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Greek monastery manuscripts tell new story of Ottoman rule : NPR


Father Theofilos, a Pantokrator monk, displays a manuscript at the library of the Pantokrator Monastery in Mount Athos, northern Greece, on Thursday, October 13, 2022.

Thanassis Stavrakis / AP


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Father Theofilos, a Pantokrator monk, displays a manuscript at the library of the Pantokrator Monastery in Mount Athos, northern Greece, on Thursday, October 13, 2022.

Thanassis Stavrakis / AP

MOUNT ATHOS, Greece – A ringing of church bells, the thumping of staccato on a plank summons monks to afternoon prayers, a deep voice is raised in communal chant. And on the great spire of Pantokrator Monastery, a metal library door opened.

There, deep inside the fortified medieval monastery in the Orthodox Christian community of Mount Athos, researchers first unearthed a virtually unknown treasure – thousands of manuscripts. Ottoman times, including the oldest of their kind in the world.

The libraries of the self-governing community, founded over 1,000 years ago on the northern Greek peninsula of Athos, are a repository of rare centuries-old works in several languages ​​including Greek. Greek, Russian and Romanian.

Many documents have been studied extensively, but not those of the Ottoman Turks, the product of an occupying bureaucracy that ruled northern Greece since the late 14th century – before the capital of Greece. Byzantine, Constantinople, fell to the Ottomans in 1453 – until the early 20th century when the area became Greek again.

Byzantine scholar Jannis Niehoff-Panagiotidis says that the economy and society of Mount Athos under Ottoman rule cannot be understood without consulting these documents, which regulate the monks’ dealings with the government. secular.

“Ottoman is the official language of the state,” he told the Associated Press from the library of Pantokrator Monastery, one of 20 on a heavily wooded peninsula.

Niehoff-Panagiotidis, a professor at the Free University of Berlin, says the oldest of some 25,000 Ottoman works found in monastic libraries dates to 1374, or 1371. It is older than any other. which works are known in the world, he added that in Istanbul. , when the Ottomans renamed Constantinople when they made the city their own capital, the oldest archives date only from the late 15th century.

“The first elucidating documents (about the earliest period of Ottoman history) are kept here, on Mount Athos,” he said, sitting at a table piled with documents and books. Others, the rarer ones, are kept in large wooden drawers.

These include ornate Sultans companies – or edicts – deed of ownership and court decisions.

Anastasios Nikopoulos, a jurist and scientific collaborator from the Free University of Berlin who worked with Niehoff-Panagiotidis on the project for the past few months, said: “Most of it is legal documents.

And the manuscripts tell a story contrary to traditional understanding in Greece of Ottoman depictions of the newly conquered areas, through the confiscation of the monasteries’ rich estates. on Mount Athos. Instead, the new rulers took the community under their wing, preserving its autonomy and protecting it from outside interference.

Nikopoulos said: “The toned people of the Sultans we see in the tower … and the decisions of the Ottoman court showed that the small democracy of the monks was able to win the respect of all the monks. conquering power. “And that’s because Mount Athos is considered the cradle of peace, of culture … where peoples and civilizations coexist peacefully.”

Nikopoulos says that one of the first acts of Murad II, the Ottoman ruler who conquered Thessaloniki – the city closest to Mount Athos – was to draw up a legal document in 1430 to protect the community.

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

Thanassis Stavrakis / AP


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Thanassis Stavrakis / AP


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

Thanassis Stavrakis / AP

“That says a lot. The Ottoman sultan himself ensured that the administrative system of Mount Athos was preserved and protected,” he said.

Even before that, Niehoff-Panagiotidis adds, a monarch issued severe punishment for intruders after a group of bandits engaged in a theft of a minor from one of the monasteries. institute.

“It is strange that the kings kept Mount Athos, the last ruins of Byzantium, semi-independent and did not touch it,” he said. “They don’t even keep an army here. At best they’ll have a local representative who can stay (the administrative center of the community, Karyes) and drink tea.”

Another unexpected revelation, Niehoff-Panagiotidis said, was that during the first two centuries of Ottoman rule, no attempt was made to impose Islamic law on Mount Athos or the neighboring regions of northern Greece. Lap.

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

The community was first granted self-governance through a decree of the Byzantine Emperor Basil II, in AD 883. Throughout its history, women have been barred from entering, a ban still in place. This rule is known as the “avaton,” and researchers believe it relates to any form of external secular or administrative interference that might affect Mount Athos.

Father Theophilos, a Pantokrator who is assisting with the research, said the documents show the far-reaching influence of Mount Athos.

“Their research also sheds light on examples of how people can live together, principles common to all humanity, seeds of human rights and respect for them, democracy and other principles.” principles of social coexistence,” he told The Associated Press.

The research project is expected to continue for several months, even years.

“What can happen in the long term, I will be able to say once we have cataloged and digitized all the documents,” says Niehoff-Panagiotidis. “At the moment, no one knows what’s hidden here. Perhaps, even older documents.”

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