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Home Articles Articles Bosnia - An Historical Perspective. Part One

Bosnia - An Historical Perspective. Part One

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Around the end of the sixth century a tribe belonging to a single Slavic federation, the Slaveni, arrived in the area corresponding to post-war Yugoslavia. Subsequently, in the middle of the seventh century, two more tribes, possibly of Iranian origin, called the Serbs and Croats arrived and assumed control of different areas of the Balkans, however by the tenth century they had been completely assimilated leaving only the Tribal names as a memorial.

During the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries Bosnia was under foreign rule - first Serb then Croat then Bulgarian. The Byzantines annexed Bosnia in the 11th century before the Hungarians regained Bosnia by treaty in 1180 and asserted a nominal overlordship over the country. Almost immediately in defiance of this the Ban (as the Bosnian ruler was then called) claimed independence. However, due to the mountainous terrain which made communications difficult,  and the fact that none of the outsiders ruled for long enough to win the allegiance of the Bosnians, they had little impact.
From the ninth century onwards  missionaries from Rome and Constantinople began spreading Christianity in the Balkans. Croatia & Dalmatia fell under Roman influence, Serbia Bulgaria, & Macedonia under Byzantine.  Although Christendom did not split into the Roman Catholic and Orthodox camps until the 11th century the areas under the jurisdiction of either centre would eventually become Catholic or Orthodox respectively. Bosnia had a mixture of the two churches although Roman influence was the stronger, and never fell completely under the sway of either.
The Hungarian King, frustrated at being unable to enforce his rule in Bosnia, had the Pope declare the Bosnians to be heretics and a crusade was launched in the area until a Tartar invasion in Hungary (1240-1241) required them to withdraw to defend their home territory. As a result the Bosnians formed their own church in schism with Rome. They did however maintain a largely Catholic theology contrary to the suggestion of some scholars that they were dualist or Bogomil.
Thus in Bosnia, there were now three churches, none of which had a dominant position able to command the allegiance of the people. The churches were also poor, had few priests and were unable to educate the people deeply about Christianity, in distinction to Croatia and Serbia, which were able to maintain resistance to the Ottomans when they arrived. Also, for the same reason, the Bosnians were more susceptible to conversion to Islam.
In the 14th century Ban Stepjan Katromanic mended relations with Hungary, and as an ally took the territory to the west and north of Bosnia from Croatian nobles, followed by Hum which eventually became Herzegovina to the south from the Serbs. Katromanic became Catholic and allowed the Franciscans to set up a mission in Bosnia proper. Until the arrival of the Ottomans virtually all Bosnian rulers where Catholic, although they appeared indifferent to  religious differences unlike the rest of Europe, including Serbia and Croatia, intermarrying and forming alliances across denominational lines as it suited them.
Katromanic’s nephew Tvrtko, succeeded him and after some initial difficulties he was able to take over all of Hum, and then claimed kingship over Serbia when the Serbian ruling dynasty died out. He was crowned King of Serbia and Bosnia in 1377 and the rulers of Bosnia bore the title of King instead of Ban thereafter. He also acquired much Croatian territory. After he died conflict between the King and nobles occurred and outside interests (the Hungarians and Ottomans) began to interfere with these quarrels for their own ends.
There was much war in the medieval period along with brigandage, but no religious wars and no ethnic war. As much of Bosnia had poor agricultural land and difficult communications, attacking caravans or providing them with protection was a major source of income and different clans would specialise in one or other of these activities. The armed clans also hired themselves out as mercenaries to local notables, and after the Ottoman conquest as local auxiliaries to the Turkish army.
In the 1430’s as Ottoman pressure grew, Serbs fled into Eastern Bosnia and the numbers of Serbs/Orthodox in the region between the river Drina  and present day Sarajevo increased. In 1448 the ruler of Hum took the title of Herceg (Duke) of St.Sava (A Serbian Saint) and soon afterwards his land became known as Hercegovina. In the mean time the King was allowing Franciscan Monks to set-up Monasteries inside Bosnia proper, and Catholic influence in the towns grew. Also during this period the Ottomans were stating to encroach on Bosnian territory and in 1451 captured Vrhbosa, later known as Sarajevo.
In 1463 the Ottomans launched  a major attack using the King’s increasing ties with Hungary and Rome as an excuse and captured Bosnia in a matter of weeks. As they withdrew part of the invasion force the Hungarians recaptured parts of the country but were soon driven out again, partly because the animosity of many leading Bosnians towards Hungarian efforts to subjugate Bosnia and convert Bosnians of other confessions to Catholicism prevented them from supporting the Hungarians. Although they sought support from Venice after the initial invasion they preferred to be subject to the Ottomans than the Hungarians.
After the conquest the religious make-up of Bosnia began to change. Conversion to Islam by Bosnians started following the conquest and continued for about a century and a half when the situation more or less stabilised, although the numbers of Muslims increased to the point where they were in a majority at the beginning of the seventeenth century. By the time the Austrians occupied Bosnia in the  1878 the Muslims had lost their majority. Some Muslims from the Ottoman army and elsewhere also settled in the region. Many Catholic Bosnians left for Croatia, and Muslim Bosnians and Orthodox Serbians were encouraged to settle in their place (since the head of the orthodox Church was based in Istanbul the Ottomans preferred the Orthodox Christians and was therefore more easily influenced). The Ottomans distinguished between religious groups rather than ethnic ones, and communicated with the various groups through the local religious leaders. Since the Ottomans showed considerable bias towards the Orthodox Church (they were able to obtain permission to renovate or build new churches and inter-confessional disputes were almost always resolved in favour of the Orthodox by the Muslim authorities), many who wished to remain Christian turned to Orthodoxy. As a result the Bosnian church all but disappeared.
After the conquest Bosnia was a frontier province with the seat of government in Sarajevo which consequently grew to become one of the largest cities in Ottoman Europe. As the Ottoman empire expanded through Croatia into Hungary itself, the governor moved to Banja Luca. Sarajevo remained the most important city from the religious and educational point of view.
The Muslim elite, often derived from the Ottoman military class, built up holdings of land and acquired considerable influence and come to be a significant political force until the 2nd World War. They were entitled to tithes paid by many of the peasants, who thus had to endure double taxation by the Church and their landlords. These peasants were effectively serfs and were preponderantly of Christian background.
In the 19th century tension between the Bosnian Muslims and the imperial authorities grew to the extent that the vizier moved to Travnik and administered the territory from there, while the Sarajlije did as they pleased until the authorities where forced into some police action to bring them to heal. Generally though the authorities  tried no to be too heavy handed so as not to encourage secession by an important frontier province. Among the elite in many of the towns included the Janissaries, originally raised from the child levy (a system in which excess or unwanted Christian children  were collected and brought up as Muslims), which had now become a hereditary caste. They were now becoming unruly and interested in pursuing their own interests rather than defending the empire, and the Ottoman’s decided to suppress them. On this occasion a large body of troops were sent in with some violence and large scale executions, and the Janissaries were all but eliminated. Just after this Husein Kapitan led a major uprising that took the Ottomans three years to quell, and the only succeeded because of the assistance of one of the Hercegovinan nobles threw his weight behind the authorities. He demanded a separate Hercegovina and hereditary rulership as the price for his help. Further trouble was caused as the Ottomans attempted agrarian and legal reform at the behest of the other great powers. These were stifled by the Muslim landlords and continued to be a festering sore in the country for the next 90 odd years.
In 1876 Serbia and Montenegro revolted against the Ottomans and were easily defeated, and the Russians come to their assistance and conduct a successful campaign against the Turks. Following this the congress of Berlin redrew the boundaries in the Balkans and gives Bosnia-Herzegovina to Austria-Hungary to ‘occupy and administer’.



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