History of the Macedonian People - Ottoman Rule in Macedonia

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History of the Macedonian People from Ancient times to the Present

Part 19 - Ottoman Rule in Macedonia

by Risto Stefov rstefov@hotmail.com

The Ottomans crossed into Europe for the first time around the year 1345 as mercenaries hired by the Pravoslavs to defend the Pravoslav Empire. Over the years as the Ottomans grew in number, they settled in Galipoly, west of the Dardanelles (Endrene), and later used the area as a staging ground for conquest.

In 1389 the Ottomans attacked Kosovo in a decisive battle and destroyed the Pravoslav army, killing the nobility in the process. In 1392 they attacked and conquered geographical Macedonia including Solun but not Sveta Gora (Holy Mountain). In 1444 while attempting to drive north, through today's Bulgaria, they were met and crushed by the western Crusaders at Varna. Soon after their recovery they besieged and took Tsari Grad in 1453, looting all the wealth that had been accumulated for over two millennia.

Feeling the sting of the 1444 defeat, the Ottomans turned northwest and in 1526 attacked and destroyed the Hungarian army, killing 25,000 knights. After that they unsuccessfully tried twice to take Vienna, once in 1529 and then again in 1683. The failure to take Vienna halted the Ottoman expansion in Europe.

In a steady process of state building, the Ottoman Empire expanded in both easterly and westerly directions conquering the Pravoslavs and remnants of the Macedonian, Bulgarian and Serbian kingdoms to the west and the Turkish nomadic principalities in Anatolia as well as the Mamluk sultanate in Egypt to the east. By the 17th century the Ottoman Empire had grown and held vast lands in west Asia, north Africa and southeast Europe.

During the 16th century the Ottomans shared the world stage with Elizabethan England, Habsburg Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, Valois France and the Dutch Republic. Of greater significance to the Ottomans were the city states of Venice and Genoa which exerted enormous political and economic power with their fleets and commercial networks that linked India, the Middle East, the Mediterranean and west European worlds.

Initially the Turks may have been ethnically Turkish, perhaps originating from a single race but by the time they had conquered the Balkans, the Ottoman Empire had become multi-ethnic and multi-religious. The Ottoman Empire built its power base on a heterogeneous mix of people who were added to its population with every conquest. What may have been Turkish at the start was soon lost and the term "Turk" came to mean "Muslim" as more and more people from the conquered worlds were Islamized. To be a Turk, one had to be a Muslim first. "The devsirme system offered extreme social mobility for males, allowing peasant boys to rise to the highest military and administrative positions in the empire outside of the dynasty itself." (Page 30, Donald Quataert, The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922, Binghamton University, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

When the Ottomans crossed over to the Balkans and conquered Macedonia the basic state institutions and military organization of the empire were still in a state of development. Built on a basis of feudal social relations the empire was despotic with many elements of theocratic rule. After sacking Tsari Grad the Ottomans adapted much of the Pravoslav administration and feudal practices and began to settle the Balkans. The conquered people of the new Ottoman territories became subjects of the empire, to be ruled according to Muslim law. At the head of the Ottoman Empire sat the Sultan who was God's representative on earth. The Sultan owned everything and everyone in the empire. Below the Sultan sat the ruling class and below them sat the Rajak (protected flock). Everyone worked for the Sultan and he in turn provided his subjects with all of life's necessities.

The Sultan was the supreme head of the empire and his power was unrestricted. Initially his capital was in Bursa then it was moved to Endrene (Adrianople) and after Tsari Grad fell, in 1453, it became the permanent Ottoman capital. Even though their empire was spread throughout Asia and Africa, the European provinces were considered to be the Ottoman Empire's heart and soul.

Initially at the head of the Ottoman state administration stood a single Vizier but by 1386 a second Vizier was appointed, elevating the first one to Grand Vizier. The number of viziers continued to increase with time and by the middle of the 16th century there were four.

After the Balkan conquests, the Ottoman Empire was divided into two large Bejlerbejliks, or administrative units. The rulers of these provinces, the Bejlerbejs, were appointed directly by the Sultan. The Bejlerbejs were the highest local military commanders in the Bejlerbejliks or Pashaliks as they later came to be known. The Rumelia or European Bejlerbejlik incorporated the territories of the Turkish provinces of Europe. This Pashalik was further divided into smaller units called Sanjaks or Jivi, which made up the basic military and territorially administrative components of the empire. Each Pashalik was also divided into kazas where each kaza represented a judicial district for which a qadi or judge was responsible. With time and with the extension of the empire's frontiers the number of Bejlerbejliks grew and their nature began to change. Bejlerbejliks became Elajets or Pashaliks and during the 1470's two Kaziaskers, or Supreme Military Judges, were appointed: one in Rumelia and the other in Anatolia in Asia Minor. There was also a Nichandji, or Keeper of the Imperial Seal, who sat at the head of the administration and, on behalf of the Sultan, placed the seal on all acts issued by the central government. Financial affairs were handled by the Defterdars.

The Divan, or State Council headed by the Grand Vizier consisted of the highest state officials, including viziers, kaziaskers and defterdars, who regularly met to discuss and resolve important state matters.

The Ottoman military was subdivided into land and naval forces. The land force, considered to be the strength of the empire consisted of the Sultan's guard and the provincial (Elajet) armies. The most powerful and most numerous of the Elajet was the Spahis or cavalry. The striking force of the Sultan's guard was the Corps of Janissaries, which was formed around 1329.

The Janissaries were initially recruited from the prisoners-of-war and, by means of the "Blood Tax", from the subordinated Christian population.

Muslim Turks always administered their government and the military. However, due to lack of manpower to rule an expanding empire, the Ottomans adopted the "devshirme" or child contribution program in the 1300's. This so called "Blood Tax" was harvested by rounding up healthy young Christian boys and converting them to Islam. After being educated, the bright ones were given administrative roles and the rest, the "Janissary", were given military responsibilities. The devshirme was abolished in 1637 when the Janissary proved to be a handful for the Sultan. In some regions, however, this practice was continued up until the 19th century.

The navy started out very small but was intensively built up in the late 1390's by Sultan Bajazid I. Initially, and at times of war, the Grand Vizier was Commander-in-Chief of all the armed forces. The empire's feudal lords had no right to exert legal, administrative, financial or military authority, even on their own estates.

The legal system was created around the Seriat which had its basis in Islam. The Koran and Hadith were the books from which the ideals and fundamental principles for the construction of the legal system were drawn. No law could be passed which in principle contradicted the Seriat. Only the supreme religious leader, the Sejh-ul-Islam, had the right to interpret and assess the legal norms and only from the point of view of Islamic law.

The Koran dictated Muslim conduct and behaviour, including punishment for crimes. In the Ottoman mind only religion and the word of God had sole authority over peoples' lives. Religion was the official government of the Ottoman State. Islam was the only recognized form of rule that suited Muslims but could not be directly applied to non-Muslims. So the next best thing was to allow another religion to rule the non-Muslims. The obvious choice of course was the Pravoslav Christian religion, which was the foundation of the Pravoslav Empire. There was a catch however. The official Muslim documents that would allow the "transfer of rule" were based on an ancient Islamic model, which denounced all Christianity as a corrupt invention of the "Evil one". The conservative Turks regarded the Christians as no more than unclean and perverted animals. Also, the ancient documents called for sacrifices to be made. A Christian religious leader, for being granted leadership by the Muslims, was expected to sacrifice his own flock on demand, to prove his loyalty to the Sultan. It was under these conditions that the Patriarch accepted his installment as sole ruler of the Christian Orthodox faith and of the non-Muslim Millet.

The Sultans tolerated Christianity as the Government of the non-Muslim Millet and sold the Patriarchate to an adventurer who could buy (bribe) his nomination. Once nominated, the Patriarch in turn sold consecration rights to Bishops, who in turn regarded their gain as a "legitimate investment" of capital and proceeded to "farm their diocese". Under Ottoman rule the Patriarchate in Tsari Grad became a corrupt business, having little to do with faith and more to do with making money. As more and more bishoprics fell into the hands of the new Patriarch, faith at the top began to fade away. This was also the beginning of the end for the Slavonic (Macedonian) Churches in the Ottoman Empire.

In addition to being a religious ruler, the Patriarch and his appointed Bishops became civil administrators of the Christian and non-Muslim people. Their authority included mediating with the Turks, administering Christian law (marriages, inheritance, divorce, etc.), running schools and hospitals, and dealing with the large and small issues of life. There were no prescribed provisions, however, on how to deal with criminal matters or the limit of authority on the part of the Bishops. In other words, there was no uniform manner by which Christian criminals could be punished or how far a Bishop could exercise his authority. This opened the way for interpretation, neglect, abuse, and activities of corruption such as nepotism, favouritism, and bribery.

After conquering the Balkans, the Ottoman Turks immediately started to establish their own administration and, where possible, retained existing administrative and territorial divisions. Macedonia belonged to the Bejlerbejlik, or Elajet of Rumelia. Solun was administered by the famous military commander Evrenos Beg and served as the oldest military centre for the defense of the empire's western frontier. When Skopje fell to the Ottomans in 1392 it became the centre of a new region. The first Skopje regional commander was Pashaigit Beg.

In an attempt to create a stable political and social support system in conquered Macedonia, the Ottoman authorities introduced voluntary migration for Turks from Asia Minor. As a result, many Turkish settlements sprang up all over Macedonia and occupied strategic positions like valleys of navigable rivers and coastal plains. This increase in Moslem numbers, particularly in the larger towns, was at the expense of the Christian population. The nomads of Anatolia were best suited for such migration because of their nomadic way of life.

In time and as a result of Ottoman colonization policies, small Turkish livestock breeding settlements were established at Jurutsi and Konjari near Solun, and in the districts of Nevrokop, Strumitsa, Radovish, Kochani and Ovche Pole. Migration into Macedonia was not restricted to Turks. Late in the 15th century Jews fleeing the western European Inquisitions in Spain and Portugal also settled in Macedonia. These migrations were of particular significance to Macedonia's economic development. Jewish colonies sprang up and flourished in important urban centres like Solun, Bitola, Skopje, Berroea, Kostur, Serres, Shtip, Kratovo and Strumitsa. The Jewish colony in Solun was one of the largest and most significant of all colonies in the entire Ottoman Empire. By the middle of the 16th century Solun was home to more than three thousand Jewish families.

Besides the colonization of Macedonia by foreign elements, there was also the assimilation of Macedonians in the Islamic fold. The process of converting Christians to Muslims began as soon as Macedonia was conquered. At the outset, a fair number of the old nobility converted to Islam in the hope of protecting and even increasing their landholdings. Gradually greater proportions of the population were converted, sometimes whole villages and districts at once. Macedonians living among the Turks, especially in the larger towns, gradually began to assimilate into the Turkish fold. Even though they became Turks, a great majority of the Macedonians retained their mother tongue and continued to speak Macedonian, practicing their traditions and even their religious customs.

In terms of taxation, the most fundamental and distinguishing feature of the feudal system introduced in the Balkans by the Ottomans was the Timar-Spahi system. In Ottoman terms, at the top was the Sultan and supreme owner of all lands. At the bottom were the peasants, or Rajak. Between the Sultan and the peasant were the feudal landlords (Spahi) who, in return for their military service, received a fief from the state. The Spahi had the right to work the land but could not dispose of it. The amount of income derived from the fief in the form of feudal rent from the Rajaks was standard and controlled by the state.

"One of the major evils for the people of our village, and for the rest of the enslaved Christians, was the imposed tax, the so-called 'one tenth', or as the people used to call it the 'spahiluk' after the Spahi or tax collectors. This tax was to be paid in produce since there was no money in circulation at the time. Great injustices were committed by the tax collectors in their arbitrary ways of getting the taxes from the people. It was to be one tenth of the produce, but only God knows how much more the Spahi took from the people. The trouble was not the amount of tax that had to be paid by each family, but the way in which it was collected. The Turkish government would put the collection of taxes on auction - the one who would offer the best price had the right to collect the tax from the population. The right of collecting taxes was usually purchased from the government either by the Turks or the 'Arnauti' (Mohammedan Albanians). The State took its due, but those who obtained the right to collect taxes charged the people what they wanted. These people went to each house in the village, to the fields, to the pastures and the vineyards, and collected these taxes without any control or scales or measures. These collectors were the masters of the population and no one dared to complain because the people feared the worst. And, if someone dared to complain his voice was a voice in the desert - no one would hear it. People used to say: 'Whom to complain to? God is high and the Tsar is far away.' The people endured and carried this heavy burden like mute animals. The burden of the yoke was increased by the arbitrary acts of the Spahi. Sometimes the Spahi would not come in time to collect the produce and the people silently waited for him; they waited without daring to speak. What followed was a sorrowful sight - the fields of grain ripened, and the sheaves were gathered, the rain fell, and everything rotted. The grapes, already spoiled by the rain were gathered, but to what avail? This pitiful situation did not disturb the Spahi. The Spahi were lords and they would get their dues by robbing the 'Rajak' (the slaves) anyway. The Spahi would bribe government officials to look the other way. All these people were corrupt - from the lowest to highest officials in office. They conspired with each other and the population in silence carried the burden." (Foto Tomev).

Initially, the Ottomans divided their land into four categories. The "meri" lands such as valleys, forests, mountains, rivers, roads, etc., belonged exclusively to the Sultan. The "timar" lands were meri lands loaned or granted to Ottoman civil and military officials. After the land reforms, timar estates converted to private property and became known as "chifliks". The "vakof" lands were tax-exempt lands dedicated for pious purposes and to support public services such as fire fighting etc. The "molk" lands occupied by peoples' houses, gardens, vineyards, orchards etc. were also private lands.

Even though the Sultan was considered to be God's representative on earth, his real power was derived from his empire's material holdings. Most of the income for his treasury was derived from the imperial fiefs, the large complexes of state land. Other revenues were derived from mining, commerce and various other taxes. The highest state functionaries possessed their own fiefs. Each fief produced an annual income of no less than 100,000 akcas. The annual average income of the fief owned by Isa Beg, the Skopje regional commander, excluding that from Skopje itself, was 763,000 akcas. Feudal lords, depending on their contributions to the empire, were awarded lands known as zeamets and timars. The zeamets produced an annual income between 20,000 and 99,999 akcas and the smaller timars produced at most 19,999 akcas. The average timar produced an income from approximately 2,000 to 6,000 akcas. According to records, the greater part of Macedonia during the 15th and 16th centuries was subdivided mostly into Timars.

In the early period of Ottoman rule, due to labour shortages, Christians were employed to do the job of the Spahis. According to an incomplete census carried out in the mid-15th century, out of a total of one hundred timars and two zeamets in the territory of the Prilep and Kichevo nahije, twenty-seven timars and one zeamet were awarded to Christians. In the 1466/67 census of the Debar district, eighteen of the ninety-eight recorded timars were in Christian hands. With time, however, the number of Christian Spahi decreased and by the 16th century they all disappeared.

Muslims were trusted more by the authorities than Christians so many Christian Spahi converted to Islam and amalgamated their belongings with those of the Turkish feudal lords. This was the surest and most often the only way to permanently safeguard their positions.

The feudally dependent peasantry or Rajak, both Christian and Moslem, held limited amounts of state lands known as the bashtina or chiflik. A portion of this land was awarded to each family in the Rajak along with a paper deed or tapia giving the family rights of inheritance and disposal, provided there was prior approval by the Spahi.

Besides paying taxes, the new citizens of the Ottoman Empire were given special duties to serve their new empire. These included martolozes, vojniks, falconers, derbendkis, bridge-keepers rice-growers and madenkis. The job of the martolozes was to protect various regions that were threatened by outlaws, or haiduks, or to garrison certain fortresses and provincial towns. The job of the vojniks was to go into battle and serve as fighters or members of the supply corps or work in the imperial stables or imperial meadows. The falconers job was to catch, train and look after falcons for hunting. The derbendkis, whose services were widespread throughout Macedonia, provided safe passage through gorges and other places where passage was difficult, especially along the more important military and trade routes. Linked with the services of the derbendkis were those of the bridge-keepers who were responsible for guarding and repairing bridges of strategic importance. The rice-growers were obliged to provide the state with a certain amount of rice, which was considered the basic food of the empire. The job of the madenkis included coal-mining, tar-making and ferrymen services. In return for their services these people were wholly or in part exempt from paying taxes and from other obligations to the empire.

Besides feudal exploitation the Macedonian population, especially throughout the 18th century, was also subjected to religious and national discrimination, which in time became so profound that the term "Rajak" became virtually synonymous with the term "slavery".

Macedonia's rural economy remained largely agricultural for centuries but its techniques remained stagnant and underdeveloped. The peasants produced a number of varieties of wheat, fruits, vegetables and wine. Tobacco, cotton, rice, sesame, opium poppies, maize, saffron, anise seeds, chick-peas and a number of green vegetables were also cultivated and became more popular during the Ottoman period.

Animal husbandry became one of the predominant branches of rural economy. All kinds of livestock were kept including large numbers of sheep and goats. The buffalo was introduced from Asia Minor as a yoke animal for tilling soil and pulling carts. Hunting and fishing in rivers, lakes and seas also played a part in Macedonia's rural economy.

Given the significant immigration, Macedonian towns grew in population and gradually took on a visibly oriental character. With the coming of new populations new skills and talents followed. Tanner and furrier crafts experienced a particularly strong growth. Jews who had business links in western Europe contributed greatly to this development.

In towns the craftsmen, called esnafs or rufekas, were organized in guilds and worked as private corporations. Each religion had its own guilds and Moslems, Christians and Jews alike competed with each other for work, thus keeping the price of goods and services down to a reasonable level.

The strong central government also played its role in the development of the domestic economy by providing security and safeguards for traders and travelers. Fairs and farmer's markets were established and operated on a regular basis allowing goods to be bought and sold. Fairs were opened up in several places in Macedonia, including Struga, the village of Doljani near Strumitsa and the village of Beshik near Siderokapsa.

As European and Turkish currency came into circulation, domestic and foreign trade flourished. Solun became one of the most important Ottoman trading centers for trading with foreign merchants including the powerful merchants of Venice. While various metal and luxury products such as finely woven goods, silver and gold articles, salt and weapons were imported, items such as wheat, skins, furs, wool, silk and silver were exported.

Mining was also an important aspect of the Ottoman economy producing, among other things, coal and metals necessary for minting silver and gold coins.

The Islamic Ottomans belonged to the Sunni sect of the Muslim religion. The empire's subjects belonged to one of two religiously (not nationally) divided Millets. The Islam Millet was exclusively for Muslims and the non-Islam or Roum (for Roman) Millet grouped all other religions together.

Islam was the dominant religion in the Ottoman Empire but Christianity and Judaism were also allowed to exist. In Macedonia, the powerful Ohrid Archbishopric was active right up to the year 1767 when it was abolished by the Ottoman Sultan Mustafa III.

Ever since its inception, the Ohrid Archbishopric extended its sphere of influence and dominated the neighbouring churches. In spite of Pravoslav attempts to curb its power, the Ohrid Archbishopric survived and began its revitalization. By the start of the 15th century it subordinated the Sofia and Vidin eparchies and by the middle of the same century it was in control of the Vlach and Moldavian eparchies. Shortly afterwards it took control of parts of the Pech Patriarchate including Pech itself. Even the Orthodox districts of Italy (Apulia, Calabria and Sicily), Venice and Dalmatia were subordinated to the Ohrid Archbishopric for a while.

At the beginning of the 16th century the Vlach metropolitan diocese became subordinated to the Patriarchate of Tsari Grad and as a result in 1530 Paul, the Metropolitan of Smederevo, rejected the authority of the Ohrid Archbishopric. In retaliation on March 13, 1532 a synod of archpriests was summoned in Ohrid which in turn excommunicated Paul and all the clergy he had ordained. Paul, however, continued to regard himself as an independent and elevated himself to the level of Patriarch. Then by using his influence and by bribing the Ottoman authorities he brought charges against Prohor, the Archbishop of Ohrid, landing him in jail. On June 20, 1541 another synod of archpriests, including Paul, was summoned in Ohrid and made its decision to remove Paul from his position as a church dignitary. The only opposition received was from the Metropolitan of Kostur.

Unfortunately all this infighting and Paul's involvement with the Ottoman authorities created a great deal of negative attention, prompting the Sultan to break up the Ohrid Church by establishing separate eparchies. In 1557 the Pech Patriarchate was reinstated and took Tetovo, Skopje, Shtip and Upper Ozumaya from the Ohrid Archbishopric. In 1575 the Orthodox Christians of Dalmatia and Venice were taken away from the Ohrid Church and moved under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate in Tsari Grad. At the start of the 17th century Ohrid lost all the eparchies from southern Italy. After that Ohrid's boundaries remained unaltered until its dissolution in 1767.

As mentioned earlier, the Archbishopric of Ohrid, since its inception, has been an autonomous church headed by an Archbishop who was elected by a Synod. The Synod consisted of archpriests from various eparchies and was summoned on various occasions to deal with the more important matters while the Church Convocation dealt with general matters. The majority of Archbishops who served the Ohrid Church were foreigners and most of them were greedy for money, succumbing to bribery. Some, however, worked hard to raise the standards of the Archbishopric and others including Prohor, Athanasius and Barlaam even worked secretly against the Ottoman yoke.

Even though the Ohrid Church had lost a great number of its possessions to the Ottomans it still remained a feudal institution and, apart from the returns it received from its church lands, it also received considerable income from various taxes, from performing services and settling disputes. The Ohrid lower clergy were all Macedonian and were scarcely distinguishable economically from the general population. Even though foreigners occupied the leading positions in the church, the church itself supported a unique Macedonian culture and an independent Macedonia.

During the second half of the 16th century there were obvious signs of a weakening Ottoman Empire. The successful campaigns that were waged earlier were coming to an end only to be replaced by a series of military defeats and territorial losses. Unable to expand or even hold onto existing territories, the Ottoman central government began to lose prestige and slowly fell into an economic crisis. The situation worsened when feudal lords decided to replace the Rajak's tax contributions in kind (finished products) with money, most of which they kept for themselves. With time, the feudal lords became less interested in taking part in unsuccessful campaigns and defied the weakening central government by refusing to supply the war effort with men or materials. The central government's inability to exercise authority over the feudal lords created a suitable environment for anarchy. More and more of the more powerful feudal lords began to take advantage of the situation and formed their own small-scale military fiefs.

When the state treasury was completely depleted, the central government was forced to take measures which further undermined the military fief. The problem was solved by offering Spahi landholdings to people who could be trusted. The only people the central government could trust were the representatives of the court aristocracy who had absolutely no links with the ranks of the Spahi.

Instead of collecting taxes itself, the state government began to lease its lands to the highest bidders and collected rent. The lease holders in turn, behaving like true landlords and masters of their leased property, leased their land to a third party while exacting a profit for themselves. By this method landholding quickly began to move out of the control of the state and into the hands of the profiteers. Landholding became so profitable that even the Rajak's small holdings were in demand and could be bought and sold in the market. Soon outsiders began to purchase Rajak plots and transformed the purchased land into chifliks, swallowing up entire villages. The new lords of the Rajak lands, known as the Chifliksajbia, continued to fulfill the obligations of the tied peasants but contractors now worked the land. The contractors were usually the same peasants (chiflikari) or former landowners who, after disposing of their lands, no longer had any share in their ownership. The contractors could be freely hired and fired which forced them to work even harder. Under the harsher conditions of not only meeting their existing obligations to the Spahi and the state, they now had to pay an additional rent to the chifliksajbia.

By the middle of the 17th century life in the chifliks became so harsh that peasants left their villages for larger towns, adding to the influx of Moslems and Jews. Many, who could no longer bear the burden and had nowhere to go, turned to marauding and robbing. Bands of peasants left their hearths and fled to either join outlaw organizations (ajdutska druzhina) or live in larger towns where some of them succeeded in becoming factors of significance in the urban economy.

During the 17th century western Europeans came to Macedonia and procured certain privileges from the Ottomans that allowed them to open consular agencies. In 1685, French merchants from Marseilles opened an agency in Solun and in 1700 they opened another one in Kavalla, through which they purchased cotton and wheat. Later Britain, Venice and the Netherlands also established consular agencies in Macedonia. At that time Solun was the gateway to the Ottoman Empire and the largest port for European goods destined for the Balkans.

With the ascendancy of the Atlantic trade routes, Dubrovnik (Ragusa) and the Italian towns began to decline, particularly during the 17th century when western traders were being replaced by local ones, especially in central Europe.

Catholic influence and propaganda, although somewhat disorganized, was present in Macedonia as early as the 16th century. Then in1622 when the Papal Throne came under Jesuit control, a new organization called the Congregation for the Spreading of the Faith was established with aims at controlling all Catholic missionary activities throughout the world. It was not too long afterwards that the Catholic missions infiltrated Macedonia, including the Archbishopric of Ohrid. By the first half of the 17th century four of the Archbishops of Ohrid (Porphyry, Athanasius, Abraham and Meletius) were secretly working for the Catholics. Links were established by eparchies where Church Congregations were discretely approached to switch to Catholicism. The missionaries from Rome were cautious, tactful and did not impose the Latin language upon the population. By doing so and by showing respect for the dogma of the Eastern Church, Catholic propaganda in Ohrid became very effective in gaining ground. In fact it became so effective that in 1630 the Unites attempted to take over the archiepiscopal church of the Assumption of the Virgin but the Archbishop, by handsomely bribing the Ottoman authorities, was able to halt the takeover. That unfortunately did not stop the Catholics from trying and by the middle of the 17th century they created a Catholic Archbishopric inside Ohrid. But as soon as it was created, conditions turned unfavourable for them and it had to be dissolved and subordinated to the Diocese of Skopje.

In 1661 Archbishop Athanasius took a trip to Rome with a proposal to unify Rome and the Archbishopric of Ohrid. An agreement was reached and a missionary by the name of Onuphrius Constantine was elected as Bishop to serve at the Koine speaking College in Rome. The union, however, did not work out and Catholic propaganda in Macedonia began to lose its effect. A new hope was growing among the Balkan people that Russia, an Orthodox country, would some day liberate them from their bondage.

The Macedonian people were never content with being occupied and showed their displeasure at every opportunity. The first major incident occurred in the middle of the 15th century in the Debar region, where Macedonians, Albanians and Vlachs lived together. Led by George Castriot, the people rose up against the tyranny of the Turks.

George Castriot, who took the name Scanderbeg after Iskander, more commonly known as Alexander the Great, came from an illustrious feudal family which at the time ruled part of present day central Albania and the greater Debar region in the present day Republic of Macedonia. During the Ottoman conquests in the region, John Castriot, George's father, managed to retain his title and holdings by acknowledging the supreme authority of the Sultan and fulfilling certain obligations as his vassal. As proof of his loyalty, John Castriot surrendered his sons to the Sultan to be held as hostages. One of those sons was George. George quickly became fascinated by the energy and vigour of the Ottoman military and could not wait to join them.

Having accepted Islam, George's first act was to change his name to Scanderbeg. Scanderbeg quickly built a reputation as an able commander and gained the confidence of the Ottoman supreme authorities. When his father died in 1437, Scanderbeg took his father's place as governor of the same district. Even though Scanderbeg was an ally of the Sultan, his real loyalties lay with his people.

When war broke out in the region in 1442 and Janos Hunjadi's armies penetrated the interior of the Ottoman Empire, Scanderbeg decided the time was right to renounce his allegiance to the Sultan and raise a rebellion. When a great battle broke out in 1443 near Nish and the Ottoman front was crushed, instead of attacking, Scanderbeg together with his nephew Hamza and three hundred cavalrymen deserted and fled with the panic stricken Ottoman soldiers.

On his way, Scanderbeg passed through the Debar region where he received much support and a hero's welcome. In Debar he was joined by local chieftains and a large number of rebel peasants. With his cavalry and new recruits he began the revolt by attacking Croia (Kruje), an important Ottoman military and administrative centre. After sacking Croia with ease he returned to Debar where he began to organize a general rebellion. With Croia in his possession, Scanderbeg, on November 27, 1443, declared his principality independent. Using the Debar region as his base, Scanderbeg's rebels began a campaign against a large number of fortresses including the strategically significant fortress of Svetigrad (Kodzhadzhik). The siege of Svetigrad was led by Moses the Great, one of Scanderbeg's loyal supporters and his three thousand strong rebel force from the Debar region. After a fierce battle, the fortress fell and the entire Debar region became completely liberated.

For the time being the rebels ceased their easterly expansion and, as a result, the eastern border of the greater Debar region became the borderline between the Ottomans and the rebels which in the next three decades or so would become an area of continuous conflict.

The next great battle was fought on April 29, 1444 at Dolni Debar. A rebel strike force of insurgents from the Debar region led by Moses the Great decimated the Ottoman army leaving seven thousand dead and five hundred captured prisoners. Two years later, on September 27, 1446, another battle took place near Debar in which the Ottomans suffered heavy losses again.

Scanderbeg was becoming a legend and a serious threat to Ottoman stability, so in the summer of 1448 Sultan Murat II, together with his heir prince Mehmed, prepared a strike force and set out to find him. Their first encounter with the rebels was at the fortress of Svetigrad where a garrison of local rebels, led by Peter Perlat, offered them strong resistance. Unfortunately, after a long drawn out siege the fortress fell. All was not lost however, due to more pressing matters elsewhere the Sultan decided to abandon his pursuit and left, leaving a greater part of the Debar region still in the hands of the insurgents.

The next encounter came in 1452 when Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror amassed a large army in Ohrid. Upon finding out, Scanderbeg immediately concentrated his forces at the military camp of Oronic, the present day town of Debar and launched an attack, together with Moses the Great and his nephew Hamza. The opposing armies met near the fortress of Modrich and Scanderbeg's forces broke through the Turkish lines in a single battle giving him a decisive victory and forcing the Turkish army to retreat.

Dissatisfied with the outcome, the following spring Mehmed dispatched his general Ibrahim Pasha and launched another attack on the rebels. The armies met in Polog on April 22, 1453. Led by Scanderbeg and Moses the rebels fought fiercely and gained another victory over the Turks.

Unable to gain any ground against the rebels by battle, the Sultan turned to bribery. He paid Moses to look the other way while a large Ottoman force crossed the Debar frontier and approached Scanderbeg's forces in a surprise attack. During this catastrophic battle which took place in 1455 near Berat, six thousand men, nearly half of the rebel force, were lost. To save himself Moses fled the region and joined the Ottoman army. In spite of the heavy losses, the people of Debar did not give up and continued to support Scanderbeg. In no time at all, he was able to recoup his losses, rebuild his army and renew the conflict.

The next Ottoman attack came a year later. This time not only was Scanderbeg ready for it, but being aware that it was led by the traitor Moses the Great, he marched his army in person to meet him. On May 19, 1456 near Oronic, the rebels attacked and defeated the Ottoman army of fifteen thousand, giving Scanderbeg another victory. Pleased with the results, Scanderbeg forgave Moses for his treachery and welcomed him back to the rebel camp. Upon their return home, Scanderbeg reinstated Moses to his former position entrusting him, once again, with the defense of the Debar region.

When it seemed like Scanderbeg's worries were over a new set of problems began to plague the uprising. The Sultan made a deal with a number of powerful feudal lords and they in turn began their personal attacks on rebels causing them to lose massive territories. One such territory was the fortress of Modrich which, like the fortress of Svetigrad, was of strategic importance.

By gaining Modrich the Ottomans gained a safe route to the rebel camps. Losing no time, an Ottoman army was dispatched and reached the town of Lesh in the summer of 1457. Feeling their vulnerability, instead of waiting for the attack, the rebels took the offensive and met the marching Turkish army head on in a fierce battle. Surprised by the attack the Ottoman army broke up and gave Scanderbeg another decisive victory. With the success of this battle the rebels diplomatically regained all previously lost territories.

The prolonged struggle with the rebels convinced the Sultan that Scanderbeg could be subdued and the rebel territory freed only by a large-scale military campaign. Led by the battle hardened, experienced commander Balaban Pasha, from Mat, a massive campaign was organized and unleashed upon the rebels in 1465. A fierce battle ensued near Debar but the Turkish force was much too powerful to break. Besides losing much of his force, Scanderbeg also lost many of his experienced commanders, including Moses the Great, who was captured, sent to Tsari Grad and cruelly put to death. Both sides suffered heavy losses but Balaban succeeded in quelling the rebellion but only in the Debar region. The rebellion was moved to the interior of Albania and continued to flourish until a decade past Scanderbeg's death.

Scanderbeg died of illness on January 17, 1468. Ten years later after the fall of Croia, the last bastion of rebel strength, on January 16, 1478 the rebellion was over. This, however, was not the first or last rebellion. In time, and with the breakdown of Ottoman rule, more and more revolts would take place in the future.

As mentioned earlier, with the breakdown of the timar and Spahi system and the decline of the Ottoman state, exploitation of the dependent population in Macedonia was at an incline. Violence, especially on the part of the Ottoman government, was reaching a record high. Life for the average Macedonian was unbearable and frustration began to express itself in various forms. Peasants who could no longer afford to pay their taxes were fleeing to the mountains and settling in less accessible places where the tax collectors could not easily find them. Without a peaceful means of relieving their anguish and exploitation from the Ottoman yoke, the Macedonian people had no choice but to turn to violence.

The next local uprising took place in 1564/65, in the Moriovo region and spread to the Prilep plains and from there to the town of Prilep. Dubbed as the Moriovo and Prilep revolt, it is unknown why this revolt began, but it is clear that three peasants and two priests from the Moriovo district started it. No sooner had the trouble started than the Sultan, through a decree dated October 3, 1564, ordered that the leaders of the revolt be put to death while the followers were to be sent to serve as oarsmen on Turkish galleys. Before the decree could be enforced, however, the perpetrators fled causing the Sultan to order another decree for their capture.

Prilep soon became a hotbed of demonstrations when the Ottoman court ruled in favour of a Pasha in a dispute with the peasants. According to a document dated December 1565 a revolt broke out inside the town of Prilep when the Prilep Court, in settling a dispute between the peasants and Mustapha Pasha, ruled in favour of the Pasha. When the news hit the streets more than a thousand rebels from the surrounding villages, armed with sticks and stones, assembled and stormed the court. It is unknown how this revolt ended.

Since Christians by law were not allowed to carry arms, they had no effective defense against maltreatment, especially from the corrupt legal system. The only recourse available to them was to become outlaws. Although unpopular, outlawry was one of the oldest forms of armed struggle expressed by the Macedonian people, which unfortunately, reached epidemic proportions over the course of the 17th century. The outlaws, or haiduks, lived secret lives known only to other outlaws or trusted friends. When it came to defending their homes and properties, they came together in bands or druzhini of twenty to thirty people. Occasionally, for defensive purposes a number of smaller bands combined together to form a large band usually numbering no more than three hundred people. The band leaders or vojvodi were elected members of their bands and were usually chosen for their military skills and leadership abilities. The ranks of the outlaws came mostly from the feudally tied peasants but it was not uncommon to find priests and monks among them. Women too were known to have joined outlaw bands. The oldest record of a woman outlaw dates back to 1636. Her name was Kira and she was from the village Chapari. Kira was a member of Petar Dundar's band from the village Berantsi, near Bitola. There were also recorded cases of women who led outlaw bands.

The main preoccupation of the outlaws was to defend the oppressed and in times of trouble come to their aid. In retaliation the outlaws were known to attack feudal estates and even burn down Spahi harvests. They also ambushed and robbed merchant caravans and tax collectors. Bands were known to have attacked some of the larger towns. On several occasions outlaws banded together and overran Bitola, Lerin, Ohrid and Resen. Twice they looted the bezesteen in Bitola, once in 1646 and another time in 1661.

To curb outlaw activities, the Ottoman authorities frequently undertook extreme measures by organizing posses to hunt them down, burning down villages that were known to be sympathetic to outlaws and imprisoning and sometimes executing relatives of outlaws. When all these measures failed to stop them, the Ottomans introduced the services of the derbendkis, to provide safe passage through the countryside to important functionaries such as merchants, tax collectors and travelers.

Outlaws who were captured were tortured, sent to prison for life, or executed. The lucky ones were executed outright. Their dead bodies were then impaled on stakes or on iron hooks for everyone to see. Those less fortunate were skinned alive, had their heads split open and were left to die a slow and painful death. Those sent to prison were usually chained to galleys and spent the rest of their lives as oarsmen.

Despite the extreme measures exercised against them, the outlaws were never stamped out and were always a part of every conflict. The outlaws were the nucleus of the armed forces and the experienced leaders and commanders of the revolts and uprisings. They were the first to raise the spirit of resistance and the first to stand up for the people. That is why the outlaws are so widely revered in Macedonian folklore.

Unwilling to yield, the Ottoman noose continued to tighten on the peasants, Christian and Muslim alike. Their moment to strike back, however, came when the Ottomans became entangled with the Austrians in a war during the Austrian invasion of Macedonia.

What came to be known as the Karposh Uprising, dubbed after its leader Karposh, was a Macedonian people's revolt against the economic, social and political injustices perpetrated by the Ottoman overlords.

As mentioned earlier, in 1683 the Ottomans, for the second time, tried to take Vienna but failed after a two-month siege. The city was saved with the assistance of the Polish army led by King John Sobiesky. The Ottoman army suffered a catastrophic defeat resulting in enormous losses of territory, material and manpower. To prevent further expansion and keep the Ottomans in check, the Holy League of Austria, Poland, Venice and later Russia was created.

Once they gained momentum the Austrians continued to drive the Ottomans southward reaching the northern boundaries of Macedonia. Led by General Piccolomini, the Austrians entered the Plain of Skopje on October 25, 1689 and were met by a jubilant crowd celebrating their triumphant arrival.

The Austrians continued to march southward and came upon the town of Skopje only to find it empty. Skopje had been evacuated and left with plenty of food and all kinds of merchandise. Feeling that it may have been a trap, Piccolomini withdrew his forces at once and set the town on fire. The fires raged for two whole days and consumed the greater part of Skopje.

The Austrians continued to move through the Macedonian interior and set camp in the village of Orizari, near Kumanovo. A detachment was sent to Shtip, which arrived there at dawn on November 10, 1689 only to be met with Ottoman resistance. A fierce battle broke out but the Austrians managed to force the Ottomans out, leaving about two thousand of their dead behind. After setting the town on fire, the Austrians left for camp but on their way ran into an Ottoman detachment of three hundred soldiers. Another battle ensued and the Ottomans disbursed.

During mid-November the Austrians organized a detachment of Albanian Catholic volunteers and sent them to Tetovo where they succeeded in putting down a garrison of more than six hundred Ottoman troops. On December 20 an Austrian detachment, with Serbs led by Captain Sanoski, was sent from Prishtina to Veles where it succeeded in capturing and burning down the town. Unfortunately upon their retreat, the detachment was ambushed by Janissaries and Sanoski was mortally wounded.

The destruction and mayhem caused by the Austro-Turkish War brought a sudden deterioration in the economic and political situation in the region. The need for further military operations forced the Ottoman state to increase its purchases of grain, fodder, livestock, timber and other agricultural products, far below normal prices. Also, to pay for the military campaigns, a host of new taxes were introduced. During this difficult period the Rajak also suffered violence at the hands of deserters from the Ottoman army and from the defectors of the central government.

Among those who deserted their military duty was the notorious general Jegen Pasha, the former Bejlerbej of Rumelia. With ten thousand deserters among his ranks he ravaged the Balkan Peninsula until he was finally put to death in February of 1689.

The military catastrophe and the chaotic situation inside the Ottoman Empire created suitable conditions for widespread outlawry in all parts of Macedonia, especially in the Moriovo, Bitola, Tikvesh, Veles, Shtip and Mt. Dospat regions which led up to the famous Karposh Uprising.

Sometime in the middle of October 1689 the famous outlaw Arambasha Karposh led an uprising which broke out in the region between Kustendil and Skopje. Immediately after declaring a revolt, Karposh attacked and captured Kriva Palanka. Kriva Palanka was an Ottoman stronghold built in 1636 to house Ottoman soldiers. After capturing the stronghold, Karposh declared it liberated rebel territory and made it his centre of resistance. Among the items captured at the stronghold were six cannons, a real prize for the rebels. After securing Kriva Palanka the rebels built and secured a new stronghold near Kumanovo.

It is not known whether or not the rebels were assisted by the Austrians but it is possible. According to contemporary Ottoman chronicles and local legends, Karposh was known as the "King of Kumanovo". This could have been a title conferred upon him by the Austrian emperor Leopold I who sent him a Busby (a tall fur hat worn by hussars and guardsmen) as a gift and a sign of recognition.

Unfortunately for the rebels, the current situation did not last long and a reversal in military and political events played a decisive role in the fate of the uprising. The Ottomans had by now had enough time to take countermeasures to stop the economic and military decline of their state. The first step taken in Macedonia was to put down the rebellion and drive the Austrian army out of Macedonian territory. To do that the Ottomans employed the services of the Crimean Khan Selim Giray, along with his fierce detachment of Tartar worriers.

The council of war which met in Sofia on November 14, 1689 decided to attack the Karposh uprising through Kustendil. But before they could do that they had to secure Kriva Palanka.

Upon finding that they were about to be attacked, the rebels set fire to Kriva Palanka and concentrated their forces in the new fortress in Kumanovo. No sooner had they prepared their defenses than the Ottoman and Tartar detachments arrived. The rebels stood their ground and fought gallantly but were quickly overwhelmed by the numerically superior Ottoman force. A large number of rebels, including Karposh, were captured at the outset.

When the battle was over, all rebels who resisted to the end were slaughtered. Karposh and the others were taken prisoner. After subduing Kumanovo, the Ottomans left for Skopje where they executed Karposh and the others.

Karposh was brought before Selim Giray who at the time was standing on the Stone Bridge over the River Vardar. Selim used him for target practice and impaled him with his Tartar lances. He then had his body hurled into the Vardar River. Karposh died early in December of 1689 and with him died the Karposh uprising.

For the rebels who survived the battles there was no salvation from the Ottoman backlash except to leave Macedonia. Many fled north beyond the Sava and Danube Rivers. Some even went as far north as Russia and joined the Russian military. There they formed the "Macedonian regiment" which became part of the regular Russian army.

The failed Karposh uprising depleted the local population of northwestern Macedonia, opening the way for large scale Albanian immigration.

Just as the Karposh revolt was winding down in Macedonia, on April 6, 1690, Leopold I issued a manifesto inviting "all peoples of Albania, Serbia, Mysia, Bulgaria, Silistria, Illyria, Macedonia and Rashka to join the Austrians in taking up arms against the Turks." Then on April 26, 1690, he issued a letter making Macedonia and her people his protectorate. It has been said that Leopold acted on the advice of Macedonians Marko Krajda of Kozhani and Dimitri Georgija Popovich of Solun. Among other things the letter stated that "we graciously accept the Macedonian people, in its entirety in every respect, under our imperial and regal protection." Another letter was issued on May 31, 1690 extending Austria's protection to Bulgaria, Serbia and Albania. Unfortunately, all these good gestures were too little too late for Macedonia which by 1690 was back under tight Ottoman control.

To be continued...

And now I leave you with this...

I have received several letters from Ottoman sympathizers who believe my writing has been very critical of the deeds of the Ottoman Empire. Their general feeling is that the Ottomans were "not as bad" as our Christian brothers the Greeks, Bulgarians and Serbians. In my opinion and in the opinions of several Macedonians whom I have consulted on this matter, "one evil cannot be good because of a greater evil". However, in my next article, I will present some positive aspects of the Ottoman Empire.

For those Greeks who incessantly insist that the ancient Macedonians spread the Greek language and culture to the world, I have a question. Show me where can that Greek culture and language be found in the world today? Besides you neo-Greeks who imposed the ancient Koine language upon yourselves NO ONE else speaks Greek. Now on the other hand, 600 million people speak, read and write the Macedonian language, the language of Kiril and Metodi. And that is reality.


Donald Quataert, The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922, Binghamton University, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2000.

Colin Imber, The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1650 The Structure of Power, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

The University of "Cyril and Methodius", Documents on the Struggle of the Macedonian People for Independence and a Nation-State, Volume One, Skopje, 1985.

John Shea, Macedonia and Greece The Struggle to Define a New Balkan Nation, North Carolina: McFarland, 1997.

Alexandar Donski, The Descendants of Alexander the Great of Macedon The Arguments and Evidence that Today's Macedonians are Descendants of the Ancient Macedonians (Part One - Folklore Elements), Shtip/Sydney - 2004.

A History of the Macedonian People, Institute of National History, Macedonian Review, 1979, Skopje.

Apostolos Papagiannopoulos, Monuments of Thessaloniki, Thessaloniki: John Rekos & Co., 1980.

Vasil Bogov, Macedonian Revelation, Historical Documents Rock and Shatter Modern Political Ideology, Western Australia, 1998.

A. Michael Radin, IMRO and the Macedonian Question, Kultura, Skopje, 1993.

H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, New York: Garden City Books, 1961.

L. Sprague De Camp, The Ancient Engineers, New York: Ballantine Books, 1963.

You can contact the author at rstefov@hotmail.com