Remembering the “Time of (Ottoman Jihad) Violence” in Europe—Past as Prologue?

The 2 minute and 40 second opening (embedded above) of this 1988 Bulgarian film epic (288 minutes total; screened at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival), “Vreme Na Nasilie,” “Time of Violence,” is a gripping portrayal of the brutal legacy of Ottoman jihadism in the Balkans. Based upon Anton Donchev’s novel, “Vreme Razdelno,” “Time of Parting,” the story rivets upon the attempted late 17th century forced Islamization of the Bulgarian village of Elindenya. With bitter irony, the regiment of Muslim Turkish soldiers sent on this mission is led by a Janissary from the town, Kara Ibrahim, taken as a Christian child in the cruel blood tithe devshirme system (see pp. 70-72, 87-88, 555-65; and “Becoming a devshirme was not like winning a Harvard scholarship”), and forcibly converted to Islam.

Bistra Tsvetkova [Cvetkova] (1926-1982) was a Bulgarian-born scholar who studied in Sofia, Cairo, and Paris, before obtaining her PhD from Leningrad University in 1972. Her doctoral thesis analyzed the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans during the early fifteenth century. Dr. Tsvetkova became a member of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences in 1952, and a professor at Sofia University, and concurrently, director of the Commission on Ottoman-Turkish source materials, in 1972. The Universite de Strasbourg conferred upon her an honorary degree in 1981. Tsvetkova’s major work in French, Les Institutions Ottomanes en Europe was published in 1978, having been preceded by two decades of prolific, seminal writings in Bulgarian. Not long after a horrific traffic accident, during which her husband was instantly killed, and she was seriously injured, Dr. Tsvetkova committed suicide, August 16, 1982.

Here are the conclusions from a 1957 Russian essay of Tsvetkova’s, which translates, “Religious and ethnic discrimination in Bulgaria during the period of Turkish rule,” and provides a fitting perspective on the contents of the film, “Time of Violence”:

The Ottoman feudal aristocracy purposely encouraged the religious fanaticism of the Muslims, and the hatred of the Muslims towards the non-Muslim reaya [raya; “dhimmis”]. ..Ethnic and religious discrimination, inexorably linked with the burdensome regime of feudal exploitation and political oppression, stalled the development of the Bulgarian people for centuries. This discrimination, which doomed the non-Muslim reaya to enduring insults and attacks on their dignity as human beings, their life, and their personal and familial honor, also limited religious freedom and threatened coercive Islamization, and tightened the yoke of Turkish feudal oppression. Yet, over centuries, the Bulgarian people stubbornly and courageously resisted this regime of discrimination and oppression, and despite attempts at enforced assimilation, managed to preserve its national identity and culture.

American physician James O. Noyes published an 1857 travelogue account, based upon his extensive journeying in the Balkans, especially Bulgaria, following a stint as a surgeon in the Ottoman army during the Crimean War. Noyes endeavored to give “a truthful picture” of daily life, as well as the “beliefs and sentiments” of the region’s inhabitants. His candid reflections—and hopes—written a century before Tsvetkova’s scholarly assessment—independently validate her conclusions from a mid-19th century American perspective.

Bulgaria is the desert of Islam—not a desert of sand, but of rich, uncultivated wastes. Populous cities sprang up in the time of the ancient kings, some of which did not lose their importance until long after the Turks encamped in Europe. With the Moslem invasion, however, expired the Bulgarian spirit. Their ancient renown passed away before the rapid essor [great success] of Ottoman conquest. Many of their cities and villages were swept away, while others, left untenanted and alone, have so mouldered into dust that not a trace of them now remains.

In vain I searched for the monuments of her ancient power. Yet among the Balkans the traveler now and then meets with reminiscences of the Slavo-Bulgaric rule in the primitive customs, and traditions of the people, and the crumbling remains of a rude and ancient architecture. Nor are there wanting the memorials of cruelty and oppression in more modern times. Far away to the northward, near the Serbo-Bulgarian frontier, there is an immense conical mound formed of twenty thousand human skulls. Whitened by the snow and rain, it gleams on the plain of Nissa like a tower of Parian marble. The winds from the mountains, sighing through the innumerable cavities of the skeleton heads, give them doleful, doleful voices. To a few still cling locks of hair, like mosses and lichens, which, floating in the wind, add unspeakable horror to this most barbarous monument. The twenty thousand Serbian and Bulgarian warriors who fell, fighting heroically on the plain of Nissa, were worthy of a better mausoleum. The Turks point proudly to this monument of their own erecting as a memorial of their prowess. The Serbians, now independent, point to it with equal pride as a proof of the cost of liberty, and an eloquent incentive to its preservation. Bulgaria will likewise one day be free, and her rude children will chant the songs of liberty, around this monument of cruelty

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