Legacies: Greece, the Ottoman Empire, and Turkey

by James J. Reid

I. Ottoman Race Beliefs.

Did the Ottoman ruling elite have a race belief different from, and uninfluenced by European ideas of race? The answer has eluded thinkers and writers for many centuries, and the tendency has been to assign the growth of racism to western influences in the second half of the nineteenth century. The emergence of racial ideas in Turkish nationalism has received ample attention in the writings and presentations of Speros Vryonis. The sudden appearance of strident racial beliefs in 1895 assigns the growth of such attitudes to a very late period.

Many writers and thinkers believed that the failure of Ottoman reform efforts after 1876 paved the way for less tolerant perceptions of non-Turks in Ottoman society. These people have looked upon the period before 1876 as an Ottoman golden age when all subject peoples lived blissfully alongside one another in peace and happiness. Such a misunderstanding of the past rests upon the mistaken notion that Ottoman Islam and Ottoman administration tolerated many variations of peoples and cultures, creating peace among all. The flirtation with an idea of an Ottoman multicultural society that permitted many ways, religions, and cultural or social attitudes has dominated thinking among scholars of non-Turkish origin, including Greek Bulgarian, American, and many other writers. In fact, a very respectable scholar of the Greek Enlightenment thought that mid-nineteenth century Ottoman reforms held out hope to Greeks, Armenians, and other populations in the Empire. These peoples could have become equals in a fairer political system it was thought. However, the thought of equality between Turkish-speaking Ottoman Muslims and Greek-speaking Ottoman subjects existed merely as an illusion created for the sake of the European powers demanding reforms in the Ottoman Empire. Britain and France feared Russian expansion into Ottoman lands would threaten their own empires. Consequently, the sultan and his ministers came under extreme pressure to make promises that privately they did not intend to keep.

The imbalance between Ottoman and Hellenic cultural development in this period strikes the observer as very sharp in some respects, and very similar in others. To begin with the similarities, both Ottoman and Hellenic cultures retained a sharp division between the intelligentsia and educated elite on the one hand, and the common people on the other. Just as the use of Ottoman Turkish in writing and speaking set the Ottoman off from the plebeian Turk, or some other Muslim or non-Muslim subject, the use of Katharevousa set apart the Hellenic intelligentsia from Greek village society in independent Greece as in Greek populations under Ottoman rule. Elitism had sponsored a notion of high civilization and low cultures in both worlds. Demotic Greek language in the Turkish period accepted numerous Turkish, Arabic, and Persian words which existed in everyday usage even in the nineteenth century after independence. Most of these words are now found only in dictionaries, memoirs of the nineteenth century, or old Demotic songs.

The differences were very significant however. The Greek intelligentsia, even under Ottoman domination, had developed an independence of thought and a creative energy that did not exist in the Ottoman elite outside a few obscure circles unique enough to have been a threat and dangerous enough to be sent into exile in France or England. The legacy of the Neo-Hellenic Enlightenment was important for the Hellenic intelligentsia, who could look to the heritage of ancient Greek philosophy, art, and literature as an inspiration close to home. The energy of West European cultural and intellectual developments in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries could be chanelled into the Greek cultural institution through the foundation built by the Enlighteners and their disciples. Many Greeks, even under Ottoman rule, aspired to send their children to France or Germany for a university education as witness Makrygiannes' friend, the priest of Arta, who had done exactly this. One cannot imagine, however, many in the Ottoman educated elite following the same path. Greek antiquity, even in French translation, was inaccessible to most members of the Ottoman elite. Instead, Ottomans learned about the glories of the Ottoman past through reeditions of older Ottoman texts, especially poetry and chronicles. The novel was an invention of the last half or the nineteenth century in the Ottoman Empire, whereas Greek novelists had flourished with the efflorescence of Romanticism in the earliest years of the same century.

One can find the sources of many attitudes in Ottoman writers of the nineteenth century in Ottoman texts of the so-called golden age, and such attitudes exist even in the orientations of Turkish writers of the twentieth century. Many archaic ideas remained current and were followed by Ottomans under the influence of this legacy which had emerged at its most creative in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Nineteenth-century Ottoman poets created poems on the models of sixteenth-century poets, even in imitation of specific poems. Nineteenth-century Ottoman statesmen and generals were steeped in the lore of fifteenth and sixteenth-century Ottoman accomplishments, and possessed very little practical experience in the operation of bureaucracies or the management of armies. It was once said of an Ottoman general commanding an army facing the Russians that he could not deploy a corporal's guard at a city gate, and the accusation made by a British soldier under his command was probably true - Ottoman generals never studied drill manuals. This over-reliance on the Ottoman golden age brought with it an Ottoman perception of society that had long since passed into oblivion. In addition, there had been an Ottoman idea of race which had rested at the heart of the societal vision in Ottoman writings.

Ottoman social thought did not come under the influence of Enlightenment, so that Ottoman society changed from its late medieval form to new emanations over the centuries without ever changing the late medieval vision of society. Ottoman education fostered an extremely archaic philosophy of society as late as the 1860s, and consequently most members of the Ottoman elite lived in a fantasy world, as it were, cherishing the ideas of the past without understanding the changes that occurred daily around them. The advent of new ideas of society, especially by the 1890s, fit into this idealized elite world at first. The many -isms which appeared from the 1870s and carry on to this day in the Middle East all bore an aura of unreality and detachment from the complexities of the world partly as a result of these Ottoman beginnings. Turkish nationalism, for example, one of these new "-isms," still retains an ivory tower sense of alienation from the world around itself, though, of course, many efforts have been made to give nationalist ideas a real existence within Turkey itself.

Ottoman society as perceived in the sixteenth century understood the carnal world to be a creation from the metaphysical universe created by God as a hierarchy of angels and spiritual archetypes. Each archetype functioned as a prototype for a physical worldly being. Society itself had an angel, as did each segment of society, family, and person. Such a dualistic spiritual/physical creation was understood as a defense created to resist satan's attacks upon God. This point is very important, since the Ottoman perceptions of social justice and race may be found in this social ideal. The late medieval idea of justice saw the authoritarian emanations of God as the good principle, and the good ruler - here the Ottoman sultan - and the Islamic religious leader symbolized God's power and authority on earth. They functioned in some degree as authoritarian figures in imitation of the Godly principle. This concept of government differed from Shiite Islamic belief, which saw the leader as a direct emanation of God [ayatullah means "sign of God"] into the earthly sphere. Writers, chroniclers, and officials preparing documents saw any attack upon the sultan's divinely-given authority as tyranny [zulm]. Ottoman writers thought of tyranny as the essential malevolence of satan imposed upon the carnal creatures in the world, causing them to rebel against good government and God's authority. This perception of tyranny proved to be intransigently opposite to the Greek notion of tyrannea, which described the tyrant as one who seized the reigns of power outside constitutionally-established means, and ruled in an authoritarian manner through oppression and terror.

Was it any wonder that Ottoman reform decrees of the mid-nineteenth century deceived many Greeks and others into thinking that just government and social equality had been promised by the Ottoman elite? The cosmopolitan Greek culture of Constantinople and other Ottoman cities had built itself to new heights in the nineteenth century on the belief that such a new vision of justice had taken hold of the Ottoman elite. A careful reading of the reform decree issued in 1839 shows that the older ideal of Ottoman society and justice remained uppermost in the minds of Ottoman reformers, who merely aimed to implement reforms that would make the Empire competitive in the new world of European imperialism. The imperial rescript of 1856 declared equality of rights for Muslims and non-Muslims more openly, but the evidence of Ottoman intellectual culture suggests that this new orientation had only superficial roots in the elite culture of the time. It was not until the 1890s that Ottomans developed a genuine sense of European culture, and even then, the new ways of thought still existed within a general Ottoman framework.

Ottoman race beliefs came from the old ideals of society. The hierarchy created by God also defined the social hierarchy of the world. Each community belonged to a certain rung of the highly complex Ottoman hierarchy. They were understood to possess the spiritual qualities of their archetypal spiritual source, which proved stronger or weaker according to the place of the archetype in the spiritual hierarchy of the universe. A person born into a community always retained the qualities of his or her group, and could not alter these qualities through education or change of environment and status. A slave brought into the Ottoman palace from Albania or Circassia would always retain the characteristics of Albanians or Circassians. Higher status under the patronage of the sultan himself was not considered to alter the slave's moral, emotional, or social qualities. Such persons might pretend to improve, but could never do so in reality. The temptations of satan, however, could make a person fall from good station, and his or her good qualities could be corrupted by evil, or even simply by the carnal world alone.

Within the Islamic order [millet, or "confessional community"], a very elaborate hierarchy was established, and the Ottoman elite occupied the highest position, with lesser groups holding positions further below this elite. Kurdish clans ruling in eastern Anatolia occupied the lowest sphere of any elite in the Ottoman Empire, and often were considered to be spreaders of satan's "tyranny" against good Ottoman government. At other times, the very same clans and chiefs accepted Ottoman rule, and governed their miniscule mountain districts as Ottoman governors. These Kurdish chiefs governed a mixed populace of Muslims, various Christian groups, and Kurdish Jews. The Muslim subjects of the Ottoman Empire all formed into more or less similar hierarchies, with chiefs or mercantile notables at the highest rungs of society, and subjects of various types at the lower levels of society. Muslim rebels no less than non-Muslim insurrectionaries were perceived as "tyrants" by the Ottoman elite. The chronicle of Mehmed Esad recorded the war undertaken by the Ottoman sultan against the Janissaries [formerly-slave infantry of the Ottoman sultan] and their supporters, who had rebelled against the sultan in the mid-1820s. The chronicler considered them to behave tyrannically, because they had put aside their justly-defined role in society, and through arrogance or corruption, rebelled against the good authority of the sultan. The Janissaries behaved unjustly because they refused to accept the judgment of the sultan, and therefore had to be exterminated for their evil behavior. This extirpation, called the "Beneficent Event" in Ottoman histories, enabled the sultan to later declare his reform programs, especially the organization of newer military institutions.

The very same chronicler, Mehmed Esad, ignored the Greek Revolution completely. Why, one may ask? The Greek Revolution was more significant as an event for Ottoman rule than destruction of the Janissary Corps. The formation of an independent Greek state should have awakened the Ottomans that their subjects had well-developed ideas of how to govern themselves and did not need the Ottoman elite to govern them. The Ottoman concept of society would not permit even an evaluation of the mistakes which led to the Greek victory over the Ottomans. The military corps partially responsible for the Ottoman defeat and the Greek victory was eradicated, but no link between massacre of the Janissaries and Greek independence was made in Ottoman authors of the time. The reason for this failure in Ottoman thought was a conservative attitude which has been described elsewhere as Ottoman triumphalism.

Triumphalism could only accept an optimistic view of the Ottoman elite. This orientation has left a significant legacy in Turkish nationalist ideas about the destiny of the Turkish Republic. Triumphalist doctrine originated in medieval ideas of Fate. The good ruler and the society he ruled would inevitably be carried onward in a progression from historical origins to an ultimate reunion with the divine being. Ottoman Islamic history could only have an optimistic self-perception, and the writer needed mainly to search for the signs of progress toward the final union with the divine spirit. For this reason, successes in Ottoman policy received praise and analysis, while defeats were ignored. One of the few writers to consider actual events of significance was a liberal reformer and a Muslim religious leader who composed what he called "Discussions." While real events were mentioned, they received only supercilious treatment. Summaries were so vague and general that the information was almost useless. Even this liberal could not come to terms with the Europeans who appeared on the stage, and entered various areas of Ottoman life, just as he did not mention the affairs of Ottoman subjects, and could not comprehend the emergent independence of former subject populations in Greece and elsewhere. Even if this writer was able to address reality to some extent, he hampered his new orientation by freezing it into the Ottoman world view by which everthing was converted into something understandable to the limited Ottoman consciousness. Triumphal optimism influenced even the more moderate writers who made some effort to address reality.

Such a triumphalist approach could only figure as a formula for disaster, since few had the inclination or courage to analyze the reality of political or military developments in all their aspects. Publications dealing with contemporaneous affairs considered only the superficial level of affairs, or focused upon the most rigidly traditional of topics. One five-volume history covering the middle decades of the nineteenth century missed the Crimean War totally, and engrossed itself entirely in court gossip, and the lives of celebrities in Istanbul. Those with some awareness of practical issues feared putting anything in print, and never spoke publicly of such matters. In fact, freedom from censorship enabled relative freedom of expression only from 1908 to 1913, at which time numerous histories and literary publications appeared. Otherwise, the entire nineteenth century carried forward with the triumphalist view of Ottoman society which could see only optimistic developments. This triumphalism has resurfaced in Turkish historiography. The nineteenth century is seen as a period of progress and reform by Turkish historians down to the present. No one is willing to examine revolutions or insurrections against Ottoman rule, or the many factors in Ottoman government and society that contributed to the decline and collapse of the Ottoman state. To speak of such matters marks the individual commentator as an enemy of Turkey with no credit given for a realistic assessment of the past.

The new European literary genre of Realism had difficulty making headway in Ottoman literature. The even more radical form of Naturalism, based as it was upon scientific method, found only limited success in Ottoman literary circles. The Ottoman liberal named Namïk Kemal described a developing interest in Realism in his book Renaissance using the Ottoman genre of allegory, thus contradicting the very spirit of Realism. In the era after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877, Naturalism appeared in the writing of the Turkish novelist Halit Ziya, who wrote "Journal of the Dead One," describing the difficulties of an Ottoman veteran of the war in adjusting to life at home. He had lost an arm in the war, and found no one who could love him. Ultimately, he committed suicide. A similar tale of the ugly realities of war appeared in the short story of Georgios Bizynos entitled "Moskov Selim", describing the experiences and post-war adjustment of another Ottoman veteran of the same war. Both these novels seem to have been influenced by Emile Zola's Débacle, treating the fate of a French soldier during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. The Ottoman foray into Realism proved limited, while Greek writers and the reading public of Greece found the new European literary style easier to accept and digest.

Greeks and Armenians living under Ottoman rule had access to cultural developments that gave them a radically different world view. Those persons with access to a French, English, or even a German education developed a different idea of society and justice. In fact, the independent development of the Neo-Hellenic Enlightenment hearkened back to ancient Greek ideas of social justice, and received further inspiration from the European Enlightenment, which looked to the same source. Rigas Velestinlis had written a model constitution for a new Greek state, which did not yet exist in his time. He understood justice as an egalitarian enterprise bestowing human rights upon all individuals. His sources were ancient Greek democratic ideals and Jean-Jacques Rousseau's vision of a Social Contract. The Enlightenment perception of tyranny saw the tyrant as an oppressive autocrat who seized power through his own personal will, and for the sake of his own personal power. The sultan could never be considered the embodiment of justice, but, especially when he broke the old constitutional structure of the Ottoman state and society, he and his officials functioned tyrannically. They abolished the old confessional system which gave some constitutionally-defined role to the Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Jewish, and Islamic communities. Even here, the complexities of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic subcultures had been oversimplified into grossly simplistic organizations which ultimately promoted misunderstandings and delusions of control in the Ottoman elite.

Greece did not escape its Ottoman legacy easily. A large segment of the Greek populace inside independent Greece and under Ottoman rule continued to live with a world-view imposed by Ottoman social and cultural conditions. The Neo-Hellenic Enlightenment remained alien to these people. Democracy lacking Enlightenment discipline appeared in irregular forms, such as political discussions in the kafeneíon, or "coffee house," which may yet be seen today. The coffee house had been, after all, an Ottoman social institution. Private socializing in the coffee house took many forms, and, as long as Ottoman Greeks kept their discussions to themselves, and avoided public displays and loud arguments outside the coffee house, Ottoman authorities might close their eyes to the existence of Greek coffee houses. Such irregular institutions existed in almost every democracy of the nineteenth century. The patterns of Greek village life remained remarkably stable after independence and interchanges among the villagers followed patterns established even before Ottoman rule had begun, and before the idea of democracy had regained currency.

In conclusion, a comparison of Ottoman and Greek cultural patterns from 1821 to 1921 would show many similarities, but even more striking differences. Some Ottoman cultural ways remained in independent Greece, but these institutions, practices, and customs had always had Hellenic overtones, and became increasingly Hellenized after contact with the Ottoman root had been severed. More striking, however, was the divergence in political and intellectual development. Greece, even when ruled by a non-democratic authoritarian regime, always possessed an educated populace which understood and identified with democratic ways. This attachment to democratic values had deep roots in Greek culture, though did not exist evenly in all portions of society. In the Ottoman Empire, on the other hand, democratic values appeared as an alien import to many, and had no place in the past, except perhaps in a few limited customs. The Turkish Republic had no legacy of democracy or republicanism upon which to draw, and Ataturk had to mandate the republic and its social institutions into existence. By so beginning with an authoritarian mandate, Turkish republicanism has always suffered from an inability to create democratic values such as individual initiative or tolerance of divergent cultures. Greece has renown as a democratic society empowering individual initiative, although by the nature of its development in the modern period has favored an ideal of cultural assimilationism. Despite its failings, however, Greece and its modern cultural legacy contrast sharply with Turkey and the Ottoman legacy of authoritarianism and denial of various individual rights.

Ottoman perceptions are difficult to understand because they were traditionally so abstract and elaborate - a complicating feature at best. One might wade through the current Greek-Turkish difficulties without ever referring to the past, especially to the Ottoman past, but some features of the modern Turkish approach to the world and to itself, in fact, can best be understand by examining how the Ottoman legacy was translated into newer forms. Certainly the transformation of autocracy and Sultanic absolutism into Republicanism cannot have been achieved with the retention of various authoritarian ideas. One such perception is that described here. Ottoman ideas of social hierarchy, justice, and race survived and took on new appearances. That discussion must remain for another time, however. Cultural exchanges between Greece and Turkey are difficult at present because distinctly different cultural legacies have created divergent mentalities.

James Reid is a senior research fellow at the Speros B. Vryonis Center of the Study of Hellenism.