Notes from an author: Tharik Hussain on Muslim heritage in the Western Balkans

A trip through the Western Balkans, home to Europe’s largest indigenous Muslim population, shows how marginalised cultures can coexist.

University of Nis building. 

Photograph by Alamy
By Tharik Hussain
Published 25 Nov 2021, 06:09 GMT

It’s amazing what can be staring you in the face, and you just can’t see it. Sometimes it takes someone else to point it out, or for you to be positioned in such a way that a new perspective manifests. Many believe this is what happens when we ‘decolonise’ our lens.  

The experience I had standing outside a synagogue in the Serbian town of Niš was probably a case of the latter. I was into the second week of a family road trip with my wife and two daughters around the Western Balkans in search of Muslim Europe — those parts of the continent still home to a living, indigenous Muslim culture that stretches back, in some cases, almost six centuries. 

We hadn’t planned to visit Niš. It just happened to be the most convenient stopover when we re-entered Serbia after a day trip to Kosovo. Ideally, we’d have continued south into North Macedonia — our next destination — but as we’d entered Kosovo from Serbia, which doesn’t recognise the predominantly Muslim nation’s independence, to do so would have meant we’d left Serbia illegally, so we had to return. 

My family decided to use the day to do anything but explore history. I, on the other hand, had discovered a city tourism app that featured a self-guided trail called The Ottoman Turkish Occupation and Liberation Fight. Earlier, the trail had taken me to obvious Ottoman sites like the city’s oldest surviving mosque, the 16th-century Bali Bey, now an art gallery, and the Ottoman-built Stambol kapija (‘gates to Istanbul’) at the entrance to the city’s fortress. 

The next stop: a synagogue first built by Sephardic Jews in 1695 — although it seemed strange that a piece of Spanish Jewish heritage was on an Ottoman trail. The app simply informed me that Sephardic Jews had settled in Serbia after their exodus from Spain. It said nothing about why or how. In fact, there was no way to know why the synagogue was on an Ottoman trail at all. 

I knew, of course, but then I’d researched the Ottomans extensively. What the app was having trouble telling me was that the synagogue was on the trail because the Ottomans had given its founders refuge after the Catholic Monarchs of Spain expelled them from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492. 

In fact, the Ottoman sultan Bayezid II sent his navy to pick up the Sephardic Jews — considered protected ‘people of the book’ according to Islamic tradition — upon hearing of their expulsion. 

These refugees were given sanctuary in places all over the Ottoman Empire, places we’d visit on our road trip: from the ‘Jerusalem of Europe’ — Sarajevo — in Bosnia and Herzegovina to Skopje in North Macedonia, and right here in Niš. 

Irritated, I consulted the app. Nothing. I looked around for any other information. Still nothing. That’s when it happened. As the irritation began to subside, my desire to see my heritage as a Muslim of Europe for what it was opened my eyes to something staring me in the face all along. I knew the Jewish history of Muslim Iberia well. I’d visited the Jewish quarters of cities like Córdoba and Granada where Jews had thrived under Muslim rule. I’d also read up on the condition of Jews in the millets system of Ottoman Europe. Yet, I’d never connected the two.

I’d brought my family on this road trip in the hope of discovering some of Europe’s greatest Muslim legacies in places where it remains very much alive because of the indigenous Muslims that still reside there: Muslim majority countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Albania. And yet, ironically, it was here in Serbia, a predominantly Eastern Orthodox Christian country, in a town where the Muslim population amounts to a mere 1%, that I realised what’s potentially Muslim Europe’s greatest legacy of all.  

For 12 centuries, from the eighth through to the 20th, Muslim Europe was the safest place for the continent’s most consistently persecuted religious group, the Jews. I stood in front of that synagogue in Niš extremely proud of this realisation, but also extremely saddened — maybe even angered — that it was a perspective I had to discover, nay ‘decolonise’, by myself.

Tharik Hussain is author of Minarets in the Mountains: A Journey into Muslim Europe, which has been shortlisted for the 2021 the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction (Bradt Guides, £9.99). Follow Tharik on Instagram: @_tharikhussain.

Published in the December 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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