A Silver Thread: Islam in Eastern Europe

But Sari Saltik didn’t just fight; he also preached. He beat three challengers in single combat in front of the walls of a Romanian city during a siege. The presence of a forelock means that the head was likely a Turk’s, and suggests that the Terebeszes began their existence as up-jumped soldiers from the Turkish-Hungarian frontier, ennobled for some long-forgotten act of valor. The borderlands were overrun with spies and other strivers. There, Salomea entered an even more lucrative trade: the ransoming business. Backed by these mounted soldiers, he overthrew Aaron the Tyrant and named himself hospodar (prince) of Moldova, thus becoming the first (and, as far as I can tell, only) Roma head-of-state in history. I know this intimately. With his wooden sword (which had once belonged to the Prophet Muhammad) he cleaved open rocks. Four were in Christian lands: Muscovy, Poland, Bohemia, and Sweden. But it was far from the only place where Saltik was venerated. And yet, again and again, the role of Islam in the making of this tapestry has been forgotten or disavowed. I think a notion of a separate Eastern Europe predates the Enlightenment by a few hundred years. Their tombs attracted worshippers of all faiths. That is a grave mistake. A starting point might be Fejzo Softa’s Ašiklijski Elif-ba, that poet’s erotic introduction to the Arabic script, from which our enterprising translator could move on to the work of Umihana Čuvidina, a Bosnian war widow who commemorated her dead in her 79-verse-long epos The Men of Sarajevo March to War Against Serbia. She came here as a victim of war. This angered the Venetians, who seized the messenger between the two parties, thanks to which we know the exact terms of the agreement. ¤
Jacob Mikanowski is a writer based in Berkeley, California. So, a final story. But why insist too much on the truth? Before I could determine what this noise meant, all of a sudden an infidel soldier, fearing for his life, suddenly hurled himself from a low rock just above my head and landed on top of me, so that I plopped into my own filth. When Demir Baba arrived, he commanded a swarm of butterflies to settle on the dragon’s eyes, blinding it. The motif of the severed head is a common one. The huntsman agrees, and in the blink of an eye arrives back at his house. For a moment I lost my wits: there I was, topsy-turvy with that infidel, my belt and drawers swimming at my feet and my clothes all covered in shit — I almost became “the shitty martyr.”
Thank god, I recovered my wits and wrestled with that infidel like Mahmud Pir-Yar-i Veli until I was on top. None could match his bravery. A shame, for it has lessons to teach us — lessons about embracing difference and accepting mercy. Now she works in his house. For some, the border offered opportunities to practice an honest trade they couldn’t practice at home. He was betrayed by his Polish backers in favor of a more pliant candidate (and, coincidentally, relative by marriage of the Baida). Islam is the silver thread holding the whole together. The uskoks promised to stop raiding in the area in return for the right of safe passage. In a different one, he has 12 tombs in 12 lands. Then he disappeared, crossing the sea to Corfu in two great steps. His reign did not last long. For such unfortunates, the best hope for return came in the form of divine intercession, as in this folktale from Sarajevo. On the local level, this served no one’s best interest, as it exposed the Ottoman border soldiers to heightened danger while depriving the uskoks of a crucial source of income. In Gdańsk, the legend goes, he killed St. Now alone, she settled down to a position as imperial ophthalmologist at the harem of Sultan Mustafa III, before making her way to Crimea, where she went to work in the harem of the Khan. The woman told her about her former life in Sarajevo, and the sack of her city, and how Prince Eugene took her north in his entourage. If anything marks Eastern Europe as a place of its own, and not someone else’s periphery, it is this function as gateway and bridge between and among different traditions. When the heroes of Serbian folk songs get together over horns full of wine, they boast to one another of how many slaves they had taken and how many heads they had smitten off. They carried tambourines and drums, and blew on horns. He rode on a magical horse and carried an impenetrable shield. The task will be difficult though, requiring not just a knowledge of languages and scripts, but an understanding of a whole world of cultural referents that have all but disappeared. Abu Hamid al-Andalusi al-Garnati is essential on Hungary and the Volga Bulgars. At this, the chronicler tells us, all those present wept dense streams of tears. At last, Marko summoned his guardian spirit, a vila, or fairy, of the woods. Hung from a hook inserted around his lowermost rib, the Baida suffers terrible torments for three days. To date, the book has not been translated into any language, and is virtually unobtainable outside of Poland. Bosnia once had the inverse position, serving as the bulwark of Islam. In Albania, Baba Bali once met a man leading a horse that was carrying wine. It’s in our power to decide which history we pay attention to, what meaning we give it in the present. Zbaraski reads the closing words of the pact, addressed by the Lawgiver to Poland’s King Zygmunt the Old:
I am seventy and you are old too, the threads of our lives are running out. Writing in the middle of the 20th, the Polish essayist Jerzy Stempowski reflected on the habits of this gentler time:
At the end of the 18th century, my great-grandfather was the last commandant of this station. Instead, he rides across the plain holding his own severed head under his arm. This type of syncretism found an echo in popular belief. Putting these items in my saddlebag, I mounted my horse — his name was Hamis — and deposited the head before Ismail Pasha. What would the Yugoslav oral epics be without tales of raiding across the frontier? They shaved their hair, beards, and eyebrows, and tattooed their bodies with snakes and the many names of Ali. They fought a terrible battle, trading blow for blow. However, the uskoks understood that the Ottoman soldiers would sometimes have to put on a show of fighting them, so they added that it would be perfectly alright if they “let off one or two gunshots” in their direction for the sake of their honor. They dispensed mercy to all comers. But it isn’t just the antemurale myth or the catastrophe theory of the Ottoman “occupation” — according to which the Turks wrought nothing but devastation — that have blinded us to the importance of Islam in Eastern Europe. They traveled to St. In Albania, at Krujë, he stood in for St. The family signet ring — the trópi głowa, or death’s head — belonged to my grandmother’s sister. This adventure happened to your humble servant. The grantor of the wish is his own servant, a shepherd named Kontuś, who had mastered the mystic arts through prayer, and the instrument of flight is a magic crook or staff. For the people of the borderlands, taking heads became a way of life. And so, intransigent and bibulous, he passes into the realm of myth. Now that head belongs to me!”
I was still tying up my drawers. In life, Dmytro Vyshnevetsky was a typical lord of the border: cunning, ruthless, and eternally willing to sell his allegiance to the highest bidder. They show him the embalmed head of the vizier they had just deposed, as well as those of his many predecessors. He extinguished it with one glance and told the people who saw this, “I am the one who lit this candlestick — Sari Saltik, and the champion of the universe.” But, then, Otman was always one for talk. Musa and Marko met in the harsh and craggy hills of Kachanik. At a place called Zwaniec, a Polish garrison watched the activities of the Turkish one on the other side. A stone that 20 men could not lift he could throw the length of a field. To read Naim Frashëri requires not only a command of Albanian, but also of classical and modern Greek, French, Italian, and the high Islamic tradition he absorbed through Arabic, Turkish, and Persian verse. As a result, the king of Dobruja was converted to Islam. Even the Nobel Prize–winning novelist Ivo Andrić, usually so perceptive and sensitive to difference, wrote in an early work that the “effect of Turkish rule [in Bosnia] was absolutely negative.”
Too many people regard the history of Eastern Europe as one of deep, persistent hatreds, of divisions that sit beneath the level of the everyday like the edges of tectonic plates. It was easy to see St. Salomea ventured from north to south and south to north voluntarily, but others weren’t so lucky. Muslim traders were already crisscrossing these still-pagan lands before Christian missionaries had set foot there. His horse could talk, and jump very far, but it couldn’t fly. Muslims kissed Christian icons and had their children receive Christian baptisms; Christians on their sickbeds invited Muslim dervishes to read the Qur’an over them. His black mustache was the size of a six-month-old lamb. The poem concerns the author’s great-grandfather, yet another bloodthirsty border lord, and his heroic defense of Szigetvár against the army of Suleiman the Great. My grandfather still kept a pouch of red silk that dated to this exchange of pleasantries. Zbaraski understands. Nicholas, the patriarch of the town, then dressed in his robes. The First Khotyn War between the Ottoman Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth has just ended. It’s also just sheer ignorance. In yet another, his coffins were 40 in number, each containing his holy remains. Baring my dagger, I stabbed him several times in the neck and breast, then cut off his head. Some had careers that were truly spectacular. On saint’s days, all came together in open-air shrines to give praise and receive blessings. Another was to transform much of Eastern Europe into a vast borderland, a zone of limited sovereignty that soon filled up with every sort of frontier fighter and freebooter: the uskok pirates of the Dalmatian coast, the Pandur and grenzer troops of the Habsburg Military Frontier in Croatia, the hajduks and haidamaks of Hungary and Ukraine, the Cossacks of the Zaporozhian Sich on the lower Dnieper, the nomadic Cumans, Nogais, and Kipchak Tatars from the Crimean steppe, Dobrudja, and Budjak. But as much as poets like to write about martyrs, people’s real sympathies often lie with rogues. A legend is told of a dragon that was keeping a princess captive. Petersburg, where she cured ladies at the court of the empress Anna. They broke each others swords and fought with their fists, but neither could force the other down. John Smith, the one who was saved by Pocahontas in Virginia, had a similar coat of arms, though his had three Turks’ heads arranged in a triangle on a shield. This closeness born from border fighting finds its literary echo in the legend of Marko Kraljević and Musa Kesedžija, popular heroes of traditional Serbian folk songs:
It had been three years since the Sultan sent Marko Kraljevic, his champion, to rot in prison. The origins of his name are obscure. Take the story of the Baida. The Sultan sent three thousand troops and a vizier to deal with them, but Musa killed them all, and some mercenaries too. These were held in a castle library in Poland for two centuries before being rediscovered and published, in 1957, as My Life’s Travels and Adventures. Noel Malcolm has written extensively about what he terms “religious amphibianism” in the Balkans, the ability of many people to live in the Christian and Muslim worlds at once. Some poets lost their lives to border combat. The saint replied that it would indeed be honey from that time on, and when the man arrived at his destination he found that all his wine had turned into honey. His long black whiskers drooped down the sides of his face. The city had churches belonging to five denominations, as well as a synagogue and a mosque. The theme of committing suicide-by-Turk in order to thwart the Turks constitutes its own micro-genre in Eastern European literature, notable entries to which include Pan Wołodyjowski by Henryk Sienkiewicz and the song cycle concerning Miloš Obilić in Serbian. Their coat of arms was a severed head impaled on a sword. In this disguise he made many converts to Islam. Another version suggests that the story about the hook was true, but instead of ending in a heroic act of rebellion, he simply died. Born in 1718 to a Catholic family in what is now Belarus, she married a Lutheran doctor who practiced medicine in the Ottoman Empire. She did know the mosque and told him so. For Ivan the Terrible, he raised a host of Circassians in the Caucasus and used them to raid up and down the Don. The two warriors become brothers-in-blood-and-in-God. The snake awoke and spoke, “O Marko, give thanks to God that I did not awake while Musa lived: Your task then would have been worse by a hundred-fold!” At this Marko wept, for he then knew that he had killed a better man than himself. Serbia, Hungary, and Poland all claim the title of antemurale christianis, the bulwark of Christendom. And who will be the first to unlock the world of Balkan aljamiado literature, that is, literature composed in Bosnian and Albanian (and less frequently in Polish and Belarusian) but written in Arabic letters? Ibn Fadlan is our best source for the activities of the Vikings in what is now Ukraine and Russia. A loincloth or a couple of leaves were sufficient clothing. The Kalenderi Abdals, the followers of the Otman Baba, shocked many with their strange appearance. In keeping with the customs of that polite age, my great-grandfather and the Pasha of Khotim [Khotyn] exchanged written compliments, which were accompanied by little gifts. It is built of undressed stone. The Baba asked what the animal was transporting, and the man, too embarrassed to admit the truth, told him it was honey. In general, the history of the Ottomans in Europe is past due for revision. She kept one of these ransomed officers, a German from Slovenia named Pichelstein (Pilsztyn in Polish), for herself, and married him. After a rebellion against the Turks by Christian Serbs and Bulgarians, Salomea Pilsztyn saw the rebels’ severed heads piled together in a mountain “as large as a spacious tavern.” In the Albanian legend of the Battle of Kosovo, Kopiliq is beheaded after stabbing the Sultan to death. A Christian hero fighting for the Ottoman Sultan becoming a blood brother to an equally powerful champion of Bosnian Muslims: in a few lines of sung verse, this story upends most of our preconceptions about inter-religious relations in the Ottoman Empire. Two oaks tower over it, one at its head and one at its foot. When Western (principally French) intellectuals began to fashion their countries as realms of progress and rationality, they created the “East” as a flattering foil for their ambitions, filled as it was (in their eyes at least) with backwardness and superstition. He fought Christian knights, but also djinns and witches. The world of Islamic Eastern Europe is an undiscovered continent. How could Sari Saltik be buried at Kaliakra and at Babadag? I never saw it as a child, but it glittered in my mind’s eye.  
Saints
Wonder-working saints were among the great unifiers of early modern Eastern Europe. In Bulgaria, Saltik was also known to have killed a seven-headed dragon. He arrives in Istanbul with a splendid retinue, dispensing gifts with an open hand. Exploring its history means spelunking in obscure journals and forgotten offprints. The year is 1621.  
Heads
Vyshnevetsky’s real death appears to have been somewhat more prosaic. A visitor to Vilnius in the 17th century would have heard six languages spoken in the streets; they could have heard prayers conducted in at least five more. Later saints took to claiming that they had been him in past lives. With her help, and by a trick, he struck Musa with a knife and cut him open from his waistband to his throat. So many of the legends that came to define the nations of the region stem from this space of contact. This done, he caught the dragon’s forked tongue in a trap and killed it. The old man then asked, “Would you like to be there now?” The woman nodded yes. In the two centuries since Serbia and Bulgaria won their independence (and Romania its sovereignty), Balkan historiography has been dominated by a view of the Empire as a purely destructive force and of the period of its suzerainty as an age of darkness. It was enough, he said, that they were both children of Abraham. Those next to me moved off because of the smell. For a moment, we can share it too. Once, this plurality would have been obvious. These stories seem to have cohered around a kernel of truth. In Belgrade, a cock is crowing. The poem ends with the grandfather and the rest of the defenders defeating an army literally summoned from hell, before charging to their deaths amid a shower of musket fire. The next day, the huntsman forgets his vow and betrays his promise. The closeness fostered by proximity along the border could stretch beyond compliments. My grandmother’s family, the Terebesz, once belonged to the Hungarian nobility. In this version, though, the direction of travel is reversed: from Mecca back home to the Lipka homeland near Navahrudak, in today’s Belarus. As I was pulling off the infidel’s filth-spattered dolman with its silver buttons, and his drawers, I discovered 105 Hungarian goldpieces and one ring and 40 Thalers in his waistband. The moment he tells others about Kontuś’s gifts, the shepherd dies. When she opened it, this is what she saw: a casket and an open grave. But we must begin with war. George in the works of a ghazi, or in Elijah, or in the flights of a Sufi mystic. The woman from Sarajevo has to clean inside them all. Even today, his grave still stands in the woods outside the village of Łowczyce.  
Border Crossers
Combat, sustained over long periods of time, naturally turned into coexistence. The first heart had stopped beating. All of these groups exploited the instability of the border, justifying their raiding, plundering, and slave trading by the umbrella of their faith. And coexistence, just as naturally, bred intimacy. But even pirates need to make deals. Smith received it while fighting as a mercenary for Sigismund Báthory, the prince of Transylvania. He rode a winged horse, but only when no one could see. Zbaraski has saved his best present for last. Imagine the novel one could write about that sorbet seller! For centuries, Babadag, the “father mountain,” which stands alone by the delta of the Danube River, was the center of the Saltik cult, visited by Sultans as well as the indefatigable Evliya Çelebi. Even with a good research library at your back, it is a struggle. When she opened them again, she was back in Sarajevo, standing in front of the Maghrebi Mosque. At some point in the 1580s, the Ottoman government, hoping to decrease the number of raids, banned the practice of offering ransom for captives held by the uskoks. Some of the miracles were rather grand. It if is bad manners to relate it, I hope to be covered with the skirt of forgiveness. For one thing, it showed a severed head, not a skull. It is a warning. But not everyone who made a living across the frontier ended quite so ignominiously.  
Boundaries
In the Middle Ages, Europe meant Christendom, and, in this sense, Islam arrived in Eastern Europe before Europe itself arrived. The works they did were not confined to a single religion. In the 16th century, the Uskoks of Senj carved out a niche for themselves as ferocious pirates on the Adriatic, portraying themselves as holy warriors while they preyed on Ottoman and Venetian shipping alike. It is the last treaty between Poland and Turkey, signed almost a century earlier. There he was remembered primarily as a warrior, who had converted the pagan Tatars and Cumans who lived in the Budjak with the sword. The theme of instantaneous travel, abetted by a magical intercessor, is a recurring one in the Islamic folklore of Eastern Europe. The work of remembering is hard, but it is necessary, and it bears fruits. He awarded me 50 goldpieces and a silver turban-crest, and I cheered up considerably. Already drunk, he goes on a multi-day spree. He is said to have lived in the mid-13th century, or maybe a bit later. In the 18th century, the Polish-Ottoman frontier ran along the River Dniester. (He had other lives too. In Lithuania, a similar story was told among the Lipka Tatars, a group of Turkic-speaking Muslims who settled in the region in the 14th century and have maintained their faith (if not their language) ever since. MAY 15, 2018

Prologue
THERE HAS NEVER BEEN an Eastern Europe without Islam. This had several consequences. In yet another story, Marko meets his match in the great Bosnian Muslim warrior Alija Đerzelez, or Alija the Mace-Wielder. Hatchets and clubs rested on their shoulders alongside their begging bowls. The highwayman had three hearts. Astounded by this feat, the tsar offered to convert to Islam, but Demir Baba demurred. What is certain is that he had more identities than lives, and many more tombs than deaths. George, the dragon-slayer. But one she isn’t even allowed to enter. In Bulgaria, he was associated with St. For literature, the situation is even worse. We would hardly know a thing about Salomea’s life if not for the memoirs she left us. One of the most famous, “In the Little Square in Tsar-town,” has him appear, rather unexpectedly and all alone, in the heart of Istanbul. But he doesn’t die. The Turkish dignitaries crowd around to touch the parchment that had been handled by Suleiman the Magnificent himself. But the Baida knocks it away, saying, “Your daughter is beautiful / but your faith is cursed.” Furious, the Sultan has the Baida captured and strung up. One Franciscan friar visiting Kosovo from the West was welcomed into a Muslim house with the words, “Come in, Father: in our house we have Catholicism, Islam, and Orthodoxy.” He reported, in shock, “They seemed to glory in this diversity of religions.” Imagine how much more shocked he would have been to hear the preaching of the Bektashi Sufis, who used to tell Christians that “Mohammad and Christ are brothers.”
 
Sari Saltik
Among the great Islamic saints of Eastern Europe, no one assumed as many identities, or attracted as many followers of as many faiths, as the chameleonic Sari Saltik. For another, ours had a mustache. It is the meeting place of the Catholic West and the Orthodox East, of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewry, of militant Islam and crusading Christianity, of Byzantine mystics and Sufi saints. We shall soon meet in happier lands, where we shall sit, sated with fame and glory, next to the Highest, I on his right hand and you on his left, talking about our friendship. Saltik arrived in the city disguised as an old dervish. When he left Azerbaijan for the Balkans, he was heard to say, “I shall saddle a cloud, shall turn the lightning into a whip, and shall go back to Rum.” A donkey would have been easier.)
 
Coda
A shape-shifter in life, Saltik became even more prodigal in death, multiplying himself until he could lay claim to a spiritual empire, stretching from Gdanśk to Kaliakra, and from Krujë to Babadag. Thirty years ago, the historian Larry Wolff argued that Eastern Europe was a product of the Enlightenment. He ended it, like many ambitious border-crossers, impaled on a traitor’s stake. When neither Muscovy nor Lithuania were willing to meet his demands, he considered going over to the Turks. This is a great shame, since Salomea’s memoirs are one of the very few autobiographical accounts by women under Ottoman rule, and almost certainly the only one by a self-employed tradeswoman. Islam arrived in earnest a bit later, in the 14th century. So the time had come to summon Marko again. But now a great highwaymen was ravaging the coast. Eastern Europe owes its existence to the intermingling of languages, of cultures, and, perhaps above all, of faiths. The Demir Baba, whose home ground was in northern Bulgaria, was once summoned by the tsar of Muscovy to subdue a terrible dragon that was ravaging his land. In death, though, Vyshnevetsky was transformed into the Baida, the legendary paragon of Cossack manhood. He offered each of these the option of becoming Muslim, and only killed them when they refused. Most paid for it with their lives. Wooden and square, they look just like parish churches, with the minor exception of the ornament at the top: a slim silver crescent instead of a cross. But people did live together, mostly in peace, for hundreds of years, and that peace could, in the right circumstances, even blossom into amity and subtle understanding. He was a ghazi, a warrior, a hermit monk, a wonder-worker, a priest, and even a Christian saint. As such, he figures as the hero of a hundred epic Cossack songs, or dumy. One was to inaugurate a new era of holy war: the Crusades that had been fought between Christians and pagans in the Baltic now became conflicts between errant knights and Muslim ghazis. He had a terrible temper and an enormous moustache. For the king of Poland, he fortified an island in the Dnieper River to hold against the Tatars. “My Evliya,” said Ismail Pasha, “you smell strangely of shit.”
“Don’t ask, my lord, what calamities have befallen me!” And I recounted my adventures blow by blow. In large part, it’s simply because we don’t know. Instead he asked about her about her life, and how she wound up in this strange city among the giaours. They set appropriate levels of payment for each type of captive, and sealed the deal by becoming formal “brothers-in-blood,” after which they retired to sleep “in a single bed, in each other’s arms.”
Another time, the uskoks concluded a truce with the agas of Karin. With his wooden sword he cut off the dragon’s seven heads, along with their seven tongues. In this, they followed the example of their master. As a condition of granting his master’s wish, the shepherd makes the huntsman swear to one thing: that he will tell no one of his secret. All relied on the same folk medicines, and raided each other’s traditions for cures. “Well,” I replied, “take this head,” and I showed him my little brother who was born together with me (i.e., my penis). At Christmas, Muslims in Albania would assist Catholics in cutting the Yule log, and Catholics would take part in celebrating Bajram. He knew the Gospels and the Torah so well he could easily move congregations to tears. It takes place during the Transylvanian Campaign of 1662:
A strange and comical adventure, a wondrous and foolish gaza. Armies and lone warriors fought along the border. These were god’s unruly friends — insane, exalted saints whose holiness could prove frightening. Once, at Babaeski, the site of one of Sari Saltik’s tombs, Otman Baba saw a candlestick lit by Sari Saltik himself, still burning after many years. He often pretended to be a rabbi or a priest. From this time on, Muslim armies (and states) would be a permanent presence in the region. But there are treasures waiting for the enterprising translator. In his Seyahatname, Evliya Çelebi (Evliya the Gentleman), an Ottoman courtier and one of the greatest travelers and litterateurs in the history of Eastern Europe, tells a story, by turns violent and comic, of head-taking as seen from the opposite side of the frontier. When Marko stood up he saw that he could see into Musa’s chest. Such ecumenism was common on the part of saints. On his own account, he led his Cossacks to Crimea to capture slaves. His chief discovery was that the life of art and Orthodox ceremony never waned in the centuries after the conquest. Ransomed from slavery by the archbishop of Iași, he rose to become the hetman (commander) of a Cossack horde. When her husband abandoned her, she opened a practice of her own, first in Edirne and then in Sofia. Alija was a large man, and completely bald. He was a Muslim and an Albanian, and he too had once served the Sultan in Istanbul. Some examples of “Lithuanian” mosques still exist in Poland and Belarus. In Art and Society of Bulgaria in the Turkish Period, Dutch architectural historian Machiel Kiel has opened a new vista on Christian life under Ottoman rule. Eugene’s palace has many rooms and many chambers. The Turkish Sultan, dazzled by this display of manly bravado, offers the Baida his daughter’s hand in marriage. The traveler is a wealthy Tatar who had grown rich serving as the Polish king’s royal huntsman. He had the strength of a giant. It lived in a cave by day and in a church by night. The deed was commemorated at Kaliakra, in a tomb built by the walls of an old castle situated on a promontory sticking out into the Black Sea. Fare well. A peace treaty needs to be negotiated. Marko was a Serb, a Christian, and a prince. With his cypress staff he called forth holy springs. It seems to me that Wolff is only partially right. The written testimonies they left behind are some of our only surviving sources for what Eastern Europe was like before the coming of the priests. He retrieves an old parchment from a gold chest. He spoke 12 languages, and had a golden tongue in each. More of his work can be found here. And indeed, historians have recently begun to challenge the “catastrophe theory” of the Balkan past. Otman Baba himself was often mistaken for a madman, a fugitive, or a runaway slave, but the Abdals took things further. I think, moreover, that its genesis is intimately tied to the introduction of Islam to the Balkans and southern steppes and, with it, the creation of a shatter-zone between empires stretching from the Adriatic to the Black Sea. Three were in lands controlled by the faith: at Kaliakra, in Adrianople, and in Babadag. Also known as Arebica, this is a type of writing that serves as a perfect metaphor for the region: hybrid in form, plural in content, permeable to influence from east and west. Everywhere, though, the imagery of a fortified boundary was paramount. The old man said to her, “Stand on my robe and close your eyes!” The old woman closed her eyes and stood on his robe. Some say it comes from his being blonde or redheaded, others that it was a nickname bestowed by unbelievers on account of his great strength. Inside it there was a letter written on yellowed paper covered in the miniscule writing of those times. The defense of the border between faiths is the subject of countless legends and stories. It may sound something like a German Totenkopf, but it wasn’t. The monk burned to death and Saltik suffered no harm. Flowering spiraea and black alder grow all around. It is the membership list of the Society of Christian Sheep Drovers in Sofia, one branch of the vast procurement organization that kept Istanbul supplied with meat and grain in the 16th century. He wore a skullcap and had a kindly demeanor. But there, a Christian monk stole three of its tongues and ears, and Saltik had to endure a trial by fire to prove he was the true dragon-slayer. When a Serbian girl points out his headlessness he dies, but not before cursing her with blindness. The second was beating still. And everywhere you look, relationships that appear at first to be based on enmity turn out instead to be characterized by mutual influence, mimicry, friendship, and even love. I used the dagger to wipe the shit off my clothes, then began to draw my drawers together when suddenly a brave youth came panting to the rock above my head and said, “My friend, I was chasing that infidel whom you just killed through the mountains. Every year, on Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr, crowds of pilgrims throng around to ask the saintly Kontuś for his blessing. Ismail Pasha too was tremendously pleased. Yet his memory lives on. From that day on, the woman went every Friday without fail to this mosque and always prayed for the soul of the sheik from the Western lands. So the chief of the pirates and the local bey sat down to negotiate. In his short life, Răzvan was a Muslim, Christian, Gypsy, Cossack, and a king. “What an ill-mannered man you are,” said the elegant fellow and, despairing of the head, he went his way. Shoot — but not too much, and not too accurately: an honorable solution to the problem of inconvenient affections. The Spanish traveler Ibrahim ibn Yaqub from Tortosa was the first to record his impressions of Prague and Krakow. Then the old man asked her if she was familiar with the Maghrebi Mosque on the west side of Sarajevo, an old temple from the days of Isa Beg founded by a dervish sheik who had come there from the Western lands. There, next to 10 goldsmiths, seven shoemakers, four tavern keepers, two grocers, a potter, a boatman, and a spinner of goat hair, are two sorbet sellers, one of whom was working for the Islamic secret police. Two dates stand out: the conversion of the Golden Horde to Islam in 1313, and the arrival of the first Ottoman Turkish soldiers in the Balkans — mercenaries in the service of the usurper John Cantacuzenus — in 1345. I had been holding on to the rein of my horse, but the horse started and stood off at a distance. Christians and Muslims celebrated many of the same holidays. Your envoy, Opalinski, will tell you in what happiness he saw your sister and my wife. “May the enemies’ misfortunate heads always roll like this one,” I said, kissed his hand, and stood at attention. Every day she does everything that is asked of her, and every night she weeps, overcome with longing for her home. And in Budapest, a woman is weeping. This shatter-zone consisted of a sharp border and a soft frontier. One such remarkable figure was Salomea Regina Pilsztyn. Later, he was captured and sold “like a beast” into slavery by the Crimean Tatars. Ștefan Răzvan was the son of a Muslim Roma from the Ottoman Empire. Already in the early 14th century, the great Tangerine traveler Ibn Battuta saw Saltik’s tomb being venerated at Babadag in what is now eastern Romania. So, too, did Albania — under Skanderbeg, back in the 15th century — though it is now a Muslim-majority country. Sometimes, this intimacy took the form a simple acknowledgment of the humanity of one’s opponent. Fearing for his life he hurled himself on top of you and you cut off his head. Prince Eugene took her, when he sacked Sarajevo. This Europe, in which Christians and Muslims routinely switched clothes and butterflies could defeat dragons, has been largely forgotten. Salomea learned medicine and began working as an ophthalmologist. One day, when the Prince was away on one of his campaigns for the Emperor, curiosity overcame her, and the woman stole the keys to the forbidden door. It drank a great deal of wine. People, stories, and miracles crossed the frontiers. Nicholas and the Prophet Elijah. Yet even in this mortal predicament, he somehow manages to grab hold of a bow and shoot arrow after arrow at the Sultan and his jilted daughter, narrowly missing them both before finally tasting the sweet release of death. He had giant’s blood (it came from his mother’s side of the family). This was another of his miracles. But who would dare? Instead, Ottoman Bulgaria (and the Balkans in general) was a complex mosaic of affinities and dependencies, in which Christian lords could become “Turkish” cavalrymen and glittering churches could be funded by the proceeds raised by imperial tax collectors. As one of them wrote after their Otman’s death, “There was no place in the vilayet of Rum where he had not set foot and where they had not seen his help and sainthood, where his miracles had not become visible.”
Sometimes the miracles they performed were quite humble. I commend him warmly to Your Majesty. He carved the Iron Gates of the Danube with a single stroke of his sword. When she woke up an old man was standing over her. His name was Musa. Before he died, he ordered that his body should be placed in seven coffins, because seven kings would vie for possession of his tomb. In the borderlands, stories of violence became legends or symbols almost as soon as they occurred. These are important lessons at a time when leaders in Poland, Serbia, Hungary, and far too many other nations have taken to saying that Muslims have no place in Europe, neither now nor in its history. By this time I was soaked in blood as well as in shit, and I had to laugh, seeing that I had become the shitty gazi. For a moment, they were privy to a vision of comity and respect almost too sweet to bear. According to the poet, they “looked as if he held a black lamb in his teeth.” Marko also had immense strength. He fought men as easily as if he were mowing corn. He tells them, “May my head rest there also, if I do not serve you faithfully.”
The next day he is received by the Sultan. The best tales from the region combine both typologies. After the battle, heeding the call of nature I retired to a lonely spot, loosened my drawers and was busy relieving myself when, from a thicket just above my head, I heard a rustle a snap. Right away she fainted. Around the third heart, a serpent slept coiled. One day, drinking in a tavern he grew angry that after years of toil he had not earned enough to buy a horse, a sword, or an embroidered cloak, so he began stealing the Sultan’s treasures, and hanging poor pilgrims and saintly hajjis from hooks. Still, he would not tell her his name. Still, the Janissaries are restive. Why don’t we talk about Eastern Europe in the same breath as Khiva, Samarkand, or Al-Andalus? As a man, he wasn’t allowed to treat Muslim women of rank. They spent much of their time in seclusion and meditation in the mountains or in desolate woodlands and yet they seemed to be everywhere in the Ottoman Balkans, helping the poor and feeble, the powerless, the destitute, and those who had left their homes to go wandering. All the officers at that victory celebration laughed uproariously. She bought captured Habsburg officers from Ottoman slavers and collected payments from their families for their return. The Polish senate dispatches Prince Zbaraski, one of the richest men in the realm and a former pupil of Galileo, as its envoy. In Istanbul, the Sultan is sleeping. But this is only one version of the story. Enticed by Olbracht Łaski, the notoriously, ghoulish Polish adventurer (and later patron of Giordano Bruno and John Dee) into intervening in Moldavian affairs, he was caught in an ambush and sold to the Sultan, whereupon he was strangled with a silken cord. After a few more years of travel, she divorced Pichelstein, whom she accused of adultery, extortion, and attempted poisoning. But this was all a prelude. The first epic poem in Hungarian was written by the tireless border general (and ban of Croatia) Miklós Zrínyi. Countless uprooted captives and prisoners of war spent their lives pining for a lost homeland. A single document in Kiel’s book hides a millions stories.