Balkan Peninsula

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Balkan Peninsula,

southeasternmost peninsula of Europe, c.200,000 sq mi (518,000 sq km), bounded by the Black Sea, Sea of Marmara, Aegean Sea, Mediterranean Sea, Ionian Sea, and Adriatic Sea. Although there is no sharp physiographic separation between the peninsula and Central Europe, the line of the Sava and Danube rivers is commonly considered as the region's northern limit. The Balkan Peninsula therefore includes most of Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, North Macedonia, continental Greece (including the Peloponnesus), Bulgaria, European Turkey, and SE Romania. These countries, successors to the Ottoman EmpireOttoman Empire
, vast state founded in the late 13th cent. by Turkish tribes in Anatolia and ruled by the descendants of Osman I until its dissolution in 1918. Modern Turkey formed only part of the empire, but the terms "Turkey" and "Ottoman Empire" were often used
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, are called the Balkan States. Historically and politically the region extends north of this line to include all of Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, and Romania.

The peninsula is very mountainous; the main ranges are the Dinaric Alps, the Balkans, the Rhodope Mts., and the Pindus. Except for the barren Karst plateau in the northwest and the eroded highlands of Greece, the mountains are densely forested. The Morava, Vardar, Strimón, Mesta, and Maritsa are the largest rivers. The Morava and Vardar river valleys form the chief corridor across the peninsula. The mild Mediterranean-type climate, with its dry summer period, is limited to the southern and coastal areas. Covering a greater area are the humid subtropical climate in the northwest and the harsher humid continental climate in the northeast. The region as a whole is largely agricultural; fruits, grains, and grazing are important. A variety of mineral deposits are found there, including iron ore, coal, manganese, copper, lead, and zinc.

The peoples of the Balkan Peninsula make up several racial groups. However, linguistic and religious differences are more distinct than the racial divisions. The peninsula, at the crossroads of European and Asian civilizations, has a long history; Ancient Greece, the Byzantine Empire, and the Ottoman Empire flourished there.


See R. D. Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts (1994); M. Tedorov, Imagining the Balkans (1997); M. Mazower, The Balkans: A Short History (2000).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Balkan Peninsula


a peninsula in southern Europe. It has an area of about 505,000 sq km; its greatest extent from west to east is about 1,260 km, and from north to south, 950 km. The Balkan Peninsula is bordered on the west by the Adriatic and Ionian seas and on the east by the Black Sea, the Sea of Marmara, the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, and the Aegean Sea. The conventional continental boundary of the Balkan Peninsula is the Danube River to the mouth of the Sava River, and then a line to the top of the Gulf of Trieste. Bulgaria, a large portion of Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece, the southern regions of Rumania, the western regions of Turkey, and the small northeastern region of Italy are located on the Balkan Peninsula.

Coastline. The coasts are highly indented and predominantly high and steep, with small bays of the Dalmatian (in the west) and fan (in the south) types. There are many islands and a highly winding shoreline in the Adriatic Sea and particularly in the Aegean; the opposite is true in the Black Sea. The total area of islands adjacent to the Balkan Peninsula is about 21,500 sq km.

Topography. The topography of the Balkan Peninsula is predominantly mountainous. Great dissection of the surface and the presence of numerous intermontane basins are characteristic. In the northeast of the peninsula lie the Pirin, Rila (Mount Musala, 2,925 m, the highest on the Balkan Peninsula), and Rhodope mountains. To the north of the Rhodope, and separated from them by longitudinal basins, lie the Stara Planina (the Balkan Mountains). To the north they gradually descend to the hilly Danube plain. The abovementioned mountains are characterized by a predominance of relatively gentle slopes and worn-down peaks. In the Rila and Pirin mountains, the topography is of the alpine type. Along the entire western edge of the Balkan Peninsula stretches the Dinaric highland, which in the south becomes the Pindus Mountains and the mountains of the Pelopon-nesos. These mountains are marked by steep slopes and an abundance of deep gorges. The peaks are often mesalike. Karst landforms are widely developed, particularly in the west and southwest of the Dinaric highland (the Karst or Kras plateau). The plains are confined predominantly to the marginal areas and in part to the intramontane depressions. The largest of them are the Thracian, Thessaloniki, Thes-saly, and Albanian lowlands, and the southern portion of the lower and middle Danubian plains.


Geological structure. The geological structure of the Balkan Peninsula is related to the alpine folded area. Within its limits lie three ancient massifs—the Serbo-Macedonian, the Rhodope, and the Pelagonian. These are composed of Pre-cambrian crystalline schists and gneisses which were crumpled into folds in the era of the Baikalian folding and are shot through with late Paleozoic granites. A portion of the massifs, particularly the Serbo-Macedonian, is covered with a mantle of sedimentary Mesozoic and Cenozoic, and in places Paleozoic, deposits.

In the northwest and west, along the coast of the Adriatic and Ionian seas, stretches the Dinaric folded system (di-narides), consisting of three zones. The exterior zone of the dinarides is composed of Mesozoic carbonaceous layers and Cretaceous and Paleogene flysch and is complicated by a system of folds and thrusts which tilt toward the Adriatic Sea. In the middle zone, limestones (from the Triassic to the Eocene in age) are widely developed and have been formed into large block folds. To the east, in the cores of gentle anticlines, upper Paleozoic clay shales jut out. The third (interior Dinaric) zone, which stretches across Bosnia and Hercego-vina to Serbia, is a complex folded system which arose from geosynclinal troughs which existed in the Paleozoic and Mesozoic up to the Paleogene. Also widely represented are thick volcanic layers, Paleozoic and Mesozoic basic and ultrabasic intrusions, Cretaceous flysch, as well as Cenozoic granitoids. This zone is subordinate to a system of major faults along which it extends and which border it. In Serbia the zone splits into two narrow branches which skirt the Pelagonija massif on both sides. One of the branches, the Vardar, separates the Pelagonija massif from the Serbo-Macedonian and Rhodope massifs, and continues in the south beneath the bottom of the Gulf of Thessaloniki. This branch is the complexly structured Vardar synclinorium formed from a geosynclinal trough. The other branch stretches from the southern part of the Pelagonija massif to the south, forming the complexly structured zone of the Pindus Mountains in Greece. It extends to the Peloponnesos and then continues to the island of Crete.

To the north and northeast of the Rhodope massif lies a series of depressions. They are bordered on the north by the Balkan Mountains, which are a system of anticlinoria and synclinoria. In the cores of the anticlinoria emerge Precam-brian crystalline schists and rock of the Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, and particularly the upper Carboniferous and Permian eras. The wings are composed of Mesozoic rock. In the northeastern part of Stara Planina, Cretaceous and Paleogene flysch is widely developed. Along the northern edge stretches the folded system of the cis-Balkan area composed of Jurassic and Cretaceous rock, and still further to the north, the Mysian plate occupying the Danubian depression.

On the Balkan Peninsula lie Mesozoic depressions and grabens filled with Neogene deposits, in places with volcanic series of andesites. These are the Thracian, Plovdiv, and Stara Zagora depressions, Kosovo Polje, and others.


Climate. In the central and northern regions, the climate of the Balkan Peninsula is temperate continental; in the remaining areas it is mediterranean. In addition to these basic types, various transitional climates are also observed. In the mountains there is altitudinal climatic zonality. The mean July temperature in the north is 22°-23° C, and in the south 25°-27° C; in January, from - 1° or -2° C (in the mountains, below -5° C) to 8°-ll° C respectively. In the mountainous west, yearly precipitation is 1,000–1,500 mm (in the region of the Bay of Kotor, about 5,000 mm); in the eastern and southern parts of the Balkan Peninsula (with the exception of the high mountains), less than 1,000 mm, and in places less than 500 mm.

Rivers and lakes. The longest rivers are the Maritsa, Morava, Iskar, and Struma, and the boundary Danube and Sava. The majority of the rivers are mountainous, full of rapids, and turbulent (particularly in the headwaters). Stretches of mountain and plains currents often alternate. The rivers are full in the winter and spring and low in the summer. The small rivers in the southern and eastern part of the peninsula dry up in the summer. The rivers can be harnessed for producing power; they are used for irrigation, and the largest are used for navigation. The largest lakes—Scutari, Ohrid, and Prespa—are located in tectonic depressions. There are numerous karst lakes, and in the Rila Mountains, lakes of glacial origin. In the Danube valley there are numerous oxbow lakes.

Soils and vegetation. In the southern part of the peninsula, subtropical brownish, mountain brownish, and calcareous soils predominate. On the Adriatic coast, the reddish soils (the terra rossa) are widely found. In the mountain and piedmont regions of the northern Balkan Peninsula, the mountain-forest brown and mountain-forest humus-calcareous, as well as brown forest soils, have developed. On the Danubian plain there are chernozems and soils which are transitional from brown forest to brownish; on the lowlands of the Maritsa River there are the black clay, compact smolnitz soils.

With regard to flora, the Balkan Peninsula is the richest part of the mediterranean area (more than 6,500 species of plants). There is a high percentage of endemic species (about 27 percent). The mountain slopes are often rocky and exposed. In the south, in the lower zone, there is mediterranean vegetation, with evergreen oak and pine forests with brush (maquis) thickets. Above 400–500 m, and also in the more northerly regions, a transitional zone has developed, with forests of evergreen and deciduous broadleaved varieties. Thickets of xerophyte deciduous shrubs (shibliak) are characteristic. In the north and in the mountains of the interior portion of the Balkan Peninsula, forests of the middle European species predominate. In the lower zone there are mainly deciduous oak forests; at higher altitudes, beech and conifers (fir and pine). The timberline is at an elevation of 1,800–2,000 m. Steppe vegetation is encountered on the plains of the extreme northeast. The vegetation has been greatly altered by man: the steppe and forest-steppe plains of the north and east have been plowed up, and corn, wheat, tobacco, and grapes are raised. There are also plum and apple orchards. In the south, in addition, there are olives, citrus, and pomegranates. On most of the Balkan Peninsula farming requires artificial irrigation.

Fauna. The mammals are represented by the fox, otter, wildcat, wild boar, red deer, roe deer, chamois, bear, jackal, lynx, mole rats, and bats. The populations of birds, reptiles (lizards, snakes, and the Grecian tortoise), amphibians (newts, frogs, toads, and the olm [Proteus] in the caves of the western portion), and mollusks are also rich and diverse.


“Obshchii fiziko-geograficheskii obzor Balkanskogo poluostrova.”Fizicheskaia geografiia Bolgarii. Moscow, 1960. Chapter 1 (Translated from Bulgarian.)
Birot, P., and J. Dresch. Sredizemnomor’e, vols. 1–2. Moscow,1960.(Translated from French.)


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Balkan Peninsula

a large peninsula in SE Europe, between the Adriatic and Aegean Seas
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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