by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Centuries ago, some Balkan Christians swapped Jesus for Muhammad, a choice that still has repercussions on the peninsula

pomaks bulgaria.jpg

The wind of change does not blow with equal force everywhere. When you replace your old Walkman with the latest iPod, you make a small change in your standard of living. When someone who is not Spanish or Greek begins using Mañana or σιγά σιγά when talking business, this is a change in their way of thinking. However, when you change your religion, this fundamentally alters your whole life – the new religion is a new way of viewing the world.

You can easily imagine what effect such a decision may have when made by whole communities of people in a certain area. Nearly every Balkan country, from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Bulgaria to Greece and Turkey, has communities whose predecessors were baptised in the name of Jesus, but then accepted that "there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His Prophet."

They are usually called Pomaks, but the names vary. Since the 1990s, the Muslims of Slavic origin in Bosnia and Herzegovina have officially been termed Bosniaks. In different parts of the Balkans you will also find Ahtari, Apovtsi, Babechani, Dilsazi, Marvatsi, Torbeshi and Chèchentsi (not to be confused with the people of Chechnya).

All these names refer to people who speak the same language as their Christian neighbours. If they do not wear headscarves or characteristic costumes, as in the Western Rhodope, you can hardly tell them apart from the crowds in Sarajevo or Sofia, for example. The only thing that makes them different from the rest is their religion. However, Balkan history has often proved that religion can be a matter of life or death.

Nobody knows the exact number of Pomaks on the peninsula. Bosniaks are the ones with the clearest idea of their identity: they call themselves Muslim Slavs. The rest of the Pomaks live in a state of uncertainty and theories about their origin abound. Some Pomaks in Bulgaria, for instance, consider themselves to be Turks who have forgotten their mother tongue.

Others believe they are descendants of the Avars, Pechenegs or Cumans, who invaded the Balkans in the 6th, 10th and 11th centuries, leaving there pockets of Turkic genes long before the Ottomans arrived.

A third group claims that they were ancient Balkan tribes who were converted to Islam by Arab missionaries as early as the 9th Century. Some Pomaks in Greece believe they are members of a separate nation with its own language that, possibly, is descended directly from the ancient Thracians. Christian Bulgarians are certain that the Pomaks, no matter whether they live in Bulgaria, Greece or Turkey, are also Bulgarians, albeit Muslim ones.

A closer look at these theories, and the meaning of the word Pomak, shows how this confusion arose. In Bulgaria there are two main theories. The first maintains that the root of the word is pomagach, or helper, because Bulgarian Christians regarded Bulgarian Muslims as apostates, the right-hand men of the Ottomans.

The second, very different one says the root was pomachen, or tortured, because Pomaks were victims of the official Ottoman policy of Islamisation and chose to live as Muslims rather than die as martyrs. Some Greek researchers claim that Pomak is a derivative of pomax, or a drinker, a term that the ancient Hellenes applied to the wine-loving Thracians.

A Pomak woman

A Pomak woman from the Rhodope

The most extravagant theory states that Pomak comes from polyak, or Pole. The Slavic-speaking Muslims appeared in the 17th Century, when refugees from the area of Podolia settled in the Rhodope, after their native land was conquered by the Ottomans. There, for some reason, they adopted Islam.

The need for the Pomaks to explain who they are and where they come from, the attitudes of Christians to their Pomak neighbours and the national sentiment in countries with sizeable Pomak minorities have all led to a confused and complicated situation.

The ideological battle began in the 19th Century, when the young Balkan nations fought for their self-determination. The Bulgarians had a particular problem. In their lands, there were Muslims who spoke Bulgarian, sang Bulgarian songs, told Bulgarian tales and believed in the same hobgoblins and wood nymphs.

In an age when the Ottomans were a symbol of all things retrograde, the new Bulgarian historians and journalists decided that no one could have adopted their enslaver's faith of their own free will.

They had good reason for this. Throughout the period of Ottoman rule, there had been cases of Bulgarian girls abducted for the harems of pashas and viziers. There had also been martyrs and saints, such as Sveti Georgi Novi Sofiyski, or St George of Sofia the New, who won their halos because they refused to adopt Islam.

However, this could not explain the existence of whole areas with a Muslim population who spoke Bulgarian. Then, out of the blue, several chronicles, whose originals have not been found to this day, appeared in the press. They told of the forcible mass Islamisation in the Rhodope in the 17th Century.

An account written by a priest named Metodi Draginov, from the village of Korova, also came to light. It described the conversion of the Chepinsko area to Islam in 1668. Even as far back as the late 19th Century, historians Konstantin Ireček and Professor Marin Drinov noted that Father Metodi's Bulgarian was suspiciously contemporary.

Notwithstanding this tiny detail, the annal was accepted as genuine and writer Anton Donchev used it as the main theme of his novel Time of Parting in 1964. The novel, which develops a fictional story based on a complete fake, is still studied in secondary school and was voted one of the 12 favourite books of the Bulgarians in the Big Read campaign this March, is one of the foundations on which this "knowledge" of the forcible Islamisation is based.

The novel was made into a film, Time of Violence, in 1987, a year after the so-called Revival Process, when the Communists made all Muslims, no matter whether they were Turks, Pomaks or Gypsies, change their names for Slavic ones.

This was the regime's "compelling" argument: all Muslims in the country are descendants of forcibly Islamised Bulgarians and so they must "return to their roots"– even if they did not want to.

Fraught with graphic episodes of Turkish violence against Bulgarians and paid for by the Communist Party, the film was perhaps the most blatant example of the crude propaganda engineered in the late 1980s to justify the Communists' own atrocities against the Bulgarian Turks.

You would never guess from Time of Parting that the Ottoman Empire was, in fact, one of the most religiously tolerant regimes of its age. The sultans imposed an extra tax on their non-Muslim subjects and so it was not in their interest to reduce their takings from this haraç, the main source of income for their treasury.

Rather, it was the lower tax rates for Muslims that persuaded the people living in the poorer areas of the empire, such as the Rhodope, to give up Christianity, especially bearing in mind that the Patriarch in Constantinople also taxed them highly. At the beginning of the Ottoman invasion, mediaeval Balkan aristocrats had another reason to embrace Muhammad. The Ottoman Empire guaranteed social prosperity only to Muslims.

Until 1703, another constant inflow of fresh Slavic blood into the Ottoman lines was due to the devşirme. Every four or five years tax collectors went around the Christian lands and forcibly took away the most handsome and intelligent boys, ignoring the wails of grief of parents and siblings.

Once converted to Islam, these boys became members of the elite Janissary corps. The most talented could climb the social ladder and a few even managed to become grand viziers.

The most famous of them was of Bosnian descent, Mehmet Pasha Sokolović (c. 1505–1579). He ordered the construction of the famous bridge over the Drina in Višegrad. In 1992 on that same bridge, the local Christian Serbs would butcher Bosniaks in one of the first large outbursts of violence of the Bosnian War.

A large number of the apostates, mainly in Bosnia, adopted Islam for a different reason. In the 11th Century, the Bogomil heresy entered their territory and won so many adherents that it became an official religion. Neither the Patriarch in Constantinople nor the Roman Pope could allow this. The persecutions that ensued substantially weakened the people's faith in the Christian institutions. So when the Ottomans arrived, the Bogomils decided that they'd be better off turning to Islam.

Whatever the reasons why Pomaks adopted Muhammad 's religion, the result was the appearance of a group of people whom the Christians could not, and sometimes did not want to, understand or tolerate. For centuries, the conflict has smouldered, occasionally bursting into flame, as in the Bosnian War, hopefully the last outbreak of this kind.

Number around 150,000
Where the Rhodope Mountains; Ruen Municipality; northeastern Bulgaria

The Ottomans cut off Balkandzi Yovo's arms and legs and blinded him, but he did not give his sister, "beautiful Yana, to the Turkish faith." His torturers took her away only when he was unable to resist them any longer.

Bulgarian students study the folk song "Balkandzi Yovo" in school and, when writing essays, usually repeat what textbooks say, namely that it shows the "strength of the Bulgarian spirit under the enslaver's yoke." In fact, the song corroborates another stereotype – that the Bulgarians adopted Islam only under duress.

This is only one of the stereotypes that shape the lives of Bulgarian Pomaks. Most Christians, especially those who know Pomaks personally, consider them good and hardworking people. But this does not stop them from believing rumours about emissaries from Saudi Arabia spreading radical Islam among the Pomaks, for example.

In September 2008, a Eurobarometer survey showed that 70 percent of Bulgarians think that international terrorism is the greatest threat to their country. In March, an announcement made by MP Yane Yanev revealed how far this belief has gone. His statement that there were disseminators of fundamentalist ideas among the Pomaks in the village of Ribnovo (read more about them in Vagabond No.26) caused mass hysteria.

The State Agency for National Security, or DANS, investigated the report and discovered nothing suspicious, but the incident proved that Bulgaria has a closet full of dormant conflicts.

Patriotically-minded historians love to dwell on the killing of between 1,750 and 5,000 Bulgarians (estimates vary) in Batak during the suppression of the April Uprising of 1876. However, the massacre was not committed by the Ottoman army but by loosely organised paramilitary groups from the nearby Pomak villages. In other words, ethnic Bulgar killed ethnic Bulgar.

Two years later, the Bulgarians got their independence–and the conflict with the Pomaks intensified. Unwilling to recognise the authority of the governor of the autonomous province of Eastern Rumelia and helped by S. G. B. St. Clair, a British officer of Polish descent, the Pomaks from the area of Kirdzhali rebelled. Their Republic of Tamrash survived until 1886, when it was ceded to the Ottoman Empire.

This act inspired others to follow. The Republic of Gumuljina was established in 1913 as a reaction to the annexation of Aegean Thrace by Bulgaria in the Balkan Wars. There were armed bands of Pomaks in the Rhodope Mountains from 1942 until 1945, fighting for independence from Bulgaria.

The Bulgarian authorities were not inactive either. Each uprising was followed by the forced resettlement of the rebels. One of the largest of these happened at the end of the 1940s. As a result of the activities of Pomak fighters in the Rhodope, several communities were deported to northeastern Bulgaria.

In 1881, 1912–1913 and 1942, three large scale campaigns were conducted to make Pomaks do the opposite of what their predecessors had done: they were forced to convert to Christianity. The Communists brought in a change of tactics. They began changing Pomak names for Bulgarian ones. Their policy reached its culmination with the so-called Revival Process, but it actually started in 1956, when it was decided that Pomaks "had to realise their Bulgarian nationality."

Pomaks responded with self-isolation and the creation of their own legends about the hardships they had suffered. In 2000, a man from a Pomak hamlet in the Rhodope recounted that during the Revival Process dozens of men who did not want to change their names were taken away and executed. No historian has documented such a case.

The description of the heroes, who walked in a single file, "wearing white shirts, their forelocks waving in the air," literally repeats the haydutin's final wish in the folk song before he is hanged by the Turks.

GREECE Πομάκοι
Number 140,000
Where Aegean Thrace

When in 1921 in Lausanne a group of diplomats agreed on an exchange of the Greeks in Turkey for the Turks in Greece, the treaty had some notable exemptions and curious consequences. The Greeks in Istanbul and several nearby towns and the Muslims in Aegean Thrace were allowed to stay in their native lands. Paradoxically, the Greek Muslims living in the Peloponnese, Epirus and Crete had to leave.


Greece ended up with a considerable Muslim minority, amounting to about 300,000 people at present, concentrated in a relatively small area. About half of them are Pomaks.

However, the state turned a blind eye to the diversity existing within this group, which comprised both Pomaks, who spoke Bulgarian, and Turks.

Muslim schools taught only the Turkish language and, until the democratisation that started in 1974, after the Colonels were overthrown, Pomaks were regarded as Turks.

In addition, in the first years after the Second World War, the authorities suspected that the Pomaks in the Thrace Region were a fifth column of Communist Bulgaria. For this reason, educational institutions did their best to convince the Pomaks that they were really Turks.

The results are still visible. Go to Xanthi or any of the villages in the area and you will see women wearing headscarves who speak reasonable Bulgarian, as well as Turkish, Greek and a little Arabic. If you ask them about their ethnicity, they will say they are Turkish. The hotchpotch of Pomak identity received new ingredients in the mid-1990s.

One of them was the theory about the Thracian origin of Pomaks in Greece. It claims that they were an ancient tribe which had been consecutively Hellenised, Romanised, Christianised, Slavicised and Islamised over the past 2,500 years. Another theory defined Pomaks as a separate ethnic group with its own language.

Its followers even compiled their own grammars and dictionaries. Their publications provoked a furious reaction in Bulgaria and various public figures accused Greece of attempting to separate its ethnic Bulgarian population from their roots in a process of assimilation.

Ironically, the only Greek Muslims still living in Greece are to be found on the Dodecanese – in Rhodes and Kos. They avoided the population exchange because, when the Lausanne treaty was signed, the islands belonged to Italy.

TURKEY Pomaklar
Number between 120,000 and 300,000
Where the area of Edirne and Lüleburgaz; Istanbul; Çanakkale; Izmir; Bursa

Meeting 74-year-old Aişe Karapınar, who has been squatting in a poor, though clean shack in the yard of the abandoned synagogue in Edirne for eight years, is a disturbing experience. The shock does not come from the pure Bulgarian in which the old woman greets us with Dobre doshli!

This town is close to the border and home to a number of Turkish immigrants, who chose to leave Communist Bulgaria to avoid being forced to change their names for Slavic ones. Aişe is shocking because she says: "I am a Pomak. I was born in Drama. We moved to Turkey when I was little."

The flow of Pomaks from Drama, Komotini and the region of Nevrokopi began long before Aişe was born. The reason was the ill-treatment and violence against Pomaks by the Bulgarian army, which conquered these areas in the Great War.

The statement made by MP Mehmed Dzelal Abedin in the Bulgarian Parliament on 12 December 1917 painted a rather unpleasant picture of rapes and villagers forced to labour unpaid on government projects.

This was not the first Pomak migration from Bulgarian lands. Unhappy with Bulgaria's independence and fearing repression, Pomaks began moving to the Ottoman Empire as early as 1878–1912.

Number 2,185,000 in Bosnia and Herzegovina; between 2.4 and 4.4 million worldwide
Where Bosnia and Herzegovina; Sanjak Region of Serbia and Montenegro; Croatia; Kosovo; the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia

When, at the end of the 16th Century, the Ottoman invaders flooded into their country, they made the Bosnians an offer they could hardly refuse. In exchange for their independence, the Ottomans promised that the Bosnians would retain their property, social status and the freedom to practise their religion.

The last promise was very important. Three hundred years earlier, the Bosnians had turned to Bogomilism and even made this heresy their official religion. This act elicited the wrath of both the Pope and the Patriarch in Constantinople and culminated in brutal Catholic persecutions. The Ottoman offer came as a godsend and, according to Dame Rebecca West, was a turning point in the consolidation of the sultan's power in the Balkans.

This event gave rise to something else too: the Bosniaks. Bogomil's followers gradually converted to Islam, thus becoming a unique form of Pomaks. Isolated in their out-of-the-way lands, the Muslim Slavs were almost autonomous and had their own authorities.

In the 19th Century, Istanbul's tentative reforms aimed at granting equal rights to all the sultan's subjects, and the occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1878, gave the Bosniaks good reason to fear they would lose their privileged status. This fear crystallised their self-awareness as a people who speak the language of the Serbs (Orthodox Slavs) and the Croats (Catholic Slavs), but are different from them.

The tension among the three groups had existed since the first years of Ottoman rule, when Bosniaks were at the top of the social pyramid, and continued during the Austro-Hungarian occupation. A Yugoslav citizen told Dame Rebecca West in 1937: "The Austro-Hungarians raised up the Muslims, who were a third of the population, to be their allies against the Christians and the Jews."

In the very first years after they became part of Yugoslavia, Bosniaks realised that times had changed irrevocably. Bosnia was divided administratively among several other regions. The fact that there had been Bosniaks fighting in Tito's guerrilla bands during the Second World War – although others collaborated with the SS – was not much help to their group in Socialist Yugoslavia.

It was only in the 1960s that Bosniaks were given the right to use the adjective "Muslim" to define their national identity.

They were already the largest ethnic group in the area when they declared their intention of splitting from Yugoslavia and forming an independent and multi-ethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992, giving rise to a bloody war.

It took the lives of nearly 100,000 people and the killings and expulsions perpetrated by Serbs and Croats in ethnically mixed areas led to the appearance of a new term: "ethnic cleansing."

Bosniaks paid a high price for their exclusivity among the other Muslim Slavs in the Balkans. Those in Bosnia and Herzegovina live on the edge of the delicate balance between the two federal entities comprising the country: the Bosniak-Croat Federation and Republika Srpska.


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I’m Pomak from Bulgaria. I view myself as Pomak and that’s it. We just want to be recognised as a separate ethnic group as we have different mentality, religious practices and beliefs, celebrations, culture, traditions and traditional clothes, customs that are different from Bulgarians, Greek and Turkish population. We might share genes with Bulgarians and Greeks but we are different people. We are old Balkan population of Slavic speaking Muslims. It’s interesting to me how always people like yourself talk about us but never actually care to ask how we see ourselves. Most of people write about us and they heard from somewhere or someone that is not Pomak told them how we feel? We just want to be recognised as different people that you and all people know we are. We are threatened differently, live differently, we face Islam iPhones and discrimination every day but you will never write about that, of course. I never asked you to write about us, we never did. Next time ask real people with real questions and answers not propaganda we heard plenty times before. We feel Pomak that’s our identity!

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