The territory of what is now the Republic of Serbia was part of the Ottoman Empire throughout the Early Modern period, especially Central Serbia, unlike Vojvodina which had passed to Habsburg rule starting from the end of the 17th century (with several takeovers of Central Serbia as well). Ottoman culture significantly influenced the region, in architecture, cuisine, language, and dress, especially in arts, and Islam.
In all Serbian lands conquered by the Ottomans, the native nobility was eliminated and the peasantry was enserfed to Ottoman rulers, while much of the clergy fled or were confined to the isolated monasteries. Under the Ottoman system, Serbs, as Christians, were considered an inferior class of people and subjected to heavy taxes, and a portion of the Serbian population experienced Islamisation. The Serbian Patriarchate of Pec was extinguished in 1463, but reestablished it in 1557, providing for limited continuation of Serbian cultural traditions within the Ottoman Empire, under the Millet system.
The Turks defeated the Serbian army in one crucial battle: on the banks of the river Maritsa in 1371, where the forces of Vukasin and Jovan Ugljesa Mrnjavcevic who ruled today’s Northern Macedonia were defeated, destroying any hope for a reunified Serbian Empire. From then on, Serbian state was on the defensive, and this war culminated in the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. This battle pitted Lazar of Serbia, Vuk Brankovic, and Vlatko Vukovic against the best troops of Sultan Murad I. Both Sultan Murad I and Prince Lazar lost their lives in this battle, which ended in an inconclusive bloodbath.
The Battle of Kosovo defined the long-term fate of Serbia, because now it had no force capable of standing up to the Turks directly. This was an unstable period marked by the rule of Prince Lazar’s son – Despot Stefan Lazarevic – a true European-style knight, a military leader, and a poet. Stefan was at first a vassal of Sultan Bayezid I, distinguishing himself in the battles of Nicopolis in 1396 and Ankara in 1402, later gaining independence after the Ottoman defeat. His cousin and heir Djuradj Brankovic moved the capital to the newly built fortified town of Smederevo.
The Turks continued their conquest until they finally seized all of northern Serbian territory in 1459 when Smederevo fell into their hands. The only free Serbian territories were parts of Bosnia and Zeta. After the fall of Principality of Zeta in 1496, Serbia was ruled by the Ottoman Empire for over three centuries. A Serbian principality under Hungarian protection was created after the fall of the Serbian Despotate by the Brankovic family (later other Serbian noblemen assumed the throne) in what is now Vojvodina, Slavonia, and Bosnia. The subordinate state spent its entirety fighting the Ottomans and represented the heritage of what was left of the Serbian Kingdom. It fell in 1540 when the Ottoman conquest of the Serbian lands, which lasted for over a century and a half of continuous warfare, was finally complete.
Hungary and Serbia
From the 14th century onward an increasing number of Serbs began migrating north to the region today known as Vojvodina, which was then under the rule of the Kingdom of Hungary. The Hungarian kings encouraged the immigration of Serbs to the kingdom, and hired many of them as soldiers and border guards. Therefore, the Serb population of this region highly increased. During the struggle between the Ottoman Empire and Hungary, this Serb population attempted a restoration of the Serbian state. In the battle of Mohac in 1526, Ottoman Turkey destroyed the army of the Hungarian-Bohemian king Louis Jagellion, after which Hungary ceased to be independent state, and much of its former territory became part of the Ottoman Empire.
Soon after the Battle of Mohac the leader of Serbian mercenaries in Hungary, Jovan Nenad, established his rule in Backa, northern Banat, and a small part of Srem (these three regions are now parts of Vojvodina). He created an independent state, with the city of Subotica as its capital. At the pitch of his power Jovan Nenad crowned himself in Subotica as the Serb emperor. Taking advantage of the extremely confused military and political situation, the Hungarian noblemen from the region joined forces against him and defeated the Serbian troops in the summer of 1527. Emperor Jovan Nenad was assassinated and his state collapsed.
Austria and Serbia
European powers, and Austria in particular, fought many wars against the Ottoman Empire, relying on the help of the Serbs that lived under Ottoman rule. During the Austro-Turkish War (1593–1606), in 1594, the Serbs staged an uprising in Banat, the Pannonian part of Turkey, which then formed part of the Ottoman Eyalet of Temeşvar (Timisioara), in the area around Vrsac. It was the largest uprising of Serbian people against Ottoman rule till date.
The rebellion had the character of a holy war, the Serb rebels carrying flags with the image of Saint Sava. Sinan Pasha, who led the Ottoman army, ordered the mortal remains of Saint Sava to be burned in Belgrade. Eventually, the uprising was crushed, and most of the Serbs from this region, fearing Ottoman retaliation, fled to Transylvania, leaving the Banat region deserted.
The Serbs created another centre of resistance in Herzegovina, but when peace was signed by Turkey and Austria, they were abandoned to Turkish retaliation. This sequence of events became usual in the centuries that followed.
The Great War between the Ottomans and the Holy League took place from 1683 to 1699. The Holy League was created with the sponsorship of the Pope and including Austria, Poland and Venice. These three powers incited the Serbs to rebel against the Ottoman authorities, and soon uprisings and guerrilla warfare spread throughout the western Balkans, ranging from Montenegro and the Dalmatian coast to the Danube basin and Old Serbia (Macedonia, Raska, Kosovo and Metohija). However, when the Austrians started to pull out of Serbia, they invited the Serbian people to come north with them to the Austrian territories. Having to choose between Ottoman reprisals and living in a Christian land, the Serbs abandoned their homesteads and headed north, led by patriarch Arsenije Carnojevic.
Another important episode in Serbian history took place in 1716–1718, when the Serbian ethnic territories ranging from Dalmatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina to Belgrade and the Danube basin became the battleground for a new Austrian-Ottoman war launched by Prince Eugene of Savoy. The Serbs sided once again with Austria. After a peace treaty was signed in Pozarevac, the Ottomans lost all their possessions in the Danube basin, as well as northern Serbia, northern Bosnia, and parts of Dalmatia and the Peloponnesus.
The last Austrian-Ottoman war was known as the Dubica War (1788–1791), when the Austrians urged the Christians in Bosnia to rebel. No wars were fought afterwards until the 20th century, which marked the fall of both mighty empires (by this time, Austria had become Austria-Hungary).
From 1718 until 1739 the country was known as Kingdom of Serbia (1718–1739). The fall of Habsburg Serbia was followed by new migrations of the Serbs from the Ottoman Empire into the Austrian Empire.
During the Austro-Turkish War (1787–1791), officer Koca Andjelkovic led a successful rebellion against the Ottomans with the help of Austria and again placed Serbia under the rule of the Habsburgs, the territory was known as Koca’s frontier. It ended with the Treaty of Sistova and the withdrawal of Austrians.
First Serbian Uprising
The withdrawal of the Austrians from Serbia in 1791 marked the end of the Kocina Krajina Serb rebellion, which was ignited by Austria in 1788. However Austria needed to settle the war and returned the Belgrade region to the Ottoman Empire. Despite guarantees that Austria had insisted on, many of the participants in the uprising and their families went into exile in Austria. Reforms made by the Porte to ease the pressure on Serbs were only temporary; by 1799 the Janissary corps have returned, suspended the Serb autonomy and drastically increased taxes, enforcing martial law in Serbia.
Serb leaders from both sides of the Danube began to conspire against the dahije, renegade Janissary commanders. When they found out, they rounded up and murdered tens of Serbian headmen on the main square of Valjevo in an event known today as the Slaughter of the Headmen in 1804.
The massacre outraged the Serbian people and incited the revolt across the Pashaluk of Belgrade. Within days, in the small Sumadija village of Orasac, the Serbs gathered to proclaim the uprising, electing Karadjordje Petrovic as the leader.
Initially fighting to restore their local privileges within the Ottoman system (until 1807), the revolutionaries – supported by the wealthy Serbian community from southern Austrian Empire (present-day Vojvodina) and Serb officers from Austrian Military Frontier – offered themselves to be placed under the protection of Habsburg , Russian and French Empires respectively, entering, as a new political factor, into the converging aspirations of the Great Powers during the Napoleonic wars in Europe.
Belgrade was made the seat of the Pashalik of Belgrade (also known as the Sanjak of Smederevo), and quickly became the second largest Ottoman town in Europe at over 100,000 people, surpassed only by Constantinople.
In 1788, during the Austro-Turkish War (1788–1791), Koca’s frontier rebellion saw eastern Sumadija occupied by Austrian Serbian Free Corps and hajduks, and subsequently most of the Sanjak of Smederevo was occupied by the Habsburg Monarchy (1788–91). From 15 September to 8 October 1789, a Habsburg Austrian force besieged the fortress of Belgrade. The Austrians held the city until 1791, when they handed Belgrade back to the Ottomans according to the terms of the Treaty of Sistova.
With the return of the sanjak to the Ottoman Empire the Serbs expected reprisals from the Turks due to their support of the Austrians. Sultan Selim III had given complete command of the Sanjak of Smederevo and Belgrade to battle-hardened Janissaries that had fought Christian forces during the Austro-Turkish War and many other conflicts. Although Selim III granted authority to the peace-inclined Hadzi Mustafa Pasha (1793), tensions between the Serbs and the Janissary command did not subside.
In 1793 and 1796 Selim III proclaimed firmans, which gave more rights to Serbs. Among other things, taxes were to be collected by the obor-knez (headmen); freedom of trade and religion were granted and there was peace. Selim III also decreed that some unpopular janissaries were to leave the Belgrade Pashaluk, as he saw them a threat to the central authority of Hadzi Mustafa Pasha. Many of those janissaries were employed by or found refuge with Osman Pazvantoğlu, a renegade opponent of Selim III in the Sanjak of Vidin. Fearing the dissolution of the Janissary command in the Sanjak of Smederevo, Osman Pazvantoğlu launched a series of raids against Serbs without the permission of the Sultan, causing much instability and fear in the region. Pazvantoğlu was defeated in 1793 by the Serbs at the Battle of Kolari. In the summer of 1797 the sultan appointed Mustafa Pasha to the position of beglerbeg of Rumelia Eyalet, who left Serbia for Plovdiv to fight against the Vidin rebels of Pazvantoğlu. During the absence of Mustafa Pasha, the forces of Pazvantoğlu captured Pozarevac and besieged the Belgrade fortress. At the end of November 1797 obor-knezes Aleksa Nenadovic, Ilija Bircanin and Nikola Grbovic from Valjevo brought their forces to Belgrade and forced the besieging janissary forces to retreat to Smederevo.
However, on January 30, 1799, Selim III allowed the Janissaries to return, referring to them as local Muslims from the Sanjak of Smederevo. Initially the Janissaries accepted the authority of Hadzi Mustafa Pasha, but later on decided to defy the Sultan. The Janissaries imposed a system of arbitrary abuse that was unmatched by anything similar in the entire history of Ottoman rule in the Balkans. They immediately suspended Serbian autonomy and drastically increased taxes, land was seized, forced labour was introduced and many Serbs fled the janissaries in fear.
The tyranny endured by the Serbs caused them to send a petition to the Sultan, which the dahije learned of. The dahije were concerned that the Sultan would make use of the Serbs to oust them. To forestall this they decided to execute leading Serbs throughout the sanjak, in an event known as the “Slaughter of the Knezes”, which took place in late January 1804.According to contemporary sources from Valjevo, the severed heads of the leaders were put on public display in the central square to serve as an example to those who might plot against the rule of the dahije. This enraged the Serbs, who led their families into the woods and started murdering the subaşi (village overseers).
Uprising against the Dahije
Following the Slaughter of the Knezes and building on the resentment towards the dahije who had rolled back privileges granted to the Serbs by Selim II, on 14 February 1804, in the small village of Orasac near Arandjelovac, leading Serbs gathered and decided to begin an uprising against the dahijas. They chose Djordje Petrovic, a merchant and a hajduk, to lead them, possibly because knezes were typically associated with peacetime cooperation with the Ottoman rulers. The Serbian forces quickly assumed control of Sumadija, reducing dahija control to just Belgrade. The government in Istanbul instructed the pashas of the neighbouring pashaliks not to assist the dahijas. The Serbs, at first technically fighting on the behalf of the Sultan against the janissaries, were encouraged and aided by the Ottoman cavalry corps. For their small numbers, the Serbs had great military successes, having taken Pozarevac, Sabac and charged Smederevo and Belgrade, in quick succession
The Sultan, who feared that the Serb movement might get out of hand, sent the former pasha of Belgrade, and now Vizier of Bosnia, Bekir Pasha, to officially assist the Serbs, but in reality to keep them under control. The janissary commander of Belgrade Alija Gusanac, faced by both Serbs and Imperial authority, decided to let Bekir Pasha into the city in July 1804.The dahije had previously fled east to Ada Kale, an island on the Danube. Bekir ordered the surrender of the dahije; meanwhile, Karadjordje sent his commander, Milenko Stojkovic, to the island. The dahije refused to surrender, upon which Stojkovic attacked and captured them, then had them beheaded, on the night of 5–6 August 1804.
After crushing the power of the dahijas, Bekir Pasha wanted the Serbs to be disbanded; however, since the janissaries still held important towns such as Uzice, the Serbs were unwilling to halt without guarantees. In May 1804, Serbian leaders under Djordje Petrovic met in Ostruznica to continue the uprising. Their goals were to seek the protection of Austria, to petition Sultan Selim III for greater autonomy, and to petition the Russian ambassador in Istanbul for Russian protection as well. Because of the recent Russo-Turkish friendship in light of France’s expanding influence, the Russian government until summer 1804 had a neutral policy toward the Serbian revolt. Indeed, at the beginning of the uprising when petitioned for aid in Montenegro, the Russian emissary to Cetinje declined to relay the message, instructing the Serbs to petition the Sultan. However, in summer 1804 following the Ostruznica assembly, the Russian government switched courses with the goal of having Istanbul recognize it as the guarantor of peace in the region.
Negotiations between the Serbs and the Ottomans were mediated by the Austrian governor of Slavonia, and began in May 1804. The Serbs demanded putting the Belgrade pashalik under the control of a Serbian knez, and giving him the power to collect taxes to be paid to Istanbul, along with further restrictions on janissaries. In 1805, negotiations broke down: the Porte could not accept a foreign power-guaranteed agreement, and the Serbs refused to lay down their arms. On 7 May 1805 the Porte issued a decree to disarm and rely on the regular Ottoman troops for protection against the dahijas, which was summarily ignored by the Serbs. Sultan Selim III ordered a military campaign against the uprising.
Uprising against the Ottomans
The first major battle was the Battle of Ivankovac in 1805, in which Karadjordje defeated the Turkish army and forced it to retreat toward Nis. In 1805 the Serbian rebels organized a basic government for administering Serbia during the combat. Rule was divided among the People’s Assembly, the Ruling Council and Karadjordje himself. Land was returned, forced labour was abolished and taxes were reduced. Apart from dispensing with a poll tax on non-Muslims, the revolutionaries also abolished all feudal obligations in 1806, the emancipation of peasants and serfs representing a major social break with the past.
The second major battle of the uprising was the Battle of Misar in 1806, in which the rebels defeated an Ottoman army from the Eyalet of Bosnia led by the Turkish Sipahi Suleiman-Pasa. At the same time the rebels, led by Petar Dobrnjac, defeated Osman Pazvantoğlu and another Ottoman army sent from the southeast at Deligrad.
In 1806 the insurgents sent Belgrade merchant Petar Icko as their envoy to the Ottoman government in Constantinople. He managed to obtain for them a favourable Icko’s Peace. However, the Serbian leaders rejected the treaty and possibly poisoned Icko due to his dealings with the Ottomans.
Serbian rebels then allied with the Russians in the Russo-Turkish War (1806–1812). The Battle of Deligrad in December 1806 provided a decisive victory for the Serbs and bolstered the morale of the outnumbered rebels. To avoid total defeat, Ibrahim Pasha negotiated a six-week truce with Karadjordje. By 1807 the demands for self-government within the Ottoman Empire evolved into a war for independence backed by the military support of the Russian Empire. Combining patriarchal peasant democracy with modern national goals, the Serbian revolution was attracting thousands of volunteers among Serbs from across the Balkans and Central Europe. The Serbian Revolution ultimately became a symbol of the nation-building process in the Balkans, provoking unrest among the Christians in both Greece and Bulgaria. Following a successful siege with 25,000 men, on 8 January 1807 Karadjordje proclaimed Belgrade the capital of Serbia.
In 1808 Selim III was executed by Mustafa IV, who was subsequently deposed by Mahmud II. In the midst of this political crisis, the Ottomans were willing to offer the Serbs a wide autonomy: however, the discussions led to no agreement between the two, as they could not agree on the exact boundaries of Serbia.
The Proclamation (1809) by Karadjordje in the capital of Belgrade probably represented the apex of the first phase. It called for national unity, drawing on Serbian history to demand freedom of religion and formal, written rule of law, both of which the Ottoman Empire had failed to provide. It called on Serbs to stop paying taxes to the Porte, deemed unfair as based on religious affiliation. Karadjordje now declared himself hereditary supreme leader of Serbia, although he agreed to act in cooperation with the governing council, which was to also be the supreme court. When the Ottoman-Russian War escalated in 1809, he was prepared to support Russia; the cooperation was, however, ineffective. Karadjordje launched a successful offensive in Novi Pazar, but Serbian forces were subsequently defeated at the Battle of Cegar.
In March 1809 Hurşid Paşa was sent to the Sanjak of Smederevo to put down the revolt. The diverse Ottoman force included vast numbers of soldiers from many nearby pashaliks (mostly from Albania and Bosnia). On 19 May 1809 3,000 rebels led by commander Stevan Sindjelic were attacked by a large Ottoman force on Cegar Hill, located close to the city of Nis. Owing to a lack of coordination between Serbian commanders, the reinforcement of other detachments failed, although the numerically superior Ottomans lost thousands of troops in several attacks against the Serb positions. Eventually the rebels were overwhelmed and their positions were overrun; not wishing for his men to be captured and impaled, Sindjelic fired into his entrenchments gun powder warehose resulting in an explosion that killed all the rebels and Ottoman troops in the vicinity. Afterward, Hurshid Pasha ordered that a tower be made from the skulls of Serbian revolutionaries. Once complete, the ten-foot-high Skull Tower contained 952 Serbian skulls embedded on four sides in 14 rows.
In July 1810 Russian troops arrived in Serbia for the second time and some military cooperation followed – weapons, ammunition and medical supplies were sent, and Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov participated in the planning of joint actions. The Russian assistance gave hope for a Serb victory.
In August 1809 an Ottoman army marched on Belgrade, prompting a mass exodus of people across the Danube, among them Russian envoy Radofinikin. Facing disaster, Karadjordje appealed to the Habsburgs and Napoleon, with no success. At this point the Serb rebels were on the defensive, their aim being to hold the territories and not make further gains. Russia, faced with a French invasion, wished to sign a definitive peace treaty, and acted against the interests of Serbia. The Serbs were never informed of the negotiations; they learned the final terms from the Ottomans. This second Russian withdrawal came at the height of Karadjordje’s personal power and the rise of Serb expectations. The negotiations that led to the Treaty of Bucharest (1812) contained Article 8, dealing with the Serbs. It was agreed that Serb fortifications were to be destroyed, unless of value to the Ottomans, pre-1804 Ottoman installations were to be reoccupied and garrisoned by Ottoman troops. In return the Porte promised general amnesty and certain autonomous rights. The Serbs were to control “the administration of their own affairs” and the collection and delivery of a fixed tribute. Reactions in Serbia were strong, the reoccupation of fortresses and cities was of particular concern and fearful reprisals were expected.
Some of the Uprising leaders abused their privileges for personal gain. There was dissent between Karadjordje and other leaders. Karadjordje wanted absolute power, while his voivodas wanted to limit it. After the Russo-Turkish War ended, and pressure of French invasion in 1812, the Russian Empire withdrew its support for the Serb rebels. The Ottoman Empire exploited these circumstances and reconquered Serbia in 1813 after Belgrade was retaken. The Ottoman forces burned down villages along main invading routes while their inhabitants were massacred or made refugees, with many women and children being enslaved. Karadjordje, along with other rebel leaders, fled to the Austrian Empire on 21 September 1813.
With the reestablishment of Ottoman control, many of the revolutionaries (around a quarter of the population), including Karadjordje Petrovic, fled to the Habsburg Empire. Recaptured by the Ottomans in October 1813, Belgrade became a scene of brutal revenge, with hundreds of its citizens massacred and thousands sold into slavery even to other Asian markets. Direct Ottoman rule also meant the abolition of all Serbian institutions and the return of Ottoman Turks to Serbia.
Tensions persisted. In 1814, veteran Hadzi Prodan launched a revolt which failed. The Ottoman authorities massacred the local population and publicly impaled 200 prisoners at Belgrade. By March 1815, Serbs held several meetings and decided upon continued revolt, the Second Serbian Uprising of 1815, which eventually succeeded in securing Serbian autonomy.