CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


Balkan Vampires before Ottoman Courts

by Dr. Emre Öktem (Associate Professor of International Law, Galatasaray University, Istanbul)

According to the news on the 8th of August, 2008,[1] “In Gazimihal and Menzilahir, Rom quarters of Edirne (ancient Adrianopolis, near the Bulgarian border) the inhabitants reported that for ten days they had seen, a man flying from one roof to another, and able to jump as high as a minaret, they felt therefore very troubled and decided to organize a recital of Mevlid[2]. Such a recitation took place under the aegis of the Edirne Rom Association on Ağaçpazarı Avenue, in order to overcome the fears and expel the calamities. The Vice-Mufti of Edirne declared that these rumours were mere superstitions, and possibly hallucinations; thus the recitation of the Mevlid was completely irrelevant.”[3]

Repercussions of the man flying between the roofs persisted in the Turkish media for a couple of months, certainly deserves a number of articles, even doctoral theses in the field of sociology, anthropology, psychology, comparative theology and perhaps toxicology- the region is notorious for a high level of alcohol consumption. Our professional deformation leads us to analyse it from a legal point of view.

The flying man in question is certainly not a “wonderful hero” who, like Superman, provokes admiration; otherwise the Mevlid recital would not have been considered a necessary. He is a supernatural and horrendous creature, often observed (!) in the Balkans and especially in Turkish Thrace, and called by different names. Edirne’s judicial records are particularly abundant in such peculiar cases, which would immediately be called vampirism in a Western context. Such a term did not exist in Turkish until Turkish readers got acquainted with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Beforehand, such phenomena were described as “Cadı”, etymologically derived from the Persian Jadu, a female witch or sorcerer.  Unable to find another term, Ottomans designated any kind of ghost, vampire etc. by this word.

Cases of vampirism dated to the beginning of the 18th century were brought before the Kadi (a judge assuming the functions of the mayor)of Edirne, Mirzazade Mehmet Efendi, who consulted the Great Vizier Hüseyin Pasha for the settlement of the problem. This latter sent an order to the Subashi (police superintendent)[4]

“The inhabitants of the Marash village, district of Edirne, declared before the religious court that some signs of evil sprits were observed upon the grave of Bıyıklı Ali (Ali the moustached) previously deceased, situated in the graveyard of the aforementioned village, that fear overwhelmed the village’s inhabitants who lodged a complaint; (the judge has reported that) in fact, in the provinces of Rumelia, in case such signs are observed upon the grave of a Non-Muslim, this latter has to be nailed in his belly with a stake; if the evil sprit persists and, when his grave is opened, if he has changed his position and does not stay as he has been put into the grave and if redness is observed in his face, he must be beheaded and his head must be put next to his feet, if the problem still persists, he has to be unburied and burnt; such was the fetwa (religious advisory report) of the Late (Sheikh ul Islam) Ebussuud Efendi on this issue of the Non-Muslims; however the Kadi has not found the solution of this problem in the law books in Arabic. (addressing to the Kadi: ) In order to dissipate this illusion of the villagers, the court must send a reliable person and a vice-judge on the spot. Upon further investigation, if the population is unanimous to confirm that evil sprits’ signs have been seen and the position of the dead has changed and redness is observed on his face, let me know. The problem having occurred again, it has been ordered what is written hereinafter: (addressing to the Subashi) The inhabitants of the Hacı Sarraf  quarter in  Edirne complained before the court that the signs of cadı appeared upon the grave of a woman called Cennet, deceased three months ago, and fear overwhelmed all of them; the kadi assigned a deputy and they visited the woman’s grave, four women examined the deceased and observed that her cadaver was not rotten and her face was red, and informed that such particularities were signs of the cadı; open the aforementioned grave and do whatever is accustomed in order to remove the fear and take care of dissipating the quarter inhabitant’s  illusions.”

The fetwa of Sheikh ul Islam Ebussuud Efendi, referred to by the kadi of Edirne, shows that cases of cadı/vampirism were brought before Ottoman courts since, at least, the 16th century :[5]

 “QUESTION: In Rumelia, in a village nearby Salonica, a member of the Christian community has died, a few days after his burial he came at the doors of his relatives and of others and proposed them to pay visit to certain persons, the day after these Christians died as well, a few days later he called another person who died afterwards, in sum, many Christians died, some Muslims living in the same village who saw Christians dying in such a way, were frightened and wanted to flee; is it in conformity with the sharia?

RESPONSE: It is not. The duty of the Muslims, who spent the night sleepless because of what occurred at the Christian village, is to resort to public authorities in order to solve the problem.

QUESTION: His Eminence is begged to explain the solution of the problem aforementioned, and to indicate how to proceed.

RESPONSE: The tongue and the mind are powerless to define the causes and the qualification of such events, and nothing further may be said in addition to what has been said by the authorities who led the investigation. The solution of the problem is as follows: The day the event takes place, a stake, well stripped, has to be driven into the body until the hearth; the problem is therefore expected to be eliminated. If not, and if redness appears on the face of the corps, the head has to be severed and placed next to the feet. Some sources inform us that this method is efficient. If the corps, after having been reburied, is found in the same situation, slaughter it and place it at the same position. If, after the application of all these methods, the problem remains unsolved, take the corps out and burn it with fire. At the time of our well-guided predecessors, the practice of burning with fire was many times reiterated.”

Ebussuud Efendi was famous for his intransigent positions in religious matters, as well as for the strength and clarity of his legal reasoning. In the present case, his application of the sharia is technically perfect. Having determined a vacuum juris in the holy sources of Islamic law, i.e. the Koran and the Hadith, and found nothing, neither in the well-established jurisprudence, nor any ruling applicable by analogy; he resorts to the local custom.

By the beginning of the 19th century, in a very delicate political context, the scenario repeats itself in Tirnovo, another Balkan city of the Ottoman Empire currently situated in Bulgaria.  The facts are reported by Ahmed Şükrü Efendi, Kadi of Tirnovo, in a letter published in the official journal (Takvim-i Vakayi, date: 19 Rebiulahir 1249 /1833)

“There have been manifestations of vampires in Tirnovo. They started assaulting the houses after sunset. They mixed together foods like flour, butter and honey, or spoiled them with earth. They tore the pillows, the blankets, the mattresses and the wrapping clothes that they found in the cupboards to pieces. They threw stones, earth, jars and pots onto people. Nobody could see anything. They also assaulted some men and women. These latter have been summoned and interrogated. They said they felt like a water-buffalo was sitting on them. Because of these troubles, the population of two quarters left their homes and fled elsewhere. The inhabitants of the town agreed that all these things were the works of evil sprits called cadı. A man named Nikola, reputed for exorcism in the town of Islimye was brought and hired for eight hundred kuruş. His scheme was to hold a painted piece of wood[6], to go to the graveyard, and to turn the piece of wood on his finger: The painting showed the grave haunted by the evil sprit. A huge crowd went to the graveyard. As he turned the painted piece of wood on his finger, the painting stood in front of the graves of two brigands, Tetikoğlu Ali and Apti Alemdar, formerly members of the Janissary corps, and bloody tyrants. The graves were dug up. The cadavers were found to have grown by a half, their hair and nails had grown longer by three or for inches. Their eyes were inundated by blood, and looked terrifying. All of the crowd assembled at the graveyard saw it. When alive, these men had committed all kinds of mischief, including rape, theft and murder; when their corps was abolished, they had  not been delivered to the executioner, interestingly, as evidenced by their age they had died a natural death. Unsatisfied by their mischievous life, they now harassed people as evil sprits. According to the description of Nikola the exorcist, in order to expel such evil sprits, one has to drive a wooden stake into the belly of their cadavers and pour boiling water onto their hearts. Ali Alemdar’s and Apti Alemdar’s corpses were removed form their graves. Wooden stakes were driven into their bellies and their hearts were boiled with a cauldron of water, but with no result. The exorcist said: we must burn these corpses. The authorisation was granted, since such an act is allowed according to the sharia. And, the unburied corpses of the two Janissaries were burnt in the graveyard and, thank God, our town was freed from the cadıs’ evil.”[7]

The political background of this event is fascinating. The Janissary corps was created at the beginning of the Empire by the third Ottoman Sultan, Murad I. Its members were recruited from among the Christian youth of the Empire, especially in the Balkans. Placed under the spiritual authority of the Bektashi religious order, highly suspected of heresy, they gradually became a formidable war machine, certainly one of the best infantry troops in the military history. They were forbidden from marriage until their retirement, which they took at a very late age, if they were not killed on the battlefield. They lived in huge military barracks in the midst of Istanbul, kind of holy shrines, whose access was strictly prohibited to civilians. Because of their fanaticism and utmost courage, these military elite were later compared to another one, the SS of the Third Reich.[8] Their decline followed the decline of the Empire, or perhaps preceded it. By the 18th century, they had become an undisciplined army, extorting the entire city of Istanbul, refusing to go to war and participating actively in the intrigues of the Palace. They did not hesitate to assassinate the statesmen, religious dignitaries and even a sultan, who tried to abolish the military corps, dominated by an institutionalised perversity. Finally, in 1826, Mahmud II annihilated the Janissaries by using his modern troops, specifically the artillery, trained in the European fashion, with the help of the civilian population and the Muslim clergy. The survivors were persecuted in the whole empire and, when arrested, delivered to the executioner for strangulation. Even their tombstones were dismantled: it is an amazing curiosity to find a few Janissary tombstones in the graveyards of some mosques, like the Ayazma Camii in Üsküdar.

Therefore, it is hard to explain how the two Janissaries in the Tirnovo story were spared from execution in their “normal” life. As for their vampirism, according to the Ottomanist historian Ilber Ortaylı, it was mere forgery within the framework of the State propaganda in order to defame the name of the Janissaries and to erase their memory. The anti-Janissary State ideology invoked the Janissaries with hatred, even when they were dead.  [9] Mahmud II was, beyond any doubt, a genius in matters of political propaganda. [10] However, it was certainly not coincidental that the event took place in the Balkans. The story was probably not staged by the Government ex nihilo, but a case brought before the judge was distorted for anti-Janissary propaganda. It was not hard to find an exorcist, especially with the promise of 800 kuruş, a good deal of money in  those times. Nevertheless, explaining the finding of uncorrupted corpses in the grave with long grown fingernails requires more imagination, and perhaps a forensic medicine expert’s help.

Given the extermination methods, in perfect conformity with the Hollywood clichés, these cadı’s can easily be categorized as vampires. As a matter of fact, Köhbach, who discovered the first story in the archives, does not hesitate to identify it as a case of vampirism. According to Giovanni Scognamillo, an Italian originating Levantine vampirologist and historian of cinema, born and living in Istanbul; the Turkish cadı corresponds, mutatis mutandis, to the Western vampire. He cites Arminius Vambery, one of the founding fathers of the science of Turkology, who reports that Ottomans believed that vampires hid in tree cavities. When caught, they were beheaded and thrown into the sea.[11]

We have reached the intersection area between Turkish history, vampirism in the Balkans and universal horror literature. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the vampire hunter Prof. van Helsing consults Arminius, a friend of his who teaches at Budapest University.[12] As it may easily be guessed, this protagonist is none other than Arminius Vambery. While writing his novel, Stoker corresponded frequently with Vambery in order to gather some juicy material on vampires.

The settlement of the vampirism cases through the judge is interesting, but by no means unusual. Travellers report that “the Turks have an opinion, that men that are buried have a sort of life in their graves. If any man makes an affidavit before a judge that he heard a noise in a man’s grave he is by order dug up and chopped all to pieces’’[13] The judge, or kadi, is empowered, in the Ottoman legal system with judicial, as well as, administrative powers.[14] Besides, similar vampire manifestations that occurred in the Europe in those days were dealt with by the courts. One can  imagine what  the the reaction of the public authorities would be if a more frightening and reoccuring situation than the flying man in Edirne happened. Given that in the 1930s, declarations of disappearances were issued by the courts with regard to the Virgin Mary, Archangel Gabriel, St. Michael etc.,[15] no one should be surprised if a criminal court issues an order of arrest for vampires.

Ottoman judges found themselves perplexed when facing cases of vampirism. However, such cases were quite frequent, especially in the Balkans and were reported by a number of European authors. Jean Bodin, the French political scientist, economist and lawyer who built the theoretical structure of the concept of State sovereignty, is nowadays famous for his “Les six livres de la République.” Being a judge and involved in several cases of witch-burning, Bodin had a great reputation in his days for the De la Démonomanie des sorciers (first printed in 1580) a “practitioner’s book” for prosecutors and judges in witchcraft cases.  According to Bodin, in the year 1542, under the reign of Sultan Soliman the magnificent there appeared such a quantity of werewolves in the city of Constantinople that the Emperor, accompanied by his guard, went out in arms to pursue 150 of them, who disappeared before the eyes of everyone[16]. A very detailed and reliable chronology of the Ottoman Empire is silent about these werewolves observed in 1542 (949 of the hegira).[17] Tournefort, sent to  Anatolia by the French King, Louis the XIV, for botanical research informs us, in his Voyage au Levant, that in 1732, he witnessed personally an exorcism against vampirism near Transylvania.[18] Actually, systematic torture and “bathing” technique were often applied in order to detect sorcerers in German-influenced Transylvania, whilst Balkan provinces enjoying a certain autonomy under Ottoman rule were preserved from the witch-hunting delirium that raged in Europe. There were never such proceedings in Christian princedoms like Moldavia and Walachia.[19]

Such stories are not just historical curiosities; they are still very frequent in our days and reflect the sophisticated cultural interaction and exchange in the Balkans. While religious discrimination is a tremendous source of conflict in the neuralgic peninsula among the living; there is no such a problem for the dead. Christian ghosts assault Muslims and Muslim ghosts do not let  Christians sleep who are living on top of them. In his charming study on the history of  Salonica, that he meaningfully entitled “City of Ghosts”  Mazover reports that “In the 1930s, the spirit of the Sufi holy man Musa Baba was occasionally seen wandering near his tomb in the upper town. Even today house-owners sometimes dream that beneath their cellars lie Turkish Janissaries and Byzantine necropolises. One reads stories of hidden Roman catacombs, doomed love-affairs and the unquiet souls who haunt the decaying villas near the sea. (…) Salonica’s ghosts emerge in other ways too, through documents and archives, the letters of Byzantine archbishops, the court records of Ottoman magistrates…”[20]

Jean Jacques Rousseau’s statement about vampires seems to be still valid: “If there is a real story in the world, it’s about the vampires: Nothing is lacking, legal proceedings, certificates provided by notables, surgeons, priests and magistrates; the legal evidence is perfectly complete. However, who believes in vampires? Shall we be damned for not having believed in them?”[21] In fact, in the coming years, researchers digging in old newspaper volumes will learn that in August 2008 something like a ghost-demon-vampire-superman has been observed in Edirne. They will probably use this news as reliable data in their research and will confirm their theories. The legend tells us that vampires are immortal. In fact, the vampires are not immortal, but their legend is, thank to such cases.  It is sad to see that these superstitions have survived up to our times. However, I must confess that I am happy to see that the marvellously rich folk-lore of the Balkans, as well as its sophisticated culture and profound sub-conscience are still alive. While the process of fragmentation, -the “Balkanisation” as it is called in this part of the planet- is going on, due to religious and ethnic differences, the Balkan pandemonium preserves its integrity, regardless of religion or ethnicity.


Yahya Kemal (1884-1958) is a poet who was born as an Ottoman subject in the town of Üsküp, (current Skopje) and died as a Turkish citizen in Istanbul.  His strikingly profound and rhythmic poetry, qualified as “neo-ottoman”, was mostly devoted to beauties of the past, to war and to love. However, his poem entitled “Demons” shows that this epic Balkan poet was also fond of psychology:

We are the pain of the consciences, they know us

They believe we came to visit for tormenting them

Have you ever felt us, at least once? Do you know who we are?

We are the demons, or illusions who resemble them.

[1] Radikal “Uçan adam mevlit okuttu”, 8 Ağustos 2008.

[2] Poem song in the honor of the birth of the Prophet Muhammed.

[3] Besides his doubts about the “authenticity” of the story, the vice-mufti is perfectly right in his religious reasoning: The recital of Mevlid is a para-liturgical activity, which does not figure in the canons of Islam. The concept of exorcism does not exist in Islam. The prayers that can be mutatis mutandis assimilated to exorcism are the two last surats of the Koran, the Ayet-el-Kursi and some shorter formulas of prophetic tradition. They can be recited by any Muslim and there is no need to invite any religious official, especially when he asks to be paid!

[4] Transcribed into Latin characters from an anonymous chornicle in the Berlin State Library by Köhbach, Markus, “Ein Fall von Vampirismus bei den Osmanen” in Balkan Studies, 20/1, 1979, p. 84-85.

[5] For the text transcribed into Latin characters see Düzdağ, Ertuğrul, Şeyhülislam Ebussuud Efendi Fetvaları Işığında 16. Asır Türk Hayatı, Enderun Kitabevi, İstanbul, 1972, p. 198.

[6] Needless to say: an icon.

[7] See Koçu, Reşat Ekrem, Tarihimizde Garip Vakalar, 5. baskı, Doğan Yay. İstanbul, 2003,  p. 15-16.

[8] See. Kitsikis, Dimitri, L’Empire ottoman, PUF, Paris, 1985, p. 57.

[9] Ortaylı, I˙lber, I˙mparatorlug˘un En Uzun Yüzyılı, 3. Baskı, Hil Yayın, I˙stanbul, 1995,  p. 32.

[10] The sultan was accused of becoming a heathen because of his zeal for westernizing the Empire. As a response, he took a number of steps in order to show how pious he was: He discovered the graves of the companions of the Prophet (sahabe) who died during the first siege of Constantinople in VIIth century. Some of them are situated extra muros, and their discovery may be explained by miracle. But some are intra muros, and their presence and survival in the midst of the Byzantine capital is quite mysterious.

[11] Scognamillo, Giovanni, I˙stanbul Gizemleri. Büyüler, Yatırlar, I˙nançlar, Altın Kitaplar, I˙stanbul 1993, p. 22, 24.

[12] Stoker, Bram, Dracula, Introduction and notes by David Rogers, Wordsworth Classics, 2000, p. 200. 

[13] North, Hon. Roger, Lives of the Norths, Londra, 1902,  ii, p. 147 cited by: Hasluck, F. W., Christianity and Islam Under the Sultans, Vol. 1, Octagon Books, New York, 1973, (reprint of the 1929 ed.) p. 253.

[14] Bkz. Ortaylı, I˙lber, Hukuk ve I˙dare Adamı Olarak Osmanlı Devletinde Kadı, Turhan Kitabevi, Ankara, 1994.

[15] As a legal fiction, some properties belonging to church foundations had been registered on the names of the Saints or Angels to whom the churches were dedicated, because, in the Ottoman period, foundations did not enjoy legal personality. In republican era, Public Treasury lawyers seized the courts in order to obtain declarations of disappearance for these saints. These latter having been declared to be dead without inheritors, their property was transferred to the Public Treasury. See Öktem, Emre,  “Statut juridique des fondations des communautes non-musulmanes en Turquie- la nouvelle loi sur les fondations », in Rivista di diritto e di politica ecclesiastica, Milan, 2008.

[16]  Bodin, Jean, De la Démonomanie des Sorciers, Quatrième édition, Antoine de Harsy, éditeur, Lyon, 1598, p. 212. (see: http://gallica2.bnf.fr)

[17] Danişmend, İsmail Hami, İzahlı Osmanlı Kronolojisi’nin (vol. 2, Türkiye Yayınevi, İstanbul, 1971, p. 231-234.

[18] Cited by: Villeneuve, Roland, Loups-Garous et Vampires, Ed. J’ai lu, 1970,  p. 103.

[19] Bechtel, Guy, La Sorcière et l’Occident. La destruction de la sorcellerie in Europe, des origines aux grands bûchers, Plon, 199, p. 707-708.

[20] Mazover, Mark, Salonica, City of Ghosts- Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950, Harper Perennial, 2005, p. 10-11.

[21] Rousseau, Jean Jacques, “Lettre à Mgr. de Beaumont, Archevêque de Paris”, (Annex to the Contrat social) Librairie Garnier Frères, Paris, p.489.