Serbia’s Ottoman haven Sandžak

Serbia’s Ottoman haven Sandžak

September 23, 2010, Thursday/ 17:20:00/ SAİM ORHAN
Novi Pazar -- We’re out in the streets early in the morning in Serbia. We are driving down an asphalt road. Our goal is to reach Sandžak, the predominantly Muslim district of Serbia. We pass by trees and plants. We encounter hills and rivers. It feels like the road goes on forever. We reach Sandžak only after a four-hour drive from Belgrade. Novi Pazar, which means “new market,” is the biggest city in the Sandžak region. The population of the city is 125,000, with Bosniak Muslims accounting for 80 percent.

Novi Pazar was founded by Isa-Beg Ishaković under the Ottoman Empire in 1451 and is symbolized by the tower of a castle that lies at its center. Novi Pazar is the provincial capital of Sandžak, which in Ottoman times was part of the vilayet of Bosnia. The First Balkan War (1912) saw it captured by Serbia and split between it and Montenegro. The region derives its name from the sancak, or district, system of the Ottoman Empire. Five of its districts are now located in Montenegro, which voted to split from Serbia in 2006. Six of Sandžak’s districts are located in Serbia. About 500,000 people live in Sandžak, including those in Montenegro.

Novi Pazar is very similar to cities in Anatolia. Elderly women wearing traditional head coverings walk in the streets and roads. They look just like the elderly women of Anatolia. This land is like one of our own lands, adorned with many minarets. There is a strong affinity to Turkey and Turks. The people of Sandžak fought with Turks against their enemies in Çanakkale and Didymoteicho. They frequently use Turkish words such as “Allahmanet” (Allah’a emanet) “Allah razi ola” (Allah razı ola) and “ejvallah” (eyvallah).

Novi Pazar is the provincial capital of Sandžak, which in Ottoman times was part of the vilayet of Bosnia. The First Balkan War (1912) saw it captured by Serbia and split between it and Montenegro. The region derives its name from the sancak, or district, system of the Ottoman Empire. Five of its districts are now located in Montenegro, which voted to split from Serbia in 2006

Every year, during the time of Ramadan, banners reading “Have a blessed Ramadan” are written in Turkish and hung outside buildings. They continue to uphold their traditions. When asked if they are Muslim, they respond by saying, “Alhamdulillah [praise be to God], I am Muslim.” Novi Pazar residents are interested in trade just as people from Turkey’s Kayseri and are, for the most part, well off. They are very friendly and sincere.

We soon ran into several people from Sandžak who speak Turkish. There are very strong ties between Turkey and Sandžak. One of these people we came across while walking down the roads of Novi Pazar lived in Turkey for seven years and graduated from the faculty of theology of 9 Eylül University. He speaks Turkish very fluently. The Ottoman Empire made large investments everywhere it went and founded cities. It built medreses (schools), hans (inns), hamams (baths), bazaars, caravanserais (lodges), fountains and bridges and made significant contributions to the development of places it conquered.

We had the opportunity to visit the oldest mosque still standing in Novi Pazar: Lejlek Mosque, or Silahtar Ahmed Beg Mosque. According to various accounts, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror prayed at this mosque and then went on to conquer different parts of the region. Three years after Sultan Mehmed conquered İstanbul he besieged Belgrade. He conquered Bosnia 10 years after conquering İstanbul.

The Ottoman Empire expanded very quickly even under the most difficult of circumstances at the time. The architecture of the Silahtar Ahmed Beg Mosque is reminiscent of early Ottoman mosque architecture and bears traces of designs in Bursa. The entrance to the mosque was built low so that people can bow their head in humility before they enter the presence of God. There are tombs that belong to our ancestors in the yard of the mosque. While touring the city, we noticed the Gazi Isa Begov hamam. The building has been worn down over the years and waits to be restored. Another mosque, the Altun Alem Mosque, is already under restoration. This mosque, one of the most important in Novi Pazar, is believed to have been built by Sultan Mehmed’s chief muezzin (the person who gives the call to prayer), Muslihuddin Abdulgani El Mağdeni. The Novi Pazar thermal springs facility was built by the Ottoman Empire and is still in use today.

Many familiar names

Many of the places in Sandžak carry Turkish names. For example, neighborhood names such as “Jermiše,” “Hendek” and “Gaziler” have been preserved. We also came across pita bread similar to that prepared in Turkey during Ramadan. It’s called “Ramazanlık,” meaning bread for Ramadan, because it is offered during Ramadan. Bakers announce when the bread will be ready, and people soon begin to form lines, just like in Turkey.

We were invited to the Nuhovic family house for iftar, the fast-breaking dinner. The menu is exquisite. Even though we are far away from our country, we don’t feel like foreigners here. The Nuhovic family is a wonderful host. Enver and his wife, Hasiba, their son Ishak and his wife do everything possible to provide us with a nice iftar. Once we sat at the table, Hasiba told us afiyet olsun, which means bon appétit in Turkish. We then started drinking the soup in our dish, called begova čorba, and then a traditional form of mantije (mantı), small dumplings filled with meat and served with yogurt. Even though their native language is Bosnian, they say bon appétit in Turkish. They have not made any concessions to their traditions. The number of people who fast during Ramadan is very high among Bosniaks in Sandžak. Close to 70 percent of the Bosniak population fasts. During a conversation over iftar, we learned that the Nuhovic family has relatives in Düzce, between İstanbul and Ankara. They sent their warmest regards to their Sandžak friends and families in Turkey. We also found out that while the traditional form of mantı was offered to us at iftar to show us different traditional meals, it is actually consumed at sahur, the pre-dawn meal during Ramadan. After we finished the iftar, the family served us coffee. Coffee takes the place of tea here.


Capital: Belgrade

Official language: Serbian

Government: republic

President: Boris Tadic

Area: 77,474 square


Population: 7,344,847*

Gross domestic product (PPP): $78.36 billion**

Main religions: Serb-Orthodox Christianity (85 percent), Roman Catholicism (5.5 percent), Islam (3.2 percent)

*July 2010 estimate

**2009 estimate 

The house looks just like an Ottoman-style home. It is a simple two-story home with elegant upholstery. Verses from the Quran hang on the walls. The warm ambiance and appearance reminds us of old Anatolian homes. The lacework, cross-stitch accessories and divans along the walls show an Anatolian culture exists in Serbia.

After the iftar, we headed out to the Paricka Mosque for prayer. It was jam-packed with people, both young and old, praying to God in peace. We left the mosque after the prayer and gathered at a house to listen to the Isa Beg Choir. They sing in Bosnian, Turkish, English and Arabic. The Isa Beg Choir sings very moving hymns. I would have never thought we would encounter such a group in Sandžak. We congratulated them for singing the hymns so beautifully. They are clearly professionals. We find out afterwards that the Isa Beg Choir is one of the best in Sandžak. They concluded with a hymn with verses in Bosnian, Turkish and Arabic.

The next morning we hit the road again to explore different parts of Sandžak. We climbed up the Pešter plateau near Novi Pazar. We came to about 1,000 meters above sea level, but the tip of the plateau exceeds 1,300 meters. Most people are busy with farming in this area and the plateau is known for its cheese and meat.

In the distance we saw a mosque with two minarets. It is in the village of Delimedje on the Pešter plateau. This mosque has the biggest minaret in the Balkans -- that is, if we exclude Turkey. The minaret is 77 meters high and has three balconies. The construction of the mosque is still under way, but the minarets are visible from afar.

We continued to climb up the Pešter plateau. The temperature drops as we go up. Once at 1,300 meters above sea level, we were treated to an amazing view and extremely fresh air. We can see homes and mosques in the distance. It’s also possible to listen to the sound of silence here. The scenery is mostly that of cattle and sheep roaming on the green slopes.

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