The abstract term “The Balkans”, unlike the geographical borders of the Peninsula, is defined by the political borders of the states comprising it. The term is used to describe areas beyond the Balkan Peninsula, or inversely in the case of the part of Italy in the Peninsula, which is always excluded from the Balkans and as a totality is generally accepted as part of Western Europe and the Apennines.
The Balkans are usually said to comprise Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia, while Greece , Romania ,Italy and Turkey are often included (depending on the definition), and its total area is usually given as 470,000 square km (181,000 square miles) and the population as 59,297,000 (est. 2002).
In Turkish, Balkan means “a chain of wooded mountains” (Balkan), and the peninsula is certainly dominated by this type of landform, especially in the west.
Another possibility to its etymology is related to Persian bālk meaning “mud”, and the Turkish suffix an, i.e. Muddy Place.
The name is still preserved in Central Asia with the Balkan Daglary (Balkan Mountains) and the Balkan Province of Turkmenistan. A less popular hypothesis regarding its etymology is that it derived from the Persian Balā-Khāna, meaning big high house.
Antiquity and early Middle Ages
From Antiquity through the Middle Ages, the Balkan Mountains had been called by the local Thracian name Haemus. According to Greek mythology, the Thracian king Haemus was turned into a mountain by Zeus as a punishment and the mountain has remained with his name.
A reverse name scheme has also been suggested. D. Dechev considers that Haemus (Αἷμος) is derived from a Thracian word *saimon, ‘mountain ridge’. A third possibility is that “Haemus” (Αἵμος) derives from the Greek word “haema” (αἵμα) meaning ‘blood’. The myth relates to a fight between Zeus and the monster/titan Typhon. Zeus injured Typhon with a thunder bolt and Typhon’s blood fell on the mountains, from which they got their name.
Late Middle Ages and Ottoman period
The earliest mention of the name appears in an early 14th-century Arab map, in which the Haemus mountains are referred to as Balkan.
The first attested time the name “Balkan” was used in the West for the mountain range in Bulgaria was in a letter sent in 1490 to Pope Innocent VIII by Buonaccorsi Callimaco, an Italian humanist, writer and diplomat.
The Ottomans first mention it in a document dated from 1565. There has been no other documented usage of the word to refer to the region before that, although other Turkic tribes had already settled in or were passing through the Peninsula.
There is also a claim about an earlier Bulgar Turkic origin of the word popular in Bulgaria, however it is only an unscholarly assertion. The word was used by the Ottomans in Rumelia in its general meaning of mountain, as in Kod̲j̲a-Balkan, Čatal-Balkan, and Ungurus-Balkani̊, but especially it was applied to the Haemus mountain.
English traveler John Morritt introduced this term into the English literature at the end of the 18th-century, and other authors started applying the name to the wider area between the Adriatic and the Black Sea. The concept of the “Balkans” was created by the German geographer August Zeune in 1808. During the 1820s, “Balkan became the preferred although not yet exclusive term alongside Haemus among British travelers… Among Russian travelers not so burdened by classical toponymy, Balkan was the preferred term.
*The Parthenon, Greece
Evolution of meaning
As time passed, the term gradually acquired political connotations far from its initial geographic meaning, arising from political changes from the late 19th-century to the creation of post–World War I Yugoslavia (initially the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes).
Zeune’s goal was to have a geographical parallel term to the Italic and Iberian Peninsula, and seemingly nothing more. The gradually acquired political connotations are newer and, to a large extent, due to oscillating political circumstances.
After the dissolution of Yugoslavia beginning in June 1991, the term “Balkans” again received a negative meaning, especially in Croatia and Slovenia, even in casual usage , “Balkanization “.