The world "Balkan" is not a distinctive term, being applied by the Bulgarians, as well as the Turks, to all mountains. The whole of southeastern Europe, the lands in which dwell Hungarians, Croatians, Dalmatians, Servians, Rumanians, Bulgarians, Montenegrins, Greeks, and European Turks, had at one time or another, for longer or shorter periods, been under the sway of the Ottoman Turks, and had therefore for those periods been styled, politically, Turkey in Europe.
Balkan peninsula is a convenient geographical term applied to the easternmost of the three great peninsulas of southern Europe, of which the others are the Pyrenean or Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal), and the Apennine Peninsula (Italy). In all three cases the names are derived from mountain ranges. But whereas the Pyrenees and Apennines separate their respective peninsulas from central Europe, the Balkan range offers no such distinctive geographical division. The Balkans are a continuation of the Carpathians, pierced by the Danube at the Iron gate, where the frontiers of Hungary, Serbia and Rumania meet.
Extending from the river Timoltf (Serbia) in the west through the heart of Bulgaria to the Black Sea, a distance of 375 miles, the Balkans form a line of demarcation for less than half of the northern limits of the peninsula. Assuming that rivers also form a natural boundary, the Balkan Peninsula ends on the right bank of the Danube and its tributaries, the Save and the Una; its western limit is near Fiume on the Adriatic, extending down the Ionian Sea to Cape Matapan; on the east it is bounded by the AEgean Sea, the Sea of Marmora and the Black Sea, and by the Mediterranean in the south. Though popularly included within this area, Rumania is not, strictly speaking, a Balkan state.
No other district in Europe is so richly provided as the Balkan Peninsula with gulfs and excellent harbors of commercial and naval strategic value. An archipelago of numberless islands, the Cyclades and Sporades of ancient fame, forms a continuous bridge between the Balkan Peninsula and Asia Minor. The Black Sea is connected with the Sea of Marmora through the Bosphorus, a channel about 20 miles long, and so narrow that Constantinople, at the southwest extremity of the Thracian Bosphorus, is but one mile distant from the Asiatic city of Scutari, eastward across the Bosphorus. The Sea of Marmora is linked with the AEgean by the Dardanelles with an average width of between three and four miles.
The Balkan Mountains extend in a varied formation from the Adriatic to the Euxine, breaking up in their advance eastward into several parallel chains with many more or less strong spurs north and south; several ranges extend southward almost to the ^Egean: the Perim Dagh and the ancient Rhodope Mountains of Despoto Dagh. They are frequently broken by defiles or passes of different degrees of serviceableness as routes. The principal passes are the Nadir-Derbend, Karnabad, the Basardshik-Sophia, the Trajan, Rosalitha and Shipka.
The principal range of the Balkans is thus divided into several sections, like the Etropol, Khoja and Shipka Balkans, and formed the boundary between Bulgaria and Rumelia before the two were united. The main elevation of the chain is from 4,000 to 5,000 feet, but it rises much higher in various parts, the loftiest elevation of 9,700 feet above sealevel being reached by Mount Scardus in the Char Dagh.
There is hardly any country in the world inhabited by such a number of different peoples as the Balkan Peninsula. Surviving there are all the peoples recorded at the beginning of history, with their national languages and distinct national consciousness. They do not form, however, the whole people, or even the great majority of their particular people in any one district, but are intermingled and live side by side, without ever blending together, so that the process of disentangling their various and conflicting aspirations, tendencies and national as well as religious distinctions, is well-nigh impossible. The majority are Slavs, comprising the Bulgarians in the east and center, the Serbs and Croats in the west, and, in the extreme northwest, between Trieste and Laibach, the Slovenes; these compose the southern branch of the Slavonic race. The other inhabitants of the peninsula are the Albanians in the west, the Greeks in the south, the Turks in the southeast and the Rumanians to the north. In southern Bulgaria (ancient Thrace) and Macedonia, there may be found a Greek, a Bulgarian, a Turkish, an Albanian village, side by side.
The Ottoman empire continued to grow in territory and splendor, attaining the zenith of its glory in the reign of Suliman the Magnificent (1520-66). At the battle of Mohacs (1526) he conquered Hungary, and three years later stood at the gates of Vienna. It was at Mohacs again that the tables were reversed161 years later against Suliman II by the Austrians under Charles of Lorraine. The 19th century witnessed remarkable political changes in that stormy region. By a course of wars, revolutions, brigandage and appalling atrocities the grip of the Turk was gradually loosened through the intervention of the powers.
Geographically considered, the territories of these peoples are comprised in the Balkans or the Balkan peninsula, a broad and comprehensive designation, which, though loose, is historically very useful. As time is measured in history these great domains were very recently under an Asiatic despotism and display throughout their extent certain surviving characteristics of its disastrous sway. The southeastern portion of Europe is thus an ethnological museum.
The Balkan Peninsula has played a tremendous part in the world's history, and has well earned the various uncomplimentary titles applied to it, such as the "slaughterhouse," the "cock-pit," the "bug-bear" and the "powder magazine" of Europe. For many centuries not a year passed without bloodshed somewhere on its soil. The scene of many brilliant exploits and unexcelled horrors, it arrayed nation against nation, caused innumerable wars and was finally to be the cradle of one of the greatest conflicts of all time.
The great hobby of the Balkans is to bad-mouth neighbors. Visitors are welcomed in each country with warm hospitality and the warning to be careful if they must visit other Balkan lands, for people aren't so nice there. West Europeans talked about Europe but did not define the Balkans as part of Europe. Comically, in the early 1990s the Macedonian and Albanian parliaments debated whether to join NATO, as if NATO wanted them.
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