Greek monastery manuscripts tell new story of Ottoman rule

MOUNT ATHOS, Greece (AP) — A church bell rings, the staccato thump of a hammer on a plank summons monks to afternoon prayers, deep voices are raised in communal chant. And high in the great tower of the Pantokrator Monastery, a metal library door swings open.

There, deep within the medieval fortified monastery in the Orthodox Christian community of Mount Athos, researchers are tapping for the first time on a virtually unknown treasure: thousands of Ottoman-era manuscripts, including the oldest of their kind in the world.

Founded more than 1,000 years ago on the Athos Peninsula in northern Greece, the libraries of the self-governed community are a repository of rare, ancient works in several languages, including Greek, Russian, and Romanian.

Many have been studied extensively, but not the Ottoman Turkish documents, products of an occupying bureaucracy that ruled northern Greece from the late 14th century – well before the Byzantine capital Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453 – until the early 20th when the area became Greek again.

The Byzantine scholar Jannis Niehoff-Panagiotidis says that it is impossible to understand the economy and society of Mount Athos under Ottoman rule without consulting these documents, which regulated the monks’ dealings with secular authorities.

“Ottoman was the official language of the state,” he told The Associated Press from the library of the Pantokrator Monastery, one of 20 on the heavily forested peninsula.

Niehoff-Panagiotidis, a professor at the Free University of Berlin, said the oldest of the roughly 25,000 Ottoman works found in the monastic libraries dates back to 1374 or 1371. That’s older than any known in the world, he said, adding that in Istanbul, as the Ottomans renamed Constantinople when they made the city their own capital, the oldest records only go back to the end of the 15th century.

“The first documents that shed light (on the first period of Ottoman history) are kept here, on Mount Athos,” he said, sitting at a table full of documents and books. Others, the more rare ones, are stored in large wooden drawers.

These include very ornate sultans’ firms – or decrees – title deeds and court decisions.

“The vast majority are legal documents,” said Anastasios Nikopoulos, a lawyer and research associate at the Free University of Berlin, who has been working with Niehoff-Panagiotidis on the project for the past few months.

And the manuscripts tell a story that runs counter to the traditional understanding in Greece of Ottoman looting in the newly conquered territories, through the confiscation of the rich real estate assets of Mount Athos monasteries. Instead, the new rulers took charge of the community, maintaining its autonomy and protecting it from outside interference.

“The firms of the sultans we saw in the tower… and the court rulings of the Ottoman state show that the small democracy of the monks was able to win the respect of all conquering powers,” Nikopoulos said. “And that’s because Mount Athos was seen as a cradle of peace, culture … where peoples and civilizations coexisted peacefully.”

Nikopoulos said that one of the first actions of Murad II, the Ottoman ruler who conquered Thessaloniki – the closest city to Mount Athos – was to draft a legal document in 1430 protecting the community.

“That says a lot. The Ottoman sultan himself ensured that the administrative system of Mount Athos was preserved and safeguarded,” he said.

Even before that, Niehoff-Panagiotidis added, a sultan issued a mandate severely punishing invaders after a group of marauding soldiers engaged in petty theft from one of the monasteries.

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“It is strange that the sultans kept Mount Athos, the last remnant of Byzantium, semi-independent and did not touch it,” he said. “They didn’t even have troops here. At the most, they would have a local representative who probably stayed (the administrative center of the community, Karyes) and drank tea.”

Another unexpected revelation, Niehoff-Panagiotidis said, was that for roughly the first two centuries of Ottoman rule, no attempt was made to impose Islamic laws on Mount Athos or nearby parts of northern Greece.

“Mount Athos was something like a continuation of Byzantium,” he said.

The community was first granted self-government by a decree of the Byzantine Emperor Basil II, in 883 AD. Throughout history, women have been banned from entering, a ban that continues to this day. This rule is called “avaton” and the researchers believe it involves any form of external administrative or secular intervention that could affect Mount Athos.

Father Theophilos, a Pantokrator monk helping with the investigation, said the documents show the widespread influence of Mount Athos.

“Their study also highlights examples of how people can live together, principles common to all humanity, the seeds of human rights and respect for them, democracy and the principles of social coexistence,” he told The Associated Press.

The research project is expected to take several months, even years.

“What could happen in the long term, I’ll be able to say when we have cataloged and digitized all the documents,” Niehoff-Panagiotidis said. “At the moment no one knows what is hidden here. Maybe even older documents.”

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Associated Press religious coverage is supported by the AP’s partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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