Slavs came to the area in the 6th or 7th century AD, although they did not penetrate the strongholds of Northern Albania. When Ottoman armies expanded into Europe in the late 14th  century, cities like Belgrade and Skopje lay directly in their path as they drove northward. The inhabitants of these cities and the plains around them were directly affected by Ottoman occupation and rule. Western Macedonia, Northern Albania and Montenegro were harder to enter and of smaller strategic and economic significance for the empire, so local leaders and groups were able to preserve greater autonomy.

The Croats are believed to be a Slavic people who migrated from Ukraine and settled in present-day Croatia during the 6th century. After a period of self-rule and the establishment of an independent kingdom, Croatians agreed to the Pacta Conventa in 1091, submitting themselves to Hungarian authority. By the mid-1400s, concerns over Ottoman expansion led the Croatian Assembly to invite the Habsburgs, under Archduke Ferdinand, to assume control over Croatia. Habsburg rule proved successful in thwarting the Ottomans, and by the 18th century, much of Croatia was free of Turkish control.

Early history of southeastern Europe

From 326 until its fall in 1453, Byzantium (or the Eastern Roman Empire) was a leading influence in the southern Balkans. Under Byzantine rule, the demography of the Balkans significantly changed, as major groups of peoples made their way there from the north and the east:

The Slav migrations of the sixth and seventh centuries brought people south from the territory of modern Russia. They settled in lands that were thinly populated.

In the second half of the seventh century the Bulgars, a people related to the Tatars, swept into the region from central Asia.

Religious, cultural and political forces vie for supremacy

A major religious schism developed between the Latin Christian church in the north and west of the Balkans, and the Greek Christian Church in the south and east.

Different Slavic-speaking kingdoms emerged, to be absorbed or overcome by neighboring powers. These included:

  • A Bulgar kingdom, reaching its height in the ninth and tenth centuries under King Simeon before its defeat by Byzantium.
  • A Croatian kingdom that fell under Hungarian control after the death of King Zvonimir in 1089.
  • A Serbian kingdom established by Stefan Nemanja in the thirteenth century, while his brother, St. Sava, became head of an autonomous Serbian Church. The kingdom reached its height in the mid-fourteenth century under Stefan Dushan, who made his capital in Prizren. Many of the monasteries and churches in Kosovo were built during this period.

In the territory of modern Albania, a tribal system of interlinked clans persisted in the northern mountains.A similar system also survived in Montenegro, and in both places clan loyalty was more significant than religious affiliation.

Along the coast and in the south cities and towns pledged religious alliance to either the Latin or Greek church. Different Serbian kingdoms nominally occupied these areas, but these occupations were generally of short duration and left little trace.

By the twelfth century the Seljuk Turks had thrust deep into the Byzantine heartland of Asia Minor. Byzantium looked to the Crusades, launched from the West to reclaim the Holy Land, for assistance. But Byzantine hopes were betrayed when in 1204 the Fourth Crusade sacked Byzantium, destroying its capacity to resist the Turks.

Ottoman hegemony and legacy

The armies of the Ottoman Empire continued their advance, reducing the Byzantine Empire to the size of one city, Constantinople, and sweeping on into the Balkans. Key dates in its advance were as follows:

Date Event
1389 Defeat of an alliance of Christian Serbs and Albanians in the battle of Kosovo field.
1453 Capture of Constantinople, or Byzantium, and establishment of rule over southern Balkans.
1529 First siege of Vienna by Ottomans turned back by Habsburg Austria.
1571 Defeat of Ottoman fleet by the Holy League (Spain, Venice, Genoa and the Papal States) at Lepanto, preventing westward advance.
1683 Second Ottoman assault on Vienna failed, marking high-water mark of Ottoman expansion.
1690-99 Austrian, Russian and Venetian counterattacks, including the temporary recapture of Belgrade.
1699 Treaty of Karlowitz, where Ottomans surrendered control of inland Croatia.


Resistance on its frontiers

In Albania, George Kastrioti, or Skanderbeg, established a kingdom that kept the Ottoman armies at bay for fifteen years until his death in 1468.

In mountainous Montenegro and in northern Albania, the inhabitants maintained a degree of local autonomy. In Montenegro, the bishop-princes of Cetinje provided leadership.

Serbian religious leaders supported the Austrian offensive in the 1680s. When Ottoman forces recaptured Belgrade, the Serb patriarch led almost a quarter of a million Serbs into exile in Habsburg territory, where they settled in the Krajina, in modern Croatia.

Religion and order

The empire permitted the practice of religions other than Islam and relied on the cooperation of religious leaders to maintain order. Individuals were nonetheless encouraged or coerced to convert. One example was the devshirme, or child-tax, by which young Christian boys were recruited into the Ottoman army or civil service. More voluntary widespread conversion to Islam occurred only among the Northern Albanians after the defeat of Skanderbeg, and the Slav-speaking population of Bosnia, where neither Catholic nor Orthodox churches had acquired a firm hold.

Ottoman decline
Date Event
1832 Greek war of independence.  Greek sovereignty formalized.
1862 A united autonomous Romanian state is established.
1877-1878 Russo-Turkish war.  Treaty of San Stefano recognizes Romanian and Serbian independence, and establishment of autonomous Bulgarian principality under nominal Ottoman protection. Austria-Hungary occupies Bosnia.
1885 Eastern Rumelia comes under Bulgarian jurisdiction.
1908 Bulgaria gains full independence.
1908 Austria-Hungary annexes Bosnia.
Nationalism and the fall of Empires
Ottoman borders 1699-1912 © USIP

Ottoman borders 1699-1912 © USIP

The concerted efforts of Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro in the First Balkan War of 1912 ended Ottoman rule in the Balkans.

The allies fell out over the division of the spoils, precipitating a Second Balkan War, in which Bulgaria was defeated by Greece, Serbia and Romania. In 1913 the international community stepped in to draw new borders across the old territory of Turkey-in-Europe:

  • An Albanian state was created
  • Montenegro grew
  • Greece and Serbia each took significant swathes of territory
  • Bulgaria lost territory to Romania in its north, and gained a thin slice of territory in Macedonia, site of its most central ambition.