Figure 1.--"Kryfoscholio" (The Secret School) was painted by Gyzis about 1880. According to some historians secret schools operated in Ottoman Greece. Priests played the role of teachers, and they taught the Greek language and history. The costumes depicted by Gyzis are imagined, but may well be accurate.
The Ottomon rule over its conquered territories has been termed expoitive and oppresive. The Greeks were one of many Balkan Christian peoples conquered by the Ottomans. They remained remained under Ottoman control for nearly 400 years. Greek historians look on this period bitterly referring to the "Turkish Yoke". Most Greeks languished under the Ottomas in poverty. There are many stories of attrocities, both in Greece and other subject Christian areas of the Balkans. The Greeks look back with particular bitterness to the "gathering" of Christian children to serve the Sultan in Janissaries corps. The Ottoman regime, compared with practices in contemporary Christain kingdoms, tolerated considerable religious and cultural diversity. During the Ottoman period, the Greeks were able to retain their language, their religion and their sense of national identity. The Ottoman conquest meant the end of the Hellenist tradition in much of the eastern Mediterrabean. In Greece itself, the Orthodox religious faith played an important role in preserving Greek cultural identity. The role of the Ottoman Turks in European history has often not been accurately or fairly presented. Ottoman rule with all its explotive policies was in many ways benign compared to other conquering nations. Perhaps the most significant impact of the Ottomon conquest was that the Turks established their dominion over Greece just as the Renaissance began to unfold in Europe, so that, cut off from contact and exchanges with western Europe, Greece and other Balkan areas had no chance to participate in, or benefit from, the humanistic achievements of that era and the cultural, economic, and technolgical changes that flowed from it.
The Greeks and other Balkan Christian peolple remained under Ottoman control for nearly 400 years.
Greek historians look on this period bitterly referring to the "Turkish Yoke". There are many stories of attrocities, both in Greece and other subject Christian areas of the Balkans. The Greeks look back with particular bitterness to the ensalvement of Christian children to serve the Sultan. It is true that there were practices such as child gatherings and the forced conversion and enslavement of Christian children for service in the Janissary corps. Historians point to the not infrequent murders of Orthodox Patriarchs at times of political or religious crisis. Greek criticisms are particularly focused on the later period of Ottoman rule when liberal ideas were affecting living conditions and life style in Europe. A Greek reader reports, "The Ottomans did nothing to ameliorate the living of the populations in their provinces both the Christian and the Islamic. They did not build schools, streets, hospitals etc unlike the AustropHungarian Empire which favored the education of its citizens (even if it was in German). Schools in Greece were rare and were financed by prosperous Greeks. Most Greeks had to seek education abroad."
The Janissaries were an elite corps in the service of the Ottoman Sultan. The term in Turkish, "yeniçeri" means new troops, which is just what they first were at first, an
alternative to the regular Ottoman army. Sultan Murad I (1319-1389) sought to counter the power of the Ottoman gazi nobility by convering the Janissaries into an elite personal army. The first Janissaries were originally composed of war captives. Soon Christian children were pressed into service. Christian children were taken from their parents in periodic "child gatherings" called devsirme. The Sultan every 3-5 five years, would send special "scouts" to seek talented boys who could be drafted. They chose healthy, strong and handsome boys and youths. All ties were cut with their families. Christian children were chosen because Muslims, especially the gazi nobility had family and clan ties which affected their loyalty to the Sultan. The Ottoman army was composed of free men from many different tribes and distant areas often wide apart. Allegiances were strongest to their own tribal leaders. These leaders might be tempted to oppose the sultan's power or even seek allies with the sultan's enemies. The Chritian children converted to Islam only had one loyalty--that to the Sultan. Their fearless passion, drive and discipline strengthened the Ottoman Empire for centuries. The recruits were converted to Islam and educated under the strict discipline to serve the Sultan. They were trained under a discipline that was both military and monastic. The corps was their only home. For centuries they represented the best and most reliable Ottoman troops. Clever boys would become administrators. Athletic boys would become soldiers. After the conscription, the boys were were defined as the property of the sultan--in effect personal slaves. There actual condition was in fact far different than the modern concept of slave. Their fearless passion, drive and discipline strengthened the Ottoman Empire for centuries. With the education and training given them they were commonly able to rise in socail status and condition far beyond their often humble family status. They were often richly rewarded for their loyalty with grants of newly conquered land. Especially competent and loyal janissaries might rise to fill the most important administrative positions in the Ottoman Empire. The Janissaries were subject to very strict rules, limiting their personal freedom. The Sultan demanded higher moral standards than usual in the society. At first celibacy, was required. They were not allowed to grow beard, which in the Ottoman Empire was the sign of a free man. The Janissaries once used by the Sultans as an instrument of power gained great power in the Ottoman Empire and were capable of making anfd unmaking sultans. Muslims by the 17th cenyury had begun to enter the corps, largely through bribery, and in the 17th century membership became largely hereditary and the the drafting of Christians gradually ceased. Sultan Mahmud II in 1826 finally rids himself of the Janissaries. They were a nere shadow of the great soldiers of former years--except in number and cost. By the 19th century they had grown greaty in number and had become an expensive, inefficent and dangerous state within a state. Mahmud had them massacred in their barracks by his loyal Spahis. These great soldiers of the Ottoman Muslims armies have often been misunderstood and not infrenquently misrepresented. [Source: David Nicolle, Muslim Military History, 64p.]
Any fair assessment of the Ottoman Empire must compare their regime and practics with those of contemporary states and not with modern 21st century practices. The Ottoman regime, in realtive terms compared with practices in Christain kingdoms, administered a realtively tolerant regime, especially to other religions. Christian communities who did not resist were not slaughtered as was an all too common expedient among crusaders. After the initial conquest, the Ottomans again were relatively tolerant compared to other conquering nations or in the way they dealt with non-Turkish and non-Islamic people within the Empire. It is necessary to note what was happening to Jewish and Islamic populations in Chistian kingdoms or to other peoples in overseas conquests. There were no expulsions and forced mass conversions as after the Reconquista in Spain and Portugal, no excesses like the Holy Inquisition in Catholic countries, no devestating religious wars, and no terrifying massacres such as the St. Barthomew Day Massacres in France and gettos and periodic pogroms against the Jews througout Chrisendom. In fact, discenting Christain communities usually fared better under the Ottomans than under Byzantine and Roman Catholic soverigns. This is not to say that many subject people did not suffer under Ottoman rule. Subject people usually do. Christians had to pay a tax. There were restrictions on Christian worship. There were incidents of brutality against Christians. The fact that the Greek Church survived during 00 years of ttmon rule, however, is testimony to a degree of religous toleration that was not common in the Christian west.
The Greeks despite 400 years of Ottoman rule retained their language, their religion and their sense of natioanl identity. The Ottoman conquest meant the end of the Hellenist tradition in much of the eastern Mediterrabean. In Greece itself, the Orthodox religious faith played an important role in preserving Greek cultural identity. It must be remembered, however, that the Ottomans ruled Greece for four centuries. That is a huge time span and a powerful Empire like the Ottomans over that time span could have destroyed the Greek people and culture if they had decided to do so. There are many instances. The Spanish completely destroyed Moorish and Jewish culture in Spain, for example, and the Ottomans were capable of doung this in Greece. The fact that Greek and the other Christian culture in the Balkans survived was because of the Ottoman policies that tolerated considerable religious and cultural diversity. This began to change in the 19th centuries, but by that time the Ottomans were no longer capable of destroying or supressing the rising national ferment.
Ottoman expansion was greatly feared in the Christian West. The Ottomans, often in contrast to the Christian kingdoms, however, usually allowed religious groups to continue to practice their own faiths within the conquered territories. Many Eastern Rites churches, for example, fared better under the Ottomans than they did under the Byzantines or shorter periods of administration by Roman Catholic rulars. The Ottomans applied the millet system which allowed religious authorities to govern their own non- Muslim minorities. This system reinforced the position of the Orthodox Church and the cohesion of the Greek population. Unlike some areas of the Balkans, there were realtively few Islamic conversions in Greece, except in Macedonia.
The Ottomans also tended to preserve the established feudal institutions. They often permitted the the different ethnic and religious groups within the Empire to adopt laws to regulate their own communities. Many historians believe that the Ottoman administrative and governmental systems were well developed and highly effective, especially in the early years--more so than Christain kingdoms. Many historians find that most lands under Ottoman rule were competently managed, although this deterioated in the final era of the Empire. This is certainly not a universally held opinion. A Greek reader writes HBC, "I dont agree with the assumption that an administrative system can be viewed as system to develop one region. Ottoman administration was indeed affective but collecting taxes does not mean that you develop your Empires areas. The Sultan just collected taxes to maintain his army and his court and did almost nothing for the development of the ares within his empire. And that
goes not only for the Christian but also for the Muslim regions. The Muslim
region were as underdveloped as the Christian ones. Just like historian Toynbee who wrote that the Ottomas just spent their energies being rulers."
The Greeks were one of the many peoples conqueredand exploited by the Ottomans. The Turks practiced considerable religious tolerance. Ottoman rule wss, however, oppressive and explotive. Some Greek families were important in administering Empire and benefitted accordngly. There were also Greek merchants living in Constantinople as well as ports in Anatolia that prospered. Most Greeks , however, languished under the Ottomas. The Turks established their dominion over Greece just as the Renaissance began to unfold in Europe, so that, cut off from contact and exchanges with western Europe, Greece and other Balkan areas had no chance to participate in, or benefit from, the humanistic achievements of that era and the cultural, economic, and technolgical changes that flowed from it. HBC has noted a variety of assessments of Ottoman rule. Some authors report that the Turks allowed subject peoples who recognized the Sultans' political authority to retain their cultural identies and way of life. The Greeks were allowed to pursue their trade, arts, and crafts. Others report that there were dramatic changes in the traditional system of land ownership and by the demographic compression of the Christian population, owing
to the arrival of large numbers of Muslim settlers. One report from Macedonia reports mass conversions to Islam. The conquest also caused great suffering and vast destruction of the country's economy, commerce, art, and culture.
One reader points out though that at independence (1829), the regions of Greece that were (mainly) under Western rule were more developed than the rest of Greece. The Ionian Islands is such a region. If you compare the Ionian Islands with the part of Greece that was under Sultans rule you will see big differences period of 15-19th centuries. Commerce and arts flourished on the Ionial Islands. All Greek poets of 18th and early 19th Century came from Ionian Islands. Starting at 1822 a Greek university operated in the Ionian Island when in Ottoman Greece there was none. The first university on the Greek mainland was established by king Otto in 1832. In the religion domain
Greeks in Ionian Islands weren't subject to any kind of massacres. The
Catholic church tried to convince priests to recognice Pope as their
religious leader but did nothing to change their Orthodox rituals or the spiritual differences over "filioque". Similarily, in the military Greeks in the Ionian Islands weren't subjected to any child gathering.
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