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The Nature of Ottoman Rule

The Ottoman state was a theocracy, based on strict notions of hierarchy and order, with the sultan exercising absolute, divineright power at its pinnacle. The system first divided subject peoples into the domain of the faithful, the Muslims, and the domain of war, the non-Muslims. An individual's obligations and rights were determined by position in one of these groups. Conversion by foreign subjects to Islam was possible, but the Ottomans did not demand it. Instead, further religion-based classifications were used to rule the subject population.

The non-Muslim community was divided into millets, administrative units organized on the basis of religious affiliation rather than ethnic origin. Accordingly, the four nonMuslim millets were Armenian, Catholic, Jewish, and Orthodox; the last was the largest and most influential. The millets enjoyed a fair amount of autonomy. At the head of each of was a religious leader responsible for the welfare of the millet and for its obedience to the sultan. The head of the Orthodox millet was the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople. The patriarch's position as ethnarch, or leader of the nation, also gave him substantial secular powers. This combination meant that the institution of the Orthodox Church played a vital role in the development of Greek society during the Ottoman era.

In practice, the extent of the empire made control dependent on a complex, decentralized administrative hierarchy. Living on their estates, designated local military leaders, the sipahi, assumed many of the responsibilities of local rule. Over time, the estates became hereditary and stopped serving their intended function. In Greek territory, this policy left massive landholdings controlled by the Ottoman Turks and worked by dependent Greek peasants.

As the sipahi system broke down, a form of provincial administration took its place. The empire was divided into regions that were governed by pashas, who in turn subdivided their realms into smaller units overseen by beys. The Orthodox millet included two types of local government. Ottoman officials and religious judges adjudicated civil and criminal cases involving Muslims and Orthodox citizens. Orthodox priests and Christian primates collected taxes, settled disputes, and effectively governed at the local level. At times the two systems competed, and at times they operated in coordination; the result was complexity, abuse, and cynicism. In this atmosphere, people sought security in direct patronage relationships with individuals in power. The Ottoman system discriminated against the non-Muslim population by imposing special levies of money and labor, and various restrictions were placed on personal freedom. In court, testimony of a Muslim would always be accepted over that of a non-Muslim. Marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims were illegal. Most hated of all was the forced conscription of male children for service in military or civil service. The burden on the subject population became even heavier and more capricious when the empire began suffering military defeats by Russia in the eighteenth century.

Some parts of Greece were able to escape the direct effects of Ottoman rule. The remote mountains of central Greece, for example, were called the Agrapha, the "unwritten", because the empire had no census or tax records for the region. Other areas were granted special status because they filled particular needs of the empire. Beginning in the late seventeenth century, the Phanariotes, a group of Greek merchant families in Constantinople, gained bureaucratic power by serving the sultan as diplomats and interpreters. In the eighteenth century, the Phanariotes were appointed hospodars, or princes, of the Romanian provinces Moldavia and Wallachia.

The official role given the Orthodox Church in the millet system made its situation in Greek society paradoxical. On the one hand, it helped to keep the Greek language alive and used its traditional educational role to pass on the Greek cultural heritage and foster a sense of cultural identity. On the other hand, the Ottoman authorities expected the church to maintain order. The church became a very conservative institution that protected its role by isolating Greeks from the great intellectual currents of the West, first the Reformation and later the Enlightenment. Secular influences first touched Greek society not in Greece but in the communities of the diaspora.

As the feudal system crumbled, control over such a vast domain became increasingly problematic. Because a standing army would have been prohibitively expensive, non-Muslims were assigned as armatoliks, or armed guards, of specified areas and paid from local taxes. This system was abused flagrantly by independent groups of armed men, some with official sanction and some without, who roamed the countryside and abused the peasant population. Myths have turned the bandits into proto-revolutionaries, but to contemporaries in Greece and elsewhere, they were a force to be feared.


The Ottoman Era

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