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8-08-2015, 13:36

Roman orthodox bonds after 1453: the pontos and amiroutzes; mount athos and mara

Trebizond in the Pontos, the last Byzantine empire to be conquered by Mehmed II, is a final illustration of the bonds which still held the Roman orthodox world together in the fifteenth century. The strongest tie was patronage; the most enduring, patris. The Pontos, in north-eastern Anatolia, was a distinct patris to which its patrons, the Grand Komnenoi, emperors of Trebizond (1204–1461), added political identity. As separatist rulers, their legitimacy was all the more Roman orthodox. Like the grand princes ofMoscow, their obedience was to the patriarch, not the emperor, in Constantinople. The Grand Komnenos signed himself as ‘faithful emperor and autocrat of all Anatolia, of the Iberians and beyond’ – initially encompassing the Crimea. This Black Sea coast was perhaps the most densely settled in the Byzantine world. By 1520–3 the population of central Pontos was registered at over 215,000 of whom 92 per cent were still Christian and 86 per cent Roman orthodox, while the rest of Anatolia, about 5.7 million, was already 93 per cent Muslim.39 By contrast with the Pontos, the decline of the orthodox church elsewhere in Anatolia had been relatively swift. It succumbed not so much to Islamic missionary zeal as to the loss of its economic base and the withdrawal of the patronage of its imperial officials – for whom all postings from Constantinople were colonial, whether the natives spoke Greek or not.40 Only just in time to save the identity of such Roman orthodox, Mehmed had halted the structural disintegration of their church by whatever settlement he made with Scholarios in 1454. The result was that ambitious and wellconnected Roman orthodox had an alternative to conversion thereafter. They could keep faith and enter patriarchal service. But without political independence the church could only conserve the flock which paid for it, and was perilously dependent upon patrons. Without economic freedom its theological development was frozen at the point when the sultan recognised it: in authority anti-unionist, in spirituality Palamite. Although the patriarch was an essential officer of the Ottoman system, it was a fundamentally unequal alliance. Sultans supported the church the better to use it – what had emperors done before them? But in the crucial period of conquest the Roman orthodox found a patron who matched, like Mehmed himself, that time of transition alone. She was Mara Brankovi´c (c. 1412–78), daughter of the last despot of Serbia by a sister of the last emperor of Trebizond. In 1435 Mara married Sultan Murad II (1421–51), father of Mehmed II.41 The network of marriage alliances in whichMara enmeshed theOttoman andRoman orthodox dynasties arose fromdiplomatic expediency – if Serbia could come by dowry rather than conquest, so much the better. ButMara, never a mother, was a formidable widow. Above all she kept her faith, although she resisted a second marriage in 1451 – to her relative, Constantine XI Palaiologos. If she had agreed, the conquest of 1453 would have been even more of a family event than it was. The evidence, not just of tradition but of his acts, reveals how much the sultan revered his Christian stepmother. In 1459 he granted her both the cathedral of St Sophia in Thessaloniki and the fief of Ezova, where she received ambassadors and held a sort of alternative Christian court until her death in 1478.42 Ezova lies near the Strymon valley in eastern Macedonia between Serres and Mount Athos. Along with the Pontos it was one of the most prosperous areas of the late Byzantine world, where Mehmed allowed some monasteries to keep their holdings and dependent peasants. The Strymon was dominated by the estates of the monasteries of Mount Athos (which Mara and her father endowed) and of the Prodromos on Mount Menoikeion, above Serres (where Patriarch Gennadios II Scholarios retired and is buried). Mehmed II planned to pension off Mara’s uncle, the Grand Komnenos David I (1459–61), in the same area after the fall of Trebizond in 1461.43 Mount Athos had long been an eremitic and monastic retreat. Since Gregory Palamas, its hesychasts had made it an arbiter of spiritual authority among Roman and other orthodox, countering that of the patriarchate itself. By the fifteenth century its outstations, estates and peasants – who outnumbered the monks by over ten to one – were concentrated from Thessaloniki to Serres, but spread as far as Trebizond; Athos also controlled islands such as Lemnos. It was still to enter its most prosperous days under the Ottomans, when it attracted the patronage of Danubian and Russian orthodox rulers and pilgrims.44 In the late fifteenth century, Mara’s Ezova in Macedonia was rivalled as a political and economic focus by an even more modest place on the other side of the Roman orthodox world: the village ofDoubera, forty kilometres south of Trebizond in the Pontos. The 1515 defter registers a solidly Roman orthodox population of only 333 souls (others were probably exempt), but reveals that it was also the patris of members of the Amiroutzes family. More significantly, in 1364 the Grand Komnenos Alexios III (1349–90), who was also founder of an Athonite monastery, had named Doubera as headquarters of the estates of his own nearby pilgrim monastery of Soumela, one of three in the Pontic interior which retained their privileges and tax exemptions after the fall of Trebizond in 1461, just as the Ottomans had favoured some of the monastic economies around Mara’s Ezova.45 In 1461Mahmud Pasha sorted out terms of surrender of Trebizond with George Amiroutzes, after a tiresome campaign which left most of the Pontos itself unconquered. SultanMehmed deported the Grand KomnenosDavid and his prime minister, Amiroutzes, as part of a s¨urg¨un to Constantinople. Thence Amiroutzes wrote to his old compatriot and fellow delegate at Florence, Bessarion, a vivid letter describing the fall of Trebizond – and asking for money to ransom his son and Bessarion’s godson, Basil, who was in danger of forcible conversion to Islam. Amiroutzes was an anti-unionist, but evidently not bothered that Bessarion was now a Latin cardinal. He appealed to closer bonds: shared connections of family and patris.46 Had he already solicited Mahmud, who was surely better placed to help? By 1463 Bessarion had become Isidore of Kiev’s successor as Latin patriarch. In the same year someone (the evidence that it was Amiroutzes is only circumstantial) denounced David to Mehmed II. Refusing to apostasise, the imperial family of Trebizond died in gruesome circumstances. Apparently Mara could not, and Amiroutzes would not, intercede. Certainly Amiroutzes had shifted his allegiance to the sultan, for whom he prepared an exposition of Ptolemy’s Geography with the assistance of his son – called Mehmed. Perhaps this son was the forementioned Basil, who had converted after all? Most Roman orthodox converted to Islam before culturally they turned Turk. But some of their leaders did it the other way round. Contrary to the poor view in which he is held in Greek tradition, George Amiroutzes himself does not seem to have bothered to convert. Apostasy would have denied him playing politics with the patriarchate, while at the sultan’s court he could always use his cousin and ally, the grand vizier Mahmud Pasha.47 The year 1463 was even more eventful for the Roman orthodox network. Patriarch Joasaph I, one of Gennadios II Scholarios’ successors, denounced George Amiroutzes in turn – for his proposed bigamous marriage to the widowof the last Latin duke of Athens. Amiroutzeswent ahead all the same. Tradition that he was an exasperating man was confirmed dramatically on Easter Sunday 1463: the affair drove Joasaph to attempt suicide by leaping into the cistern below the Pammakaristos cathedral. Amiroutzes promptly moved in to manage patriarchal finances, using his son,Mehmed, as intermediary with the sultan.48 Behind a cloud of later tradition may be detected a characteristic trail of patronage and patris. By 1465 Mehmed had confirmed Amiroutzes’ village of Doubera on the estates of Soumela as a monastic immunity. Soumela (and two other nearby mountain monasteries) constituted thereafter the only major economic counterpart to the Macedonian monastic lands protected by Mara, a rival patron.49 In late 1466 Symeon ‘of Trebizond’ was presented as candidate for the patriarchate, offering the sultan, for the first time, a bribe of office (called peshkesh): 2,000 gold pieces. Monks do not commonly dispose of such sums, andMehmed had anyway dispossessed the monasteries of the city of Trebizond itself. By elimination, this points to Soumela as Symeon’s monastery and brings us back to his sponsor. Putting it bluntly, did Amiroutzes use the resources and connections of Doubera to buy the patriarchate for his candidate? One consequence is certain. By offering peshkesh in 1466, there was no going back. By their own account, theRoman orthodox initiated an auction of their own leadership, which spread to other offices and was to spiral for over three centuries. This was the self-imposed cost of protection of a church by an Islamic state, largely borne by the faithful, whose principal contact with their patriarchate was to raise peshkesh and obey canon law. The only beneficiary was theOttoman treasury. Sultans were not much concerned as to who was patriarch, so long as he was neither unionist nor sponsored by Ottoman commercial or political rivals; in the seventeenth century, French Jesuits and Dutch Calvinists would compete to buy a whole church.50 The short-term result was that in 1467 a Serbian party and Mara outbid Symeon with her own candidate. The Pontic party ran Symeon again. During his second term of office in 1472, Symeon swiftly deposed Bishop Pankratios of Trebizond who was implicated in a Turkoman attempt to restore a Grand Komnenos in Trebizond – presumably under pressure from Amiroutzes who had known all parties involved since 1458, and now knew where his loyalties lay. Seven times the patriarchate went back and forth until in 1482 Symeon finally raised a record peshkesh for a third period of office, ousting an opponent of Amiroutzes’ marriage of 1463. In 1484 Symeon at last held a synod which repudiated the Union of Florence of 1439.51 Patriarch Symeon nevertheless left unfinished business when he died in office in 1486. His death raised the perennial question of whom political funds belong to, for he had neglected to make a will. Who were his heirs? The leaders of the network which had held the Roman orthodox world together had all died: Mahmud Pasha (after 1474), Mara (1478), Mehmed II himself (1481); and of the veterans of Florence, Isidore (1463), Bessarion (1472), Scholarios (c. 1472) and Amiroutzes himself (c. 1475). Patriarch Niphon II (1486–8, 1497–8, 1502) was the first successful candidate of new patrons. These were Danubian princes, now Ottoman tributaries, who were to support the monasteries of Athos and the Pontos, too. However, Niphon was unable to claim Symeon’s intestate fortune, which was confiscated by Iskender, treasurer of the new sultan, Bayazid II (1481– 1512). But the network which reached back to Doubera still held: Iskender was yet another son of George Amiroutzes.52 Patris may be even stronger than patronage, and certainly faith, for Doubera village now had even greater aspirations – to empire. In 1479 the future sultan Bayazid II took the last independent corner of the Roman orthodox world, the rocky principality of Torul, south of Trebizond and Soumela; his local consort wasMaria ‘ofDoubera’, who asGulbahar hatun, held court in Trebizond until her death in 1505/6. Bayazid’s ulu hatun (‘first lady’) was then Ayshe, the daughter of Bozkurt of the Turkoman Dulkadir dynasty and, from 1470, mother of the future sultan Selim I (1512–20). Differing later Ottoman and Roman orthodox accounts can no longer be verified, but can be reconciled. Selim’s formative years were in Trebizond, where he was governor from 1489 to 1512 and he wrote in Greek to Venice, styling himself ‘emperor of the Pontos and despot of Trebizond’. He confirmed the privileges of Soumela monastery. In turn his son, the future sultan Suleiman, was brought up in Trebizond, presumably by Maria-Gulbahar, from 1494/5.53 Maria is a more shadowy figure than Mara of Ezova, but the surest fact about her is vital: her birthplace, or patris, was none other than Doubera. The village itself escaped registration until 1515 and Ottoman defters are not designed to record any connections she may have had with the families of Amiroutzes, Patriarch Symeon or even Bessarion. But it is a small place. Like Mara of Ezova, Maria of Doubera was probably only the stepmother of a sultan. But in Trebizond Selim gave Gulbahar a marble tomb and in 1514 a mosque fit for an empress.54 The fate of the other inhabitants of Trebizond is a final reflection of that of the Roman orthodox. Compared with its hinterland, the city was never populous – in 1436 some 4,000 souls. After its conquest it grew to 6,711 in 1486, 7,017 in 1523, 6,100 in 1553 and reached 10,575 in 1583 – figures about a third of the size of Thessaloniki which also reflect the relative efficiency of Ottoman registrars and omit exempt groups. But the composition is revealing. After 1461 Mehmed instigated a s¨urg¨un, deporting the Christian leadership and importing Muslims (including recent Albanian converts), so that by around 1486 Trebizond was 19 per cent Muslim and 81 per cent Christian (mostly Roman orthodox). But the Christian population actually grew thereafter, both in numbers and proportion (86 per cent) during the years of Selim’s governorship, Suleiman’s youth and Gulbahar’s widowhood, when the Ottoman state should have been tightening its hold on the place. Trebizond was in danger of becoming totally Christian again and, in contrast to Thessaloniki, Jews were not brought in to break the demographic problem. There was a second s¨urg¨un. In 1553 the ratio of Christians to Muslims was 53 to 47 per cent, but by 1583 had switched to 46 to 54 per cent. The critical point seems to have been when the Christian element had shrunk to about 55 per cent, when whole parishes (which paid a fixed levy) converted in landslides, leaving faithful individuals unable to afford the balance.Most revealing is that by 1583, 43 per cent of theMuslims ofTrebizond are identifiable as first- or second-generation converts. In other words the population of the city, whatever its faith, was then still almost 70 per cent native Pontic: people who kept to their patris.55 ‘Conversion’ is used here as a convenient term, and indeed has a technical sense in both orthodoxy and Islam, with the difference that under sharia law, conversion or reconversion out of Islam met the penalty of death in the Ottoman empire until 1839. From the fifteenth century on there were a number of attested orthodox martyrs for their faith. Converts to Islam did not find immediate acceptance either. But, following Ottoman registrars, we can only record Roman orthodox by civil status. The spiritual cost of the compromises to which the church and individual faithful were driven in order to survive cannot be recorded, any more than what happened in the countryside.Here, monasteries such asMara’s inMacedonia andMaria’s in the Pontos could offer secular as well as spiritual salvation. In the absence of such patrons elsewhere it may not have been too painful to slip in and out of unofficial Islam and orthodoxy within a common peasant culture and local cults of patris. By the reign of Sultan Suleiman I (1520–66) most Roman orthodox who were going to convert to Islam had done so. In the west, Suleiman is called ‘theMagnificent’, but in theOttoman empire he is rightly named ‘the Law- Giver’. He regularised the local and customary laws inherited through the swift conquests of Constantinople, theMorea,Macedonia and the Pontos, under which mostRoman orthodox had continued to live for a century after the fall of Constantinople – beyond evenGennadios Scholarios’s prediction of the end of the world in 1492. The politics of the Union of Florence in 1439 could not be forgotten even after 1484. There were to be new patrons in Wallachia, Moldavia and Muscovy, but patris may have been the most enduring bond of all. Take, once more, the Soumelan village of Doubera, a steep place hidden in the Pontic undergrowth. After much lobbying the patriarchate created a diocese there in 1863, as influential as it was tiny. The parish church of Doubera became the cathedral of Rhodopolis. Today it is the mosque of Yazlik, a wholly Muslim Turkish village. But its titular bishop wields great influence – especially in Australia, where every second Greek claims to have come from Doubera. Surely this was the home of George Amiroutzes.