The Ottomans and the Orthodox Church

The Eastern Orthodox Church was dominated by four ‘orthodox’ patriarchates.  These plus Rome make five which are the number of Patriarchal Sees that were determined by a number of Councils leading up to the Council of Chalcedon in the 6th cent.  In order of  precedence these patriarchates are:  Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem.  To a very great degree these patriarchal sees were determined either by
1) authority given to St. Peter by Christ: Rome and Antioch
2) Imperial presence  in one form or another: Rome and Constantinople
3) Historical prestige: Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem
4) Wealth  and subsequently power: Alexandria and Antioch and later on Constantinople

As you can see Rome comes out on top actually but after the 11th cent. Of course the Eastern and Western churches go into schism and the Roman Patriarchate is left in the West and the Eastern Patriarchates are dominated by Muslims (Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria and Constantinople claim that it is not only the legitimate Imperial See but also the most orthodox.)

To see what happened under the Ottomans you have to look at this picture from their point of view.  The Greeks (i.e. Byzantines) had an extremely privileged position initially under the Ottomans.  The Sultan (Mehmet II)  had just seized the City and assumed residence there.  He had already through conquest or through absorption assumed a number of titles: Khan of the tribe of Osman, Sultan (Emperor) of Rum (taken from the Seljuq Turkish Sultante of Anatolia) – and these Sultans had already absorbed the civil authority of the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad.  By conquest he now assumed the title of Emperor (Sultan) of the Byzantine Empire which in turn had claims to being the legitimate inheritors of the Ancient Roman Empire – from Spain to the Euphrates and from North Africa to the Rhine and Danube Rivers.  Mehmet knew his history and the last title he assumed was Kaisar – (Caesar) – to emphasize this point of legitimate rights. Religion and language – even culture - was incidental in all of this as, after all, the Roman Empire had changed religion twice – from paganism to Christianity (so what is the problem about  a third conversion to Islam?) Language had changed from Latin to Greek – so why not Turkish now? Culture had been dominated by Italy and then by Anatolia – the new culture was Turkish…. The real interest was EMPIRE and legitimacy – and from one point of view Mehmet had them all…after all he was Khan, Sultan and Kaisar.

Within weeks of the conquest of Constantinople Mehmet had Gennadios, the leader of the monastic party found where he had been taken to Edirne. He had been instrumental in leading the Church to turn against the last Emperor after he had made a ‘union’ between the Orthodox (Constantinople) and Catholic (Rome) Patriarchs at Florence…Notaras – one of the leaders of this party was said to have remarked at the time  "better the turban of the Turk than the tiara of the Pope!"

Mehmet knew all of this and he installed Gennadios as Patriarch of the Church giving him his cross and staff and saying "In my authority as Sultan and Kaisar I appoint you Patriarch" (or words to that effect – the firman still exists).  As more land was conquered under Selim I in the early 16th cent., Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem were taken and for the first time in many centuries the four patriarchates were united – but in order of precedence – Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem…and the authority of Constantinople was paramount hence it was from there that ‘Greeks’ were given privileged positions that were in turn made legitimate through custom.  Watch this word ‘Greek’ as in Turkish there are two terms to deginate Greeks – Iounan and Rumci.  The former is almost the equivalent of 'provincials’ the latter to ‘Byzantines’. This high regard for Byzantine Greeks was kept by the Turks and gave to the Rumci a very important social status under the Ottomans (the Patriarch sat on the Imperial Divan along with the other five Viziers of the Empire!)  It also meant an enormous abuse of power by them (consider Moldavia where the Greeks surpassed their predecessors in avarice) and in the end the revolt of 1821 was seen by the Turks as more than high treason – it was tinged with ingratitude and duplicity of the highest order. The Turks reacted by hanging the Greek Orthodox patriarch. The new patriarch took the hint and condemned the revolution.  

Oddly enough the web of influence that Rumci had created in the Near East through control of the Patriarchates remained and still remains – bizarrely enough – the last remnant of Ottoman administration.

Thanks to Nikos Stavrolakis

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