Andreas Guidi is a Ph.D. candidate at Humboldt University in Berlin and the EHESS in Paris. His research focuses on generations, youth and the transmission of capital in late and post-Ottoman Rhodes. He is the creator and editor of The Southeast Passage.
Oftentimes, toponyms are more suggestive than the places they denote. Years ago, when I spotted the villages of Islam Latinski (i.e. “Catholic”) and Islam Grčki (i.e. “Orthodox”) on a map of the surroundings of Zadar, an impelling curiosity for such bizarre names hit me and changed my perception of the area I was visiting as a tourist-researcher.
Actually, a voyager exploring Dalmatia is likely to move along the coastal route, attracted like a magnet by the serene splendor of the Riviera, the pristine skyline of the adjacent islands and the gentle warmth of the limestone streets and churches in towns like Zadar, Trogir, and Šibenik. Behind this well-known suggestive scenery, lies the lowlands area called Ravni Kotari, a scarcely inhabited, fertile but not intensively cultivated basin. It’s safe to say that you need a good reason to plan a detour there and leave the seaside behind.
For me, this reason was the effort to make sense of the very existence of the twin Islam villages in a place that I looked at as the proverbial “middle of nowhere”. Here is the account of what I have seen, and not seen, there. The historical intermezzo should not fill with an arbitrary rationale the absence I have perceived. Rather, it should become an ode to the phantomic power of historical names, stranded leftovers that resist even when nobody would claim them.
I take a bus from Zadar in the early afternoon. Along the 20 Km of provincial road heading northeast, my view dives into the vastness of the green plain dotted with houses, framed by the Velebit Massive standing like a mighty bare curtain on the horizon, and the heaviness of the exceptionally sullen summer sky.
The plain of Ravni Kotari, with the Velebit Massive and the Novigrad Sea in the background
I get off the bus at a crossroad where the driver does not expect anyone to request a stop, walk down a silent road followed only by dogs barking in the distance, pass the bridge on the brand new looking E71 motorway, and finally arrive at Islam Latinski. Some dozens of houses stand along the main road and some side alleys, a semi-abandoned football pitch and a small supermarket seem to be the only sites of everyday socialization around. Actually, walking further I notice a quite simple church, the gate is open, but the door is shut. The sky is even more grey because of a diffuse haze, someone is burning tyres not far from here.
Football pitch at the entrance of Islam Latinski
St. Nicholas Catholic Church, with bell tower and graveyard
The atmosphere is dull in the village, some residents talk to each other, each in the own garden, where the lawn looks freshly mown. I move on along the main road at a steady pace, exchange rapid looks with car drivers coming from the opposite direction who look at me perplexedly, and a few words with an old lady sitting under a plum tree. The houses are now again more far from each other, some are still unfinished, with brand new doors and windows but bare bricks and lime all over. At the end of the village, a few steps from a Croatian flag waving on top of a 10 meters pole, I find the road sign I was looking for since the beginning. I leave Islam Latinski and enter Islam Grčki.
The “border” between the two villages
Detail from an Austrian map of Northern Dalmatia, 1804. Only one village named “Islan” is visible (Charles University Archives, Prague)
The two settlements are located at the westernmost portion of land occupied by the Ottoman Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries. The original name was Sadd-i Islam, which can be translated as “the wall of Islam”. This suggestive name shall be contextualized in the setting of the so called Triplex Confinium, the borderland where, throughout the Early Modern Period, the Ottoman Empire the Habsburg Monarchy and the Venetian Republic collided. It was not only an area often affected by pillage and violence for the conquest of land, but also a unique setting for diplomacy, trade, and cultural encounters.
This also favored the rise of local lords who brokered among the powers to offer contingents of soldiers and defense of land. The most important in the case of the Ravni Kotari area is surely Stojan Janković, a Morlach (Dalmatian Vlach) leader who built a fort that still exists today. The Kula Jankovića, property of the Desnica family – to whom important politicians and the 20th century writer Vladan belonged – has been recently restored and hosts cultural events during summer months.
The Kula Jankovića
Contrary to that, today no sign of Ottoman or Muslim presence can be found in the twin Islam villages. No ruined mosques or hammams, no forgotten janissaries tombstones, no fountains or wells. The Orientalist in me is disappointed, the charm of abandoned materiality leaves the stage to surviving etymology. I compensate by thinking that, at least, the name Islam remained as a “neutral” marker that seemed to justify the coexistence of an Orthodox and a Catholic section next to each other. Most of the Slavic and Morlach peasants who came to inhabit this area during and after the Ottoman presence were Orthodox or Catholic, and it seems that they respectively gravitated around the Church of Saint George and Saint Nicholas, some 3 Km away from each other. Interestingly, anyways, the toponym rarely appears in European maps from the 18th and 19th centuries.
St. George Orthodox Church, next to the Kula Jankovića
The thin empty space that separates the two villages seems to reflect on a smaller scale the relevance of successive borders in the region. In fact, after the fall of the Republic of Venice, and with the brief parenthesis of the Illyrian Republic established by Napoleon (1805-1815), the surrounding territory became a Duplex Confinium between Habsburg Dalmatia and Ottoman Bosnia. During the Habsburg occupation, later annexation, of Bosnia and Herzegovina (1878-1918), the border disappeared, only to reemerge in 1920 when the Treaty of Rapallo separated the urban area of Zadar, annexed by Italy, from its hinterland. After a particularly violent warfare under Italian and Croatian Fascist occupation in WWII, in 1945 the borderland territory became again unified by Socialist Yugoslavia. However, in the 1990s this western portion of the broader Krajina region was one of the main theatres of massacres, deportations, rape, and destruction in the conflict that followed the collapse of Yugoslavia. In August 1995, the Croatian army broke through the frontline held by the army of the Serbs of Krajina and of Bosnia in the framework of the Operation Storm, an event that has irreversibly changed the human landscape of the villages.
As soon as I step into Islam Grčki, this latest chapter of the region’s troubled history comes to my mind more vivid and, at the same time, desolate than ever. In front of me stands a ghost town in ruins. Most houses were burnt in January 1993, and episodes of violence lasting months caused several dozens of victims, while hundreds of residents were forced to flee. As I walk alone through its remains, my thoughts slow down and almost fade out, yielding to the sensibility of the eyes searching for a past still alive. In vain.
Ruined buildings in Islam Grčki
In the 2000s, some efforts were made to facilitate the return of Serbian refugees to their hometowns in Croatia. In 2010 the Croatian President Ivo Josipović visited Islam Grčki and met some of the few returnees, regretting at the same time that harassment and intolerance were still enduring. This reminds us that social pressure originating from everyday contact, and built along ethno-confessional markers, operates on a deeper level than laws and international rapprochement agreements.
Concerning Southeast Europe, the violence in Crete at the end of the 19th century, the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, the Armenian Genocide, the Greek-Turkish war of 1919-1922, the multilateral massacres in Yugoslavia during WWII, the Cyprus crisis during the Cold War, the conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia and Kosovo, all reveal a pattern of neutralization of difference and coexistence that has resulted in forced displacement and ethnic cleansing for the sake of reaching national homogeneity. Yet, there is nothing peculiar and predetermined in this region which enables such modes and degrees of violence in the long term. On the contrary, violence against a collectivity targeted as incompatible with the space it inhabited has broken out in the 20th and 21st century to an even greater extent both in Western Europe and other continents.
Islam Grčki and Islam Latinski, with their burnt or renewed houses shall not be considered the stigmata of an alleged predestination toward violence in the Balkans. However, reflecting on this places’ name or visiting the villages, does not either bring back a past that has vanished. The fascination I feel for abandoned places can do nothing in front of rubbles of grey concrete. The empathy I feel for a half-cancelled painting in an empty religious building can do nothing compared to the names of the former owners of these ruins painted in red. In other words, this is a loss without charm, a loss that cannot be romanticized and processed through a naïve nostalgia.
As I arrive at the limits of Islam Grčki, I turn and walk back along the same road, while a light rain starts to fall. I feel an impelling need for speaking with someone, even a simple “dobar dan” would do. Dogs bark, cars pass by. The woman I met at Islam Latinski is still sitting under the plum tree. She might wonder how and why I ended up here, and smiles at me. A moment of relief. “Doviđenja” – farewell – she utters gently.