Ida Sinkevic

title.none: Fotic, Mount Athos and Hilandar in the Ottoman Empire (Sinkevic)

identifier.other: baj9928.0107.015 01.07.15

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Ida Sinkevic, Lafayette College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Fotic, Aleksandar. Mount Athos and Hilandar in the Ottoman Empire (15th to 17th Centuries). Belgrade: 2000. Pp. iv, 240. ISBN: 8-671-70030-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.07.15

Fotic, Aleksandar. Mount Athos and Hilandar in the Ottoman Empire (15th to 17th Centuries). Belgrade: 2000. Pp. iv, 240. ISBN: 8-671-70030-4.

Reviewed by:

Ida Sinkevic
Lafayette College

Mount Athos, also known as the Holy Mountain, is one of the major monastic centers of Eastern Roman Christianity, commonly referred to as Orthodox Christianity. Located on the east projection of Chalkidike peninsula in northeast Greece, and isolated both by the sea and by steep, inaccessible slopes and ravines, Mount Athos attracted a number of anchorites, ascetic monks who practiced their faith in isolation and at inaccessible locations; their presence in the region is attested at least from the eighth century. An organized form of monastic life, or cenobitism, in the region started in the tenth century and flourished considerably throughout the medieval period. Noted for a large number of powerful monastic establishments, Mount Athos achieved the status of the most important monastic center in Byzantium already by the eleventh century. It was conquered by the Ottomans in the early fifteenth century and remained under Ottoman rule until 1912. Today, over a millennium after their foundation, a large number of Athonite monastic establishments, built by Orthodox monks of different ethnic origins, such as Greeks, Russians, and Serbs, are still active and form an important component of the Orthodox Christian community.

While the historical and cultural significance of the monastic communities of Mount Athos in the Middle ages has been studied by scholars, the subsequent history of this important religious center remains largely unknown. Thus, Aleksandar Fotic's book on the history of Mount Athos in the post-Byzantine period represents an important contribution to scholarship. It enhances our knowledge about this important religious center and fills a considerable gap in the scholarship on post- medieval monasticism. Moreover, the most significant contribution of Fotic's study is the wealth of information derived from largely unedited Ottoman, Greek, and Serbian archival documents kept at Hilandar and other Athonite monasteries, as well as those from the Archives of the government in Istanbul and various archival collections in Greece and Serbia. Fotic was particularly concerned to examine carefully over 500 mostly unpublished Ottoman documents kept in the archives of Hilandar monastery.

Fotic's study focuses on the history of the monastery Hilandar, an important center of Serbian monasticism on Mount Athos. The book covers the period of the flourishing and dominance of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, from the fifteenth century when Mount Athos became permanently included in the Ottoman Empire, to the end of the seventeenth century. Founded by two Serbian monks, the former Grand Zupan Stefan Nemanja (1166-1196) and his youngest son Rastko, the founder of the independent Serbian State and church, Hilandar represents one of the most important religious and cultural centers of medieval Serbia. By examining the history, culture, and organization of Hilandar, Fotic's study also provides a wide-ranging analysis of the religious, cultural, and political role of the whole region of Mount Athos at the time.

Fotic's comprehensive account of Hilandar is divided into seven chapters. He examines the status and functioning mechanisms of Hilandar and other Athonite monasteries within the Ottoman Empire, the relationship between Hilandar and other monasteries on Mount Athos, the internal organization of Hilandar and its history, the changes in its physical appearance, the information about the most important members of the monastic community, as well as the history of Hilandar's numerous estates and metochia that spread throughout Athos and other Balkan lands. The book also includes three significant appendices that provide a comprehensive list of all Hilandar hegoumenoi from 1423-1700, and information about monetary units and different measures used at the time. In addition, a glossary of Ottoman terms and the English summary are also very useful.

The first two chapters discuss historical aspects and consequences of the inclusion of Mount Athos in the Ottoman Empire. In Chapter I, Fotic provides a historical account about the earliest contacts between the Muslim and Christian populations of Athos and surrounding Byzantine and Serbian lands: from the conflicts with different Turkish tribes that pirated Athos, Macedonia, and Thrace, to the rise of the Ottomans and their conquest of the Balkan lands. Fotic distinguishes the Ottoman victory over the Serbs at the Battle of the Marica river in 1371 as one of the most important events in the Turkish conquest of the Balkan lands. The Ottoman victory at Marica also ended the period of Serbian rule over Mount Athos (1345-1371), resulted in its re-incorporation into the Byzantine Empire, and was followed by the subjugation of Byzantium into Turkish vassalage. Fotic believes that Mount Athos fell under Ottoman rule sometime during the siege of Thessaloniki (1383-1387).

Fotic's discussion about the relationship between Mount Athos and the Ottoman Empire is particularly interesting and revealing. Fotic dismisses the claims that Athonites put themselves under the protection of the Ottomans already during the time of Sultan Orhan (1326-62) as unfounded and based on misinterpretation of historical evidence. Moreover, the writer argues persuasively that while some contacts between the two parties may have existed at the time of Sultan Orhan, it would have been quite unnecessary and thus unlikely for the Athonites to subject themselves to the Ottomans long before they became a real threat in the Balkans.

To avoid the pillage and devastation of the Holy Mountain, the Athonites, upon the approval of their Byzantine ruler, Despot Andronikos, went to Adrianopolis and offered their voluntary submission to the Ottoman Sultan Murad II sometimes between September 1423 and August 1424. In return, they received a number of privileges, fully explained by Fotic in Chapter II. While incorporated into the system of governmental and legal structure of the Ottoman Empire, Mount Athos was allowed a considerable amount of independence, such as the right to self- rule, and the status of a separate entity within its borders. As such, it was obliged to pay an annual tax, known as the kesim or harac, to the Sultan. [1]. Moreover, the monasteries retained their holdings in most districts of the hinterland. In addition, as Fotic points out, the monasteries themselves also paid dues to the Patriarch of Constantinople.

According to Fotic's examination of the written evidence, the first appearance of a permanent Turkish garrison on Mount Athos dates only to the beginning of the seventeenth century, when a group of Janissaries took residence in the region apparently to protect it from bandits and pirates. Although their presence on the peninsula was hardly justified, since the small size of the garrison could not protect the land and its citizens, the garrison did not upset the daily life of the monks. Fotic explains that they followed the Athonite rules and did not bring women or erect any Muslim shrines. Fotic also analyzes the economic status of monasteries with special emphasis paid to the confiscation and repurchasing of the monasteries in 1569, during the rule of Selim II, and the important role Mount Athos had in providing a refuge for Christian nobleman and clergy.

Subsequent chapters are dedicated to Hilandar monastery, which is the main subject of the book. Rather than separating them chronologically, Fotic organizes his chapters around complex themes relevant to the history of the monastery. He selects, as chapter headings, several important issues, such as the organization of the monastery, the changes in its physical appearance, major setbacks that hampered yet never prevented its development, as well as the resources and estate holdings of Hilandar. In Chapter III, Fotic provides a clear account of the organization of Athonite monastic communities under the Ottomans and the place and role of Hilandar monastery within that community. During the second half of the fifteenth century, Hilandar grew in size and importance. By surpassing Iveron monastery in the number of monks, financial holdings, and influence, Hilandar was preceded only by the Lavra of St. Athanasius and Vatopedi. Its growth continued throughout the centuries: from 170 monks at the end of the fifteenth century, Hilandar numbered around 800 monks in 1677.

By prefacing his discussion of the various calamities and tribulations survived by Hilandar with a through analysis of the monastery's continuous growth, Fotic sets the stage for a deeper understanding of the bravery and strength of the monastic community of Hilandar during the first three centuries of Ottoman rule. As the author persuasively argues, Hilandar monks deftly and skillfully overcame both the impact of political turmoil within the Ottoman Empire and local troubles. The monastic community persevered through constant threat of natural disasters and various diseases, numerous attacks from the sea by various gangs, and endless disputes over monastic estates and boundaries commonly occurring between Hilandar and other Athonite monasteries.

In Chapter VI Fotic explains that both Hilandar and other Athonite foundations also secured their existence during Ottoman rule by establishing even closer ties with other Orthodox states, such as Moldavia, Russia, and Wallachia. The sovereigns, aristocrats and nobility of these countries supplied Hilandar with financial donations and precious items, such as valuable icons, books and liturgical objects, and used their connections to secure numerous privileges for the monastery from the Ottoman government. For example, Wallachian voyvode Basarab III Tepelus persuaded Ottoman sultan Bayezid II to exempt six major Hilandar metochia from the special form of the tithe. In addition, the monasteries on Mount Athos also benefited from donations of either money or gifts given by numerous pilgrims, collected by monks who traveled throughout the Christian world, and contributed by numerous metochia and smaller estates that belonged to the monasteries. As Fotic points out in the final chapter (VII), Hilandar held numerous estates both on Mount Athos and in its hinterland. In addition, a number of metochia were located away from the peninsula, in the region between Thessaloniki and the Styrmon valley. By carefully examining archival documents of the Hilandar monastery, Fotic provides a meticulous account of the estate holdings of Hilandar, reveals information about financial transactions related to estate purchases and acquisitions, explains legal issues and estate disputes between Hilandar and other Athonite monasteries and, whenever possible, gives a precise physical description of the metochia.

In addition to a comprehensive, multifaceted analysis of various aspects of monastic life on Mount Athos and at Hilandar, Fotic also gives a brief, yet useful account of the building activities at Hilandar during the period between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries (Chapter IV). While some of his conclusions may be controversial, this chapter nonetheless demonstrates author's admirable capacity to explain complex issues by examining a broad range of evidence: from previously unstudied archival documents to archaeological findings. The chapter points out that the general appearance of Hilandar today differs considerably from its original, medieval shape, and focuses on the restorations and additions that occurred during the first three centuries of Ottoman rule. In doing so, Fotic brings together numerous studies on the topic written by archeologists, architectural and art historians, and enriches these findings with results of his own archival research. He is particularly interested in the dynamic building activity within Hilandar monastery that occurred during the second half of the sixteenth century and was mostly necessitated by the dilapidation of medieval buildings.

The author's effort to carefully collect sources explaining the building campaigns and restorations of the period under consideration deserves much praise. He is also to be complimented for his careful examination of Ottoman archival resources in order to test scholarly hypothesis about the dating of various structures. However, Fotic's proposition that the monastic complex actually expanded on the north side during the second half of the sixteenth century, while interesting, requires further proof. Fotic dismisses, as hypothetical, the opinion of the majority of scholars that the sixteenth-century building activities and restorations at Hilandar represent only renewal and additions to the buildings that already existed in the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, while his systematic criticism of the arguments established by scholars in favor of the original medieval size of the complex raises many important questions, Fotic's own evidence fails to provide conclusive answers. Neither the texts that he introduces, nor the re-examination of existing scholarship, provide sufficient evidence for any changes in the northern borders of the monastic complex in the second half of the sixteenth century; especially since the complex was already significantly extended towards the north during the medieval period. The author states, however, that final proof about the possible increase of the northern side of the monastery in the post-medieval period has to be derived from future archaeological excavations. The visual materials in this chapter are also somewhat confusing, with drawings made in different proportions and sometimes lacking information about their scale. It is important to note, however, that any future archaeological undertaking, aimed at examining the possible difference between the medieval and Ottoman boundaries of the monastery, will have to take into account both Fotic's criticism and his newly introduced literary evidence.

In summary, Fotic's book represents an important contribution to scholarship as it fills an important gap in our knowledge about Christian monastic foundations during Ottoman rule. The author's meticulous research, his multidisciplinary approach to the topic, and the wealth of evidence derived from the Ottoman archives of Hilandar monastery certainly illuminates many aspects of the life and history of monastic foundations on Mount Athos in general and in Hilandar in particular. One can only hope that scholars will follow Fotic's example and research archival resources in other Athonite monasteries in order to fully explain the life of this monastic center during the Ottoman rule. Although Fotic's book has a brief English summary, considering its importance, it would be desirable to make it accessible to a wider scholarly audience by translating it in one of the western languages.


[1] For a chart reflecting the amount of harac from the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries, see p. 64.

[2] For charts indicating the number of monks in Athonite monasteries, see pp. 98-99.

[3] See pp. 194-203.

[4] See S. Nenadovic, Osam vekova Hilandara. Gradjenje i gradjevine (Belgrade, 1997); and M. Kovacevic, "Fortification Walls and Towers," in Hilandar Monastery, ed. G. Subotic (Belgrade, 1998), pp. 133-145.