“Everyday Martyrdom”: The Daily Life of Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire

A remarkable book has recently been published: The Church of Constantinople in the 19th Century (Peter Lang, 2013). It’s a massive tome, over 1,000 pages long, originally written in 1904 by Ivan Sokolov, one of the leading Russian Orthodox scholars of Church history at the time. Sokolov enjoyed unprecedented access to the Patriarchal archives in Istanbul, and his book is filled with copious references to documents that are not only unpublished but also unknown even to specialists.

Some other time I’ll post about the remarkable details. For now, I’d like to highlight several paragraphs from the beginning of the book, in which Sokolov is describing the general historical context and day-to-day reality of life for Christians under Ottoman rule. The portrait that emerges may not be entirely unknown to those who have read of the Orthodox Christian martyrs of this period. Yet Sokolov’s account is, in many ways, even more arresting, as it quickly becomes evident that even the “average” believer endured a kind of “everyday martyrdom.”

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. . . the internal structure of the Patriarchate of Constantinople was like a state within a state, having its own administration and court, de jure freedom to profess its faith, and the right to run its own community affairs. But this is only to look at one side of the position of Christians in the Turkish Empire. The other side was the actual relations between the Christians and the Turkish state whose citizens they were. Here, at first glance, matters did not seem so rosy.

First of all, Christians were considered by the Turks to be a subject people obliged to pay taxes, a people of no value, causing only feelings of disgust to true believers who treated them with disdain and as they saw fit. To the Turks these people were no more than giaours, dogs or cattle, obliged to feed and serve their conquerors, doomed to eternal slavery. The subjugated Christians who did not convert to Islam had no right to life, but could save their lives on condition that they paid taxes to their true-believing overlords. Therefore the Christians, shortly after the fall of Byzantium, were burdened with a range of taxes of different sorts. Above all the Roman or Greek “oxen” were obliged to pay a poll tax per head of population which was by way of a ransom for their lives, for the right to exist in a Muslim land. This poll tax was obligatory for all “oxen” except women, children under twelve years of age, feeble old folk, cripples, the blind, slaves, the poor, those who were not able to earn their living, hermit monks, i.e. those whom it was prohibited to kill during a holy war. The poll tax was levied on Christians in varying amounts. Soon after the Turkish victory the rich paid 48 dirgems per year, people of moderate means paid half this amount, and the poor who lived by their own labour paid one quarter or 12 dirgems. There were subsequent and frequent changes to this poll tax. It was paid personally by every Christian to his tax collector in a rather demeaning manner. The tax collector would sit and receive the dues, saying: “O enemy of the one and only God, render up your poll tax”, meanwhile striking the Christian on the neck. The tax payer would receive a receipt which he had to carry with him at all times in order to avoid being called upon to pay a second time.

In addition to the poll tax the Roman and Greek “oxen” had to pay a land tax. This tax took two forms, fixed amount and sliding scale. In the first case the tax was levied on the amount of land under cultivation, and in the second case the harvest was taxed. The “oxen” who still owned land even after the fall of Byzantium paid both types of tax for the right of continued land use, the harvest tax being one dirgem in gold per desyatina of wheat and one saa or pood of wheat yield. In the case of arable land, the payment was five dirgems per desyatina, and of vineyards ten dirgems per desyatina. Land tax as a percentage payment varied between one fifth and one half of the total harvest. Christians living off land rented from Turkish owners had to pay a fixed tithe either in money or in kind to these big landowners. Since almost the whole of the Turkish Empire was either in the ownership of the Muslim spiritual leaders and mosques, or divided among the sultan’s associates on a semi-feudal basis, only a small amount of agricultural grade land was left in Christian hands. Notwithstanding, the level of land tax paid by the “oxen” was huge, leaving them only a small proportion of each harvest for their own use. Subsequently the land tax was changed to a tax per acre, which was levied on all produce. Under the first sultans the desyatina was paid only by merchants on turnover and was used by the government to secure the highways.[1]

The Christians of Roumeli, i.e. the European provinces of Turkey, paid an impossibly heavy tithe in kind which they called “blood tax” (φόρος τοῦ αἵματος), or “sons tribute” (παιδομάζωμα). This tribute undoubtedly existed under Mehmed II, but under Sultan Selim I (1512–1520) and Suleiman I (1520–1566) it was organised and exacted systematically. Every five years troops were sent out from the capital to forcibly conscript Christian boys between the ages of 8 and 14 years. The officers carried the sultan’s firman. The demogerontes of the Christian communities had to draw up lists of all the local families, and every father had to indicate how many sons he had and to produce them for the inspectors. The inspectors would take 10 per cent of the Christian children, always the most healthy, handsome, active and strong among them. They would dress them in a special uniform and take them away to Constantinople. Here they were circumcised and converted to Islam, the more able ones were taught foreign languages and kept at court, the others were given a very strict education as vassals of the sultan and his law. Many of these young men would later enter the sultan’s guard, either as foot soldiers or cavalry.

Finally, Christians paid not only legally required taxes, but ad hoc taxes on the unmarried, the married, or those getting married, as well as material taxes (judicial duties), fines for greater and smaller infractions, customs duties (on import, export, transit and transportation by road), duties payable on meat and wine, on mercantile receipts, stamp duty, taxes on salting, fishing, mining and other industries, and so on. In general the Greek populace was so burdened with various taxes and tithes that they really were little more than draught animals (“oxen”), destined for the most oppressive economic slavery.

The Christians’ legal position, their social and civil status, was no better. This side of their existence had been regulated since the seventh century by an agreement between Caliph Omar and the Christians.[2] The agreement was aimed at demeaning the Christians as much as possible, and consists of a series of astonishing limitations. Christians did not have the right to build new churches or renovate ruined churches, they were obliged to allow Muslims to enter their churches at any time of day or night, to keep the doors of their houses open to passing Muslims, to receive them as guests even in the middle of the night and to feed them, not to harbour spies, not to teach their children the Qu’ran, not to make open spectacle of their religion and not to preach it, not to prevent those wishing to convert to Islam from doing so, to respect Muslims and to offer them their seats, not to dress like Muslims, not to use either expressions or names used by Muslims, not to use Muslim saddles on horses, not to carry weapons, not to engrave anything in Arabic on signet rings, not to openly sell wine, to shave their heads at the front, not to change the manner of their clothing under any circumstances or wear girdles round their waists, not to carry or wear crosses or holy books in public, to sound the bells or simandron in the churches only quietly, not to raise their voices in churches when Muslims are present, not to wail at funerals, not to carry palm fronds or sacred images in public, not to carry fire in Muslim districts, not to bury their dead near Muslims, not to take slaves belonging to Muslims, not to look inside a Muslim home, not to build houses higher than Muslim houses, not to beat Muslims, not to purchase captive Muslims, not to take on Muslim servants or employees, not to criticise the Qu’ran, Muhammad or the Islamic faith, not to marry Muslims, to allow Muslims to settle in Christian areas, not to openly keep pigs, to ride only donkeys and mules, to attach beads to their saddles, to wear a stamp on their necks (proof of payment of taxes), when entering the bath house to wear a bell, to sit side saddle, not to sit in seats reserved for respected persons at meetings, not to initiate greetings when meeting Muslims, to give way to Muslims; finally, any agreement is nullified if a Christian should strike a Muslim. In addition, on the basis that a Christian cannot hold a position of authority over a true believer, Muslim law deprived the Christians of the right to occupy any position that might put a Muslim into a position of legal dependence on them. Thus Christians do not have the right to become secretaries or chief clerks, to be guardians of a Muslim, his judge or administrator. Worse still was the fact that Christian witnesses were not allowed to give testimony against Muslims no matter what the circumstances, the injustice, or the numbers of Christians involved. As for political rights for Christians, there was certainly absolutely no possibility of that.

One cannot help noticing inconsistencies and even contradictions in the rules governing Christians living within the Turkish Empire. In actual fact the Church of Constantinople, which took the place in the Christians’ lives of the defeated Orthodox Empire, not only kept its former religious and moral power and grandeur, but acquired new national political rights. The Church became a sort of state within a state, with its patriarch-tsar, with its administration and judiciary, with its civil subjects who were at the same time its spiritual children, with its official language Greek, with its unity established by the Orthodox faith held by the whole Greek or “Romaic” populace, and with clergy exempted from taxes and other obligations. Considered in isolation, the Church may have seemed to be in an enviable position. But a glance at the other side of the coin is sufficient to shatter the illusion. One must bear in mind that the Church was a state within a Muslim state, where Christianity, from the point of view of the only source of legislation, the Qu’ran, was no more than a religio licita. The privileges granted to the Church of Constantinople by Mehmed II were not founded on the principle of conscious religious tolerance, neither was it Turkish sympathy that guaranteed the advantages enjoyed by the Christian community as a “state within the state”. On the contrary, everything was conditioned by the government’s political and economic aims, and sprang from its effective inability to act in any other way towards the Christians except in accordance with the various laws of Shari’a. This was categorically absolutist in regard to true believers and to unbelievers, considering the latter, without exception, to be slaves, and preaching total separation from them in religion and in social, domestic and political life, along with legalised hatred towards them, disdain, violence and arbitrariness.

Thus on the one hand there were the rights or privileges (pronomia) that had been granted by virtue of political expediency and had never been understood by the Muslim public at large, and on the other hand there was a position of slavery legalised by both the divine and human dictates of Islam, something which all true believers could fully identify with and which was much to their advantage. Again, on the one hand there was the “state within the state”, while on the other they squeezed all the juices out of the “oxen” for the benefit of the empire whose citizens they could never be. Likewise there was on the one hand a juxtaposition of systematic regulation, bureaucratisation and legislation of the Greek clergy and people, and on the other a complete disregard for them and rejection of their rights in the name of God’s law. It was obvious that one hand was working against the other, that the structure of the Christian community based on irreconcilable principles was unnatural and by its very essence contained the seeds of its own downfall. This is exactly how it turned out. The de facto position of the Christians in Turkey was an open and systematic flaunting of the law, a rule of fanatical intolerance, violence and arbitrary acts, utter degradation and disregard of human rights. The Christians had no civil rights, only the status of slaves. They were not members of the state but merely slaves to cruel and inhuman conquerors who had the right at any moment to deprive them of their property, honour or life itself.

[1] Girgas, Права христиан на востоке по мусульманским законам, 19–34. [2] N. Mednikov, Палестина от завоевания ее арабами до крестовых походов по арабским источникам, I (Palestine from the Arab Conquest to the Crusades in Arabic Sources, Study I), in Православный Палестинский Сборник 50 (Palestinian Orthodox Series 50), St Petersburg, 568–604.

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