In Search of the Balkan Soul

Thodoris Nikolaou has spent the last three years — and counting — crisscrossing the Balkan Peninsula to create a visual mosaic of the region’s people and their stories. But for Mr. Nikolaou, the project, called “…Balkaniotheque” and sponsored by the Onassis Foundation, became more than a multifaceted look at the region. It has been a search for his very identity.

Courtesy of the New York Times.

Mountain highs: trekking without borders in the Balkans

The views from Kosovo’s highest peak are incredible. Or so I’m told. It’s a tricky thing to confirm in blanket murk and howling winds. I’ve just leaned into a gale to reach the 2,656m summit of Mount Gjeravica, where a shabby concrete marker displays a defaced plaque commemorating Kosovo’s first and only Olympic medallist.

Courtesy of The Guardian.

A hike to the mysterious Accursed Mountains in the Balkans

This remote and mysterious mountain range, much of it accessible only by foot, offers more than beauty. It hosts shepherds and goatherds and ancient pastoral traditions that have yet to be destroyed by mechanisation. In its isolated villages, traces still survive of a centuries-old code of conduct that combines extremes of punishment and generosity.

I’ve always said the “Accursed Mountains” would be right at home on a map of Middle Earth. Courtesy of the Financial Times.

Daughters of Shadow and Blood: A Historical Reading List

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca WestThe Daughters of Shadow and Blood trilogy is crammed full of real history. Yasamin spans almost two years, from 1599 to 1601. Elena covers several months in the fall of 1689. Elizabeth takes place over a few weeks in the summer of 1878. Also, sprinkled throughout are vignettes from many other time periods. I did tons of research to get everything right. If you find yourself interested at all in the history I talk about, here are some books to get you started:

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West. Rebecca West was a celebrated British journalist. She wrote this travelogue of Yugoslavia in 1941 when Europe was on the verge of World War II. It’s more than just a travel book, though. West’s masterful prose weaves the history and culture of the former nation into a compelling narriative. Fair warning, though. She does bring her biases. Don’t make this the only book you read on the Balkans.

Lords of the Horizons by Jason Goodwin. This book corrects many of the biases Rebecca West has. It is a short history of the Ottoman Empire with a strong emphasis on the culture of the Ottomans and how it drove them to persist. Goodwin is also the author of a series of detective novels set in Istanbul in the nineteenth century, beginning with The Janissary Tree. His sleuth, Yashim, is unique in that he’s a eunuch.

Osman’s Dream by Caroline Finkel. This is a very detailed, comprehensive history of the Ottoman Empire, from it’s beginnings as a Turkish tribe in central Anatolia through the height of its power, to its downfall shortly after World War I.

The Balkans by Misha Glenny. This book covers more recent history, from 1804 to the present, but it sets up perfectly how the violence and warfare of the late twentieth century came about by showing its roots in earlier conflicts.

Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan. This is another travelogue by a journalist. Kaplan also delves into the roots of the recent strife in the Balkans. Unlike the other writers on this list, he focuses heavily on Romania and the toll of the Communist regime there.

Kosovo: A Short History by Noel Malcolm. The Serbs claim they were in Kosovo first. The Albanians claim they were there first. As Malcolm points out, the truth is somewhat more complicated.

Bosnia: A Short History by Noel Malcolm. Bosnia has always been a crossroads of culture. In this book, Malcolm explores how a place renown for its tolerance and the peaceful coexistence of religions was torn apart by war.

The Raven King by Marcus Tanner. Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary, amassed the largest library in the Christian world. He also held Vlad the Impaler captive for ten years.

Monster Monday: Kallikantzaros

We all know about vampires and werewolves, or at least we think we do. The legends and myths that inspired these monsters are sometimes surprisingly different, but no less chilling. In this series of posts, Monster Monday, we’ll investigate the monsters that have informed our modern notions, as well as some lesser known monsters. Today, we talk about the Kallikantzaros.

Greek illustration of Kallikantzaroi trying to cut down the World Tree
Greek illustration of Kallikantzaroi trying to cut down the World Tree

The kallikantzaros is a malevolent goblin-like creature in the folklore of the Balkan Peninsula in southeastern Europe. It is usually depicted as a small, black, humanoid creature with a tail, sometimes hairy, sometimes with horns and goat’s hooves instead of feet, or with the ears of a donkey.

Most of the year the creatures stay underground where they constantly saw at the World Tree, trying to cut it down. By the end of the year, they have almost succeeded, but on Christmas they are allowed to go above ground, where they stay for twelve days until Epiphany, when they must go back. Once there, they discover that the World Tree has healed itself, and they have to start all over again.

In many places in the Balkans, the twelve days after Christmas are considered unlucky, and precautions must be taken to protect against a kallikantzaros. one method is to leave a colander outside the door. The kallikantzaros will try to count the holes until the sun rises and it has to flee. Another method is to leave a fire burning in the fireplace so it can’t come down the chimney.

In Serbian folklore, people were advised not to go out late at night during the twelve days after Christmas, because a kallikantzaros could jump on a persons back and demand to be taken wherever it wants to go. Likewise, in Turkey, a kallikantzaros might lead travelers astray at night by imitating the voices of loved ones and causing them to freeze to death.

Monster Monday: Vampire Pumpkins and Watermelons

We all know about vampires and werewolves, or at least we think we do. The legends and myths that inspired these monsters are sometimes surprisingly different, but no less chilling. In this series of posts, Monster Monday, we’ll investigate the monsters that have informed our modern notions, as well as some lesser known monsters. Today, we talk about Vampire Pumpkins and Watermelons.

A potential vampire pumpkin
A potential vampire pumpkin

Vampire pumpkins and watermelons are a folk legend among the Gypsies of the Balkans. It is said that a pumpkin or a watermelon may become a vampire if it is left outside during a full moon after it is ripe. It may also become a vampire if it is kept longer than ten days or kept after Christmas.

Vampire pumpkins and watermelons can be identified by drops of blood that form on the skin. They can also move on their own and make low growling sounds. At night they roll around and try to bite people, but they are never successful because they don’t have mouths. A vampire pumpkin or watermelon can be destroyed by placing it in a pot of boiling water, then scrubbing it with a broom and burning the broom.

The only scholarly reference to vampire pumpkins and watermelons is from Serbian ethnologist Tatomir Vukanović, who recorded the belief in a few Gypsy villages in what is now Kosovo, leading to speculation that the locals were actually just playing a trick on him.


Booking Through Thursday

Do you get on a roll when you read, so that one book leads to the next, which leads to the next, and so on and so on?

I’ve been on a Balkan/Turkey/Ottoman Empire kick for a while now.  Some time ago I read Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West, a history-laden travelogue of her trip through Yugoslavia on the brink of World War II. 

That led to Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan, Bosnia: A Short History and Kosovo: A short History, both by Noel Malcolm, and also Lords of the Horizons by Jason Goodwin, which is a history of the Ottoman Empire. 

That led to Goodwin’s mystery novels The Janissary Tree and The Snake Stone about a crime-solving eunuch in nineteenth-century Istanbul, and also to Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City, his memoir of growing up in Istanbul, which in turn led me to The Black Book, a mystery novel by Pamuk.  I’m enjoying it, but it’s difficult because the mode of storytelling is so different from Western novels. 

I also read John Courtenay Grimwood’s Arabesk Trilogy, Pashazade, Effendi, and Felaheen, a sci-fi story set in an alternate history in which the U.S.A. brokered an early end to World War I, and the Ottoman Empire lasts into the twenty-first century. 

I guess if the OCD shoe fits, tie it and untie it seventeen times in a row.