Christian cultural heritage and minority rights in Turkey: the Sumela Monastery case
ARTICLE IN BRIEF: Once accounting for about a quarter of the Ottoman Empire’s population, Christian communities almost disappeared from Anatolia during the 20th century. The influence of a French Revolution-influenced blend of citizenship, nationalism an
This paper will outline the dramatic fate of the Ottoman Greek Orthodox Christians since the 19th century, with a focus on the Black Sea region’s Sumela Monastery and its current relation to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. It will also shed light on how cultural heritage policies overlap with the thorny issues of nationalism and Muslim identity in present-day Turkey.
ORTHODOX GREEKS IN THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE
When Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II in 1453, it was the last pocket of resistance to surrender to a Muslim empire that by then occupied most of Anatolia and had already penetrated the Balkans. Since the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates, Christians and Jews under Muslim authority had been administrated according to Shariah, which conferred on them the status of dhimmis and bound them by a set of rules that defined their rights and restrictions. Under Ottoman rule, the status of non-Muslim subjects of the empire was regulated from 1517 by the
millet system, which allowed certain autonomy to religious communities to be ruled by specific courts according to their own religious precepts, as long as the quarrels didn't involve Muslims. The millet system divided Ottomans subjects by faith, regardless of their ethnicity or language. Thus, the Muslim millet referred to Sunni and non-Sunni Muslims alike (Alevis, Shias, Alawites), whereas the Christian millet included all Christian sects (Greek, Armenian, Syriac, Nestorian). Kemal Karpat demonstrated how the Greek Patriarchate of Constantinople gained supremacy during the nearly five centuries of Ottoman reign due to its proximity to the sultan. 1 Because it was the sole heir of the Orthodox Church of Byzantium, the Patriarchate of Constantinople gained authority over the Patriarchates of Antioch and Jerusalem as the empire extended its boundaries in the Middle East. Within the Millet -i Rum ( Rum was a generic term used among Arabs to refer to the Byzantines, i.e., Christianized Romans) a variety of ethnic churches operated in an independent manner locally but were represented before the sultan by the Greek
Patriarchate of Constantinople. Greek and other churches represented a network of local dioceses. Just as Mount Athos was by far the most important center of Greek Orthodox monasticism in the western part of the empire, the Sumela Monastery of Trabzon Province was, on a smaller scale, the center of Greek monasticism in the empire's eastern lands.
TRABZON AND THE MONASTERY OF SUMELA
Trabzon had not only been an important commercial port since the antiquity but was also the starting point of trade routes to Iraq, Iran and India, especially in the Byzantine period. 2 Throughout the centuries, the region had successively been occupied by Hittites, Persians, Goths, Scythes, Kartvelians and Mongols. Since 756 B.C., Trabzon had evolved from a small Greek trading colony to an important Roman and later Byzantium center, enjoying strong economic ties with Venice and Genoa. After the fragmentation of the Byzantine Empire that followed the Fourth Crusade, Trabzon became the capital of the Empire of Trebizond, which briefly survived the fall of Constantinople but surrendered to Mehmet II in 1461. Hellenized and Christianized over centuries, the region had become predominantly Muslim by the end of the 17th century, 3 mainly as a result of conversion rather than immigration, as evidenced by the fact that most of the citizens still spoke Greek. Conversions often occurred among the lowest segments of society, i.e. poor peasants wishing to avoid the burden of taxes reserved for non-Muslims. However, an important community remained faithful to Greek Orthodoxy and the monasteries of Vazelon, Saint Georges and Sumela continued to host hundreds of monks until 1923. Situated on a main trade route, the region became a strong economic center. Wealthier, its population was less vulnerable to conversions. Founded in A.D. 386 during the reign of the Emperor Theodosius I (375-395) and currently located in the Black sea district of Maçka, 47 kilometers south of the city of Trabzon, the Sumela Monastery has been a site of great historical and cultural significance throughout history. Etymologically, the name of the monastery derives from the Black Mountains upon which it stands; however, some research suggests that it could also be associated with the black color of the icon of Panagia Soumela, allegedly painted by Luke the Evangelist himself. The monastery was sacked and
rebuilt on several occasions and reached its present form in the 13th century after gaining prominence during the Empire of Trebizond. At that time, 4,000 monks dwelt there. Since 1682, the monastery housed the Phrontisterion of Trapezous, a well-known Greek educational institution of the province. Sumela was lavishly renovated in 1749. Additional rooms for monks and guests were built in 1860. The principal elements of the monastery complex were the Rock Church, several chapels, kitchens, student rooms, a guesthouse, a library, a sacred spring and an aqueduct. In the late 18th century, the Maçka region had become a rich enclave of Greek intellectuals, numbering over 50 Christian schools and around 500 small churches and chapels.
By World War I, the Ottoman Empire had lost its western and eastern provinces and the remainder of Anatolia was coveted by the Britain, French, Russian, Greek and Italian chancelleries. Encouraged by Western powers to weaken the Ottomans from within, Christian nationalists movements led to the independence of the Balkans, which echoed among the Pontic Greeks. Although the Patriarchate of Constantinople tried to remain loyal to the sultan, 4 many Greeks welcomed Russian armies in 1916. After a brief Armenian occupation in 1919, Trabzon returned to the Ottomans, whose revenge cost the lives of 50,000 Armenians. Following the Turkish War of Independence, Trabzon became a part of the Turkish Republic and the fate of the Pontic Greeks was sealed by the Treaty of Lausanne; the Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Population was signed on Jan. 30, 1923.
On Aug. 20, 1923, around 25,000 Pontic Greeks were deported to Greece and Sumela consequently closed. The monastery remained abandoned for decades. Between 1935 and 1961, the keys of the monastery were handed to the priest of Trabzon's Catholic Church of Santa Maria, before ending up at the local headquarters of the National Forestry Board.
FROM MULTI-ETHNIC EMPIRE TO MONOLITHIC REPUBLIC
The way in which the system, which had worked throughout the early days of the Ottoman Empire, imploded with the rise of nationalism has been illustrated above. Karpat showed how the fragmentation of the empire was the result of the influence of a new type of political system imported and imposed by Europe that defined statehood based on race and language, a concept alien to the universality of Christianity and Islam on which the
millet system was based. 6 Throughout the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire witnessed a dramatic change in the composition of its population. With the wars over Crimea, the empire accommodated several Muslim minorities fleeing Russian expansion towards the Black Sea and the Caucasus. Later, the Balkan Wars resulted in an additional forced migration of Balkan Muslims, whose tragic accounts exacerbated resentments among religious communities. By World War I, the Ottoman population was utterly divided into ethnic and religious lines. The rise of Christian and Arab separatism had the consequence of exacerbating a “Turkish-Muslim” identity. On the one hand, Christians had gained respectable functions in the government as ambassadors of the Sublime Porte to European countries, and, along with members of the Jewish millet had developed a wealthy bourgeoisie in the field of trade (at the expense of the Muslim aristocracy); on the other hand, they started to be viewed as traitors to the sultan's authority and enemies of the state. 7
Several factors sparked animosity between communities. When Christian Orthodox states in the Balkans became independent, they expelled their Muslim populations, who emigrated to Anatolia and Constantinople and whose testimonies portrayed Christians as oppressors. During the Russian occupation of Trabzon, mosques were closed and Muslim Turks expelled. The whirlwind of wars and the hatred it fuelled among communities resulted in a homogenous and nationalist Muslim Turkish Republic where Greek and Armenian issues remained a shameful taboo until recently.
THE SUMELA MONASTERY WAS THE CENTER OF GREEK MONASTICISM IN THE EMPIRE'S EASTERN LANDS
THE CONFISCATION OF CHRISTIAN PROPERTIES
As Christians fled or disappeared, they left a large amount of properties that the Turkish Kemalist state quickly considered “abandoned.” The goods and
livestock were sold in public auctions, while houses were mostly given to Muslim refugees from the Balkans or Greece. Christian shops, schools and churches were also confiscated. Founded in 1920, the Directorate General for Foundations (VGM) is the state body responsible for monitoring, inspecting and managing all established foundations. The history of Anatolian foundations can be traced to the takeover of eastern Byzantium by the Selçuk Turks, who inherited churches, synagogues, shrines, mosques, baths, caravansaries, covered bazaars, fountains and bridges. Tom Papademtriou demonstrates that rather than a purely religious matter, the Ottoman sultans approached the millet system from a financial perspective; taxes raised from land tenure were an important part of domestic revenue. 8 Thus, the republican VGM inherited a well-organized postOttoman bureaucracy regulating monuments and estates. In 1936, a law required that religious foundations compile and officially register lists of all properties they owned. The Greek Orthodox churches and institutions registered approximately 8,000 properties. However, in the absence of representatives, the VGM seized foundations when it unilaterally deemed them to be “no longer of charitable or practical use.” In 1998, only 2,000 properties were owned by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Today, that number is less than 500. From 1936 until 2011, new religious foundations were not able to register. Following confiscations, many religious Christian sites remain to this day deprived of their original ownership and are currently supervised by state bodies such as the Culture and Tourism Ministry, the VGM, the Treasury, the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), municipalities and village administrations.
CULTURAL HERITAGE IN TURKEY
Defining cultural heritage is not an easy task, since it includes fields such as archaeology, architecture, graphic arts, literature, anthropology, history and religious studies. A document published by the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) in 1990 consisting of references to “cultural property” and “cultural heritage” from a number of various sources lists over 60 definitions. The UNESCO definition of 1985 declares that “cultural heritage may be defined as the entire corpus of material signs -either artistic of symbolic -- handed on by the past to each culture and, therefore, to the whole of humanity.”
European scholars showed interest in the remains of ancient Greek and Roman civilizations within the borders of the Ottoman Empire as early as the 16th century. Archaeology appeared as a discipline among the Western-educated Ottoman elite in the 19th century. The first Ottoman museum consisted of Byzantine artifacts that belonged to sultans or highranking servants. The first law to protect antiquities
was promulgated in 1884.9 However, with the birth of the Turkish Republic, historical and archaeological research was motivated by strong nationalist propaganda intended to raise Turkish national identity. In an attempt to make ancient Anatolian civilizations forefathers of modern Turkey, Turkish scholars focused mainly on ancient Anatolian civilizations, while the Christian presence that had existed in Anatolia for over 1,000 years was deliberately ignored.
CHURCHES LEFT ABANDONED
In an article about Georgian churches in the Artvin region neighboring Trabzon, Chris Hellier raised the issue of the conservation of Christian heritage, and stated that “the handful of the 80-odd churches that had survived was under threat from neglect and lack of understanding.” 10 After having being gradually abandoned, many fell into ruin or were plundered for their stone; others were damaged by earthquakes or by treasure hunters. Hellier gives further examples of churches whose domes were pulled down, whose windows and doors were filled with cement and rubble and whose walls have been blackened by fire. In one case, the church was simply dynamited. Hellier summarized the situation that most non-Muslim sanctuaries face in Turkey: “The remaining churches are considered protected buildings under Turkey’s laws on ancient monuments but there is no conservation programme to ensure their continued survival.” 11 In his eyes, the only hope for Georgian churches to be saved from disappearance is to recognize them as a tourist asset and raise funds to restore them. This echoes with Mehmet Somuncu and Turgut Yiğit’s observation that “local people residing within surrounding areas of historical and natural importance are poorly aware of their values and protected status.” 12 Since the foundation of the UN Educational Scientific Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1946, Turkey has seen 11 sites registered in the World Heritage list and 41 properties submitted on the UNESCO tentative list. 13 With over 7,000 referenced archaeological sites14 and the strengthening role of UNESCO as an international body that advocates cultural awareness, Turkey got involved in the broad issues of cultural heritage and gradually relaxed its attitude towards its Christian past.
As noted earlier, Sumela's keys were kept by the National Forestry Board from 1961, whose surveillance was rather loose. It is reported that officials allowed visitors to enter the monastery without scrutiny, which resulted in a decade of looting and damage. The monastery was handed to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism only in 1972, and the first entrance fee was established in 1986. The Sumela Museum went through several renovations. In 2013, the ministry devoted a budget of TL 410,000 to a comprehensive renovation work as part of its bid to register the site on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Research published in the Journal of Food, Agriculture and Environment gives detailed figures about Sumela's visitor numbers and revenue, reaching a total of 403,703 visitors and revenue of TL 1,266,430.15 The investment in the museum and the numbers of visitors suggest that the government nowadays regards Sumela as an important asset within its heritage conservation policy.
ON AUG. 20, 1923, AROUND 25,000 PONTIC GREEKS WERE DEPORTED TO GREECE AND SUMELA CONSEQUENTLY CLOSED
TURKISH GREEKS AFTER 1923
Argylo Pittidou argues that during the Lausanne Conference talks, Turkish Kemalist officials were determined to expel not only the Patriarchate but all Greeks living in Turkey. 16 However, the final draft of the treaty allowed the Greeks of Constantinople, Imbros (Gökçeada) and Tenedos (Bozcaada) to remain, which represented an estimated 119,822 people. Throughout the 20th century, non-Muslim Turks faced regular persecutions from the state. In 1932, Greeks -- along with other remaining non-Muslim minorities -- were barred from most professions. In 1942, the capital tax heavily stigmatized non-Muslim Turks and many suicides were reported. 17 In 1955, Turkish secret services staged the arson of Atatürk’s birthplace in Thessaloniki, which resulted in two days of pogroms, the death of a dozen Christian and Jews and wide-scale destruction of shops, houses and churches in İstanbul. These events marked the beginning of a new wave of Greek emigration to Greece, which culminated in 1963, when -- heated by the nascent conflict in Cyprus -- Prime
Minister İsmet İnönü didn't renew the 1930 GreekTurkish friendship agreement, resulting in the expulsion of 12,500 Turkish citizens of Greek origin. The Greek population of Turkey declined from 119,822 persons in 1927 to about 7,000 in 1978. In İstanbul alone, the Greek population decreased from 65,108 to 49,081 between 1955 and 1960. It is estimated to consist of only 2,000 people today.
THE ECUMENICAL PATRIARCHATE OF CONSTANTINOPLE
The origin of the Patriarchate of Constantinople goes back to the conversion of Byzantium in A.D. 380. As the leader of the Orthodox Christians until 1453, the Patriarchate's power rose significantly during the 500 years of Ottoman rule. In its heyday, the Patriarchate theoretically oversaw a flock of over 4 million believers. Even though Article 40 of the Treaty of Lausanne granted minorities “the right to establish, manage and control at their own expense, any charitable, religious and social institutions, any schools and other establishments for instruction and education, with the right to use their own language and to exercise their religion freely therein,” it failed to clearly define the status the Patriarchate, whose de facto diminished status lost all political rights and remains purely religious. The new nationalist Turkish authorities saw in the Patriarchate of Constantinople a hostile institution suspected of working in the interests of Greece against Turkey. 19 Not only did the Turkish secular state deny its former ecumenical authority over the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians and recognized the patriarch as only the leader of the almost extinct Turkish Greeks, but it also denied its legal standing. This lack of legal personality meant the Patriarchate has no right to own property, not even the churches in which its parishioners worship. Practically, it can neither purchase new properties nor repair deteriorating churches. Ironically, it cannot even own the cemeteries in which its deceased patriarchs are buried. The incumbent 270th patriarch, Bartholomew I, was born in 1940 among Greeks allowed to live on the island of Gökçeada. Elected in 1991, he has gained international visibility through both his domestic and international activities.
SINCE THE AK PARTY’S INVESTITURE
The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) came to power in Turkey in 2002 and has been re-elected at every subsequent election. In the initial years of its rule, the party managed to gain success by reforming the economy and democratizing Turkish society and raised the prospect of Turkey joining the EU. In a 2011 interview, Patriarch Bartholomew I himself acknowledged that progress had been made since current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AK Party broke away from Turkey's Kemalist paradigm. Several taboos -- such as the Kurdish issue, the Armenian Genocide and the question of the Islamic headscarf -were overcome and have started to be matters of public concern. However, many analysts question the true intentions of the government, accusing it of using the democratic opportunity provided by the EU as a bulwark against its secular Kemalist enemies. 20 Turkey’s application to reopen the EU membership process in 1999 has brought its legislation in line with EU polices, posing important challenges to nationstate understanding and the concept of homogenized Turkish national identity and citizenship. 21
The AK Party’s policy towards Christian minorities has appeared to be somewhat inconsistent.
While the government has expressed willingness to consider claims of non-Muslim minorities, it has similarly maintained a nationalist and Islamist discourse against non-Muslims, considered by some analysts as hate speech against Jews, Armenians and Greeks. 22 Conversely, Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK), which criminalizes those who “insult Turkishness” remains in place, although now seldom used. On Aug. 27, 2011, then-Prime Minister Erdoğan announced a new decree that allowed communities whose properties had been expropriated to apply for return or compensation and permitted the formation of new religious community foundations and the reopening of foundations that had previously been closed and administered by the VGM. The Patriarchate submitted applications for 1,252 pieces of property, of which only 352 have been accepted.
The current situation of the Halki Seminary illustrates the paradoxical nature of current government policy. Situated on the island of Heybeliada (the second-largest of the Princes’ Islands, in the Marmara near İstanbul), the seminary used to be the main theological school of the Greek Patriarchate and is where Bartholomew I himself studied. It was closed in 1971 when a law stipulated that all private colleges should be affiliated with a state-run university and did not permit the operation of a seminary within a monastic community. While in power, the AK Party government nearly demolished the Chapel of Our Lord’s Transfiguration attendant to the seminary in 2007. Five years later, the land surrounding the seminary was returned to the Agia Triada Monastery Foundation (the foundation holding the legal title to the seminary’s property). However, the decision to reopen the seminary was removed at the last minute from the democratization package that then-Prime Minister Erdoğan unveiled in September 2013. A case outside the Greek community emphasizes the government’s ambiguous attitude toward minorities. When the Ministry of Culture renovated the Armenian Cathedral of the Holy Cross on the island of Akhtamar in Lake Van in 2007, it listed it as a museum, which -- according to regulations on secular cultural monument -- prohibits its use for religious purposes. Even though some members of the Armenian community celebrated the opening, some groups boycotted the one-day religious authorized ceremony held in 2010, calling the event “a publicity stunt by the Turkish government aimed at improving its image in the West.” 23
This example echoes the relation between the Greek Patriarchate and the Sumela Monastery of Trabzon. When, in a symbolic attempt to draw public attention to the limitations imposed on the Greek Patriarchate, Bartholomew I tried to hold a mass in Sumela Monastery on Aug. 15, 2009, the ceremony was interrupted by local authorities on the grounds that the premises are listed as a museum and not a place of worship. A year later, while Patriarch Bartholomew I was eventually allowed to perform the first mass in 88 years within the premises of the monastery, several voices from ultranationalist circles raised their opposition to the event. The mass has been conducted every year since. During the last edition, in August
THE TREATY OF LAUSANNE GRANTED MINORITIES VARIOUS RIGHTS BUT FAILED TO CLEARLY DEFINE THE STATUS THE PATRIARCHATE
2014, Bartholomew I expressed his mixed feelings of hope and concerns, thanking President Erdoğan personally while describing the difficulties he had faced in order to perform the liturgy. The sincerity of the government was called into question when, in 2013, Diyanet won a court case and reclaimed the ownership of the Hagia Sophia Church in Trabzon from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism (which previously ran it as a museum), turning it into a mosque. 24 A few months earlier, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arinç had promised that the church-museum soon would be "smiling" again as a mosque. 25 One can also mention that in the year when land was returned to the Halki Seminary and an annual mass authorized for the third year in row in Sumela, the government refused the patriarch’s request to perform a mass in the Taxiarchis Orthodox Church in the Aegean village of Ayvalık. The refusal was made public on the eve of the planned event, forcing over 700 followers from different countries to hold the mass in a hotel. The church had been previously renovated by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism with a budget of TL 3 million. Again, the patriarch's request was refused on grounds that the church was not included in the list of 2,000 churches where religious services can be held. 26
This essay has illustrated how the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople fell from its predominant role among all Ottoman Christians to a much diminished entity deprived of its traditional rights and properties, regaining some small measure recognition in the last decade. Similarly, the rise of awareness over cultural heritage that occurred in the last decades of the Ottoman Empire took on an ideological tone during republican years, with Christian heritage simply silenced. Even though progress has been made during the last decade, the question about the ownership of Christian heritage sites continues to be a disputed one in Turkey. TR
Around 500 Orthodox Christians from the Russian Federation, Greece, Georgia, the US and Turkey attend a ceremony at Sumela.
The Sumela Monastery continued to host monks until 1923.
The Halki Seminary was closed in 1971 when a law stipulated that all private colleges should be affiliated with a state-run university.
The Halki Seminary used to be the main theological school of the Greek Patriarchate.