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American Anthropologist Vol. 115, No. 2 June 2013

Museum Exhibition Review Essay

Imagined Commonalities: The Invention of a Late Ottoman

Tradition of Coexistence
Cross-Media Project: A Balkan Tale. Christina Koulouri, team leader. Goethe Institute, 2012. Photograph
exhibit and catalog, plus documentary film The Silent Balkans: A Hundred Years since the Balkan Wars (Andreas
Apostolidis, dir.).
Robert M. Hayden
University of Pittsburgh
Slobodan Naumovic
University of Belgrade

ABSTRACT The Balkan Tale project includes an exhibit of

photographs of Ottoman-era buildings, texts by historians from
the region, and a documentary film on the Balkan wars of 1912
13. Installations include a soundwalk and an experience of
Ottoman perfumes. Materials are available in English, Albanian,
Greek, German, Serbian, Macedonian, and Turkish. The project
premises that various peoples of the region lived peacefully together before the creation of nation-states and promotes a common history based on religious and ethnic coexistence. Yet such
a proposition is as much an invention of a putative tradition as
any nationalist history, ignoring relevant scholarship on the complexities of parallel and at times conflicting existences during Ottoman rule. The presentation echoes trendy anthropological theories on the fluidity of borders but neglects, or rejects, dominant
concepts held by peoples in the region about themselves and
each other, as well as scholarship that posits alternative conceptualizations of putative Ottoman proto-multiculturalism. [history,
invention of tradition, monuments, multiculturalism, Balkans]

Cross-Media Project

A Balkan Tale is an ambitious project, funded by the European Union, to use multiple media to show the ways in
which peoples of differing languages and religions coexisted
peacefully in the late Ottoman Empire in southeastern Europe, just before the First Balkan War, which started in
1912. The project involved a team of historians from Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Holland, Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia,
Turkey, and the United States, under the general leadership of Greek historian Christina Koulouri. 1 The products,
almost all issued in English, German, Greek, Albanian, Serbian, and Macedonian, include an exhibit of 50 recently
taken color photographs, accompanied by a detailed catalog
(in color in English, in smaller black-and-white format in Serbian, at least) and a half-hour-long film, The Silent Balkans:
A Hundred Years since the Balkans Wars, directed by Andreas
Apostolidis. This director and scenarist has also authored
films on population displacements in the 20th century: from
Greece and Turkey in 1923; Germans expelled from eastern
Europe in 1945; from India and Pakistan in 1947; and from
Cyprus in 196474 (see http://www.twiceastranger.net).

The film The Silent Balkans is composed of film clips and

still photos from 190413, with very skillfully dubbed
sound tracks that synchronize sound and music to movements in these early silent films, interspersed with interviews of the historians. All of this material is available at
The exhibit opened in Athens in January of 2012 and
moved on to Thessaloniki, Skopje, Prizren, Chemnitz, and
Belgrade (Figure 4), where we saw it, by June; it was next
scheduled to move on to Chios (Greece) and Tirana. The
website (http://www.balkantale.com) states that the photo
exhibit is accompanied by a soundwalk in which sensors
trigger special sounds associated with each photograph as
visitors move through the exhibit and a smellscape of the
Ottoman era involving perfumes used then: jasmine, rose,
laurel, and mastic. However, neither the soundwalk nor the
smellscape was included in the Belgrade installation. Ironically, part of the problem was that the exhibit was set up in
an Ottoman-period building (Figure 5) that is a protected
monument and thus could not be modified for the needs of
the project. The other problem was cost: according to the
Belgrade organizers, the soundwalk and smellscape elements
were late additions and would have required additional financing that they could not obtain.
The website includes an interactive map showing the
sites of each photograph, The Silent Balkans film broken up
into seven short clips, and information on the scholars involved and the sponsors. There is also a Teachers Corner
section that promises downloadable resources to inspire
school children aged 718, to engage with the history of the
Balkans and enhance their understanding of history, photography, architecture, cultural heritage and film and photographic archives. As of January 2, 2013, only a few such
materials were available: a lesson plan and a walking-tour
guide of Prizren in English, two such walking-tour guides,
and a photography competition announcement in Greek.
The premise of the project is that the late Ottoman
Empire was a world without national borders, in which
different ethnic and religious groups co-existed within a
vast empire and that these people did not have a distinct
national identity. They were first and foremost citizens of
an empire (soundtrack, second film segment). However,
the memory of coexistence in a multiethnic empire was
no longer useful for the new nation-states of the Balkans.
They all needed their own national history of their liberation

Visual Anthropology


The photographs were displayed with an accompanying text, here in Belgrade. (Photo by Sasa Janjic, used with permission of Remont
Independent Artistic Association)

from the Turks, in order to foster a new national identity.

Thus, these states silenced the memory of this multiculturalism and created the new memory of the history of the
nation-state (soundtrack, first video segment). The goal of
the project is to show how cultural diversity can be a rich
resource by look[ing] beyond each countrys national take
on history to promote a view of the Ottoman period as
their collective past. This goal is seen as part of a search for
a collective European identity (Preface by the GoetheInstitut, Athens, in the English version of the catalog, not
included in the Serbian version).
This project thus seems congruent with some current
frameworks in anthropology. Illustrating the arbitrary and
artificial nature of borders by removing them from the
map fits very well into the traces, tidemarks and legacies
theme of the 2011 AAA annual meeting (a theme stemming
from the EastBordNet project on transforming eastern European borders) and the borders and crossings theme of
the 2012 meeting. Although nationalism used to be seen
in some schools of thought as a force that aided the development of nation-states, modernity, and liberal democracy
through popular sovereignty and cultural homogenization
(Lind 1997; Tamir 1995; Weber 1976), it is now generally
criticized for being exclusionary, as are nation-states themselves. The idea that the common heritage of the Balkans
before the rise of the nation-states was peaceful coexistence is a nice inversion of the Orientalist presumptions
of the regions putative inherent violence that have domi-

nated much of the literature, despite telling critiques (see

Bakic-Hayden 1996, 2002; Todorova 1997, 2005). The emphasis on sharing and coexistence also parallels recent work
in anthropology on the sharing of sacred space (Albera and
Couroucli 2012; Bowman 2012b), which explicitly aims to
counter models of interreligious interaction in the Balkans,
among other regions, that emphasize an inherent antagonism
between religious communities (Hayden 2002; Hayden et al.
To us, though, this presentation of an idealized Ottoman coexistence is a matter of imagining commonalities,
to paraphrase Benedict Anderson. Although the participants
in the project are a distinguished group of scholars, they
omit relevant scholarship on how these peoples actually did
interact and, more importantly, they fail to discuss the circumstances under which such interactions took place. We
discuss some of these problems below, after reviewing the
catalog and film, and relate them to what should be issues in
the anthropological models just mentioned.
The catalog organizes the 50 photographs of the exhibit
under five categories: Conquering, Living Together, Worshiping, Modernizing, and Forgetting (see Figures 6, 7, 8, 9,
and 10). The interactive map codes each site iconically to one
such category, but the map does not show the modern state
borders. Thus, the space is rendered conceptually free of the
burdens that the nation-states have imposed. Each photo is
accompanied by a brief description of the sites history and
present condition, in both the exhibit and the catalog. The


American Anthropologist Vol. 115, No. 2 June 2013

FIGURE 5. When the exhibit was mounted in Belgrade at the konak (residence) of Princess Ljubica, the soundscape and smellscape could not be
accommodated within the architecture of the protected Ottoman-period building. (Photo by Slobodan Naumovic)

photographs are all of buildings or groups of buildings, as

photographed circa 2010.
The film, on the other hand, begins with the firing of
an artillery piece and focuses quite a lot on the Balkan wars
of 1912 and 1913. Footage of fighting is interspersed with
that of people of different groups interacting peacefully, or
so we are told, as well as of national leaders of the new
states. The latter are included as part of the story linethat
to build new, homogenized nation-states, these leaders and
their governments obscured the peaceful coexistence of the
past. The two major components of the project are thus
complementary, with the film showing the paradise that was
lost and how it was lost, and the photographs illustrating the
physical, structural remains of this lost collective history.
Although the photo exhibition and catalog are officially
the primary products of the project, the key ideas behind
all of the components are presented most explicitly in the
film. The Silent Balkans was projected continuously at the site
of the photographic exhibit; it was also entered in regional
documentary film festivals and broadcast on at least some of
the national television networks in the Balkans region. The
entire project was meant to facilitate rethinking of the past
century of history in the region after the final collapse of the
Ottoman Empire, on the 100th anniversary of the start of
the First Balkan War.

The message of the film is conveyed through voice-over

commentaries and excerpts of interviews with the various
historians. These narratives are accompanied by skillfully
composed clips from rare motion-picture films from that era,
monochrome photographs, and very rare early color photographs (technically, autochromes) from the Albert Kahn
collection, taken in 191213 (see Okuefuna 2008). The
director created effective animation effects by moving the
camera across the color photographs, some of which were
made originally for stereoscopic viewing, and the film renders a very passable three-dimensional effect for some shots.
However, the emotional impact of the film is carried by juxtaposition of shots of military action, the resulting ruins, and
prisoners and desolate civilians with those of animations that
seem to reconstruct the experience of peaceful coexistence
before the virus of nationalism infected the Balkans. The
visual material is accompanied by very well-synchronized
sound effects and a musical background that ranges from
newsreel-style symphonic chords behind the war scenes to
mournful duduk tunes (the Turkish or Armenian duduk, not
the Bulgarian instrument of same name) accompanying the
scenes from before the wars and traditional Balkan dance
music inserted to accompany scenes of merriment; the film
ends with contemporary Balkan brass band music played
over the credits. Although the film was created as a single,

Visual Anthropology


The Bali Bey Mosque is located in the central part of the Nis Fortress, to the right of the main path from the entrance, and dates to the early
16th century. It was first mentioned in the Ottoman tax register of 1523 as a mescid (small mosque), having probably been constructed at some point after
1516. It was built on the foundations of a medieval building pulled down by the Ottomans in 1428. The mosque was the endowment of Bali Bey from
Edirne, a high-ranking Ottoman civil servant. Around 1760 a medrese (Muslim theological school) was built next to the mosque. In 1868 Abdurrahman
Pasa from Nis placed an Islamic library next to it, adding two separate rooms along the north wall. The Bali Bey Mosque remained unused for many years
after the Ottomans were ousted from Serbia in 1878. In 197677 repairs were undertaken; today it operates as the Salon 77 Art Gallery. (Photo by
Ivan Petrovic and text from the exhibit catalog used with permission of RemontIndependent Artistic Association)

continuous whole and is shown that way as a documentary,

on the projects website it is presented in sections. We
review this segmented version.
The text accompanying the Intro is How the memory
of ethnic and religious co-existence during the Ottoman
Empire has come to be forgotten across the Balkans today,
which is the main theme of the project. As might be expected
in a film condemning war, violence, and the ideas that induce
them, the segment begins with a battery of artillery firing.
The viewer quickly learns that the Balkan wars violently and
bloodily divided the history of the region into the period
before, when the Balkan peoples lived together relatively
peacefully in the framework of the Ottoman Empire, and
after, when these nations, created through violence, tried
to drive each other out of territories that each group claimed
as its own. These changes were not only in their way of life
but also in their construction of social memory. Nationalist
historiographies were designed to ignore the experiences of
living together and to impose on the masses a new state
and cultural framework, imported from Europe, in which

there is no room for ethnic and religious otherness. Further,

in this nationalist imagination, imposed via new systems of
mass public education, the Ottoman era was portrayed as a
dark age, a picture in black and white in which, as one of
the experts says, the Turks were black and we were white.
This introduction ends with a didactic summary of the main
theme to be expounded in the film: that these separate
nationalist projects to form collective memory succeeded,
so that in the 500 years of the common experience the Balkan
peoples lost their voice and thus became the Mute Balkans
(for this imagery, the Serbian translation Nemi [mute] Balkan
works better than the English used in the project, Silent).
The rest of the film develops this theme and documents
it, thereby giving voice to the Mute Balkans, embodied
in multiethnic living together under the framework of the
Ottoman Empire.
The second section, Living Together, includes the oldest footage from the Balkans, shot in 1904 by the Manaki
brothers in todays (formerly Yugoslav) Republic of Macedonia and focusing on a group of female weavers and a


American Anthropologist Vol. 115, No. 2 June 2013

The Bektashi Arabati Baba tekke (lodge of a religious order) in Tetovo is by far the largest and most elaborate Ottoman dervish lodge in the
Balkans. There are no reliable data on the date of its building. Legend claims that it was founded in the 16th century by a leading member of the Bektashi
order, Sersem Ali Baba, who after a short stay in the tekke of Didymoteicho (Greece) was reassigned to Tetovo (1538). According to another legend, the
tekke was built by Arabati Baba (who died in 1780). It was renovated by Receb Pasa Kalkandelenli (d. 1822) and his son Abdurrahman Pasa in the early
19th century. Receb Pasa owned many villages, ciftliks (individual peasant land holdings), shops, and houses in the Tetovo district but also in Tirana,
Elbasan, Thessaloniki, and Istanbul. The lodge functioned until 1912 and recently reverted partly to its old function. The surviving buildings are divided
into two types: buildings for ritual purposes or accommodation of the dervishes and the baba, their spiritual guide (turbe [tomb], mescid [small mosque],
semahane [building or hall where dervishes perform their ritual, the whirling dance [sema], house of the seyh), and buildings that served the daily needs of
the complex (misafirhane [guesthouse], sadrvan [ablution fountain], Fatimas house; kitchen, etc.). (Photo by Ivan Blazhev and text adapted from the
exhibit catalog, used with permission of RemontIndependent Artistic Association)


wedding with dancers from a village now in Greece. The

viewer is told in the voice-over that this was the end
of an era without borders, in which villagers of differing
languages, ethnicities, and religions lived peaceably together, and that the Manaki brothers themselves had no
national identity other than as citizens of the empire. Oddly,
their AromanianVlach identity is not mentioned in the commentary, although Jane Cowan has argued that the brothers
did represent organic intellectuals . . . from the Balkan
periphery and that such a person saw himself as European
and identified with Europe (Cowan 2008:342). The rest of
the segment notes that people sometimes lived in adjacent
housing and in any event mixed in markets and on the street,
and that some sacred sites, notably tombs of saints, were frequented by both Muslim and Christian believers. Strikingly,
film shot in Belgrade in 1904 is accompanied by narration
describing it as then being still a multiethnic Balkan city
more than 30 years after Serbian independence, an assertion that is noteworthy because Belgrade continued to be a

multiethnic Balkan city through the Balkan wars, two world

wars, the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, and NATO having
bombed the place for 78 days in 1999. But, for that matter,
Skopje, Sofia, Plovdiv, and other Balkan cities are also still
multireligious and multiethnic, so one has to wonder at this
point what comparison is actually being made.
The third segment, Birth of the Nation-States, tracks
the arrival in the Balkans of the idea, imported from western Europe, that each ethnic nation should have its own
sovereign state. From the start of the 19th century, the success of this idea led to the independence of Greece, Serbia,
Bulgaria, Romania, and Montenegro, which set the stage
for the Balkan wars. Film clips include military parades and
the relatively newly installed monarchs of the region, as
well as the assertion that exclusivist national ideologies were
instilled in the populations by mass public education and
compulsory military service. The establishment of state borders led to conflicting claims over territories left outside of
each state but where members of its nation still lived. The

Visual Anthropology


Berat was conquered by the Ottomans in 1417 and has experienced periods of great prosperity as well as stagnation to date. With a population
of some six to seven thousand inhabitants in the 16th century, it was one of the most important cities in the Ottoman Balkans. In the 17th century, it
contained 19 Muslim and 10 Christian neighborhoods and 1 Jewish district. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the VenetianOttoman War (1685), the
Jewish population of the city grew rapidly, as a large number of Jews moved for security reasons from Vlora to Berat. Growing steadily, Berat succeeded
Vlora as the provincial capital town. In the 19th century, the powerful Vrioni family dominated the city and the district (sanjak) of Berat. The imposing
gate of their palace (saray) and the tomb of one of the members of the family survive today. Ilyaz Bey Vrioni was a key figure in the political elite of
the Albanian national movement and independent Albania in the early 20th century. The mansion is in ruins today. Despite the destruction, the Pasas
Gate is, thanks to its decoration, one of the most beautiful monuments in Albania. (Photo by Jutta Benzenberg and text from the exhibit catalog used with
permission of RemontIndependent Artistic Association)

idyllic village scenes recorded by the Manaki brothers are

now recalled but with an ominous twist: soon after the brothers left, Greek fighters burned 130 houses there. In another
set of striking still photographs by Leonidas Papazoglu in the
town of Kastoria, armed groups of Greek, Bulgarian, and
Turkish fighters proudly pose (separately); soon thereafter
they will be fighting each other for control of Macedonia as
the virus of nationalism finally spreads to that remnant of the
Before moving to these wars, however, the films fourth
segment, The Sultans Visit, returns to the last moments
of the Ottoman era in the Balkans. Like Teo Angelopulous,
who constructed his 1995 dramatic film Ulysses Gaze around
the theme of a search for the supposedly lost first rolls of
film by the Manaki brothers (see Cowan 2008) that would
reveal the secrets of the true nature of the Balkans before
the wars began, the director of The Silent Balkans presents
the footage that the brothers shot of the 1911 visit by Sultan
Mehmed V to Thessaloniki and Monastir (Bitola) as among
the last moving pictures of the Balkans taken before the

end of the Empire and shows how the various national and
religious groups organized to greet the sultan. According to
Columbia historian Mark Mazower, this period marked the
peak of Thessalonikis economic prosperity but, ominously,
the different groups were preparing to fight each other, so the
segment ends with the various Balkan armies on exercises.
Segments 5 and 6 present the First (1912) and Second (1913) Balkan Wars, respectively. The conflicting land
claims lead to war, first by Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro,
and Serbia against the Ottoman Empire to drive it out of
Macedonia, then between Bulgaria, Greece, and Serbia to
divide up the newly liberated territory. The artillery from
the opening scenes fires again, followed quickly by footage
of dead civilians, filmed by French cameramen, plus shots
of the Greek army entering Thessaloniki and Ioannina. As
armies retreat, columns of refugees go with them, newly
foreigners in the lands in which they have always lived. In
the segment on the Second Balkan War, the Greek director
Fotos Lambrinos notes that the French footage was shown in
Paris, presented there as events fortunately far from Europe,


American Anthropologist Vol. 115, No. 2 June 2013

In 1891, Thessaloniki obtained a modern Ottoman government building (hukurnet konag) with a neoclassical facade and Renaissance elements, designed by Vitaliano Poselli, an Italian architect whose
name has been linked to the citys new architectural face in the late 19th
century. Poselli also designed the Ottoman Middle School (Idadiye), in
which the School of Philosophy of the University of Thessaloniki is housed
today, the Ottoman barracks, which now houses the 3rd Corps of the
Greek Army, the Yeni Mosque, the citys Catholic and Armenian churches,
the Bet-Saul Synagogue (not extant), and the Villa Allatini and other
mansions. The building housed the new Ottoman administration of the
Tanzimat reforms period, which sought to modernize the Ottoman state
according to western European standards: the Council of the Prefecture,
Courts of Justice, Municipal and the Land Register, Public Records Office,
Vakf Department, and Police and Gendarmerie. During the Tanzimat period, similar buildings were built in several provincial cities in the Ottoman
Empire. In 1911, Sultan Murad V was hosted at the building during his
official visit to Thessaloniki. Today, the building, still called Konaki
in Greek, houses government agencies. (Photo by Kamilo Nollas and text
from the exhibit catalog used with permission of RemontIndependent
Artistic Association)

in the Balkans. But the end of the segment shows scenes from
the start of World War I, in France. Europe, it seems, was
not so far from the Balkans.
The final segment on the legacies of the Balkan wars
notes the violence of the 20th century, the Holocaust, nuclear weapons, and the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. The
Greek historian Christina Koulouri, who headed the project,
says that although people had thought that those Yugoslav
conflicts finished the processes started by the Balkan wars,
new identities are still being created in the Balkans, and
war is possible again. Belgrade University historian Radina
Vucetic says that people who live in the Balkans only accept

other Balkan peoples as enemies, not as friends, and that

we have to learn what coexistence is. This lets Koulouri
say that a common Balkan history exists, its not something
that needs to be invented, although she acknowledges that
however paradoxical it may seem, nationalism is part of this
Balkan history, letting the credits play out over jazzy modern Balkan brass music and footage of soldiers in traditional
costumes on dress parade.
The assertion that from the onset of the era of nationstates the Balkan peoples see each other only as enemies is,
in fact, simply wrong. Greeks and Bulgarians demonstrated
in support of Serbia when that country was being bombed by
NATO, even though Greece is a NATO member state. Serbs
are now very welcome on Greek and Turkish beaches, and
Macedonians, although unrecognized as a nation by Greeks
or Bulgarians, are not about to be invaded by their neighbors.
In the former Yugoslavia, of course, peoples who lived for
45 years under compulsory brotherhood and unity have
now much more complex relationships, but it is now very
hard to envision another war between, for example, Serbia
and Croatia. That Bosnia in 199195 was divided much as
was Macedonia in 1913 actually speaks to the robustness of
identity constructions in the region, despite anthropological
insistence that identities are fluid (see Hayden 2007).
It is also hardly true that the people living in the late
Ottoman Balkans were simply undifferentiated citizens of an
empire. The various independence movements of the Balkan
Christian peoples stretched across borders: Greek leaders
learned from the First (180413) and Second (181517)
Serbian uprisings to wage their own war of independence
(182132); the Serbs, in turn, utilized Greek independence
to gain autonomy (1830) and then independence (de facto
1867, de jure 1878); the Bulgarians learned from the Serbs
(the first Bulgarian newspaper was printed in Serbia) and
gained their own independence in 1878; and the Bosnia
crisis of 187578, which led to the end of Ottoman rule
there, was linked to all of these developments. Citizens of
Ottoman Macedonia were well aware of these developments
and supported various sides, in anticipation of the end of
Ottoman rule. To write as though the peoples of the empire
were unaware of or indifferent to the nationalist movements
literally surrounding them is untenable.
As for life in that empire, in some places the Balkan
Tale catalog is misleading. In the introduction to the section on Worshipping, the authors acknowledge that the
Ottoman Empire did not permit building new churches or
synagogues and that obtaining permission to repair older
ones was difficult, but then simply assert that there was
quite a margin for adaptation on the local level unless
fanatical ulema [Muslim law scholars] interfered. This depiction is followed by the assertion that the co-existence of
different religious communities was reflected in space by the
mosques, churches and synagogues. In reality, however,
building and repairing churches was very tightly restricted
until the Tanzimat reforms starting in 1839 (Gradeva 1994).
Even when churches could be built, they had to be small and

Visual Anthropology


Situated on the edge of the Old Bazaar district of Skopje, the KursunluKursumli Han is the only entirely preserved Ottoman inn
(caravanserai) in the Balkans. It was built by Muezzin Muslihuddin in 154950. It is a massive structure with an open courtyard, featuring a beautifully
crafted ablution fountain (sadrvan) at its center. There are 68 rooms in the building, which served as an inn until it was transformed into a prison in
1787. The inn acquired its present-day name, kursunlu, in the 19th century, after the lead roof with which it was covered. At the beginning of 20th
century, it served again as an inn before it was turned into a weapons depot. Since 1955 it has housed the statue collection of the Archaeological Museum.
(Photo by Ivan Blazhev and text adapted from the exhibit catalog used with permission of RemontIndependent Artistic Association)


could not have bell towers or bells. The political structure

was one of domination by Muslims over all others, a pattern
that we have elsewhere referred to as antagonistic tolerance (Hayden 2002; Hayden et al. 2011). This was not just
a matter of rules from on high but also of the reactions of
people in the very localities that the projects authors see as
affording flexibility. For example, when Serbs in Sarajevo
received permission to build a church in Sarajevo at the very
end of Ottoman rule (1872), troops had to be brought in
to control demonstrations by local Muslims against erecting a bell tower (Donia 2006). Even clock towers, seen
by the catalog authors as emblematic of modernizing in the
late Ottoman period, were resisted by Muslims, at least in
Anatolia, as being reminiscent of church towers (Uluengin
2010). Thus, permitted coexistence was just another name
for inequality, which was enforced by controlling the relatively few non-Muslim religious structures permitted by the
Ottomansthose very same structures celebrated by the
Balkan Tale project as exemplifying a common heritage.
This brings us to the parallels with contemporary works
in anthropology. One comparison is with very contemporary
work on shared religious space, cited in the film as one of
the characteristics of the peaceable empire of the Ottomans.

As noted above, there has recently been quite a lot of work

on contemporary sharing of religious sites, focusing on the
interactions of local populations at specific moments in time,
as though they were not linked to larger religious communities or authorities (see, e.g., Bowman 2012a). The model
is essentially the same as that underlying the Balkan Tale
project: that people lived well together until nationalism
disrupted their traditions of tolerance. This is a curious reincarnation of basic premises of structural functionalismthat
local relations are self-regulating unless disrupted by external forcesand similarly denies the legitimacy of processes
of historical change. But it also ignores the configurations of
power in which these peaceful interactions took place. The
Ottoman Empire was, in fact, explicitly and legally a state in
which Muslims dominated over non-Muslims. Christians and
Jews were indeed tolerated so long as they did not threaten
the dominant position of Muslims. Thus, the peaceable relations celebrated in this Balkan tale were premised on a
stable configuration of Muslim dominance in an empire that
was also a caliphate. When that dominance was threatened,
as happened in 187578 and 1903, there was indeed conflict between these groups and also very brutal repression to
restore Ottoman rule and the supremacy of Islam.


American Anthropologist Vol. 115, No. 2 June 2013

In fact, the leaders of the various nationalist movements

that the authors of this Balkan tale decry saw themselves as
fighters for liberation from subjugation to the empire. It is
curious that the Balkan Tale project reflects no knowledge
of postcolonial theory. We might imagine how South Asian
scholars would react were, say, the United States to fund
a major cross-media project showing how well the various
peoples of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka lived
together under the British Empire until the separate nationalist movements broke up their commonality in 1947. Such
a South Asian tale could include film of representatives of the
various Indian communities appearing together at the 1911
Delhi durbar celebrating the coronation of King George V or
film of Sikh, Hindu, and Muslim soldiers cheerfully serving
together in the British army, contrasted with footage taken
during the partition violence of 1947. Photographs could
be of abandoned Hindu temples and shrines in Pakistan and
Bangladesh and of abandoned mosques in parts of India, plus
the sad remains of British buildings and cemeteries. The
whole could be accompanied by appropriate sounds and by a
smellscape of patchouli, sandalwood, musk, and cloves. We
doubt that such a project would be taken very seriously, but
it is not easy to differentiate what we have briefly outlined as
a South Asia Tale parody from the actual Balkan Tale project
itself. Of course, it may be that postcolonial theory has its
greatest appeal as a protest against the excesses of western
European colonialism and is less appealing when the imperial structure in question was one opposed to, and by, the
western European empires.
There does seem to be a very contemporary political
agenda driving the Balkan Tale project: that of multiculturalism as opposed to nationalism. Commitment to this agenda
may be the cause of odd phrasing in some of the picture descriptions and film narration. Thus, on page 33 of the catalog,
it is stated that Prishtina [Kosovo] had a mixed population
of Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and some Catholics and
Jews until the region was annexed to Serbia in 1912, which
implies that this happy mixing ended then. But Pristina (Serbian spelling) remained heterogeneous under Yugoslav and
Serbian rule, becoming homogenized only after NATO took
control of it in 1999 and the Serbs (and many other nonAlbanians) were ethnically cleansed. Indeed, most of the
places in the former Yugoslavia that are mentioned in this
project remained heterogeneous after the Ottoman period,
through both royal Yugoslavia and socialism, until democracy arrived.
With specific regard to the Balkans, the dogma in anthropology that identities are always fluid has led to recent
work that tries to show that the Balkan nations were imagined, if not imaginary, communities that need not (read:
should not) have consolidated. Nations thus are artificial,
destroying the natural structures of society, a position that
renders the universal forms of sociopolitical development
in the Balkans since 1800 somehow unnatural and leaves
anthropologists and historians analyzing wished-for counterfactuals. The most recent work on the Macedonia of

1904 that features so heavily in The Silent Balkans is Keith

Browns Loyal unto Death: Trust and Terror in Revolutionary
Macedonia (Brown 2013). Brown sets out to counter standard analyses that see the Christian Macedonian population
in the first decade of the 20th century as being membersin-waiting of subsequent nation-states (2013:13), yet by
1912 the antipathies of nation trumped the circuits of solidarity (2013:183) and the Christian population segmented
into mutually hostile national groups: Greek, Bulgarian, and
Serbian tied to the several already existing nation-states, and
a Macedonian group claiming the right to their own state,
too. It seems that, in the end, they did act as members in
waiting of nations that had founded independent states from
surrounding territories of what had been Ottoman realms.
That interpersonal ties proved ultimately to be less strong
than the competing ones of the various nationalisms of the
Balkan Christian peoples surrounding Macedonia and interfacing within it is not surprisingafter all, from 1804 (first
Serbian uprising) until 1945 (establishment of socialist Yugoslavia), the only political movements in the Balkans that
did succeed in state-building were nationalist ones.
The image of fluidity brings us to some of the widest
currents in U.S. anthropology. The 2011 AAA meetings
were officially based on the theme of traces, tidemarks, and
legacies of past and possible future distinctionspartially
remembered, partially re-created and partially invented (by
anthropologists as much as by anybody else)[that] make
the world a multiply occupied place. This topic is important now because we are living through a time when most
distinctions . . . have been thoroughly challenged, both intellectually and morally . . . Yet these challenges have not
led to the disappearance or reduction of differences (Green
2011). Cross-Media Project: A Balkan Tale is an effort to at
least reduce the differences of the Balkan peoples. This is in
keeping with the 2012 annual meeting theme, Borders and
Crossings, because if we have learned anything in the last
decade . . . it is that borderstaboos, injunctions, stigmas
and resource flowsare not fixed, but open to renegotiation (Rouse 2012). The Balkan Tale project and the film
The Silent Balkans invent a tradition before borders, before
nations, and, thus, supposedly, before violence. But how
much of this assessment is because anthropologists are being
similarly positioned to those organic intellectuals in late
Ottoman Macedonia who were seen by Cowan (2008:342)
as sharing a subject position of considerable means, education, the opportunity to travel, a certain cosmopolitan
experience . . . and thus seem to have reveled in the contrasts, contradictions and ambiguities of their times? As all
observers of the region noted both at the time and since,
it is clear that many people not only accepted the national
identities that were being built at the time but were willing
to fight to ensure that their own group achieved dominance
in their local region and at the level of a state. This makes A
Balkan Tale just that: a tale, not a product of serious scholarship. Indeed, serious scholarship must be ignored if this tale
is to be believed.

Visual Anthropology

We have to wonder why some anthropologists, and the

authors of this Balkan tale, seem so determined to show that
the history of the region for the past century or so has all been
based on what was apparently a delusion: that these peoples
think themselves different but are really basically the same.
Paradoxically, whereas hotly debated issues pertaining to the
politics of native ethnology in the Balkans (Naumovic 1998,
2000, 2008) seem to have been laid to rest, a renewed effort
aimed at disarming national history is once again enthusiastically championed both by those local historians who seem
to be the latest incarnation of the elite organic intellectuals
a century ago noted by Cowan (Koulouri 2002; Stojanovic
1997, 2004) and by Western scholars (Carmichael 2002;
Mazower 2005). Yet there is not much indication that these
well-intentioned and right-thinking elites are representing
accurately the thoughts, feelings, and self-identification of
most of the peoples of the Balkans, as opposed to those few
who agree with them (see Hayden 2007).
Finally, we must note the oddity of the European Union
funding an exercise in postimperial nostalgia for the Ottoman
Empire but note also that most of the places mentioned
in this project are either outside of the European Union
(Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Serbia) or perhaps soon
will be (Greece). It is especially striking that this project
on the post-Ottoman Balkans leaves out reference to postOttoman territories that were incorporated by the AustroHungarian Empire instead of liberating themselves (Bosnia
and parts of Croatia, Hungary, and Romania). As the ruling
Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalknma Partisi) in
Turkey expresses its obligation to pay special attention to
the formerly Ottoman territories in the Balkans, we wonder
whether there is a lesson there: that to Western Europeans
the Balkans remain what they were said to be in 1913, far
from Europeeven as that exclusion from Europe is said,
now, to be because they have adopted that classic modern
European construction of the nation-state.


The authors would like to express their gratitude to Sasa Janjic from the Independent Artistic Association Remont
(Remont nezavisna umetnicka asocijacija, http://www.remont.net)
for his generous help and for kindly obtaining the rights to use the
photographs that are presented in this essay. Research for this essay by
Slobodan Naumovic was performed in the framework of the project
The European Union and the Transformation of Cultural Identities
in Contemporary Serbia (177018), funded by the Serbian Ministry
of Education and Science.
1. Mark Mazower (Columbia University), Christina Koulouri (Panteion University, Athens), Halil Berktay (Sabanci University,
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Netherlands Archaeology Institution in Istanbul), Radina Vucetic
(University of Belgrade), Frasher Demaj (Institute of History,


Prishtina), Alexei Kalionski (University of Sofia), and Dimitris

Livanios (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki).


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