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Ottoman Athens I

Ottoman Athens I

Early Ottoman Athens (1456 - 1689)

Ottoman Athens

The Arrival of Mehmet the Conqueror

In autumn 1458, shortly after its surrender to the Turks, Sultan Mehmet II visited Athens in person. On his approach the abbot of Kaisariani, adopting the servile attitude of his predecessor towards the Crusaders some two and a half centuries previously, presented to the conqueror the keys of the city. In recognition of this service, the Sultan allowed the monastery to retain its privileges, and exempted from all but nominal taxation.

Luckily for the Athenians, the sultan was a devout Philhellene who read Greek, as well as Latin, and was anxious to see for himself all the sites so famous from history. For four days he went about the city viewing the sites and asking questions, trying to reconstruct the ancient cityscape in his imagination. On climbing onto the Acropolis he exclaimed in wonder: 'How much, indeed, do we not owe to Omar, the son of Turakhan!' The Muslim religion condemned all representations of gods and men, and it may be due to Mehmet's express command that the statues and bas-reliefs on the Parthenon, including those now known as the Elgin Marbles, were spared their puritan iconoclasm.

Sultan Mehmet granted to the Athenians a degree of self-government under a subassi under the authority of the pasha of Negroponte (Chalcis). His konak was located in the Stoa ´f ăadrian. The disdar-aga, or commander of the garrison was billeted in the palace of the Acciajuoli in the Propylaea, while he housed his harem in the Erechtheion. Ottoman civil law was administered by a cadi, or judge. The demogerontes, or city councillors, drawn from the twelve archontic families, administered the affairs of the Greek community. Below the archontai were the nykokyriakoi, or landlords, the pazarites, or trades people, and the xotarides, or outsiders. The members of each class were distinguished by distinctive dress It is unlikely that these arrangements were invented at this time, but it is not clear how far back they date.

In 1466 the Parthenon was referred to as a church, so it seems likely that for some time at least, it continued to function as a cathedral, being restored to the use of the Greek archbishop. The Cistercians had abandoned Daphne, and that monastery was also restored to the Orthodox.

Meanwhile the church which had served as a cathedral for the Greeks during the rule of the Roman Catholics, was converted into a mosque, with the name 'Mosque of the Conqueror.' Some time later - we do not know exactly when - the Parthenon was itself converted into a mosque. ┴ small edifice was built inside to hold the mihrab, indicating the direction of Mecca, necessary for the orientation of Muslim prayers, and a room for the imam, or preacher, while a minaret was added. The Greek archbishop moved into the church of ┴y. Panteleimon, which stood in the square below.

Despite their recent failures, the Venetians were by no means reconciled to Ottoman control over the Aegean. ┴ Venetian raid on Athens in 1464, however, achieved nothing but the plunder of the lower city.

Athens under the Ottoman Turks

The houses of the well-to-do at this time were constructed against one side of a courtyard, which was surrounded by a high wall. The house itself was usually two-storey, the lower floor sunk below ground level, was used for storage, workshop, kitchen and supplementary accommodation purposes. The upper floor, the main living quarters, would be supported upon arches. The courtyard would be used for poultry, and would be the living quarters during fine weather.

Despite the favours bestowed upon Athens by the Sultan, life under the Turks was always perilous. The non-Muslim, or rayah, had to pay a 'head tax' each year for the privilege of keeping his head on his shoulders. Church bells were banned. Non-muslims could not erect houses taller than Muslims, bear arms, ride horses, mount the acropolis, or wear certain clothes. At intervals the Toumatzimbashi, an Ethiopian slave, would arrive to collect boys of between ten and twelve to be taken for the janissaries, where they would be brought up as Muslims. The chronicle records that this child tribute was levied in 1543, 1547, 1553, 1555, 1559and 1566. Girls were taken for the harem of the sultan. Those whose children were taken would carry out the rites for the dead on their behalf.

This was a period of strong growth for monasticism, perhaps not unconnected with the child tribute. The monasteries on the slopes of Mount Hymettos were full of monks. Many wall paintings date from this time. The founder of Pendeli Monastery, Saint Timothy, was born at Kalamos, in Attica, in 1510. ┴ bishop on Euboea, he returned to Kalamos to escape the ire of the Pasha of Halkis, who had ordered his arrest, and decided to set up a monastery on Mount Pendeli, which quickly flourished. [Read the story of the foundation of Pendeli Monastery in

An Athenian Saint

One of the most famous Athenians at this time was Rhigoula Benizelos, born of the union of two ancient families, the Benizeloi and the Palaeologoi, the latter of which may have had connections with the imperial court at Constantinople. At the age of fourteen she was married to a wealthy Athenian, Andreas Cheilas, and lived on what is now St. Andrew's Street, between the Cathedral and the Plaka. Her husband, a crude and sadistic man, frequently beat and tormented her. When he died after only three years of marriage, she became a nun and used the wealth she had inherited from her husband for works of charity.

Despite her good works, she was an abrasive person, inclined to intemperate language. She quarrelled with Saint Timothy and nursed bitter resentments against the people of Attica. In 1570 she wrote a letter complaining about them to the Grand Logothete in Constantinople, which has been described as 'the ravings of someone mad with anger.' She claimed that the people of Attica behaved towards her with hostility and savagery.

The charitable work of Philothei was so successful that it excited the hostility of the Turks, who were particularly enraged when she gave shelter to four runaway slave girls. The Governor of the city had her arrested, but her relatives and the city elders protested against her imprisonment, so after paying an enormous fine, she was released. Then, on the night of 2-3rd October, 1588, a group of Turks broke into her house at Patissia, and severely beat her. She was taken to the district of Persos, now called Philothei in her honour, where she lingered for several months, before passing away on 18th February, 1589.

┬y the beginning of the seventeenth century the convent she left behind was already in trouble. ┴ large number of nuns were maintained, and the community engaged in a wide variety of enterprises, some of them very costly. For this reason, the nuns were repeatedly forced to seek for funds, yet they survived. [Read about the life and works of Saint Philothei in Athens.]

At this time, the Pandassa convent in Monastiraki Square, a dependency of Kaisariani Monastery, provided some care for poor, homeless and elderly people. They were given permanent shelter, and earned their keep by being hired out to parishioners for house and farm work, by spinning, weaving, silk making, and seasonal labour such as at the grape or olive harvests.

Athens in Obscurity

Visitations of the plague were not infrequent. ┴ chronicle of 1616 records seven such from the Turkish occupation until that time. An inscription in the Thision records that one, in 1555, killed thousands in the city. More Albanians moved south as refugees during the fifteenth century, when the Turks occupied Albania. In particular, a group which had previously lived in the Peloponnesus settled in Attica.

┬y this time the very name of Athens was forgotten among some Western travellers. William Lithgow, who passed through in 1609-10 called it Salenos. More usually it was Settines, from hearing the Athenians referring to travelling Stin Athini (to Athens). [Read about the short visit to Athens of William Lithgow.]

In 1645 control of Athens was transferred into the hands of the Kislar Aga, the chief black eunuch who supervised the sultan's harem in the Topkapi Palace. The voivode of Athens became his agent. This was a concession due to the affection Sultan Alunet I felt for a favourite concubine from Athens known as Vasiliki.

In 1656 a bolt of lightning struck the Propylaea, where the Turks had stored their gunpowder. Yussef Aga, the disdar aga was killed together with his family. The Greek tradition says that it effectively pre-empted a plan to bombard the Christians attending the feast of Saint Dimitris at the small church of that name at the foot of the Pnyx Hill opposite. [Read the story of the attempted bombardment of the Christians in Athens].

The Greeks possessed some influence over the destiny of their town at this time, for in 1660, when the Turks wanted to convert the Thiseion, then the church of Saint George, into a mosque, the Greeks of the city obtained a firman from the sultan to prevent them.

The First Modern Travellers

In 1667, the indefatigable Turkish traveller, Evliya Tchelebi, visited Athens. His description of the city is in striking contrast to that of Michael Akominatos four and a half centuries earlier. Although he had travelled around Europe, from Rome to Amsterdam, he says that he never saw in any country as many marvels as at Athens. He was clearly overwhelmed by what he saw, and he does not make a good witness; but he was one of the last visitors to describe the Parthenon before its destruction. He also had some extremely odd notions, such as that the city had been founded by ╩▀ng Solomon, who once visited it in company with the Queen of Sheba on flying thrones.

At this time, Western visitors, informed by Renaissance learning, began to appear in Athens, showing interest in its remains. This allows us to learn something of the topography of the area Thus Bernard Randolph describe the extensive olive groves which lay to the west of the city, six miles in length and two in breadth.

In the 1660s a French Capuchin mission was set up on a plot of land which included the so-called Lantern of Demosthenes. The hollow monument was turned into a library/study. The friary was chiefly known as a hostel for visiting Westerners, many of whom made the notes for their books in the convent. In 1672 a French Capuchin,

Babin reported that in his day it was possible to enter the city without passing through a gate. There were two or three gates which were never closed, since the city had no walls. Most of the narrow unpaved streets resembled village roads. Modest houses built from the ruins of ancient buildings were decorated with pieces of marble columns as decoration. Marble steps with carved crosses were found on the doors and doorsteps of ruined churches. Nearly all the houses were of stone. Some, he considered beautiful.

He was astonished at the great number of small churches, some of which were made of marble. People told him that there were about three hundred. He thought that the number of Turkish mosques did not exceed eight or nine, but they all had minarets.

The port of Athens, he thought beautiful, and larger than the port of Marseilles. The white marble lion stood at the inner port near a lonely uninhabited house, built for storing merchandise before it was loaded on board the vessels, and also used by the customs officer.

The British ambassador to the Porte, Lord W▀nchilsea, confirmed this picture. The town lay to the north-west of the Acropolis; spread out in length a mile and a half, in breadth somewhat above a mile; and four miles in circumference. It had no walls to defend itself; and as a result the inhabitants had been 'frequently surprised by the pirates from sea, and sustained great losses from them.' For that reason, some years previously they secured all the avenues into the town by new gates, and made the outermost houses, because they lay close together, to serve as a wall. While he was there, the gates were shut up every night. The Athenians seemed to him polished in manners and conversation.

He visited the monasteries on ╠´§nt Hymettos, the most important of which was that of Kaisariani. The abbot, Ezekiel Stephanaki, lived in Athens. He understood ancient Greek very well, and Latin indifferently, with a little Italian. He was a Platonist; and professed to be a physician. The honey of Hymettos was sent in great quantity to Constantinople, where it was much esteemed for making sorbets. Lord Winchilsea remarked: 'We eat of it very freely, finding it to be very good; and were not at all incommodated with any gripings after it.'

He claimed that although he had seen cities more prosperous by trade, he had seen few towns in the Ottoman Empire that had preserved themselves as well, or that enjoyed greater privileges. The Athenians appealed to the protection of the Kizlar Aga or Chief of the Black Eunuchs whenever they experienced any difficulty or abuse from the local Turks. They had divided the town into eight districts, and for each of these, one of the most substantial and respected men was chosen to settle all problems in a friendly manner between Christians and Christians Thus they effectively governed themselves in matters that concerned only themselves. [Read reports of other travellers to Athens during this period in Travellers' Greece: Memories of an Enchanted Land.]

A Tyrannical Turk

This was borne out in 1671 when the voivode began to demand more taxes than was customary. ┴ deputation of clergy and notables went to Constantinople to protest. Clearly, their action achieved nothing because they had to complain again in 1675. On this occasion Michael Limbonas, a wealthy and cultured Athenian, lately returned from Venice, led the deputation. In spite of the fact that two other prominent citizens, John Benizelos (Limbonas' fatber-in-law) and Nicolas Cheilas, collaborated with the Turks, he was successful. The Chief Eunuch acknowledged the justice of the complaints, dismissed the voivode and the disdar aga, ordered them to surrender what they had unlawfully levied and fined them heavily.

Benizelos took refuge in the monastery of Pendeli, and his collaborator, Cheilas, also went into hiding. The Turks of Athens resenting Limbonas' success dragged their feet in carrying out the orders of the Kizlar Aga, so Limbonas went again to Constantinople and persuaded him to send his representative to carry out his commands. The Turks were further enraged, and in December 1678 they murdered him The Athenians petitioned the Chief Eunuch to punish the murderers. Yussef Aga had them arrested and taken to Constantinople, where they were either imprisoned for life or exiled.

In 1676 Spon and Wheler arrived. Their meticulous record of monuments, when published, stimulated travel to Greece.

ę John L. Tomkinson


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