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Bos/Hrv/Srp 17 Dec 10

Turkey Breathes New Life Into Serbia’s Ottoman Relics

Ankara is helping to restore the few remaining Ottoman monuments in Serbia not wiped out in a nationalistic frenzy years ago – and most Serbs seem delighted.

By Gordana Andric Belgrade

With its modern shops and Western appearance, it is hard to imagine that less than two centuries ago Serbia’s capital was a distinctly Ottoman city, with a skyline dominated by minarets.

Back then, what is now the city’s central Terazije square was a forest full of wolves, while Slavija square was so far from the city that Ottoman officials hunted there.

Little survives to recall the Ottoman presence that began with the conquest of Belgrade in 1521 and lasted until the 1860s, when the last Ottoman garrison was expelled.

But today, the Turkish embassy in Serbia is helping to finance restoration of what remains of the country’s Ottoman heritage.

There is not much to go on. Of Belgrade’s 60 or so mosques, only one, the Bajrakli mosque, remains.

The other principal relics of Ottoman rule in the city are a tomb of a Grand Vizier, Damat Ali Pasha, in Kalemegdan park and the 18th-century tomb of the dervish Sejh Mustafa, on the corner of Visnjiceva and Brace Jugovica streets.

In Belgrade, work on Sheikh Mustafa’s tomb is due to start next year.

Further south, in the city of Nis, Turkey is co-funding construction of a memorial house on Cegar hill, site of a battle in the First Serbian Uprising against Ottoman Empire in the 1800s, where about 3,000 rebels were killed. Works on that is expected to start in spring.

The old centre of Novi Pazar, a town in southwest Sandzak region, a mainly Muslim town today, is also earmarked for restoration, as is one of the Ottomans’ few remaining fortresses, Ram.

During the 19th century, Serbs tried to erase all races of Turkish rule, associated in their minds with five centuries of alien rule.

By 1878, when the Ottoman Empire relinquished its last claims to sovereignty over Serbia, most buildings that bore an Islamic or Turkish stamp had been destroyed.

One of the first victims was Belgrade’s Stambol gate, one of the entrances to the city, located on the site of today’s National Theatre.

It was demolished in 1866 as a symbol of oppression. Around the same time, the Serbs knocked down several celebrated numerous mosques, including the Batal and Defterdareva mosques.

“There was a rational explanation for this,” historian Aleksandar Fotic explains. “Every new government wants to establish its own symbols and Serbia didn’t just get a new government, it was creating a modern nation state.

“They needed to demonized their old enemy and erase its presence,” he adds.

Serbs are not the only ones responsible for the destruction of the country’s Ottomans’ heritage. Nature played a part. Most Ottoman structures, except for mosques, fortresses or bridges, were built of wood, so rarely survived the passage of the centuries.

Other monuments disappeared in the wars between the Ottoman Empire and the Austrian Monarchy, in which the Serbs were largely spectators.

Until recently, Serbs felt little regret for this loss. History books once concentrated on the last, worst, decades of Ottoman rule, when the empire was falling apart and beset by internal turmoil. The period is remembered as a time of huge taxes and unpunished crimes.

In 1931, a monument was erected in Belgrade’s Dobracina street to mark the site where Turkish soldiers killed a Serbian boy, helping to spark the wars of independence. [The bronze statue of the boy was stolen in May, though it has since been found.]
 
“Most people their fifties today were raised in that manner,” historian Nebojsa Damnjanovic says. “In encyclopaedias they read about ‘Turkish oppression’, ‘Turkish servitude’ and the ‘Turkish yoke’.

“But, in last 15 to 20 years, attitudes have changed,” he adds.

Serbs now recall the era in a more rounded fashion, as a time when they had second-class status but still enjoyed significant rights.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s growing engagement with Serbia forms part of its more assertive and forward foreign policy towards the Balkans.

Turkish investment in Serbia’s Ottoman heritage increased markedly during the mandate of ambassador Ahmet Suha Umar who left Belgrade this autumn after two-and-a-half years.

The Turkish embassy has since picked up where he left off. “Financially, it is not a good time for big projects but we are trying to contribute as much as we can,” Mustafa Uludag, from the Turkish embassy, says.

Serbia’s cash-strapped authorities, which can scarcely afford to rebuild monuments on their own, are more than pleased to find someone willing to contribute to restoring heritage.

“We could manage on our own, but this is a great solution,” says Dragana Mihajlovic, from Nis municipality, concerning the construction of the Battle of Cegar memorial.

People in Nis these days no longer have hard feelings about the long centuries of Turkish rule, he adds.

“Some people were concerned about how people might react to this Turkish involvement but we live here and we know what the people of Nis think and there is no hostility to Turks,” Mihajlovic maintains.

Most younger Serbs agree. The country’s cultural heritage needs restoration; it’s not that important who funds it.

“If the Turks want to restore something, they are more than welcome,” Vesna Vasic, 26, a saleswoman from Belgrade, says. “Cultural heritage throughout Serbia is in very poor state and it will be lost if someone doesn’t do something about it,” she adds.
 
While some of the media criticize Turkey’s new foreign policy as “Neo-Ottoman”, and aggressive, few Serbs see Turkish intentions to restore Ottoman relics as a threat to their national identity.

“The Turkish Empire left Serbia almost two centuries ago. It’s long gone,” engineer Milos Zivkovic says. “Nowadays, they’re a country from which Serbia could benefit.”

After years of prejudice, Serbs increasingly accept that Turkish history is inextricably linked with their own.

“That [restoration of Ottoman relics] shouldn’t come as surprise - it’s their heritage as well,” Miodrag Nikolic, a 59-year-old economist from Belgrade, says.

“It’s quite normal that the Turks are showing interest. We should follow their example and pay greater attention as well.”

While most of population looks benevolently on Turkish interest in their common heritage, hard-line right-wingers are not impressed.

“There can’t be any cooperation with a nation that oppressed the Serbs for 500 years,” Misa Vacic, an activist from the nationalist 1389 organisation, maintains.

He blames Turkey for fuelling discontent among the substantial Muslim, or Bosniak, community in the southwest of Serbia - not to mention Turkey’s recognition of the independence of Kosovo, to which Serbia still lays claim.

“When it comes to Serbia, Turkey is the same today as it was centuries ago,” Vacic insists.
 
But this appears to be a minority view. “We have to remember the past, Belgrade sociologist Ratko Bozovic says, “but we also have to move forward.”

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