INTERNATIONAL SYMPOSIUM ON ISLAMIC CIVILISATION IN THE BALKANS, 2000

International Symposium on Islamic Civilisation in the Balkans, organised jointly by the following institutions: IRCICA (Istanbul); the Institute of Higher Islamic Studies (Sofia); the Institute for Balkan Studies of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (Sofia); the Center for Oriental Languages and Cultures of Sofia University; the St. St. Cyril and Methodius National Library Sofia); İSAR Foundation (Istanbul), and the International Centre for Minority Studies and Intercultural Relations (IMIR, Sofia), Sofia, Bulgaria, 21-23 April 2000


An international symposium on Islamic Civilisation in the Balkans took place on 21-23 April 2000 in Sofia, Bulgaria. The symposium was organised jointly by the following institutions: IRCICA (Istanbul); the Institute of Higher Islamic Studies (Sofia); the Institute for Balkan Studies of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (Sofia); the Center for Oriental Languages and Cultures of Sofia University; the St. St. Cyril and Methodius National Library Sofia); İSAR Foundation (Istanbul), and the International Centre for Minority Studies and Intercultural Relations (IMIR, Sofia). The symposium was the first of its kind to be held in Bulgaria and in the Balkan region at large. It aroused interest in the public opinion as well as in the academic community in and around the region. A total of eighty-six papers were presented; there were more than one hundred and twenty participants, from the following countries: Albania, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, Kosovo, Macedonia, Romania, Turkey and Yugoslavia.

It is hoped that the results of the symposium will contribute in opening new avenues for studies in regional histories in general and Islamic studies in particular. Within the framework of IRCICA’s work plans, it was the first of a series of scholarly events to focus on Islamic civilisation in the Balkans and other regions outside of the OIC Member States and to be conducted parallel to the ongoing series on the history of Islamic civilisation in various regions of the Muslim world.

Opening the inaugural ceremony of the symposium in the prestigious Aula Magma hall of Sofia University, Prof. Dr. Phil. Alexander Fedetoff, Director of the Center for Oriental Languages and Cultures, Sofia University "Saint Kliment Ohridski", pointed out that this was the first significant scholarly forum convened in the Balkans with the participation of representatives from most Balkan countries along with scholars from other European countries. Prof. Fedetoff said "The Islamic civilisation in its entire polyphony is in the focus of all participants: from history and diplomacy to the hand-written works and the architecture. As a part of the world spiritual and material heritage, the Islamic history, art and culture represent an important object of the research works that are carried out in many international and national institutions. It is for the first time that scholars from our region have gathered to talk about their scientific achievements in the field of the Islamic civilisation and to discuss its most topical issues."

The message sent by H.E. Mr. Todor Kavaldzhiev, Vice-President of the Republic of Bulgaria, to the symposium was read. The message of Mr. Kavaldzhiev was as follows: "I congratulate you on your brave initiative. In the course of many centuries, different cultures coexisted and developed in the Balkans. Writers, poets, artists and architects have enriched the golden fund of different civilizations. When devastating religious wars were conducted in Western Europe and the idea of mutual coexistence among the different religions did not even exist, it had been part of the life in the Balkans. This age-old tradition of ethnic and religious tolerance shown by our people proved to be invaluable capital during the last ten years. Against the background of the tragic events in Bosnia and Kosovo, regardless of the terrible heritage from the so called ‘revival process’, ethnic peace was preserved in Bulgaria. But we are obliged to make one more step. During the forthcoming millenium the mutual tolerance will be an obligatory but not a sufficient condition for our common prosperity. We, the representatives of the different ethnoses and religions should learn more about each other. We should comprehend that each success in the field of culture is our common success. I wish the Symposium organizers every success in their noble initiative."

The ceremony heard the addresses of Prof. Dr. Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, IRCICA Director General and Chairman of the Organising Committee, Prof. Dr. Phil. Maya Pencheva, Vice-Rector of Sofia University, Mrs. Maria Rusinova, Chief Secretary of the Ministry of Culture of Bulgaria, Prof. Dr. Agop Garabedyan, Director of the Institute for Balkan Studies of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ibrahim Yalimov, Director of the Institute of Higher Islamic Studies, and Dr. Antonina Zhelyezkova, Chair of the Board of Directors of IMIR. The audience included some heads and members of diplomatic missions, Muftis-religious representatives of the Muslim community, guests from academic and cultural circles, and the participants in the symposium. Addressing the ceremony, Prof. İhsanoğlu said that the symposium resulted from the fruitful collaboration existing between IRCICA and cultural institutions of Bulgaria and that it represented the victory of good intentions and collective academic efforts. He pointed out that for the greater part of the twentieth century, some sources of information on the Islamic component of the region’s history had remained closed to scholarly access until a new impulse came from the developments in international relations during the 1990s. He said that in the present era of growing interdependence between peoples, cross-cultural and inter-religious academic research can strengthen their affinities by uncovering the common legacy of their historical interactions.

Speaking on behalf of the Rector of Sofia University Professor Boyan Biolchev, Prof. Maya Pencheva, Vice-Rector of Sofia University, said that the Balkans have been the cradle of two of the greatest religions and cultures: Christianity and Islam, which lived together for many centuries. "The rich cultural heritage that we all cherish today speaks of the wisdom of our predecessors, of the values handed down from generation to generation. It is deeply symbolic that we are opening this symposium, dedicated to civilisation and culture, in the oldest and most prestigious university in Bulgaria. This temple of culture and knowledge is the right place to convey an important message - there are some human, moral and cultural values that are intransigent and knowledge and education can teach us how to preserve them and how to use them."

Mrs. Maria Rusinova, Chief Secretary of the Ministry of Culture, underlined that the convening of the symposium showed the acknowledgement, tolerance and goodwill marking her country’s attitude towards its Muslim population and the other communities, and that it was also an acknowledgement to the Bulgarian scholars, historians, specialists in Ottoman and Arabic studies, ethnologists and ethnographers, researchers of the Muslim culture in the broadest sense. She said "An old maxim says that a common home can be built with wisdom and it can be preserved with common sense. Culture, as well as the historical heritage that we have from the previous generations and which we have to pass on to the future generations, have always been a common home both for people and mankind. Keeping to the good traditions and the goodwill for mutual acquaintance, rapprochement and beneficial cooperation we shall be able to develop our common activities and our common interrelations."

Then, Prof. Dr. Agop Garabedyan, Director of the Institute for Balkan Studies, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, indicated that "The topic of the symposium presupposes namely to study what Islam has brought to the Balkans, what it found and adopted here. It is an unquestionable fact that here Islam displays itself in a specific syncretic culture that originated on the basis of the Islamic religious complex but with a strong influence on the local Christian culture. Dozens of ethnoses and confessional groups that have been included in the Ottoman State preserve their specific moral and value system, their ethnic identity and cultural specificity. This is what determines the specificity of the Islam religion and culture in the Balkans. I believe that the symposium will contribute for clarifying these peculiarities of the Balkan variant of Islamic civilisation and will make it possible to discover the contribution of the local population to its development."

The Director of the Institute of Higher Islamic Studies Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ibrahim Yalimov expressed his conviction that the symposium would bring into focus new research issues and most probably draw the attention of researchers towards the Islamic culture. He emphasised that as a result of their age-old coexistence in the Balkans and Southeast Europe, the Islamic- Eastern- culture and the Western culture mutually penetrated and influenced each other, acquiring specific and unique features.

Dr. Antonina Zhelyezkova, Chair of the Board of Directors, International Center for Minority Studies and Intercultural Relations, said that the fact that Sofia was chosen to be the venue for this big research forum was significant as a recognition for the tolerant attitude of the Bulgarians and the Bulgarian institutions during the past ten years towards the Muslim community and the Islamic monuments of the material and spiritual culture in Bulgaria.

Prof. Dr. Machiel Kiel, faculty member of Utrecht University (The Netherlands), a scholar known for his studies on Islamic cultural heritage in the Balkans, delivered the keynote address of the symposium entitled "Looking backward, looking forward. Eight decades of Ottoman studies in South-eastern Europe". After an overview of the centuries of Ottoman rule in the Balkans and the socialist regime during the twentieth century, Prof. Kiel said "Now we are almost a century after the disappearance of the old empire and the promised paradise has yet not come. What it brought was death, expulsion, mass destruction of monuments of the culture of the ‘other,’ and oppression of the free spirit of man in various degrees of intensity. Parallel these developments, however, in all parts of the countries involved, we saw independent-minded people searching for that past ‘as it really had been,’ searching for a more varied story than that offered by the official national ideology. We see this process at work in all countries, where pioneers were digging deep to find the truth." He then quoted a number of authors for their evaluations of the Ottoman period with respect to its civilisational, cultural and artistic performance, describing the various approaches adopted in the study of the theme. Prof. Kiel went on to present an extensive survey of contemporary literature produced on Islamic history and culture in the Balkans and scholarly activities carried out by institutons of the region.

Following the inauguration, the guests attended an exhibition of documents relating to Islamic culture at the National Library. The working sessions of the symposium were held at Princess Hotel, Sofia, in two parallel sessions for two days. The papers focused on a wide spectrum of subjects within the broad theme including religion, multiculturality, sects, sufism, charitable foundations, art, architecture and monuments, infrastructure, urban settlements, educational establishments, language and literature, libraries and archives. Lively discussions were held on the paper topics and also on the written and architectural assets of Islamic heritage in general, as to their present state, availability of archive sources relating to them and the need for their preservation.

The closing session was an opportunity to evaluate the symposium results. The participants decided to organise similar symposia periodically in different Balkan countries and to hold the next one in Tirana, Albania. Furthermore, taking note of the destruction, recently, of the Imaret Mosque in Ohrid, Macedonia, a monument dating from the 15th century and located in a complex containing cultural layers from several periods, the symposium participants issued a Declaration to the Ministry of Culture of Macedonia demanding that the relevant institutions in Macedonia engage in finding an adequate way of marking the site of the monument, or reconstruct it on another site, and that no similar acts of destroying monuments of culture be committed in future.

The co-organisers of the symposium are all known for their serious contributions to Oriental Studies. Among them, the International Center for Minority Studies and Intercultural Relations, within the series of its publications, published two specialised volumes on Islam and Culture in the Balkans. As to the National Library, it possesses one of the richest archival book stocks in Ottoman and Arabic languages as well as an imposing collection of about 3800 manuscripts in Arabic, Turkish and Persian languages.

Papers of the symposium were published in two volumes under the title Proceedings of the International Symposium on Islamic Civilisation in the Balkans.