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Fully Known Yet Wholly Unknowable: Orientalising the Balkans


The Balkan region has left scholars perplexed over its origin and definition, to which they have provided different answers. This challenge stems from the region’s long history; a history where civilisations met, collided, and even merged leading to a dynamic, multilayered region. However, one civilisation stuck with the Balkans centuries after its demise – the Ottoman Empire. This Ottoman legacy marked the Balkans as “the ‘other’ within” Europe at the turn of the nineteenth century when scholars and travel writers began to attach political connotations to the name. Being referred to as ‘Turkey-inEurope,’ the identity of the Balkans became premised on the dichotomy of East versus West, in which the Balkans represented the East – the Orient – purely because of its Ottoman history. It is for this reason that the Balkans, more than any other geographical appellation, conjure up pejorative connotations. So much so, that many tend to either avoid the term altogether – including the Balkan nation-states – or use an ostensibly neutral term like ‘South-east Europe’ to refer to the region. And so, the question remains: who are the Balkans?

This paper examines the ground between historical reality and Western imagination regarding the Balkans by focusing on Balkan identity as conflicted between East and West, and explores the extent to which Balkan scholarship has ‘Orientalised’ the region, whereupon the Balkan nation-states began to disassociate themselves from the Balkan label to appear more ‘European.’ The paper will argue it is because of this complexity – the divide between East and West – that the Balkan region is, paradoxically, fully known yet wholly unknowable: known to Europe, yet distant from it due to its Oriental past and tendencies.


Balkans, Orientalism, Europe, National identity, Islam



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