THERE HAS NEVER BEEN an Eastern Europe without Islam. Eastern Europe owes its existence to the intermingling of languages, of cultures, and, perhaps above all, of faiths. It is the meeting place of the Catholic West and the Orthodox East, of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewry, of militant Islam and crusading Christianity, of Byzantine mystics and Sufi saints.
Once, this plurality would have been obvious. A visitor to Vilnius in the 17th century would have heard six languages spoken in the streets; they could have heard prayers conducted in at least five more. The city had churches belonging to five denominations, as well as a synagogue and a mosque. Some examples of “Lithuanian” mosques still exist in Poland and Belarus. Wooden and square, they look just like parish churches, with the minor exception of the ornament at the top: a slim silver crescent instead of a cross.
If anything marks Eastern Europe as a place of its own, and not someone else’s periphery, it is this function as gateway and bridge between and among different traditions. And yet, again and again, the role of Islam in the making of this tapestry has been forgotten or disavowed. That is a grave mistake. Islam is the silver thread holding the whole together. Thirty years ago, the historian Larry Wolff argued that Eastern Europe was a product of the Enlightenment. When Western (principally French) intellectuals began to fashion their countries as realms of progress and rationality, they created the “East” as a flattering foil for their ambitions, filled as it was (in their eyes at least) with backwardness and superstition.
It seems to me that Wolff is only partially right. I think a notion of a separate Eastern Europe predates the Enlightenment by a few hundred years. I think, moreover, that its genesis is intimately tied to the introduction of Islam to the Balkans and southern steppes and, with it, the creation of a shatter-zone between empires stretching from the Adriatic to the Black Sea. This shatter-zone consisted of a sharp border and a soft frontier. Armies and lone warriors fought along the border. People, stories, and miracles crossed the frontiers. So many of the legends that came to define the nations of the region stem from this space of contact. And everywhere you look, relationships that appear at first to be based on enmity turn out instead to be characterized by mutual influence, mimicry, friendship, and even love.
But we must begin with war.
In the Middle Ages, Europe meant Christendom, and, in this sense, Islam arrived in Eastern Europe before Europe itself arrived. Muslim traders were already crisscrossing these still-pagan lands before Christian missionaries had set foot there. The written testimonies they left behind are some of our only surviving sources for what Eastern Europe was like before the coming of the priests. The Spanish traveler Ibrahim ibn Yaqub from Tortosa was the first to record his impressions of Prague and Krakow. Ibn Fadlan is our best source for the activities of the Vikings in what is now Ukraine and Russia. Abu Hamid al-Andalusi al-Garnati is essential on Hungary and the Volga Bulgars.
But this was all a prelude. Islam arrived in earnest a bit later, in the 14th century. Two dates stand out: the conversion of the Golden Horde to Islam in 1313, and the arrival of the first Ottoman Turkish soldiers in the Balkans — mercenaries in the service of the usurper John Cantacuzenus — in 1345. From this time on, Muslim armies (and states) would be a permanent presence in the region. This had several consequences. One was to inaugurate a new era of holy war: the Crusades that had been fought between Christians and pagans in the Baltic now became conflicts between errant knights and Muslim ghazis. Another was to transform much of Eastern Europe into a vast borderland, a zone of limited sovereignty that soon filled up with every sort of frontier fighter and freebooter: the uskok pirates of the Dalmatian coast, the Pandur and grenzer troops of the Habsburg Military Frontier in Croatia, the hajduks and haidamaks of Hungary and Ukraine, the Cossacks of the Zaporozhian Sich on the lower Dnieper, the nomadic Cumans, Nogais, and Kipchak Tatars from the Crimean steppe, Dobrudja, and Budjak. All of these groups exploited the instability of the border, justifying their raiding, plundering, and slave trading by the umbrella of their faith.
Serbia, Hungary, and Poland all claim the title of antemurale christianis, the bulwark of Christendom. So, too, did Albania — under Skanderbeg, back in the 15th century — though it is now a Muslim-majority country. Bosnia once had the inverse position, serving as the bulwark of Islam. Everywhere, though, the imagery of a fortified boundary was paramount.
The defense of the border between faiths is the subject of countless legends and stories. What would the Yugoslav oral epics be without tales of raiding across the frontier? Some poets lost their lives to border combat. The first epic poem in Hungarian was written by the tireless border general (and ban of Croatia) Miklós Zrínyi. The poem concerns the author’s great-grandfather, yet another bloodthirsty border lord, and his heroic defense of Szigetvár against the army of Suleiman the Great. The poem ends with the grandfather and the rest of the defenders defeating an army literally summoned from hell, before charging to their deaths amid a shower of musket fire. The theme of committing suicide-by-Turk in order to thwart the Turks constitutes its own micro-genre in Eastern European literature, notable entries to which include Pan Wołodyjowski by Henryk Sienkiewicz and the song cycle concerning Miloš Obilić in Serbian. But as much as poets like to write about martyrs, people’s real sympathies often lie with rogues. The best tales from the region combine both typologies. Take the story of the Baida.
In life, Dmytro Vyshnevetsky was a typical lord of the border: cunning, ruthless, and eternally willing to sell his allegiance to the highest bidder. For the king of Poland, he fortified an island in the Dnieper River to hold against the Tatars. For Ivan the Terrible, he raised a host of Circassians in the Caucasus and used them to raid up and down the Don. On his own account, he led his Cossacks to Crimea to capture slaves. When neither Muscovy nor Lithuania were willing to meet his demands, he considered going over to the Turks.
In death, though, Vyshnevetsky was transformed into the Baida, the legendary paragon of Cossack manhood. As such, he figures as the hero of a hundred epic Cossack songs, or dumy. One of the most famous, “In the Little Square in Tsar-town,” has him appear, rather unexpectedly and all alone, in the heart of Istanbul. Already drunk, he goes on a multi-day spree. The Turkish Sultan, dazzled by this display of manly bravado, offers the Baida his daughter’s hand in marriage. But the Baida knocks it away, saying, “Your daughter is beautiful / but your faith is cursed.” Furious, the Sultan has the Baida captured and strung up. Hung from a hook inserted around his lowermost rib, the Baida suffers terrible torments for three days. Yet even in this mortal predicament, he somehow manages to grab hold of a bow and shoot arrow after arrow at the Sultan and his jilted daughter, narrowly missing them both before finally tasting the sweet release of death. And so, intransigent and bibulous, he passes into the realm of myth.
Vyshnevetsky’s real death appears to have been somewhat more prosaic. Enticed by Olbracht Łaski, the notoriously, ghoulish Polish adventurer (and later patron of Giordano Bruno and John Dee) into intervening in Moldavian affairs, he was caught in an ambush and sold to the Sultan, whereupon he was strangled with a silken cord. Another version suggests that the story about the hook was true, but instead of ending in a heroic act of rebellion, he simply died.
But why insist too much on the truth? In the borderlands, stories of violence became legends or symbols almost as soon as they occurred. I know this intimately. My grandmother’s family, the Terebesz, once belonged to the Hungarian nobility. Their coat of arms was a severed head impaled on a sword. The family signet ring — the trópi głowa, or death’s head — belonged to my grandmother’s sister. I never saw it as a child, but it glittered in my mind’s eye. It may sound something like a German Totenkopf, but it wasn’t. For one thing, it showed a severed head, not a skull. For another, ours had a mustache. The presence of a forelock means that the head was likely a Turk’s, and suggests that the Terebeszes began their existence as up-jumped soldiers from the Turkish-Hungarian frontier, ennobled for some long-forgotten act of valor.
The motif of the severed head is a common one. John Smith, the one who was saved by Pocahontas in Virginia, had a similar coat of arms, though his had three Turks’ heads arranged in a triangle on a shield. Smith received it while fighting as a mercenary for Sigismund Báthory, the prince of Transylvania. He beat three challengers in single combat in front of the walls of a Romanian city during a siege. Later, he was captured and sold “like a beast” into slavery by the Crimean Tatars. For the people of the borderlands, taking heads became a way of life. When the heroes of Serbian folk songs get together over horns full of wine, they boast to one another of how many slaves they had taken and how many heads they had smitten off. After a rebellion against the Turks by Christian Serbs and Bulgarians, Salomea Pilsztyn saw the rebels’ severed heads piled together in a mountain “as large as a spacious tavern.” In the Albanian legend of the Battle of Kosovo, Kopiliq is beheaded after stabbing the Sultan to death. But he doesn’t die. Instead, he rides across the plain holding his own severed head under his arm. When a Serbian girl points out his headlessness he dies, but not before cursing her with blindness.
In his Seyahatname, Evliya Çelebi (Evliya the Gentleman), an Ottoman courtier and one of the greatest travelers and litterateurs in the history of Eastern Europe, tells a story, by turns violent and comic, of head-taking as seen from the opposite side of the frontier. It takes place during the Transylvanian Campaign of 1662:
A strange and comical adventure, a wondrous and foolish gaza. This adventure happened to your humble servant. It if is bad manners to relate it, I hope to be covered with the skirt of forgiveness.
After the battle, heeding the call of nature I retired to a lonely spot, loosened my drawers and was busy relieving myself when, from a thicket just above my head, I heard a rustle a snap. Before I could determine what this noise meant, all of a sudden an infidel soldier, fearing for his life, suddenly hurled himself from a low rock just above my head and landed on top of me, so that I plopped into my own filth. I had been holding on to the rein of my horse, but the horse started and stood off at a distance. For a moment I lost my wits: there I was, topsy-turvy with that infidel, my belt and drawers swimming at my feet and my clothes all covered in shit — I almost became “the shitty martyr.”
Thank god, I recovered my wits and wrestled with that infidel like Mahmud Pir-Yar-i Veli until I was on top. Baring my dagger, I stabbed him several times in the neck and breast, then cut off his head. By this time I was soaked in blood as well as in shit, and I had to laugh, seeing that I had become the shitty gazi. I used the dagger to wipe the shit off my clothes, then began to draw my drawers together when suddenly a brave youth came panting to the rock above my head and said, “My friend, I was chasing that infidel whom you just killed through the mountains. Fearing for his life he hurled himself on top of you and you cut off his head. Now that head belongs to me!”
I was still tying up my drawers. “Well,” I replied, “take this head,” and I showed him my little brother who was born together with me (i.e., my penis).
“What an ill-mannered man you are,” said the elegant fellow and, despairing of the head, he went his way.
As I was pulling off the infidel’s filth-spattered dolman with its silver buttons, and his drawers, I discovered 105 Hungarian goldpieces and one ring and 40 Thalers in his waistband. Putting these items in my saddlebag, I mounted my horse — his name was Hamis — and deposited the head before Ismail Pasha. “May the enemies’ misfortunate heads always roll like this one,” I said, kissed his hand, and stood at attention. Those next to me moved off because of the smell.
“My Evliya,” said Ismail Pasha, “you smell strangely of shit.”
“Don’t ask, my lord, what calamities have befallen me!” And I recounted my adventures blow by blow. All the officers at that victory celebration laughed uproariously. Ismail Pasha too was tremendously pleased. He awarded me 50 goldpieces and a silver turban-crest, and I cheered up considerably.
Combat, sustained over long periods of time, naturally turned into coexistence. And coexistence, just as naturally, bred intimacy. Sometimes, this intimacy took the form a simple acknowledgment of the humanity of one’s opponent. In the 18th century, the Polish-Ottoman frontier ran along the River Dniester. At a place called Zwaniec, a Polish garrison watched the activities of the Turkish one on the other side. Writing in the middle of the 20th, the Polish essayist Jerzy Stempowski reflected on the habits of this gentler time:
At the end of the 18th century, my great-grandfather was the last commandant of this station. In keeping with the customs of that polite age, my great-grandfather and the Pasha of Khotim [Khotyn] exchanged written compliments, which were accompanied by little gifts. My grandfather still kept a pouch of red silk that dated to this exchange of pleasantries. Inside it there was a letter written on yellowed paper covered in the miniscule writing of those times.
The closeness fostered by proximity along the border could stretch beyond compliments. In the 16th century, the Uskoks of Senj carved out a niche for themselves as ferocious pirates on the Adriatic, portraying themselves as holy warriors while they preyed on Ottoman and Venetian shipping alike. But even pirates need to make deals. At some point in the 1580s, the Ottoman government, hoping to decrease the number of raids, banned the practice of offering ransom for captives held by the uskoks. On the local level, this served no one’s best interest, as it exposed the Ottoman border soldiers to heightened danger while depriving the uskoks of a crucial source of income. So the chief of the pirates and the local bey sat down to negotiate. They set appropriate levels of payment for each type of captive, and sealed the deal by becoming formal “brothers-in-blood,” after which they retired to sleep “in a single bed, in each other’s arms.”
Another time, the uskoks concluded a truce with the agas of Karin. This angered the Venetians, who seized the messenger between the two parties, thanks to which we know the exact terms of the agreement. The uskoks promised to stop raiding in the area in return for the right of safe passage. However, the uskoks understood that the Ottoman soldiers would sometimes have to put on a show of fighting them, so they added that it would be perfectly alright if they “let off one or two gunshots” in their direction for the sake of their honor.
Shoot — but not too much, and not too accurately: an honorable solution to the problem of inconvenient affections. This closeness born from border fighting finds its literary echo in the legend of Marko Kraljević and Musa Kesedžija, popular heroes of traditional Serbian folk songs:
It had been three years since the Sultan sent Marko Kraljevic, his champion, to rot in prison. But now a great highwaymen was ravaging the coast. His name was Musa. He was a Muslim and an Albanian, and he too had once served the Sultan in Istanbul. One day, drinking in a tavern he grew angry that after years of toil he had not earned enough to buy a horse, a sword, or an embroidered cloak, so he began stealing the Sultan’s treasures, and hanging poor pilgrims and saintly hajjis from hooks.
The Sultan sent three thousand troops and a vizier to deal with them, but Musa killed them all, and some mercenaries too. So the time had come to summon Marko again. Marko was a Serb, a Christian, and a prince. He had a terrible temper and an enormous moustache. None could match his bravery. Musa and Marko met in the harsh and craggy hills of Kachanik. They fought a terrible battle, trading blow for blow. They broke each others swords and fought with their fists, but neither could force the other down. At last, Marko summoned his guardian spirit, a vila, or fairy, of the woods. With her help, and by a trick, he struck Musa with a knife and cut him open from his waistband to his throat. When Marko stood up he saw that he could see into Musa’s chest. The highwayman had three hearts. The first heart had stopped beating. The second was beating still. Around the third heart, a serpent slept coiled. The snake awoke and spoke, “O Marko, give thanks to God that I did not awake while Musa lived: Your task then would have been worse by a hundred-fold!” At this Marko wept, for he then knew that he had killed a better man than himself.
In yet another story, Marko meets his match in the great Bosnian Muslim warrior Alija Đerzelez, or Alija the Mace-Wielder. Alija was a large man, and completely bald. He had the strength of a giant. A stone that 20 men could not lift he could throw the length of a field. He fought men as easily as if he were mowing corn. He rode a winged horse, but only when no one could see. His long black whiskers drooped down the sides of his face. According to the poet, they “looked as if he held a black lamb in his teeth.” Marko also had immense strength. He had giant’s blood (it came from his mother’s side of the family). His horse could talk, and jump very far, but it couldn’t fly. It drank a great deal of wine. He carved the Iron Gates of the Danube with a single stroke of his sword. His black mustache was the size of a six-month-old lamb. The two warriors become brothers-in-blood-and-in-God.
A Christian hero fighting for the Ottoman Sultan becoming a blood brother to an equally powerful champion of Bosnian Muslims: in a few lines of sung verse, this story upends most of our preconceptions about inter-religious relations in the Ottoman Empire. In general, the history of the Ottomans in Europe is past due for revision. In the two centuries since Serbia and Bulgaria won their independence (and Romania its sovereignty), Balkan historiography has been dominated by a view of the Empire as a purely destructive force and of the period of its suzerainty as an age of darkness. Even the Nobel Prize–winning novelist Ivo Andrić, usually so perceptive and sensitive to difference, wrote in an early work that the “effect of Turkish rule [in Bosnia] was absolutely negative.”
Too many people regard the history of Eastern Europe as one of deep, persistent hatreds, of divisions that sit beneath the level of the everyday like the edges of tectonic plates. But people did live together, mostly in peace, for hundreds of years, and that peace could, in the right circumstances, even blossom into amity and subtle understanding. It’s in our power to decide which history we pay attention to, what meaning we give it in the present.
But it isn’t just the antemurale myth or the catastrophe theory of the Ottoman “occupation” — according to which the Turks wrought nothing but devastation — that have blinded us to the importance of Islam in Eastern Europe. It’s also just sheer ignorance. Why don’t we talk about Eastern Europe in the same breath as Khiva, Samarkand, or Al-Andalus? In large part, it’s simply because we don’t know.
The world of Islamic Eastern Europe is an undiscovered continent. Exploring its history means spelunking in obscure journals and forgotten offprints. Even with a good research library at your back, it is a struggle. For literature, the situation is even worse. But there are treasures waiting for the enterprising translator. The task will be difficult though, requiring not just a knowledge of languages and scripts, but an understanding of a whole world of cultural referents that have all but disappeared. To read Naim Frashëri requires not only a command of Albanian, but also of classical and modern Greek, French, Italian, and the high Islamic tradition he absorbed through Arabic, Turkish, and Persian verse.
And who will be the first to unlock the world of Balkan aljamiado literature, that is, literature composed in Bosnian and Albanian (and less frequently in Polish and Belarusian) but written in Arabic letters? Also known as Arebica, this is a type of writing that serves as a perfect metaphor for the region: hybrid in form, plural in content, permeable to influence from east and west. A starting point might be Fejzo Softa’s Ašiklijski Elif-ba, that poet’s erotic introduction to the Arabic script, from which our enterprising translator could move on to the work of Umihana Čuvidina, a Bosnian war widow who commemorated her dead in her 79-verse-long epos The Men of Sarajevo March to War Against Serbia.
And indeed, historians have recently begun to challenge the “catastrophe theory” of the Balkan past. In Art and Society of Bulgaria in the Turkish Period, Dutch architectural historian Machiel Kiel has opened a new vista on Christian life under Ottoman rule. His chief discovery was that the life of art and Orthodox ceremony never waned in the centuries after the conquest. Instead, Ottoman Bulgaria (and the Balkans in general) was a complex mosaic of affinities and dependencies, in which Christian lords could become “Turkish” cavalrymen and glittering churches could be funded by the proceeds raised by imperial tax collectors. A single document in Kiel’s book hides a millions stories. It is the membership list of the Society of Christian Sheep Drovers in Sofia, one branch of the vast procurement organization that kept Istanbul supplied with meat and grain in the 16th century. There, next to 10 goldsmiths, seven shoemakers, four tavern keepers, two grocers, a potter, a boatman, and a spinner of goat hair, are two sorbet sellers, one of whom was working for the Islamic secret police. Imagine the novel one could write about that sorbet seller! But who would dare?
The borderlands were overrun with spies and other strivers. Some had careers that were truly spectacular. Most paid for it with their lives. Ștefan Răzvan was the son of a Muslim Roma from the Ottoman Empire. Ransomed from slavery by the archbishop of Iași, he rose to become the hetman (commander) of a Cossack horde. Backed by these mounted soldiers, he overthrew Aaron the Tyrant and named himself hospodar (prince) of Moldova, thus becoming the first (and, as far as I can tell, only) Roma head-of-state in history. His reign did not last long. He was betrayed by his Polish backers in favor of a more pliant candidate (and, coincidentally, relative by marriage of the Baida). In his short life, Răzvan was a Muslim, Christian, Gypsy, Cossack, and a king. He ended it, like many ambitious border-crossers, impaled on a traitor’s stake.
But not everyone who made a living across the frontier ended quite so ignominiously. For some, the border offered opportunities to practice an honest trade they couldn’t practice at home. One such remarkable figure was Salomea Regina Pilsztyn. Born in 1718 to a Catholic family in what is now Belarus, she married a Lutheran doctor who practiced medicine in the Ottoman Empire. As a man, he wasn’t allowed to treat Muslim women of rank. Salomea learned medicine and began working as an ophthalmologist. When her husband abandoned her, she opened a practice of her own, first in Edirne and then in Sofia. There, Salomea entered an even more lucrative trade: the ransoming business. She bought captured Habsburg officers from Ottoman slavers and collected payments from their families for their return. She kept one of these ransomed officers, a German from Slovenia named Pichelstein (Pilsztyn in Polish), for herself, and married him. They traveled to St. Petersburg, where she cured ladies at the court of the empress Anna. After a few more years of travel, she divorced Pichelstein, whom she accused of adultery, extortion, and attempted poisoning. Now alone, she settled down to a position as imperial ophthalmologist at the harem of Sultan Mustafa III, before making her way to Crimea, where she went to work in the harem of the Khan.
We would hardly know a thing about Salomea’s life if not for the memoirs she left us. These were held in a castle library in Poland for two centuries before being rediscovered and published, in 1957, as My Life’s Travels and Adventures. To date, the book has not been translated into any language, and is virtually unobtainable outside of Poland. This is a great shame, since Salomea’s memoirs are one of the very few autobiographical accounts by women under Ottoman rule, and almost certainly the only one by a self-employed tradeswoman.
Salomea ventured from north to south and south to north voluntarily, but others weren’t so lucky. Countless uprooted captives and prisoners of war spent their lives pining for a lost homeland. For such unfortunates, the best hope for return came in the form of divine intercession, as in this folktale from Sarajevo.
In Istanbul, the Sultan is sleeping. In Belgrade, a cock is crowing. And in Budapest, a woman is weeping. She came here as a victim of war. Prince Eugene took her, when he sacked Sarajevo. Now she works in his house. Every day she does everything that is asked of her, and every night she weeps, overcome with longing for her home.
Eugene’s palace has many rooms and many chambers. The woman from Sarajevo has to clean inside them all. But one she isn’t even allowed to enter. One day, when the Prince was away on one of his campaigns for the Emperor, curiosity overcame her, and the woman stole the keys to the forbidden door. When she opened it, this is what she saw: a casket and an open grave. Right away she fainted. When she woke up an old man was standing over her. He wore a skullcap and had a kindly demeanor. Still, he would not tell her his name. Instead he asked about her about her life, and how she wound up in this strange city among the giaours. The woman told her about her former life in Sarajevo, and the sack of her city, and how Prince Eugene took her north in his entourage. Then the old man asked her if she was familiar with the Maghrebi Mosque on the west side of Sarajevo, an old temple from the days of Isa Beg founded by a dervish sheik who had come there from the Western lands.
She did know the mosque and told him so. The old man then asked, “Would you like to be there now?” The woman nodded yes. The old man said to her, “Stand on my robe and close your eyes!” The old woman closed her eyes and stood on his robe. When she opened them again, she was back in Sarajevo, standing in front of the Maghrebi Mosque. From that day on, the woman went every Friday without fail to this mosque and always prayed for the soul of the sheik from the Western lands.
The theme of instantaneous travel, abetted by a magical intercessor, is a recurring one in the Islamic folklore of Eastern Europe. In Lithuania, a similar story was told among the Lipka Tatars, a group of Turkic-speaking Muslims who settled in the region in the 14th century and have maintained their faith (if not their language) ever since. In this version, though, the direction of travel is reversed: from Mecca back home to the Lipka homeland near Navahrudak, in today’s Belarus. The traveler is a wealthy Tatar who had grown rich serving as the Polish king’s royal huntsman. The grantor of the wish is his own servant, a shepherd named Kontuś, who had mastered the mystic arts through prayer, and the instrument of flight is a magic crook or staff. As a condition of granting his master’s wish, the shepherd makes the huntsman swear to one thing: that he will tell no one of his secret. The huntsman agrees, and in the blink of an eye arrives back at his house. The next day, the huntsman forgets his vow and betrays his promise. The moment he tells others about Kontuś’s gifts, the shepherd dies. Yet his memory lives on. Even today, his grave still stands in the woods outside the village of Łowczyce. It is built of undressed stone. Two oaks tower over it, one at its head and one at its foot. Flowering spiraea and black alder grow all around. Every year, on Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr, crowds of pilgrims throng around to ask the saintly Kontuś for his blessing.
Wonder-working saints were among the great unifiers of early modern Eastern Europe. Their tombs attracted worshippers of all faiths. They dispensed mercy to all comers. The Kalenderi Abdals, the followers of the Otman Baba, shocked many with their strange appearance. Otman Baba himself was often mistaken for a madman, a fugitive, or a runaway slave, but the Abdals took things further. They shaved their hair, beards, and eyebrows, and tattooed their bodies with snakes and the many names of Ali. They carried tambourines and drums, and blew on horns. A loincloth or a couple of leaves were sufficient clothing. Hatchets and clubs rested on their shoulders alongside their begging bowls.
These were god’s unruly friends — insane, exalted saints whose holiness could prove frightening. They spent much of their time in seclusion and meditation in the mountains or in desolate woodlands and yet they seemed to be everywhere in the Ottoman Balkans, helping the poor and feeble, the powerless, the destitute, and those who had left their homes to go wandering. In this, they followed the example of their master. As one of them wrote after their Otman’s death, “There was no place in the vilayet of Rum where he had not set foot and where they had not seen his help and sainthood, where his miracles had not become visible.”
Sometimes the miracles they performed were quite humble. In Albania, Baba Bali once met a man leading a horse that was carrying wine. The Baba asked what the animal was transporting, and the man, too embarrassed to admit the truth, told him it was honey. The saint replied that it would indeed be honey from that time on, and when the man arrived at his destination he found that all his wine had turned into honey.
Some of the miracles were rather grand. The Demir Baba, whose home ground was in northern Bulgaria, was once summoned by the tsar of Muscovy to subdue a terrible dragon that was ravaging his land. When Demir Baba arrived, he commanded a swarm of butterflies to settle on the dragon’s eyes, blinding it. This done, he caught the dragon’s forked tongue in a trap and killed it. Astounded by this feat, the tsar offered to convert to Islam, but Demir Baba demurred. It was enough, he said, that they were both children of Abraham.
Such ecumenism was common on the part of saints. The works they did were not confined to a single religion. It was easy to see St. George in the works of a ghazi, or in Elijah, or in the flights of a Sufi mystic. This type of syncretism found an echo in popular belief. Noel Malcolm has written extensively about what he terms “religious amphibianism” in the Balkans, the ability of many people to live in the Christian and Muslim worlds at once. Christians and Muslims celebrated many of the same holidays. At Christmas, Muslims in Albania would assist Catholics in cutting the Yule log, and Catholics would take part in celebrating Bajram. On saint’s days, all came together in open-air shrines to give praise and receive blessings. All relied on the same folk medicines, and raided each other’s traditions for cures. Muslims kissed Christian icons and had their children receive Christian baptisms; Christians on their sickbeds invited Muslim dervishes to read the Qur’an over them.
One Franciscan friar visiting Kosovo from the West was welcomed into a Muslim house with the words, “Come in, Father: in our house we have Catholicism, Islam, and Orthodoxy.” He reported, in shock, “They seemed to glory in this diversity of religions.” Imagine how much more shocked he would have been to hear the preaching of the Bektashi Sufis, who used to tell Christians that “Mohammad and Christ are brothers.”
Among the great Islamic saints of Eastern Europe, no one assumed as many identities, or attracted as many followers of as many faiths, as the chameleonic Sari Saltik. He is said to have lived in the mid-13th century, or maybe a bit later. The origins of his name are obscure. Some say it comes from his being blonde or redheaded, others that it was a nickname bestowed by unbelievers on account of his great strength. What is certain is that he had more identities than lives, and many more tombs than deaths.
He was a ghazi, a warrior, a hermit monk, a wonder-worker, a priest, and even a Christian saint. He rode on a magical horse and carried an impenetrable shield. With his wooden sword (which had once belonged to the Prophet Muhammad) he cleaved open rocks. With his cypress staff he called forth holy springs. He fought Christian knights, but also djinns and witches. He offered each of these the option of becoming Muslim, and only killed them when they refused. But Sari Saltik didn’t just fight; he also preached. He spoke 12 languages, and had a golden tongue in each. He often pretended to be a rabbi or a priest. He knew the Gospels and the Torah so well he could easily move congregations to tears. In Gdańsk, the legend goes, he killed St. Nicholas, the patriarch of the town, then dressed in his robes. In this disguise he made many converts to Islam.
These stories seem to have cohered around a kernel of truth. Already in the early 14th century, the great Tangerine traveler Ibn Battuta saw Saltik’s tomb being venerated at Babadag in what is now eastern Romania. There he was remembered primarily as a warrior, who had converted the pagan Tatars and Cumans who lived in the Budjak with the sword. For centuries, Babadag, the “father mountain,” which stands alone by the delta of the Danube River, was the center of the Saltik cult, visited by Sultans as well as the indefatigable Evliya Çelebi. But it was far from the only place where Saltik was venerated. In Bulgaria, he was associated with St. Nicholas and the Prophet Elijah. In Albania, at Krujë, he stood in for St. George, the dragon-slayer. A legend is told of a dragon that was keeping a princess captive. It lived in a cave by day and in a church by night. Saltik arrived in the city disguised as an old dervish. With his wooden sword he cut off the dragon’s seven heads, along with their seven tongues. Then he disappeared, crossing the sea to Corfu in two great steps. In Bulgaria, Saltik was also known to have killed a seven-headed dragon. But there, a Christian monk stole three of its tongues and ears, and Saltik had to endure a trial by fire to prove he was the true dragon-slayer. The monk burned to death and Saltik suffered no harm. As a result, the king of Dobruja was converted to Islam. The deed was commemorated at Kaliakra, in a tomb built by the walls of an old castle situated on a promontory sticking out into the Black Sea.
How could Sari Saltik be buried at Kaliakra and at Babadag? This was another of his miracles. Before he died, he ordered that his body should be placed in seven coffins, because seven kings would vie for possession of his tomb. Four were in Christian lands: Muscovy, Poland, Bohemia, and Sweden. Three were in lands controlled by the faith: at Kaliakra, in Adrianople, and in Babadag. But this is only one version of the story. In a different one, he has 12 tombs in 12 lands. In yet another, his coffins were 40 in number, each containing his holy remains. (He had other lives too. Later saints took to claiming that they had been him in past lives. Once, at Babaeski, the site of one of Sari Saltik’s tombs, Otman Baba saw a candlestick lit by Sari Saltik himself, still burning after many years. He extinguished it with one glance and told the people who saw this, “I am the one who lit this candlestick — Sari Saltik, and the champion of the universe.” But, then, Otman was always one for talk. When he left Azerbaijan for the Balkans, he was heard to say, “I shall saddle a cloud, shall turn the lightning into a whip, and shall go back to Rum.” A donkey would have been easier.)
A shape-shifter in life, Saltik became even more prodigal in death, multiplying himself until he could lay claim to a spiritual empire, stretching from Gdanśk to Kaliakra, and from Krujë to Babadag.
This Europe, in which Christians and Muslims routinely switched clothes and butterflies could defeat dragons, has been largely forgotten. A shame, for it has lessons to teach us — lessons about embracing difference and accepting mercy. These are important lessons at a time when leaders in Poland, Serbia, Hungary, and far too many other nations have taken to saying that Muslims have no place in Europe, neither now nor in its history. The work of remembering is hard, but it is necessary, and it bears fruits. So, a final story.
The year is 1621. The First Khotyn War between the Ottoman Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth has just ended. A peace treaty needs to be negotiated. The Polish senate dispatches Prince Zbaraski, one of the richest men in the realm and a former pupil of Galileo, as its envoy. He arrives in Istanbul with a splendid retinue, dispensing gifts with an open hand. Still, the Janissaries are restive. They show him the embalmed head of the vizier they had just deposed, as well as those of his many predecessors. It is a warning. Zbaraski understands. He tells them, “May my head rest there also, if I do not serve you faithfully.”
The next day he is received by the Sultan. Zbaraski has saved his best present for last. He retrieves an old parchment from a gold chest. It is the last treaty between Poland and Turkey, signed almost a century earlier. The Turkish dignitaries crowd around to touch the parchment that had been handled by Suleiman the Magnificent himself. Zbaraski reads the closing words of the pact, addressed by the Lawgiver to Poland’s King Zygmunt the Old:
I am seventy and you are old too, the threads of our lives are running out. We shall soon meet in happier lands, where we shall sit, sated with fame and glory, next to the Highest, I on his right hand and you on his left, talking about our friendship. Your envoy, Opalinski, will tell you in what happiness he saw your sister and my wife. I commend him warmly to Your Majesty. Fare well.
At this, the chronicler tells us, all those present wept dense streams of tears. For a moment, they were privy to a vision of comity and respect almost too sweet to bear. For a moment, we can share it too.
Jacob Mikanowski is a writer based in Berkeley, California. More of his work can be found here.