The Ottoman "Wild" West

The Balkan Frontier in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries

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Nikolay Antov
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , December
     342 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Nikolay Antov's The Ottoman “Wild West”: The Balkan Frontier in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries deals with the genesis of the distinctive Muslim community in the Deliorman and Gerlovo region of present day Bulgaria. Antov’s starting point is the discrepancy of two narratives in historiography—the Turkish and the Slavic/Bulgarian—on the origins of this Muslim community. While the Turkish overemphasizes the Turkic origin of the first Muslims in the region and neglects the impact of conversions to Islam, the Slavic/Bulgarian narrative gives primary importance to the concept of conversions, with different explanations on how they occurred. Antov attempts to provide a comprehensive picture of both constituting factors for this Muslim community, and links them to major historic developments in the Ottoman Empire and its international environment. He affirms that the first Muslims in the region were predominantly Turcoman settlers, but illustrates that through Ottoman taxation records the conversion to Islam left a significant and permanent impact on the Muslim population of the region.

For Antov, two common historical factors are the driving forces behind the growth of the Muslim community in Deliorman and Gerlovo in the 15th and 16th centuries. First, he explains is the settlement of “heterodox” Turcoman Muslims in the northeastern Balkans.The emerging rivalry and conflict between the Safavid and the Ottoman Empireat the eastern border region, prompting many “heterodox” Anatolians sympathetic to the Safavids and subject to sectarian violence to emigrate from the region to Thrace, and later, to the northeastern Balkans. Their attraction to this particular region was, according to Antov, probably due to the early settlement of “heterodox” dervishes in the 15th—and even as early as the 14th—century, who developed a genuine religious infrastructure, especially in the rural areas. The second common factor was the transformation of the Ottoman Empire from a expansive but unconsolidated tribal system to a centralized bureaucratic empire, which facilitated urban development, and within it, the establishment of religious infrastructure based on Awqaf (religious endowments). Antov seems to consider thema major instrument in the process of “Islamization,” which Antov understands as not only a matter of personal decision, but also as the process of establishing Muslim communities and impacting the local culture.

Antov extensively delves into the question of why and how the process of conversion to Islam took place, probably, as he points out, as it is one of the most contentious and politically misused issues in modern historiography of the Balkans. Whereas he points to a correlation between the existence of the first Muslim, Turcoman, and dervish settlements as a precondition for conversion to Islam given that converts were often ostracized by their former religious communities, and therefore needed a social alternative. The establishment of local Islamic traditions and culture is, for Antov, an additional factor in the facilitation of conversion to Islam. However, he points out that it is not possible to make serious comments on the individualmotives of converts to Islam, since there are almost no reliable sources to support particular assumptions. Despite this limitation, Antov seems to emphasize economic reasons, while at the same time, underlining that the economics alone are not sufficient explanation for the massive conversions to Islam that occurred, especially in the 15th century.

Antov's treatise also constitutes a contribution to comparative religious history by examining, whether the Western historical concept of “confessionalism”—in terms of the principle cuius regio eius religio—can be applied to characteristics of Ottoman religious policy. At first glance, and especially as it relates to the conflict with the Safavid empire, Antov comes to the conclusion that this reasoning may help to explain some aspects of its Islam-related religious policy, though deeming it fully responsible overestimates the central religious authority of the Ottoman Empire, and underestimate its religious pragmatism. Antov's work therefore is not only a treatise on a particular community within a particular time frame, but also an illustrative presentation and a comprehensive case study of the development of the early Ottoman Empire.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rijad Dautović is a postgraduate law student and an Independent Scholar in Vienna, Austria.

Date of Review: 
April 8, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nikolay Antov is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Arkansas. His research has been supported by the Social Science Research Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Research Institute in Turkey. It focuses on the history of Islam and Muslim communities in the Balkans, the historical development of heterodox Muslim dervish groups in the Ottoman Empire and the wider Islamic world, conversion to Islam, and the relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.


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