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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Alexander Schmemann

5. The Dark Ages (16 pages)













From Schmemann's A History of the Orthodox Church


Turkish Conquest.

On May 29, 1453, after a two-day assault, the troops of Mohammed II took Constantinople. The last emperor, Constanline XI, had fallen in battle. The holy city became the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Bulgaria was overcome, Serbia was finally conquered in 1459, European Greece in 1459-60, Bosnia in 1463, and finally Egypt in 1517. The whole Orthodox East, except for Russia, was under Islamic rule, which was to last for more than four centuries. The era of the great eclipse of Orthodoxy had come, leaving a deep imprint on the mind of the Eastern Church.

In defining the nature of the Turkish yoke, one must first emphasize that it was not a persecution of Christianity. When Mohammed entered the city, after three days of pillage, outrages, and revelry after victory, he announced “law, mercy, and order.” He was no barbarian; he had been in Constantinople before and knew Greek, and while conquering Byzantium he was attracted to it by his special sympathy for everything Greek. A historian has remarked that his entourage included “sympathetic Christians as secretaries, since the Turks were very poorly educated.” The same historian wrote that “Christians administered his whole Empire.” This was an exaggeration, but it is not without foundation; Mohammed undoubtedly dreamed of strengthening and ornamenting his empire with Greek culture. In addition, although the Koran taught that Christians were unbelievers, it recognized Christ as a prophet and showed respect for Him. Therefore one of the first acts of Mohammed after victory was an invitation to the Greeks to elect their own patriarch.

They chose Gennadius Scholarius, who had participated in the Council of Florence but had been converted by Mark of Ephesus from sympathy to Rome to a fanatic hostility to union. The Turks also invited them to put Church life in order and return to their accustomed occupations. Later a firman, the highest state charter of the sultan, defined once and for all the legal status of Christians within the empire. All Christians were obliged to pay an annual head tax, the haradj, to the state treasury, but this was their only obligation to the conquerors. In return the patriarch was given complete freedom in administering Church affairs, and no one was permitted to interfere with his orders. The persons of the patriarch, bishops, and priests were proclaimed inviolable; all the clergy were exempted from taxes. Half of the churches of Constantinople were converted into mosques, but the rest were at the disposal of the Christians. In all matters pertaining to internal ecclesiastical administration the canons remained in force; the Porte did not infringe in any way upon the independence of Church administration. Freedom of Church feasts and of public worship was recognized; marriages, funerals, and other Church ceremonies were celebrated openly and without hindrance. The solemn celebration of Easter was permitted in all cities and villages. The Church was allowed to remain the Church and Christians were allowed to remain Christians.

But another basic element in the status of Christians under the Turks was no less important. For the Turks, who unlike the Arabs were not religious fanatics, Christianity was the national faith of the Greeks, as Mohammedanism was for the Turks. Like Judaism, Islam in general made no distinction between secular and religious society. To the extent that the whole civil structure of Mohammedan society-state, courts, law, and everything else was defined by Islam, it was inapplicable to non-Mohammedans. Therefore the Christians in the Ottoman Empire received the “rights” of a national as well as religious minority, and these concepts were merged into one. The patriarch became the milet pasha or leader of the people, and the Church hierarchy were given the rights of civil administration over the Christian population. It judged Christians according to Greek laws, its court was recognized by the Porte, and sentences were carried out by the Turkish authorities. Christians could have their own schools, their own programs, and their own censorship. Theoretically the Church became a sort of state within a state.


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