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Greek monastery manuscripts tell the new story of Ottoman rule : NPR

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Father Theophilos, a Pantocrator monk, shows a manuscript in the library of the Pantokrator Monastery on Mount Athos in northern Greece on Thursday, October 13, 2022.

Thanassis Stavrakis/AP


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Father Theophilos, a Pantocrator monk, shows a manuscript in the library of the Pantokrator Monastery on Mount Athos in northern Greece on Thursday, October 13, 2022.

Thanassis Stavrakis/AP

MOUNT ATHOS, Greece – A church bell rings, the staccato thud of a wooden mallet calls monks to afternoon prayer, deep voices rise in communal chant. And in the great tower of Pantokrator Abbey, a metal library door swings open.

There, deep inside the medieval fortified monastery in the Mount Athos monastic Orthodox Christian community, researchers are for the first time touching an almost unknown treasure, thousands of Ottoman-era manuscripts containing some of the world’s oldest.

Founded more than 1,000 years ago on northern Greece’s Athos peninsula, the libraries of the self-governing community are a repository of rare, centuries-old works in multiple languages, including Greek, Russian and Romanian.

Many of them have been studied extensively, but Ottoman Turkish documents are not the products of an invading bureaucracy that ruled northern Greece from the late 14th century – long before the Byzantine capital Constantinople fell into Ottoman hands in 1453 – but rather the region’s early 20th century. became Greek again.

Byzantine scholar Jannis Niehoff-Panagiotidis says it is impossible to understand the economy of Mount Athos and society under Ottoman rule without looking at these documents that regulate the monks’ relations with secular authorities.

“Ottoman was the official language of the state,” the library of the Pantokrator Monastery, one of 20 Pantokrator Monasteries on the densely wooded peninsula, told The Associated Press.

Niehoff-Panagiotidis, a professor at the Free University of Berlin, said the oldest of the nearly 25,000 Ottoman artifacts found in monastic libraries belonged to 1374 or 1371. This is older than all the known works of the world, he said, adding that it was in Istanbul. The earliest archives date only to the late 15th century, as the Ottomans renamed it Constantinople when they made the city their capital.

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

These include the edicts—or edicts—of highly decorated sultans, title deeds, and court decisions.

“The overwhelming majority of legal documents,” said Anastasios Nikopoulos, a lawyer and scientific collaborator 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 contradicts the traditional Greek understanding of Ottoman plunder of newly conquered territories through the confiscation of the rich real estate assets of Mount Athos monasteries. Instead, the new rulers took the community under their wing, maintaining its autonomy and protecting it from outside interference.

“The sultan’s edicts we see in the tower … and the court decisions of the Ottoman state, show that the small democracy of the monks has managed to win the respect of all the conquering powers,” Nikopoulos said. Said. “And that’s because Mount Athos was seen as a cradle of peace, culture… where peoples and civilizations coexisted peacefully.”

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


Father Theophilos, a Pantocrator monk, checks a manuscript in the library of the Pantokrator Monastery on Mount Athos in northern Greece on Thursday, October 13, 2022.

Thanassis Stavrakis/AP


hide title

turn subtitle on/off

Thanassis Stavrakis/AP


Father Theophilos, a Pantocrator monk, checks a manuscript in the library of the Pantokrator Monastery on Mount Athos in northern Greece on Thursday, October 13, 2022.

Thanassis Stavrakis/AP

“This says a lot. The Ottoman sultan personally ensured the preservation and protection of the administrative system of Mount Athos,” he said.

Niehoff-Panagiotidis added that even before that, a sultan had issued an order that stipulated strict penalties for intruders after a group of marauding soldiers made petty thefts from one of the monasteries.

It is strange that the sultans kept Mount Athos, the last remnant of Byzantium, semi-independent and did not touch it.” “They were not even keeping the soldiers here. At most they would have had a local representative staying (in Karyes, the community’s headquarters) and drinking tea.”

Another unexpected revelation, according to Niehoff-Panagiotidis, was that during roughly the first two centuries of Ottoman rule, no effort was made to impose Islamic law on Mount Athos or the nearby areas of northern Greece.

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

The first time to the community in 883 AD, Byzantine Emperor II. By a decree of Basil, he was given the right to self-rule. Throughout its history, women have been banned from entering, and this ban still continues. This rule is called “avaton” and researchers believe it concerns any external administrative or secular interference that may affect Mount Athos.

Father Theophilos, a Pantocrator monk who helped with the research, said the documents show the far-reaching influence of Mount Athos.

“His work also sheds light on how people can live with one another, the principles common to all humanity, the seeds of human rights and respect for them, the principles of democracy and social coexistence,” he told the Associated Press.

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

“What might come out in the long run, I’ll be able to tell once we have cataloged and digitized all the documents,” Niehoff-Panagiotidis said. “No one knows what’s hidden here right now. Maybe even older documents.”

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