The Serbs stepped again onto the historical scene in the years of the European wars that swept the continent from the forests of Ireland to the walls of Constantinople in the late 17th century. The Turks finally withdrew from Hungary and Transylvania when their Ottoman hordes were routed outside Vienna in 1683. The disintegration of Ottoman rule in the southwest limbered up the Serbs, arousing in them hope that the moment was ripe for joint effort to break Turkish dominion in the Balkans. The neighboring Christian powers (Austria and Venice) were the only possible allies. The arrival of the Austrian army in Serbia after the fall of Belgrade in 1688 prompted the Serbs to join it. Thanks to the support of Serbian insurgents, the imperial troops penetrated deep into Serbia and in 1689 conquered Nis: a special Serbian militia was formed as a separate corps of the imperial troops.
After setting fire to Skoplje (Uskub), which was raging with plague, the commander of Austrian troops Ennea Silviae Piccolomini withdrew to Prizren where he was greeted by 20,000 Serbian insurgents, and with whom he reached an accord on fighting the Turks with joint forces. Shortly afterwards, Piccollomini died of the plague, and his successors failed to prevent their troops from marauding the surrounding regions. Disappointed by the conduct of the Christian troops from which they had expected decisive support, the Serbian insurgents abandoned the agreed alliance. Patriarch Arsenije III Crnojevic tried in vain to arrive at a new agreement with the Austrian generals. The restorer of the Ottoman Empire, Grand Vizier Mustafa-Pasha Koporilli, an Albanian by origin, took advantage of the lull in military operations, mustered Crimean Tatars and Islamized Albanians and mounted a major campaign. Despite assurances of help, Catholic Albanian tribes deserted the Austrian army on the eve of the decisive clash at Kacanik in Kosovo, on January 1690. The Serbian militia, resisting the Sultan’s superior hordes, retreated to the west and north of the country.
Turkish retaliation, in which the Serbian infidels were raided and viciously massacred lasted a three full months. The towns of Prizren, Pec, Pristina, Vucitrn and Mitrovica were hit the worst, and Serbs from Novo Brdo retreated from the Tatar saber. Fleeing from the brutal reprisal, the people of Kosovo and the neighboring areas moved northwards with Patriarch Arsenije III. The decision to end the massacre and declare an amnesty came belately as much of the population had already fled for safer areas, moving towards the Sava River and Belgrade. Other parts of Serbia were also targets of ghastly reprisals. In the Belgrade pashalik alone, the number of taxpayers dropped eightfold. Grand old monasteries were looted from Pec Patriarchate to Gracanica, and the Albanian tribe Gashi pillaged the Decani monastery, killing the prior and seizing the monastery’s best estates.
At the invitation of emperor Leopold I, Patriarch Arsenije III led part of the high clergy and a sizeable part of the refugees (tens of thousands of people) to the Habsburg Empire to the territory of southern Hungary, having received assurances that the Serbs would there be granted special political and religious status. Many Serbs from Kosovo and Metohia followed him. The new churches built along the Danube they named after those left in old homeland.
The Great 1690 Migration was a important turning point in the history of the Serbs. In Kosovo and Metohia alone, towns and some villages were abandoned to the last inhabitant. The population was also decimated by the plague, whatever remained after the Turkish troops. The physical extermination along with the mass exodus, the burning of grand monasteries and their rich treasuries and libraries, the death and murder of a large number of monks and clergy wreaked havoc in these regions. The position of the Pec Patriarchate was badly shaken; its highest clergy went with the people to Austria, and the confusion wrought by the Great Migration had a major influence on its abolition (1766).
The hardest consequence of the Great Migration was demographic upheaval it caused, because once the Serbs withdraw from Kosovo and Metohia, Islamized Albanian tribes from the northern highlands started settling the area in greater number, mostly by force, in the decade following the 1690 Great Migration of Serbs, ethnic Albanian tribes (given their incredible powers of reproduction) was posing a grave threat to the biological survival of the Serbs in Kosovo and Metohia. Colonies set up by the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, Metohia and the neighboring areas provoked a fresh Serbian migration toward the north, encouraged the process of conversion and upset the centuries-old ethnic balance in those areas. Supported (depending on circumstances) by the Turks and the Roman Curia, ethnic Albanians, abyding by their tribal customs and hajduk insubordination to the law, in the coming centuries turned the entire region of Kosovo and Metohia into a bloody battleground, marked by tribal and feudal anarchy. The period following the Great Migration of Serbia marked the commencement of three centuries of ethnic Albanian genocide against Serbs in their native land.
The century after the Great Migration saw a fresh exodus of the Serbs from Kosovo and Metohia, and a growing influence of ethnic Albanians on political circumstances. Ethnic Albanians used the support they received from the Turkish army in fighting Serbian insurgents to seize the ravaged land and abandoned mining centers in Kosovo and Metohia and to enter in large numbers the Ottoman administration and military. More and more Catholic ethnic-Albanians converted to Islam, thereby acquiring the right to retain the estates they had seized and to apply the might-is-right principle in their dealings with the non-Muslim Serbs. The authorities encouraged and assisted the settlement of the newly Islamized ethnic-Albanian tribes from the mountains to the fertile lands devastated by war. The dissipation of the Turkish administrative system encouraged the ethnic-Albanian colonisation of Kosovo and Metohia, since with the arrival of more of their fellow tribesmen and compatriots, the local pashas and beys (most of whom were ethnic Albanian) acquired strong tribal armies which in times of trouble helped them hold on to their position and illegally pass on their power to their descendents. The missionaries of the Roman Curia did not heed to preserve the small ethnic Albanian Catholic population, but endeavoured instead to inflict as much harm as possible on the Pec Patriarchate and its dignitaries, and, with the help of bribable pashas, to undermine the cohesive power of Serbian Orthodoxy in these areas.
The next war between Austria and Turkey (1716-1718) marked the beginning of a fresh persecution in Kosovo and Metohia. Austrian troops, backed by Serbian volunteers, reached the Western Morava River where they established a new frontier. Ethnic Albanians collectively guaranteed to the Porte the safety of the regions in the immediate vicinity of Austria, and were in return exempted from the heaviest taxes. Towards the end of the war (1717), a major Serbian uprising broke out in Vucitrn and its surroundings: it was brutally crushed and the troops sent to allay the rayah and launch an investigation, perpetrated fresh atrocities. Excessive dues, robbery and the threat of extermination put before the Kosovo Serbs the choices of either converting to Islam or finding a powerful master who would protect them if they accepted the status of serfs. Many opted for a third solution: they moved to surrounding regions where life was more tolerable.
The following war between Austria and Turkey (1737-1739) ended with the routing of the imperial troops from Serbian territory. The border was reestablished at the Sava and Danube rivers, and Serbs set out on another migration. Patriarch Arsenije IV Jovanovic, along with the religious and national leaders of Pec, drew up a plan for cooperation with the Austrian forces, and contacted their commanders. A large-scale uprisings broke out again in Kosovo and Metohia, engaging some 10.000 Serbs. They were joined by Montenegrin tribes, and Austrian envoys even stirred up the Kliments, a Catholic tribe from northern Albania. A Serbian militia was formed again, but the Austrian troops and insurgenta were forced to retreat in the face of superior Turkish power: reprisals ensued, bringing death to the insurgents and their families. Serbs withdrew from the mining settlements around Janjevo, Pristina, Novo Brdo and Kopaonik. In order to keep the remaining populace on the land, the Turks declared an amnesty. After the fall of Belgrade, Arsenije IV moved to Austria. The number of refugees from Serbia, including Kosovo and Metohia, along with some Kliments has yet to be accurately determined, as people were moving on all sides and the process lasted for several months. The considerably reduced number of taxpayers in Kosovo and Metohia and in other parts of Serbia points to a strong migratory wave.
Unrest in the Ottoman empire helped spread anarchy in Kosovo and Metohia and rest of Serbia. Raids, murder, rape against the unarmed population was largely committed by ethnic Albanian outlaws, who were now numerically superior in many regions. Outlaw bands held controll over roads during Turkey’s war with Russia (1768-1774), when lawlessness reigned throughout Serbia. Ethnic Albanian outlaws looted and fleeced other regions as well, which sent local Muslims complaining to the Porte seeking protection.
During the last Austro-Turkish war (1788-1791), a sweeping popular movement again took shape in northern Serbia. Because of the imperial forces swift retreat, the movement did not encompass the southern parts of Serbia: Kosovo, Metohia and present-day northern Macedonia. The peace treaty of Sistovo (1791) envisaged a general amnesty for the Serbs, but the ethnic Albanians, as outlaws or soldiers in the detachments of local pashas, continued unhindered to assault the unprotected Serbian population. The wave of religious intolerance towards Orthodox population, which acquired greater proportion owing to the hostilities with Russia at the end of 18th century, effected the forced conversion to Islam of a larger number of Serbian families. The abolition of the Pec Patriarchate (1766), whose see and rich estates were continually sought after by local ethnic Albanian pashas and beys, prompted the final wave of extensive Islamization in Kosovo and Metohia.
Those who suffered the most during these centuries of utter lawlessness were the Serbs, unreliable subjects who would rise every time the Turks would wage war against one of the neighboring Great Powers, and whose patriarchs led the people to enemy land. Although initially on a small scale, the Islamization of Serbs in Kosovo and Metohia began before the penetration of ethnic Albanians. More widespread conversion to Islam took place in the 17th and the first half of 18th centuries, when ethnic Albanians began to wield more influence on political events in these regions. Many Serbs accepted Islamization as a necessary evil, waiting for the moment when they could revert to the faith of their ancestors, but most of them never lived to see that day. The first few generations of Islamized Serbs preserved their language and observed their old customs (especially slava – the family patron saint day, and the Easter holiday). But several generations later, owing to a strong ethnic Albanian environment, they gradually began adopting the Albanian dress to safety, and outside their narrow family circle they spoke the Albanian language. Thus came into being a special kind of social mimicry which enabled converts to survive. Albanization began only when Islamized Serbs, who were void of national feeling, married girls from ethnic Albanian tribal community. For a long time Orthodox Serbs called their Albanized compatriots Arnautasi, until the memory of their Serbian origin waned completely, though old customs and legends about their ancestors were passed on from one generation to the next.
For a long time the Arnautasi felt neither like Turks nor ethnic Albanians, because their customs and traditions set them apart, and yet they did not feel like Serbs either, who considered Orthodoxy to be their prime national trait. Many Arnautasi retained their old surnames until the turn of the last century. In Drenica the Arnautasi bore such surnames as Dokic, Velic, Marusic, Zonic, Racic, Gecic, which unquestionably indicated their Serbian origin. The situation was similar in Pec and its surroundings where many Islamized and Albanized Serbs carries typically Serbian surnames: Stepanovic, Bojkovic, Dekic, Lekic, Stojkovic, etc. The eastern parts of Kosovo and Metohia, with their compact Serbian settlements, were the last to undergo Islamization. The earliest Islamization in Upper Morava and Izmornik is pinpointed as taking place in the first decades of the 18th century, and the latest in 1870s. Toponyms in many ethnic Albanian villages in Kosovo show that Serbs had lived there the preceding centuries, and in some places Orthodox cemeteries were shielded against desecrators by ethnic Albanians themselves, because they knew that the graves of their own ancestors lay there.
In the late 18th century, all the people of Gora, the mountain region near Prizren were converted to Islam. However they succeeded in preserving their language and avoiding Albanization. There were also some cases of conversion of Serbs to Islam in the second half of 19th century, especially during the Crimean War, again to save their lives, honor and property, though far more pronounced at the time was the process of emigration, since families, sometimes even entire villages, fled to Serbia or Montenegro. Extensive anthropogeographic research indicates that about 30% of the present-day ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo and Metohia is of Serbian origin.
Join the debate on our Twitter Timeline!