A glimpse at Athens in the Ottoman era

A glimpse at Athens in the Ottoman era

In his wonderful “Book of Travel,” famed Ottoman explorer Evliya Celebi (1611-1682) said that writers of all faiths regard Athens as the “home of wise men.” Celebi sang the city’s praises in a beautifully written paean after visiting Athens in 1668. He encountered a medieval city, where the Parthenon was still almost intact. The Temple of Athena, which had initially been transformed into a Christian Orthodox church and then a Catholic one, had been turned into a mosque after the Ottoman invasion.

Celebi was able to admire the mosque he had read so many accounts about and describe it in laudatory terms nearly two decades before the destruction wrought by Francesco Morosini. After all, even Mehmed the Conqueror – no stranger to the classics – had visited Athens in the latter half of the 15th century to explore the city he had read so much about. According to historian and scholar Michael Critobulus, the sultan admired and praised what he saw.

“Ottoman Athens was an important city that was renowned for its antiquities, had splendid monuments and an interesting way of life,” historian and expert on the Ottoman era Elias Kolovos tells Kathimerini on the occasion of the publication of “Ottoman Athens: Archaeology, Topography, History,” a collection of 12 studies – including one of his own – published by the Gennadius Library and the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation. The book, he says, makes an important contribution to efforts to study the city’s history during medieval, modern and pre-revolutionary times. It also provides researchers and the public with valuable insights into this rich yet relatively unknown period of history, stretching from the 15th to the 20th century.

“During the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-66), Athens had an estimated population of between 8,000 and 15,000 citizens, making it the third largest city in the Ottoman Balkans, after Adrianople and Thessaloniki,” says Kolovos.

“What made it stand apart, and also one of the main reasons why it remained in relative obscurity during Ottoman times, was that it was on the fringes of the empire but also that it was inhabited almost exclusively by Christians. Its Muslim community was very small and consisted mainly of the Acropolis guard and a handful of families. But educated Ottomans knew of Athens as an ancient city with a classical legacy,” he adds.

“The history of Athens during the Ottoman period is of special interest to the Gennadius Library,” comments Maria Georgopoulou, the director of the library at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) and one of the authors of the book’s introduction, which is co-written with Konstantinos Thanasakis, a scientific adviser at the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation.

The library’s founder, Joannes Gennadius, she explains, was fascinated by the history of Hellenism through the ages and had amassed a very important collection on the subject comprising 26,000 volumes. He was also a diplomat and a descendant of Athens’ aristocratic Benizelos family.

Built in the first half of the 17th century, the family home in Plaka is the oldest surviving residence in Athens and one of a handful of similar townhouses that still exist in southern Greece.

“Compared to the glamour of ancient times, post-classical Athens was much like a village that had little to recommend it,” says Georgopoulou. “The Ottomans didn’t regard it as much of a city either, so there is very little archival information on it. However, the important place held by Athens in the minds of Europeans and Ottoman travelers, topographers, poets and artists has given us an idea of what it looked like at the time.”

Apart from travel journals and works of art that are relatively well known, the book investigates chronicles, ancient finds, architectural remains, epigraphs, maps and other archival material that shed light on the city’s topography, monuments and history. “Ottoman Athens” arose from a conference on the subject organized by the Gennadius Library in the spring of 2015 as part of a relevant exhibition. Gennadius’ collection of travel books, etchings, maps and manuscripts were a valuable part of that show.

The publication brings together 12 articles by Greek and foreign historians on different subjects related to the main theme, including studies on Athens’ few remaining Ottoman monuments, but also the ASCSA’s early excavations of the Roman Agora, and one that offers insight into the looting of the Parthenon sculptures. There is also a rare colored Ottoman map of the city during the Greek War of Independence. Ottoman sources on the sieges of Athens during that time are also investigated.

The book’s introduction stresses that its purpose is not to reiterate the rivalries between the Greeks and the Turks or to dwell on the Ottoman occupation. By studying the city’s monuments, topography and archaeology through Greek, Ottoman and Western European sources, the publication offers insight into the different layers that made up the modern city, a city that was inhabited for centuries, that maintained the Greek language, that went through peaks and troughs but never lost touch with its classical heritage.

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