The manuscripts, dating back to dates to the late 14th century, show the Ottomans took Mount Athos under their wing, preserved its autonomy and protected it from external interference.
Thousands of Ottoman-era manuscripts have been found in a Medieval Greek monastery, including the oldest of their kind in the world.
Researchers tapped this virtually unknown treasure for the first time in a fortified Pantokrator Monastery in the Mount Athos monastic Orthodox Christian community.
“The first documents that shed light (on the first period of Ottoman history) are saved here, on Mount Athos,” said Byzantine scholar Jannis Niehoff-Panagiotidis.
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, or 1371.
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.
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.
A fresh look into Ottoman rule
The library of the Pantokrator Monastery is one of 20 on the heavily wooded peninsula.
Established more than 1,000 years ago on northern Greece’s Athos peninsula, the libraries 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 a 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.
The manuscripts tell a story at odds with the traditional understanding in Greece of Ottoman rule in the newly-conquered areas, through the confiscation of the Mount Athos monasteries’ rich real estate holdings.
Instead, the new rulers took the community under their wing, preserved its autonomy and protected it from external interference.
Nikopoulos said that one of the first actions of Murad II, the Ottoman ruler who conquered Thessaloniki — the closest city to Mount Athos — was to draw up a legal document in 1430 protecting the community.
“That says a lot. The Ottoman sultan himself ensured that the administrative system of Mount Athos was preserved and safeguarded,” he said.
Even before that, Niehoff-Panagiotidis added, a sultan issued a mandate laying down strict punishment for intruders after a band of marauding soldiers engaged in minor thieving from one of the monasteries.
“They didn’t even keep troops here. At the very most they would have a local representative who probably stayed at (the community’s administrative centre, Karyes) and sipped tea.”
Another revelation, Niehoff-Panagiotidis said, was that for roughly the first two centuries of Ottoman rule no effort was made to impose Islamic law on Mount Athos or nearby parts of northern Greece.
Father Theophilos, a Pantokrator monk who is helping with the research, said the "study also illuminates examples of how people can live with each other, principles that are common to all humanity, the seeds of human rights and respect for them, democracy and the principles of social coexistence.”