Myths of the 19-20th cent.: Macedonians or Greeks, Bulgarians?

Modern historyMyths of the 19-20th cent.: Macedonians or Greeks, Bulgarians?

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In the process of denying the Macedonians and Macedonian identity, the propaganda of the Greeks and Bulgarians uses statistics from the Ottoman Empire at the time of the occupation of Macedonia to argue there was no Macedonian ethnicity in Macedonia at that time.

And indeed, at first glance, in the majority of such statistics, one does not find any “branch” Macedonians.

This does not mean, however, that no Macedonian ethnic group existed, because as we will prove in a moment, the terms “Bulgarian” and “Greek” as well as “Albanians” in the Ottoman Empire are not terms that denote an ethnic group or even nationality, but much more definitions for “socio-cultural” groups, in many cases religious affiliation also played an important role in this definition.

Under the administration of the Ottoman occupiers, the geographic and ethnological area of Macedonia was divided into three units “Vilayets”, the Monastir Vilayet, the Salonica Vilayet and the Kosovo Vilayet.

All these units are also called Macedonian Vilayets, the latter Vilayet also including areas of Kosovo, Serbia, and Montenegro. Skopje, then called Üsküb by the Ottomans, functioned as the administrative center of the Kosovo Vilayet and this justified the designation as the Macedonian Vilayet for most.

According to the study by the Turkish academic S. Mutlu: LATE OTTOMAN POPULATION AND ITS ETHNIC DISTRIBUTION, censuses of the population structure in the Ottoman Empire took place throughout the empire from 1830/31 to 1919. (Note: Macedonia and the Vilayets were torn from the Ottoman borders in 1913 and autumn 1912 respectively).

Initial censuses only included male citizens, due to military needs. Later statistics also included wealth,because of taxation. The female population was later included in the statistics, and the fact that is important for this article, religious affiliation and/or linguistic characteristics.

However, none of these statistics included data based on the nationality or ethnicity of the population. But exactly this is what the Greek as well as the Bulgarian propaganda wants to explain with such statistics that in Macedonia there was only a “Greek” and “Bulgarian” nation, but no Macedonian one!

Thus, on pages 7 and 8 of his study, Mutlu invalidates the statistics regarding such assumptions:

“The census report contains statistical data by sandjak and vilayet on the sex and religious distribution of the population.”

“…contains statistical data by sandjak and vilayet on the religious or linguistic make up of the population without going into its distribution by sex.”

On page 7, the census of 1905/6 is also explained, which is particularly popular in the propaganda of our neighbors because it also directly affects Macedonia:

A second census, the last one in the Ottoman era, was carried out in 1905/6. From an undated memorandum of circa 1893 it appears that the Ottoman officials were not satisfied with the results of the earlier census, as much as population in some areas like Iraq and Arabian Peninsula were either undercounted or not counted at all. Furthermore nationalist struggles between Greeks, Serbians, Bulgarians and to a lesser extent Vlachs in Macedonia over the appointment of their conationals as heads of particular Christian communities and as priests of the local Orthodox Churches necessitated a census the results of which would be uncontested. The majority ethnic group in each locality would then be entitled to appoint the priest to the local church. In places with ethnic communities of equal size, each would appoint its own priest. The government planned to finish the census in three months and enlisted the cooperation and support of local ethnic communities. Each individual registered was to receive a tezakir-i osmaniye, a kind of identity card. The census report contains statistical data by sandjak and vilayet on the sex and religious distribution of the population.

Each (local) community was recorded in the statistics under the care of the church, through the appointment of a pastor as a link between the population and the administration. And this is where the distortion between ethnicity and church membership begins. The latter has been, and still is, used to define ethnicity. Thus the Greeks argue that all those included in the Ottoman census as belonging to the Greek Church are to be regarded as ethnic Greeks. The Bulgarians use the same argumentation for their propaganda, every member of the Bulgarian church thus has to be classified as an ethnic Bulgarian.

But even the simplest questions undermine this variant, what happened if “there was only one church in the village”? Be it one of the Greek or Bulgarian Orthodox Churches, did this automatically make all residents counted “Greeks” or “Bulgarians”?

These terms do not define ethnicity or nationality but describe socio-cultural categories!

In order to refute the arguments of the modern Greek and Bulgarian propaganda, we use some amount of literature in the following and will show that it is not possible to speak of an ethnically homogeneous “Greek” or “Bulgarian” group in Macedonia based on these data. Because, even the opinion of the terms “Greeks” and “Bulgarians” differed significantly from the Ottomans to this day, although we are of course aware of the meaning of the terms today and this should not be an issue at this point.

A definition for these designations was given by L.M. Danforth, in his work “The Macedonian Conflict: Ethnic Nationalism in a Transnational World”, which won the Senior Book Award of the American Ethnological Society, explains that these terms do not define ethnicity or nationality but describe “socio-cultural categories”.

At that time, merchants, traders or residents of urban communities were considered “Greeks”, peasants, simple villagers or the impoverished, uneducated population were called “Bulgarians”, shepherds were called “Vlachs” and “Albanians” were called mercenaries, soldiers or people with special military skills.

In other words, a “Bulgarian” could become anytime a “Greek” if he moved to an urban community, as described in Victor Roudometofs “Nationalism,Orthodoxy, and Globalization”:

The same situation is also summarized in “Hellenisms: culture, identity, and ethnicity from antiquity to modernity” by Katerina Zacharia and Dimitris Livianos:

Demetres Tziovas in “Greece and the Balkans” explains the ambiguity of these designations, because “Greek” could also refer to a person who stated that they belonged to the Greek Orthodox Church:

In the struggle for Macedonia in the turmoil of the first and second Balkan wars, propagandists used these numbers and tried to create an advantageous picture from them, at the expense of the Macedonian population and its history.

Every party created own numbers

According to the Ottoman population register, in these Vilayets lived about 1.1 million Muslims (Turks, Tatars, Albanians, Aromanians, Armenians, Pomaks, Gypsies, …), 500,000 Greek-Orthodox (Macedonian, Bulgarian or Greek-speaking citizens who adhere to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Athens), 700,000 Bulgarian-Orthodox (Macedonian, Bulgarian or Greek-speaking citizens who attributed themselves to the Bulgarian-Orthodox Exarchate of Sofia) and 80,000 non-believers (Christians and especially Jews).

Greek historiography, on the other hand, names 650,000 Greeks, 630,000 Muslims and 330,000 Bulgarians.

According to the Bulgarian view, 1,100,000 Bulgarians, 500,000 Muslims, 230,000 Greeks and 1000 Serbs lived in Macedonia at the same time.

According to the Serbian perspective, 2,000,000 Serbs, 230,000 Muslims, 200,000 Greeks and 57,000 Bulgarians lived in Macedonia.

Massive distortions can already be seen here, each party tried to exploit the statistical data for themselves. In the source for the quoted data under the section “From the Balkan Wars to the First World War” by Karin Boeckh, these facts are also refuted, with which modern anti-Macedonian propaganda tries to suppress everything Macedonian to a limited extent. The author wrote:

Ottoman censuses were collected not by ethnicity or language, but by religious affiliation.


Ottoman censuses did not record any ethnic groups, but groups primarily according to religious affiliation, and there are also statistics that define the population via language. The statistics do not show a nationality in today’s sense. Today a Greek is a Greek, a resident of Greece or a Greek citizen. At that time he was either a trader, merchant or townsman to be considered Greek, or he was Greek for statistical reasons because he declared his religious affiliation to be the Greek Orthodox Church.

Explanation using the Macedonian example:

The fact that no “ethnicity” or, as explained, a “socio-cultural group” with the designation Macedonian exists in these statistics of the Ottoman occupying power does not mean that outside of the mechanisms of the Ottomans there were no people who declared themselves as Macedonian, whether as an ethnicity, nationality or even as a socio-cultural group, is another question…

As an example, an argument every Macedonian should know, a 1917 report from the National Geographic Magazine, the author reports a meeting with an old woman on the “Monastir Road”:

“Neither Bulgar nor Serb,” said one such old woman, defiantly, … “I am Macedonian only and I am sick of war”!

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