#3 Christians in the Ottoman Empire Revisited (Krimsti & Çolak)

Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, Fener, Istanbul ©MvdB
Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, Fener, Istanbul ©MvdB

Recently two well-researched additions to Ottoman Studies landed on my desk, both touching upon the position of Christians and other non-Muslim minorities, both concerning hot topics of current research: Feras Krimsti’s Die Unruhen von 1850 in Aleppo: Gewalt im urbanen Raum (2014) about nineteenth-century violence directed at Christians and Hasan Çolak’s The Orthodox Church in the Early Modern Middle East: Relations Between the Ottoman Central Administration and the Patriarchates of Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria (2015) about the way Christian leaders related to the Ottoman state.

The underlying dissertations were written in different academic and scholarly contexts, but are both part of the revisionist approach that has characterized the study of non-Muslim minorities in the Ottoman Empire over the last twenty years or more (perhaps the starting point was already the Braude/Lewis volume, Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire, 1982) in which commonly held assumptions as to the central position of the Greek and Armenian patriarchs of Constantinople vis-à-vis the Ottoman administration, that of patriarchs and bishops as the sole source of civil justice within their respective communities, and, finally, as to the stipulations attributed to the pact of Umar (about church buildings and renovations, clothing prescriptions, jizya etc.) were pretty much unchangeable givens in every age and locality.

Nothing of that really was the case, and the work of Krimsti and Çolak, both based on careful analysis of old and newly discovered primary sources, further adds to the growing literature on the subject. Çolak focusses on the  relationship of the ‘Eastern patriarchs’ (that is, the Greek (or ‘Rum’) patriarchs of Alexandria, Jerusalem and Antioch) to the both the Greek patriarch of Constantinople, and the Ottoman Porte – a relationship much more direct, ad-hoc and versatile than one might expect. Krimsti focusses on the issue of intercommunal violence in the nineteenth century, which he, in line with earlier researchers, attributes more to the, often very local, effects of the social and economic changes resulting from the Tanzimat Reforms initiated by the Ottoman administration, than to any kind of primordial hatred between Muslims and Christians. The building (and destruction) of churches plays an important role in his analysis, and here too earlier assumptions on how and when Christians could build and rebuild are being subverted. Krimsti’s very detailed analysis of the insurrection of 1850, with due attention to its spatially executed script, is an important contribution to the repertoire with which we can read these events.

Questions remain, of course, especially concerning the violent episodes that, whatever the socio-economic factors that formed its immediate cause, are and have been interpreted as being part of a tradition of anti-Christian violence. This rhetoric, which worked at the time to set consuls and others in action, needs to be integrated into the discussion and consequences of such events, whatever its factual basis. Krimsti’s careful analysis of the immediate factors constitutes an excellent starting point for such a broader discussion of the afterlife and interpretation of these events. Çolak’s work should feature in a further analysis of the Church-State relations in the Ottoman period, as to the tensions between ‘Arab’ and ‘Greek’ Christians within the patriarchate of Antioch, as to role of the Jerusalem patriarchate among the others (because of the wide-spread support also outside its jurisdiction for the Holy Places), and as to how the ‘Oriental’ churches (Armenian, Syriac, Coptic) fit into this revised reading. Exciting times, it is indeed, for Ottoman Studies.

For a longer version of these reviews, see one of the upcoming issues of the Journal of Eastern Christian Studies.

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