Abdulharis Pasha of Strandzha, a mountainous region that straddles modern-day Turkey and Bulgaria, was the son of an Ottoman lord.
He joined the Ottoman army as a commander during the 16th Century siege of Vienna, and was made a pasha to combat Balkan bandits – although later he went on to become a bandit himself.
Then, finally, he turned into a vampire, living on for several more centuries as he menaced the Turkish, Bulgarian, Serb and Greek populations of Strandzha, Thrace and other parts of the Balkans.
As a vampire, Abdulharis also witnessed the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 and the fall of Edirne (Adrianople) to Bulgarian forces as the Ottoman Empire lost the majority of its European lands to the united Balkan nations.
Abdulharis is, of course, a fictional character, created by Turkish horror novelist Mehmet Berk Yaltirik, whose writings draw on the Balkans’ rich folkloric legacy of supernatural stories, dating back thousands of years.
“I always had an interest in fictional horror stories but when I saw the richness of the Balkan region in regards to the folklore of horror stories, I started to use Balkan motifs and characters in my stories and books,” Yaltirik told BIRN in an interview.
Yaltirik is a young novelist, historian and editor from the Turkish city of Edirne in Eastern Thrace – the only remaining Turkish area in the Balkans.
“When I was in Edirne, I started to hear stories from old people which were passed down from older generations, about evil spirits, ghouls and bandits who attacked people on their migration routes,” he explained, referring to Balkan Turks and other Muslims who fled to Thrace because of the conflicts in the Balkans but were preyed upon by gangs of thieves along the way.
“This led me first to write blogs, then stories and finally two novels based on the horror folklore from the southern corner of the Balkans, from Edirne.”
Belief in vampires ‘originates in Balkans’
Yaltirik believes that the Balkans is one of the richest regions in the world in terms of the belief in evil spirits, ghouls, vampires and other supernatural characters – as well as other frightening characters such as the infamous bandits or so-called “Hajduks” in Balkan languages who rebelled against central governments and raided villages and caravan routes.
“The Balkan region is home to many religions, different beliefs and nations. It is also historically very rich, from Thracians to Romans and Byzantines to the Ottoman Empire,” he explained.
“However, the region has also witnessed numerous wars, [forced] migration and all sorts of other grief,” he added, suggesting that this is the main reason for the widespread belief in superstitions.
For instance, the belief in vampires, which is central to Yaltirik’s writing, originates from the Balkans, he argued.
“Evil characters who have risen from the dead and drink people’s blood and haunt villages and their residents are very common in the Balkans. This motif actually came from the Black Sea region with Slavic migrations into the Balkans,” he explained.
“In Ottoman documents, we see that people abandoned their villages because of vampires and their attacks. You can track the existence of this belief for hundreds of years in documents,” he said.
This created a huge problem for the authorities, he continued.
“Therefore, authorities must have made decisions. For instance, we see that the famous Ottoman shaykh al-islam [the chief Islamic cleric in the Ottoman Empire] Ebu Suud during the rule of Suleyman the Magnificent in the 16th Century released fatwas [rulings] on how to kill a vampire who has risen from the dead even though vampire characters or ghouls are not part of Islam,” he said.
“Muslim and Christian clerics explained how to kill a vampire in detail, with stakes, or how to behead and burn them in order to destroy the evil character,” he added.
Exporting stories to Europe and Hollywood
Yaltirik said that his background as a historian helped him a lot to understand, research and analyse Balkan horror folklore, particularly from the Ottoman era.
“If you want to write something about vampires and Lord Dracula you have to search through Ottoman documents. Lord Dracula studied at the Ottoman court and served under the Ottoman Empire before his revolt and brutal mass killings,” he said.
The most famous vampire character in both Hollywood films and horror literature, Lord Dracula or Vlad the Impaler, was a Romanian noble who was educated under the Ottoman Empire and went on to serve it in the 15th Century before staging an uprising.
The brutal punishments he meted out, as well his use of impalement as a means of mass killing, made him one of the most frightening characters in both European and Balkan history.
As well as Vlad the Impaler, there are many other examples of how Balkan horror folklore affected European culture, according to Yaltirik.
“There have been always vampire stories in documents on Serbia. You can see this in the medieval Serbian kingdom, then the Ottoman Empire. When the Austrian Empire took control over parts of Serbia from the Ottoman Empire in the 18th Century for a short period of time, we see that vampires and other evil spirits that haunted villages appeared in Austrian documents,” he explained.
“After this appeared in Austrian documents, European newspapers started to cover the issue it had become the most terrifying story in Europe for a long time,” he added.
Yaltirik said that another Hollywood movie based on Balkan horror stories is the ‘Blade’ trilogy, which focuses on a half-vampire half-human warrior.
“You can see in historical documents that there are some babies who were born after vampire attacks on pregnant women. The Ottoman Empire sent exorcists and clerics to deal with this issue,” Yaltirik said.
According to Yaltirik, horror literature and movies in the Balkans and Turkey are under-developed forms.
“These topics in the Balkans are not desirable topics that you would always like to discuss or to hear about. People always believed in them and were afraid of them, but they did not want to speak about them,” he said.
“However,” he concluded, “horror literature is improving in this rich region and in Turkey.”