KEMAL GÖZLER, Les Villages Pomaks de Lofça aux XVe et XVIe Siécles d’Aprés les Tahrir Defters Ottomans (Ankara: Imprimerie de la Société Turque d’Historie. 2001). pp. 117.

 Reviewed by Kaan Durukan, International Journal of Turkish Studies, Vol. 9, Nos. 1-2 (Summer 2003), p.318-321 (ISSN: 0272-7919 0272-7919).


The Pomaks, who live presently in the territories of four nation-states, Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece and Macedonia respectively, are the members of a Muslim community, speaking a dialect of Bulgarian. As it is the rule, rather than an exception considering the demographic composition of the Balkans, the ethno-religious identity of this specific group is lively discussed among the historians of the concerned parties. According to Bulgarian scholars, Pomaks were an ethnically Bulgarian people, converted to Islam by force under Ottoman rule. The process of Islamization too place basically in two periods, the first one being during the reign of  Selim I (1512-1520), depicted as a zealous Muslim and the second in the last quarter of the seventeenth century, almost simultaneously witth the defeat at Vienna. Another group, though smaller in number, believes that Pomaks were the descendants of Paulicians, heretics of the medieval era settled in the region, like the Bogomils of Bosnia, they converted to Islam without any major difficulty, since the attitude of Muslims to their belief system was much more tolerant, compared to the Orthodox Christians. Greek historians, however, do not share the views of their Bulgarian colleagues. They claim that the Pomaks were originally the inhabitants of Macedonia, having a Greek ethnic origin. The third participant in the debate is Turkish historians. For their part, they tend to see the roots of today’s Pomaks in the Cuman-Kipchak ethnic stock of the earlier centuries.

Originally a Pomak from Lofça (Loveč in Bulgarian), Kemal Gözler tries to find a solution in his book to this complex historical question. The major problématique of his study is whether the Pomaks were indigenous people of the region converted to Islam or a Turkic tribe that came there as a result of the westward expansion. However, one should note that the scope of his research is limited to Lofça Pomaks, the aim is to observe forty Pomak villages of the designated area. Pomaks of the Rhodope Mountains, who received much more attention from the academic circles, are not included in his work.

The basis of Dr. Gözler’s study is four tahrir defters (tax registers) from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, dating 1479, 1516, 1545 and 1579 respectively. Among these four sources, only one, the earliest record, is of icmal nature, a short, summarized version whereas the other three are mufassal defters, detailed registers of the Ottoman authorities. Also, the author refers to the Salname-i Vilayet-i Tuna (Yearbook of the Danube Province), complied in 1873 in order to observe historically the evolution of Pomak settlements in Lofça. The book consist of an introduction, a number of tables reproducing systematically the information obtained from the archival materials, an evaluation of this numerical data and conclusion.

It is a widely known fact that tahrir defters were complied on the basis of religious affiliations. Apparently, in an age where societies’ main identities were defined according to religion, Ottomans showed no interest in determining either ethnic distinctions or linguistic variations. In this respect, this particular set of document seems to be silent in clarifying the issue. However, it is remarkable that in the mufassal defters, the name of the individual (male, representing the household) as well as his father’s name were recorded; Gözler states that the frequent use of the expression veled-i Abdullah (son of Abdullah) might be the indicator of a recent conversion. Despite the fact that there is a consensus among the students of the field about specific meaning of this name, which literally is “servant/slave of God,” the evidence does not necessarily prove the existence of newly converted people. After all, Abdullah was (and still is) a very common name in different parts of the Islamic world. Yet, Gözler witnesses a considerable number of Abdullahs in the registers among fathers, whereas in the second generation, the name was relatively rare. Also the reference to the members of the third generation as “grandson of Abdullah” increases the probability of conversion. If this is really the case, Pomaks were the inhabitants of the region from Bulgarian origin, who became Muslim at a certain point in time under the Ottoman administration.

The definitve conquest of Lofça took place in 1393, during Bayezid I’s reign. However, the earliest of our sources, which depicts the situation of the region in 1479, almost one century later, recorded only four Muslim households. Gözler describes them cautiously as “the first Pomaks”; indeed, they were solely the first Muslims in Lofça, of obscure origin. Possibly, they were Turkic families from Asia Minor, but obviously there is no evidence at hand supporting this claim with certainty. On the other hand, the source clearly displays that massive Islamization, either voluntarily or forcibly, was not the case; equally the theory seeking the roots of Pomaks in the Paulicians is subject to serious doubt.

According to the register of the year 1579, there were Muslims living in twenty-two villages of the region out of a total forty, but they constituted only 5 percent of the population. Also, it is worthy to note that the majority of the Muslims consisted of sons or grandsons of Abdullah; in 1545 71.64 percent and in 1579 21.22 percent. The information derived from this register has two meanings: on the one hand, it proves the validity of the argument underlining a slow, gradual Islamization process in the Balkans; on the other hand, it refutes in terms of chronology the thesis of Bulgarian historians, explaining the issue by two waves of forced conversion.

In his conclusion Gözler states that a majority of the first Muslim settlers of the Pomak villages of Lofça were the descendants of “sons of Abdullah”, implying that they were ethnically Bulgarian, converted later to Islam. Also he mentions that the term “Pomak” does not exist in the Ottoman documents and secondary sources untill the nineteenth century. Its first use and etymology are still unknown. Finally the researcher raises three questions, which could pave the way to other possible studies. In the first place, there were many other “sons of Abdullah” in the neighboring villages, very close to the Pomak zone, yet for one reason or another, they did not become Pomaks in the course of history. Secondly, how did the Pomaks of Lofça manage to keep Bulgarian, the language of their ancestors, whereas other became gradually Turcophones? Thirdly, what is the connection between the Pomaks of Lofça and Pomaks of Rhodope, who live in different geographies, but still are referred to by the very same name?

Kemal Gözler’s book, though small in size is a significant contribution following the footsteps of the tradition of defterology, pioneered by the late Ömer Lütfi Barkan. The author provides factual knowledge from the Ottoman archives, which could help to illimunate the historical question of Pomaks’ origin and, differing from many others, combines the findings of his research with secondary sources written in Turkish, Bulgarian, German, French and English. Furthermore, the work includes remarkable geographical and toponymical information. Maybe in the future; Dr. Gözler might think to extend this volume by introducing theoretical approaches, which discuss themes like multiple identities, self-definition and change of socio-cultural identity. Also, it might be an interesting idea to organize an oral history project with the descendants of the Pomaks, who migrated mostly into Thrace and Western Anatolia, after the war of 1877-1878 with Russia. Such an effort would possibly help to detect some cultural codes, transferred verbally through generations and still alive in the collective memory of the community. A final point, through personal correspondence the present author learned to his surprise that Dr. Gözler, in fact, is not a professional historian; being an associate professor, his area of expertise is constitutional law. For his work on Pomaks of Lofça, he mastered siyakat, probably the most difficult category of writing in Ottoman Turkish, pertaining generally to the fiscal records of the empire. This book is highly recommended especially to the students of the Ottoman Balkans as well as anyone interested in studies based on Ottoman archival materials.


Kaan Durukan

University of Wisconsin

Istanbul Technical University



Reproduced with the permissions of Kaan Durukan, the author of the book review, and Kemal H. Karpat, the editor of the IJTS. (Permission Documents: E-mail from K.Durukan, 27.02.2007 07:43:43; Email from K. H. Karpat, 28.02.2007 00:58:19).



Editor: Kemal Gözler

10 May 2010

Under  28 February 2007