- The Ottoman "Wild West": The Balkan Frontier in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries by Nikolay Antov
The provocative short title of Antov's book conjures up the image of a region only recently settled and still subject to the pervasive threat of hostile attack. Its more descriptive subtitle implies Antov's intent to cover a 200-year span from 1400 to 1600. In reality, its most substantive part treats the period from 1480 to 1580 when the region of the lower Danube selected for study (see his map, xvi–xvii), already in the Ottomans' more or less secure and continuous possession since the 1390s (107), had already undergone extensive colonization and settlement and was arguably no longer "wild." What the book studies in greatest detail is the process of population growth through rural migration to, and investment in, the existing urban centers in the northeastern Balkans, such as Shumen, alongside the foundation and rapid expansion of new urban centers such as Hezargrad. Both cities served as supply and distribution hubs along the principal routes of passage between the southern Balkans and the Danube waterway.
From the 1530s onward, the region studied by Antov gained renewed importance in the context of Sultan Süleyman I's reorientation of Ottoman strategic objectives away from the Asian sphere and his re-focusing on the Habsburg-held lands in East Central Europe. As Antov points out (19), the Ottomans' interest in consolidating their control over this region had gained momentum with Bayezid II's conquest of Kilia and Akkerman in 1484, but internal problems and Selim I's preoccupation with his Muslim dynastic rivals in Iran and Egypt had prevented and postponed sustained state-sponsored interest in the northern frontier for nearly half a century.
Antov's book gives priority to imperial expansion, colonization, and (to a lesser extent), conversion to Islam, devoting detailed chapters to each of these themes. A substantial portion of Chapter 2 and all of Chapter 6 summarize the hagiographic texts about the exploits of babas (religious elders) and dervishes revered in heterodox circles, especially in rural parts of the Balkans (61–93, 205–254). Antov attempts to link information gleaned from the quasi-historical, quasi-mythological, literary sources about the heroes and spiritual leaders who opposed the "worldliness" of Ottoman state officialdom to the statistical data derived mainly [End Page 159] from the Ottoman revenue and census registers (tahrir defterleri). This approach leads him to the view that the Ottomans' principal motivation in settling the frontier and contributing to its security and well-being was their overriding preoccupation with stamping out sectarianism, heterodoxy, and religious non-conformity. This research paradigm seeks to connect the Ottomans with their European contemporaries in the Age of Confessionalism and "confessionalization" (274–281, 285–287).
This battle to win the confessional loyalties of new subjects in eastern Anatolia and the Arab provinces remained a vital concern for Selim I (r. 1512–1520) and Süleyman (r. 1520–1566) during his first decade on the throne. It had to be adjusted, however, when Süleyman began to promote and defend Ottoman imperial interests in the far north where such a confrontationist policy would have been not only impractical and difficult to realize but virtually impossible to enforce.
Much of the book's argument is predicated on the assumption that state-financed development and urban investment in pious endowments were one-dimensional, designed to act as "a counterweight to the influx of heterodox Muslim migrants" (170). For this insight regarding Hezargrad's urban development and for his understanding of the "vision" behind Grand Vizier Ibrahim Pasha's 1533 endowment, Antov is indebted to Kiel's detailed case study.1 However, Antov fails to take into consideration the other part of Kiel's argument that the founding of such a center made practical sense in that it shortened the travel time and ease of access particularly for merchants and traders moving between Shumen and Ruse.
Defending Muslim orthodoxy in the northern Balkans in the middle decades...