THE Balkan peninsula is, perhaps, that amongst the three great peninsulas of Southern Europe which enjoys the greatest natural advantages, and occupies the most favourable geographical position. In its outline it is far less unwieldy than Spain, and even surpasses Italy in variety of contour. Its coasts are washed by four seas; they abound in gulfs, harbours, and peninsulas, and are fringed by numerous islands. Several of its valleys and plains vie in fertility with the banks of the Guadalquivir and the plains of Lombardy. The floras of two climes intermingle on its soil, and add their charms to the landscape. The mountains of Turkey do not yield to those of the two other peninsulas in graceful outline or grandeur. and most of them are still covered with virgin forests. If they are less accessible than the Apennines of Italy or the sierras of Spain, that is owing simply to the want of roads; for they are, as a rule, of moderate elevation, and the plateaux from which they rise are narrower and more extensively intersected by valleys than is the table-land of Castile. Both Spain and Italy are closed in the north by mountain harriers difficult to cross, whilst the Balkan peninsula joins the continental trunk by almost imperceptible transitions, and nowhere is it separated from it by well-defined natural boundaries. The Austrian Alps extend without a break into Bosnia, and the Carpathians cross the Danube in order to effect a junction with the system of the Balkan. To the east of the ” Iron Gate” there are no mountains at all, and Turkey is bounded there by the broad valley of the Danube.
The proximity and parallelism of the coasts of two continents confer upon the Balkan peninsula an advantage unrivalled, perhaps, throughout the world. It is separated from Asia only by the narrow channel which joins the Black Sea to the AEgean Sea : this channel is an ocean highway, and vet forms no serious obstacle to the migration of nations from continent to continent. If the Black Sea were larger than it is at present ; if it still formed one sea with the Caspian, and extended far into Asia, as it did in a past age, then Constantinople would necessarily become the great centre of the ancient world. That proud position was actually held by it a thousand years ago, and even if it should never recover it, its geographical position alone insures to it an importance for all time to come. If the city were to be razed to day, it would arise again to-morrow at some other spot in the neighbourhood. In the dawn of history powerful Ilion kept watch at the entrance of the Dardanelles : it survives in the city on the Bosphorus ; and had there been no Byzantium, its mantle would have descended upon some other town in the sanie locality.
We know the part played by ancient Greece in the history of human culture. Macedonia and Thracia, the two other countries bordering upon the AEgean, have played their part too. It was those provinces which, after the invasion of the Persians, gave birth to the movement of reaction which led the armies of Alexander to the Euphrates and Indus. The power of the Romans survived there for a thousand years after Rome itself had fallen, and the precious germs of civilisation, which at a later period regenerated Western Europe, were nurtured there. It is true, alas ! that the Turk has put a stop to every enterprise of a civilising nature. These conquerors of Turanian race were carried into the Balkan peninsula in the course of a general migration of nations towards the west, which went on for three thousand years, and was attended by perpetual broils. It is now five hundred years since the Turks obtained a footing in the peninsula, and for more than four hundred years they have been its masters, and during that long period the old Roman empire of the East has been severed, as it were, from the rest of Europe. The normal progress of these highly favoured countries has been interrupted by incessant wars between Christians and Mohammedans, by the decay of the nations conquered or enslaved by the Turks, and by the heedless fatalism of the masters of the country. But the time is approaching when that important portion of Europe will resume the position due to it amongst the countries of the earth.
Vast tracts of the Balkan peninsula are hardly better known to us than the wilds of Africa. Kanitz found rivers, hills, and mountains figuring upon our maps which have no existence. Another traveller, Lejean, found that a pretended low pass through the Balkans existed only in the imagination. Russian geodesists engaged upon the measurement of an arc of a meridian found that Sofia, one of’ the largest and best-known cities of Turkey, had been inserted upon the best maps at a distance of nearly a day’s journey from its true position. The entire chain of the Balkans had to be shifted considerably to the south, in consequence of explorations carried on within time last few years. Men of science have hardly ventured yet to explore the plateaux of Albania or Mount Pindus, and much remains yet to be done before our knowledge of the topography of the Balkan peninsula can be called even moderately complete. The voyages and explorations of a host of travellers have, however, made known to us its general features and its geological formations. Their task was by no means an easy one, for the mountain masses and mountain chains of the peninsula do not constitute a regular, well-defined system. There is no central range, with spurs running out on both sides, and gradually decreasing in height as they approach the plains. Nor is the centre of the peninsula its most elevated portion, for the culminating summits are dispersed over the country apparently without order. The mountain ranges run in all the directions of the compass, and y e can only say, in a general way, that those of Western Turkey run parallel with the Adriatic and Ionian coasts, whilst those in the east meet the coasts of the Black Sea and the AEgean at right angles. The relief of the soil and the water-sheds make it appear almost as if Turkey turned her back upon continental Europe. Its highest mountains, its most extensive table-lands, and its most inaccessible forests lie towards the west and north-west, as if they were intended to cut it off from the shores of the Adriatic and the plains of Hungary, whilst all its rivers, whether they run to the north, east, or south, finally find their way into the Black Sea or the AEgean, whose shores face those of Asia.
This irregularity in the distribution of the mountains has its analogue in the distribution of the various races which inhabit the peninsula. The invaders or peaceful colonists, whether they came across the straits from Asia Minor, or along the valley of the Danube from Scythia, soon found themselves scattered in numerous valleys, or stopped by amphitheatres having no outlet. They failed to find their way in this labyrinth of mountains, and members of the most diverse races settled down in proximity to each other, and frequently came into conflict. The most numerous, the most warlike, or the most industrious races gradually extended their power at the expense of their neighbours ; and the latter, defeated in the struggle for existence, have been scattered into innumerable fragments, between which there is no longer any cohesion. Hungary has a homogeneous population, if we compare it with that of Turkey ; for in the latter country there are districts where eight or ten different nationalities live side by side within a radius of a few miles.
Time, however, has brought some order into this chaos, and commercial inter-course has done much to assimilate these various races. Speaking broadly, Turkey in Europe may now be said to be divided into four great ethnological zones. The Greeks occupy Crete, the islands of the Archipelago, the shores of the AEgean Sea, and the eastern slopes of Mounts Pindus and Olympus ; the Albanians hold the country between the Adriatic and Mount Pindus ; the Slays, including Servians, Croats, Bosnians, Herzegovinians, and Tsernagorans (Montenegrins), occupy the Illyrian Alps, towards the north-west ; whilst the slopes of the Balkan, the Despoto Dagh, and the plains of Eastern Turkey belong to the Bulgarians, who, as far as language goes, are Slays likewise. As to the Turks, the lords of the land, they are to be met with in most places, and particularly in the large towns and fortresses ; but the only portion of the country which they occupy to the exclusion of other races is the northeastern corner of the peninsula, bounded by the Balkans, the Danube, and the Black Sea.