- Orthodox Christians in the Late Ottoman Empire: A Study of Communal Relations in Anatolia by Ayşe Özil
Appearing almost simultaneously with Nicholas Doumanis’s Before the Nation: Muslim-Christian Coexistence and Its Destruction in Late Ottoman Anatolia (Oxford, 2012), this book is a welcome addition to the growing English-language literature about the Greek Orthodox communities of the Ottoman Empire. Özil taps into a rich selection of primary sources, including the collections of the Center for Asia Minor Studies in Athens; the Greek Foreign Ministry and State Archives; Archives of the Greek Educational Association; the Prime Ministry Ottoman Archives; Ottoman Court Records; and the British National Archives. Some of this material had remained virtually untapped, and the author does an admirable job of parsing these sources to further our understanding of what she calls “the notion [of community] in practice” (15)—specifically, in this instance, the koinotites of Greek Orthodox Christians in northwestern Asia Minor and not the Orthodox Christians, writ large, of the empire, despite what the title suggests. The author’s focus is on the province of Hüdavendigar that extended from the shores of the Marmara Sea in the north to the west-central Anatolian hinterland in the south, including a stretch along the Aegean around the town of Ayvalik (Kidonies).
Building on the work of scholars such as Richard Clogg, Haris Exertzoglou, Socrates Petmezas, Eleni Frangakis-Syrett, and Edhem Eldem, among others, Özil acknowledges, and proceeds to challenge, a common misperception in conventional narrative histories of the Ottoman Empire, namely that the (Greek) Orthodox mainly comprised a class of “merchant bourgeoisie.” She emphasizes the diversity and social stratification within the Greek Orthodox community, not only across the empire, but also in relatively more homogenous administrative entities such as the Hüdavendigar province. Moving beyond the well-worn paradigm of a monolithic Rum milleti, the book, in the author’s words, “tries to understand what the community was about by exploring the notion in practice. … [It] takes a relational approach and treats the Christian presence under the Ottomans as a variable set of contexts and situations” (15). In order to accomplish these objectives, Özil turns her focus to “institutions,” an understanding of which, she argues, is necessary to make sense of communal relations (17). The book is organized in five chapters following this institutional framework, in the following order: local administration; local finances and taxation; legal corporate status; law and justice; nationality.
Özil’s most significant contributions are in the sections where she carefully defines the post- Tanzimat (administrative reforms staring in the 1840s) koinotita as a vital institution of local governance for the Greek Orthodox subjects. While discussing at length its membership structure and relationship with the church, the author nevertheless notes the limitations of the koinotita and the simultaneous existence of other, less formal ways of communal organization. Another important intervention of the author is her discussion of the “legal corporate status” of non-Muslim millets in the Ottoman Empire, including Orthodox Christians, which presumably allowed their highest-ranking religious authority to govern these groups with a great degree of autonomy, easily lending itself to the construction of a sense of collective identity. These assumptions were central to the static and old-fashioned view of millets and [End Page 203] the millet system—to the extent that one can speak of a system as such—as the kernel of nations and national resistance to the Ottoman yoke. Özil does not merely add to the old discussion of whether or not there were autonomous millets in the Ottoman Empire; instead, she directly tackles questions concerning the authority accorded to communities in addressing internal legal disputes. By using examples of such disputes over communal ownership of real estate, she demonstrates that any notion of communal “corporate legal status” is false. Furthermore she shows that until the legislation of March 1913, which allowed “the registration of immovable property in the name of institutions,” communal property was deeded to individuals—a...