Greek Monastery Holds 25K Ancient Ottoman Manuscripts

They're now being studied for the first time
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Oct 21, 2022 1:31 PM CDT
Greek Monastery Holds 25K Ancient Ottoman Manuscripts
Male visitors talk as the sun rises from the sea at the Pantokrator Monastery in Mount Athos, northern Greece, on Oct. 14, 2022. The monastic community was first granted self-governance through a decree by Byzantine Emperor Basil II, in 883 AD.   (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Deep inside the medieval fortified Pantokrator Monastery in the Mount Athos monastic Orthodox Christian community, researchers are for the first time tapping a virtually unknown treasure—thousands of Ottoman-era manuscripts that include the oldest of their kind in the world. The libraries of the self-governed community, established more than 1,000 years ago on northern Greece’s Athos peninsula, are a repository of rare, centuries-old works in several languages including Greek, Russian, and Romanian. Many have been extensively studied, but not the Ottoman Turkish documents, products of an occupying bureaucracy that ruled northern Greece from the late 14th century—well before the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, fell to the Ottomans in 1453—until the early 20th, when the area became Greek again.

Byzantine scholar Jannis Niehoff-Panagiotidis says it’s impossible to understand Mount Athos’ economy and society under Ottoman rule without consulting these documents, which regulated the monks’ dealings with secular authorities. "Ottoman was the official language of state," he tells the AP from the library of the monastery, one of 20 on the heavily wooded peninsula. Niehoff-Panagiotidis, a professor at the Free University of Berlin, said the oldest of the roughly 25,000 Ottoman works found in the monastic libraries dates to 1374. That’s older than any known in the world, he said, adding that in Istanbul, as the Ottomans renamed Constantinople when they made the city their own capital, the oldest archives only go back to the late 15th century.

"The overwhelming majority are legal documents," says Anastasios Nikopoulos, a jurist and scientific collaborator of the Free University of Berlin. The manuscripts show that the new rulers took the community under their wing, preserved its autonomy, and protected it from external interference. "The Ottoman state’s court decisions show that the monks’ small democracy was able to gain the respect of all conquering powers," Nikopoulos says. "And that is because Mount Athos was seen as a cradle of peace, culture ... where peoples and civilizations coexisted peacefully." Niehoff-Panagiotidis adds: "It’s strange that the sultans kept Mount Athos, the last remnant of Byzantium, semi-independent and didn’t touch it." The research project is expected to continue for several months, even years. (More Ottoman Empire stories.)

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