Persecution of Ottoman Muslims

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Persecution of Ottoman Muslims
Part of the Dissolution of the Ottoman Empire
Ottoman muslims persecution map.png
Map of persecutions against Ottoman Muslims between 1683 and 1922.[verification needed]
Location Ottoman Empire
Date 1683–1922
Target Muslim population of the Ottoman Empire
Attack type
Deportation, expulsion, massacres
Deaths Millions
Victims Millions of refugees.
Perpetrators Habsburg Monarchy, Russian Empire, Christian (e.g. Greek and Armenian) insurgents, Balkan states

Persecution of Ottoman Muslims refers to the persecution, massacre, or ethnic cleansing of Muslims (most prominently Ottoman Turks) by non-Muslim ethnic groups during the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.[1] This affected several million people. The persecution took mostly during the Dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. Losing territory to the Russians had grave consequences for the native Tatars and Caucasians. Both the Circassians and Crimean Tatars became minorities in their homeland as a result of expulsion and emigration. The 19th century saw the rise of nationalism in the Balkans which resulted in the establishment of an independent Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria. Most of the local Muslims in these countries suffered as many died during the conflicts and others fled. The persecution of Muslims continued in World War I by the invading Russian troops in the east and during the Turkish War of Independence in the west, east, and south of Anatolia. After the Greek-Turkish war, a population exchange took place and most Muslims in Greece left. During these centuries many Muslim refugees, called Muhacir, settled in Turkey.


Turkish settlement and Islamisation[edit]

Turkish Muslims settled in the Balkans after it was conquered by the Ottoman Empire. Some of them were Yörüks, nomads who quickly became sedentary, and others were from urban classes. They settled in almost all of the towns, but the majority of them settled in the Eastern Balkans. The main areas of settlement were Ludogorie, Dobrudzha the Thracian plain, the mountains and plains of northern Greece and Eastern Macedonia around the Vardar river.

Between the 15th and 17th centuries, large numbers of native Balkan peoples converted to Islam. Places of mass conversion were in Bosnia, Albania, Crete, and the Rhodope Mountains.[2] Some of the native population converted to Islam became Turkified over time, mainly those in Anatolia.[3]

Motives for persecution[edit]

Hall points out that atrocities were committed by all sides during the Balkan conflicts. Deliberate terror was designed to instigate population movements out of particular territories. The aim of targeting the civilian population was to carve ethnically homogeneous countries.[4]

Great Turkish War[edit]

Even before the Great Turkish War (1683—1699) Austrians and Venetians supported Christian irregulars and rebellious highlanders of Herzegovina, Montenegro and Albania to raid Muslim Slavs.[5]

The end of the Great Turkish War marked the first time the Ottoman Empire lost large areas of territory to Christians. Most of Hungary, Podolia, and the Morea was lost, and the Muslim minorities were killed, enslaved, or expelled. The Ottomans regained the Morea quickly, and Muslims soon became part of the population or were never thoroughly displaced in the first place.

Most of the Christians who lived in the Ottoman Empire were Orthodox so Russia was particularly interested for them. In 1711 Peter the Great invited Balkan Christians to revolt against Ottoman Muslim rule.[6]


About one quarter of all people living in Slavonia in the 16th century were Muslims who mostly lived in towns, with Osijek and Požega being the largest Muslim settlements.[7] Like other Muslims who lived in Croatia (Lika and Kordun) and Dalmatia, they were all forced to leave their homes until the end of 1699. This was the first example of the cleansing of Muslims in this region. This cleansing of Muslims "enjoyed the benediction of Catholic church". Around 130,000 Muslims from Croatia and Slavonia were driven to Ottoman Bosnia and Herzegovina.[8][9] Basically, all Muslims who lived in Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia were either forced to exile, murdered or enslaved.[7]

Thousands of Serb refugees crossed Danube and populated territories of Habsburg Monarchy left by Muslims. Leopold I granted ethno-religious autonomy to them without giving any privileges to the remaining Muslim population who therefore fled to Bosnia, Herzegovina and Serbia spreading anti-Christian sentiment among other Muslims there.[10] The relations between non-Muslim and Muslim population of Ottoman held Balkans became progressively worse.[11]

In the beginning of the 18th century remaining Muslims of Slavonia moved to Posavina.[12][13] The Ottoman authorities encouraged hopes of expelled Muslims for a quick return to their homes and settled them in the border regions.[14] The Muslims comprised about 2/3 population of Lika. All of them, like Muslims who lived in other parts of Croatia, were forced to convert to Catholicism or to be expelled.[15] Almost all buildings that belonged to Muslim religion and culture were destroyed in the region of Croatia after Muslims had to leave it.[16]


At the beginning of the 18th century (1709 or 1711) Orthodox Serbs massacred their Muslim neighbors in Montenegro.[17][18]

Russian expansion[edit]

Crimean Khanate[edit]

Main article: Crimean Khanate

Nomadic Turkic speaking peoples, later known as "Tatars" had inhabited the steppes of Southern Ukraine since the early Middle Ages. Most of them became islamised after the 13th century. After the dissolution of the Golden Horde the Crimean Khanate was established in the late 15th century. They gained control of northern Crimea while the Ottomans took over the south. This khanate had a long history of war with its Christian neighbours Russia and Poland. In the late 18th century the Russians expanded their empire with war against the Ottomans and Crimeans. After a series of destructive invasions into Crimea it became annexed to the Russian Empire in 1783. Russian discrimination and repression started a Crimean Tatar and Nogais exodus which would last into the 19th century.[19] 30,000 in 1778, some 100,000 between 1783 and 1791, and after the Crimean War between 100,000 and 150,000 left and migrated to the Ottoman Empire.[20]


The mountaineers leave the aul, by P. N. Gruzinsky, 1872

The native peoples of the Caucasus had been practically independent of outside powers during their existence. The east was Islamised rather early while in the west. the Circassians converted in the late 18th century. Russian encroachment on these peoples land began in the 16th century first with the settling of Cossacks in the lowlands. A low intensity conflict took place during the next centuries. In the 19th century Russia wished a more intense annexation and this resulted in the expansion of the conflict. Several years of dramatic resistance was offered by the natives who were in the end overwhelmed by the Russian armies. These wars resulted in a huge loss of lives, destruction of property and most of the Circassians were expelled to the Ottoman Empire.[21] Many of them died during the process or place of arrival. Nearly 30.000 Circassians died in Trabzon.[22] Survivors were scattered around Anatolia. A smaller number of eastern Caucasians migrated also. After the Crimean War the majority of the Abkhazians left their homeland after siding with an Ottoman invasion army. Tens of thousands Abkhazians left after a revolt in 1864.[23]

During the Russian conquest of the southern Caucasus a number of Turkic peoples called Karapapaks left their lands and settled in the Ottoman Empire.

Nationalist uprisings[edit]

Serbian Revolt[edit]

In 1804 Serbian Revolution broke out in Central Serbia, spreading into all directions, including Belgrade. It was directed towards Dahias, a Muslim unit which broke away from Constantinople and introduced harsh taxes. After some time, when revolt reached national level, Constantinople got involved against Serbian insurgents. The revolutionarries took over Belgrade in 1806 where a massacre of Muslim garnizone, including civilians, took place,[24] In the end Serbia became an autonomous country with most of the Muslims been expelled.[25] During the revolts 15,000–20,000 Muslims fled or were expelled.[26] In Belgrade and the rest of Serbia there remained a Muslim population of some 23,000 who were also forcibly expelled after 1862, following a massacre of Serbian civilians by Ottoman soldiers near Kalemegdan.[27]

Greek Revolution[edit]

In 1821, a major Greek revolt broke out in Southern Greece. Insurgents gained control of most of the countryside while the Muslims fled to the fortified towns and castles.[28] Each one of them was besieged and gradually through starvation or surrender most were taken over by the Greeks. In the massacres of April 1821 some 15.000 were killed.[28] The worst massacre happened in Tripolitsa, some 8.000 Muslims and Jews died.[28] In the end an Independent Greece was set up. Most of the Muslims in its area had been killed or expelled during the conflict.[28]


In 1821 a revolt also broke out in Crete but the island remained Ottoman. In the course of the 19th century more revolts broke out and the Muslims declined dramatically through massacre or migration. The Muslim population decreased from 73.234 in 1881 to 33.281 in 1900. The last remaining Cretan Muslims, some 23.500, were sent to Turkey by the population exchange.[29]


Thessaly was ceded to Greece after 1881. The local Muslims, some 40.000, emigrated and by 1911 only 3.000 remained.[28]

Bulgarian uprising[edit]

Main article: April Uprising

In 1876 a Bulgarian uprising broke out in dozens of villages. The first attacks were made against the local Muslims[citation needed] but in a short time the Ottomans violently suppressed the uprising.

Russo-Turkish war[edit]


The Bulgarian uprising eventually lead to a war between Russia and the Ottomans. Russia invaded the Ottoman Balkans through Dobrudzha and northern Bulgaria attacking the Muslim population. In this war the Ottomans were defeated and in the process a large part of the Turks of Bulgaria fled to Anatolia and Constantinople. It was a cold winter and through massacres and diseases a large part of them died. Some of them returned after the war but most of these left again after oppression. The Bulgarian Turks settled mostly around the Sea of Marmara. Some of them had been wealthy and they played an important part in the Ottoman elite in later years. Al most half of the pre war 1,5 million Muslim population of Bulgaria was gone, an estimated 200.000 died and the rest fled.[30]

Migration continued in the peace time, some 350.000 Bulgarian Muslims left the country between 1880 and 1911.[31]

Niš and the wider Toplica and Morava regions[edit]

On the eve of the outbreak of hostilities between Serbia and the Ottoman Empire, the Toplica, Kosanica, Pusta Reka and Jablanica valleys and adjoining semi-mountainous interior was inhabited by a compact Albanian Geg population.[32] A mixed Albanian Serbian population also resided in the adjacent Morava river basin.[32] Urban centers such as Kuršumlija were almost wholly Albanian populated and Prokuplje had an Albanian plurality.[32] While Leskovac, Vranje and Niš were inhabited with sizable urban Albanian and partially Turkified Albanian populations, that lived alongside the Serbs.[32] The town of Pirot was the only urban centre inhabited by ethnic Turks.[32] There was also a minority of Circassian refugees settled by the Ottomans during the 1860s, near the then border around the environs of Niš.[33] Estimates vary on the size of the Muslim population within these areas. According to historians Justin McCarthy and Noel Malcolm, the Muslim or Albanian population numbered around 100, 000.[34] Albanologist Robert Elsie estimates their numbers at some 50.000.[35] While estimates among Serbian academics vary from as low as 30, 000 Albanians given by Dušan Bataković,[36] to 71, 000 Muslims with 49, 000 being Albanian by Đjorđje Stefanović [37] or Miloš Jagodić who cites similar numbers based on Serbian archive and travelers documents. However, due to incomplete statistics of that era regarding certain districts, Jagodić states that the numbers of Albanians and Muslims that left Serbia was “much larger”.[32]

Hostilities broke out on 15. December 1877, after a Russian request for Serbia to enter the conflict. The Serbian military crossed the border in two directions. The first objective was to capture the city of Niš and the second to break the Niš-Sofia lines of communication for Ottoman forces. After besieging Niš, Serb forces headed south-west into the Toplica valley to prevent a counterattack by Ottoman forces. Prokuplje was taken on the third day of the war and local Albanians fled their homes toward the Pasjača mountain range, leaving cattle and other property behind. Some Albanians returned and submitted to Serbian authorities, while others fled to Kuršumlija. Advancing Serbian forces heading to Kuršumlija also came across resisting Albanian refugees spread out in the surrounding mountain ranges and refusing to surrender. Many personal belongings such as wagons were strewn and left behind in the woods.

Kuršumlija was taken soon after Prokuplje, while Albanian refugees had reached the southern slopes of the Kopaonik mountain range. Ottoman forces attempted to counterattack through the Toplica valley and relieve the siege at Niš, which turned the area into a battlefield and stranded Albanian refugees in nearby mountains. With Niš eventually taken, the Albanian refugees of the Toplica valley were unable to return to their villages. Other Serb forces then headed south into the Morava valley and toward Leskovac. The majority of urban Muslims fled, taking most of their belongings before the Serb army arrived. The Serb army also took Pirot and the Turks fled to Kosovo, Macedonia and some went toward Thrace.

Ottoman forces surrendered Niš on 10. January 1878 and most Muslims departed for Prishtina, Prizren, Skopje and Thessalonika. Serb forces continued their south west advance entering other Albanian populated valleys of Kosanica, Pusta Reka and Jablanica. Serb forces in the Morava valley continued to head for Vranje, with the intention of then turning west and entering Kosovo proper. The Serbian advance in the southwest was slow, due to the hilly terrain and much resistance by local Albanians who were defending their villages and also sheltering in the nearby Radan and Majdan mountain ranges. Serb forces took these villages one by one and most remained vacant. Albanian refugees continued to retreat toward Kosovo and their march was halted at the Goljak Mountains when an armistice was declared.

The Serbian army operating in the Morava valley continued south toward two canyons: Grdelica (between Vranje and Leskovac) and Veternica (southwest of Grdelica). After Grdelica was taken, Serb forces took Vranje. Local Muslims had left with their belongings prior to Serb forces reaching the town, while other countryside Muslims were experiencing tensions with Serbian neighbours who fought against and eventually evicted them from the area. Albanian refugees defended the Veternica canyon, before retreating toward the Goljak mountains. While Albanians who lived nearby in the Masurica region did not resist Serb forces and General Jovan Belimarković refused to carry out orders from Belgrade to deport these Albanians by offering his resignation.[37]

However, most remaining Albanians were forced to leave in subsequent years for the Ottoman Empire and Kosovo in particular.[38] A small number of Albanians were allowed to remain in the Jablanica valley centered around the town of Medveđa, where they still reside today.[39] Most Albanian refugees were resettled in about 30 large rural settlements in central and southeastern Kosovo. Many refugees were also spread out and resettled in urban centers that increased their populations substantially. Tensions between refugee Albanians (Muhaxhirs) and local Albanians arose over resources, as the Ottoman Empire found it difficult to accommodate to their needs and meager conditions. Tensions in the form of revenge attacks also arose by incoming Albanian refugees on local Kosovo Serbs that contributed to the beginnings of the ongoing Serbian-Albanian conflict in coming decades.[40]

These events in later years would also serve as a possible solution to the Albanian question in Kosovo and Macedonia for individuals such as Vaso Čubrilović, who advocated similar measures due to their success.[41] The regions vacated by Albanians were soon repopulated by Serbs from central and eastern Serbia and some Montenegrins who settled along the border with Kosovo.[42][43] Today, the descendants of these Albanian refugees (Muhaxhirs) make up a substantial portion of Kosovo’s Albanian population. They are active in Kosovo’s political, economic and cultural spheres. They have also established local associations that document and aim to preserve their regional Albanian culture of origin. Many can also be identified by their surname which following Albanian custom is often the place of origin. For example: Shulemaja from the village of Šilomanja, Gjikolli from Džigolj, Pllana from Velika and Mala Plana, Retkoceri from Ratkoceri, Huruglica from Oruglica, Hergaja from Rgaje, Byçmeti from Donji, Gornji and Srednji Bučumet, Nishliu from the city of Niš and so on.


In 1875 a conflict between Muslims and Christians broke out in Bosnia. After the Berlin Congress in 1878, Bosnia was occupied by Austria-Hungary and after some Muslim resistance annexed. In 1878, about 130,000 Muslims migrated to areas under Ottoman control,[44] some to the Balkans some to Anatolia.


The war continued in the east and after the peace area around Kars was ceded to Russia. This resulted in a large number of Muslims leaving and settling in remaining Ottoman lands. Batum and its surrounding area was also ceded to Russia causing many local Georgian Muslims to migrate to the west.[45] Most of them settled around the Anatolian Black Sea coast.

Italo-Turkish War[edit]

Main article: 1911 Tripoli massacre

During the Italo-Turkish War of 1911–12, the 1911 Tripoli massacre took place, where Italian troops committed a series of massacres against the Turkish and Libyan population of the former Ottoman Tripolitania Vilayet (province). The Italians systematically killed over 4,000 civilians by moving through the local homes one by one, including burning several hundred women and children inside a mosque in the Mechiya oasis.[46] Although Italy attempted to prevent the news of the massacres from reaching the outside world, they became internationally known.[46]

Balkan Wars[edit]

Main article: Balkan Wars

In 1912 Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria and Montenegro declared war on the Ottomans. The Ottomans quickly lost territory. The invading armies and Christian insurgents committed a wide range of atrocities upon the Muslim population.[47] In Kosovo and Albania most of the victims were Albanians while in other areas most of the victims were Turks and Pomaks. A large number of Pomaks in the Rhodopes were forcibly converted to Orthodoxy but later allowed to reconvert, most of them did.[48] During this war hundreds of thousands of the Turks and Pomaks fled their villages and became refugees.[49] Thessaloniki and Adrianople were crowded with them. By sea and land mostly they settled in Ottoman Thrace and Anatolia.

World War I and the Turkish War of Independence[edit]

Caucasus Campaign[edit]

During the Russian invasion of Ottoman lands many atrocities were carried out against the local Turks and Kurds by the Russian army and Armenian volunteers.[50] A large part of the local Muslim Turks and Kurds fled west after the Russian invasion of 1916.[51] According to J. Rummel at least 128.000 Muslims were killed by Russian and Armenian troops/irregulars during the war.[52]

Turkish–Armenian War[edit]

Genocide Monument and Museum in Iğdır, erected to the memory of Turks killed by Armenians during the First World War and the Turkish-Armenian War.

During January–February 1918 some 10,000 Muslims were killed in Erzincan and Erzurum by retreating Armenian troops.[51]


Main article: Franco-Turkish War

Cilicia was occupied by the British after World War I, who were later replaced by the French. These took an Armenian legion with them who persecuted the local Muslims as well as arming returning Armenian refugees to the region and assisting them. Eventually the Turks responded with resistance against the French occupation, battles took place in Marash, Aintab, and Urfa. Most of these cities were destroyed during the process with large civilian suffering. In Marash, 4.500 Turks died.[53] The French left the area together with the Armenians after 1920. On top of it all, the sheer desire for retribution for the genocide served as justification for armed Armenians.[51]

Greco–Turkish War[edit]

Greek Captain Papa Grigoriou - perpetrator of Muslim massacres during the Greco-Turkish War.[citation needed]

After the Greek landing and the following occupation of Western Anatolia after World War I during the Greco-Turkish War, local Turkish resistance was answered with terror against the local Muslims. Killings, rapes, and village burnings were a standard pattern of the Greek occupation.

During the Greek occupation, Greek troops and local Greeks, Armenian, and Circassian groups committed the Yalova Peninsula Massacres in early 1921 against the Turkish and Muslim population of the Gemlik-Yalova peninsula.[54] These resulted, according to some sources, in the deaths of thousands of the local Muslim populace, as well as the total or nearly total burning of tens of towns and massacres of their populations.[55] Number of casualties is not exactly known. Statements gathered by Ottoman official, reveal a relatevely low number of casualties: based on the Ottoman enquiry to which 177 survivors responded, only 35 were reported as killed, wounded or beaten or missing. This is also in accordance with Toynbee's accounts that one to two murders were enough to drive out the population.[56] Another source estimates that barely 1.500 Muslims out of 7.000 survived in the environment of Yalova.[57] Toynbee, in general omits to notice the conclusion of the Allied reports, that stated that the atrocities committed by the Turks during the same war "have been more considerable and ferocious than those on the part of the Greeks".[58]

The Greeks advanced all the way to Central Anatolia. After the Turkish attack in 1922 the Greeks retreated and Norman M. Naimark notes that "the Greek retreat was even more devastating for the local population than the occupation".[59] During its retreat, towns and villages were burned as part of a scorched earth policy, accompanied with massacres and rapes. During this war, a part of Western Anatolia was destroyed, large towns such as Manisa, Salihli together with many villages being burned.[60]

Dourmouche, a boy wounded and hand cut off during the Yalova peninsula massacres.[citation needed]

The peace after the Greco–Turkish War resulted in a mutual population exchange between Greece and Turkey, between the two countries. As a result the Muslim population of Greece, with the exception of Western Thrace, was relocated to Turkey.[61]

Total casualties[edit]

Death toll[edit]

Total Muslim deaths and refugees during these centuries are estimated to be several millions.[62] It is estimated that during the last decade of the Ottoman Empire (1912-1922) when the Balkan wars, WWI and war of Independence took place, close to 2 million Muslims, civilian and military, died in the area of modern Turkey.[63] According to the American historian Justin McCarthy, between the years 1821–1922, from the beginning of the Greek War of Independence to the end of the Ottoman Empire, five million Muslims were driven from their lands and another five and one-half million died, some of them killed in wars, others perishing as refugees from starvation or disease.[1] According to Michael Mann all the death figures in the Balkans are contested and McCarthy is seen in this discussion as a scholar on the Turkish side.[64] In the discussion about the Armenian Genocide, McCarthy is considered as the leading pro-Turkish scholar.[65][66] McCarthy's book The Ottoman Turks has according to Somel an "excessively pro-Turkish attitude".[67]

Settlement of refugees[edit]

The Ottoman authorities and charities provided some help to the immigrants and sometimes settled them in certain locations. In Turkey most of the Balkan refugees settled in Western Turkey and Thrace. The Caucasians, in addition to these areas also settled in Central Anatolia and around the Black Sea coast. Eastern Anatolia was not largely settled with the exception of some Circassian and Karapapak villages. There were also completely new villages founded by refugees, for example in uninhabited forested areas. Many people of the 1924 exchange were settled in former Greek villages along the Aegean coast. Outside of Turkey, Circassians were settled along the Hedjaz Railway and some Cretan Muslims at Syria's coast.

Destruction of Muslim heritage[edit]

Muslim heritage was extensively targeted during the persecutions. During their long rule the Ottomans had built numerous mosques, madrasas, caravanserais, bath-houses and other types of buildings. According to current research, around 20,000 buildings of all sizes have been documented in official Ottoman registers.[68] However very few survives of this Ottoman heritage in most of the Balkan countries.[69] Most of the Ottoman era mosques of the Balkans have been destroyed and from the ones still standing at least their minarets. Before the Habsburg conquest, Osijek had 8-10 mosques none of which remain today.[70] During the Balkan wars there were cases of desecration, destruction of mosques and Muslim cemeteries.[70] Of the 166 Madrasas in the Ottoman Balkans in the 17th century only 8 remain and 5 of them are near Edirne.[68] The amount of destruction 95-98%.[68] The same is also valid for other types of buildings, such as markethalls, caravanserais and baths.[68] From a chain of caravanserais across the Balkans only one is preserved while there are vague ruins of four others.[68] There were in the area of Negroponte in 1521: 34 large and small mosques, 6 hamams, 10 schools, 6 dervish convents. Today only the ruin of one hamam remains.[68]

Destruction of Ottoman mosques.[68]
Town During Ottoman rule Still standing
Shumen 40 3
Serres 60 3
Belgrade >100 1
Sofia >100 2
Ruse 36 1
Sremska Mitrovica[71] 17 0
Osijek[72] 7 0
Slavonska Požega[73] 14—15 0


There exists literature in Turkey dealing with these events, but outside of Turkey, the events are largely unknown to the world public.

Impact on Europe[edit]

According to Mark Levene, the Victorian public in the 1870s paid much more attention to the massacres and expulsions of Christians than to massacres and expulsions of Muslims, even if on a greater scale. He further suggests that such massacres were even favored by some circles. Mark Levene also argues that the dominant powers, by supporting "nation-statism" at the Congress of Berlin, legitimized "the primary instrument of Balkan nation-building": ethnic cleansing.[74]


There is an monument in Iğdır, Turkey, remembering the Muslim victims of World War I. A monument was erected in Anaklia, Georgia on May 21, 2012, to commemorate the expulsion of the Circassians.[75]



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