the Byzantine Empire. In the same year as the founding of the patriarchate, Dušan the  Mighty was crowned by the Patriarch of Peć as the Emperor of Serbs and Greeks (i.e., the Byzantines). The period that followed was one of full independence of the Serbian medieval church from the Greek one (named as an Ecumenical Church in Constantinople).

The history of the Patriarchate of Peć can be divided into two periods, with a long interruption between them which lasted approximately one century: 1) from 1346 to 1459; and 2) from 1557 to 1766. In the first period, the Patriarchate of Peć was the state church of independent medieval Serbia. When the Ottoman Turks conquered Serbia in 1459 the patriarchate, as Serbian national church, was soon abolished (most probably in 1463) and it did not exist for a century until its revival in 1557. However, the new patriarchate found itself in a new political situation in comparison to its previous position in independent Serbia. Now, from 1557 to 1766 the new Patriarchate of Peć was under the total control of the authorities of the Ottoman Empire. Nevertheless, the territory under the jurisdiction of the “second” patriarchate was greater than that of the “first” patriarchate.

The territory covered by Serbian Orthodox Patriarchate of Pec in 1557 within the Ottoman Empire
The territory covered by Serbian Orthodox Patriarchate of Pec in 1557 within the Ottoman Empire

The “second” Patriarchate of Peć had jurisdiction over all Serbs in the Ottoman Empire. It is important to stress that only two (Orthodox) patriarchates (the Greek Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Serbian Patriarchate of Peć) were permitted to exist in the Turkish state after the Ottoman conquest of the largest part of the Balkans. After the fall of the Serbian independent medieval state, the Patriarchate of Peć was the only institution that could unite all Serbs in the Ottoman Empire. The patriarchate actually became a representative institution of the Serbs before the Ottoman government. Essentially, in the eyes of the Serbs, the “second” Patriarchate of Peć was a substitution for the lost medieval national Serbian state. 

The main roles of the “second” patriarchate during the two centuries of its existence were: 1) to prevent the Serbs from converting to the Islamic faith; 2) to serve as the political representative of the Serbs in Sublime Porta (the Ottoman government); and 3) to preserve the medieval cultural inheritance of the Serbian state and people.

This article deals with the history of the new Patriarchate of Peć during the first thirty-eight years of its existence: from the revival of the patriarchate until the incineration of St. Sava’s relics on the Vračar Hill near Belgrade (1557−1594).

The main issues discussed in this article are: 1) the reasons for the revival of the patriarchate; 2) the reasons for the Serbian insurrection of 1594−1595 against Ottoman rule; 3) the reasons for the incineration of the relics of St. Sava and the consequences of this action with respect to the relationships between the Serbs and the Turks, 4) the tolerance and intolerance in the Ottoman Empire regarding the relationships between the Islamic and Christian Orthodox faiths in the areas under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Peć, and 5) consideration of whether the “second” patriarchate was a new patriarchate, only with old name, or was it a real resumption of the medieval (“first”) Serbian patriarchate?

The Serbian people under the Ottoman rule in the 16th century

The making the Ottoman state into a world power was the work of the sultan Mehmed II al-Fatih, “The Conqueror” (1451−1481), whose conquest of Constantinople in 1453 removed the last major barrier to expansion into the northern Anatolia and enabled the Ottomans to dominate the Straits and the southern shore of the Black Sea.[iv] After the conquest of Constantinople Mehmed II in four military campaigns succeeded in occupying Serbia and finally annexing it in 1459 after the fall of Smederevo – Serbia’s capital at the time.[v] Mehmed the Conqueror soon occupied Bosnia in 1463, Albania in 1479 and Herzegovina in 1482. He also made the preparations for the Ottoman conquest of Negro Monte or Montenegro (medieval Doclea or Zeta) in 1499. As a consequence, ultimately all of the Serbian medieval states and Serb populated territories came under the Ottoman sultan as parts of the Ottoman Empire. Actually, the Serbian people and Serbian areas were being conquered by the Turks from 1371 (Macedonia) to 1499 (Montenegro). During the time of the Ottoman expansion in the Balkans, the smaller Ottoman provinces – sanjaks, which were located at the Turkish borders with Christian states, became the most important for the Ottoman administration primarily from a military point of view. The strong military fortresses and a special system of military stations were built on the territories of the borderland sanjaks. A typical example was the Sanjak of Smederevo (northern medieval Serbia) which existed from 1459 to 1552 (from the time of the fall of the city of Smederevo until the conquest of the province of Banat).

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Serbian people lived in five larger Ottoman provinces – pashaliks. The most important of these were the Pashalik of Rumelia with its sanjaks: Skoplje, Kyustendil, Sofia, Prizren, Vučitrn, Scodra, Kruševac, Vidin and Smederevo; and the Pashalik of Bosnia, divided into the following sanjaks: Bosnia, Herzegovina, Klis, Zvornik, Bihać, and Lika. The other pashaliks in which the Serbs lived were: the Pashalik of Timişoara (in the sanjaks of Čanad and Timişoara), the Pashalik of Jeger (in the sanjaks of Szeged and Srem), and the Pashalik of Kanjiža (in the sanjaks of Mohach and Požega).[vi]          

The Ottoman administrative system was organized with the most important goal of securing full military success and thus primacy.[vii] A fundamental principle of interethnic relations within the Ottoman Empire was a legal and practical superiority of the Mohammedan creed (Islam) over all other creeds. The most remarkable features of superiority and the privileged position of the Muslims in the Ottoman society were the requirement that Christian subjects pay extra taxes in money (haraç) and taxes in the blood – devşirme (in Serbo-Croat –  “danak u krvi”).[viii] The last one – devşirme (collection of boys) was especially harsh for the Christians as it was the practice in which the Ottoman authorities forcibly collected the boys from the Christian families to be trained and later enrolled in the Ottoman Empires’s military or civil service.[ix] In general, in the Ottoman Empire, there was a legal declaration of religious tolerance (for instance, by the sultan’s firman in 1566) and a fairly complete political and social intolerance. The Christians were clearly second-class citizens. While formally proclaimed religious tolerance in the majority of cases was not respected on the ground in the provinces by the local Ottoman governors.       

St. Sava of Serbia
St. Sava of Serbia

It is assumed by historians that approximately 90−95% of the Serbs in the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century lived in rural areas.[x] Theoretically, the sultan owned all Ottoman lands and he was the absolute master of all inhabitants: Muslims and non-Muslims. In this way, the Christian Serbs were the sultan’s flock or subjects (reaya) – the members of the tax-paying lower class in the Ottoman society. However, in the 16th century, there were Christian Serbs who were timar owners.[xi] A majority of them had been small and middle-level feudal lords at the time of the independent Christian states. It was very rare to have more Serb Christian than Ottoman Muslim sipahis (the Ottoman feudal lords) as in the majority of cases the Serb Christian sipahis were a minority.[xii]

In the Serbian ethnolinguistic territories, the farmers, who were in the majority Serbian reaya, had subordinated small-land properties (čiftluks) and tax-paying obligations to both the sultan and the Ottoman Muslim feudal aristocracy. In addition to ordinary taxes, required of all members of the reaya social strata (whether Muslim or not), Christian Serbs, as non-Muslim members of the reaya, while having to pay to the sultan, had extra tax obligations: monetary, natural and labor ones. The most important was the haraç or džizija, which was paid by all labor-able men per capita. During the second half of the 16th century, meritorious Serbs were granted by the sultan abandoned lands as čiftluks (private possessions) along with peasants as their serfs.[xiii] Generally speaking, during the first hundred years of Ottoman rule, the status of the peasants was better than it had been in the Christian medieval feudal states. This was the main reason that until the end of the 16th century among the Christian Serbs there were no rebellions against the new (Ottoman) rule. There were also some privileged territories, as for instance Montenegro, where a feudal system was abolished by the Ottomans and where all inhabitants were proclaimed as free-peasants (not feudal serfs). In  Montenegro, even the Ottoman administrative system was not established on the local level (nahijas). Local administration thus was left to the domestic (Christian) aristocracy.[xiv]

The main part of the northern portion of the territory of the formerly independent medieval Serbia was transformed into a borderland Ottoman military province which was ruled by a paşa whose administrative seat after 1521 was in Belgrade (before 1521 it was in Smederevo). The paşa determined the amount of tribute and taxation. He was also the head of the justice system and of the Ottoman administration in his province – paşalik (pashalik, pašaluk). The Christians, in contrast to the Muslims, had no right to complain against the paşa, but they could appeal to him for his protection against the local Ottoman feudal aristocracy – the sipahis. The Ottoman paşaliks were territorially subdivided into several sanjaks governed by sanjak-begs. The sanjaks were subdivided into vilayets or subaşiluks administered by a subaşa and finally, the subaşiluks were composed of several nahiyes, or local districts, administered by mudirs. The administration of justice was given to the kadi, whose administrative territory was the kadiluk.[xv]

St Sava Temple - The largest orthodox cathedral in the world
St. Sava Temple, the largest Orthodox Cathedral in the world, Belgrade, Serbia, Europe

Almost until the end of the 17th century, there were large districts in the Serbian ethnolinguistic territory administered by the local Christian Serb başi-knezes. They were persons were usually the descendants of Serbian nobles or princes who had become dependent on the Turks, but managed by their services to win the latter’s goodwill and retain their lands relatively intact. Başi-knezes were responsible only to the paşa in Belgrade as the administrator of the entire province of the Belgrade paşalik. The Ottoman Muslim kadis had no jurisdiction in the territories administered by başi-knezes and the Turks did not have the right to live in their districts. Thus, a large part of Serb populated land was not under the Ottoman administrative jurisdiction in the 15th and 16th centuries. In many cases, the nahiyes were administered by local Serb Christian obor-knezes. They were elected by their compatriots, but their election was subject to the paşa’s approval. The obor-knezes were mainly responsible for order in the nahiyas. Thus, some type of local national-territorial autonomy existed among the Serbs under the Ottoman rule during the first century and a half of the Ottoman administration.

To be continued

Reposts are welcomed with the reference to ORIENTAL REVIEW.


[i] For a discussion of the “Eastern Question” see: Б. Поповић, Источно питање (Београд, 1928); Ф. И. Успенски, Источно питање, Београд−Подгорица: Службени лист СЦГ−ЦИД, 2003.

[ii] Today is known that almost all former Orthodox Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Raška (Sandžak) who became converted to Islam are “Bosniaks”, former Orthodox Serbs converted to Roman Catholicism in Croatia, Dalmatia, Slavonia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina are “Croats” and former Orthodox Serbs converted to Islam in Kosovo-Metohija became “Albanians” (Arbanasi). In Kosovo-Metohija existed Arnauts (Arnautaši) – converted former Orthodox Serbs to Islamic faith who still did not lose their ethnic identity before they finally became Albanians. It is estimated that c. 30% of present-day Albanians in Kosovo-Metohija are of Serb origin (Д. Т. Батаковић, Косово и Метохија у српско-арбанашким односима (Београд: Чигоја штампа, 2006), p. 33−36).

[iii] On emperor Stefan Dušan and his empire see: М. Стевановић, Душаново Царство (Београд: Књига-комерц, 2001).

[iv] For information on Mehmed the “Conqueror” see: J. Hammer, Historija Turskog/Osmanskog/Carstva, I, (Zagreb: Ognjen Prica, 1979), pp. 151−252.

[v] H. Inalçik, The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age 1300–1600 (London, 1973), p. 27.

[vi] I. Božić, S. Ćirković, M. Ekmečić, V. Dedijer, Istorija Jugoslavije (Beograd: Prosveta, 1973), see the map on p. 136.

[vii] H. W. V. Temperley, History of Serbia (New York, 1969), p. 106.

[viii] However, the Armenians and the Jews were exempted from devşirme taxation (В. Ћоровић, Историја Срба (Београд: БИГЗ, 1993), p. 373).

[ix] About devşirme see more in LookLex Encyclopaedia:

[x] F. Singleton, A Short History of the Yugoslav Peoples (Cambridge, 1989), p. 38.

[xi] A timar was an inheritable solder’s small land-property.

[xii] I. Božić, Istorija Jugoslavije, p. 137.

[xiii] On the Ottoman feudal, state’s and military systems see in: Историја народа Југославије. Књига друга од почетка XVI до краја XVIII века (Београд: Просвета, 1960), pp. 9−38

[xiv] I. Božić, Istorija Jugoslavije, p. 143.

[xv] Историја народа Југославије, p. 19−21.

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