Whereas Spain and Italy are clear geographical regions, defined in the north by mountain ranges, the third peninsula projecting south into the Mediterranean is more amorphous. The Adriatic and Ionian seas define the Balkan peninsula on the west, and the Aegean and the Black Sea on the east. But to the north lie open plains (admittedly crossed by the Balkan range of mountains, but these have never proved much of a barrier). The line of the Danube is often taken as the northern boundary of the region.
Through these open plains there have swept successive waves of people pressing into Europe from Asia, whether arriving from Anatolia or along the steppes north of the Black Sea.
The Greeks are among the first known tribes to move south through the Balkans, nearly 3000 years ago. In the great movements of people in the early Christian centuries, the Goths and Huns and Slavs all pass this way, some of them settling. This has been an area where energetic tribes confront settled civilizations. It has also been where civilizations clash.
In classical times the Balkans are at the heart of a single Greco-Roman civilization. But later they have been a troubled interface – between Roman and Greek Christianity, and between Christianity and Islam. They have been a seismic fault between Europe and Asia.
The Slavs in eastern Europe: from the 6th century AD
The Slavs are first referred to by this name in AD 518 when they press into the Roman empire across the Danube, though they have been settled for more than a millennium in the region to the north (between the Vistula and Dnieper rivers).
After the collapse of the empire of the Huns, in the 5th century, the Slavs begin to expand their territory. They move west into what are now the Czech republic and Slovakia and south towards the Adriatic and Aegean – where their separate regional and religious development as Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Macedonians and Bulgarians later makes the peninsula of the Balkans one of the most politically complex regions on the face of the earth.
Greece unsettled: 11th – 13th century AD
The position of Greece, as a central region of the Byzantine empire, remains reasonably secure until the 11th century. At that time, and in the following century, there are troublesome attacks on the Greek coastline from the Normans of Sicily. But the real upheaval, throughout the Balkans, comes in the early 13th century after the capture of Constantinople by the fourth crusade.
The invading Latins seize kingdoms in the Balkans. The Venetians establish settlements along the coast. When the Byzantine emperors reassert themselves, later in the century, this becomes a hotly disputed region. It remains so, in the 14th century, with the arrival of new intruders – the Ottoman Turks.
Turks in the Balkans: 14th – 15th century AD
The advance of the Ottoman Turks into the Balkans begins with their capture of Gallipoli in 1354. By 1389 they are in control of Serbia, and by 1393 of Bulgaria. Greece is evidently their next prey. But a reprieve is provided by the arrival of Timur in Anatolia in 1402.
The Turks are soon back in the Balkans, and the task of defending central Europe against them falls chiefly upon the Hungarians. One Hungarian warrior in particular, Janos Hunyadi, takes the lead.
Janos Hunyadi: AD 1440-1456
Early in the 1440s the fortress of Belgrade is placed under the command of Janos Hunyadi, a Hungarian warrior who has proved his worth in frequent encounters with the Turks in these frontier regions. Belgrade, previously the Serbian capital, has been in Hungarian hands since 1427. But the kingdom of Serbia is now a vassal state of the Turks. Indeed the Ottoman sultan, Murad II, has a Serbian princess as a wife.
From Belgrade Hunyadi marches east in 1443 against Murad, leading a Christian army down the Danube in what is effectively a crusade. At first the crusaders have a great measure of success.
In November 1443 Hunyadi takes Nis and Sofia. Within the next three months he liberates Serbia, Bulgaria and Albania from their Muslim overlords. In June 1444 the Turks accept their loss of these territories and agree to a ten-year truce.
This considerable achievement is immediately undone by Christian zeal and duplicity. A cardinal absolves Hunyadi and the other leaders from their truce with the sultan, encouraging them to renew the crusade and to press further east. This time they are less successful.
In November 1444 the Hungarians and their allies are confronted by Murad, who has an army perhaps four times the size of theirs, at Varna on the coast of the Black Sea. The crusaders are utterly routed. Wladyslaw III, the young king of both Hungary and Poland, dies on the battlefield.
This victory begins a decade of successes for the Turks, culminating in the capture of Constantinople by Murad’s son, Mehmed II, in 1453. By 1456 the Turks are once more threatening Belgrade. Seventeen years after his first appointment to defend the city, Hunyadi is again in charge but with greater responsibilities. Since 1446 he has been regent of Hungary, during the reign of the boy king Laszlo V.
Belgrade: AD 1456
The conclusion of the mid-15th century saga between the Hungarians and the Turks is more in keeping with the spirit of a crusade than anything that has gone before. Turkish pressure westwards along the Danube brings an army in 1456 to the walls of Belgrade.
Leaving his eldest son Laszlo with the garrison, Hunyadi departs to raise a force to relieve the city. He is helped in this task by the preaching of a Franciscan friar, St John of Capistrano. John’s persuasive voice inspires a large number of peasants to join Hunyadi’s small professional army in an assault on the infidel.
In July 1456 this motley army drives the Turks from the walls of Belgrade, routing them so convincingly that the sultan, Mehmed II, withdraws to his new capital at Istanbul. Bulgaria and Serbia remain under Turkish rule, and Albania succumbs again in 1478. But the victory provides Hungary with a respite of seventy years before the Turks renew their pressure.
Within weeks of this success both Hunyadi and his inspirational preacher die in camp of the plague. But Hunyadi’s stature as a national hero is now such that two years later the Hungarian nobles elect his son, Matyas, as king of Hungary. He becomes Matthias I, also known as Matthias Corvinus.
The victory of Janos Hunyadi at Belgrade in 1456 draws a line beyond which, for the next few decades, the Turks will not push westwards. But the confrontation also has the effect of allowing them virtually a free hand east of that line.
Constantinople, as impregnable as ever, is now securely transformed into Istanbul. From this strategic base it is easy for the Turks to settle unfinished business in the region between the Aegean and Hungary. Greece is occupied in 1458-60, Bosnia in 1463-4. The Balkans, for the next century and a half, win respite only when the Turks are occupied on their eastern frontier.
Ottoman expansion: 16th century AD
Throughout the 16th century, from Budapest and Vienna in the west to Tabriz and Isfahan in the east, the political situation depends largely on which of Turkey’s neighbours is best resisting the expansionist tendencies of the Ottoman empire.
If the Turks are fighting the Persians, the Balkans may be relatively quiet; if the sultan’s janissaries are engaged against the Hungarians and their allies, Persia has a respite. Later a northern neighbour, Russia, becomes another factor in this constant jostling for space.
During the reign of Bayazid II, son of Mehmed II, the Turkish thrust is mainly to the west. Hercegovina is occupied in 1483 (joining Bosnia, taken by Mehmed twenty years earlier). The Venetians are driven out of Albania in 1501.
During the reign of Bayazid’s son, Selim I, the focus shifts to the east where Ismail I, founder of the new Safavid dynasty in Persia, is becoming a threat. After defeating the Persians in 1514, Selim embarks on a bold undertaking. He invades the extensive territories of the Egyptian Mamelukes. By 1517 he has achieved a resounding victory, bringing Syria, Palestine, Arabia and Egypt under Ottoman control.
Selim is followed as sultan, in 1520, by his son Suleiman I. Turkish attention now returns to the west. In 1521 Suleiman captures Belgrade. In 1526 he crushes the Hungarians at Mohacs. In 1529 he even besieges Vienna, albeit unsuccessfully.
In 1534-5 Suleiman turns east to engage in a rapid campaign, dislodging the Persians from much of Mesopotamia and capturing the city of Baghdad. In 1541-3 he is back fighting in the west. He takes the ancient fortress and town of Buda, making it the capital of an Ottoman province in central Hungary which will last for more than a century.
Turkish campaigns later in the 16th century lead to substantial peace treaties on both frontiers. From 1578 Ottoman armies press so far east into Persian territory that they reach the Caspian. In 1590 the Persian shah, Abbas I, cedes Georgia and Azerbaijan to the Turkish sultan.
Similarly a campaign in the west, from 1593, results in a peace of 1606 with Habsburg Austria. By this time the Balkans, as far west as a line from Budapest down to the coast at Dubrovnik, are either under Turkish control or are paying annual dues to Istanbul as vassal states.